Tuesday 26 November 2013

Telling whoppers

On 20th November a posting on the Birds of Poole Harbour website hinted at the presence of a Whopper Swan Cygnus bubula in the Frome Valley. This rare American visitor is often seen in its home range associating with cheese Caseus cheddari, for which it is a carrier species, and occasionally fries Potatas frittas. It has a diagnostic go-large call (an unenthusiastic, guttural grunt with upward inflection, as if in a question). A confirmed sighting would be a first for Britain, and a target for many twitchers with intact collarbones.

Efforts were made to contact the landowner and arrange access. However, in feudal Dorset this proved easier said than done. The Hon Richard Van Ewe who owns, well, Dorset, agreed to allow twitchers to visit on condition that they paid a 50 groat tithe, returned to the land as peasant labourers for a minimum 30 days, and granted him the maidenhead of their first born daughters.

Whopper Swan. The differences from closely related Whooper Swan are subtle. Too subtle to detail here in fact. Perhaps a bit of extra yellow on the bill. Probably cheese.
While some Premier League listers would have gladly accepted these terms, the finders considered them undignified in the post-1832 Great Reform Act era. Fearful of a mass trespass unleashing the wrath of their feudal overlord, they then reflected on the wisdom of releasing the news. The original post was subsequently amended to say 'Whooper Swan', raising the inevitable charge of suppression, especially as a privileged handful of the Laird's footmen and serving wenches had by this point seen the bird and taken gripping photos. One of which is reproduced above in the hope of kicking off another massive Twitter war supporting the record submission.

Acrimony was the inevitable consequence. Recently estranged Bundesliga twitchers Larry Blagwell and GGRE Michael, who made the long journey south only to find that access to the site had been denied, were united in their anger: 'First the Devon Dusky Thrush, now this. It's disgraceful. What with the price of petrol and all we can't be travelling huge distances chasing shadows, in separate cars'.
In a bizarre twist, according to an occasionally reliable source, later in the week a man was overheard in the car park at Radipole Lake offering to sell a Whopper to passers-by while the distinctive go-large call could be clearly heard in the background. Near the drive-through.

Friday 22 November 2013

Previously unpublished

Still confined to barracks after self-imposed-GBH, and thus reduced to digging out half-written posts from yesteryear. I drafted this one in the close season when we thought we had talked eldest son George out of his weekend football commitments which were seriously getting in the way of twitching at the time. A decision he later reversed out of gratitude when the coaching staff gave him the 'Most Improved Player' award, the crafty schvines:

In a shock development this week, Wareham Rangers (U-10s) utility man George Moore announced his retirement from competitive football. Moore's agent cited 'non-footballing reasons' including a desire to concentrate on swimming, cricket, girls, learning how to spit and swear.

The news follows a training ground incident where it rained, George got nipple rash and sulked all the way home. Playing possibly his final fixture for Rangers last Sunday, George said he'd miss his team-mates, but was looking forward to spending more times with his Lego men.
Random bird photo. Otherwise there'll be letters.
Parents Peter and Claire, who have dutifully accompanied him to Saturday morning training sessions and Sunday afternoon fixtures across Dorset throughout the season, were said to be 'gutted, but would respect his decision'.

Visibly upset father Peter stopped punching the air briefly to comment 'I just don't know what I'll do with my weekends now. I'll probably just go birding or something. You know, to forget'.

Hah. Training tomorrow.

Moore Jnr gets 10 minutes as sub after a 60 minute journey to Shaftesbury away.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Morphine or Orphean?

No contest really. I would have loved to see an Orphean, of course, but this weekend I really needed the morphine rather more. Turns out that a broken collarbone gets a lot more painful after they operate on it. Surprisingly so compared to when I wrote my immediate post-break post, at which time I convinced myself it wasn't that big a deal. Hence the surgeon sending me home with a bottle of the hard stuff, a 5ml dose of which, as well as numbing the pain, makes staying awake and going out pretty much unthinkable. So much so that I couldn't even accept one of several kind offers of a lift to Wales to twitch the Orphean Warbler which turned up with gripping predictability no sooner than I was immobilised.

So as well as coming to terms with the end of my nascent career as a stunt-scooter ace, I'm also getting used to the idea of not carrying heavy optics around for a while. Unfortunately wielding them is not among the recommended recovery therapies. I've tried training children to hold the lens, but there's just too much camera shake. So the six weeks which lie ahead with one arm in a sling are going to be seriously restrictive, and I suppose I'd just better get used to it.

All this said it's been a positive brush with the NHS. Since a bout of procreation early in the century requiring regular hospital visits, we haven't had much call to use it in recent year but when you really need it, you're certainly glad of it. OK the food wasn't up to much and even with morphine I struggled to sleep with Elephant Man snoring on one side and Rowley Birkin with Tourette's on the other, involuntarily hurling abuse at the staff as he was. But the bits which mattered - like not waiting hours in A&E with busted bones, and the part which involved scalpels - I can't fault. Best of all it was all free, though as a self-imposed injury, I felt I should have paid some kind of one-off charge as a token gesture of my appreciation. A Pratfall Tax, if you will.

Not going out is already doing my head in, but on the upside the medics have made clear I should also avoid hoovering, ironing and tidying up for the next couple of months, and camping until summer 2016 at the earliest. It's true, I have a note.

Won't be busting any moves on this any time soon either

Sunday 10 November 2013

Surf scooter

Doctor: 'So what's he done?'
Nurse: 'Fractured his clavicle'
Doctor: 'How old is this guy?'
Nurse: '40 something'
Doctor: 'How did he do it?'
Nurse: 'Fell off his son's scooter'
Nurse: 'At least he was playing with his kids...'

This conversation, overheard outside the Triage room of the Dorset County Hospital A&E Department this evening, would have been quite amusing had I not been the subject of it.
The distinctive head shape and pattern of a juvenile Surf Scoter
The unfortunate result of some juvenile high jinks rather took the shine off the comprehensive 9-1 drubbing served up to Shaftesbury under-11s by visiting Wareham Rangers earlier this afternoon. Perhaps I was feeling invincible, inspired by the example of Moore Jnr, who minutes previously had scored the crucial 9th goal - a morale-sapping, stanchion-rattling volley kneed in from close range - just when the Shafters looked like clawing their way back into the game at 8-1 down.
The all dark wings help rule out the only real confusion species, Velvet Scoter.
Before all this tomfoolery I had spent a happy morning photographing the juvenile Surf Scoter in Poole Harbour, found on Thursday by Birds of Poole Harbour frontman Paul Morton, without the aid of his webcam this time. A coveted Dorset tick, it turned up on Thursday, just a couple of hours after I left the county for two days work in neighbouring Devon. So keen to catch up with it was I that I was first on site in Saturday morning's appalling weather, the worst of which I was spared thanks to the cosy National Trust hide at Brands Bay. Two attempts to photograph it at great distance in dark and damp conditions yesterday left me with nothing but dots on the sensor and chilblains from sitting down on a cold, wet harbour shore.
The Scoter associated loosely, but not always cordially, with Great Crested Grebes - this one chased it around for a minute or so
Today I was better prepared, teleconverters and a camping chair packed for a lengthy stakeout. I noted that it came in with the tide at 0800 Saturday, so figured 0900 would be a good time to start scanning on the rising tide today. A few birders were leaving already having not seen the bird, but it didn't take long before it did indeed appear from the north, albeit distantly.

Tail often held cocked
Despite heading our way it turned back and seemed to be feeding further up the harbour edge. I decamped and headed for the nearest promontory which afforded excellent scope views and made some record shots possible thanks to excellent light and the sun right behind me.

Surf Scoter dives with a small leap, opening the wings just before submerging. Like this.
Anyway, in case you were wondering, typing with a fractured collarbone is just about possible one-handed, but holding a camera is out of the question, so the good news is you'll be spared more grainy out of focus record shots like these for a while.
Not sure what's going on here - looks like a big pink tongue hanging out
I've been told to take 'nil by mouth' after midnight tonight, as I may need to go under the knife tomorrow to have some kind of metal plate fitted. Perhaps the NHS (who were great tonight by the way, even reassuring me that scooter-based injuries to Dads who should know better were actually quite common) could be persuaded to put a screw thread in the plate so I can use it as a lens mount.
This smart Great Northern Diver was slightly overshadowed by the rarer visitor to Brands Bay

Wednesday 6 November 2013

High wire Y-browed

You learn something new every day birding. Sometimes it's plumage details, sometimes calls, sometimes language. The language of birding, like taxonomy and Clements, is of course constantly changing. Take a recent addition to the birding lexicon: 'chimping'.
Shame about the perch
The Urban Dictionary, a scholarly work of reference often quoted in these pages, defines chimping as 'What one does after taking a picture with a digital camera and looking at the result. Derived from the words they speak when chimping: 'Ooo-oo-oo!'' There is a second definition offered, but you'll have to look that up yourself, it's too rude for this blushing blog.
Shame about the shade
Anyway, an excellent new verb, to chimp, capturing perfectly (by the clean definition, I mean) what the row of us digital primates photographing the Cogden Beach Sabine's Gull on Monday were doing, firing off a burst at the Gull, then frantically checking our photos for a sharp one.
Shame about the leaf
If the Sabine's Gull provided plenty of scope for chimping, the second good bird of the day, a Yellow-browed Warbler at Abbotsbury, did less so. A fast moving, leaf coloured leaf warbler surrounded by leaves, with high contrast sunshine/ shade thrown in to complicate matters, was potentially a recipe for frustration. When it did sit out for me, it was on the less than classic perch of a telephone wire. Still, probably my best yet of this species so mustn't grumble.
'Chimping' at Abbotsbury. Identity of chimps obscured to protect their privacy. No animals were harmed in the making of this picture.

Monday 4 November 2013

Can you have too much of a good thing?

No. Unless of course you don't like Sabine's Gulls in juvenile plumage. Which makes you the weirdo, not me. Enjoy responsibly:

My favourite shot after two hours with this bird this morning.

Another day, another worm. Much higher calorific value than nurdles.
A calmer day than Saturday. As in, I could actually stand up.
The Gull's routine was to fly in from the sea, hawk worms from the field, pausing only briefly on the ground, before heading back out to sea to wash and digest.

A close flyover - bird too large in the frame.
We thought we would have the bird to ourselves on a Monday morning but a small platoon from Dorset's army of the workshy and early retired were also there to enjoy the spectacle.

Turning for another worm.

This Weymouth birder liked it so much he got a fascinator made out of it.

Sunday 3 November 2013

'A what? From where?'

Watchers of rare birds will recognise this type of conversation with passers-by, of which there were plenty on the South West Coast Path yesterday as I tried to photograph a juvenile Sabine's Gull which was commuting between the sea and clifftop fields in gale force winds. Last time an approachable Sabine's Gull turned up in Dorset my only decent lens was being mended so reports of another had me planning a family day out at nearby Abbotsbury with a detour to Cogden built in. Depositing offspring and their mum at the Children's Farm - where else - I was granted a couple of hours to find and photograph the Gull. Finding it was easy enough as others were watching it on the sea as I arrived. Photographing it in very strong winds in air full of salt spray was another matter. Tripods and image stabilisers wouldn't have helped much, and I didn't have either anyway. So my chosen approach was to lie down on the edge of it's favoured field, back to the sea, with rucksack for lens support, and fire away.
Sabine's Gull: discovered in the nineteenth century by Joseph Sabine who named it after his brother Edward. Makes the Amazon voucher I gave my brother for his birthday seem a bit lame.
The species was first recorded on a high Arctic expedition to find the North West Passage, led by Rear Admiral Ross, who also has a gull named after him.

We wondered what the Sabine's Gull was picking from the surface of the field - this photo answers that question. Earthworms must be a delicacy for a pelagic species such as this.

A seawatch or pelagic trip would usually be your best chance of seeing Sabine's Gull, when you would be looking for this characteristic three-tone wing pattern.
Just to show size comparison with Black-headed Gull.
A beautiful plumage, especially the scalloping on the back.
The forked tail is another feature of this species.
It doesn't look like it in this shot but the Gull was struggling to stand still in the wind and kept being pushed sideways.
My reasonably heavy rucksack was also in danger of blowing away in the stronger gusts.
Another view of that distinctive upperwing pattern...
...mirrored faintly in the underwing.