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.

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