Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: The Year in Review

2013 - The Year of the Wheatear
What, already? Yes, I'm afraid so, here we are (all three of us) again. Another year gone, shorter of breath etc. Whereas last year was the year of the Pipit, 2013 was the year of the Wheatear. First of all they were late, very late, but this gave me a shot at something I've been aiming at for many years - to find the first returning patch Wheatear on my birthday. And bugger me if I didn't do it! A filthy day, snowing in parts, but over by the long ditch on the eastern half of the Flats a plucky little African migrant was hopping along. When the weather finally allowed migration to continue in mid-April, they came thick and fast. At one point standing at the vizmig point, a 360 degree turn would have netted up to 30 birds - quality on a vast scale. And then of course there was the fabulous Izzy Wheatear in West Wales, followed up fairly quickly with a Pied Wheatear in the Midlands. I nearly made it a full house with a Desert Wheatear, but circumstances conspired against me and the bird departed before I could get there. Which means it doesn't even count as a dip, and this year above all has been memorable for its lack of dips. I can't really think of anything I've dipped. Many people could say this of course simply by staying at home all year, but by being careful about what I set off for and crucially, what I don't, I've had an amazing run. This means that there is probably a massive dip somewhere in my future, but let's leave that to next year's write up. Sorry, what Tropicbird?

Although I try not to have any birding goals, I did mention last year that being a mere stone's throw from 400 BOU, that I would likely attempt to get over the line. If you have been paying close attention, you will have seen that I got there. If you've been skim-reading and looking mostly at photos, I got there. I got there!! Starting on 395, I nipped up to Shetland for the Pine Grosbeak in mid-February, went for the North Uist Harlequin in late March, armchair ticked the 2012 Kent Hooded Merg at some point, and then in late April finally caught up with a long overdue Subalpine Warbler for 399. And then came the Dusky Thrush. Yay! Remarkably easy, and I even considered hanging up my twitching hat, but a week later a Roller turned up - unmissable - and I felt I might as well continue......

Closer to home, I tried to win the highly coveted Golden Mallard which is worth at least fifty quid on Ebay, but despite pulling my best ever patch total out of the bag, I couldn't even muster a podium place..... Pretty pleased with how it went though, as I wasn't able to get out a great deal during the latter part of the year. I'm actually debating not bothering with the patch next year, sad though that sounds - should I rename the blog? We will see if the typical January 1st enthusiasm picks me up (weather making this look unlikely!) but I like to do things properly rather than half-heartedly, and the way it has been going I'm struggling to see how I can improve upon the amount of time I get. Stop twitching madly round the country perhaps?

What else did I say? Something about photos? Well, as with the patch, opportunities to use the camera also fell off a cliff in the latter part of the year. I have intense periods, usually coinciding with travel of some kind, and then the camera lives in a bag for weeks at a time. This is not good enough, I failed to do enough this year, and I continue to miss a trick. The more I use a camera, the better I will get. And whilst if I don't use if I don't think I'll stagnate, at least not quickly, I certainly won't improve, and that is time wasted. 2013 has been OK in terms of results, I've taken some nice ones, but I know deep down I can do better. The really good bird photographers are the ones who hardly ever put their cameras down, day in, day out. Clearly I can't compete with that, but there's still a long way to go, and going three weeks at a time without pointing my lens at a bird gets me precisely nowhere.

2014 Goals
- work hard, play hard. 'nuff said.

Personal Goals
- no numbers, there are none in reach anyway. In 2013 I reached 400 in the UK, 250 in London, and set my new patch record. What else is there? I'm on 411 now, can I celebrate 415? Exactly. Any other meaningful numbers are years away. And not actually meaningful anyway, even if they are mildly satisfying.
- I will use the camera once a week. I will make myself do it, even if it seems unpromising. When light allows, I will use it more often. I need to get more serious. Again. I feel I'm on another plateau, with another climb ahead, but one that is possible.

Best Birding Moment
Ah where to start, there have been many. Standing on the white sandy beach in glorious weather at Balranald in the company of perhaps seven other people watching the Harlequin Duck bob about just offshore is pretty high up there. Cleaning up on the Owls in ever-lasting daylight in Finland was amazing too, with Great Grey Owl seen well a mere ten minutes after setting off, followed by seeing Ural Owl without getting maimed. That trip is also memorable for the surreality of photographing Citrine Wagtail at midnight. Then there was the excitement of realising in a split second that I had probably just seen another Stone-Curlew flying over Wanstead Flats, breaking into a run whilst simultaneously phoning people, and then having the bird break cover again and nailing it for all time as it curved behind some trees and came out the other side. Elation and relief. Another memorable moment comes from Morocco, and the search for Desert Sparrow which took us out on foot along a camel track into the Erg Chebbi dune system. That was amazing birding, that felt incredible, but all of these things are topped by a chance encounter in Scotland on the way back from the Grosbeak. Wandering along a forest track n the highlands I happened to glance to my right....

Coming towards me up the bank was an enormous male Capercaillie. Surely one of these rogue males that you hear about, it stalked into the middle of the track. I had been walking slightly ahead of the guys, and the bird was now between me and them. I rarely get scared birding, this was a rare exception. Satisfied that we were not a threat, it moved off the road and back into the pines. How often does a birding experience make you shake from nervous excitement?  The four of us agreed that we had just witnessed something very special indeed. Somehow I refrained from blogging about it at the time. We thought it best for the bird - once news of a rogue Caper gets out, it's a slippery slope. The word spreads, more and more people visit, and eventually something bad will happen. It wouldn't be my fault, but I would have started it in motion, and there are not enough Capercaillie in those forests.

Best UK Trip
There is no contest here. Good as the trip up to the Grosbeak on Shetland was, with great highland birding as decribed above, and a visit to the ever-fabulous Largo Bay, the trip to North Uist for the Harlequin Duck was simply wonderful. I'd never been the islands before, and they're so special I'm taking the family back there on holiday next year - a fringe benefit of twitching. We travelled in two stages, first leg to Carlisle and then the ferry the following day from Oban with some birding in between. The sea was flat calm, and the skies were blue, a quality crossing involving beer and a few Manxies. Arriving after dark we piled into a tiny bunkhouse and the next morning (day three of our odyssey) awoke to intense calm and silence save the calling of birds. It hardly mattered whether the duck was there or not, but of course it was. At the end of a stretch of dunes was a small rocky point, and bobbing around just off the beach close to it was our prize. White sand, more blue skies, a magical experience just being there and the Harlequin the icing on the cake.

Best Bird
This category is incredibly difficult until you realise that I've seen millions of Wheatears this year, both here and abroad. This shortens the list considerably, but of course presents its own problems - how can you pick one Wheatear over another? Well, it was tough, and there are rarer birds, but the Isabelline Wheatear in Pembrokeshire was fractionally without peer. It took an awfully long time to get there, but twitching had again brought me to somewhere pretty special. The bird had been there some time, and getting there was such a mission that we almost had it to ourselves - a couple of local birders and a few families out enjoying a walk in the nice weather. So even though the list of UK rarities this year has been almost unbelievable, and even though I've travelled to a fair few places further afield, this is the bird that I keep coming back to and smiling broadly.

Worst Bird
An unfair award perhaps, but serves to highlight either my stupidity, or that of birding. Last year the Pechora on Shetland took top honours by being a skulky so-and-so and causing indecorous behaviour that annoyed the islanders. This year I thought about giving this award to the Dusky Thrush in Margate Cemetery, as that drew some spectacularly bad behaviour from the assembled crowd. You could argue that the dead don't care where you stand, but to see hordes of panicking people crashing straight over graves was a disgrace. Woeful behaviour, utterly embarrassing, it is just a bird. The sad fact is that many of the (living) people there wouldn't have even given it a second thought, the bird was the most important thing at that moment in time, and they will not have noticed or cared that they just trampled over somebody's final resting place. But one bird tops this, and you can probably guess which one. Red-billed Tropicbird. This has everything going for it. Acute embarrassment for all those present who missed it including me, in fact especially me as I was down the slope a bit, fabulous rarity value, and a whole shitload of internet aftermath mostly from people who weren't there. Top marks, and a deserved winner!

Worst UK Trip
With no big dips to speak of, and the Cornish seawatching pretty decent despite missing a Tropicbird, I'm struggling rather on this one. I could nominate my sea-watching trip to Co. Clare in Bagnall-esque fashion, but I'm plumping for the Semipalmated Plover twitch, which was twitching simply for a number. Like Short-toed Treecreeper, it's er, subtle. I attempted to call it educational, but really the best you can say about it is that it wasn't too bad. Hardly a ringing endorsement. Add to this that I misread the weather and came out in just a teeshirt and jacket when it fact it was blowing a gale and raining, and that the bird took hours to find, looking back I find it easy to say that I have had more enjoyable days out.

Best Foreign Trip
Ooooh. Lots. Lots and lots. My travel schedule is a source of mockery, and it's fair to say I've had a rather good year. I view this as just recompense for working my ass off most of the rest of the time, and travel is one of the main reasons I do it. Where have I been then? Well, chronologically I went to Morocco, Spain, Finland, Hungary, Majorca, Ireland, and St Lucia. With the exception of the Ireland trip which was a let down on the sea-watching front, they were all excellent, which makes it very hard to choose. My family holiday to Majorca was fantastic, and to see the kids warm, swimming all day long, was brilliant. We don't spend enough time together, which means that when we do it's very special. The absurd mark ups during holiday season combined with the insistence that children not be taken away in term time make it very difficult for families as busy as we are. But we need to do it more often and so we've got a few things lined up next year already, including a family trip to America.

Morocco was a real eye-opener, how birding should be, fabulous scenery and brilliant birds, but unfortunately a distinct lack of rum cocktails. Which means that once again this award is heading west across the Atlantic. St. Lucia was sublime, a perfect mix of relaxation, birding, photography and fruity drinks. If as a family we don't spend enough time together, time Mrs L and I have together is even scarcer. She's busy, I'm busy, it's that time of life. A week in the Caribbean is very helpful, and I love it there. She of course isn't really bothered where it is, just as long as it's with me.....

Best Gig
I've had to replace the Worst Domestic incident in the annual review. This was highly relevant when I was in charge of all things house and kid, but I barely lift a finger any more so there is nothing to say. I once overpaid the gardener. See? I do however go to a lot of gigs, and plan to continue to do so as I have discovered I really enjoy it and lots of great acts come to London. Why it took me nearly 15 years of living in London to discover that I could go to concerts is a mystery, but I am making up for lost time. This year I saw The Counting Crows, Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Vince Gill, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, The Zac Brown Band, The Band Perry, and The Rolling Stones. But I also saw Springsteen, and thus have nothing more to say. Untouchable.

Most Amusing Photograph
Birding trips with mates generally always have many funny momements, and if I'm lucky enough (or quick enough!) I sometimes manage to get a photo. Nick falling over various fences in Shetland this year sadly went unrecorded, but he does feature in one of the funniest photos this year which you can find in this post, but top honour goes to Bradders and The Tree. The tree in Morocco that was rumoured to contain nesting Desert Sparrows, the tree that was sought out using satellite mapping whilst still in the UK, the tree that was programmed into various GPS applications. The tree that was approached in 4WD across the desert, the tree that first appeared as a speck on the horizon, and the tree that after all that contained no birds whatsoever!

Thanks for reading, Happy New Year, and see you in 2014!

PS If you fancy a blast from the past to see how my annual reviews have diverged, here are a few links

Sunday 29 December 2013

The year that never stops giving

I wasn't upset when the Brunnich's Guillemot turned up on Boxing Day. In my mind I was done with 2013, possibly the most incredible year I'll ever have. In Scotland for a family gathering, I doubt anyone could even tell from my demeanour that another highly rare bird had turned up 500 miles away. Despite ever-increasing levels of filth from down south (even Shaun went!), and increasingly poor blog titles, I was happy knowing I'd had a great year, and was thus calm. At peace. And anyway, Brunnich's Guillemots never stay, they melt away, they die, they disappear down Great Black-backed Gulls.

Bradders got it on day one as you would expect. Then the Monkey and Hawky went on day two. Shaun scored on day three! Hell's bells! Surely it wouldn't stay? It did! On day four, as I was travelling back from Scotland, the bird was announced at Edinburgh, Newcastle, York and King's Cross. Plans were hatched that involved pretty much the entirety of Wanstead's patch-workers, none of whom had so far got their act in gear and gone down. It required another early start on no news, but I'm on a roll, and frankly how could I fail? Dipping in 2013 just isn't my destiny it seems. And so it proved, God knows what I have done to deserve it, but sure enough....

800mm + 1.4x converter @ f8. Err, Boom?
It never came as close as the photos on the net would lead you to believe, but the views through the scope were excellent. Bradders pointed to a lump of seaweed floating about a yard off the beach. "It was there". Oh, did I mention that Bradders came for seconds? He just couldn't resist a day out with the boys, and is attempting to fit in as many as possible before the big life-changing day that is just around the corner. And he also wanted to see a White-billed Diver really well, which fitted in with my plans perfectly. 

On arrival plenty of activity in Portland Harbour, but no sign of our wayward Auk. A Black Guillemot was something of a rarity in itself in this location, and a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers kept us occupied until after an hour or so somebody picked up the Brunnich's around the corner from where most people were stood looking/chatting. As we had been told from previous observers, it barely spent any time on the surface, and the distance it could cover underwater was very impressive indeed. It spent most of the time in the darkest corner of the harbour where you could only see it from a raised position, but I got lucky when it came towards the beach where I had camped out hoping for a sea-level shot, and popped up almost into a patch of sunshine. I managed just five shots of it before it dived, of which the above is the most pleasing.

Job done, we considered our next move. The Diver was still at Brixham, and would be a new bird for both Bob and I. Tim, Nick and Bradders were only too happy to facilitate this grip-back, and so we pointed the car west, via a Glossy Ibis at Radipole that seemed not to care too much about people - easily the best views I've ever had of one. Once added to our memory cards we proceeded to Devon.

A surprisingly slow journey for somewhere that looked as if it was just around the corner, but we eventually made it to Brixham to discover many many birders wandering around the harbour in camo gear. Completely bonkers. I do not understand why so many of us who pursue this hobby feel it necessary to attempt to, err, blend in in quite such a stupid way. In this instance the camo looked superb against the concrete wall of the breakwater, yachts, and sandy beach. How I didn't bump into any of them at all is a complete miracle. Please, if you are reading and you own any clothing that has a camo pattern, go and burn it immediately and dress like a normal human being. The only acceptable form of camo is a bright red hat.

The Diver showed very well immediately, although sadly not the monster views that we had been hoping for. Still, stonking, and needless to say the best views I've ever had. The bill is a thing of wonder, and now that I've finally seen one, I now believe what I once assumed were comically exaggerated illustrations in the field guides. I've not had a two tick day since the Baillon's/SB Dowitcher double-header back in September last year, and this was most welcome, especially as it involved yet another 500 mile round trip. I have to stop doing this, it's getting worryingly easy.

I didn't think that I'd be blogging again until New Year's Eve, but yet again I'm typing up a twitch. I've had four ticks in December, pretty much in three weeks, and two in November, for fifteen in all - this is better than 2012, which itself was a pretty special year. And as I already mentioned, I've not seen many of the really big ones - I was away for the Pacific Swift and the Hermit Thrush, and the Cape May Warbler and some of the other far-flung island birds just aren't in my reach or desire at the moment. But if and when I am up for it I take what I can get, and 2013 has given me an awful lot. I do however sincerely hope that it's over now!

Friday 27 December 2013

Birding places

As I build up to my usual end of year post, and with the merits of the fabulous Ivory Gull already dealt with, I thought I wouldn't go down the route of posting photos of birds as that would be too easy and too expected. Instead I thought I'd do something on birding locations.

Twitching rare birds has some side benefits; time with good friends, and in some instances, unbelievably beautiful locations that in normal circumstances you would never discover. I'd almost go so far as to say that together these perhaps even eclipse the lost waifs that you're attempting to see, even though I suppose it would be difficult not to be disappointed if the bird wasn't there - but of course this has never happened to me, so I cannot comment :-). So here are a few such places that birding has taken me to this year, but as this is holiday season and I am not in an altogether serious mood, the locations have been chosen not by me, but by Snuffi*.....

Berneray, just up from North Uist

The Erg Chebbi, Morocco

Cap Formentor, Majorca

Lamba Ness, Unst, Shetland

Collafirth, Mainland, Shetland

Debrecen Great Wood, Hungary

Getting Christmassy......in St Lucia

*Snuffi is one of the world's best-travelled panthers, and crops up periodically on this blog. He's not a big twitcher, but is always likely to make an appearance on any trip that goes beyond a couple of days. The reasons for this are unknown, he just seems to sense when a trip is in the offing and sneaks in the car when my back is turned. Honest....

Monday 23 December 2013

Tickling the Ivory....

Some Monday morning merriment as I have nothing sensible to say at all. Still reflecting on what a great bird it was and I'm so glad I went. Even non-twitchers should go and see this, which I suppose is why I went. Now, where did I leave that Ross's Gull.....

Sunday 22 December 2013

Pigeon Post

I thought it was over. It wasn't. It ain't over 'til it's over. This year has been astonishing. Amazing. I've seen a fraction of what's been on offer, but the quality has been right up there. When I tell you I've been to East Yorkshire..... What a bird. What. A. Bird. Never in a million years did I think I'd ever see an Ivory Gull. The other day when two turned up in Northumberland I began to vaguely change my mind, and when we got to bird number six on the Humber last weekend I thought that maybe, just maybe I was in with a chance. Unfortunately preoccupied since its arrival, today was my first chance and I decided to take it. Another silly o' clock start after an all too short sleep, and the Monkey, Shaun and I hit the road. We picked up Nick in Cambridge, and after a customary healthy breakfast arrived on site at around 8am.

No sign. It wasn't looking good. Could I have made a fatal error in bringing the Dipmonkey? He has never seen a single target bird in East Yorkshire, and it looked like he was about to add to the list. All birds have to go sometime, and when I heard that people had been using flashguns on it yesterday my heart sank. We milled about. We moped. Monkey kicked a few stones. And then some bloke said it had been seen past Sammy's Point. In unison a hundred blokes swung their scopes eastwards, and sure enough, away in the distance a pure white gull shone out. Gradually it came closer and closer, enough to be sure it was "The boy". As it came in from the bay and across the marsh I abandoned my scope and took up position on the bank near the pumping station. It came around, circled the building a couple of times, and then plonked down in the fish-laced grass.

Half Gull, half Pigeon, but still, what a cracker! My positioning, whilst not perfect, did at least see me closest to the bird than most if not all of those there, and I enjoyed the most amazing views for probably 40 minutes. Although it did feed, it appeared relatively nervous - not worried enough to get up and go, but alert enough that you could tell it wasn't entirely at ease. Luckily the crowd were superb, nobody moved, nobody crawled, nobody shouted, or stood up suddenly - presumably everyone as awestruck as I was.

It had a final wash in a puddle, and then took off for the estuary. And then the crowd went wild! Not really, this was a group of green-clad middle-aged men. But the delight and pleasure was palpable. For Monkey, this was bird #400, and I remember all too well how pleased I was to have finally got there earlier this year. Some obligatory high-fives, a bit of chimping, and then back to the car. A fabulous experience, and a privilege to see this Arctic gem. One of the best birds this year, and there have been a lot.

Not a huge amount more to tell. We broke up the trip about halfway with an attempt at Velvet Scoter photography, and met The Leicester Llama coming away. Couldn't think of his internet handle at the time, nor his actual name, so just asked him eloquently if he was that painter bloke, which he was able to confirm. If he thought I was looking at him strangely, I was, and it was because my brain was attempting to kick into gear and failing. Gave us some useful gen, so cheers for that, although unfortunately the Scoter never came close in before the light went followed by the heavens opening. And who should we meet on the track to it but Mick and Richard out on another jolly! Who knew that Spurn to Dungeness takes less than two hours!? They had been for the Gull too, over the course of two days, and then today had obviously got lost on the way to Dunge and somehow arrived in Leicestershire. Didn't get any of the photos of the Scoter, but what the hell, a great day nonetheless.

Cheers for the company lads, your musical knowledge is highly impressive, if slightly dodgy, and as for the air drumming, amazing talent. Some fearsome weather on the way back, but we made it and it goes down as yet another highly worthwhile day twitching in 2013, the year that keeps on giving.

Saturday 21 December 2013