Monday 23 February 2015

Zoo Day

I've not been to the Zoo for ages, animals in cages are not really my bag, but my youngest really wanted to go and see Elephants and so for a special treat that's what we did. I've rarely seen such excitement, it was palpable. And of course my daughter really enjoyed it too. First stop, naturally, was the elephant enclosure, where four of these incredible animals were standing around eating dry sticks, their warm bodies steaming in the cold air. As we watched, one of them did a poo, which was obviously quite a lot of fun. We progressed round the rest of the site, a slow procession of parents and children, and saw loads of interesting animals. Whilst people may disagree with the philosophy, you can't argue with the educational and stimulation aspects. Question after question, most of which I was quite unable to cohesively answer. A highlight was the Polar bears, seeing their fur expand and ripple as they swam was incredible, and the paw of the male was the size of a child's torso. You can see what seals would only need one swat. But it was the otters we kept coming back to, five incredibly cute squeaky little things that seemingly loved visitors. Or wanted food. Or letting out. They followed each other everywhere, running from one viewing area to another and gazing up at people. Asian small-clawed otters, much more diminutive than our native otter, but just as lovely.

Daniel the pygmy elephant enjoys meeting his larger relatives

White with black stripes. Definitely.

I think this was the small one....

After the delights of the Zoo a quick trip across town to the Aquarium to soak up another animal kingdom, and as with the land-based attraction, fantastically done. Our favourite bits were the rainforest and the tropical reef, this latter being about thirty or forty feet long in a vast shallow arc. Again more questions, and as the denizens of the oceans are easily factors weirder than mammals and birds, and I stood no chance. The variety of things is amazing, and some of the amazonian fish defied reality - the giant Arapaima were sensational in every way. All in all a different and enjoyable day out.

We didn't see any of the rest of Copenhagen at all ;-)

Friday 20 February 2015

He who laughs last laughs longest!

When the first winter Laughing Gull turned up on the Wirral at the start of February or thereabouts I could not get excited. Despite it being theoretically the most common bird I'd not seen in the UK, I could not muster the enthusiasm. Partly this was to do with being Gulled out following my trip with Mick S and Richard, but also that New Brighton is an eight hour round trip. For a Gull. I knew I ought to go, but it just wasn't happening. Oh, and on the first free day I had I went to Madrid. Seemed to be a long-stayer though, so I thought I might give it a bash on the way up to Scotland at half term. Ten minutes out of the house on Saturday morning and the matrix displays were already showing the M6 as closed, so we went up the east coast and that was that - another reason to hate Gulls. A few of the boys went that same weekend, so I realised I would have to do it on the way back instead, and crossed my fingers that it stayed, which seemed likely as it barely strays three feet from the pontoon on Marine Lake. 

I dropped the family for lunch on the Liverpool side, and then took the Wallesey tunnel over to New Brighton. I have a pretty miserable strike rate on twitching birds whilst on my way back from Fife, having gone out of my way several times and dipped, but this time fortune was on my side and on arrival the Gull was still sitting on the pontoon, as it has done more or less constantly since it was found. It didn't seem to fancy doing a great deal, and even a hastily purchased loaf of bread from a conveniently-placed Iceland (not the Gull) didn't do much for it. A couple of half-arsed sallies and then back onto the pontoon again. Hey ho, a tick is a tick I suppose, and as far as I can recall, there have been very few (possibly zero) Laughing Gulls in the whole of my brief twitching career so it's a good one to finally see. Plenty of other birds around as well, with nine Purple Sandpipers on the pontoon with a load of Redshank, Turnstone and Dunlin

Given my phobia, this is remarkably the 22nd species of Gull I've seen in the UK, with only Slender-billed and Glaucous-winged eluding me. I'm tempted to not even call it a twitch as I was more or less passing anyway.

Thursday 19 February 2015

East Neuk

I've just spent some time in Fife, a place that has become a favourite of mine over the last ten years. Didn't get out much as I had hoped, but it was a working holiday so that was expected, however one day we went for a big walk out to some of the fishing villages that make up the backbone of the East Neuk of Fife - Elie, St Monan's, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail. Of these, Elie is our favourite by far. It's here that the kids go to summer sailing school, here that we play cricket on the beach and construct immense sand castles, and where the adults retire to the Ship Inn for much-needed refreshment. As we set off along the smaller beach towards the light house, I spotted a male Eider close in to the rocks. I had fortunately brought my camera with me on the offchance that there might be something to point at it, and this bird surprised me by being completely untroubled by me going right up to the edge of the rocks and lying down almost at sea level. I had intended just taking a few, but seeing as this beautiful duck seemed to have no interest in drifting away, I had to give it more time - the others continued on their walk and I got busy.

After a fish supper in Anstruther I was dropped off at Shell Bay and walked the short distance to Ruddon's Point. If a year goes by when I don't get a few hours winter birding at this fabled spot then something is very wrong indeed. The family had firmly expressed no interest whatsoever in accompanying me to scan through flocks of sea ducks, so they dropped me and went home to bake a cake, promising to pick me up later. Perfect, nobody moaning or telling me to hurry up. Largo Bay is a large bay, and my annual American target is a small bird, so I set up my scope and got scanning. Some years it takes longer, some years it's shorter. Memorably one year I set up my scope and the Surf Scoter was right in the middle of it in perfect focus, I still have no idea how that happened. This year it took about a quarter of an hour, and was once again quite distant, but there was no mistaking his striking head pattern, especially from the back. With Common Scoter, reliably bobbing about for perhaps the sixth year running. I have no idea if it's the same bird, but if you want to see a Surf Scoter year after year, I can't think of many places in the UK better than Largo Bay. Plenty of Velvets as well, and a Slav Grebe, but it was actually quite a choppy day. Some days it's like a lake, and the birding is unbelievable. More challenging today, but just as satisfying even if I didn't see as much.


I spent a bit of time attempting to photograph waders at the mouth of the burn, and then decided that as I had missed most of the walk earlier that I would cross it and walk the length of the beach back to Lower Largo - a pretty lengthy stroll. Plenty of Godwit and Oystercatcher, with Dunlin and Sanderling scooting up and down. All in all a decent day out, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit, whenever that will be.

Largo Bay looking east from Lower Largo, Ruddon's Point in the distance

Monday 9 February 2015

Birding spots from the air

I wrote the following this morning on my way to work. Not your average commute, but a whole lot more interesting than the 308.... It was a lovely day for flying, and this is how I wrote it. I intended to expand it, turning the rough notes and memory joggers into actual sentences. Reading it again, I've decided it works as is, growing as I get into it. 

Wanstead Flats
My house!
The Lea Valley, Fisher's Green and Bitterns. There was a Savi's there too.
Tracing the M11
Welney, imagine the Swans
The Wash - waders
Norfolk coast - Geese, Hunstanton – Fulmars
Gib Point, twitched that for Subalp
Wait, that thin bit must be Spurn!
Humber estuary, can just make out the bridge. Spurn has been good to me when I've been bothered. I can see the last 45 minutes, still no idea why it takes so long!
And that bulge has to be Flamborough.
Somewhere between the two I dipped a Roller!
Snow! The North Yorkshire moors, all it takes is a bit of high ground. Picking out the Red Grouse, drove over them on the way to the Black-throated Thrush.
What's next as we track along the coast?
Inland, more tracelines of snow. Is it the Pennines? Maybe not. Long thin lakes, perhaps it's the Lake District? Difficult to say how far west we are, view out of the port window is only clouds, no hint of a coastline.
Here my geography starts to get a little sketchy, nonethless a very hilly landscape.
Looking ahead you see where the Lothian coast starts to come in along the Firth.
We're definitely further west now, it must be Northumberland but it's a lot further away.
There's more snow too, up towards Coldstream I would guess. We're not over Scotland yet but it can't be long.
I hear the engines throttle back, a noticable decline. We'll start heading down now, in towards Glasgow. The Solway must be on my left, with yet more Geese. In fact the SFO just came on, we're just south of Carlisle.
Now I can see the tip of the East Neuk of Fife. Crail and out to Fife Ness. Way off, but no doubt about it. I've sea-watched from there. Fantastic pale-phase Arctic Skuas in close, and tons of Manxies. And hugging the nearer coast is the Bass Rock. I don't know whether the Gannets are there, I expect not at this time of year, but even now the white that they have left behind is resolvable and in my mind I can hear them.
For some reason I can't pick out the Isle of May, but I know it's there. Steely is in for a disappointment if it isn't!
But I can now see around Fife, into the Tay. Carry on around and you head up past the Yellowlegs and to Aberdeen. Too far to see that but I know that's there too. And beyond the Firth of Tay, further north, are some real hills. We're tracking in west now, and more and more are becoming visible.
Now I can see the Forth Road Bridge, or maybe the towers of its replacement. Scanning east again I can see what must be the towers at Methil. My parents are near there. There are a couple large hills, the Lomonds they're called, East and West.
Scanning, searching, I think I see them. Certainly the western one, as there's Loch Leven. It has an island in the middle, I know it well – another favourite birding spot. Yes, that must be it, a steep escarpment.

We're lower now. That's definitely the new bridge as I can see them both now. And the iconic rail bridge, the cantilever structure, easily visible. And below it, the runway at Edinburgh airport. I'm headed for Glasgow though - ten minutes to go. Time for me to go too, seat back up, tables away.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Behold, it is February and I am falling to bits

1/12th of the year gone already, and still no Fieldfare. I have been trying, honest, and I know that there are at least two birds on the patch but they never find me. I've been out once this month so far, when a scattering of snow promised something good. That something was a Lapwing, but only an hour after I had left for work. When you were a lad, I remember seeing 376 of them in one hit, so the missing of this single bird is not the big disaster you might thing it is. 

In other news my eyeball is disintegrating. As I approach the big 4-0, I have noticed that an annoying wiggle now runs straight down my right eyeball. An s-shaped squiggle with a little head on it that traverses the page as I read. Left right, left right. Pisses me right off I can tell you. Detailed research has concluded that "Floaters" , as they are scientifically named by the NHS, are small pieces of debris that float in the eye's vitreous humour. My particular one is so humorous that it looks like a sperm under a microscope. No joke. Supposedly once they've been there a while the brain learns to ignore them, but my brain is so far too stupid to have managed this. It's most obvious against white computer screens. Like blogger. Oh. Here's my best drawing of what it looks like, little bugger won't stay still. Looking for an egg probably.

Apparently all part of the aging process, and I am only destined to get more and more of them, which is a bit of a downer to be honest. My eyes get used a lot, for work, writing crap like this, and behind a camera. Sometimes they even look through binoculars. Now if my floater were Lapwing-shaped.....