Sunday 27 April 2014

New arrivals

Spring migrants continue to arrive - those that haven't been needlessly slain in Malta, that is - click here for details of the problem there and what you can do about it. If the Nightingales which return to Dorset to breed in small numbers every year follow a similar route to this one tagged with a geolocator a few years ago, they don't have to go through Malta, so that's at least one peril they don't have to face.
When I lived in Kent we had some healthy colonies nearby and competing males singing almost constantly throughout the day could be almost showy, particularly early in the breeding season. Not so in Dorset, where there are just a few small colonies, and where any view is a good view. An early start took me to one of the traditional sites where an unusually visible male had a melodic duel with a nearby rival.
Not quite the repertoire of a Nightingale, but always nice to hear Yellowhammer
Another male Yellowhammer
Garganey, our only summer visiting duck, is another migrant to get the pulse racing. So a report of three drakes on the patch at Swineham saw me hot-footing it down there last night in a race against the weather and the twilight, which I just about won. Fortunately they weren't on the distant floods which those who saw them insist on calling 'the Stilt pools' (grrr) but on the much closer ones next to the main path.
Female Blackcap
Male Bullfinch
Twitching this trio deprived me of the opportunity to sit poolside in 40 degree temperatures surrounded by the shrill echo of parental encouragement as various children, including my own, performed at a swimming gala. They did well, and while I was sad to dip out on that, I'm sure there will be other opportunities. There were not to be for the Garganey, which had moved on by the time I dragged my own little dabblers back down to Swineham this morning.
Stonechat are well into their breeding routine - this is the male
And this the female
Speaking of new arrivals, we had a couple ourselves today. Not human ones, I hasten to add - even I would have mentioned that higher up the post - para 2 at least. No, I have been under pressure to accede to getting a family pet for some time. I agreed to stick insects but these weren't cuddly enough apparently. A cat was clearly out of the question, and, having stepped in too many of their by-products over the years, so was a dog.
Garganey at Swineham
You wait for ages...
Fearing another veto, the rest of the family decided to not even consult me about the latest acquisitions - and so today arrived a pair of Guinea Pigs, donated by friends who presumably have enough to eat. At least they are quiet, don't need walking, keep the grass to a nice short sward and are sufficiently low maintenance to not get in the way of birding. Plus, being the long-haired variety, they look like they might come in handy when I get home from Swineham and my mud-caked wellies need a shine. In conclusion, about as tolerable as possessing a rodent could be. 

Raptors were also on the wing this weekend around Purbeck - Peregrine
A Buzzard was making off with some kind of rodent. Guinea Pig?
Whitethroat - many now back on territory


Friday 25 April 2014

A glass half full

Well, it's been quite a week. Finding but failing to identify a rare bird has always been one of my worst nightmares - reputations being so fragile and all that, and the birding community seeming a bit unforgiving at times. But now it's happened, it's turned out to be, well, a pretty positive experience. In fact, as I write there is still a warmish glow which can't just be put down to the half-empty bottle of Badger in front of me.

Slightly eclipsed by the Northern Harrier on Monday, this smart but shy Garden Warbler was singing from deep cover by Portland Obs
Even I got this one: shorter hindclaw, pink base to a stouter bill, bold streaks fading to fine on the flanks and contrast between buffy breast and white belly makes this a Tree Pipit, not a Meadow. And it was in a tree. A hint of the light spot/dark spot face pattern of an OBP. Oh God, please don't tell me it is an OBP....
Finding a Northern Harrier on Monday (but not clocking its true identity - take a bow, Martin Cade) might not have done much for my reputation as a crack birder but it seems to have brought my scribblings via this medium to the attention of a wider audience. Some really generous comments on my finder's account - so a big thank you to all who made them. If you enjoyed that, scroll back far enough and you'll hopefully find more of the same, though admittedly in my posts the rare bird is usually gone by the time I arrive, and generally not found by me. Unless it's dead.
Willow Warbler was the most common migrant on Portland on Monday. Pale legs help differentiate it from Chiffchaff. Hmmm, Pale-legged and a Warbler. On a Leaf. Nope, it's not ringing any bells.
This Sparrowhawk was taking advantage of the influx of migrants on Barleycrates Lane on Monday. Those shins look rather sharp though, don't they...
Just when the interest seemed to have peaked, Birdguides pronounced the Northern Harrier the 'Bird of the Week' on Wednesday, producing another spike in the blog stats, the graph for which currently looks like a screenshot from a heart monitor on Casualty. Being the glass half-empty sort I was initially disappointed at not identifying the Harrier myself, but the level of interest has made me realise I was lucky to have anything to do with it at all, and that a share in the credit is more than enough, especially given the good company I get to share it with. I also started to wonder aloud what sort of photos I might have got five minutes earlier when I would have been on the cliff edge as it passed close by. Jol Mitchell, a glass half-full man (Arsenal fan, he has to be) pointed out that five minutes later and I would have seen nothing, which is a much better way to look at it.
So how come Steve Smith gets to find nice easy ones to identify like this Hoopoe? Photographed at Greenlands Farm, 24th April.
Ooh, ooh, I know this one: Linnet, Barleycrates Lane
Two things brought me back down to earth with a bump though. First was going back to work on Tuesday, not least because nobody had any inkling of just what a big deal it was for me. Actually that's not quite true - my colleague the excellent Dr Phil Sterling - whose book on micros will almost certainly be on the shelves of any moth aficionados out there - sort of understood. Though being an expert he's usually the one tutting at the schoolboy error made by some chump misidentifying something, so I'm not sure he could really relate. Second was the heated debate which kicked off in our local internet birding forum about art on nature reserves, which generated infinitely more comment than my potential County first. To paraphrase the fuse-lighter on that one, what the flip?

Black-eared Northern Wheatear, Greenlands Farm. Well it has got a black ear.
Yellow Wagtail, Greenlands Farm. Which sub-species? I think we've established that's not really my forte, don't you?
Anyway, having strung stretched the whole business out over two posts now, I am conscious of the risk of gripping the assiduous locals who put in the hours and would have been far more deserving finders of a Northern Harrier than yours truly. So I'll try to make sure this post is the last time I mention it, at least until the 'Review of the Year' comes along anyway.
After the excitement of Monday morning on Portland, it was off to Studland with the family for the afternoon. Even they enjoy seeing the local Ring-necked Parakeets, though this one was well camouflaged.
No identification conundrums here.
For the last word on the subject though, of particular interest to me was the number of people who said they liked the candour in my last post. Honesty is definitely in my top 10 list of virtues (see Bubo for the full list), so that was much appreciated. I'm pretty sure there is more doubt out there than people are prepared to let on sometimes, so if my freely admitting to not knowing something makes it easier for others to do so, then my work here is done. Hang on though: I described myself variously as clueless/halfwitted/etc so perhaps 'honest' wasn't a such complement after all...There I go again, glass half-empty. Better go and top it up again. Cheers!

Monday 21 April 2014

Northern Harrier: the flounderer's account

'Reidentified from photos' is one of those phrases which makes good birders roll their eyes in pity at the clueless halfwit who has the good fortune to stumble across a quality bird and not know what it is. Serendipity and digital cameras have combined to make this an increasingly frequent phenomenon, and today, blessed with the benefit of both, I became that halfwit.
Rufous spotting on the underside visible in this shot
My Swineham patch had been a complete, well, swine last week, turning up a frisky pair of Stilts the minute my back was turned, so still piqued with it this morning, I headed off early to Portland instead. In your face, Swineham. A fistful of Wheatears, a Whinchat and a flyover Yellow Wag enlivened Barleycrates Lane, and having walked Reap Lane and compared notes with Pete Coe, I doubled back on myself to catch out those sneaky rarities which I surmised had been pulling faces and flicking v-signs behind my back on the way down. I was a good way down the Lane from the seaward end when I looked back and saw a large pale bird flying purposefully north in the distance, which I suspected was a Harrier. Views through bins appeared to confirm a male Hen Harrier but it was too far away to be completely sure to species level so I hoisted the lens for some record shots. The bottom photo is the original size which gives some idea of the distance involved, and while the back of the camera shots were still very small they cropped up surprisingly well.
Less black in the outer primaries than Hen Harrier
We see Hen Harriers through the winter in Poole Harbour so I didn't think it that remarkable, though on arrival at the Obs and telling others about it, it seemed that Hen Harrier may be rarer than I realised on Portland. The Warden Martin Cade said he would appreciate even a poor Hen Harrier shot for the website so I happily obliged when I got home. Shortly after the phone rang and it was Martin asking if I had considered Northern Harrier, the American subspecies of Hen Harrier. In all honesty, I hadn't. I had noticed some apparent rufous markings on the underside in some shots, but having ruled our Monty's, I put this down to it being a not quite adult male. Martin had additionally noted the darkness of the hood, and the more limited extent of black in the primaries. The former I had dismissed as a trick of the light, the latter I just hadn't studied hard enough having concluded it was obviously not the black wedge of a Pallid.
The Harrier just kept going north and never looked back
I was then tied up with family duties for the afternoon and had to leave it to the experts to ponder further - Martin contacted Martin Garner who shared the view that it was a Northern Harrier, the news went out and my pager buzzed with a message to that effect as I tucked into ham, egg and chips at the Bankes's Arms. Brett Spencer had come to the same conclusion on seeing the photos independently so that's three opinions I'm not going to argue with. Now I'm feeling sort of pleased at playing a part in turning up a potential first for Dorset, but sort of a tube for not realising it at the time, and bad that no-one else seems to have seen it subsequently. In my defence I have no experience of Northern Harrier here or anywhere else, and a memory like a sieve, so even if I had it might not have helped. After I put the phone down to Martin, I googled a Birding Frontiers blog post about a Northern Harrier in Cornwall and had a moment of recognition like Dory in the film Finding Nemo, which any parents out there are sure to be familiar with. If not, see here: Suddenly it all came flooding back.
The best I could manage of the uppertail which is dark-tipped in Northern Harrier - click to enlarge
So, a very big thanks to Martins Cade (for the initial identification) and Garner (for the confirmation) for shedding all this light. Without Martin's request for a record shot there might have been nothing to be reidentified as even by the low photographic standards of this blog I might never have posted those grainy shots. No complaints, then, just a request: can I have an easier one next time please?
The original, back of the camera shot. Where would we be without digital photography? (Ed: still ignorant in my case, but with even less capacity for learning).

Saturday 19 April 2014

More holiday snaps

Having a lovely time in Cornwall blah blah weather has been fine blah blah spent most days on the beach blah blah, the usual postcard drivel, so here's some photos. 
My first Wheatears of the year were seen last week at Marazion
Several males were along the seafront and on the coastal defences
And just the one female
I spent a few hours checking Mount's Bay for a 1st winter drake Surf Scoter and eventually caught up with it from the sea wall in Penzance
This shot shows the diagnostic white patch on the back of the neck and cocked tail
And here showing the pale belly of a first winter bird
A Little Tern was also fishing in the shallows in Mount's Bay
Raven, St Michael's Mount
Rock Pipit, Mount's Bay
Choughs are becoming easier to see around the Cornish coast these days
This one flew over us as we walked the South West Coast Path
A few Whimbrel were seen on migration
An old friend hoves into view off Mousehole
Meadow Pipit enjoying the sunshine
Sparrowhawk hunting at Porthgwarra
At my age, I need a little help with birdspotting. Rowan at Porthgwarra.
Chiffchaff, Tintagel
Fulmar, Tintagel
Our last day in Cornwall was spent at Tintagel.

We spent the previous week telling the children that this was the citadel of Arthurian legend, and how we would find out about the round table, Arthur's exploits and those of his sidekick Merlin. Just about every interpretation board erected by English Heritage pointed out how it was unlikely Arthur ever went there, even if he existed. Which was doubtful. So that rather p***ed on our bonfire.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Holiday snaps

I'm on holiday with the family so am allowing myself the luxury of posting loads of photos without attempting to compose a coherent narrative. Liberating. I should do it more often.
I stumbled across this juvenile Glaucous Gull on a late evening visit to St Ives on Friday having left the camera behind. Fortunately it was still there yesterday.
Initially hidden behind some rocks it was eventually tempted out by someone's thrown away chips
With a Herring Gull for comparison
We considered buying some more chips to bring it closer but this proved unnecessary
Quite a brute!
Showing some aggression
Turnstone, St Ives
I had to get young Rowan to herd these tame Turnstones into the right position
Earlier in the day a Fulmar cruised the cliffs at Godrevy
Male Linnet, Gothian Sands
OK it's not a Crag Martin, bit still nice to see a Sand Martin
Several were perched on the fence at Gothian Sands
Rock Pipit, Gothian Sands
This Dunlin was one of a small party in the surf at Marazion today
A single Sanderling was also at Marazion
Not just good birding in Cornwall. A fair bit of this going on too.