Friday 22 February 2013

Reminisce with a list

It's been a frustrating week with continuing back problems preventing me doing pretty much anything on the birding front. With a slight improvement yesterday, and with driving easier than walking, I twitched the Pied-billed Grebe in neighbouring Somerset. The journey there was fine but, having seen the bird, something else in a hitherto OK bit of back went ping, and I literally limped home to spend the rest of the day in bed, where I remain as I write this.
So rather than dwell on the things I haven't seen this week, I thought I would cheer myself up by focusing on the things I have seen over the years. And what better way to do it than that tried and tested birding format: the list. Today's list is my top five long-distance twitches. Most of these birds were photographed pretty poorly (click the links below for proof) before I bought a decent camera, so rather than inflict grainy sepia pictures on you, the war stories are broken up with some of my favourite rarity photos from the last decade. Two lists for the price of one, you lucky things.

American Robin, Grimsby (Jan 2004). A trip from Kent with Matt Jones. Of about a million digiscoped shots, this was the only sharp one.
1. Black-Browed-Albatross, Sula Sgeir, May 2007. I started birding in the late 1990s so had never seen the long-staying Albatross at the Hermaness Gannetry. So when one was located on Sula Sgeir, and Dick Filby organised a series of three boat trips to look for it the following year, we booked on the first one available. Probably my most expensive twitch ever, I think Matt Jones and I paid £300 for a berth on the Professor Multanovsky to sail overnight toward this rocky outcrop in the Atlantic. As the boat steamed out of Ullapool on a chilly evening Matt said, 'what are we doing? We've spent a fortune to twitch a bird that hasn't been seen for nearly a year'. Fortunately it was still there. Four species of Skua plus White-tailed Eagle from the boat capped the trip off nicely.
Pied-billed Grebe, Hollingworth Lake (Nov 2010). Not as Pied-billed as the recent Somerset bird of the same species, but pretty special anyway. This bird swam just yards in front of a hide I was sitting in.
2. Harlequin Duck, Lewis, April 2004. Another trip with Matt as we made a week of it in Scotland. Apart from the occasional chopper to the Isles of Scilly, this was the only time in the last 10 years that I have broken a self-imposed flying ban, going short-haul from Glasgow to Stornoway before hiring a car and heading for Grais where the Harlequin Duck was last seen. We overshot the spot but after some high speed reversing were soon enjoying views of this mega-rarity. American Herring Gull in Stornoway Harbour and enough Iceland Gulls to fill a freezer were a bonus.
White-billed Diver, Cornwall (March 2007). If this picture looks a bit like I was stood over the bird, that's because I was. It swam under a footbridge up a creek off the Hayle Estuary. We saw this, a Franklin's Gull, a Spotted Sandpiper and a Yellow-browed Warbler all within a couple of hours of watching a Gyr Falcon leave the roost at Stepper Point.
3. Snowy Egret, Balvicar, April 2002. The first time I saw this bird was in Ardeer, on the way back from a winter trip to Islay in 2001, but it was such a long-stayer that I caught up with it the following April back at Balvicar. An epic day started at Loch Garten with Capercaillie and Osprey, continued with Black Grouse at Loch Laggan and a King Eider at Dunstaffnage before seeing the Egret mid-morning, then back east for a Red-breasted Goose near Kinross, a couple of Surf Scoter in Fife and a Waxwing flock in Dunfermline before dusk.

Red-flanked Bluetail, St Martin's (Oct 2010). Not such a major rarity these days but still a stunning bird.
4. Masked Shrike, Kilrenny, Nov 2004. Probably my longest day-trip to date, 1000 miles on the clock exactly, for the ultimate solo smash and grab. I left Kent at 0200, crossed the border just after 0700, saw the bird about 0930, headed for home about 1100 and was back in time to put my son in the bath that evening. Apart from getting out of the car to see the bird, I stopped only once, at Gretna services, to fill up and, more importantly, to twitch some Waxwings by the petrol pumps.
Desert Wheatears are often confiding. This one on Cooden Beach, East Sussex (Nov 2006) was no exception.
5. White-tailed Plover, Caerlaverock, June 2007. Matt and I finished work and drove through the night to be on site for first light with several hundred others. We were packed into the Tower Hide like Russian dissidents on the train to the Gulags, the waking dead nodding off on each others shoulders. I still have flashbacks. Then dawn broke, and we watched thick fog for the next four hours. When it eventually cleared it was obvious that the Plover had moved on. To top it all off, the car broke down. Unsuccessful, but still epic, and every list of top twitches should include a spectacular dip, I reckon.
Sandhill Crane, Suffolk (Oct 2011). Not the best photo but a great trip with Steve Smith and Jol Mitchell.
There, I feel better already. More of these trips down memory may follow, depending on how quickly the back mends...
Green Heron, Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall (Oct 2010).

Monday 18 February 2013

A pain in the back

I was going to call this post 'No Bunting like Snow Bunting', but with so much intellectual copyright theft going on on-line (see this post by John Hague for the ultimate, no-nonsense way of dealing with it) I thought I'd better Google it first. Sure enough, there it was, in the title of a post by a fellow pun-loving blogger (see what I did there?), dated as recently as 9th February 2013. A fortnight earlier and I could have claimed it as my own. Damn you, the internet, it's not like there aren't any original ideas left, it's just that you've made it a lot harder to have them first.

With a triplist including Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Scaup, Eider, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe and Snow Bunting you might think I spent this weekend in the Highlands on the way back from twitching a Pine Grosbeak on Shetland. In fact I didn't, and all these exotics were much closer to home in either in Portland Harbour or the Fleet Lagoon.

Not that I wouldn't mind a crack at the Grosbeak, and with a week's leave just beginning it's theoretically possible. But a variety of circumstances, including my worst back problem yet, are conspiring to make it highly unlikely. I had the ailing spine looked at today. Disappointingly, driving 1200 miles, sleeping in cars and on ferry floors, and carting around a telescope, tripod and camera were not among the recommended remedies for acute intercostal muscle strain and its associated aches and pains. So, my appetite for hospitals and divorce being what it is, the Pine Grosbeak may remain off limits, and I still await my first British tick of 2013.

The list of local goodies above were all too far away to photograph unfortunately, with one notable exception - the Snow Bunting, which first arrived at Ferrybridge before Christmas, and remains as approachable now as it was then.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

A van drove into my house today

Today, a van drove into my house. Not right in, you understand, it just scraped the wall, but I had to get your attention somehow. In his defence, it wasn't entirely the driver's fault, he was squeezing past a particularly poor example of the bad parking which sometimes afflicts the Saxon back-streets of old Wareham Town. While the parker in question was in the car at the time she just couldn't or wouldn't move, and it's not like there was a Waxwing on the wires or anything which would have made parking cock-eyed in the middle of a narrow road entirely understandable.

Waxwing (Poole, 2010): not on the wires outside my house today, but the first of several tenuous connections to birds in this ranty post about parking.
It is impossible to suggest to a neighbour in such a situation that they might have found a better place to park without sounding like a clipboard-wielding man from the council, so I don't usually bother. I made an exception today though on account of the bad parking having made a van drive into my house, and went with a factual appeal to self-interest: 'I'm just a bit worried that you wouldn't get a fire engine through there if your house was burning down'. She said she took my point about the fire engine but couldn't find anywhere else to park, thus proving she had not taken my point at all, and demonstrating the modern car driver's order of priorities in which 'convenient parking' ranks several places above 'the death of my extended family in a house fire'.

Sora (Attenborough, Notts, 2006). If I found one at Swineham, where would everbody park?
I've often wondered what would happen with parking in Wareham in the unlikely event of me finding a major rarity at Swineham and sparking a big twitch. It shouldn't be a problem, there being precisely 201 public car parking spaces and a fair amount of off-street if you can be bothered to walk a few hundred yards (any neighbours reading this, please note), and several spare pitches worth of space at the rugby club, who might not be averse to the income generating opportunity.

Little Gull (Swineham, 2012): one of the best birds I've found at Swineham in 18 months of regular watching. Parking wasn't a problem that day.
But back to the contretemps: having secured a moral victory in the fire engine debate I was happy to leave it at that, but she followed up with the not entirely rhetorical question 'where do you suggest I park?'. I resisted the temptation to say 'I'm sorry Madam but you seem to be confusing me with Wareham's Parking Czar, who might not only care about your problem, but be in a position to solve it'. When I moved in I promised myself that I wouldn't get upset by the bad parking which I could see even then would occur from time to time. And I honestly didn't, until, as I think I've mentioned, a van drove into my house.

Arctic Tern (Inner Farne, 2010): tenuous connection number four coming right up.
Now at the risk of getting a visit from Trading Standards for not having a high enough percentage bird content in a publication clearly entitled a 'Wildlife Blog', I should attempt another tenuous connection. Unlike me, my wife got upset about the parking long ago, so contacted the local council (we have three), who said contact the police, who said contact one of the other local councils, who had a meeting about it and said contact the remaining local council, who said they had spent their budget for dealing with idiotic parking this year but would give it serious consideration next year, though there could be no guarantees due to 20% budget cuts and a 30% rise in the incidence of idiots. OK they didn't say that but the chain of events is barely exaggerated. By the time she had gone round the houses with this I reckoned she'd travelled further than - here it comes - the average Arctic Tern on its annual migration.

Alpine Accentor (Pyrenees, 2006): old, imported Spanish bird photos in a so-called up-to-the-minute British wildlife blog? Somebody call Trading Standards! Bad parking could be forgiven for one of these.
Having got that off my chest, I can now return to more positive bird-related thoughts, like finding a mega at Swineham in spring. I look forward to seeing you there. But please, in the immortal words of Rare Bird Alert, park sensibly.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Trials of a working twitcher

After missing some Bean Geese at the end of last month, I thought my second Dorset-tick dip in as many weeks was on the cards as another good bird was found during the working week. Nick Hopper located a Green-winged Teal among its commoner cousins in Holes Bay on Thursday but there was no way I could get there before dark. I was working at the opposite end of the county on Friday so that was also going to prove difficult. In the end, there was enough time to get to Upton before dusk and look for the bird.

On arrival at the car park one of my birdrace teammates who was just leaving said that the Teal had been showing but had been lost to view in a deep channel. Foolishly, I forgot to ask 'which channel'. At first glance, there were a daunting number of Teal to get through, many of them distant and partially hidden in a slightly less daunting number of channels. Diligent searching produced nothing out of the ordinary. I tried counting them (300+), a good way to make sure I checked every bird. Still nothing.

With the light fading there was only one thing for it: resolve to give up, and have one last quick, forlorn scan while swearing a lot at the frustrations of fitting twitching in around a full-time job. This has done the trick before, and did so again, as the Green-winged Teal waddled up out of the channel and went to sleep on the bank in full view. Too far for photos, but some smart Pintail were a bit closer.


Sunday 3 February 2013

Sticking with it

A new bird for the patch this weeked in the form of a Water Pipit was a bit of a tonic after yet another week of a nagging cough. Not only does this scare away the birds, it's just a bit exhausting. It finally drove me to the Doctor on Friday, and having satisfied himself that it wasn't a chest infection his advice was, and I quote, 'stick with it'.
Gadwall - the most numerous duck at Swineham at the moment with 50-120 birds regularly present
I've been given this advice before when stuck on a crossword, but never before for a cough. Mind you, it beats the advice I got last time I went to a quack with a similar ailment - 'try not to cough' he said. I kid you not.
Shoveler: probably the most striking duck at Swineham at the moment.
So, in the spirit of sticking with it, and trying not to cough, I headed to Swineham yesterday for a quick look around. An uneventful scan of the pits produced the usual ducks in smaller numbers than recent weeks, but further on towards Swineham Point a large-ish pipit flushed from the wet grass and gave a call which narrowed it down to either Rock or Water.
Water Pipit: note the prominent pale supercilium and wingbars, extensively yellow bill and unstreaked mantle
I managed a few flight shots between convulsions which showed a prominent, flared supercilium, unstreaked mantle, clean white underparts with some fine dark streaks, and white outer tail feathers, all good features for Water Pipit.
This shot shows clean white, finely streaked underparts and white outer tail feathers.
The Pipit also went miles when flushed which I seem to remember was a characteristic of the birds we used to go and see at Rainham Marshes when I lived in Kent. The local Meadow Pipits, by contrast, tend to flit around you in a little circle and the Rock Pipits, when present, are generally a bit more approachable. Unless of course you are coughing your guts up on said approach.

Another shot of the Water Pipit showing several of the features described above.