Wednesday 26 March 2014

An open letter to Mr Cadbury

After the success of my last open letter, which was followed by an immediate opinion poll boost for the 'Yes' campaign in Scotland, I thought I would have another go:

Dear Mr Cadbury, also Messrs Walkers, Mars etc

I have been consuming your products for over 40 years now. I hope to have another 30 years before they kill me, so I reckon I'm well within your target demographic. I'm also incredibly brand-loyal, eschewing cheap copycat products for yours, and, when the mood takes me, will stop at almost nothing to procure my favourite snack at almost any price. So your dream punter in many ways. Lots of my fellow birders are too: I've been on long distance twitches in cars full of blokes who consume little else. The problem is that just lately I've been buying my usual treats and it's left me, well, dis-satisfied. There are two possible explanations for this:

1. Over the four decades I've been buying your stuff, I've got a lot bigger, and by a quirk of perception my chocolate bars and crisp packets just appear a lot smaller.

2. In a misguided attempt to remain price competitive you've been reducing the amount I get for the same money on the sly and hoping I won't notice.

I appreciate that times are hard, that you've been real busy with all those mega-mergers and wotnot, and that your pre-tax profits have shrivelled to mere telephone numbers in recent years as a result. And I'm equally sure you are motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep me fit by feeding me smaller amounts of unhealthy food whilst trousering an increasing proportion of my disposable income so that I can't fritter it away on yet more unhealthy food. I'm touched, really.

But clearly there is a dearth of ideas at work in your business plans, so here's a few to chew/suck/crunch on:
  • Cut out some of that unnecessary packaging instead of the actual product. My Twix today was like a couple of skinny arms in a wizard's sleeve. Apparently it's down to 50g from 58g then 62g a few years ago. If the trend continues I calculate by 2020 I'll be leaving the newsagent having paid 59p for an empty bag.
  • Save money on expensive advertising campaigns. Half of it only ends up in the noses of over-paid creatives so you'll be helping the war on drugs too.
  • Just be honest and if the price of cocoa goes up, tell us you're going to charge us more. You could even drop the price when it goes down. Even energy companies have cottoned on to that, and they're really unpopular.
On second thoughts forget it. Stuff your shrinking chocolate and your stingy snacks. I'm going to take up fruit. Yes, I'm that angry.

Nothing to do with birds or chocolate. But he's licking his lips at least. Brown Hare at Elmley in Kent, taken in February.
Post Script: while conducting the usual in-depth research for this post I came across this fascinating post on a foodie blog. It contains a statement from a Mars Chocolate UK spokesperson when challenged on the shrinking size of a Twix. It bears repeating: “As part of our commitment to promote responsible consumption, and as a signatory of the Department of Health’s Responsibility Deal calorie reduction programme, we made a pledge to ensure that all of our single-serve chocolate products would contain no more than 250 calories per portion by the end of 2013.  To meet this commitment, after taking product reformulation as far as we can for now without compromising the great taste of the product, we have reduced the portion size of our TWIX bar to bring down the calorie content.” So what I thought was a smart-alec jibe about hiding behind concern for public health to sell me less for the same price is actually true. If I hadn't just done so, I'd say you couldn't make it up.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Coming and goings

Still some winter visitors around in Dorset providing plenty of interest as they overlap with the incoming spring migrants. Not that I've seen many of those yet, though a flock of 40 Sand Martin at Swineham on Friday evening lifted the spirits.
Spoonbill at Swineham on Friday - a winter visitor

Sand Martin at Swineham - an incoming spring migrant
Saturday took us to Weymouth for a children's party - fortunately the weather held and even more fortunately I was let loose during the festivities to check out Chesil Cove for a long-staying Iceland Gull. It had been seen shortly before my arrival but despite walking halfway back to Ferrybridge along the mighty barrier beach I still hadn't seen it.
Marsh Harrier - one of three at Swineham on Friday
Male Shelduck at Swineham getting into breeding condition
As I turned back it was reported at Ferrybridge and a leggy canter saw me arriving breathlessly just as a dog walker put it to flight. I took my eye off it and didn't see it land but took a punt that a white blob further along the beach might be my bird so headed in that direction. Forgetting Brett's advice to take a loaf of bread, by which it had been tempted at times apparently, I still managed a reasonably close approach.
Iceland Gull at Ferrybridge yesterday
Shocking pink legs!
Today was spent around Poole Harbour due to a home game for Wareham Rangers U-11s. We were 2-0 up after 7 minutes and then converted a penalty. The Arsenal fans among us were in cold sweats having flashbacks to yesterday at the Bridge. Unlike profligate Chelsea, however, who only managed another three, Rangers bagged a further eleven goals to boost their promotion prospects.
Ringed Plover, Ferrybridge

Turnstone, Ferrybridge
Son George, watched by a capacity crowd including proud cousin Harry and partner Bron, scored the critical 14th goal, a deft left foot volley from close range redirecting a mis-hit overhead kick from a team-mate. Good job too, I think a comeback was on the cards.
Dark-bellied Brent Goose - still a few in Brands Bay by they will soon be heading off for their breeding grounds
And for those who doubt I ever spend any time with my family - you know who you are - here's the proof. Middle Beach, Studland where we spent a whole hour this morning.
Before that we'd managed a family meander around Studland, where the over-wintering juvenile Surf Scoter was still present in a blustery Brands Bay. Last time I saw this bird was the day I broke my collarbone, and today was the first day I've really carried the scope any distance since that, so there was some closure of sorts on that chapter. A pretty good weekend really. Roll on the next.

Six of the nine Spoonbill at Swineham on Friday

Wednesday 19 March 2014

An open letter to the People of Scotland

Dear People of Scotland

While I completely recognise that it would right a wrong of history, and would almost be worth it just to see the look on the faces of certain English people, I feel obliged to point out some of the unintended consequences of voting for independence. For starters, it would play havoc with my UK list. My monster twitch for your American Coot recently would have been a waste of time. And both my American Herrings Gulls would have to be binned. Not to mention the Masked Shrike, the Snowy Egret, the Harlequin Duck, the Black-browed Albert, the Greater Yellowlegs and a fistful of Scottish specialities. Just over a dozen deletions in all, I reckon, and that's damage I can ill afford at this stage of life.
Snowy Egret? Snowy Reject more like, if Scotland votes for independence.
Yes I know I could persevere with a British list based on the old one in the event of a 'yes' vote. But then that would be based on a sort of biogeographical unit rather than an arbitrary national boundary. And once I've crossed that rubicon, there's no reason not to include Ireland is there? Stuff it, why not the whole Western Palearctic? The whole world? I'll tell you why, because keeping an arbitrary national list stops me going too far, spending money I don't have, travelling to places I would want to go back to thus neglecting family, career, friends etc. That arbitrary national boundary, dear People of Scotland, is all that stands between me, destitution and probably divorce. Do you really want that on your conscience?
Take the high road? Tell me about it: I bust a puny English lung fighting gale force winds to get up into Coire an Lochain on Cairngorm to photograph this beauty. We don't get many of these in Poole Harbour.
No, I thought not. So let's make a deal. You can keep the oil revenues. We'll amend the Act of Succession so Nicola Sturgeon can be next in line to the throne. We'll bail out your banks if it all goes pear. And in return, all we ask is that the English get to keep Scottish birds on their list. If that's not enough, you can even have Northumberland, just like the old days. Besides, I've never had a tick there.
In the middle of this picture is a tiny black and white speck. That speck is a Black-browed Albatross, digiscoped on a tiny Scottish rock with a tiny camera from a tiny boat in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  You can take my list, but you'll never take my memories.

Sunday 16 March 2014


It's taken me years to see Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in Dorset, testament not just to what a duffer I am but also to how difficult they have become to catch up with. All that changed in Wareham Forest this weekend and while I didn't exactly have them drumming on my lens cap like this one photographed superbly by Brett Spencer yesterday, I was happy to get some record shots of a pair. A Great Spotted was battering its head on the same tree and Green Woodpeckers flying around the same area completed the set.
Male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in flight
Female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Female Great Spotted Woodpecker - compare with previous shot
Woodlark was also present near the Woodpeckers
Brimstones confirmed the arrival of Spring
Grey Squirrel
Fieldfare were shipping out as the warmer weather arrived
And this Great Grey Shrike in Wareham Forest won't be around for long either

Monday 10 March 2014

Pond dipping

Swept along by the collective conviction/delusion that Chinese Pond Heron could be a genuine vagrant to Britain, three-quarters of a carload of us headed off to Kent yesterday for a look at the long-staying one near Hythe. Needing to re-acquaint myself with parenting duties after last weekend away, I declined the offer of a lift on Saturday with Steve and Marcus (who both saw the bird), but expressions of interest in a Sunday jaunt were subsequently rustled up from Brett and Ken. After sub-optimal amounts of sleep, off we set. Ken had been to a late night soiree and not even gone to bed before we picked him up, so was looking dapper in jacket and slacks. Definitely the best dressed birder in Kent yesterday. Though among the fleecewear, Bermuda shorts and T-shirts revealing an impressive array of guttage, the competition wasn't exactly stiff.

On the journey there we discussed our firm belief in the vagrancy potential of the species, and the many factors which pointed to it being a truly wild bird. Returning eight hours later empty handed, we were forced to conclude that it was obviously plastic, a travesty if admitted to the British list, and that having gorged all the goldfish in Saltwood, it had presumably now returned to the carp farm where it previously lived as an eccentric's pet. OK, an unringed, unheard of in captivity kind of pet, but a pet nonetheless. A conclusion not borne out of bitterness, you understand, we just had our eyes opened by the power of not seeing the bird. You know, like how it works on Birdforum.

Arriving as day broke, we parked up next to half a dozen other cars, and, taking our cue from their occupants, remained in the vehicle in case the noise and movement reduced the chances of the Heron coming in to land in its favoured tree nearby. The scene looked like the Keystone Cops on a stake-out, complete with coffee and doughnuts on dashboards. A few too many doughnuts in the case of some later arrivals, who proceeded to get out, stretch their legs, play with their loose change, chat, guffaw, smoke and break wind in full view of this apparently shy bird's preferred perch. So much for the subtle approach.

Firecrest was the only bird worth trying to photograph all day. I screwed that up too so here's one I prepared earlier.

So we amused ourselves by cruelly mocking our fellow twitchers and their ridiculous hobby from the comfort of the car until it became clear the bird was going to break its recent morning routine. At that point we concluded that scouring the area was probably more use than standing around guffing and generally making a racket under a tree to which no Chinese Pond Heron in its right mind was ever likely to return.

We checked all the sites where Steve and Marcus had seen the bird the day before, sniffed out every pond within a mile radius, and tried a likely looking stretch of the Royal Military Canal, all to no avail. And in the process of searching we encountered the usual mixed reaction from local residents subjected to a twitch. Some were clearly enjoying the celebrity of their avian visitor. Others seem to have concluded that strangers hanging around could only mean what suburban folk fear most: child abduction, or, worse, inconsiderate parking.
A dip is always disappointing of course, especially as the bird looked nailed on (literally to a shed roof, judging by some of the photos). But the gallows humour of my travelling companions lightened the load to such an extent that by the time I got home I can honestly say I felt comprehensively over it. And despite not seeing it, I wish the Pond Heron well in its journey onto the British list. Let's hope we're not all dead before it makes it, or indeed before another one turns up.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Gull of Kintyre

By last weekend I had pretty much given up hope of adding a long-staying American Coot, which turned up in Scotland in January, to my British list. My network of birding chums is not extensive and those within it had either been already or could not be persuaded to go. Fortunately, I get to benefit vicariously from my friend Steve Smith's excellent network, and was able to plug into it when he tipped me off that there might be space in a car going from Bristol, targeting an American Herring Gull on the Mull of Kintyre (to give precise co-ordinates, that's at the bottom left hand corner of Scotland) en route to the American Coot at Loch Flemington (not far off the top right).
American Coot, Loch Flemington: differentiated from our own Coot by the deep red spot at the top of the shield, the dark band near the tip of the bill, and white edges to the undertail coverts which are just visible in this shot.
Fluid plans eventually solidified during the week so that the team for the weekend was: entomologist Dave Gibbs, water industry executive Andy Mears, and audio equipment entrepreneur Chris Gooddie, known to the more well-read among you as author of the Pitta-pursuit chronicle, The Jewel Hunter. With me the local government officer from the planning department in tow, if anyone had been minded to commission an Environmental Impact Assessment of constructing a new main sewer on invertebrate life, and put it on an audio-book to be listened to in glorious surround sound, the perfect team to do it would have been right there in that car.
We stayed in the car at Loch Flemington hoping the American Coot would come closer but it remained quite wary. Many twitchers adopted a 'must I?' approach to seeing this bird. Well I thought it was under-rated by the reluctant listers who turned their noses up but ticked it anyway. I certainly wouldn't complain if I found one at Swineham!
I saw an American Herring Gull on Lewis in 2004, but was keen to see another, and it was a new bird for the other three. American Coot was also a tick for Andy, and the others were happy to go and see it despite the long distance between the two birds.
The American Coot enjoys a fat cigar. I was tempted to join it after such a successful twitch.
So the plan for the weekend formed thusly: leave Friday night, arrive at Campbeltown at first light, tick the American Herring Gull early doors, head off to Inverness later that morning, and have the other rare Yank in the bag by mid afternoon. Then bed down somewhere comfortable and see a few Scottish specialities before heading south on Sunday lunchtime. An ambitious plan requiring a fair bit of luck, but that's almost exactly how it panned out, the only departure from it being a bonus excursion on Saturday evening to admire seaduck and divers as the sun set on Burghead Bay.
The local Moorhens snaffled up the offerings of food so rudely spurned by the American Coot. 
The first step in the plan - arriving for first light - almost fell foul of my ancient Satnav as it doesn't recognise roadworks or new junctions. But having survived its attempts to get us to U-turn on the M8 and ditch us in the Clyde, we still arrived just before sunrise. We picked up the distinctive Gull in the twilight of Campbeltown Harbour, and enjoyed a fly-around before it headed off to roost in fields where we later caught up with it for more leisurely study, albeit at some distance.
The American Herring Gull is on the right of this trio. Bulkier than the neighbouring Herring Gull, with a cleaner white head, strongly patterned underparts and two-tone black and pink bill. We enjoyed closer views of these and other key features in Campeltown Harbour but it was too dark for photographs unfortunately. 
The Coot was simpler to find and identify, revealing itself from loch-side vegetation soon after our arrival. While coy at first, it eventually moved out into the open but the leftovers of breakfast which we made available out of the car window were not enough to tempt it to come really close. A great shame as Chris was desperate to put out the news as 'American Coot still present and coming to croissants'.
A White morph and an intermediate Snow Goose were associating with Greenland White-fronts as we headed back up the Mull of Kintyre.
Apart from the great birding, the Scottish weather was extraordinarily clement, the journey trouble-free but for some torrential English wetness on the way back down, and the company was excellent. Non-avian highlights included nodding off in the back seat near Loch Ness to dream I was in the middle of a blazing row about the existence of its eponymous monster, only to wake and find it wasn't a dream. Lowlights included a fruitless search for, well, fruit, in a Scottish motorway service area on the way home to fend off the scurvy which threatened after two days of living off delicious but unhealthy snacks. Green wine gums were the only thing we could find containing vitamin C.
While not at its stunning winter best, this male Long-tailed Duck in Burghead Harbour was still an attractive species to see.
All told, then, an excellent trip, and I was grateful to the other guys for letting a neurotic itinerant stranger into their twitching circle for the duration. I should also at this point publicly record my gratitude to my long-suffering wife for releasing me from paternal duties for the weekend. These, I have been informed since, included standing on a windy, rain-lashed touchline in Poole to witness an 8-2 victory for Wareham Rangers U-11s over Lilliput U-11s (a giant-killing, surely?).
Coal Tits are pretty tame at Loch Garten
As if that wasn't enough, I was unable to join the rest of the family at that pinnacle of cultural sophistication, the Purbeck Potato Festival. It is difficult to quantify the level of regret I feel about missing that. So if things go quiet in this space over the coming weeks it's probably because I have enacted a drastic Brownie Point Jar Deficit Reduction Plan. Swingeing cuts in my twitching exploits are sure to follow.
Bored with obviously staged photos of Bluetails and Great Spotted Woodpeckers on sickeningly mossy branches on Birdguides? Then here's the antedote. To get this shot I placed a carefully selected bit of chicken wire next to the bogs at Loch Garten and covered it in Pritt-stick.