Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: Anas Horribilis?

No, not a new species of duck, just a reference to a year when bad luck (and/or bad judgement) combined to produce more than my fair share of disappointment, plus a bit of comedy and no small amount of tragedy. The Queen had one in 1992. An Annus horribilis that is. Then again her house burnt down and two of her kids got divorced in the glare of international publicity, which rather puts my minor setbacks in perspective. But it started going downhill for me in February when ill health prevented a long distance twitch to Shetland for a Pine Grosbeak. Probably for the best as I try not to make a habit of twitching islands, especially those close to the Arctic Circle. If only there were some kind of seasonal opportunity to make a resolution about stuff like that, I'd take it.
Sabine's Gull (Cogden, November): a photographic highlight of 2013
Then there was a hat-trick of long distance dips - for a Rock Thrush (Spurn, bird departed overnight, missed by a day), a Bridled Tern (Northumbs/Cleveland, mobile bird, missed by 20 minutes) and a Great Snipe (Spurn again, killed by cat, missed by a whisker, so to speak). None gave me the option of waiting on news, and while I obviously had the option of not going at all, I hoped that fortune might favour the brave. Sadly fortune was in Aberdeenshire (where another Rock Thrush was found later in the year), or on the Farnes (where the Bridled Tern relocated) or had to go back to work on the Tuesday when I went for the Snipe.
I kept this feather which fell from the lifeless corpse of the Great Snipe - a real low point in my twitching career.
I hung up my long distance twitching boots for a while after that but that didn't work either: the Great Snuff tragedy was cruelly mirrored by a similar fate suffered by a local Pallid Swift (snaffled by a Sprawk, missed by 20 minutes). Untimely deaths also befell a Short-toed Lark I saw (alive) on Portland, and rarities I never even went for, like the White-throated Needletail and a Glossy Ibis on the Western Isles. Of course, death is a fate which awaits many rare birds, but this year they just seemed to be more public and tragic than usual.
This picture explains why I got so little birding done with one arm out of action in November and December - the birdspotter needs two good arms: one to hold bins, one to hold Collins.
Then as the year approached its end I made a failed bid for a Darwin Award and suffered my first ever broken bone, rendering birding, photography and driving all but impossible for most of November and December. I missed a couple of sitters during this period, notably a long-staying Orphean Warbler, a Baikal Teal and any number of Parrot Crossbills. On the up-side, a period of sedentary reflection forced me to conclude that I should not allow myself to be defined quite so much by the length of my list, and perhaps more by the length of my scar:
Selfies were all the rage in 2013 - so here's the scar from my collarbone op in November: breaking this probably cost me three British ticks - almost as painful as breaking it in the first place.
Despite this brush with mature self-realisation, and lest I acquire a reputation for complete haplessness, I should say that I did manage to add six new birds to my British list in 2013. A Hooded Merganser from the armchair early in the year was a cheeky bonus but it took the Kent Dusky Thrush (pending decision from the birding police on racial purity) to bring an end to a record 7 month run without a new bird. A Pacific Swift in Suffolk in June gave me something to show for an exceptional summer when I either couldn't go for or missed everything else.
Pacific Swift (Suffolk, June)
A stonking October put a gloss on the year, starting with a Semipalmated Plover in Hampshire and ending with a Hermit Thrush in Cornwall. Steve Smith was driver for the first three of these (cheers Steve), and Jol Mitchell came along for the ride for the Plover, maintaining our 100% record as a trio, but I managed the Hermit Thrush all by myself, just when I was starting to believe my solo efforts at twitching were cursed. Then, as Britain's birding community was hanging up its bins under the mistletoe for 2013, and bloggers had prematurely published their 'reviews of the year', up turned the Brünnich's Guillemot - long-staying, photogenic and just down the road in Portland Harbour.
Hermit Thrush (Cornwall, October)
It wasn't all tazzing around the country chasing other people's rarities though: sometimes I just tazzed around Dorset chasing other people's rarities; and frequently, if not religiously, I could be found at Swineham, looking for my own, hope rarely fulfilled, but the experience always enhanced by not needing to travel far to get there.
Caspian Tern (West Bexington, July): this carrot-nosed brute was a Dorset tick for me in 2013.
A patch can be a cruel mistress, and while my relationship with Swineham improved overall, I continue to suffer from a form commitment-phobia, and confess to long periods of neglect during which my head has been turned by more exotic locations. When I did pay it more attention than a fleeting booty call though it rewarded me with quality patch ticks like Water Pipit, Jack Snipe, Red-throated Diver, Long-eared Owl and, best of all, White-winged Black Tern. The absence of the year-round floods made it a bit less appealing to bird than last year, but a patch is a patch, and as I'm stuck with it, I stuck with it, if only for the sake of the children who get to see much more of me when I bird locally.
White-winged Black Tern (Swineham, October): patch gold, in monochrome.
Photographically it was a rewarding year, all the lifers above being snapped for the record though only the Guillemot with any distinction. Fortunately I have low standards so I was happy with that. More successful photographically were a series of pelagics in August, and a trip to Scilly from where most of these embarked.
Great Shearwater (August, off Scilly): one of many highlights from four August pelagics.
Best birding day in 2013? A toss-up between a January bird race around Poole Harbour, and a Lyme Bay pelagic with Dorset birders and my old mate Matt Jones, taking a break from his miserable job of showing Stewart Island Kiwis to tourists for money, to revisit his native Blighty.
Sooty Shearwater (Lyme Bay, August): another pelagic highlight
Rare bird of the Year? Contenders for me include the Pacific Swift - the unlikely combination of a rare bird and an even rarer opportunity to drop everything as news broke to go see it - and the Hermit Thrush - the irresistible draw of a Yank in an idyllic Cornish valley in October. But for sheer chutzpah it has to be the Brünnich's Guillemot - mega-rare, very obliging and just down the road. Most photogenic bird of the year though was probably the approachable Sabine's Gull which graced the Dorset coast for a few days in October. Exquisite plumage + co-operative bird + too big to be killed by cat + good light - large crowd = happy days. A juvenile Dotterel with which I spent a happy hour on Bryher ran it a close second, and an Otter-dodging Black-bellied Dipper in Norfolk takes third place for charm.

Dotterel (Bryher, August)
My Dorset list profited reasonably well from in-county birding, with such scarcities/rarities as Bluethroat, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Tern, Icterine Warbler, Rosefinch, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Penduline Tit, Surf Scoter and Black (as well as Brünnich's) Guillemot being added to the county list. The county list seems to be gaining increasing importance for me, despite being based on an arbitrary medieval boundary subjected more recently to a random act of gerrymandering in the 1974 local government re-organisation. Silly really, but then so are most lists I suppose, so it's in good company.
Black-bellied Dipper (Norfolk, March)
And speaking of lists I suppose I ought to consider resolutions for the New Year. I do so with some trepidation as it was a quiet pledge to myself to aim for '500 before I die' that led to some of the rash decisions to go for stuff I would normally be more reticent about that led to the sorry dips mentioned above. 300 for Dorset before I'm 50 seems a bit more realistic though. Currently in the low 270s, with five years to go, assuming that Darwin Award comment doesn't come back to haunt me.
Bluethroat (Portland, March): a slightly tarty Dorset tick for me, but no less attractive for that. I waited for ages, then three came along at once.
All in all then, 2013 was not that horribilis at all, there was certainly more success than failure, and even the failures have, I hope, provided some amusement for the readers of my more confessional posts. Writing them has certainly been cathartic for the author and I dare say there'll be more to come in 2014. Happy New Year.
Brünnich's Guillemot (Portland, December): bird of the year for Dorset and beyond.


  1. Great write up Peter, look forward to more stories in the coming year. Your summary of the January Bird Race and the pleasure you gained from visiting my patch still makes me giggle. Shaun

    1. Cheers Shaun, can never have too much of Lytchett Bay.