Saturday, 11 March 2017

Lessons For the Perennial Hobbyist

Today there has been a significant arrival of Wheatears, that perky herald of spring promise. In times past this blog would have tried quite hard to feature a nice early Wheatear photo. That's because its author was a keen birder back then. Quite what he is now I am not exactly sure. I wonder if there is a technical term for a fickle multi-hobbyist?

Not wishing to be accused of navel-gazing I shan't dwell on this thought any longer, but instead offer a couple of lessons from my long and seemingly capricious pursuit of various interests.

1. The Pleasure Principle
I've hijacked this Freudian term in order to state the blinkin' obvious: when the fun stops, change tack. You'd think this would be simple really, but surprisingly it is not. It is quite easy to pursue your hobby down a path of diminishing joy until you reach a dead end, at which point chucking it all in will seem like a good option. I have done this a few times. Here's one of them...

I took this vintage photo at Wilstone Reservoir, Tring, in (I think) 1983. Attached to a tench is Tony Chester, former UK record holder for that species with a 10lb 1oz 4dr fish from probably this very spot in June 1981

The scene pictured above depicts what I had aspired to, angling-wise, a couple of years previously. Like many kids of my generation I started fishing as a young boy, serving an 'apprenticeship' on ponds, rivers and canals which had modest potential when it came to really big fish. Slowly though, pursuit of the whoppers became an important goal. Tring Reservoirs was an obvious venue; despite being a lengthy drive away it was home to the biggest tench in the land, as well as monster bream, roach etc. However, in 1981 I was newly married, with the added responsibilies of a mortgage and a house in need of much DIY. At the age of 22 these circumstances precluded any serious involvement in the world of specimen hunting. What I should have done was adjust my focus and forget Tring. Instead I pressed on regardless and joined the Tring syndicate. Inevitably I wasn't able to dedicate either the time or the resources needed for success on such a challenging venue, and soon burned out. Fishing had stopped being genuinely enjoyable some time before this point, but I had failed to heed the warning signs. I'd like to say "lesson learned" but judging from the next 30-odd years it clearly wasn't!

Anyway, soon I was flogging all my fishing gear and taking up birding in a big and proper way. Within a short time I'd swapped Tring Res for Staines Res, and the rest is history.

2. Pass it on if you can
The love of a hobby is a precious thing. Having a passion that gives pleasure and a sense of fulfillment is a terrific antidote to many of the harsher realities of life. In addition, any 'success' in your chosen pastime surely builds confidence and self-esteem, never a bad thing in this thankless world. For example...

Me, aged 11 or 12, with 2 perch and a tench from Barn Hill Pond. Yes, I was taking the place apart with consummate skill, and feeling pretty good about it too. I was quite independent and would walk there from home with my sarnies, my bottle of squash and my serious fishing hat, and the day would fly by...

Here's a photo taken 20-something years later...

Rob, aged 12, brings a hefty Startops Reservoir perch to the waiting net wielded by Baz, then 9 years old.

Baz never caught the fishing bug, but Rob certainly did. Passing on that love of fishing is one of my great satisfactions in life. I've been pleasantly surprised at the positive effect on our relationship as adults provided by having a common interest in this simple pastime.

So, nothing profound there really, just a couple of lessons from many hours spent in the idle pursuit of various pastimes.

Oh, and Baz, meanwhile, shares my passion for carefully folding and knotting empty crisp packets, chocolate wrappers etc. To be fair, I am not sure if I deliberately passed this on or it's simply an inherited tendency to dispose of rubbish with obsessive neatness, i.e. a genetic thing. Whichever, apart from the obvious fact that the world would benefit hugely from having its waste packaging thrown away nice and tidily I cannot in all honesty advocate it quite as heartily as fishing, birding, cycling, golf, squash, running, playing the guitar, etc, etc, etc, etc...

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Haig Men Get Competitive

Well, this must be a bit tedious for the birders who drop in here. Fishing again. Rob and I recently joined Dorchester & District Angling Society and over this past week have tried a couple of their waters. The club has access to some of the Dorset Stour upstream from Blandford Forum, plus a host of small lakes and ponds. On Wednesday we spent a wet day on the Stour, catching just a few small fish - roach, dace and gudgeon. It was hard going on a very full, fast and coloured river, made more difficult by our unfamiliarity with it. Rob tried one of the lakes last night and had a small carp and a bream of almost 6lb. So this afternoon I skived off work and headed for the same venue, a lovely spot hidden away in the folds of land NE of Bridport. I took two rods, one for catching carp off the surface, the other a lightish spinning rod set up for 'drop-shotting', a method completely new to me but apparently superb for perch. I didn't know if I could get any carp to feed off the surface this early in the year, but as it's always been one of my favourite methods I couldn't resist having a go. And as for drop-shotting, well, I rather fancy catching a decent perch or two and, though I was going to be out of my comfort zone, felt it was time for an old dog to at least try some new tricks...

I was fishing by about 1:45pm, and by the time I packed up four hours later had tried three different lakes and caught two carp and a perch. I found the first carp in the margin, sucking delicacies from the raft of weed covering the surface. I plonked a dog biscuit nearby and watched it disappear with a loud slurp. Very exciting stuff.

12lb 6oz of lovely common carp

Meanwhile I was struggling with the drop-shotting. The rod I was using was far from ideal - too stiff really, and designed for heavier lures than the flyweight drop-shotting outfit. And then, out of the blue, a wallop on the rod top resulted in this little beaut...

1lb 9oz of prickly perch

I say 'little' but in fact this is the biggest perch I've caught in well over 20 years. Mind you, I haven't done much fishing in that time! Although I caught just the one, it was a massive confidence booster. In angling, as in many pursuits, confidence is everything; it breeds success. I already knew that drop-shotting catches perch - I've seen enough published evidence - but now I know that this strange and unfamiliar method works for me, and that makes all the difference.

I managed to get some carp feeding off the top later, but their caginess and my ineptitude meant I caught just one more, a small mirror carp of about 7lb.

Rob and I have decided to spice things up for the year by adding a competitive element. The biggest fish of every species earns a pint. Here's how things lie as of 10th March:

Pike: 16lb (Rob)
Carp: 12lb 6oz (me)
Barbel: 7lb 7oz (me)
Bream: 5lb 14oz (Rob)
Gudgeon: currently no winner - both of us caught some, but neither off us stooped to measuring their size in any comparitive way. This will change though. After all, a pint is a pint.
Dace: c.2oz (me) No dace for Rob yet.
Roach: 20cm (me - the length of my hand from middle finger-tip to wrist crease). Back in the day a roach of 20cm (or rather, 8") would have been known as a 'goer'. A prize to anyone who can tell me the etymology of that term. If you can, I guarantee you'll be older than 45!
Perch: 1lb 9oz (me)
Minnow: Rob has caught one of these and, as I have not, is claiming the species at present. This grates, and clearly smacks of desperation.

So, I am leading 5:3 right now. All that skill for just two pints... More effort required I think.

This little competition has encouraged us to broaden our horizons somewhat. Rather than narrow our focus to just a few species of fish (which is where we initially saw things going, with mainly carp and pike on the agenda) we're all of a sudden rather interested in every species!

Finally, a token birdy snippet: I saw my first proper migs today when 4 Sand Martins briefly visited the lakes, pausing just long enough for a bit of twirling and dipping. All the way from Africa. Never less than awesome.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Gulls. And Memories...

I wish I was a bit more disciplined when it comes to blog post regularity, because I wind up with more material than I can do justice to. Anyway, here we go again...

It's been pretty good for gulls down here of late. If you read Steve Waite's Axe Birding you'll already know that. Although my occasional 'lunchtime' perusal of the Axe Estuary hasn't given me a white-winger yet it has been nice to bump into Steve once or twice, and a couple of weeks back we shared a 2nd-winter Yellow-legged Gull and a whole bunch of intermedius Lesser Black-backs. One of the latter wore a Danish colour ring - a nice confirmation of its sub-specific status. Back in 2006, on 23rd March, I counted 162 LBBGs on the Axe, and reckoned 100+ were comfortably dark enough for intermedius, though who knows, perhaps all of them were? There's clearly a hefty passage of this subspecies to be witnessed in E Devon, given the right conditions.

It's probably a function of getting older, but I do find myself reminiscing more often. Sometimes there is very good reason. Like yesterday.

Rob has long fancied a trip to the Royalty Fishery, on the Hampshire Avon at Christchurch. It's not exactly the most scenic fishery in the country, but certainly one of the most iconic. Over the years I would imagine that just about every angling 'name' has fished there; it is steeped in piscatorial history. To coarse fisherman it is most famous for its barbel, a powerful species that fights like stink and grows big enough to pull your arm off. I have caught a few barbel from the Royalty, but until yesterday had not wet a line there for 36 years. However, my first acquaintence with the place was even longer ago...

As a mad-keen teenage angler in 1976 I was desperate to catch my first barbel. In July that year I finally got a decent crack at them, a week-long holiday on the Royalty with two fishing friends. We stayed at a B&B just around the corner from the fishery gate and were on the water at opening time every day. 1976 was the famous drought summer and the water level was very low, the fish hard to tempt. Nevertheless, after a couple of days getting the measure of the place we finally began to catch barbel. By the end of the week we'd all had several. The biggest jammily fell to me. Here it is in all its sepia glory:

The original B&W photo (on the apalling 'silk' paper) suffers from camera shake and the print has gone all faded, discoloured and spotty, as you can see. To me, none of this matters. The barbel weighed 7lb 9oz and was caught, uncharacteristically, in the heat of the day. My rod, with much-loved (and long-gone) ABU Cardinal 44 Express reel attached, lies on the ground. The elbow on the left reminds me that there was quite an audience on that sunny afternoon. Yes, this rather tenth-rate image brings it all back...

Visiting the Royalty after all this time truly was a trip down Memory Lane. There were many subtle changes, but the course of a river doesn't change a great deal in 40 years, and much was familiar. Rob and I favoured a roving approach, trying many swims from the top end of the fishery all the way down to the bypass bridge. But it was hard. Very hard. We could not buy a bite. Despite our own lack of success there was ample compensation in the morning when we witnessed someone else's! I mentioned earlier that the Royalty is most famous for its barbel, but to a game fisherman it'll be for the salmon and sea trout. Some enormous salmon run up the Avon, as the following sequence of photos proves...

Salmon on! Rob waits with net.
The angler measured the fish and consulted a length-to-weight table to gauge approximately how heavy it was. 37 inches long translates to roughly 21lb apparently.
Absolutely stunning creature, fresh from the sea...
...and gently returned to continue its journey upstream...

The only other salmon I've seen caught was in 1977, also on the Royalty, also around 20lb.

Anyway, Rob and I pressed on, but without reward. I saw a chap on the opposite bank catch a barbel, but other than that it seemed most, like us, were struggling. Late afternoon came and we split up, both of us choosing different spots to sit out the last hour of light. By now the weather had deteriorated to torrential rain, and I was sitting hunched up in my not-so-waterproofs, willing the rod to hoop over. Just on dusk, it did. The battle was immense, the fish making full use of the swollen river to surge away downstream several times. Eventually though, it was mine, and surprisingly not the monster the fight had suggested. Just for posterity, here is a pretty lame 'in the wet grass' trophy shot of my first Royalty barbel for 36 years...

It weighed 7lb 7oz, and just to add to the day's nostalgia-fest, it was caught literally across the river from the 7lb 9oz fish in that vintage photo above, and in fact the very spot where I caught my first barbel ever. More than 40 years later and here I am landing a barbel which must have picked up my luncheon meat bait within just a few feet of riverbed from where those two historic fish snaffled lumps of the very same disgusting stuff.

Mind you, a lot of water has flowed over it in the meantime. The riverbed, that is...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Blogging From the Waterside

Well, this is novel - live blogging! The photo above depicts the view as I type, if poking a phone's keypad with one finger can be called typing. Yes, I am once again sheltering from the rain beside the Exeter Ship Canal, gently soaking a couple of dead fish in the hope that a pike might take a fancy to one. Preferably a massive pike. The rain is a nuisance, as it's forcing me to stay in one spot rather than move every hour or two and try a new one. Still, a static approach might work I suppose...

While waiting I've been steadily adding to my waistline. Two months with very little bike hasn't helped in that regard, and the irresistible temptation of fresh-cooked bacon baps and 2-finger KitKats means an awful lot of uphill cycling very soon.

Bird-wise I've seen Kingfisher and Chiffchaff this morning, but as I'm not adjacent to Exminster Marshes or the Exe Estuary today my expectations are low.

Right, that'll do for now. I can always update later if anything much happens...

Time for a brew...

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Should Not Have Gone To Specsavers

"Well, Mr Haig," explained the Specsavers eye bod, "here it is: all of us develop cataracts to some degree or other, but, for your age, I'm afraid you're a little bit ahead of the game. For this reason, and the fact that you work outdoors - where the sun's ultraviolet rays are busily wreaking ocular havoc - I must recommend that you purchase a pair of our Reactions® lenses."

"Are they more expensive than standard varifocals?"

"Of course. Quite a bit more. Which is the third reason why you need some."

Thus was I once again suckered by a plausible sales pitch. Reactions® lenses are Reactolites by another name. The brighter the light, the darker they get. As well as for work I imagined they'd be dead handy for driving and cycling. Well, first of all, a heads-up to my fellow knackered-of-eyes: they don't go dark in the car. That was a surprise. They do however go dark in normal outdoor situations. Very dark. Excellent! I thought, and several days ago headed out on my first bike ride this year, confident that my eyes would be suitably protected and in tip-top shape for nailing the identity of every bird I saw because, yes, this was the official inauguration of my 2017 'Birds from the Bike' list...

Straight away I noticed a problem. My specs darkened up quickly and sucked the colour from everything. The lenses turn grey, rather than that nice warm brown that makes the world all bright and cheerful, so birds flying out of the roadside hedges became dark, colourless silhouettes. I began to regret my choice of eyewear.

I had this sneaky plan to cycle past a certain farm near Litton Cheney where a Cattle Egret had apparently been loitering some days earlier. Approaching the farm I slowed and was astounded to see a field full of loafing egrets. Thirteen of them. Through my Reactions® lenses they were all small and mid-grey and sharply in focus. Unfortunately they were also just that bit too far off to do without bins. I craned forwards as far as I could. They edged away suspiciously. I lowered my specs, hoping for a teeny hint of yellow bill somewhere. They all turned a helpful white, an unhelpful blurry and remained just as small. I squinted desperately. To no avail. And their collective inactivity rendered them all devoid of jizz. I was snookered...

Despite cycling past the farm many times previously, I have never before noticed a single egret in that field, let alone thirteen. Four more were in a nearby field, even further away. Since that day last week I've tried another three times and - you've guessed it - no egrets whatsoever.

Would clear lenses have made a difference? Possibly not. And perhaps they were all Little Egrets anyway. I hope so. Stupid glasses.

Friday, 27 January 2017

A Right Farrago

So far the year has not panned out quite as I would have liked. A virus offensive which began towards the end of 2016 has not yet let up. Although I've felt okay-ish for a couple of weeks now, I can sense it lurking in the background, waiting for a weak moment. I have that feeling of not quite firing on all cylinders. A day's work is leaving me pretty knackered, so I simply do not dare get back on the bike in case the exertion lays me open to another bout of lurgy. I have never been a sickly person and am not used to being ill, but I can honestly say I have never felt so fragile.

Yep, my bike plans have gone to the wall. So much for getting 2017 off to a flying (and uphill) two-wheeled start. My winter goals included building a new 'best' bike from scratch, but I've not been able to summon the enthusiasm even to get started on it. The frame and a box of bits lie neglected in the garage.

The pressing need to earn some money has meant that days of decent weather must be devoted to work, not fishing. My last outing with the rods was therefore January 9th.

Reviewing the above I must confess this post lacks the usual NQS joie de vivre. So let's see what we can do to remedy the situation...

As recommended by Steve Gale I have been reading Home Country by Richard Mabey. Very enjoyable. Also, a little challenging. Quite early on I came across a word I didn't know: numinous. Against my better judgement I ignored it and moved on. Shortly, another: prelapsarian. By now I was slightly annoyed, and metaphorically reached for the dictionary by googling them both. I also wrote them on my bookmark because I had a sneaking suspicion that they would soon be joined by more evidence of my ignorance, and I wanted to see just how big a list it was going to be. With at least a quarter of the book still to read I have so far added the following: farrago, larding, bosky, hibernaculum and tump. I thought I knew what a hibernaculum was, and one or two of the others suggested their own meaning by context, but I wanted to be thorough. Incidentally, if you enter 'tump' into Google it surprisingly assumes you have made a typo. Very odd. Anyway, my vocabulary is now somewhat bigger, bolstered by seven words that I am sure will see frequent use.

Well then, to continue with this farrago of a blog post...

I've been toying with a sketchy idea for a future NQS missive. Not far from here is a local patch that is absolutely on fire. The list of birds seen by its one observer since late August last year is incredible. It is approximately a kilometre from the coast and has produced Greenish WarblerHawfinch, Great White Egret, Yellow-browed Warblers, Sibe Chiffs, Pied Flycatchers, Firecrests, a possible Icterine Warbler, good numbers of Brambling, gangs of up to 30+ Redpolls, and flocks of four and 16 Waxwings. In the context of SW Dorset this is simply amazing. So amazing, in fact, that I wondered about making it the subject of a blog post, perhaps entitled 'The Hotspot Phenomenon'. At the moment my thoughts on this topic are not fully crystallised; I'll wait and see how things progress this year. It's a shame that the site is private, and therefore out of reach to other local birders.

Over the years I'm sure many of us have experienced the odd occasion where an otherwise unassuming block of habbo seems to attract an inordinately vast legion of quality birds, often to just a lone observer. Is it just the geographical position of the site? A unique conjunction of habitat types and migration flyways? Something else entirely?

Finally, gulls. Whenever I am in the Seaton area I try and check the Axe estuary, even if superficially. So far nothing of note. Not many gulls at all really. Still, it only takes one. And while I'm waiting, there is Twitter, where other deviants occasionally share gull pics. Like this one from Somerset birder Chris Gladman, of an interesting lump at the Wimbleball Lake roost...


Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Davina Wydegirth Interview: Michael McIntyre

Regular readers of my column in Bird-Spotter's World will be aware of the recent stir caused by a pale Stonechat in Kent. We at BSW were as surprised as anyone to learn that DNA sampling had proved the bird to be a very rare Stejneger's Stonechat, from some far-off foreign place. After all, we had all thought it was exactly like one of our Stonechats, but just rather washed-out looking, as if its mother had laid one too many eggs and had run her pigment gland a bit dry. Even the cognescenti were surprised. While many of them pointed out afterwards that they had always known it was some kind of Siberian Stonechat thing, they struggled to reconcile its plumage with their understanding of what a Stejneger's Stonechat should look like. And then, only yesterday, a major new development unfolded...

But I shan't spoil it by revealing all here in the introduction! Instead, let me tell you that this morning I was privileged to catch up with Michael FL McIntyre, leader of the twitching fraternity, and asked him to untangle this intriguing episode for us.

DW: Michael, thank you so much for talking to us today. Before we tackle the Stonechat case, do you mind if I ask you a cheeky personal question? I know that many readers refer to you simply by your distinctive initials MFLM, but I'll bet very few know what the 'F' and 'L' stand for. I certainly don't! Would you be kind enough to enlighten us?

MFLM: Of course, Davina. They stand for Fulsome Largesse. It's almost as if my parents knew that a famous comedian would one day hijack my name, and so made sure that we could never be mistaken for one another. And we aren't. Ever.

DW: Thanks Michael. Lovely names. So, the Stonechat. What happened?

MFLM: Well, Davina, it was found late last year on Romney Marsh in Kent, and its pale plumage got birders worried that they might be missing out on something.

DW: What do you mean?

MFLM: Although it looked like a washed-out Common Stonechat there was always the possibility that it might be something rarer, because rare birds are often pale and frosty-looking. But unfortunately its plumage was no help at all and didn't match anything in any of the field guides. In cases where a bird's identification features don't correlate with any rare species known to man, it's now accepted policy to test its DNA. This strategy has given us a lot of nice ticks. So a local expert collected a faecal sample to send off for...

DW: What, poo?!

MFLM: That's one way of putting it, Davina, yes. Faecal matter is chock-full of genetic material and much more amusing than a tissue sample. In addition, whereas collecting, say, a good feather for analysis might involve catching the bird and subjecting it to all sorts of unneccessary stress, getting a faecal sample simply means waiting until the bird perches on a post and then scaring it just the once, very loudly. It's all over in a flash and the bird is hardly any the wiser.

DW: Fascinating. So what did the DNA test prove?

MFLM: It proved that the bird was a Stejneger's Stonechat.

DW: Ooh, that's interesting. I've heard that word pronounced so many different ways, and your way is different again! How do you say it?

MFLM: Stejneger's.

DW: I'm sorry Michael, could you say it phonetically for me?

MFLM: Of course, Davina. It's 'Stedge-knee-jerz'.

DW: 'Stedge-knee-jerz'? Okay, thank you. I feel so silly when I don't know the correct pronunciation. I always used to say 'Curl' Bunting until someone put me right last week! Ha ha! Anyway, what happened then?

MFLM: Mayhem, Davina. Mayhem. As you probably know, Stejneger's is really rare and looks nothing like the Kent bird. Some birders immediately burned their field guides. Those who had seen Stejneger's elsewhere gave thanks. Those who hadn't, well, they simply had to bow to the omnipotence of the DNA Gods and go to Kent for the tick.

DW: The tick? But I thought Stejneger's was just a subspecies?

MFLM: Well, Davina, it's true that some authorities are behind the times on that one and don't yet consider Stejneger's a full species, but even those birders who subscribe to such archaic views will have gone to see it for insurance.

DW: Insurance?

MFLM: That's right. It means they can't tick it just at the moment, but hope to be able to one day. Preferably before they die. Then they'll get it as an armchair tick.

DW: Really? Twitchers do that? Amazing. What's an armchair tick?

MFLM: It's a tick you can mark on your list long after you've seen a bird, when it has finally been given full 'tick' status by whatever authority you subscribe to. And you can do it right there at home in your favourite armchair. Admittedly some twitchers use a sofa, or sit up in bed to do it, but it's still officially called an armchair tick. Personally I get very few of these. The authority I follow allows you to tick absolutely everything right now.

DW: So, Michael, take us through the latest developments.

MFLM: Well, January 1st arrived, and the bird was still there at Dungeness. This meant another trip for the year-listers. Let me tell you, Davina, they were the grumpiest-looking bunch you've ever seen! Because by now there were loads of birders on the internet getting seriously heretical with the DNA Gods, even suggesting that there might have been an error and it must surely be just a Common Stonechat! Who wants to have travelled hundreds of miles to Kent for one of those?! Me, I kept out of it. As you know, Davina, I don't like controversy.

DW: Of course not...

MFLM: Anyway, lo and behold, and we get this message from the DNA Gods that it was all a big mistake - the Kent Stonechat was just a Common after all! Someone had mixed up the DNA samples on their journey to the altar. Mortals call this 'human error', of course.

DW: So what can we learn from this episode, Michael?

MFLM: I don't think we've seen all the fallout from this yet. I heard a rumour that the whole thing was a prank by some lacky at the Genetic Temple, just to see how many birders would blindly go and see a bird on the say-so of a DNA identification, in spite of a ton of plumage evidence to the contrary. I am glad to say that I wasn't fooled for a second. My several journeys to Kent for other birds enabled me to drop in on the Stonechat and confirm my suspicions. And the field guide ashes on my compost heap aren't mine...

DW: Michael, many thanks.