Thursday 31 October 2013

Back to normal

Back to normal. If 'normal' means insomnia, loss of appetite and gut-wrenching stress then I'm definitely back to it. Or at least I was until about 0950 this morning when I finally set eyes on a Hermit Thrush, at which point all these negative emotions were replaced by a strong sense of relief and, eventually, something approaching satisfaction.
Hermit Thrush, Porthgwarra
In my last post I eschewed long distance twitching and extolled the virtues of staying local. But when news of the Hermit Thrush in Cornwall broke yesterday morning, all that tosh was forgotten and a roller coaster of emotions began. I had promised the family a day out, see, and, well, a promise is a promise. At the time the Thrush was found, we were already at Corfe Castle and the kids had their teddies ready to hurl down the specially erected zipwire thingy. I suggested that perhaps I could get away early but it was made clear to me that doing so would result in me spending the rest of my life living as a hermit myself in the shed, or beyond, if kicked hard enough. So I honoured the promise, with less than perfect grace, I've been informed since, and secured agreement to head off yesterday evening.
Note the rufous tail, bold chest spots and almost unmarked flanks
The thought of an overnight drive or kipping in the car really didn't appeal so I made for Penzance at a sensible time for a 'B&B' - or, more accurately a 'B' as the second 'B' wasn't going to be necessary. Arriving at Porthgwarra at first light, the next couple of hours produced no sightings and my edifice of optimism began to crumble, particularly when it came under pressure from James Lowen's 'if it's not here by 9, it's not here' theory.
A difficult bird to photograph - all of these taken using Manual Focus at high ISO ratings
As if aware of this counsel of doom, the Hermit Thrush revealed itself with about a minute to go to the deadline. However, it did so only to those on one side of Porthgwarra's small wood, and eluded the other half of us who were stood on the 'wrong' side.
White-rumped Sandpiper, Marazion
It took somewhere between 50 minutes and forever to then get a tickable view, before which the assembled crowd had visibly divided into the happy smiling faces of those who had seen the bird and the tense, fraught expressions of those who hadn't.

And here's the white rump
A constellation of twitching stars came and went. Jol, Caroline and Joe (aged 10) of Wareham Under-11s Touchline Bistro renown were there, young Joe facing the ignominy of having Hermit but not Song Thrush in his list. Famous author James Lowen travelled with Josh Jones and Kit Day in a car stuffed with more lenses than a branch of Specsavers. And Birdwatch October 2013 'Star Letter' writer and cat lover Paul Welling came back for more despite already having seen the bird the previous day, no doubt to offer me some moral support in case it had gone overnight.
These pictures don't convey the gale that was blowing at the time and the lashing rain it brought with it
The range of regional accents (from 'thrush' to 'throosh' to 'frash') at Porthgwarra hinted at how far some had come for this bird, and so rich in variety was it that the BBC News HR department could have filled their quota several times over.
White-rumped Sandpiper (front) with Dunlin for comparison
There was just time to pull a back muscle lying down to photograph a White-rumped Sandpiper in a hurricane on Marazion beach before heading back to Dorset. A hug from two sons as I opened the door reminded me that there are more important things in life than vagrant Catharus thrushes. But not that many.
Good job I didn't dash off for the Hermit Thrush yesterday - I would have missed this death-defying leap at Corfe Castle's zipwire for teddies

Monday 28 October 2013

A momentary lapse of unreason

October half-term means holidays, and we'd normally be on the Isles of Scilly by now. Not this year though as we went in August, so I'm at home and free to twitch with abandon. However, I seem to have mislaid my cheque book, and temporarily regained my sanity, so rather than thinking about chartering choppers to Lundy, flights to Unst or speedboats to Rum my thoughts turned to local birding today. And very rewarding it was too:
This Barn Owl perched on the roof of the hide I was sitting in at Middlebere before giving a close flypast...
...and alighting briefly on a post in front of the hide.
The Barn Owl was out quite early - about 1600
This male Hen Harrier hunted alongside the track at Middlebere
A Migrant Hawker at Swineham had survived the overnight winds
A distant Merlin was at Bestwall
This late Wheatear had been blown in to Swineham Point...
...and a equally late Red Admiral was also on the wing.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Pining for the fjords

The offer of a lift to Kent on Saturday with Steve Smith was too good to miss as three species of Crossbill - Common, Two-barred and Parrot - had been visiting the same clearing in Hemsted Forest. There had been as many as twelve Parrot Crossbills at this site the previous week, and I figured the chance of all these Scandawegian monsters being struck down by Sparrowhawks or Merlins or cats or windmills was pretty slim. Robust logic, and perhaps they were just pining for the fjords and heading back home, but either way we didn't see them.
Two-barred Crossbill, Hemsted Forest
Fortunately the Two-barred performed brilliantly, returning on several occasions to an oak tree preferred by the local finches as a lookout near a favoured drinking pool. Scope views were excellent and while it was a little distant for good photos I was able to get some record shots and therefore a 'photo tick' as it perched in the bare branches. We also heard its higher pitched call when in flight with the rest of the flock.
There was a bit of inter-action between the Two-barred and a female Common Crossbill - but it looked more like aggression than flirtation
One Parrot Crossbill was in fact reported before we arrived, and another from another part of the wood while we were there, but the only parrots we saw all day were the gullible birders repeating directions to alleged Parrots which were, in fact, Common Crossbills. Ironic really that they went away happy with a 'tick' having seen nothing out of the ordinary, while we went away a little frustrated at seeing exactly the same thing.
The Common Crossbill below the Two-barred in this shot was claimed by some as a Parrot. The Two-barred did look a shade smaller, but still...
Despite the absence of Parrots it was a good opportunity to study size and plumage variation in Common Crossbills, which were plentiful and gave excellent views. As well as them, Redpolls, Linnets, and even a Brambling came and went to the oak so no complaints about the day overall. If the weather forecast is to be believed, we'll all be watching Crossbills picking cones off trees at ground level by Monday night. So that's something to look forward to.
Flight shot revealing the full wing pattern

'Reports of my death...

...have been greatly exaggerated'. The Christchurch Pallid Swift no doubt repeated Mark Twain's witticism at about 1100 on Friday when it was said to have been taken by a crow, only to rise again a few minutes later. If so, it spoke too soon, apparently falling to a Sparrowhawk a couple of hours later. I referred to the phenomenon of rare birds snuffing it in my last post, perhaps in the sub-conscious hope that pointing it out would prevent it happening it again any time soon. A winning formula, obviously.

I couldn't get over to Christchurch before lunchtime, and on arrival I met Brett who was just leaving, having filled a memory card with some great shots of the bird. He broke the news that while he couldn't be sure, it seemed likely that the Swift had been taken by a Sprawk. I'm ashamed to say I cursed that peckish raptor in similar terms to those which Brett normally reserves for the hunters of Brent Geese.

After Snipegate, I couldn't quite believe it had happened again and, sensing my disbelief, Brett encouraged me to keep looking as it was just possible the Swift had made an escape. The last sighting was about 1300, and my car park ticket said 1308, so it was a fine margin which prevented me adding this species to my Dorset list.

I hung around for another couple of hours, just in case there was a second resurrection - there wasn't - before heading off to Mudeford Quay where a Roseate Tern had been reported. Can you guess whether this (a) ended in disaster as a the tern was snaffled by a Bonxie just minutes before my arrival or (b) comprehensively rescued the afternoon as it fished just yards offshore in the evening light? That's right. The correct answer is (b).

Friday 25 October 2013

Legging it

'Undignified trot', it's been pointed out to me, is an oft-used phrase on this blog. I should explain it's not a reference to Derek Hatton of 1980s Militant Tendency infamy. Rather, it's usually deployed to describe the spectacle of middle-aged men jogging, laden with optics, the last couple of hundred yards to the site of a rare bird in the hope of seeing it before it flies off. In the case of a Semipalmated Plover in Hampshire last weekend, only the third British record, this unedifying behaviour seemed entirely rational.

Speaking of legging it, after twitching Saturday, Sunday was reserved for a quick twirl around Swineham, where a Yellow-legged Gull was one of the highlights 
The Plover in question had been present for a couple of days intermittently over high tide. Steve, Jol and I therefore played it cool by not setting off before 10am on Saturday as high tide was forecast for early afternoon. (I say cool, try standing on the pavement with Jol, second only to me for twitchy neurosis, waiting for a lift with a tick at stake). With an hour to go to the site, the pager reported the Plover had been refound, but it stayed just 2 minutes before flying off. Not good for the neurotics on board.
...and a view of the yellow legs on the same bird, in case you like your large larid identification made simple, and primary patterns don't float your boat
An hour later, as we entered the backstreets of Hayling Island, it came back, conveniently close to a car park we had just passed. After an emergency stop/three point turn/pay & display routine we baled out, one of us shamefully leaving a car door open, can't remember who, and headed up the windy seafront. A small knot of birders were huddled on the shingle a few hundred yards hence looking through scopes, but between us and them were two dog walkers and their mutt, tail all of a wag. Imagine a large flock of Ringed Plover flying away with a lookalike Semipalmated playing 'Where's Wally' among them...
Clouded Yellow on graveyard flowers in a Wareham churchyard - not bad for 20th October.
There have been enough unhappy endings on this blog this year though, and fortunately the dog was on a lead and the Plover stayed put. Despite suboptimal viewing conditions and some imperfect direction-giving - 'it's on the shingle' (on a shingle beach - no s***!), 'below the groyne' (do you mean the groyne below which every single wader in view is sitting?), 'by a piece of litter' (have you seen the state of this beach?) - we all got on it before too long. The Plover wasn't seen after a tornado hit Hayling Island the following day, and I was concerned it may have joined the Needletail (windmill)/Great Snipe (cat)/Short-toed Lark (Merlin) roll call of 2013 tragic rare bird snuffings. I see it's back today though so apparently not. Phew.
Semipalmated Plover. By that bit of shingle.

Thursday 17 October 2013

A face in the sun

Evening sunshine bathed Portland Bill on a visit after work on Tuesday but the long-staying Short-toed Lark remained resolutely in the shade, just allowing its head and back to catch the sun from time to time. It eventually made its way down the track towards me. This time a considerate dog walker held back to allow me to carry on shooting; but like Sunday's tractor, ultimately he could not suppress the urge to press on and the Lark flushed again.


Monday 14 October 2013

Family fun

I'd heard mixed reports about the ease with which a recent Short-toed Lark at Portland Bill could be seen. Some said it was nice and confiding, others found it difficult to catch up with. Attempting to connect with it this weekend was complicated slightly by the need to visit family in Devon with two boisterous sons in tow. Both have inherited their father's low boredom threshold, but not his passion for standing around in the cold waiting for rare birds to appear.
Short-toed Lark. I might have got closer, but a considerate tractor-driver who stopped for us when he realised we were watching the bird eventually had to move along the track which inevitably flushed it.
On the way down on Saturday I resisted the temptation to recourse to bribery, figuring that it would be good for them to learn a bit of patience. A mistake, with hindsight: we missed the lark by five minutes, boredom soon set in (them not me) and I was nagged into giving up after a short vigil.
Green Sandpiper: connoisseur of Devon ditches
On the way back from Devon on Sunday, I was better prepared: the Nintendo DS was fully charged and loaded - with Junior Brain Trainer, I hasten to add, lest I be accused of corrupting my own kids with shoot 'em up games just to buy time for a twitch. As if. This, I have belatedly discovered, will generally give at least an hour of trouble free birding. So I parked them on a picnic blanket, with Kitkats, next to the Lark's favoured track. This seemed to work, as I saw the bird almost straight away about 100 yards from our hastily erected base camp. 
Grey Wagtail: another ditch dweller. Amazing how little water these birds will settle for. My sister had a basement apartment in Brighton with a wholly enclosed 10ft by 10ft courtyard garden surrounded by several storeys of flats on every side, into which leaked an overflow pipe. The first and only bird on her garden list? Grey Wagtail. 
Between all this merriment, whilst in Devon, an unpromising looking culvert at the end of Mum and Dad's road, which held a Dipper and a Kingfisher on my last visit, turned up a Green Sand and a Grey Wag on this occasion. Apparently they get Otters there too so it must be vying with the PC World drain in Poole for the title of best ditch in the South West.
Sons plus cousin Ethan. Happiest when not twitching.
The main attraction in Devon was neither avian nor animal though: baby Jonathan, recently arrived third nephew from my brother's brood, down from Scotland for a few days, is very much a human, and a bonny one at that. I'd never seen him before, so that's at least one tick this October. And surely a brownie point for mentioning almost the entire family in a single post.

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Book of the month

Some while ago now I promised a shameless plug for a new book in which I have some photos. As I said at the time, I'm not on commission or the plug would be more shameless, and on more widely read media, than this. But during a week in which I am unlikely to get out with the camera, it's also a good excuse to dust off the originals of pictures which appear in various guises in 52 Wildlife Weekends, the latest offering from veritable polymath and all round good sort, James Lowen.

I got to know James through a mutual friend in Geneva who always said 'you should get in touch with James, he's into birdspotting and that'. But it took a White-tailed Plover at Rainham Marshes for me to actually bump into him. Since then we have religiously made no effort whatsoever to meet up, in the certain knowledge that Dusky Thrushes and Black-bellied Dippers will appear with monotonous regularity, providing opportunities for chance encounters.
This handsome Short-eared Owl appears in a chapter on the Dee Estuary
If you buy the book, which you obviously should, you will find squeezed within its 234 pages a year's worth of ideas on how to enjoy some of the best wildlife encounters Britain has to offer. It was meticulously researched by a process which must have been an incredible hardship for the author, trudging around Britain, forcing his weary eyes to be clapped upon wildlife spectacle after tedious spectacle, barely able to summon up the enthusiasm to raise his camera and take pictures. On the subject of which, it's nicely illustrated, not by my modest efforts I mean, but by proper photographers whose names you'll recognise like David Tipling, Rebecca Nason and Hugh Harrop, as well as the author himself.

52 Wildlife Weekends will at the very least give you some additional ideas on how to get the most out of a trip you may have in mind anyway, but should also take a lot of the hard work out of planning a short wildlife break. 'Ah', I hear you say, 'but planning the trip is part of the fun for me'. If so, don't worry, it doesn't, like, book the hotel for you, or pack your suitcase or anything. It's just a book, for God's sake.
This Bottlenosed Dolphin illustrates a chapter on Invernesshire.
Just a book, maybe, but one which has something for everyone. If you're an inexperienced wildlife watcher, buy it for a tantalising menu to get your teeth into. If you like a challenge, buy it and try to do them all in a single year to see which comes first: bankruptcy or divorce. And for the keen but narrow-minded bird lover, buy it to broaden your horizons to other critters which, but for a twist of evolution, might still be tickable.

For the hardcore wildlife know-all inclined to snort 'pah, I don't need a book to tell me where to watch wildlife', buy it to tick off all the places you've already 'done' to confirm your sense of superiority over people with commitments, families, friends and stuff. And if you're so rich that you don't even have to wait for the weekend to go watch wildlife, then...well, I dunno, hire some of the rest of us to work as Sherpas or something, just don't rub it in. It sounds like you can afford to buy it whatever and at £14.99, probably less on Amazon, it's barely the price of a pint of milk. No need to check that with the nanny, it's true.

This Chough appears on the contents page. Taken at South Stack a few years ago.
So really there's no excuse not to buy it, except perhaps grinding poverty, a total lack of access to all good bookshops, or a complete disinterest in wildlife and/or weekends. Well done James for getting the right balance between entertaining prose and useful information. And thanks also for the idea for my own book: 1000 Birding Hotspots To Visit At Someone Else's Expense Before They Die. Coming soon to the bargain basket of a remaindered bookstore near you. Pre-order for next year's Birdfair and I might even write it.
The author James Lowen sporting what his mates describe as 'full camo gear' at the Dusky Thrush twitch, May 2013

Sunday 6 October 2013

Below par

The boys demanded a couple of hours aimless shooting at Weymouth's Pirate Crazy Golf course today. I trounced them of course - well they have to learn. In return I was allowed a couple of hours aimless shooting at the Red-breasted Flycatcher at nearby Camp Road. Like the golf, the photos were a bit below par, but the Flycatcher was a lot closer than last night's late showing, and close enough to be heard calling.