Wednesday 22 January 2014

It's my birthday and I'll twitch if I want to

It was my birthday last week and I was told that for the weekend that followed I could do anything I wanted. Anything. After twitching an American Coot in Inverness was ruled out, along with some other unprintables, the suggestion of a weekend in Sherwood Forest was deemed acceptable. The choice of accommodation was between (i) the children's dream weekend at Centerparcs for the price of a medium-sized family car or (ii) a couple of nights in a cheap motel for a fraction of that. The motel was great, complete with a private plunge pool (ok, bath), multi-media entertainment centre (clock-radio) and acres of landscaped grounds (car park). I did say it was my birthday.
Twitching the American Coot in Scotland did not fall within the definition of doing 'anything I liked' last weekend. So here's a Eurasian Coot in Clumber Park, Notts, instead - a Honey Buzzard hotspot in summer.

Marsh Tit, Sherwood Forest
In truth this choice of location was not entirely motivated by a desire to imbibe the spirit of Robin Hood. No, the area is currently playing host to a flock of Parrot Crossbills, a bird I felt cruelly robbed of catching up with late last year after a couple of dips followed by my extended absence from birding due to 'health problems'.
Coal Tit, Sherwood Forest
Blue Tits, Sherwood Forest
Speaking of health, time was I would have marked the passage of another year of my life with a boozy session. Two things have put paid to this. First, acceptance that my tolerance of the ale is approaching that of Blackadder - a couple of pints and I'm singing songs about goblins and insulting close relatives.

Second, some well-intentioned but rather joyless experts have created the idea of 'Dry January'. It's hard enough to get people to go drinking at this time of year with everyone skint after Christmas without this: no consideration for those of us with birthdays in the New Year! And if you go to the Alcohol Concern website, there's a tiny disclaimer at the bottom: 'Please note that this is not a medical detox programme and should not be attempted by people with an alcohol dependency problem'. So just killing responsible levels of joy then?
Goosander, Rufford - a good site for Hawfinch and Lesserspot
Drake Goosanders, Rufford Mill
Anyway, enough bitter recriminations about a high-life lost. At first, if I'm honest, I was worried that this trip was just me dragging a reluctant family along on a tick-hunt: the workmanlike pursuit of a new bird to add to the list for the shallow satisfaction of seeing it grind forward by another meaningless notch. But in the end it was much better than that: yes another meaningless tick was indeed gained (at least until the Crossbills are lumped) but there was also quality time away with the family, a new part of the country to explore, other good birds to see and another potential holiday venue recce-ed for future reference. Plus we got to don capes of Lincoln Green, shoot our bows and arrows in the woods and visit the Major Oak of legend.
Drake Pochard, Rufford
Drake Tufted Duck, Rufford
I say I gained a tick, but actually these birds have proved controversial on 'Birdforum'. (Sorry - I've just realised how ridiculous that sounds - the suggestion that adding two and two makes four being controversial on Birdforum). Some say you can't really tick Parrots in the absence of sonogram evidence. Others that some are so obviously 'Parroty' that they can be safely identified with good views and on call. The Budby Common birds had been hanging around in a flock of 14, had been faithful to the same area of pines (which Parrots favour), and sonograms of their calls apparently looked good for Parrot, so they seemed a reasonably safe bet. 
This male had a particularly chunky bill, and repeated the curse words of passing birders, both good features for Parrot
This forehead-less female was chucking cones around like, well, like they were the tiny seed-bearing fruits of a pine tree. We weren't fortunate enough to have them drinking out of puddles at our feet, and the light was shocking, but got good views through other people's scopes at least.

To me, having listened to and read about as much about Crossbills as my brain could handle, they sounded good for Parrots and they looked good for Parrots. While there was undoubtedly some variation in bill size/shape within the flock, none of the bills looked small enough to be 'typical' Common, and the flight calls were definitely purer and deeper than the 'glip' of Common. After further research, however, I have settled on the most scientifically fool-proof method of deciding whether or not they can be ticked: eenie, meenie, miney, moe...
The flock flew off after a while but heading back to the car in the direction they had flown, I came across what appeared to be part of the flock feeding right overhead. A horrible angle, and shocking light again but the head and bill looking disproportionately large here.
Deep-billed and bull-headed, like the books say, and looking very Parrot-like at this angle, though perhaps the lower mandible not bulging as much as some.

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