Tuesday 25 June 2013

Kentish Men

Both of our sons were born in Kent - west of the Medway, making them Kentish Men as opposed to Men of Kent from the east - and we were back in the County of their birth this weekend, for a wedding and to catch up with old friends. The bride was my former PA when I had such a thing, and the venue was the same place where my wife and I got married over a decade ago. Very happy memories: it was great having a PA.
Male Turtle Dove - unlike the old days, none were singing over my old garden last weekend, but Kent is still a good place to catch up with them
Our former neighbours, the generous Prices, put us up, fed us, dropped us off and picked us up at the end of the night, and generally made us feel at home again. The time we lived over the road from them - the early years of the 21st century - included some of the hottest summers on record, so it was a bit of a shock to encounter strong winds and cool temperatures on our latest visit. Hopefully this explained the silence from the Turtle Doves which used to purr from the wires rather than the depressing tale of decline for which this species is now known.

This Hawfinch landed on my garden feeders for 3 minutes in 2003 - just long enough for my shaking hands to digiscope it through the French windows
My little garden in Dorset can't quite compete with the rambling patch we had in Kent in terms of birdlife, which also played host to Spotted Flycatchers, Garden Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats, Tawny Owls, Cuckoos, and, once, even a Hawfinch.

Our friendly garden fox - pictured here in 2007, the year we left Kent for Dorset
Perched over the Medway Valley, from its various vantage points I could also see Red-legged Partridges, Yellowhammers and Hobbies. Grey Wagtails visited the pond, Pipistrelles roosted in the eaves, Wood Mice chewed their way into a dustbin containing the bird food and a tame Fox poked it's head around the gate most evenings.
Male Banded Demoiselle at Leybourne Lakes, the day after the wedding

Another highlight on my inland Kent garden list was a migrating Wheatear which turned up one foggy Autumn morning. More exotic, but also more dodgy, was a Harris Hawk which used to frequent the area - that caused a bit of confusion, not to mention panic, when it first soared past the upstairs window.
This is the female Banded Demoiselle, also at Leybourne Lakes
Amid the happy memories, a stop-start journey there and back around the M25 was a jolting reminder of why we moved down to Dorset. But while we certainly have no regrets, it was good to go back for something other than a Dusky Thrush. Or a Crested Lark. Or an Eastern Black Redstart...
A rare visit 'home' for these Kentish Men and their Mum. And an even rarer visit to Church...

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Greenish with envy

After a successful Pacific Swift twitch in Suffolk on Saturday - try saying that when you've had a few - I thought I would take the liberty afforded by Father's Day to look for another good bird closer to home on Sunday. The Greenish Warbler on Portland was always going to be tricky as it was reported as elusive before being trapped at the Obs, and kept an even lower profile after being stroked by the ringers (who wouldn't?).
Linnet, Portland Bill
I didn't see it in the end but there were some friendly faces to catch up with anyway. These included Kevin, the County Recorder (non-birders please note, that's like a Bishop in birding, or a Company Secretary, if you prefer a secular analogy); and Brett, who taught me more about my 7D camera in 2 minutes than I've worked out for myself in two months. Apparently you have to put batteries in. Who knew!
Dunnock, Portland Bill
Also present was a small flock of Mitchells, my near neighbours in Purbeck. The head of the family has a reputation for calmness, reasonableness and boundless patience. But then she's not a birder. Her husband is though, and a respectable member of the Dorset Bird Club politburo to boot. While he can normally be found diligently completing his WeBS counts and Breeding Bird Surveys around Poole Harbour, we occasionally have to stage a kidnapping so he can get away from the thraldom of proper birding and the Sunday leagues to twitch quality birds like Sandhill Crane in Suffolk, or Spanish Sparrow in Hampshire.

Whitethroat, Portland Bill
Apart from birds, the other thing Mitchell Snr and I have in common is that and our sons play for the same under-10s football team, and while mine shows no interest in birding, his has just started listing (BOU 103 already). I've often wondered how I would feel about my own boys getting into birding. On the one hand, it would be great to teach them the ropes and have someone to share the pleasures of the hobby with.
Wood Mouse on the Observatory Wall, Portland
On the other, I might miss the solitude, which is a big part of the attraction. On balance though, it has to be a good thing, and at this fundamental level: when age catches up with me, my pension won't stretch to a pager and I've lost both memory and bladder control, I'm going to need someone to drive me around to see birds.
Dartford Warbler - not on Portland, this one on a recent visit to Morden Bog
Now that both Mitchell Snr and Jnr are birding, I do wonder what will happen in future if a good bird turns up during a game. I, for instance, wouldn't hesitate to slope off unnoticed by normal people, but as fellow bird-nerds they would now both know exactly what I was up to. Then again if the bird is good enough, all three of us might be keen to go. How would we get away? Perhaps if Mitchell Jnr feigns injury me and his dad could act as stretcher bearers? But then what about my son? Could we really leave him behind? Of course not!
Redstart, Morden Bog
So there's only one thing for it: convert him to the dark side too. I've already tested the waters:

Dad: 'So do you think you'll get into birding then?'
Son: 'No. I'm not the birding type.'
Dad: 'And what is 'the birding type' exactly?'
Pregnant pause
Son: 'Patient. And quiet.'

I was secretly impressed: tact, self-deprecation and self-knowledge. Not bad for a 9-year old. Whether he takes to birding or not, it's a comfort to know that for now at least we still have one important thing to unite us: neither of us has Greenish Warbler on our Dorset list.
Redstart, Morden Bog

Sunday 16 June 2013

Allergic to patch

My hayfever eyes are back for the summer and judging by a visit on Friday night, it seems that the grass pollen on my local patch at Swineham is just about the worst thing to set them off. A good excuse, then, to neglect it for the rest of the weekend and tart around the country after rarities instead.
Pacific Swift, Trimley Marshes, Suffolk: note the white rump and deeply forked tail
About this time last year I floated a hypothesis that twitching Rollers in Yorkshire was a bona fide medical treatment for sore eyes: I can now confirm that twitching Pacific Swifts in Suffolk is just as effective.
Difficult to see in the field, the scaly underparts can be seen here
News of this mega-rarity broke mid-morning and I exchanged texts with the get-away driver on several recent smash and grabs, Steve Smith. On reflection, these exploratory messages reflected some doubt on both our parts about the wisdom of going for this bird, but the exchange soon morphed into a positive decision to go for it and we were on the road before noon.
The rump made this bird stand out from the crowd of Common Swift when they approached at speed
We definitely set out more in hope than expectation: swift-twitching is high risk stuff, as these birds can fly at nearly 70 mph and within the four hours it would take us to get to Suffolk it could have made it to Holland. Swifts can also be pushed on by weather fronts, and the forecast suggested that a mothering rainstorm would hit Felixstowe at about the same time as us.
This shot shows how far the neat white rump patch extends around the body
As if these bad omens weren't enough, news came through that police had closed the access road to the site and were ticketing badly parked cars. Being law-abiding folk, with the help of some good local gen obtained via some frantic phone calls en route, we parked further up the coast at Levington Marina and walked south-east down the sea wall to the site. As we were locking the car the first negative news all day came through: no sign of the bird for the last half hour.
The bird was feeding over a lagoon in front of the hides at Trimley
For once, the forecast was spot on and the first peal of thunder echoed around just as we reached the exposed seawall, carrying our Manfrotto tripods lightning conductors on our shoulders. I'm taller than Steve so felt particularly vulnerable, though was reassured when a line of 100 or so twitchers came into view a couple of miles to the south-east: some of them had to be taller than me so surely they would be struck first? Plus, what with God being just and all, they had already seen Pacific Swift so could die happy.
The tail shown as the bird banks

On the long and brisk walk we were getting thoroughly wet, but it could have been worse had we followed my out-of-date OS map rather than our noses, as this did not take account of a recent breach in the seawall, punched through as part of a coastal realignment project. I don't mind an undignified trot to see a bird, but I draw the line at swimming.
A white chin patch can be seen in this shot
With a mile to go, the pager reported that the bird was back, but as we arrived at the end of the line the news, like the weather, worsened again: we had missed it by a minute. We took shelter in the hide, where it was standing room only until a couple of slightly less drowned rats who had already seen the swift decided to give up their seats and head back out into the rain.
The Pacific Swift looked a slimmer bird than this Common Swift
I was initially keen to stay on the seawall until I had seen the bird but Steve's wiser counsel prevailed: once in the hide, after 10 minutes of panicky de-fogging of optics, during which the Swift was good enough to not re-appear, we enjoyed a close fly past when it did eventually return. 10 minutes after that and we could hardly see the pool over which it was feeding as the raindrops turned into stair-rods.
Swifts were not the only birds at Trimley - Avocet and this Red-legged Partridge were also there
As the evening progressed the weather improved and we were treated to excellent views in good light as the Swift hawked insects over the lagoon. A great bird, a good gamble and nice to have no doubts about hybrids, dubious origins or anything else to doubt the authenticity of the record.
Do your worst, Trimley weather: I've got a seat in the hide

Thursday 13 June 2013

In the footsteps of giants

Now summer's over (last week, you blinked, you missed it) it's time to reminisce about sunshine and butterflies. Between blinks last week, I managed a trip to Cerne Abbas, whose Giant is famous for his butterflies among other things. The chalk figure is thought by some to be a fertility symbol, and it seems to be working for the Lepidoptera this year at least. Good job too - they had an appalling year in 2012 which was ranked by Butterfly Conservation as 'officially the worst since records began'. The wet weather contributed to declines in 52 of out 56 species with moths faring just as badly - not just a problem for them but all the other critters that rely on them for food. Hopefully, the range of species and good numbers of each on show last week is a sign that they can bounce back quickly.
This Marsh Fritillary was freshly emerged - blood was still being pumped into the wings

Marsh Fritillary underwing - one of the most attractive of all the butterflies
Another view of the underwing
Marsh Fritillary - numbers fell by 71% last year...
...but reasonable numbers seem to be getting reported so far this year
Common Blue - another species suffering a big decline in 2012 (60%)
Common Blue underside
Duke of Burgundy - already one of our rarest butterflies, this suffered a 47% decline last year
A surprisingly small butterfly if you've not seen one before
This was one of at least half a dozen seen in a short visit
Duke of Burgundy - a stunning underwing pattern
Another Duke of Burgundy underwing
Brown Argus was also on the wing...
...as were Dingy Skipper...
...Green-veined White...
...Grizzled Skipper...
...and Small Heath

The view from Giant's Hill

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Can't keep up with it all

I've got photos of butterflies from when the sun was out, and nice pics of patch trash, and quality birds from the Dorset heaths to post, all piling up on my hard drive right now. There's so much wildlife out there and I just can't keep up. And then this thing goes and turns up yesterday, on a day when I had the car at work and camera in the boot.
The first appearance of the Caspian Tern in Weymouth early yesterday morning was too brief to even attempt to get there, which at least spared me having to think up an excuse to be late for work. So I had to wait until the end of the day before legging it to West Bexington where it had been relocated. By the sounds of it I was lucky with my timing as the bird had either been showing more distantly or not at all prior to me getting there, and it flew south east down the coast about 10 minutes later. A good Dorset tick for me and quite a few others judging by the smiling faces on the beach.
Caspian Tern is such an impressive bird - the largest of the terns, and as big as a medium-sized gull. The bill is often described as a carrot but has a dark tip with a touch of yellow on the extremity. The nearest breeding colonies are around the Baltic though who knows where this one came from. Blowing up these photos revealed a metal ring on the right leg, so if anyone can get close enough its provenance could be established beyond doubt!
The first one of these I saw in Britain was at Leighton Moss RSPB in Lancashire. We were driving quite close to the reserve on holiday when news of it broke on the pager, so hot footed it straight to the site. To park we had to get under a very low bridge and I remembered with inches to spare that we had a roof box on, which wouldn't quite have made it. It could have been an expensive tick. That was in 2005, and I hadn't seen one since. The roof box is still going though. In fact I had it on the car yesterday as it hasn't been removed since a camping trip in May. Obviously, I left it on as I can't wait to get that tent loaded up again...

Tuesday 11 June 2013

A Blackadder amongst birds

The local grapevine carried news of a Ruff at Swineham on Monday, on the very muddy pool about which I've been wishfully thinking aloud in recent posts. This would be a puddle tick for me as I missed an autumn passage bird last year on the same bit of water while on holiday. It was described, temptingly, as a male with an 'Elizabethan ruff'. So after work, with youngest offspring in tow, we cycled down there and fortunately it was still there, sporting neckwear that was as ruffy as a ruff with a degree in ruffs from the University of Ruff, to paraphrase Blackadder himself. Not a particularly rare bird in Dorset but they don't breed here so certainly a rare plumage, and several us present agreed the smartest one we'd seen locally.

Monday 10 June 2013

Yet more misery

More pictures from my thoroughly miserable visit to Brownsea on the weekend. With captions in the absence of thoughtful and coherent commentary. Too busy tonight.
Black-headed Gull chick...

...one of a number of varying sizes and ages - this one of the older ones

Great Black-backed Gull - caused a few nervous glances over the tern colony

Med Gull - a pair visited the tern colony...

...but were not exactly welcomed by the residents

Noisy birds...

...but smart ones too

Med Gull on the water between the tern islands

Sandwich Tern coming in to land on the islands

Sandwich Tern with Sandeel

Sandwich Tern

Many more Sandwich Tern chicks hatched compared to my last visit

Proud parents...

...with cute but demanding offspring...

...I know how they feel.

Common Tern against the insignia of the famous Brownsea yellow boats...

...and the more natural backdrop of Saturday's perfect sky.