Saturday 31 December 2011

Red, gold and - eventually - green

We have a very small urban garden in Wareham, so I don't have great hopes for building much of a garden list as long as we're here. To date only the most common species have been seen in or over it. I put a few feeders out earlier this month anyway, and have been pleasantly surprised to find Goldfinch the most frequent and numerous visitor, the high count being a flock of 12, outnumbering even the maximum number of Starling seen at any one time so far. Today I was expressing concern to visiting friends about the complete absence of Greenfinch since we moved in in July, and speculating that trichomonosis, a disease which has seen their population slump by a third, was the likely cause.
At this point my (non-birding) visitor said - 'what's that then?' as a fine male Greenfinch posed on the feeder. The next wave of Goldfinch to arrive brought another, a dowdy female this time, and, better still, a female Siskin, probably the pick of my garden ticks to date. As well as reminding me of the need to clean the feeders regularly, all this has helped me work out that the grey house at the back of our garden provides an excellent mid-tone, neutral background which brings out the colours of species like these on a dull day. So expect some fancy branches to be attached to the feeders soon, and lots of pictures with this giveaway backdrop.

Friday 30 December 2011

2011 in pics, ticks and dips

With the end of the year approaching it's time to tot up the old list and bring in the new. As a busy Dad with a 400+ list, seeing new birds isn't getting any easier. But I still managed a few ticks for my British list, starting early in the year with Pacific Diver (Cornwall, Jan) and Oriental Turtle Dove (Oxon, Feb), followed by a long gap before a late spurt in October involving a Sandhill Crane (Suffolk), an Isabelline Wheatear (East Sussex), a Northern Waterthrush (Isles of Scilly), and a Steppe Grey Shrike (Shropshire). The added bonus of Siberian Stonechat from the armchair left my British list (BOU) on 423. I managed to photograph all of the above (though only the Dove, Crane and Waterthrush were more than record shots) and also captured Pom Skua, Savi's Warbler, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Pallid Harrier, Olive-backed Pipit and Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler on camera for the first time in 2011.
Sandhill Crane: bird of the year for me - great rarity, great company and didn't have to go to Scotland to see it.
The fastest growing list of the year was, however, my Dorset list, which, having moved here four years ago, still has plenty of relatively easy gaps to fill. 2011 saw me plug those previously left by Night Heron, Richard's Pipit, Red-flanked Bluetail, Short-toed Lark, Pomarine Skua, Savi's Warbler, Red-breasted Goose, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper and Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler. Having missed the famous Winspit bird, the Bluetail was probably the Dorset bird of the year for me, not least because my fairly dodgy photo of it appeared in Birdwatch magazine at a sufficiently small size to make it look OK. It was a bumper year for the County which started well in January with a Long-billed Dowitcher and Ring-billed Gull in what was then my local park, continued with non-stop good birds through spring and ended with good birds like the Spotted Sand and Hume's Warbler still hanging around. Had I caught up with the Radipole Lake Black-winged Stilt (missed by three minutes after an attempted train-twitch) and  more of the other rarities which passed through Dorset in 2011, it could have been even better.
Red-flanked Bluetail - Dorset bird of the year for me
My most spectacular dip this year was undoubtedly for the Greater Yellowlegs in Northumberland which was there for a few weeks before I went, and back again the day after, followed by the Eastern Black Redstart in Kent which had been present for a week before I arrived to find it gone. Both dips involved precious days off work, a shame as there is something sweeter about seeing birds during the working week - maybe the smaller crowds, maybe just because it's not work - probably a bit of both. Most painful dip, however, was a very unfortunate double - missing the Scarlet Tanager in Cornwall by less than an hour en route to a week on the Isles of Scilly, and then missing another the following day by arriving on St Mary's 40 minutes too late. Ouch!
Glossy Ibis at Stanpit Marsh - one of my favourite pictures from 2011
I stuck to one of last year's resolutions (to not read Birdforum) and as a result of this, and picking the blogs I read carefully, have found on-line birding a more pleasurable experience as a result. The other resolution (to be more tolerant of dog walkers) I failed to implement miserably, though in mitigation, there is only so much muck you can wipe off tripod legs, kids shoes and pram wheels before the spirit of tolerance wears thin. So come on doggy folk, give those ground nesting birds and my nostrils a break in 2012, bag it, bin it, and respect the relatively small number of places designated for our hard-pressed wildlife.

Rain doesn't stop play

Four gloomy days of on and off rain, plus the ready availability of board games, unfinished Lego and Meccano sets (Christmas presents for the kids, not me) had seen me virtually housebound since Boxing Day. By today the whole family was in danger of losing the will to breathe fresh air ever again so we defied the rain with a trip to Middle Beach, Studland. Among the dozen or so Black-necked Grebes present this one was unusually close inshore.

Dropping the family off after this excursion, I headed to Middlebere following a tip off from Steve Smith that 4 Barnacle Geese were present. Steve was leaving as I arrived but came back to the hide for the last of the light, where the Geese were still present, along with 800+ Avocet and good numbers of Wigeon, Teal and Lapwing. Amid the showers we were fortunate to enjoy views of a male Hen Harrier coasting up the creek and a Short-Eared Owl hunting in the gloom. Probably the last bit of 'proper' birding I shall do this year, so a good way to end 2011. 

Tuesday 27 December 2011

3rd time lucky?

I saw the Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler at Littlesea on the Fleet shortly after its arrival a few weeks ago but was unable to photograph it at the time. A second attempt more recently ended in no sighting let alone no photos, but reports of it still present this morning tempted me back for a 3rd attempt. In three hours I heard six 'tsueet' calls, had three brief glimpses and snatched two pictures through the branches of the sallows - this the best of the two. Could have been worse though! A Blackcap and a few Bullfinches kept company with the Hume's, and 600 Brent Geese on the Fleet provided a noisy backdrop.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Sand with my chips

A meeting in Seaton, Devon, this morning provided an opportunity to return via Lyme Regis for a lunch-time bag of chips. I almost didn't bother looking over the seawall for the long-staying Spotted Sandpiper as the news had gone quiet, and even if present it was more likely than not to be on the distant end of the Cobb harbour wall. My level of confidence was such that I was unwilling to shell out for more than a 20 minute parking ticket. Grabbing the camera just in case I approached the seawall opposite the museum and was amazed to find it a few yards out on the rocks. A woman was enjoying a lunchtime fag nearby and although I was worried she might flush the bird it stayed put for a few photos. A 5-minute twitch, good pictures and a bag of chips - result!

Sunday 18 December 2011

Brents on the Fleet

There was no sign of the Hume's Leaf Warbler at Littlesea near the site for today's Richard's Pipit (see earlier post) but a Black Brant was among several hundred of its Dark-bellied cousins on the Fleet. The flock moved close to the shore towards the end of the day but by this time I had lost sight of the Black Brant. The geese settled briefly before being flushed spectacularly by a passing dog.


 ...was supposed to be the giveaway call given by this Richard's Pipit near Wyke Regis. I didn't hear it once as it turned out, but it showed well anyway, especially when stretching it's neck above the long grass in a field just west of the Bridging Camp. Probably my last Dorset tick of the year, so I was glad it stuck around for so long.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Not about birds...

...about London, in fact. SW1 to be precise, and a flying visit to an old stomping ground last night for a social event. I was twitching the leaving do of one of the bright young things I used to work with in the Westminster village who is emigrating to Ethiopia, as you do. Living in Dorset it's easy to forget about things like not getting a seat on public transport, persons under trains, the complete lack of sympathy for persons under trains, and the sheer bustling energy of a population with an average age under 50. 'I didn't want a Travelcard, mate' I said to the man at the ticket office when he asked for £4 to go one stop on the Underground. He looked at me with one of those 'We don't tolerate abuse of our staff so if you don't want to wake up in Guantanamo Bay with the radio set to static, move on' looks. They say if you're tired of London you're tired of life. Well I must be among the undead then: a couple of hours of it and I was exhausted.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Blue-winged Teal at Longham

The weekend finished well with a female Blue-winged Teal at Longham Lakes near Bournemouth. This was a Dorset tick for me, and only the 5th or 6th record for the County. Seeing it, however, presented something of a transport dilemma. Claire was driving to Hampshire this morning on the way to a family gathering, which meant I would be without the car. The best option was to get her to drop me off at Longham which was on the way, and then try to get back to Wareham by a combination of bus and train.
Blue-winged Teal (bottom right) with Shoveler
 Buses on Sundays in Dorset are much rarer than Blue-winged Teals so it was a great relief to see my near-neighbour Trevor Warwick among the small crowd of birders admiring the Teal. He kindly dropped me off at home, avoiding a fairly complicated and no doubt lengthy journey home. This unexpected bonus left just enough time to cycle to Middlebere for the last hours of daylight. No Blue-winged Teal there, but the best part of 1,000 of its Common relatives were present, along with a couple of hundred Lapwing, a large Dunlin flock and a few Avocet. Listening to piping Teal, whistling Wigeon, and gurgling Brent Geese, all being watched by a menacing Peregrine perched on a dead tree, was a great way to end the day. 
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors

Saturday 3 December 2011

Red legs, not yellow

There was plenty of time to think about things yesterday on the return journey from Northumberland to Dorset after not seeing a Greater Yellowlegs.

Like the vicious circle of negativity in 24 hour rolling news. At 0100 when I set off this morning, the World Service was reporting that 'stock markets had rallied in response to co-ordinated action by central banks to address the global financial crisis'. This was dangerously and unacceptably positive for the news people, so much so that by 1900 the story had become 'what did central banks see that scared them so much that they felt obliged to take co-ordinated action?'.
The cost of diesel was another matter to ponder. Let's be honest, it's not going to get any cheaper as we pass peak oil. So it was thoughtful of M&S to charge 149.9p a litre at their services to help condition us to a grim future of rising energy prices. This was not just any old rampant profiteering at the expense of heartbroken twitchers, this was M&S rampant profiteering at the expense of heartbroken twitchers.

As tiredness kicked in, several questions were running around in my head: why do I bother with this stupid, obsessive hobby. Why didn't I just stay at home and count the ducks on my local gravel pit. Can I get Monday off to try again for the Yellowlegs...

Friday 2 December 2011


A Greater Yellowlegs in Northumberland had been goading me to twitch it for several weeks. The sheer distance was a major deterrent, but the deciding factor until now had been a host of work and family commitments which had prevented any attempt to even think about going. Yesterday I cracked. A window opened in the diary, I took a day off and after an early night left Dorset just after 0100 for what I estimated would be a six-and-a-half hour drive. This was about right, and there was even time for a bacon sandwich just north of the Tyne Tunnel before arriving at Hauxley at first light.

Two barn owls greeted me on the entrance track, and I parked next to two other birders who had also just arrived. As Greater Yellowlegs twitchers will know, Hauxley is a large waterbody containing a few islands. A path runs most but not all of the way around the perimeter. We agreed to split up and cover all the angles, me heading to the north to the Tern Hide where the bird was seen the previous day, the others south to the Wader Hide and Eric's Hide where it had been reported on many other occasions. After an hour we had seen nothing but a marauding Peregrine disturbing the Knot, Turnstone, Redshanks and Dunlin which were present in small numbers. We each retraced our steps and met near the car park, then I headed south from where the others had come to try my luck.

In the short window between them leaving and me arriving at the Wader Hide a local birder had turned up. I aksed if there was anything about more in hope than expectation, and hope was indeed renewed when he said he had seen the Yellowlegs about 30 minutes earlier, heading towards Eric's hide. I think he was so used to seeing it by now he hadn't broadcast the news - understandable but disappointing for us at least. There was no further sign by 12:00, and we concluded that somehow, between 09:00 and 10:00, with the bird surrounded and us scouring the visible parts of reserve, the Yellowlegs had evaded us and flown. To rub salt in, on returning to our cars the warden rollocked us for parking at 90 degrees to his office rather than parallel to it - a bit harsh as, when we arrived in the dark, we simply pulled up next to each other and parked tidily. I got the impression that welcoming twitchers to his reserve had not been the highlight of his year...

Never mind, we concluded, the other haunts of the Yellowlegs were well known, and after a bit of therapy appreciating the healthy resident population of Tree Sparrows, between us we leap-frogged between Druridge Bay Country Park, East Chevington, Druridge Pools and Cresswell Ponds. It was to no avail, and an optimistic return to Hauxley for the last hours of daylight proved equally fruitless.

The long drive home was a surprisingly therapeutic opportunity to recover from the disappointment of a major dip, and after a good night's sleep the psychological wounds had all but healed. Then the pager reported the bird present at Hauxley again this morning. Then at East Chevington. Then at Druridge, 'down to 5 metres'. Ouch.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Black Redstart

More of the approachable Black Redstart on the coastal defences at Lyme Regis today.

Sandpipers on the rocks

We had friends visiting from Cornwall this weekend and as they were heading off at lunchtime today it seemed rude not to accompany them as far as Lyme Regis where a Spotted Sandpiper just happened to be hanging out. I took non-birder Alec with me to look for a Rose-Coloured Starling in Weymouth en route. I saw it, but it flew before I could get him onto it. He assured me he would get over the disappointment, 'in about 5 seconds'.
Purple (left) and Spotted Sandpipers on The Cobb, Lyme Regis
On arrival in Lyme town centre I recognised the shape of Poole Harbour stalwart Shaun Robson in alien habitat at the end of the Cobb - a rare foray away from Lytchett Bay. This was a good indication of the best place to start looking for the Sandpiper.

Rock Pipit
Shaun confirmed that the bird, a Dorset tick for me, was still there, hopping around the rocks among more sedentary Purple Sandpipers. In the half-hour we were there we must have shown it to 20 passers-by through the telescope, all of whom seemed surprisingly interested in this distant, small brown wader from the Americas. Back in town, Rock Pipits and a Black Redstart performed on the sea defences in glorious afternoon light.
Black Redstart

Saturday 19 November 2011

Clear skies over Kent

After bleating about having no time to go birding in my last post, I decided to do something about it a take a day off. On Friday, my diary miraculously cleared. Unfortunately, on Thursday night, so did the skies over Margate, and the Eastern Black Redstart present since Saturday was nowhere to be seen.
Redshank - Walpole Bay, Margate
I spent a couple of hours looking for it and photographing waders on the beach before accepting the fact, and then salvaged something from the day by visiting some old haunts from my time as a Kent resident.

Marsh Harrier - Elmley Marshes
Oare Marshes was quiet but a Water Rail preened, partly obscured by the reeds. Lapwing were as photogenic as ever on the entrance track at Elmley Marshes, and a Marsh Harrier came surprisingly close.

Lapwing - Elmley Marshes
Dipping on the phoenicuroides was made worse by the fact that another in Northumberland was still present, with a Greater Yellowlegs nearby, but I had to be back in Dorset by 15:00 so a long-distance twitch was not an option. Despite this, though, it was all in all a therapeutic day, giving me my first glimpse of Turner Contemporary (looks like a posh fish processing plant) and a reminder that you can't see everything.
Water Rail - Oare Marshes

Tuesday 15 November 2011


Kind of describes the period between now and Christmas, in birding terms at least. This is different to compromise, which might imply more willingness on my part. Take this weekend just gone: Mum and Dad were visiting, invariably the cue for an influx of rarities. I see them rarely these days (Mum and Dad, that is), so going to Northumberland, or even Margate, would have been considered bad form. Mum has a bad foot so dragging them around Swineham Gravel Pits was also out of the question. This weekend, the wife's best friend is arriving, and bringing her boyfriend 'so I'll have someone to hang out with'. The fact that I would be quite happy hanging out with the Brent Geese in Poole Harbour makes me, by common consent in this house at least, an ungrateful, anti-social cuss.

A bird: will I ever see one again?
The weekend after that and we're off to friends in Ealing for what has somehow become 'the annual family Christmas shopping trip to London', second only to Eurodisney on my 'I'd rather gouge my own eyes out with the sharp bit of the holster on my pager' list. Only the slim chance of swinging a trip to the Wetland Centre at Barnes en route is keeping me going.

After that, the remaining weekends will be occupied taking the children to the birthday parties of other children all the way to 2012: Tizer-fuelled migraine-factories, deliberately designed by begrudging parents who will apparently stop at nothing to prevent me enjoying myself by going birdwatching. With the lighter weekday mornings taken up by repeatedly shouting 'get your uniform on', and the dark nights having drawn in, even the chance of nipping out before or after work has vanished. I could pretend all this social activity makes me a well-balanced individual with a healthy interest in things other than birds, and a sense of responsibility towards my family and friends. But, as the cursor hovers over the words 'Publish Post', I realise it's a bit late for that...

Sunday 13 November 2011

Dorset Crane

Part of an influx to the south of England, this Crane near Langton Herring spared me the embarrassment of having Sandhill Crane on my list for the year but not Common. It flew over the Fleet as I approached and landed in a field where it seemed quite settled. Great video footage of a flock of 24 in Cornwall on the Cornwall Birding website.

Saturday 12 November 2011

One step forward...

...and one back for my list at least, thanks to a recent judgement of the British Birds Rarities Committee. They have concluded - and I'm in no position to argue - that the Redhead I pursued in South Wales in 2003 may have been a half-breed (for any non-birders reading this, and to avoid causing offence to ginger women from the principality, a Redhead is type of duck). Some anomalous features apparently could not rule out a hybrid. I'm not sure exactly which, but rules is rules. 
The product of an inter-species duck-hump? I just hope they enjoyed it.

Crawling through a hawthorn hedge with my pal Matt Jones to grab this photo in fading light after the bloke on the gate at Lisvane Reservoir had locked up and told us to bugger off was all in vain then. I could, of course, ignore this judgement and leave Redhead on my list, like a rebel without a point. But I'm far too conformist for that. And besides, if we all started making up our own rules for what went on our little lists where would it all end? Desperate twitchers would be, like, setting up their own clubs, and splitting species willy-nilly to bump the numbers up! How mad would that be!

Sunday 6 November 2011

Blandford Kingfisher

Eclipsed only slightly by today's showy Otter at Blandford Forum (see earlier post), a Kingfisher competed for public attention.

Otter at Blandford Forum

The local grapevine was buzzing with news of Otters performing near the weir at Blandford Forum so a family visit seemed in order today. After a couple of hours we had seen no otters but we did see Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and a bunch of other Dorset birders with cameras, prams, kids and dogs doing the same as us. Eventually we walked back to the stone bridge upstream of the weir. At this point Claire and I both saw a long ripple in the water, some ducks flushing, and then - this was the clincher - a couple of photographers running back to the weir in anticipation of the Otter's arrival. We went back to the weir and watched it at point blank range with a small crowd of admirers for over half an hour. The Otter was diving at the base of the weir (hence the bubbles in these pictures), bobbing up, chewing a bit, looking around and then repeating the sequence.