Tuesday 31 December 2013

2013: Anas Horribilis?

No, not a new species of duck, just a reference to a year when bad luck (and/or bad judgement) combined to produce more than my fair share of disappointment, plus a bit of comedy and no small amount of tragedy. The Queen had one in 1992. An Annus horribilis that is. Then again her house burnt down and two of her kids got divorced in the glare of international publicity, which rather puts my minor setbacks in perspective. But it started going downhill for me in February when ill health prevented a long distance twitch to Shetland for a Pine Grosbeak. Probably for the best as I try not to make a habit of twitching islands, especially those close to the Arctic Circle. If only there were some kind of seasonal opportunity to make a resolution about stuff like that, I'd take it.
Sabine's Gull (Cogden, November): a photographic highlight of 2013
Then there was a hat-trick of long distance dips - for a Rock Thrush (Spurn, bird departed overnight, missed by a day), a Bridled Tern (Northumbs/Cleveland, mobile bird, missed by 20 minutes) and a Great Snipe (Spurn again, killed by cat, missed by a whisker, so to speak). None gave me the option of waiting on news, and while I obviously had the option of not going at all, I hoped that fortune might favour the brave. Sadly fortune was in Aberdeenshire (where another Rock Thrush was found later in the year), or on the Farnes (where the Bridled Tern relocated) or had to go back to work on the Tuesday when I went for the Snipe.
I kept this feather which fell from the lifeless corpse of the Great Snipe - a real low point in my twitching career.
I hung up my long distance twitching boots for a while after that but that didn't work either: the Great Snuff tragedy was cruelly mirrored by a similar fate suffered by a local Pallid Swift (snaffled by a Sprawk, missed by 20 minutes). Untimely deaths also befell a Short-toed Lark I saw (alive) on Portland, and rarities I never even went for, like the White-throated Needletail and a Glossy Ibis on the Western Isles. Of course, death is a fate which awaits many rare birds, but this year they just seemed to be more public and tragic than usual.
This picture explains why I got so little birding done with one arm out of action in November and December - the birdspotter needs two good arms: one to hold bins, one to hold Collins.
Then as the year approached its end I made a failed bid for a Darwin Award and suffered my first ever broken bone, rendering birding, photography and driving all but impossible for most of November and December. I missed a couple of sitters during this period, notably a long-staying Orphean Warbler, a Baikal Teal and any number of Parrot Crossbills. On the up-side, a period of sedentary reflection forced me to conclude that I should not allow myself to be defined quite so much by the length of my list, and perhaps more by the length of my scar:
Selfies were all the rage in 2013 - so here's the scar from my collarbone op in November: breaking this probably cost me three British ticks - almost as painful as breaking it in the first place.
Despite this brush with mature self-realisation, and lest I acquire a reputation for complete haplessness, I should say that I did manage to add six new birds to my British list in 2013. A Hooded Merganser from the armchair early in the year was a cheeky bonus but it took the Kent Dusky Thrush (pending decision from the birding police on racial purity) to bring an end to a record 7 month run without a new bird. A Pacific Swift in Suffolk in June gave me something to show for an exceptional summer when I either couldn't go for or missed everything else.
Pacific Swift (Suffolk, June)
A stonking October put a gloss on the year, starting with a Semipalmated Plover in Hampshire and ending with a Hermit Thrush in Cornwall. Steve Smith was driver for the first three of these (cheers Steve), and Jol Mitchell came along for the ride for the Plover, maintaining our 100% record as a trio, but I managed the Hermit Thrush all by myself, just when I was starting to believe my solo efforts at twitching were cursed. Then, as Britain's birding community was hanging up its bins under the mistletoe for 2013, and bloggers had prematurely published their 'reviews of the year', up turned the Brünnich's Guillemot - long-staying, photogenic and just down the road in Portland Harbour.
Hermit Thrush (Cornwall, October)
It wasn't all tazzing around the country chasing other people's rarities though: sometimes I just tazzed around Dorset chasing other people's rarities; and frequently, if not religiously, I could be found at Swineham, looking for my own, hope rarely fulfilled, but the experience always enhanced by not needing to travel far to get there.
Caspian Tern (West Bexington, July): this carrot-nosed brute was a Dorset tick for me in 2013.
A patch can be a cruel mistress, and while my relationship with Swineham improved overall, I continue to suffer from a form commitment-phobia, and confess to long periods of neglect during which my head has been turned by more exotic locations. When I did pay it more attention than a fleeting booty call though it rewarded me with quality patch ticks like Water Pipit, Jack Snipe, Red-throated Diver, Long-eared Owl and, best of all, White-winged Black Tern. The absence of the year-round floods made it a bit less appealing to bird than last year, but a patch is a patch, and as I'm stuck with it, I stuck with it, if only for the sake of the children who get to see much more of me when I bird locally.
White-winged Black Tern (Swineham, October): patch gold, in monochrome.
Photographically it was a rewarding year, all the lifers above being snapped for the record though only the Guillemot with any distinction. Fortunately I have low standards so I was happy with that. More successful photographically were a series of pelagics in August, and a trip to Scilly from where most of these embarked.
Great Shearwater (August, off Scilly): one of many highlights from four August pelagics.
Best birding day in 2013? A toss-up between a January bird race around Poole Harbour, and a Lyme Bay pelagic with Dorset birders and my old mate Matt Jones, taking a break from his miserable job of showing Stewart Island Kiwis to tourists for money, to revisit his native Blighty.
Sooty Shearwater (Lyme Bay, August): another pelagic highlight
Rare bird of the Year? Contenders for me include the Pacific Swift - the unlikely combination of a rare bird and an even rarer opportunity to drop everything as news broke to go see it - and the Hermit Thrush - the irresistible draw of a Yank in an idyllic Cornish valley in October. But for sheer chutzpah it has to be the Brünnich's Guillemot - mega-rare, very obliging and just down the road. Most photogenic bird of the year though was probably the approachable Sabine's Gull which graced the Dorset coast for a few days in October. Exquisite plumage + co-operative bird + too big to be killed by cat + good light - large crowd = happy days. A juvenile Dotterel with which I spent a happy hour on Bryher ran it a close second, and an Otter-dodging Black-bellied Dipper in Norfolk takes third place for charm.

Dotterel (Bryher, August)
My Dorset list profited reasonably well from in-county birding, with such scarcities/rarities as Bluethroat, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Tern, Icterine Warbler, Rosefinch, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Penduline Tit, Surf Scoter and Black (as well as Brünnich's) Guillemot being added to the county list. The county list seems to be gaining increasing importance for me, despite being based on an arbitrary medieval boundary subjected more recently to a random act of gerrymandering in the 1974 local government re-organisation. Silly really, but then so are most lists I suppose, so it's in good company.
Black-bellied Dipper (Norfolk, March)
And speaking of lists I suppose I ought to consider resolutions for the New Year. I do so with some trepidation as it was a quiet pledge to myself to aim for '500 before I die' that led to some of the rash decisions to go for stuff I would normally be more reticent about that led to the sorry dips mentioned above. 300 for Dorset before I'm 50 seems a bit more realistic though. Currently in the low 270s, with five years to go, assuming that Darwin Award comment doesn't come back to haunt me.
Bluethroat (Portland, March): a slightly tarty Dorset tick for me, but no less attractive for that. I waited for ages, then three came along at once.
All in all then, 2013 was not that horribilis at all, there was certainly more success than failure, and even the failures have, I hope, provided some amusement for the readers of my more confessional posts. Writing them has certainly been cathartic for the author and I dare say there'll be more to come in 2014. Happy New Year.
Brünnich's Guillemot (Portland, December): bird of the year for Dorset and beyond.

Sunday 29 December 2013


A good forecast, the last for a while, and no commitments today (ditto) saw me heading for Portland Harbour again for more leisurely study of the Brünnich's Guillemot. My Boxing Day twitch was exhilarating but not very rewarding photographically. A second visit last night produced excellent views but only poor photos in low light. Today I had enough time and light to do a bit better, and to try both of the main techniques being employed by photographers on site: namely (i) stake out a promising looking spot and wait for it to come to you; or (ii) run around like a headless chicken and try to anticipate where it will surface next after an extended dive. Both techniques produced a fair amount of failure, but both a few successes. First some stake-out shots:
The bird spent much of today in and around the marina.
Between frequent dives it would adopt this low in the water posture with wings dropped
A good stake out was on the harbour edge opposite a stone breakwater, a small gap through which the Brünnich's Guillemot had to pass when moving between Castletown and the marina. It passed through this several times in an hour last night, but only once or twice all the time I was present today - on this occasion I was in position.
Taken from the same place in low light last night.
Back among the piers of the marina.

And a few from the headless chicken collection:
A more alert posture, and one of my favourite views of the day
Trying to out-stare me.
Not a great shot but included to show how different this bird could look when sat high in the water.
Plus a few action shots. I was hoping for a wing flap but in about 6 hours I only saw it flap once, and it was too far out to photograph at the time.
An energetic dive...
...and a typical view of it vanishing under water.
Another mammoth dive begins.
I toyed with joining the birder's wagon train to Brixham for the White-billed Diver but, reflecting on the likelihood of ever having a better chance of photographing Brünnich's Guillemot, I decided to stay put. And when the Guillemot wasn't showing there were other birds to photograph:
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-breasted Mergansers
Black Guillemot - still very distant.
Black Guillemot. Out with the buoys.
Great Northern Diver off Hamm Beach last night.
Brünnich's Guillemot: Dorset Bird of the Year 2013

Thursday 26 December 2013

An auk-ward moment

The discovery of a Brünnich's Guillemot in Portland Harbour this morning could only have strained more relations if it had turned up 24 hours earlier. It presented hundreds of birders with the awkward choice between Boxing Day with the in-laws, and becoming Boxing Day outlaws. The honourable and loyal ones chose the former; the feckless and fortunate the latter.
Brünnich's Guillemot: a very rare visitor from the Arctic.
Twitching Portland would normally be a doddle for me, but we are spending Christmas in Hampshire, so there was a certain inevitability about Dorset's biggest mega of the year appearing the minute my back was turned. Fortunately I have a very understanding family: my lovely sister-in-law even made me a Turkey sandwich for the journey and took my kids to the Panto for the afternoon. Yes, I married well.
The bird had given close views earlier but had moved into an inaccessible area of the marina by the time I arrived. Difficult to get a clear shot through the metalwork as this photo shows.
This was just what the Doctor ordered from my point of view - arm now out of sling, I have still been pretty sedentary and somewhat lacking in motivation. But Claire said the impact of the phone call from Marcus Lawson, in which news of the Guillemot was broken, had the same effect on me as Lou turning his back on Andy in this Little Britain sketch.
A gang of Outlaws storm the walls of Portland Castle, built in 1539 by Henry VIII. On returning home, these guys were (from left): divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
Having broken the news to me, Marcus was on site to talk me in and even had a scope ready for me on the bird when I arrived breathless from the now customary undignified trot from the car park. Having left my own scope at home I was grateful: Swineham boys have to stick together.
A Great Northern Diver was also off the Sailing Academy
After having a bit of a snooze among the pontoons the Brünnich's gave everyone the slip for a while before reappearing further down the harbour edge. Here it was even more distant and, not wishing to push my luck with the in-laws, after another look at the still present Black Guillemot, I headed off. This also left just enough time to see a Glossy Ibis on the way back through Weymouth.
Never mind the magic of Christmas, this Glossy Ibis, presumably from a warmer part of Europe, turning up just a few miles from the Brünnich's Guillemot, hailing from the high Arctic, illustrated perfectly the magic of British birding.
I headed back to Hampshire slightly disbelieving of my luck at seeing all these good birds in a brief smash and grab raid, and having such tolerant rellies.
The finders of the Brünnich's probably thought they were hallucinating. So did I when this guy rolled past the assembled twitch. Listen, mate, take my advice about arsing around on scooters...

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Tystie. Very Tystie.

Still at the mercy of the rest of the family for trips out and they have gone beyond the point where indulging Dad is a selfless act of loyalty: now they have taken to extorting expensive treats in return. So yesterday's deal was, I get to stand in the cold for half an hour looking for birds in Portland Harbour, they get to sit in the warm car followed by lunch at the reassuringly expensive 'Taste' café at Ferrybridge. And very tasty it was too.
This may look like a bug going splat on a windscreen but it is in fact a first winter Black Guillemot. The red bits, rather than bug blood squishing out of its butt on impact, are in fact the trailing legs of the bird coming in to land.
While the boys only had eyes for strawberry milkshakes, my target for the trip was a Black Guillemot, or Tystie, as they call them in Shetland where they are pretty common. Not common in Dorset at all though - this was my first in fact, having failed to see a different bird of the same species which hung around in the same spot last winter, despite several attempts. This year was a bit easier with the bird showing almost immediately, diving around a group of coloured buoys, with a Black-throated Diver for company.
An even worse photo of a Black-throated Diver

Holding the camera is still far from comfortable since clavicle-gate, but I'd pretty much written off the rest of 2013 birdwise anyway so this was a bit of a bonus. And what with the foul weather I have all but succumbed to the temptations of a sedentary life on the sofa, stuffing potato-based snacks until I feel sick with guilt.

Speaking of guilt, as if vegetating on the couch eating unhealthy food and watching repeats and reality shows wasn't enough, along come the NSPCC seasonal ads. As one of life's natural cynics, who takes a dim view of most of humanity and its impact on the rest of the planet, Christmas is the one time of year when I get to pretend, just for a few days, that I can see the good in humankind and that everything is going to be fine, rest-of-the-world-wise. Then along comes the NSPCC to remind us of the true horror of existence, and the awful fact that life is, for many younger members of our species, cheap, nasty, brutish and short, and that quite a lot of people who ought to be looking after them are actually scum. Phew, for a minute there I was in danger of having a Merry Christmas. Hopefully it won't stop the rest of you having one. That's me wishing you all a 'Merry Christmas' by the way. What, too jolly?

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Mercy twitching

Sitting round the house with a face longer than the John Lewis Christmas ad finally did the trick last weekend: the family took pity and acceded to a mercy twitch for a pair of Common Cranes which had spent much of the previous week nearby. I was grateful, obviously, though I would be lying if I said they did it with any more grace and enthusiasm than I show when taking them to, say, a theme park. Perhaps I oversold it, promising two majestic specimens like Big Bird out of Sesame Street which, as you can see from the photo, is a slight exaggeration.

At least now I have some inkling of how all these kid-listers feel when they have to depend on their mums to take them to see birds. I met one once, a kid-lister's mum that is, deposited by her ungrateful spawn a discrete distance from the actual twitch and under instruction not to join the crowd, wipe his nose, tuck his shirt in or otherwise embarrass him. Always amusing when people with a hobby as geeky as birdspotting are concerned to maintain the aura of 'cool'. Per-lease. And disgraceful too, she should have left him there to cadge a lift with a carload of grown-up, flatulent herberts who would destroy his fragile ego all the way home with tales of all the good birds they had seen which he would never tick, on account of them being extinct, seen in parts of the Empire which had since gained independence or, in the case of Slender-billed Curlew, simply hallucinations.

Anyway, back to my rehabilitation into the uber-cool of the Dorset minor rarity twitching scene. This was one of my first trips out since my unsuccessful bid for a Darwin Award last month. It was just within my current physical range - as in, get driven to the site, step out of car, see birds, take photo of birds, get back in car, get driven home again, and have a lie down, all within a couple of hours. The only difficult bit was the photo, which I just about managed with contortions which were bearable, but probably not what the doctor would have ordered. Fortunately they were very big birds, so even I couldn't screw up the chance of a record shot.

Next weekend's rehab plan is to see if I can walk as far as Swineham. So if you're getting sick to death of self-regarding Christmas ads by shops who need to get over themselves, or the unbearable tension of the Strictly dance-offs (you know who you are), just turn off the TV and log on to see if I get that far.
Common Cranes, both first winter birds, so lacking the red, white and black head and neck markings of adult birds.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

In sickness and in health

Week three of enforced inactivity as my collarbone slowly heals. The psychological damage of not going out is almost as bad as the physical, and I have become, I was reliably informed whilst having my feet hoovered around this week, moody and irritable. Having passed through the morphine-haze phase, I'm now in that purgatory of being well enough to do some work on my trusty laptop, but not well enough to do much in the way of play. Frustrating doesn't begin to describe it. I can totter short distances before discomfort kicks in, but even Swineham is out of my current range, and as for twitching, I was almost pleased when the long-staying Orphean Warbler eventually did one: every day the pager reported it had popped its pale iris over the parapet rubbed a little salt into the newly acquired 5 inch scar on my shoulder.

That said I just about managed to poke my head outside on a couple of occasions last week, thanks to Claire, taking a break from hoovering around me, and moving herself another step closer to canonisation in the process. She nursed me to the car, buckled me up and drove me around as I squinted into the light. She even carried my camera while I took some test shots from the garden to see if my lens was broken after my fall (it was on my back in a rucksack at the time) - as one wag has suggested, a very pretty tripod. I knew that the 'in sickness and in health' clause would come in handy one day.

Otherwise, the enforced absence from the field with bins and camera has made me realise I'm probably a bit too dependent on it for my relaxation and enjoyment. Even my 10 year old lad can see this, pointing out (perceptively, if somewhat impertinently) that I wouldn't be so miserable if I had more hobbies than birdwatching. My defence - that I'm not so one dimensional, I don't just watch birds, I photograph them, blog about them, draw them and keep lists of them - somehow failed to win the argument...
Some good news at last - lens appears not broken!