Thursday 29 August 2013

Home Alone

I miss them, of course, like the deserts miss the rain. That's the down side of the rest of the family spending the final week of the school holidays camping in Cornwall. I suppose there is an up-side though.
Juvenile Hobby, Morden Bog
Juvenile Hobby, Morden Bog

This bird ignored the warnings of its parents as I walked past. I know how they feel.
First, I get to avoid the scurvid privations of life under canvas. My views on camping are sufficiently rabid that a man from the BBC e-mailed the other night to ask if I would appear on a radio show to put the case 'against' it, presumably in the hope of provoking a heated debate with some tent enthusiasts. Perhaps I should tone it down.
This stunted pine at Morden Bog attracted (from left) Stonechat, Whinchat and Whitethroat
Whinchat, Morden Bog
Willow Warbler, Morden Bog
Second, I get to indulge the simple pleasures of a bachelorhood lost. Like leaving a tidy house in the morning and coming home to find it still tidy. I know, it's a wild life I lead. And, as my Scottish friend Ken so neatly put it, 'Ye get to set roond in yer pants, watching the fitba and scratching yer baw-bag'. Precisely, Ken. Spurs are currently 2-0 up, in case you're wondering.

A recently fledged Spotted Flycatcher, Morden Bog

Grayling were on the wing at Morden Bog
Crossbill, Morden Bog
Third, I get to go out birding dawn 'til dusk, or at least I did before I had to go back to work on Tuesday. The weekend was free though. Sunday was just one of those days. I arrived at nearby Morden Bog just after dawn, waking up the Woodlarks, Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and Whinchats before eventually stumbling across a mixed flock of Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers.
The light was poor but I hid behind a trunk and used it to steady the lens in the absence of a tripod
 Several Spotted Flycathcers were moving around in a vocal group...
...but birds in a variety of plumages often returned to this fence line
Then the weather in Purbeck took a turn for the worse so I headed west for the brighter climes of Portland, to twitch my first Dorset Icterine Warbler (that'll get it's own post when I get round to it), found by Brett who was rattling off 8 frames per second of it as I arrived. After a long wander round the Bill I ended the day at Ferrybridge with waders, terns and the setting sun. Dusk, naturally, was spent in the Radipole car park with the gulls, and, shamefully, one of their distant cousins who had fallen victim to Colonel Sanders. Well, when in Rome...
Spotted Flycatcher
Spotted Flycatcher
And , yes, you guessed it, Spotted Flycatcher
That's probably enough up-side. I do want them to come back, after all.

P.S. don't forget, just 2 days left to vote in this week's poll - see top right, and here for a long-winded explanation. Sorry about that, got a bit carried away. Home alone, see. No one to talk to.

P.P.S. make that 3-0 Spurs.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Vote early, vote often

It's feast or famine with me at the moment. In July I was stringing out blog posts about butterflies on the rare occasions that opportunity combined with sunshine, the latter more prevalent than the former. Now after a couple of weeks off in August I've got so much to write about I literally don't know what to post next. That's where you come in, Dear Reader. For democracy is coming to this blog in the form of a poll which, unless the internet is playing a horrible trick on me (or you're viewing the mobile friendly version, in which case desist), you should be able to see at the top right of this page. A few words of explanation:

While a few kindly regular readers often text me or email comments on posts, only a small number ever leave a comment. Apparently, they tell me, it's a bit too much of a faff as you have to log in to do it. I know the feeling: you click the comment box to leave the most important observation ever, and by the time you've mistyped your email address, forgotten a password and squinted at the characters designed to make sure you're not a robot or a spider or whatever they call them, it doesn't seem that important any more. The poll, by contrast, requires no such effort.

My most prolific comment-leaver, Michael, one of my oldest friends (he's at least 50) isn't even into birds - politics is more his thing. Brett gives a thumbs up now and again, confirms my tentative identifications and offers tips on which way up to hold my camera. Jol sends texts in lieu of comments. His wife Caroline can't even manage that but she does dictate texts to him sometimes. Anj makes encouraging noises but only when I write not about birds. A few of the other Dorset birders urge me to keep going from time to time, which makes me feel slightly less like I'm pishing into the wind, to mis-apply a piece of birding terminology.

A significant proportion of my comment-leavers are not, apparently, genuine admirers. Take this one for instance: on a post called Rock Pools and Pipits, a misguided marketing man at a manufacturer of swimming pool paraphernalia left a complement and encouraged me to visit his website to peruse his wide range of swimming pool related products. For reasons I have still to fathom, another desperate commercial enterprise adorned my bitter post about dipping on a Rock Thrush with the almost irresistible offer to sell me a stairlift.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not fishing for comments - to be perfectly honest if no one ever read this or said anything I'd still write it: with my deteriorating memory it's sometimes the only way I can tell what I did last week. It's like a diary that I just happen to leave lying around on a park bench in that sense. But in my job as a meddlesome pen-pusher (I threw that in for Brett, who takes a dim view of bureaucracy, my chosen profession) I'm always banging on about the importance of community engagement, so it's time to practice what I preach. My initial editorial policy was, after all, based on that of Pravda (that's for Michael, fellow politics graduate, Brunel class of '91): it took me about a year to even allow comments. Then another year to realise that there weren't any. So don't squander this opportunity to make your vote count.

Yes indeed, after the Berlin Wall and the Arab Spring, this poll is my version of democratic revolution. You don't have to log in, and it's a secret ballot so I can't hunt you down if you give me the answer I don't want. Though I'll be crushed if those who I've name checked don't vote at least. I know where some of you live. At the end of it all, as well as giving the impression that I care about your views, this convenient device will have bought me some time while I decide what to do next regardless of your opinions. Just like in a real democracy in fact. In the process, you will be transformed from a passive slave to my propaganda into an empowered cyber-citizen. I know, I can feel the rush too. Transparency is obviously important, so you should be aware that I will rig the vote if it looks like going the wrong way.

I appreciate the blog post titles don't necessarily give you much of a clue, so the manifesto for each is below, with a teaser pic for each:
YouTubenose: seabirds in the sunshine from the Isles of Scilly.
Waders and a lost lark: birds from Scilly which weren't seen on pelagics. Vote for this for yet more bird-based punnery and my favourite photo from August.
Book of the month: a shameless plug for a new book in which I have some photos published. I'm not on commission, or the plug would be more shameless, and on more widely-read media than this.
Warbling around Portland - twitching warblers with me and Bobby McGee 

Monday 26 August 2013

Petrel heads

Wilson's Petrel is one of the most sought after birds on the Scilly pelagics, four of which I had the pleasure of slurping about on earlier this month. Soon after we boarded the Sapphire for the first time though, our leader Bob Flood was doing his best to manage expectations about seeing one, there having been only three records in Britain so far this year, and one of those being in spring.
European Storm Petrel - the latin name Hydrobates pelagicus underlines its ocean going existence
So we concentrated on getting our eye in on European Storm Petrel, of which there were plenty, and hoped for the best. I think we had been seduced by stunning photos from the likes of Bryan Thomas from previous pelagics into thinking that Stormies would be permanently dancing in the chum slick just feet off the stern.
In European Storm Petrel the broad white bar on the underwing is diagnostic
It wasn't quite like that, and it took until our third trip on the Monday evening to attract a group to the chum slick which made repeated passes off the back of the boat, allowing the photographers on board to get in position. If rolling with the swell while trying to keep lunch down can be described as a 'position'. In the circumstances, I was pleased to get any kind of shots.
Storm Petrels patters on the surface while picking up morsels of food
By the end of our first day we had seen plenty of European but no Wilson's Storm Petrel. No matter, a full day trip lay ahead, and although the weather was set fair, a stiffer breeze was forecast, normally better for seabirds. After another seven hours at sea we were about to head back to St Mary's empty handed when a big shout went up and an 11th hour Wilson's Petrel made a distant pass off the port side. It was too quick to attempt to photograph but fortunately it came back for another pass, still a good way out but with the sun behind us the views were pretty good.
This shot of a European Storm Petrel conveys just a little of the harsh environment in which these tiny birds spend much of their lives
I couldn't get a clear shot over the heads of others so adopted a stance which, with hindsight, the local government officer in me feels might have benefited from a more thorough risk assessment, involving as it did a leggy straddle between two of the boat's slippery central bench seats. Only later did I realise I was hovering over the shark fishing rods and hooks which could have done me quite a mischief in the event of a slip.
Wilson's Petrel - Oceanites oceanicus in case you hadn't got the idea with the whole oceanic thing
Happily, no bones were broken and of about 20 frames rattled off, one of the bird banking, showing the pale covert band on the upperwing and legs protruding beyond the tail, came out reasonably sharp. A good photo tick for me and one of my main targets for the trip.
We saw a second Wilson's Petrel, a moulting bird, in gloomier conditions on an evening pelagic a few days later
I've now seen and photographed the Petrel, the Phalarope and the Snipe named after the great Scottish pioneer of American ornithology, Alexander Wilson. Perhaps, if they have the internet wherever he is, and he's reading this, he'd be good enough to give up his Warbler this autumn?

Friday 23 August 2013

Keeping up with the Joneses

Earlier this month we spent a week on the Isles of Scilly with our good friends Matt Jones and his partner Jules, on one of their periodic reverse migrations from the southern hemisphere. We knew them in Kent and while our emigration from the Garden of England took us no further than Dorset, theirs reached Stewart Island, New Zealand, a journey of Great Shearwater-like proportions. This large seabird breeds in the south Atlantic before undertaking a great circular migration up the coast of South and North America before crossing the north Atlantic to pass through our waters on the way back 'down'.

We hooked up on St Mary's in accommodation which estate agents would describe as generously proportioned (i.e. big enough for six) with extensive sea views (i.e. a glimpse of Porth Mellon from the balcony) and meeting the highest standards of sustainable waste management (i.e. giving what my 6-year old son described as 'a great view of the massive dump'). Well placed for gull watching, then.

Matt and I had always wanted to try a few Scilly pelagics to look for seabirds, and had booked these almost a year in advance. The ocean-going tours he guides in NZ can almost guarantee at least six species of Albatross, but in UK waters good birds are a bit more hit and miss, so we went with the attitude that we'd just be happy to see Storm Petrels up close and anything else would be a bonus.

Arriving on the Friday with two full day trips on Sapphire ahead of us over the weekend, we thought it best not to push our luck by ditching partners and children to head straight out on a pelagic that evening. A noble but regrettable decision with hindsight, as a Fea's Petrel was seen in the fading light off the back of the boat on which we would spend the next two days. It's fair to say Matt was more sanguine, and uttered substantially fewer expletives, than I about this, having seen the bird which graced the Scillonian III pelagic trip back in 2001.

At least it meant we boarded Sapphire the following morning full of hope as well as Stugeron. We headed out under leaden skies into the grey expanse of ocean east of Scilly, and it wasn't long before a cry of 'Great Shearwater in the wake' caused the first of many gigabytes of memory cards to be filled with photos.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Hello Sailor

I've been avoiding pelagics for years, convinced that I was a seasicky wuss, but after my fifth in just over a week, I think I may have finally found my sea legs. The first four were on the Isles of Scilly last week - more of which later - but yesterday's was closer to home in Lyme Bay. There are several species of seabird which I have seen but never photographed, and I hadn't even gone digital the last time I went on one of the infamous Scillonian III pelagics in the early noughties. So it was time to man up, put away the sick bags, take a deep breath to fill my lungs with the smell of rotting fish.

Our main target in Lyme Bay was White-beaked Dolphin, a pod of which has been seen regularly in recent summers, but not so far this year it seems. Matt Jones, visiting from New Zealand, came along for the ride as this would have been a tick for both of us. We gave it a good thrashing but the closest we came to a seeing a cetacean was the one on my Octonauts lunchbag, which I shamefully suppressed from the others on board. Thanks for the loan, kids.

Still a brilliant trip though with perfect light and some excellent seabirds which made up for the absent dolphins. Most of these were hanging around some trawler by-catch off Berry Head for which we took a detour - Sooty, Balearic and Manx Shearwaters, Great and Arctic Skua and even a tiny Storm Petrel all joined a melee of several thousand gulls, gannets and fulmars. A bonus Grey Phalarope on the way back just as we were all nodding off capped a good day.

Now I have (i) sunburn and (ii) 8 gig of photos to sort through. A few of the early highlights below.
Sooty Shearwaters breed in New Zealand and thereabouts in their thousands. Matt normally can't get excited about them as there are so many down his way, but we had to marvel at the possibility that this was one of 'his' birds from Stewart Island 
Sooty Shearwater with Herring Gull
A beautiful bird which allowed a close approach by the boat
A more familiar view of Sooty Shearwater - banking to reveal the silvery underwing
Balearic Shearwater - globally a very rare bird but seen regularly off our shores at this time of year
This was one of four or five Balearics seen
Manx was by far the commonest Shearwater encountered in Lyme Bay
Good numbers passed by in a variety of directions
This one the closest to the boat...
...and this one trying its luck in amongst the melee of gulls which were feeding around the trawler.
A 'Cantona' moment in Lyme Bay
The feeding frenzy also pulled in this piratical dark phase Arctic Skua...
...and this even more menacing Great Skua
A solitary Storm Petrel stayed on the fringes of the scrum to avoid the attentions of gulls and skuas

Fulmar: plenty of these in Lyme Bay
This juvenile Kittiwake was colour-ringed - details to follow
Guillemot was the only Auk we encountered
Gannet plunge-diving
Talk about a needle in a haystack - we were fortunate that our course took us past this diminutive Grey Phalarope in the broad sweep of Lyme Bay
Female Common Scoter gave a flypast as we headed back to West Bay
It was flat calm leaving West Bay where this was a reminder of one of the many perils facing our seabirds - but has marine litter ever looked so serene?

I liked the way the hedgerow shadows the cliff edge at Burton Bradstock
People on the beach give some perspective on these mighty cliffs