Sunday 27 January 2013

Drive-by shooting

Birders often describe non-birders as 'members of the public', particularly when they suspect the member of the public in question doesn't know one end of a bird from the other. So when a Hoopoe was reported by a member of the public in Hamworthy, many assumed that a 'pinkish bird with crest' was a Jay or maybe a Waxwing at best. But after a couple of days of phantom sightings, some diligent cruising of the backstreets by some non-members of the public eventually produced an indisputable report complete with photo.

Suburban twitching throws up some weird street name combinations. The Hoopoe had been in Annet Close, so when I saw Samson Road I thought maybe the theme was the Isles of Scilly...
The next street was Goliath Road, so clearly not an Isles of Scilly theme. Herons perhaps?
Then it dawned on me: of course! The hits of Tom Jones!
Hamworthy is a large suburb of Poole, characterised by long circuitous avenues with myriad cul-de-sacs, and about a million lawns kept with varying degrees of fastidiousness. The Hoopoe seemed determined to visit them all, but none for very long, and ranged over a wide area. Other birders had made 5 or 6 visits and put up to 15 hours into seeing this bird without success - kerb-crawling in their own words - so I joined the effort on Saturday afternoon more in hope than expectation. After the best part of 3 hours aimless taxi-ing, I had drawn a blank.

Hoopoe was not the only bird on the lawns of Hamworthy. Redwing were also in the area.
During this time I was getting increasingly quizzical looks from the occupants of a police car whose beat I appeared to be following - we passed each other at least 4 times. Another birder, whose name I've withheld for legal reasons, was actually pulled over by them for suspected Hoopoe-bothering, but a flash of his Collins Guide saw him get off with a caution.

Another lawn, another bird. A Fieldfare this time.
Most reports of the Hoopoe had been from one of two main residential areas and, having searched both pretty comprehensively, my last throw of the dice was to try a smaller area between the two where I could not recall the bird being reported previously. It was a good move as I stumbled across it feeding on a front lawn next to the road. I got the news out quickly and despite reinforcements arriving within 10 minutes the bird had flown before anyone else could see it, making mine the only sighting yesterday as far as I am aware. Unless, of course, some 'members of the public' saw it. The car was the perfect hide in this situation, and I took some quick drive-by shots in the fading light. Fortunately the bird was present in the same area today allowing most of the locals to finally catch up with it.
The notorious Hamworthy Hoopoe - on the run, giving Dorset's finest the slip.
After no luck with all that Biblical Samson and Delilah Street nonsense, I eventually found the Hoopoe in the reassuringly rational vicinity of Dawkins Road
The bird seemed to be feeding well...
...but was present for just 5 minutes before flying off and wasn't seen again before dusk.

Magic Beans

Three Bean Geese turned up at Longham Lakes on Thursday, a rare bird in Dorset, but I couldn't get to go before Saturday morning, and even then I only had a narrow window between dawn and having to leave at 0830 for other commitments. What with geese being big and all, an attempted smash and grab still seemed worth the effort. Unfortunately, before I got there, these particular Magic Beans had performed a vanishing trick, and were nowhere to be seen. A pair of Bewick's Swan were some compensation, and they spent a while on the lakes calling to each other before heading off to feed on the nearby floods.

One of two Bewick's Swan at Longham Lakes

This shot shows the small size compared to Mute Swan

Thursday 24 January 2013

Challenging behaviour

As if life-listing, year-listing etc weren't enough, birders have been signing up to various web-based challenges for the New Year - the best known being Foot-it and the Patchwork Challenge. Where I work, 'challenge' is a well known euphemism for 'pain in the butt'. This may explain why the former requires you to forsake the comfort of covered transport to trudge around in the cold earning your birds, and the latter to resist the temptation of distant and exotic rarities in pursuit of patch trash. I jest, of course, it's all good stuff to keep folk out of their cars and birding locally, though a bit worrying that some of us have to be goaded into walking by the promise of sticking it to our mates in a competition.

Blackbird in my tiny garden could have been bird #1 on the Foot-it list. If only...
Being disorganised and lacking competitive spirit, I didn't get my scat together to sign up for either. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against them, they just involved more statistical analysis than I was capable of. Foot-it, for instance, requires you to estimate the number of species you would normally expect to see within a given radius of home; then set a target number of species you hope to see on foot in the month of January; divide one by the other and times the result by a hundred to give a percentage; add your mother's age to that; and subtract the number of species other people have seen on your patch while you've been inside doing the maths. Or something like that. The Patchwork Challenge is even more complex, awarding points for relative rarity based on the numberwang scoring system.

One of five Brambling in a finch flock in Wareham. Where were you on the birdrace?

Despite this daunting complexity, lots of birders have signed up for the Patchwork Challenge, only to find themselves outnumbered by senior citizens who mistook it for a needlework competition. Just as well I didn't put my name down really as I note from the website that my birdracing team-mate Marcus Lawson has done so for the Swineham patch, and he always sees more there than me. Also taking part is our birdrace vanquisher Shaun Robson for Lytchett Bay, which I cruelly dissed in a recent post. This has the potential to turn it into something of a Lytchett v Swineham grudge match, in which I'm far too mature to take sides (Go Marcus!).

Dunlin don't often come this close at Swineham
Anyway, having missed the chance to sign up for either, now I feel ever so slightly left out and obliged to bang on about all the good birds I've seen within walking distance from home, if only to prove I didn't need an organised competition to get me out and about on Shanks's pony. Not to mention the opportunity to share with you the poor quality photos I have taken of them in the process. (Official excuse: there was no light).

Avocet: black-and-white patch magic in a grey world
Over the course of last weekend, for instance, around Swineham I was treated to 3 or 4 Marsh Harriers, a Barn Owl, almost 200 Avocet, a small flock of Brambling, oodles of Fieldfare, a couple of dozen Snipe plus an Egyptian Goose with a slightly half-bred looking mate which had relocated from nearby Holmebridge. No hesitation in slapping these on the patch list though on account of an earlier decision to accept diabolically low barriers to entry for waterfowl for this particular list. So, I guess I should wish all Foot-it and Patchwork Challengers the best of luck, and, relying as they must on personal integrity to make it a fair fight, hope that they apply higher ethical standards to their patch listing than yours truly.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Tough choices

'Touch choices' is a phrase habitually used by Governments to describe, for example, doing something for the benefit of people, who get to vote, which will be bad for wildlife, which doesn't. In other words, not a tough choice at all, unless you're wildlife, in which case it's tough indeed.

The choice facing me yesterday morning was no tougher than whether to head off clockwise or anti-clockwise around Poole Harbour. I chose clockwise. First up, Holes Bay where a flock of 15 Spoonbills can be found at the moment, feeding just yards from a 4-lane dual carriageway. Whether it's the traffic noise, or that they have just forgotten Spoonbill etiquette, this flock can often be see actually doing something.

12 of the 15 strong canteen of Spoonbills in Holes Bay
This flock includes a colour-ringed bird,  ringed as a nestling in The Netherlands and now on its 6th winter in the UK

Wigeon loaf around the margins of the Bay next to the cycle path. As pedestrians, joggers or cyclists approach they scud out from the shore, then back in again as the danger passes. If you watch the sweep of the Bay a ripple effect of this can be seen over some distance as the wave of birds breathes in and out with the human traffic. The pair below were bolder, however, feeding around the outflow of one of the drains and allowing a close approach.

Wigeon - drake

Wigeon - duck

A sizeable flock of Dunlin was in Holes Bay, along with 100+ Avocet and 5 Spotted Redshank
Next stop was Shore Road near Sandbanks where a small selection of waders were present. This site is very prone to disturbance but unusually I enjoyed at least an hour there with the unperturbed waders before the first dog walker put them up. Perhaps the cold weather was keeping folk indoors.



A flock of 35 Sanderling included many ringed birds and one colour-ringed bird. I sent off details of this bird last night and a very prompt reply from researcher Jeroen Reneerkens reveals that it was ringed in the Dutch Wadden Sea, where Sanderlings arrive from the breeding area in Greenland in late summer, in August 2012. He adds 'after they have completed their wing moult they all leave the Wadden Sea from mid October onwards to winter at locations elsewhere, such as southern England'.

Part of the flock of 35 Sanderling present

The Sanderling were close enough to hear some soft calls

Sander-bling: four-colour rings and a big yellow flag made this one stand out from the crowd. A little disappointing to learn that it was only ringed last August in The Netherlands. Who knows where it had been before that?
Stars of the show for me today though were the Bar-tailed Godwits. Just 5 were present when I arrived and with a careful approach I was able to get reasonably close without much help from the Harbour's erratic tides, which threatened to push them closer but never quite made it. Then 75 more flew in and fed around me as I sat on the edge of the mud.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

A beautiful bird in winter plumage. A summer plumaged Barwit hangs out with the wintering flock in Poole Harbour but was not present today.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Monday 14 January 2013

Fortunately, unfortunately...

Yesterday was the occasion of my birthday - a nicely symmetrical if not entirely welcome 44 (I know! I don't think I look it either!) - and I had great plans for the day. After tearing open my presents and refusing to share them with my children (well, they did the same to me at Christmas), top of the list was to photograph some nearby Waxwings with a new Canon 7D camera for which I have been saving for months.
Common Sandpiper, Holes Bay
Unfortunately, the first part of this plan - saving for months - went horribly wrong, forcing me to bide my time and wait for an interest free credit deal to come along. Fortunately, as my birthday approached, I remembered that I was impatient and feckless so resolved to buy one on my credit card. Unfortunately, no sooner had I resolved this than I lost my wallet on the train (special thanks to whoever picked it up somewhere between Dorchester and Weymouth and forgot to hand it in. I'm sure you meant to, and it spared me from an expensive impulse buy).
Grey Wagtail, Holes Bay
Fortunately, by the end of the week my new card had arrived, and a leading national camera retailer also had an interest free credit offer on. Just after Christmas the 7D also came down to a respectable price in their January sale. Unfortunately, the leading national camera retailer was Jessops and they went into administration just as I was about to lift the straw which broke the camel's back.

Spotted Redshank, Holes Bay
Fortunately, my trusty 40D is still in good working order, and, feeling guilty for flirting with the idea of replacing it, on Sunday morning - with the first blue skies for days - I locked and loaded it to a 400mm lens. Unfortunately, no-one told the Waxwings who had had enough of Landers Reach, Lime Kiln Road, Turbetts Close, Ramsay Street, Brookside Close, Rodeo Drive and every other thouroughfare I searched in Lytchett Matravers, where they had spent several days plundering suburban hedgerows for berries. Fortunately, I can now get a job as a taxi driver there - I've done the 'knowledge' - and can start saving for that camera all over again.

Little Egret, Holes Bay
Even more fortunately, Holes Bay was nearby and the tide was on the turn, so some quality time with its wintering birds and the family still made my day. Happy Birthday, me. I deserve it.

Monday 7 January 2013

A big day in Poole Harbour

Saturday saw several small parties of Dorset birders take part in the annual winter bird race. It was my first since moving to Dorset and although it was a newly assembled team, myself, Marcus Lawson and Richard Webb were in the capable hands of a veteran of several previous Dorset races, Steve Smith. It was a day of discovery: about bits of the County I never knew existed, about how the laws of trespass are apparently optional when accessing them, and about colourful adjectives to describe thoughtless dog walkers. I thought I knew most of these already, but clearly have much to learn.

It's a hit! You would be disappointed not to see at least one Spoonbill on a Dorset bird race these days. We scoped a flock at Arne from the shore at Hamworthy. Photographed at Swineham December 2012.
In the course of amassing our tally of 108 species seen or heard for the day in the Poole Harbour recording area, the lowlight was undoubtedly a thankless (and birdless) trudge through the toxic margins of Lytchett Bay (pron. Lit-sh*t, abbrev. for 'Literally Sh*t'). How the Bearded Tits which live there, but which weren't at home on Saturday, manage to look so dapper I'll never know: in the half-light of late afternoon some of the substances underfoot actually glowed.

A miss! Kingfisher eluded us despite taking in several likely haunts. Photographed at Swineham July 2012.
The highlight was a toss-up between (i) roadside Tawny Owl and Woodcock, both spot-lamped before the sun came up or (ii) our driver exclaiming, when some poor farmer had the insolence to be driving though his own field, 'You ****, what are you doing in my field?'. The guy was oblivious to the fact that he had flushed a Green Sandpiper from one of Steve's stakeout sites. An interesting take on 'get orf my land'.

Hit! Despite one staked out bird being absent, Steve had a couple more up his sleeve in the exotic location of a puddle on the Wareham bypass. This one photographed in Kent in 2011.
The conditions - overcast and occasionally drizzly - were not ideal, and may in part have explained why many of the birds we would normally have expected to hear were strangely quiet, including Cetti's Warbler. It was probably the first time I have ever been to Swineham and not heard their cursing calls. We missed a few other relatively easy targets - Black-tailed Godwit (doh!), Kingfisher and Siskin among them - but other local scarcities gave themselves up including Marsh Harrier, Water Pipit and Firecrest, plus - from the tupperware range - Ring-necked Parakeet and Mandarin Duck. The latter sat on a log and preened while shooters blasted dozens of its cousins out of the Frome Valley skies. Hoping to survive on its looks, rather than its wits, no doubt.

Miss! Two Redwing flew over, but only two of our team of four saw them, meaning we couldn't in all conscience tick it. This earned the team a reputation for high ethical standards which we can abuse in future years. Photographed at Studland January 2010. 
As well as the birds I was interested in the habits, and particularly the contrasting appetitites, of the birders trying to see them. Birders on a pre-dawn start tend to be either grazers or camels. I'm a grazer: without a constant input of food I can't make it through the day. So after cereal and toast for breakfast at 0500, it was crisps at 0800, jam doughnuts (x 2) at 1000, banana at 1200, sandwiches at 1300, bag of nuts at 1400, Mars bar at 1500, and an apple at 1600, all washed down with a flask of coffee and some Anadin Extra.

Hit! We scored the drake Mandarin at Holmebridge - other teams missed it, foiled by its dowdy, cryptic plumage. Photographed in the Forest of Dean, April 2012.
By 1700 I was still hungry enough to have eaten the floor mats in Steve's car, had they not been covered in that special sauce from Lytchett Bay, which had by now melted my wellies and begun to burn holes in the floor of the car. Marcus also dipped into a tuck bag relatively frequently, putting him in the grazers camp. Steve, by contrast, is clearly a camel: apart from the doughnut I force fed him mid-morning (and only then because I thought it would be rude to eat all 5 in the pack myself) I don't think I saw him take another morsel all day.

Miss! Cetti's Warbler. You can't shut them up normally. We couldn't buy one on Saturday.  Photographed in Weymouth in 2012.
Anyway, enough of the culinary diversions, and back to the race. Team dynamics were good: Steve led the way with the quiet authority of someone who knew what they were doing. He also drove remarkably safely for a bird race - though I suspect we had the distraction of a flyover Sparrowhawk to thank for his pulling out of a potentially dicey overtaking move. Marcus was first on to many good birds and ably kept score while entertaining us with flatulence which bordered on the musical. His main contact call - a rolling, resonant belch - would intimidate even the most alpha Sika Deer stag at the local rut. Richard wielded the spot-lamp like a Jedi and remained calm and reasonable throughout if the rest of us got over-excited, tired or testy. My contributions were pretty much restricted to providing doughnuts, though I was able to chip by being first onto a few birds - particularly the really easy ones which were either bright green (Parakeet), big (Pink-footed Goose) or massive (Whooper Swan).

Hit! This Whooper Swan, photographed at East Stoke on 4th January, flew in to the Poole Harbour recording area just as we pulled up at Holmebridge. The best bit of jam we enjoyed all day.
At the end of the day there was no shame in coming a few places behind the winners with 127 - achieved by a team which included Durlston's uber-ranger Hamish Murray, former County Recorder Shaun Robson, and Catching the Bug authors Mark Constantine and Nick Hopper. I know from previous experience that Hamish can hear a Wren fart at 50 paces, and as if such talents didn't give them enough of a head start, they also had the aid of a charter boat. This offers a distinct advantage for checking out Brownsea lagoon and the nether regions of the Harbour. An advantage, I note without a hint of bitterness, which seems to have slipped through the otherwise tightly-meshed net of the Dorset birdracing rulebook. We had a mental image of them cruising past the lagoon, quaffing from the bar of the Maid of the Harbour, while we scoped Brownsea though the gloom from a distant vantage point, like so many shivering Dickensian peasants peering through the condensation-soaked window of a rich man's banqueting hall.

Miss! My main contribution to the pre-bird race planning - finding a potential Brambling stake-out in Wareham the night before the race - turned out to be not much of a contribution at all: the finch flock they were with had done a bunk by the following afternoon. I even laid on seed!
Despite our lower than hoped for score, an important objective - to not come last - was achieved, even though we made our task harder by restricting our efforts to the Harbour rather than the whole of Dorset. And as three of our team were all relatively recent migrants to Dorset (i.e. less than five years, making us virtually Grockles in the eyes of the locals) we didn't think this was too bad for a first attempt. Hopefully it won't be the last, and with a bit more luck and some extra homework we can improve on our marker for 2013.

Hit! Goldeneye were plentiful in Poole Harbour. This one was photographed in Poole Park on  2nd January.

Saturday 5 January 2013

This message will self-destruct in 10, 9, 8...

After disembarking a New Year bird boat on 1st Jan I had an hour to kill around my old haunts of Poole Quay and Baiter Park before a secret rendezvous with my team-mates in a forthcoming bird race. Only a few Dark-bellied Brents were on the waterlogged playing fields at Baiter though the burger van was still there, so hot sweet tea was readily available.

Dark-bellied Brent Geese. Compare with...

...Pale-bellied Brent Geese. Photographed in Portland Harbour in December.

There were no Black Redstarts on the Quay but plenty of chippes were open so a bag of their finest meant that my visit was not in vain. And while there was no wader roost to speak of on the walls of the marina, Tesco's were good enough to sell me a Mars bar. Fortunately I made no rash New Year resolutions about giving up fatty foods, sugary drinks or chocolate, but the one I did make (about getting out birding more often) remained in tact after spending most of 1st January in the field.
This Turnstone was eating just about anything it could find on Poole Quay. I know how it felt.

Male Starling singing at Baiter. Just happy to see the sun.

Then it was off to the pub for a confidential team talk and tactics meeting before the bird race. Maps were pored over, targets identified, transport options debated, provisions requisitioned and kit-bags theoretically packed. I'm not saying my team is taking it too seriously or anything, but if I revealed their names, I would then have to kill you. And, judging by my blog viewing stats, if you're reading this I really need you alive...

A small flock of House Sparrow hangs out around the lobster pots on Poole Quay

A confiding Shag fishing just off Poole Quay

Wednesday 2 January 2013

A New Year in Poole Harbour

New Year's Day in Dorset means a boat trip around Poole Harbour laid on for the locals courtesy of Mark and Mo Constantine. Birders may know Mark as the driving force behind the Sound Approach. Normal people who tend to have a greater interest in personal hygiene may know the couple as the founders of the Lush cosmetics empire.

 A typically distant view of a diver in Poole Harbour, but any view of Black-throated Diver is a good view - the white flank patch helped identify this bird
Yesterday's boat was one of the best yet with a rare combination of dry weather, good company, fine food and, most important, excellent birds. The boat headed out of Poole Quay towards Brownsea and one of the first birds of note was a distant diver. We all assumed this to be a Great Northern before it gradually materialised into a Black-Throated - a very good bird for the area. Great Northern is the more likely diver in the Harbour and at least four more were indeed seen, 2 or 3 of which were unusually close to the boat.

Great Northern Diver - a scaly juvenile - the commonest diver within Poole Harbour
A sail-past of Brownsea Lagoon revealed it to be well-stocked with waders, mostly Black-tailed Godwits and Avocets but also good numbers of Barwits, Oystercatchers, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshanks. Heading south around Brownsea brought us into the wintering grounds of several Black-necked Grebes, many Red-breasted Mergansers and, although in smaller numbers than usual, a few Goldeneye. I was pleased to pick up a distant Red-necked Grebe as we rounded Brownsea which everyone eventually managed to see. Upwards of a dozen Spoonbill were on Shipstal Point and Razorbill and Guillemot were also seen.
Red-breasted Merganser - surely one of the most attractive plumages of any British bird
The trip proved to be excellent reconnaissance for a forthcoming Dorset bird race in which I will be participating for the first time. As it approaches, the local news grapevine becomes strangely withered as competing teams try to keep news of potentially tricky day-ticks to themselves. Even yesterday amid the bonhomie of the boat trip I overheard an out of place Mandarin Duck being discussed as furtively as would be a breeding pair of Golden Oriole! And, no, I'm not telling you where it is...

Black-necked Grebe - this one was west of Brownsea