Monday 27 October 2014

Cornwall for a mega Starling

I’ve seen two Pechora Pipits. Four Buff-bellied Pipits. Four Red-flanked Bluetails. But somehow I’ve only seen two Rose-coloured Starlings. I think I saw a beige one first, and then was lucky enough to see an adult next, at which point I just stopped going to see them. Some may view this as entirely sensible, but this discrepancy has been irking me, gnawing away at me. With a weekend free, and a nailed-on bird hanging around the supermarkets in Penzance, the twitch was on! For such a good-looking bird I even forwent my usual “never on no news” rule, and left at 8pm on Friday so as be in position at Morrison's the next morning. It’s also been seen at other supermarkets though, and so with both Tesco and Sainsburys just next door, I figured that if the prospect of a massive down-market Superstore dip was on the cards it would be easy to go and try the next set of lamp posts across the road. Twitching is all about having a decent backup plan – if your major target doesn’t perform straight away, make sure you know where else to go and look for it.

Little did I know how badly wrong it could go though. My chauffeur for the weekend was a Mr. D Bradnum, and blow me if he didn’t go and drive right through Penzance in the middle of the night! Yep, that’s right, missed it completely in the dark! Ended up at the arse end of nowhere at a place called Porthgwarra, with nothing but thousands of miles of ocean in front of us and not a supermarket in sight! 

Do you get these at Morrison's? Do you?! No.

It just felt wrong from the start. Instead of being confronted with a series of lamp posts and telegraph poles along a pavement, there was a dried up pool and some sallows. Of neon signs, petrol stations and roundabouts there was no sign. Surely we were looking in the wrong place, but there was no way that a hundred other people could have made the same mistake - the place was carpeted in Starling twitchers! How could so many people screw up such simple directions?! I tried telling people that we were looking for Kwikfit, but nobody would listen. This is where it roosted they said. Rubbish! Where was the A30, I asked? But no, they remained in a long line scoping a bit of scrubby cover about sixty feet long that clearly had no Starlings of any variety in it. Talk about misguided! I think I even overheard somebody talking about a Cuckoo at one point! I mean If they can’t even twitch the right species, what hope is there?! Eventually I managed to drag Bradders away and with a bit of skillful map-reading directed him back over the Lands End peninsula and into Penzance, where would you believe it I spotted the damn bird from the car as we were motoring along the dual carriageway. Exactly as expected, sitting about with a group of normal Starlings on a massive lamp post. To his credit, Bradders apologized for initially taking me to the wrong place, and although we had wasted three hours staring at empty bushes, the continued presence of the glorious juvenile Rose-coloured Starling – which hadn’t fallen off its perch in the night as some had predicted– made all of that irrelevant. The long trip down to the south-west was a success, and another one to chalk up to the “never miss” list. These overnighters are always carry a certain amount of risk, but once again the plan had come off. Phew.

With the main target under the belt, we decided to go and clean up on some of the other goodies down there, such as the Lesser Yellowlegs on the Hayle, and a smart Ring-necked Duck on Drift. We briefly considered going to one of the more obscure valleys for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had reportedly been seen the previous day, but everybody knows that they always die during the night so we decided to give it a miss despite the monstrous rarity factor. I mean imagine how upset we would have been if we had travelled down purely to see that? Luckily for us we’re not that stupid, and so had a very pleasant day wandering around various parts of Cornwall definitely not thinking about mega Yank Cuckoos at all and what might have been.

The following day we had a poke around a couple of Valleys but drew a big blank bar a Yellow-browed Warbler. Leaving the coast behind, we drove up to North Cornwall to see an American Golden Plover. This is a species which typically stays a long time, as unlike wussy bastard ungrateful Cuckoos they’re pretty hardy souls. True to form the bird was still around, sitting around on the main runway in plain view and looking pretty perky. As opposed to lying upside down under a bush. I gave Bradders clear instructions to move the car only in reverse, and snuck out of the hidden side to crawl around the front bumper. The bird didn’t bat an eyelid. Or die. So I ended up getting some nice photos, including a bonus Wheatear.

Mission accomplished on yet another of the Starling’s supporting cast, we departed for Somerset and spent the last hours of daylight watching a juv Pallid Harrier, only the third I’ve seen, and thus concluding a rather profitable weekend which included two American Waders and a Nearctic Duck, a Warbler from Siberia, a Bird of Prey from Central Asia, and a mega Starling. Oh, and apparently that Cuckoo or whatever it was wasn’t seen again, and a whole load of people had a massive massive dip. Losers!

Sunday 19 October 2014


A short post today, as it's basically only photos. Of a Jay, which was my only plan today. Well, apart from going out and seeing whether the Yellow-legged Gull was on the playing fields. It was, and then a Snipe flew over me - both were patch year ticks, I am so shit. The rest of the day has been spent throwing things out. That is all.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Bird of the Day

Just spent the day in Norfolk, and it didn't quite go according to plan, which was to see my own weight in Shrikes. In the event I saw no Shrikes whatsoever, as every single last one had sodded off, including the top prize of Isabelline, which had clearly known that both I and Saturday were approaching. Started off for this bird at Warham Greens, but quickly realised it wasn't there anymore and went off to do some real birding. With real success. Sorry, I mean with no success at all, my mistake. Plenty of common stuff, heaps of Finches, Thrushes and the like, but nothing to really get the mid-October juices flowing, and especially not after the uniform quality of the previous week. The novel thought that the bird might have gone seemed not to have occurred to many present, who after we returned from our not seeing of any rare birds further up the tracks were all still stood around doing nothing. This was to be a reoccurring theme throughout the day

Continued to Cley, where a Grey Phalarope performed well in the Eye Pool before vapourising right in front of us, and then decided that we had far too much money, and that we needed to give lots and lots of it to the Earl of Leicester. One of his other titles is Viscount Coke, which given the amount of money he rakes in from Holkham parking is presumably a real option for him. Six quid bloody fifty, outrageous - I detest paying for parking, it's up there in my top ten hates. So luckily for me Nick paid it, but I have to buy him a coffee tomorrow. Which is fine as I don't mind buying coffee as long as I don't have to pay for parking. I then spent the rest of the afternoon dipping Pallas's Warbler in the pines, happy days. There were some rewards, such as a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Great White Egret, but otherwise it was just one great big dip.

The path at Holkham was classic North Norfolk, an embarrassing number people of stood around hoping somebody else would find the bird for them. One bloke turned up, found a Firecrest, and in seconds had a panicked mob surrounding him. I refrained from joining in this ridiculous herd mentality, well beneath me. But I did join in later on when a cry of "It's here!" emanated from the bushes just as I had completed another circuit of the tracks. After discussing it for a while, everyone dived into the scrub, but this being Norfolk there was an orderly queue. I got stuck behind a few people who all had scope-carriers on - naturally - and all of them subsequently got stuck in branches but couldn't quite work out why they were making no forward progress. One or two of them may have lost Tilley Hats trying to work it out. I ended up having to take a shortcut around their floundering hopelessness in order to properly dip the bird, and ended up ripping a chunk out of my ear on a sharp branch. How often do you go birding in Holkham Pines and emerge like you've done three rounds with Mike Tyson? Anyway, despite this critical injury, I forged onwards only to find out it was our very own Nick Croft who had done the shouting! He couldn't show me the bird as it had immediately done a bunk, so instead I showed him my wounded ear. And that was how the day ended really, with blood, pain, and disappointment. Especially when I found out that Great White Egret was a Norfolk tick and thus moved out even further ahead of Essex.

Bird of the day? 

Thursday 16 October 2014

Mega Twitch, Mega Twitcher

It is somewhat scandalous that I have managed to see a hundred species on the patch this year, but that is precisely what has just happened. Nick, still mentally on Shetland by the looks of things, found a probable Lapland Bunting near Alex this morning, and with Richard soon on the scene, nailed it on the deck. All previous records have been flyovers, hardly satisfactory (especially reading about them!), so to have one pootling around in the long grass all day is simply amazing. Of course I was at work and having to vicariously enjoy a succession of low-listing London glitterati trekking over to the Flats to enjoy stunning views. By three in the afternoon I was more-or-less a broken man, and by about quarter past four I had cracked, made my excuses, and was en route home, typing furiously on my Blackberry. Although I had no bins, the school run car does conceal a pair of cheapies, and with this parked close to the tube it wasn't long until I was in action in the long grass.

Dan and Tony had fortuitously relocated it approximately ten seconds before I arrived, and with its last known spot pinned down, we all enjoyed great views more or less immediately. Well, except Dan who had brought his Fisher Price binoculars by mistake. Tony hadn't even managed that, but with laser-like vision gained from a week on Shetland was still enjoying cracking close-ups. The three of us drank it up for a few minutes before parting ways, Dan to release a few Waders for tomorrow morning, and Tony and I back home. Where, and in case any senior colleagues are reading, I subsequently logged back on, did all the stuff I needed to do, and had a really long conference call on September Month-end capital figures with a couple of the team. Highs are frequently followed by lows I guess. Sorry, I mean one good thing usually leads to another.

So, ton up, belying a spectacular lack of effort this year. My contributions to patch listing have been a solitary bird, crap views of a very likely Hoopoe that I am not even planning to submit, never seen again and that nobody else saw. You get tons of credibility from records like this..... Anything else that was remotely decent I twitched. That said, patch twitching is the best kind of twitching, as it takes up zero time, zero petrol (mostly!), and basically zero effort. You can't put a price on that!

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Not Quite Dungeness

Yesterday Dungeness recorded something like 500 Ring Ouzels. They were literally forming carpets of black and white. Other sites on the south coast experienced dramatic falls in the hundreds too, if not quite eclipsing Dunge. It was one of those days that I wished I hadn't been in work. Actually that's most days now I come to think of it, but can you imagine being there? One day. When I'm retired. Though that could be several years away still....

London meanwhile had a handful of Ouzels, literally a dozen Bonxie, and a Gannet. That's good for London that is! I missed all of them, and in a 15 minute escape from the office recorded precisely zero birds of interest in Canary Wharf. A Grey Wagtail was as good as it got. So today as it wasn't raining I resolved to nip out before work, which turned out to be a stunning success, if not quite Dungeness. Almost the first bird I saw was a female Ring Ouzel, flushed out of a bush near the large clump of gorse on the northern Flats. Continuing down towards the southern brooms, a male dashed over. Two Ouzels in about five minutes, complimented by seeping Redwing and a few Linnet. Pretty good, and so I headed for home and the impending school run. However before I could shepherd the children into the car, a call from Bob alerted me to a lingering Short-eared Owl, so I ran outside again. As in literally ran. From my house to about half way to Long Wood. This is all of about 150m, but following my fun run triumph it was a total breeze, and there, in all its distant glory, was said Owl flopping around over Esso Copse. I ran back home, fitness freak that I am.

Once finally on the school run I made a quick stop at the Basin, where I discovered seven Wigeon bobbing up and down. This is a record count, at least for me, and capped off a very successful morning, with both the Owl and the Ouzel being patch year ticks, taking me gloriously to 99. At one stage this year I thought I might not get to three figures. I suppose it's vaguely possible I still might not, but I do still need Snipe and Lapwing. Better that this though, both were actual year ticks as well, so lack-lustre have I been in 2014. The shame associated with disclosing my pitiful year list total is obviously too much to bear, but suffice it to say that it's comfortably my lowest this decade, and the lowest since 2007, when my two-hundred-and-fifteenth and last bird, appropriately enough, was Short-Eared Owl.

One of these can fly over me anytime it likes. If I'm in Wanstead.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

In response to some recent criticism...

In response to some recent nit-picking, here are some of my favourite photographs of my very favourite of all bird families. The effort and timing, not to mention skill required to capture some, nay all, of these images (not mere photos) I cannot even begin to describe. Each one is a gem, a unique composition, these moments will not come again - it's part of what makes bird photography so special. 

Saturday 11 October 2014

Always go see Shrikes. Again.

Yes, go again. Again and again. I've said it before, there is no Shrike that is not worth going to see. Today's bird cost me four hours in a car, but I didn't care. The drive was pleasant enough, especially knowing that there was a Shrike at the end of it and that it was "showing well" - Steppe Grey, a pretty damn rare kind of Shrike, tend to "show well" - the only other one I've seen actually perched on my telescope. This one wasn't as friendly as that, and kept a semi-reasonable distance from the crowd (a bigger crowd than I had anticipated actually), but it was pretty good nonetheless.  In fact it was better than pretty good, it was amazing, who am I kidding? And to think I could have been at Dunge sitting in a deckchair covered in popcorn.

Guessing that it might not be quite as accommodating as the Lincs bird, which required a macro lens at times, I armed myself with the longest I had and went for a short walk. Lots of other people had had the same idea, the number of people who have large cameras never ceases to amaze me and the path at Burnham Norton resembled Silverstone. I still found a space in exactly the right spot for the bird's routine, which was to fly in, perch on a post, swoop to the ground for a mealworm and then eat it on a convenient bramble. What a little stunner!

Sunday 5 October 2014

What was I thinking?

I had a minor fit today, and ended up at Dungeness. I'm going to see a specialist tomorrow, and expect to be declared clinically insane. That said, I can see the attraction, as Dungeness isn't really about Gulls at all. It's about a fat breakfast, and then sitting around in comfy chairs for the rest of the day talking rubbish.

I skipped the breakfast part (my body is a temple), and met the guys at the beach. Parking up, I lifted my camera off the back seat and headed off to the fishing boats. I'd got about half way there when I realised I was on my own, and looked back to find that Mick and Richard were still unloading the car. Oh My God. In my absence, Gull photography has reached a whole new level. It used to be a couple of loaves of bread, but no longer. The ante has been well and truly upped. Armchairs. Buckets of fish. Crates. 8m3 of popcorn, and enough bread to create a floating bridge to France. I watched, bemused - practically speechless in fact - as all of this was loaded onto a massive trolley (itself another new development) which was then hauled across the shingle and down to the shore. At the other end, it was all dutifully unpacked, carefully positioned, and then we all sat down, Mick having been kind enough to bring a third armchair for me. I hadn't realised, but Gull photography at Dungeness merely involves carting a shit-load of crap you don't need down the beach and then doing nothing.

A small proportion of the epic amount of necessary gear

A whole new level. LOWER.

After witnessing the above, a Gull vomits into a sick bucket
It was very pleasant, barring the stench of dead fish, guts, diseased lobsters and the aroma of stale cinema. The Gulls mimicked the photographers by sitting around doing jack all, and so both birds and bird-lovers had a glorious and very relaxing day in the warm sunshine. I did at least give the shutter a bit of a workout, as for quite a lot of the day the light was pretty easy. Highlights were a second year Caspian, which Rich B picked out way ahead of Mick - he really needs to up his game -  and a Dunlin which I missed even though it was there for an hour. I may have been asleep, I can't remember.

Soporific is the best way to describe the day. Nothing happened at all. The most exciting part of the day was when I found a nearly round pebble. Whilst I had thought Mick and Richard were suffering from a bit of a lack of imagination, I now know that in fact that they have been very busy indeed. What used to be a bit of a joke, "Oh, Dunge again!", is now a quasi-military operation. Most amusingly, nobody had told the Gulls, and Mick didn't take a single photo all day - he needs help. I'm going to start a Just Giving page I reckon, see if we can raise enough money to send him to a clinic or something.

Yellow-legged Dull

Friday 3 October 2014

Goodbye Dusky Thrush!

Back in the spring of 2013, I brought you much fanfare when I nipped down to Margate to watch grown men trample over graves with complete abandon. The subject of this angst was a Dusky Thrush, and it was my 400th BOU bird. Because it was a landmark bird, I slapped it on more or less immediately, and asked no questions whatsoever about it. A storm then blew up on the internet about how rufous it was (those who hadn't seen it) vs how this was an artifact (those who had), all of which I ignored studiously. Following seeing it, I did of course give up twitching. For a whole week, and then started again when a gettable Roller turned up. The rest, as they say, is history, and I then caned it for the rest of the year seeing such delights as Bridled Tern, Great Snipe and Ivory Gull. In due course, indeed quite rapidly, the Dusky Thrush was accepted by the powers that be whose name I can never remember, but there was no need to ink it in as I already had.

But now I need some tippex, as Dusky Thrush can no longer be considered my 400th bird. Shame. That major honour now goes to a somewhat lowlier Subalpine Warbler, and the Thrush becomes number 401. This is because a new entry has appeared way back at number 356 - the Blakeney Point Empid has been accepted to species. Unlike the Dusky Thrush, which obviously was one, the Traill's Flycatcher complex is rather difficult. And so unlike the Dusky Thrush, I exercised massive caution and did not add it to my list. Despite the epic slog down the Point, my efforts went unrewarded in listing terms. Until now that is, as the same people whose name I always forget have now decided that it was definitively an Alder Flycatcher and not a Willow Flycatcher. To be honest, either worked for me, but there was always the danger that they might never decide. But now they have, and so from the comfort of my armchair I've had to rework my entire list, including relegating Dusky Thrush to the completely unremarkable slot at 401. Bo-ring!

And as for Subalp as number 400, what a disgrace! Not as bad as your first ever Shrike in the UK being nubicus of course, but up there. There is however hope. If Dom's 2011 Slaty-backed Gull gets on, then Harlequin Duck becomes number 400, which is a bird well worthy of the number. The only slight difficulty is that shortly after seeing it I then clapped eyes on a Richardson's Cackling Goose. That is surely going to get on the UK list in the near future, and as I'm then fresh out of armchairs, all I can hope for is a split somewhere down the line to avoid the permanent ignominy of having a runty Canada Goose as my 400th tick.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Shetland 2014 - day 4 and 5

Typical autumn weather of the sort you should expect on Shetland
Day 4
The penultimate day of my epic, and one that started in a good way. As is my wont, early doors I was sat minding my own business on the Toilet of Death, when I perceived a cry from Howard. Something about a Poopoo. Well, tough, I got here first. More insistent this time. "Hoopoe on the roof!!" It could have been a trick of course, but nevertheless I sprang into action from a sitting start, exited the bathroom and rushed to the back door where H was gesticulating excitedly. He had opened the back door for a spot of fresh air, and in the half-light had detected a Hoopoe sitting on the roof of the owners' cottage, which was adjacent to the croft building we were staying in. Only H could do this, what other bird can be identified so easily as a silhouette? It was still there, and with remarkable presence of mind I grabbed my camera which was conveniently parked by the door, dialed in an approximate exposure, and fired away to record the bird for time immemorial. Then the resident Hoodie swept in and flushed it off.

Did that really just happen? 

Yes, I think it did.

I retired back to the Toilet of Unhappiness, where things got going again. Once done, we proceeded up towards Lunna, and spent a massively unrewarding morning birding there, Sweening and Vidlin, site of my OBP triumph last year. Hopeless, there had obviously been a bit of a clear out, that or all the birds had funneled south. We changed tactics and headed for Whalsay, which I wrongly thought would be an island tick for me until I recognised almost everywhere we went. This was still hard work, but we ended up with a few more Yellow-browed Warblers, two Common Rosefinch together, a very showy RB Fly following a home-owner's invitation to go into his garden, and best of all, a Dunnock. I jest not, Dunnock is a pretty rare autumn migrant on Shetland, and nailing this one in a plantation took the best part of an hour. My sixth visit to the islands, and my first Dunnock - I've seen more Pechora and Buff-bellied Pipits here.

This photo was taken in the dark. I love IS.
We arrived home to find that some Hoopoe dippers had discovered a Yellow-browed Warbler in our garden.....

Day 5

So, another day, another Yellow-browed Warbler, and of course it fell to Howard to open the back door of the cottage and immediately hear the bird. We had expected it to be present given it had been pelting it down all night, but it was just too easy. No Double Deckers even needed. 

As it happened, today ended up being all about Yellow-browed Warblers, and we ended up with six birds, to take my trip total up to a healthy 23. There was one at Hoswick, two at Geosetter, one at Cunnigsburgh, and another at Grutness, which ended up being the last bird I saw, as at half three it was all over for another year and I was sat in Sumburgh airport waiting for my flight to Aberdeen. Only one tick, though I did claw the now long-staying Masked Shrike back, but heaps of quality seen. Where else, in four and a half days, could you see the following list of goodies?

Pechora Pipit
Rusting Bunting
Arctic Warbler
Subalpine Warbler x 2
Red-backed Shrike
Little Bunting
Red-breasted Flycatcher x 6
Barred Warbler x 3
Common Rosefinch x 3
Yellow-Browed Warbler x 23

Howard terrifies a very small horse
"Sheep of the Week"