Wednesday 1 September 2021

Well that was some month - August 2021

And so another month passes without any foreign travel. Checking back at my notes the last time I travelled abroad was March 2020 which seems an inordinately long time ago. This is a first world problem but I miss it terribly - for me at least it severely limits the scope and diversity of my birding and life more generally. When it might return is anyone's guess, not soon would be mine. On the plus side by cutting out flying almost entirely (I've done two domestic sectors to visit my parents in Scotland in the last 18 months) I've drastically lowered my carbon footprint. Better than that though I have rediscovered UK birding which had tended to take a bit of backseat these past years. August 2021 is a case in point, and what's more I'd classify it as almost entirely local birding, or local-ish at any rate. I have not been chasing rarities, hooning up and down the country, Cornwall one day, Merseyside the next. In fact I've not been on a single big twitch at all which I think makes seeing 150 birds in August even more special - there is not a rarity amongst them.

This takes me to eBird, which is how I know I've seen 150 birds in the UK this August. Before eBird I would not have been able to monitor a stat like this. I kept a UK year list and an annual patch list and that was more or less my limit. Now though I can keep as many lists as I want, or rather I can look up just about anything and it will tell me the answer. So it was that I was able to discover that my highest UK month list was 175 in May 2009 when I was momentarily enthused by year listing. I don't plan on doing that again, but I was intrigued to see I'd seen 150+ birds in a month only seven other times since then. Not everyone will agree, and perhaps those who see themselves as more noble and pure birders than I will at this point decry the so-called numbers game. However for me numbers and lists are an integral part of birding. Yes I like the birds, why else would I still be birding after all these years, but part of what makes me get up and go are the lists. Inconsequential lists of numbers play an essential part in getting me out of the house and onto Wanstead Flats or to Rainham Marshes or wherever - they always have and probably always will. And in August 2021 I also spent some time in Fife and the same was true there.

My parents live in Fife. They have not always done so, but for all the time that I would consider myself as having been a birder that's where they have lived. I keep a garden list for their house, a patch list for their village, and in the same way as I keep a London list I also keep a Fife list. For obvious reasons, namely that I am only there for a few days a year, none of these lists are very large. One consequence of the ongoing pandemic and the demise of foreign holidays, as well as its effect on the now eye-watering cost of UK holidays, is that I am spending a lot more time there. It's a lovely part of Scotland and terrific for birding. Most habitats are represented, but for me as a repressed urbanite it is the sea and the miles of coastline that sing their siren song. And as my parents will testify after my recent visit, you cannot hold me back!

Tentsmuir Sands

We all went up in mid-August for a break from London. This is not the ideal time to be birding in Fife it has to be said, but it was good enough for this habitat-starved birder. The sea-watching season is just beginning, there is a bit of passerine migration, and the wader passage is in full swing. I had a brilliant time. The intention was to stay quite close to my parents' village, in birding speak within what you would call a 10MR ( a ten mile radius), but it did not pan out exactly like that for various reasons. For instance I did some Vizmig at North Queensferry, and a seawatching session at Fife Ness, and there were various family excursions over the week to the East Neuk, St Andrews and Tentsmuir, as well a day where we went even further to the Angus Highlands. In fact having looked up my mileage over the week I'm actually a bit disappointed, I drove far more than I had thought. Seawatching at Fife Ness for example is a 50 mile round trip, so perhaps my definition of local should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, almost all my birding was within Fife so it all felt pretty local.  I just need my parents to move to Crail, but then Loch Gelly and Letham Pools would be miles away.


Highlights included finding a Garganey at some local gravel pits - both a Fife and Scotland tick, and picking up some new waders, Ruff and Green Sandpiper. A good sea-watch (pro sea-watchers would call it a terrible sea-watch!) produced a handful of Manx Shearwaters, a single Sooty Shearwater (also a Fife tick), several Arctic and Great Skuas and a good number of Little Gulls. Vizmigging on the apex of North Queensferry was a real eye-opener - more Tree Pipits than I have seen on Wanstead Flats in ten years flew south over the bridges in the space of two hours, and this was a pretty low passage. Interestingly this phenomenon is relatively newly discovered - a birder who moved up to Fife from down south and did not want to schlep all the way across to the East Neul and Fife Ness all the time went searching for good birding locations close to home. He - Graham - discovered that actually North Queensferry was a gem of a site - not only is autumn passage augmented by the funnel effect a la Falsterbo or Gibraltar, but the Forth itself acts as funnel, and seabirds and waders coming up it end up at the crossings and have a decision to make. Do they turn around and head back out, or do they gain height and power across to the west coast? While I was there several Bonxies did exactly that, and the day after a Long-tailed Skua was seen. I saw well over 100 species in the county over the week of which seven were new, a pretty good ratio I thought. The one disappointment was that despite trying very hard I was not able to find a Roseate Tern at any of my regular spots even though there were good numbers being seen, and since arriving back in London Fife Ness has had both Great Shearwater and Fea's Petrel!

Ferry Hill looking east, North Queensferry

I left Wanstead mid-month with 50 species. I returned a week later with 136 - unlike last year we didn't twitch anything on the way home even though the Elegant Tern was crying out for a detour (nasty weather on the west coast). However down in London it was holding off, and within an hour of arriving home I was back on my spiritual home of Wanstead Flats and in the hunt for local year ticks. I found a Tree Pipit almost immediately, followed by jamming the long-staying juvenile Cuckoo. I should mention at this point that having spent pretty much the whole year at home my patch list has been going rather well, but that singular exhilaration is best saved for an entirely separate post as the jam has not been confined to Cuckoos.

Over the next few days I made it a priority to seek out new August birds in Wanstead before work, and carried on my person was a little yellow post-it note with a list of targets that I gradually crossed out over various early morning patch visits. And so by the time the long weekend arrived I was within spitting distance not only of my best August ever (146 in 2020) but also that magical round 150. It was possible locally but could not be done in Wanstead alone - I had to make a trip to Rainham which in theory would have got me over the line in one go but the morning I chose was hard work and I could only add three rather than the required six. Wanstead added two more later that weekend, and rather than wait until the last minute to go and find Tawny Owl in Bush Wood I popped up to Epping Forest for an all-important Mandarin Duck. Good thing I did as I had heard Tawny at the start of the month during a middle-of-the-night comfort break.

Team members walking the Ditch of Despair for no reward

I have never before really thought of August as a really good birding month. Sure there is the sea-watching season, and autumn passage is starting, but in my head I always think of May , September and October as the prime months. Actually though there is a lot of good birding to be had, often quite close to home. I've enjoyed the challenges I've set myself, highly individual and tailored though they are. I won't do this every month of course, it could become boring and procession-like. But they ensured I went out birding when otherwise I might have simply stagnated in the same room I spend nearly all my waking hours in, on for that reason I'm quietly satisfied with my birdy endeavours. I still wish I lived on the coast of course, but when I am in Fife I can pretend I do.

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