Friday, 11 August 2017

Nothing Too Controversial...

I am surprised that almost two weeks have elapsed since my last post, but I suppose I shouldn't be; life has been busy, and when that happens time flies. First then, a few recent patch snaps...

Early one morning I spotted a distant but distinctive shape perched up on the beach. Sure enough, my 2nd patch Peregrine. It flew off E almost immediately, perhaps to that hazy lump in the background - the tall end of Portland.

A couple of barrel-scrapings, viewed from the low Burton Bradstock cliffs. Cormorants fly past in ones and twos quite regularly, but I have rarely seen any decked.

I entertained a brief hope that these were going to be something other than Canada Geese. Silly me. Mind you, I don't know what exactly I was hoping for. Greylags I suppose. Yes, I'd have been chuffed with Greylags.

Wheatear on the beach, 5 August. Standard coastal migrant fare, but an evocative composition.

The biggest patch thrill of late occurred at around 06:50 on 5 August.

Chiff-if! ...Chiff-if-if!

Chiff-if!

Something was flying over, westwards and quite high. I recognised the call immediately but my rusty cogs were dreadfully slow to grind out an identity. Eventually they coughed up Wood Sandpiper. Of course! It called a couple more times but was totally invisible. Still, I am more than happy to add 'heard-only' species to patch lists, so on it went. Two Patchwork Challenge points as well.

On other fronts, well, Mrs NQS and I have just returned from a few days in Bath to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It's always nice to stay in a 5-star hotel courtesy of Tesco vouchers. There is also cycling and gym, but I suspect few will wish to know my latest Strava conquests or details of my reps and sets. One reader might be happy to know that all my toes are still intact...

Finally then, something different...

Yesterday a Thrush Nightingale was found on the N Norfolk coast. Apparently it was a typical skulker and extremely difficult to get views. I say 'apparently' because everything I know of this bird and the circumstances surrounding it has been gleaned from Twitter. And again, apparently it was flushed several times in order first of all to identify it, and subsequently just to see it. One well-known Norfolk birder posted a photo, which prompted someone to ask him if this photo had been obtained during one of the "many reported organised flushes". The poster also asked whether our big-name birder thought this was a "reasonable and humane way for birders to behave".

Which got me thinking. Okay, so yes, of course the question is loaded, but I found myself trying to analyse why exactly it was asked...

"Do you think the organised, deliberate flushing of birds is a reasonable and humane way for birders to behave?"
Answer: Yes.
Conclusion: Our Norfolk friend is clearly a selfish low-life with no concern for a bird's welfare. Etc...
Answer: No.
Conclusion: And yet there you were getting involved, matey! Not only are we now dealing with someone who has no concern for a bird's welfare, but also a hypocrite and probably a liar.

I suppose there are other answers (basically though, all nuances of yes and no) but, however you look at it, this question - even if simply rhetorical - is designed for one purpose: to point an outraged and condemnatory finger, and to create a villain.

And us birders, we do that an awful lot. And we love it!!!

Twitchers, photographers, dudes, ringers, flushers, birders who keep stuff quiet, birders who blab too much, and so on ad infinitum. Depending on one's own perspective, any of the above might fall victim to our self-righteous finger of blame as we point it accusingly from the moral high ground.

Still, makes us feel really good about ourselves, eh!

Anyway, I do have views about flushing birds - organised or otherwise - and might churn something out for the next post...

Saturday, 29 July 2017

From Beach to Gym

What little birding I've done since the last post has been a bit lacklustre. Still no Yellow-legged Gulls or Balearic Shearwaters yet. This afternoon's rain inspired a beach walk from Burton Bradstock to the far end of my Cogden patch, and total direness was averted by my first two 'autumn' Wheatears on the shingle and a nice fresh Willow Warbler in the reeds.

However, I wasn't really feeling it today...

Heading back to Burton Bradstock after a long, wet slog...

Still, August is just around the corner, and soon the coast will be jumping with migs again. Which ought to fan the flames of ardour somewhat. I hope so.

Anyway, a couple of posts back I casually mentioned joining a gym. Previously I would not even have needed all the fingers of one hand to enumerate my visits to such an establishment, so what's going on? Well, it's like this...

I was a reasonably sporty kid and, up to leaving school, exercise was a regular part of life. In my late teens though, it all stopped. It wasn't deliberate, just a consequence of circumstances. One day in my early twenties I remember going to buy some new jeans and being shocked that my usual size was suddenly too small. Also I had just discovered squash, and found that a decent player could easily turn me into a gasping wreck. Yes, I was very unfit, and getting a bit porky. Something had to be done. It was now the early '80s and the running boom was in full swing, so...

One morning I set out from home in my shiny new trainers and steamed up the road. Within a few short minutes my lungs were on fire. Aaagh! I ducked down a quiet footpath and doubled over, trying not to throw up. A most undignified start. In the end it was joining a running club that did the trick. I learned how to train properly and by about 1985 was running half-marathons. There followed several years of fairly consistent fitness, culminating in my one and only full marathon in 1992. Whereupon I injured a knee, quit running and became a low-key cyclist.

At this point I'm in my early 30s. Middle age is still a long way off. So, fast-forward nearly 20 years...

...and once again I am unfit and lardy. I could say the same for Mrs NQS but of course would never do that because I want to keep living. Proper middle age is very different to 30-something. It's the age when years of casual indifference to/avoidance of exercise - especially when combined with questionable diet - can take a serious toll. All kinds of highly undesirable health issues will happily rear their ugly incipient heads at around this point in life. Which is one of the main reasons I started cycling again.

So that's me sorted then.

However, in all our 37 years of marriage I have hardly ever managed to coax Mrs NQS to do anything vaguely sporty. Badminton once or twice. Rounders with friends occasionally. Astonishingly, in the late '80s a brief flirtation with running, and even though I saw it with my own eyes and therefore know it actually happened, I still find it hard to believe. And that's about it. Until recently...

With her 60th birthday looming, my dear wife has suddenly expressed an interest in exercise that involves more than just a sofa, a good book and a nice glass of wine. With a few like-minded pals she tried some regular 'brisk' walking, but unfortunately it fizzled out. And then a couple of friends much younger than us enthused about the benefits of joining a gym. Hmm, I thought, nothing to lose, and so mentioned it. "Okay," she said, "I'll try it."

Which is why I am now a member of a gym. With Mrs NQS gamely stepping so far out of her comfort zone, a bit of moral support was the least I could offer. And, unexpectedly, I am enjoying it. I've started running again for the first time in 25 years, albeit on a treadmill. My biceps are once again detectable, and I am earning Brownie points. Brilliant!

I hope that explanation alleviates any recent concerns about my sanity...

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Patch Birder's Lot

Today was earmarked for seawatching. The forecast has been promising since Wednesday. Strong, gusty southerly, a lot of rain. Great. So I stuck to my plan, was up early, and down at Burton Bradstock by 05:40...

To be fair, 21 July is quite early in the season and, although I am no seawatching expert, if pressed for predictions of likely quality I would have said Balearic Shearwater definitely, a good chance of Cory's and/or Great, but not much else. But again, when I say 'good chance' I don't mean for me. No, because Cory's and Great Shearwaters almost never make it into the bowels of Lyme Bay where I live. Balearics, sure, but not those big 'uns. In 12+ years of fairly regular seawatching from Seaton my tally stands at well over 200 Balearics, but just one 'unidentified large shearwater sp.' So, if not for me, then for whom? Well, for any birder planning to seawatch from Berry Head, at the western end of Lyme Bay. July conditions like those forecast for today would make Cory's or Great, or both, a very realistic prospect there.

To sum up: I know my chances of a large shearwater locally are slim to nil, I know that Berry Head may well get them, and I have taken the day off specifically to go seawatching...

I can hear the obvious question. Why, oh why don't you just go to Berry Head??!!

It's the patch birding thing isn't it. The patch is king. And when, as the morning progresses, you learn that Berry Head seawatchers are so overwhelmed with Cory's and Greats they need clickers to keep count, well, you simply shrug and are glad that there are lots about. Because you are loyally sticking to your patch and taking your medicine, and perhaps one of those beauties might stray as far as Burton Bradstock. Little nuggets of hope come your way via text and Twitter. Dawlish has had a few, both Lyme Regis and Seaton a couple of Cory's each. And Charmouth?! Wow!! A Cory's, 2 Greats, 2 Balearics, 2 Bonxies and a blinkin' Sabine's! But then Charmouth is special, which is why you long ago resolved to ignore it for Patchwork Challenge purposes, remember? And then you hear that even Portland Bill is getting big shears, which is almost unknown. So you try harder. You slog it out even when the rain becomes torrential and visibility non-existent. And at the end of the day you add up the numbers from three separate sessions totalling about five and a half hours, and you get...

9 Common Scoters, 19 Med Gulls, 15 Manxies, 16 Whimbrel, and 2 Sandwich Terns. There were also Gannets of course, but it's a long time since I counted Gannets. Even when I'm desperate.

This is, by all measures, pretty dire.

A single Balearic passed West Bexington in six hours of effort there. I did have a probable (pale) Balearic myself, but too briefly. And that was it.

I own a vehicle and I can drive; there were no constraints on my time. Given today's conditions and potential, it was rather like being led to the door of a banqueting hall and shown the sumptuous offerings within, only to spend all day at a table laden with cream crackers, in the vague hope that someone might accidentally have left a cupcake among them.

It's funny what patch birding makes you do.

Burton Bradstock is half way between West Bay and West Bexington, and a long way from large shearwaters. Berry Head is the pointy bit by Brixham, on the left there, and extremely close to all the quality birds on offer. Anyone is free to drive straight over and fill their boots, and I have no doubt that many did. Not me though, I like cream crackers.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

An Aberration Revealed

Monday 17 July (05:30-07:30)
First patch walk since 23 May. Virtual absence of birdsong very noticeable. Peregrine on beach briefly major highlight. Also noted: 2 Herons, 4 Canada Geese E, c10 Manxies likewise. A few hirundines and Swifts moving. Autumn feels close.

Yes, it was my first visit to Burton Bradstock/Cogden for nearly eight weeks, and yes, it felt very different. Back in May the early morning air was bursting with song. Skylarks, Cetti's Warblers, Whitethroats, Reed Warblers, a single manic Sedgie, to name just a few. Yesterday it was so, so quiet. Autumn really did feel close. I wasn't expecting much, but I did have a target: Yellow-legged Gull. Juv YLGs were a summer feature on the Axe, and the occasional bird is to be expected along the coast here too. In fact one flew W offshore past West Bexington at 07:17 and no doubt past me shortly afterwards, but I was blissfully unaware and certainly not looking in the right direction at the right time. There'll be more, I'm sure...

Unlike a large percentage of my fellow birders I have not spent the intervening eight weeks hunched over a trap-full of flying weeds (as some wit on Twitter described moths) nor pursuing any other of the myriad bird-substitutes which fall in your beer and spatter your windscreen. No, like any sensible 58 year-old I have joined a gym.

I truly hope that some poor, unsuspecting NQS reader just sprayed an involuntary mouthful of coffee all over their screen...

Some blogs out there are pure reportage. Went there, saw this, and here's a photo/lots and lots of photos. They're okay I guess - if the subject interests you. But the ones I enjoy most are those that give you a bit of insight into the blogger, some clues to what makes him/her tick, a hint of human frailty here and there. Like a susceptibility to toe injuries, say. Yes, I like blogs of that kind.

Which is why I am sharing this news. I have never before been a member of a gym, my experience of them is minimal in the extreme, and it is quite likely that this aberration will reveal all kinds of interesting human frailties. In fact, I suppose it already has.

More anon...

It occurred to me that I've never featured the man-cave, so here it is (most of it anyway) taking up a hefty chunk of our tiny garden, and now the location of almost all NQS production.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

That Phasing Thing Again.

Well, Tuesday's sore throat has matured into a full-blown summer cold. So I am cooped up indoors. Boring! Once again I've amused myself on Twitter with vintage twitch photos and whatnot. All good fun. However, also on Twitter I came across a tweet from a young birder who lives not far away. In part it read:

"Help! Totally disinterested in birding currently!...Never been here before..."

I sympathise, because I have been there before. Often. Approximately half of my birding life has been spent phasing.

Understandably this tweet prompted several replies. Most offered some sort of advice, which I read with interest. Some of it was of the 'just get out there and enjoy it' kind, which made me wonder if these particular respondants had themselves ever phased. I can recall a few occasions when I've tried to 'just get out there and enjoy it' - for example twitched a very rare bird with absolutely no enthusiasm. Pointless. Despite 'success' such efforts have left me with rather empty, joyless memories. Compare that with, say, the events described in the last post. Equal 'success' but also euphoria and hence treasured memories. Personally I cannot see any point in pursuing a hobby (or even just an aspect of that hobby) if you are no longer enjoying it.

I suppose my advice to anyone experiencing an unaccustomed lack of zeal for birding would be just to roll with it. Chances are that birding is in your blood, and the urge will return. Maybe I am just a lightweight, but changing tack and letting nature take its course has served me well over the years. I thoroughly enjoyed my little patch-birding flurry this spring, and am confident that a similar wave of enthusiasm is imminent. These days though, I know not to force it...

See also: this post.

Anyway, let's conclude on a high note. Via Twitter I am currently trying to track down any colour photos of the 1984 Titchwell Ross's Gull. Not a lot of joy so far, but in the meantime here are some superb coloured sketches by Mike Langman. Thanks Mike!

Arguably even better than photos. See what I meant? PINK!!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

A Day to Remember

This is what happens when it's pouring with rain, you've got a sore throat and are going a bit stir-crazy: you get a bike out and tinker with it...

Fiddle, tweak, fuss, fuss...

Also you actively promote the exchange of birdy trivia on Twitter. This is pretty good fun, and reading tweets about the unseemly ticking of rare birds before common ones has cheered me up no end. My favourite so far is Mike Langman's Great Snipe before Jack Snipe when he was just 13 years old. The fact that it was youthfully optimistic string makes it even better! Best grippage goes to Wallcreeper before Guillemot, and Tennessee Warbler before Redstart.

Anyway, all this bird stuff has fired me up with the urge to share a little story. Although my twitching career was fairly short it gave me a lot of terrific memories. Here's one...



It is Sunday 13th May, 1984. Long before the sun has risen I am heading round the North Circular to collect my friend Tim and his girlfriend Jacquita from their flat in Bounds Green, in my stylish 1984 wheels...

Vauxhall Viva HC estate posing nicely at Walsey Hills, Cley.

Our target for the day is Ross's Gull. A summer-plumaged bird has been at Cley since midweek, so will surely be a doddle now that it has settled into a routine. But en route we plan to take in a Little Egret at Thrapston GP, a lifer for us all. Yep, them was the days.

We head off up the A1, and the sky begins to pale as dawn approaches. Coming to the top of a modest rise there is an ominous hesitation from the engine, then a cough, a splutter...and silence. Pox! The fuel gauge doesn't work and I've neglected to fill the tank for the journey! I drop the clutch and we manage to coast at virtually walking pace over the brow of the hill, then gather speed on the downward slope. As the road flattens out and bends to the left we slow again, hearts sinking. And there, right there before us like a desert oasis, is a petrol station! Stupid o'clock on a Sunday morning, yet it's open. We have just enough momentum to roll onto the forecourt and up to a pump. Just. I apply the handbrake and climb out to fill the tank like it's all part of the plan.

I have absolutely no doubt now. Today is going to be brilliant!

Little Egret in the bag and we're soon at Cley, where there is no sign of the gull. I and many others doze on the shingle overlooking the North Scrape. Jacquita goes to buy lunch from the Coastguards Café, and while she's away there is suddenly a distant sound of scrambling shingle. Sure enough, the furthest end of the crowd is hastily gathering its stuff together and beginning to run. We do likewise, though not knowing why. We soon find out. The Ross's Gull is at Titchwell! Now! Jacquita meets us at the car with blisteringly hot pasties and we join the back end of a frantic convoy. The journey is unreal; the coast road is playing host to some kind of pony and trap rally and progress is painfully, painfully slow. At Titchwell we leap from the car, all frayed nerves and scalded tongues, and scuttle seawards. Within seconds I crack and start to run. And run...and run...

That Ross's Gull is right up there with my all-time favourite birds. It was absolutely pristine. And pink. I mean PINK. It is undoubtedly the most gorgeous gull I have ever clapped eyes on. Somewhere out there must be some colour photos. And if there are, they will be stunning. The light was simply fantastic and the bird performed like a star, hawking back and forth over a bright blue lagoon. In the absence of colour, here are a couple of B&W versions from Steve Young. I hope he won't mind me illustrating this post with them. The originals are here and here.

Ross's Gull at Titchwell, 13th May, 1984. Both the above by Steve Young.


Eventually we are satisfied, and there is still plenty of day to play with. What now? There is news of a Thrush Nightingale at Landguard in Suffolk. Shall we? Of course. Much, much later we arrive at Landguard and learn that it hasn't been seen for hours, but there is some consolation: a rather elusive Bluethroat has been found. Okay then, we'll join the Bluethroat crowd. We do, and wait...

After a while a shout goes up: the Thrush Nightingale has been seen again! Everyone hurries towards the compound...except for me and one or two others. A bit of a gamble, but I was dead, dead keen to see my first Bluethroat. We stand quietly, and out it comes, at point-blank range. What. A. Crippler. After a fine performance it melts away into the scrub again and finally we too head for the compound. I find Tim and Jacquita.
Any sign?
Nope. Bluethroat?
They don't really have to ask. It's written all over my face.
At that moment there is a hasty rustling from the crowd as dozens of bins are raised. There it is! Freshly-minted bling on leg, it gives us a front view, pauses, gives us a rear view, pauses, and hops behind a bush. And that's it.

May 13th, 1984. Absolutely nothing could go wrong on that day. Four lifers. Priceless memories...

Friday, 16 June 2017

A Small World

Everyone has a few 'it's a small world' stories. Here's one of mine...

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, at the start of the month I visited some old haunts near London. My secondary school lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill and a caretaker chap allowed me to nose around the grounds and take some photos. In my day the first and second year classrooms (years 7 and 8 in modern parlance) were located in what used to be a grand old house...

'The Red House'. My first-year classroom lived behind that ground floor bay window from 1970-71

One wall of the building is peppered with these unsightly craters and crevices.

It seems this damage is so severe that one or two bricks have needed replacing and a few courses repointing. I wonder if modern-day observers have any idea how it was caused? Well, just around the corner on the left there used to be a stable-door type affair that would open at break times. Behind it lay what we quaintly called the tuck shop, which stocked the truly enormous Mars Bars and Wagon Wheels that existed in those days. There was always a queue, and it formed along the wall. Boys stood there impatiently, and while waiting would furtively gouge and scrape the soft red bricks with their coins. That's decades of cumulative coin abuse you're looking at there in that photo.


The Red House main entrance. The main school buildings lie on the opposite side of the street - behind me as I took the photo. The metal safety barrier wasn't there in the '70s...

One freezing morning in my final year there was a horrifying noise outside, a loud and crumpled bang. It was obviously a car crash, and as our classroom was right next to the road we were all out in the street within seconds. It was clear what had happened. A Volkswagon Beetle had come up the slope from South Harrow, hit a patch of ice and careered across the road and into one of the brick pillars of the Red House gateway. Initially we couldn't see the driver, but found him wedged in the footwell. With the impact he'd broken off the gear stick with his chest. He'd seen it all coming, so had immediately ducked down to avoid going through the windscreen - this was long before mandatory seatbelt wearing of course. Anyway, two of us helped him out of the wreckage. He was a bit cut and bruised but otherwise okay, so we took him to the school medical room. The Beetle was a write-off.

Scroll forward twenty-odd years and I'm sitting in a pub near Chorleywood with two mates I've known for a decade or so. Conversation gets around to schoolday stories. After a bit one of my friends pipes up...

"Gav, I didn't know that's where you went to school. When I was at Harrow Tech I used to drive up from Surrey every day and take a short-cut over Harrow-on-the-Hill, right past your old school. In fact, one day I smashed up my car right outside it! Straight into the wall! Write-off!"

"It wasn't a Beetle was it...?"

It was.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Stormies

After a wet and windy October night on Fair Isle many years ago, I came across an exhausted Storm Petrel in the soggy grass. I gently picked it up, nestled it in my beanie hat and carried it back to the obs. It was so, so tiny...

And tiny is exactly what they look whenever I've encountered them while seawatching. Ludicrously so, especially if you've been watching larger birds go past - Fulmars, Manxies and whatnot. And yet that diminutive scrap of flesh and feather always looks perfectly at home on a heaving sea. They generally appear as a miniscule dark speck skittering quickly through your field of view. And just as you realise what you've got, it jinks, turns and is gone. They are not a common sight off the E Devon/W Dorset coast. My Seaton tally of 153 might suggest otherwise, but 125 of those were in an exceptional 9-day spell during late May 2006. They always head West off here. They might dither about, go back and forth a bit, feeding, but ultimately off they go, relentlessly westwards. I have 153 data points that say so. Or I did...

As I mentioned in the previous post, although there were evidently Stormies around, Monday's effort drew a blank. A pre-work stint on Tuesday did the trick though, and I managed four by 07:00. Or maybe just one. Though it could have been two...or three...

My notes say 1E at 05:30, 1W at 05:55, 1E at 06:17 and 1W at 06:59. How many is that? I can only guess. However, one thing I am confident about: they all/both (or it) will have headed W in the end.

Later that day I had another go. In two hours I had 1W at 16:07 and 1E at 16:09. In this case I am happy to record just the one bird. And I know it will have retraced its steps and gone W again eventually!

Whatever the actual count, Storm Petrel is another two very welcome patchwork challenge points.

Stormies are very, very rarely close inshore here. In my experience they are almost never closer than 200m. If you can detect a hint of white rump through your scope, well, relish the crippling view! Half a mile plus is probably the norm. When I say "miniscule dark speck" I mean it. Spotting these dots at all requires a steady scope, but finding decent shelter when the wind is blasting straight in is really tricky. Unless you take your own seawatching hide...

Monday, 5 June 2017

Seawatching and a Random Grave

At Burton Bradstock is the Hive Beach car park, where I am learning the art of seawatching from a van. The wet hoolie that blew up today was an ideal opportunity to get some practice in. There are so many variables to master. Exactly where to position and point the van, the angle and extension of each tripod leg, which buttock to sacrifice to pins-and-needles...

Here's a tip for anyone with a Manfrotto fluid head: cut the pan arm in half.

I've owned a Manfrotto tripod for more than a decade now and it has served me very well; the super-smooth fluid head is terrific for seawatching when you need to keep track of a distant dot. And then - if you have a zoom lens like mine - you reach up to zero in on your target and claim the Sabine's Gull you are confident it is going to be, when...Aaagh! You accidentally knock the pan arm, jarring the whole scope off target and irretrievably losing your dot! Or you suddenly find the scope won't swing any further because the pan arm is now jammed against the bins on your chest. Both have happened to me countless times and cost me innumerable E Devon Sabs. Why? Because the pan arm is about a yard long, and gets in the way of absolutely everything. If, like me, you've spent well over ten years swearing that you'll cut that annoying arm in half when you get a minute, well, just do it. I did it a few weeks ago and the difference it makes is fantastic. The arm still functions perfectly and now doesn't get in the way at all. So far I haven't missed a single Sabs.

Anyway, I gave the sea a couple of efforts today. An hour this morning got me 21 Manxies and 7 Kitts, and a longer session this afternoon added 40 Manx, a single Kittiwake, 6 Common Scoters, and the highlight, a distant pale phase skua sp. E at 14:25. Mind you, realistically what could I have expected in a June seawatch here? A Storm Petrel perhaps? Yes, maybe. Secretly I was hoping for Long-tailed Skua. Everyone needs a fantasy.

And yes, the best bird had to remain unidentified. Which is June's way of sticking the boot in even when something decent does come along.

Me: "Ooh, hello, what's this?! Looks good...looks like a skua..."
[successfully reaches up to zoom in without knocking scope off-line]
Me: "Hah! Yes! That's right, pan-arm stump, your power is no more!"
Me: "Hmm, definitely pale phase, but...just...too...far..."
June: "Ha-ha-HAAA!"

At the weekend I was in London, and on Saturday toured some old haunts. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip really, and included a visit to my old school, which lies at the foot of Harrow-on-the-Hill. At the top of the hill is St Mary's Church, and I decided to search for a gravestone that I dimly recalled from my youth. To be honest I wasn't sure if my memory was playing tricks, but no it wasn't. I must confess, I'd forgotten that it included some of the most macabre lines of verse that a monumental mason has ever carved I reckon.

Enjoy...



The story

The verse. Nice.

Friday, 2 June 2017

So. June.

Well, that was interesting. My last post about birding reputations received approximately 7X more traffic than a bog standard one about the usual tosh. I think mainly because it was punted around Twitter somewhat. This surprising response taught me a couple of lessons.

1. I need to grow up and stop poking fun at the mighty Scopac. You won't see any such teasing in the current version of that post, but an early draft did contain what could easily be considered a rather sneery reference. I didn't mean to come across like that. I do appreciate that they must be a boon to many. And perhaps one day my ageing bones will demand I go and buy one. In the meantime I will stick with the shoulder while I can. When I can be bothered to carry a scope at all...

2. Despite one or two on Twitter espousing the "Who cares what anyone thinks of you?" sentiment, I get the feeling most do. I'm glad about that because I certainly do. Birding-wise, I would not like to think I had a reputation as dodgy in any way. Is it not fairly normal to care about that?

So, many thanks to those who commented, 'liked', retweeted etc. Much appreciated.



Well, here we are in June, easily my most hated birding month.

Having fairly limited play-time I like to get maximum value from it. In June I struggle to get any at all. One of my best ever June finds down here was a pair of Ruddy Shelduck on the Axe. Bla-a-a-ah...

On the other hand, my only two local Turtle Doves were both in June. But that is it. I cannot think of any other proper quality birds that have come my way while patch-birding in June.

In this part of the country June is when you might get the odd Woodchat Shrike, Rose-coloured Starling, maybe Bee-eater or (this year anyway) one of those myriad Red-footed Falcons. Perhaps. But not for me. Not in more than a decade of uncompromisingly half-hearted effort.

But it was hopes of one of the above (or similar) that got me up early this morning and out to the patch. Approximately 25 Common Scoter flew E over the sea, and 2 adult Med Gulls flew W over the land. I made a note of nothing else whatsoever.

Admittedly it was still May when I took this, but, Canada Geese. Does any other species convey the spirit of June so fully?

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Birding Reputation

So you want to be a birder? You've just forked out for some bins, a Collins Bird Guide and maybe a scope, and you're wondering how to go about acquiring a birding reputation? One definition of the word 'reputation' is 'the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something'. Those beliefs and opinions are of course held by other people, so when you very first head off down the local marsh or gravel pit with your shiny new optics it follows that you initially have no birding reputation at all, because nobody knows you yet. But don't worry; once you begin to interact with other birders your reputation will just come along naturally...

The question is, what kind of reputation do you want?

I suppose there are a few birders out there who couldn't care less whether or not they interact with anyone, and maybe have no interest in what kind of reputation they have. This post isn't for them. No, it's for you, the budding birder who wishes to become a respected member of the wider birding community. Incidentally, don't worry, if like me you do have mildly misanthropic tendencies you can still spend most of your birding time in your own wonderful company and yet still be an active (and hopefully respected) part of that community. Win-win, in my view. Anyway, I digress...

I am going to assume for the purposes of this post that the kind of reputation you wish to acquire is a good one. You would like to be known as a reliable, trustworthy birder. Yes? Okay, this is normal. Please read on.

Your reputation will be based on three main factors.


1. Your Ability to Identify Birds Correctly

First, understand this: everyone mucks up. There is not a birder alive who hasn't dropped a good few glorious clangers. Which is reassuring. And everyone accepts that beginners will get it wrong more often due to lack of experience. Time in the field should sort that out. I say 'should' because if it doesn't, your reputation will suffer. So if you don't want to be known as the eternal noddy, make an effort in this area. It's no surprise that some of the most solid bird ID reputations belong to artists, because they look very closely, they know their feather tracts and bird topography. To illustrate a particular age or plumage phase they have to learn it. Yes, effort. So, if you gain a reputation as rubbish at ID, well, that's probably down to you.

2. Your Ability to Find Good Birds

You will find good birds. Guaranteed. 'Good' = birds that are rare or scarce in your particular birding context. An Avocet or Grey Plover on an inland gravel pit would be decent finds, or a Snow Bunting on the concrete apron of a London reservoir. And so on. And when you find something a little trickier like, say, a Temminck's Stint, and correctly identify it, well, you are laying the foundation for a fine reputation.

Some birders excel at finding good birds, and are most definitely better at it than others. Why? Time in the field is no doubt a factor, combined with a dogged persistence, a robust work ethic and a knack of knowing where to look and when. Such birders can earn themselves an enviable reputation. Do you want one like that? If so you might be tempted to think that the more you find, the better your reputation will be. Well, possibly. Read on...

3. Your Ability to Verify Those Good Birds!

Twitchers love patch birders. Why? Because patch birders find really good birds in obscure little backwaters which the twitchers can then hurry along to look at and add to whichever list applies. Getting others to see your birds is one way to verify them. And let's be frank, sharing your good birds with others is also the most generous and satisfying way to verify them. If you don't agree then you are probably much further up the 'misanthrope' spectrum than me. The second way to verify your birds is to photograph them. Also good, and sometimes the only way.

First-winter Caspian Gull on the Axe Estuary, Dec 2009. Verified both ways.


Okay then. Taking all three factors into consideration gives us...

The Not Quite Scilly Birding Reputation Rule
Find and correctly identify lots of well-verified good birds, and you will certainly build a solid reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder. That's a promise.



So, there we have it, just follow the NQS Birding Reputation Rule and your future acceptance as a respected member of the wider birding community is guaranteed.

Oh, but before I go, just a few words of caution...

There is another kind of birding reputation, a kind far less desirable. There are several words for it - all of them pejorative - and believe me, you don't want it. As I mentioned earlier, your reputation will be based on the three main factors outlined above, so how exactly do they have a bearing on this exceedingly bad kind of reputation? Is it factor number 1? Is misidentifying stuff going to earn it? No, not really. It won't do you any favours, but hey, nobody's infallible. Is it factor number 2? Will you become a birding pariah if you don't find good birds? No. Lots of good birders don't find much, and everyone finds something. So is it factor number 3?

Oh yes, matey. It is factor number 3.

Now I cannot tell you exactly what kind of birding reputation I personally have, but I can tell you fairly precisely the degree to which my good birds are verified. For example, I just had a scan through the list of Devon Rarity descriptions I've written over the years. Excluding Yellow-legged Gulls and intermedius Lesser Black-backs (honestly, you don't want me to include them) I've written 36 descriptions for birds found and identified by me. Of that total, 23 were verified by other birders (and in several cases photos also) and 4 by photos alone. Of the 9 not verified, 3 were flyovers and 5 were while seawatching alone; the other was a Continental Coal Tit at Beer Head.

So my percentage verified = 27/36 = 75%

Over the years I have been privileged to know some very good birders, a few of them quite well. Birders whose reputations I would say are exceptionally good. I'll name a few. In the W London area: Andrew Moon, Chris Heard, the late Pete Naylor and Rupert Hastings. In Devon: Steve Waite, Phil Abbott, Ian McLean, Mike Langman, Matt Knott. This is not an exhaustive list, but simply intended to illustrate my point. I have known more than one of these birders to make a classic howler ID-wise, but such events do not in any way detract from their reputation (in fact quite the reverse) because the real cornerstone of that reputation is integrity, honesty. So, so many of their good birds are verified, and that is the crucial factor. Their birds are seen by others, photographed, some of them even stick around for a few days. You get the picture...

I would be curious to know their percentage verification, but in each case I would imagine we're looking at around 75% or better. And let's be clear, we're not just talking county or national rarities here, we're talking good birds generally.

An autumn Dartford Warbler on Beer Head. Not rare, but a decent bird in a local context...and verified both ways.


Finally then, let's suppose you are no longer a birding novice. A few years have elapsed and you now have a long and enviable list of self-found and correctly identified quality birds. Well done you! And periodically you add a few more little gems to that list. Marvellous! But how are you doing with factor number 3? What's your verification percentage like? Pretty high? 80% you say? Excellent! You will have earned a sound reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder.

Or is your verification percentage in fact pitifully low? Like, close to zero? We'll assume for argument's sake that you do interact with other birders in some way, yes? Oh, but there are several good reasons why other birders never see your birds, you say? And your camera is never to hand, you reckon? Well unfortunately - and whatever you might think otherwise - in that case I'm afraid your birding reputation is not the good kind...

Apply forthwith the NQSBRR and avoid such folly.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Purple Patch is Over

Despite no blog posts for five days I have been out and have seen some birds. Best were 2 local Hobbies on Thursday - including my first from our house - and 2 of the many thousands of E Devon Red Kites on Wednesday. Visits to the Burton/Cogden patch were dead quiet. I tried a Red Kite vigil on Wednesday evening, but knew all along that I had missed the boat by several hours. Never mind though, because there is always a view...

Looking some 15+ miles SE: the greedy bird-magnet that is Portland Bill. I have hardly ever seen it as clearly as this; normally there is a haze or shimmer that makes it all blurry, whereupon it becomes just that little bit more distant and less enviable...

My most recent walk around the patch was in the blazing sun on Friday afternoon. Again, I took some photos...

Regular readers will know that I am a dragonfly dunce, but female Broad-bodied Chaser is just about within my compass.

"Oh, sweet painted lady..."

Significantly, no birds of note at all. It's now the time of year when locally I would expect pretty much nothing for the next few weeks. That expectation is based on experience in E Devon. Perhaps W Dorset will surprise me, but I doubt it. Mind you, everywhere is not the same. As I type birders at Spurn have been doing a bit of viz-migging today. Birds heading S so far include an Alpine Swift, a Red-rumped Swallow and four different Red-footed Falcons. Yes, four. A first-summer male, an adult male and 2 adult females. And yes, that's right, Spurn isn't normal. Normal right now is a lot of barrel-scraping and Lepidoptera.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Spring, Reps & Purple Patches

Although I hadn't visited the patch for a couple of days, I think this morning was my first Wheatear-less trip. So is that it? Is spring finished? Thankfully, no...

Turnstone in breeding finery. Legitimate spring migrant.

Apparently Turnstone is quite a scarce bird for the patch. This is my second, but the first one on the deck. It was also the best bird from this morning's walk. There were some other waders though: flocks of 1 and c.30 small ones flew W beyond identifiable range. So I guess spring is still very much with us in a sense, but I must admit that it's getting harder to stay motivated now. Still, there's always that chance of a late spring rarity. But how much of a chance? The answer's in the noun: rarity!

Ah well, there are plenty of modest Patchwork Challenge species to get excited about. Like the Jay I saw this morning. Jay takes my list to 101, and the single point puts me on 122, which I think is still 18th= on The Coastal South mini-league. And I can also work on my ever-growing portfolio of grainy #recordshots.

Green Woodpecker #recordshot. Although I've heard several already, this is the first I've clapped eyes on.

It has been mentioned that I've recently been enjoying something of a purple patch. And it's true, I have. Especially considering how long I'd been 'resting'. So here it is, roughly two weeks of jammy happenings:

2 May: Hoopoe
3 May: Cuckoo
5 May: Hobby in off
6 May: flock of 12 Pom Skuas
9 May: pod of c.20 Bottlenose Dolphins (not birds I know, but for me very scarce)
10 May: Hobby in off
12 May: 14 Pom Skuas (including flock of 9) plus an Arctic
16 May: Short-toed Lark (found by Mike and Alan)

I've included Cuckoo because it is genuinely scarce around here, and Hobby because they're always such a treat...and aren't exactly common. And anyway, birding value is always about context, and that little lot collectively felt like quite a jackpot.

And an interesting aside: apart from the Cuckoo, 1 Pom Skua and the Arctic there is supporting evidence for every single bird. They were either photographed, or witnessed by others, or both. Such evidence gives that whole list the ring of truth; who isn't going to believe my extra Pom, or the Arctic Skua or Cuckoo? This is an aspect of birding I find absolutely fascinating. One's reputation as a reliable, trustworthy observer is usually built on a solid foundation of authenticated records, whether we like it or not. And of course, a consistent lack of corroboration has the exact opposite effect. Quelle surprise! Come on you stringers! Wise up!

Ah, the Birding Reputation...

One of these days I shall write a post about this intriguing aspect of human nature...

Anyway, if you think that lot comprises a purple patch, allow me to share with you my favourite Local Patch Purple Patch, courtesy Steve Waite. I cannot recall all the dates but, starting 19 Feb, in just six months Steve found the following on the Seaton patch in 2007...

19 Feb: Ring-billed Gull, 2nd-winter on the Axe
Feb: Laughing Gull, 1st-winter off the seafront, paying us a visit from Exmouth
April: Stone-curlew, Seaton Marshes, first for the patch and first twitchable in Devon for a thousand years.
28 April: Iberian Chiffchaff, Beer Head
30 April: Bonaparte's Gull, 1st-summer on the Axe
Then there was a little pause [imagine a quiet drum roll, slowly building...]
14 August: Audouin's Gull, adult (or nearly), Seaton Marshes

And it's quite possible I've forgotten something. Anyway, that is a purple patch.

And in all that time I think I managed to find a Glaucous Gull...

So, if you ever catch Steve moaning on his blog about how grim things are for him birding-wise right now or something, just pop a comment in there reminding him how he used up most of his allowance ten years ago!

Friday, 19 May 2017

One Hundred Up...

At sunrise I ticked off my 100th species for the Burton/Cogden patch. I now have 121 Patchwork Challenge points, putting me around 18th for the Coastal South mini-league. Budleigh is currently nowhere...

The landmark bird was a Grey Heron.

Heron is designated a 'scarce visitor' to West Bexington and Cogden, and I first spotted this one circling high before descending to land on the seaward edge of Burton Mere - basically a big reedbed - where I am sure the resident Marsh Frogs were delighted to see it. Within a couple of minutes it was up again and gone.

This little episode is yet one more which illustrates the many differences between my new patch and my old one. The status of Grey Heron on the Axe is somewhat different, and is influenced by the presence of a thriving heronry! Another is the beach. Cogden beach is simply wonderful. The combination of shingle with a mass of vegetation - Thrift, Sea Kale, Yellow Horned-poppy, Sea Campion, as well as a myriad others whose identity is beyond me - reminds me ever so much of Dungeness. I haven't been to Dunge for 20-odd years I guess, but nevertheless that's the vibe I get. The Dungeness shingle attracts the occasional bird, and it seems like Cogden should too. Oh look! A Short-toed Lark! See? Seaton beach does not compare. There is a promising stretch from the Yacht Club to the river mouth, but Cogden it ain't. This morning's beach walk produced a single Wheatear, the tamest yet for me. So...

Uncropped. Well close! But still a #recordshot
Still uncropped. Even closer! I reckon we could get a portrait out of this...
Et voila!
So eye-wateringly close that you can see it's little tummy feathers are damp with dew, bless it.

And while we're on cute little birdies, here's a photo I took last week...

Fluffy Ball Thing. A solid Patchwork point there.

Actually I was rather chuffed to find this, because a short while back I had a very fleeting view of a Tawny Owl which I'd inadvertantly flushed, and then moments later spotted the nest box. Of course I put two and two together and was much more careful when next in that location. Result!

There is still much to learn about my new patch. For example on Wednesday Alan showed me a nice patch of orchids which I had unwittingly walked past several times. Here's one...

Southern Marsh Orchid apparently.

The Axe patch may well have had Southern Marsh Orchid (up on Axe Cliff perhaps?) but I cannot recall for sure. However, one thing it definitely didn't have was any of these little stunners...

Marsh Frog. Serious paintwork.
Heron? What Heron?

Finally, dear reader, if you were very quick off the mark it's just possible that you saw an early and ill-judged version of the last post. If so please erase it from your mind. As Jonathan Lethbridge intimates in his comment, not all patchworkers subscribe to the ethos outlined therein, and it's all too easy to allow oneself to be wound up by such folk. But of course the wisest approach is simply to ignore them. And...slowly, slowly...I am learning wisdom.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Patchbirding Ethos...Some Thoughts

The weather forecast for today was spot on. Rain. Loads and loads of rain. Sometimes a late spring downpour and a bit of murk has brought us waders. So I grabbed my wellies, my bins, my ancient and inadequate waterproofs and headed for Burton Bradstock. The plan was a long walk of the beach to sift the vast flocks I would doubtless find there...

It's exactly like this all the way to Portland, except the pebbles gradually get larger...

Well, I soon got fed up with that plan! No waders on the beach, no decent birds on/over the sea. Perhaps predictably I found myself shuffling along the top of the beach and turning up the Short-toed Lark, in pretty much the same area that it favoured yesterday. And I'm pretty sure the Wheatear not far away was yesterday's bird too. As a nice bonus I could hear a Cuckoo up on the inland slope somewhere. I tweeted out the Short-toed Lark and Cuckoo gen, and trudged onwards...

Richard from Charmouth let me know he was planning to come over and try for the lark, so I loitered around until he arrived. When looking for a needle in a haystack, two pairs of eyes are certainly better than one. The bird eventually gave some quite good, if distant views, and Richard got some #recordshots. As Short-toed Lark was a lifer for him I was glad it had performed okay. We also heard the Cuckoo again, came across 2 Wheatears that seemed to be new in, and in the end discovered actual waders on the beach - a Ringed Plover and a Sanderling. So, hardly a wealth of abundance and variety, but it certainly beat sitting indoors!

I think at this point the sea and I are equally wet

Richard mentioned that he would publish on Twitter any reasonable photos of the Short-toed Lark, so I had a browse later and found this:

Well, the photo is delightfully #recordshot in every possible way, but it was the caption which caught my eye. As I said, this was a lifer for Richard. Last week he found the 9 Poms Skuas which then gave us all a thrill from Seaton to the Solent. Pom was also a lifer. I hardly ever get lifers these days and maybe I've forgotten what it's like to be at that stage in birding when there are potential ticks popping up all over the place because your list is still so slim. As an on/off birder (and ex-twitcher) of some 40+ years standing I have seen quite a few Short-toed Larks. I've just had a mental tot-up and surprised myself: at least 16. So while seeing the bird again today was great, the real pleasure for me was helping Richard see it. Which got me thinking...

When I was living in Seaton and birding the Axe Estuary etc, I can recall lots of occasions when other local birders really put themselves out to make sure that as many of us as possible got to see a good bird. For example, instead of heading off and continuing their birding circuit they would wait, hang around, and if necessary even keep the bird in their scope, until you rolled up and they could point you at it. Or, for a bird in cover, or where there was a risk of flushing perhaps, patiently delay until everyone who was available had arrived, and then together try and find it.

This is the kind of patch birding ethos which I am used to, and it was also evident yesterday at Cogden. Mike Morse had wasted no time in texting me about the (at the time 'possible') Short-toed Lark. Alan was able to wait and help me look for it, as well as point out where they'd seen it, etc. Mike had also publicised it on Twitter, despite the lack of a solid ID, to alert a wider audience. And the reason for this effort to be helpful? Because when you see a decent bird, and maybe especially when you find a rare or scarce one, you want others to see it! It is perfectly natural that you want to share the occasion, and most will put themselves out in order to do so. In my experience making the effort to share a good bird does in fact give you a great deal of pleasure, and at least part of the reason for that is because it gives others pleasure. Everyone wins.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Happy as a Lark!

I was out early again this morning, down to the sea for a quick look and then a fairly brisk walk to Cogden and back. The sea was very quiet indeed, with a single Great Northern Diver flying W the major highlight, and the walk was no better. I did manage 2 Patchwork Challenge points via a lone Shag bobbing about offshore and a vocal Red-legged Partridge [Edit: 3 points actually. Shag is worth 2]. The beach was conspicuously devoid of Wheatears, which reminded me that we are now getting just the last dribblings of the spring flood. However, about half way along the beach I learned from a glance at Twitter that Portland Bill was hosting a Golden Oriole, which in turn reminded me that along with those dribblings you also get the occasional great big glob of quality. I wondered if one of those might be hunkered down on the patch somewhere...

It's 10:40. A text from Mike Morse:

'Possible Short-toed Lark on beach at Cogden east of line with boardwalk...have made six passes of the beach and can't relocate it though...if it's flown inland we're stuffed...'

I phoned Mike for the gory details. It sounded really, really good. Certainly much better than a 'possible' to my ears. A 'very probable' in fact, though I could understand exactly why he felt it was not quite claim-worthy. I arranged to head down there straight away. Although Mike needed to leave, I would help Alan search for it.

And search we did. Up and down the beach, walking nice and slow, several yards apart. Nothing. Eventually Alan too had to go, so I walked with him all the way to the West Bexington mere, a long way past my usual limit. We parted, and I turned back towards Cogden. Although I was resigned to the big fat dip, I also had a strong feeling that the bird might well still be on the beach somewhere and my intention was to try and cover as much of it as I reasonably could; the habbo is just so perfect for something like a Short-toed Lark. After a while I came across a Wheatear. Well, that had managed to avoid me thus far, so perhaps there was still hope for the lark. Suddenly a small bird flew from the ridge of the beach on my left, away ahead of me at a slight angle, landing 50 or 60 yards distant behind a clump of sea kale. I'd got nothing on it apart from 'small', so just trained my bins on the spot, more or less expecting the inevitable Linnet. And then I realised I could see its head through a gap in the leaves. Not a Linnet! It was alert and motionless for several long seconds, then seemed to relax, and slowly walked into view. Quite distant for bins alone, but no question, it was a Short-toed Lark.

Job number one: #recordshot...

Short-toed Lark, in almost all its very small and pixellated glory

Job number two: make the calls!

After what seemed an age, Alan, and then Mike, reappeared. I had stayed well away from the bird, but within a minute or so of my refinding it the lark had flown another 15-20 yards and out of view. I thought I knew roughly where it was, but when we tried to locate it there was no sign. Once again we began to comb the beach, and finally, finally, it showed properly for Alan and Mike. By now I was pretty rain-soaked, and left them to it. Mike too got a #recordshot with his proper camera...

Nicely captures the blobby black smudge on the side of the neck (photo: Mike Morse)

Arriving back at the van I bumped into Ian McLean from Seaton. West Bexington & Cogden is Ian's old patch, and he is evidently still intent on keeping the ex-patch ticks coming! Yes, Short-toed Lark is a perhaps overdue addition to the Bex/Cogden list. I am delighted to have been involved. Happy as a lark in fact...

I later heard that the little cracker was successfully twitched by several, and a lifer for at least one. I was chuffed at that too. Brilliant.

Finally, Ian M remarked that I seem to be enjoying a bit of a Purple Patch at the moment. I cannot deny it!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Patchwork Challenge 2017

Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition based on points scored for each species that you record on your chosen patch. The commonest birds score 1 point, the rarest 5, and for birds that score 3 or more you get double points if you are also the finder. Hoopoe is a 3-pointer, so if I'd been competing in the Patchwork Challenge my thrilling encounter on 2 May would have earned me 6 Patchwork points. It is quite impossible to live a happy life knowing that you are missing out on such bounty, so of course I've signed up and registered a patch.

I've called the patch Burton/Cogden.

As I said, Patchwork Challenge is a friendly competition, so I was quite eager to see who my competitors in the Coastal South Mini-League might be. To give it some relevance I focused only on those patches that fall between Portland and the Exe (that's the eastern two-thirds of Lyme Bay) and which appear to be currently active. Starting at the western end we first have Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton, then Steve Waite with Axe Estuary & Seaton, Brendan Sheils with Charmouth, myself at Burton/Cogden, and finally Joe Stockwell with Ferrybridge to Weymouth. Five local patches of diverse nature and potential, but all within around 40 miles of coastline.

As a keen competitor my next move was to see how my fellow patchers were doing thus far. I don't know them all personally but that doesn't matter; it is those all-important lists that I'm interested in! What had I missed during the first winter period and early spring as a result of my late start? What envious goodies did they have? But before I got carried away with close analysis I thought I had first better look at the numbers...

As of this morning, here are the current scores:

Patch Species Score
Ferrybridge to Weymouth 154 200
Axe Estuary & Seaton 152 194
Charmouth 105 126
Budleigh Salterton 97 113
Burton/Cogden 94 111

Having effectively started in late April it is hardly surprising that I'm last. Joe and Steve are miles out in front at Weymouth and Seaton. Given the superb mix of habitat on both patches this is no shock either.

Next then, what goodies? I thought I'd begin with 3-pointers or better...

Ferrybridge to Weymouth
Joe has a terrific collection: Spotted Crake, Serin, Red-rumped Swallow, Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, all 3-pointers. No finds as far as I can see, so no bonus points.

Axe Estuary & Seaton
Steve has self-found Sibe Chiff and Cattle Egret, so an extra 3+3 bonus points for those.

Charmouth
Brendan had a Cattle Egret fly past on 5 Feb, which means 3 bonus points too.

Budleigh Salterton
No 3+ pointers yet for Chris.

Burton/Cogden
The Hoopoe on 2 May earned me 6 points including the bonus.

In practical terms Burton/Cogden is in no position to compete with either 'Ferrybridge to Weymouth' or the 'Axe Estuary & Seaton'. Both patches are simply too rich in habitat and potential, and each is no doubt worked by several other birders likely to turn up goodies for Joe and Steve to add to their lists. So I shall set my competitive sights somewhere more realistic...

How about Charmouth?

Charmouth is the nearest patch to mine. Potential-wise I would have thought it is fairly similar. A lot of passerine habbo, a nice stretch of coast and not much fresh water. Yes, perhaps Brendan will unwittingly be a worthy adversary...

With 105 species in the Charmouth bag already I thought it might be instructive to see what I was missing. Well, I was in for a shock. Charmouth is absolutely on fire!! Brendan's haul predictably includes the complete set of regular spring passerine migrants like Tree Pipit, Redstart, Whinchat, Spot Fly etc, but also scarce ones like Ring Ouzel and Pied Flycatcher. Nice. But this isn't all. Sifting through the list I also found Woodlark, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wood Warbler and Nightingale, Twite and Corn Bunting! In order to appreciate why I am so blown away I should probably give the reader an idea of the local status of some of these species. My old haunts the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Beer Head etc are not a million miles away from Charmouth, and I would say compare pretty well in terms of relative status:

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker I don't know any birders who have seen or heard one locally for at least ten years. [Personally I thought they were all gone from this part of the country now, so a drumming, calling male was a bit of a surprise.]
Wood Warbler Just one spring bird in at least the last ten years.
Nightingale Forget it! None, ever. They used to breed on the Axmouth to Lyme Undercliffs until a few years before I moved down here. Since then a total drought.
Twite Steve had an autumn flyover at Beer Head once. Much envy. Otherwise - again - forget it! A lot of E Devon birders would move very quickly for a Twite. And maybe some W Dorset ones too??
Corn Bunting An autumn bird on Beer Head once. First for the patch, that we knew of. Twitched from at least Exmouth. [They do breed near Dorchester, and are scarce visitors to Portland.]
Ring Ouzel Very scarce in spring; one every 3 or 4 years maybe?

You get the idea. As I said, on fire...

When I'd recovered from this battering of quality I had a look at the gaps. Again, some real surprises. No Pheasant? Must be an error. Also I distinctly recall Brendan tweeting about a flock of 16 Waxwings back in January, along with the #PWC2017 and #patchgold tags (a cry of triumph if ever there was one!) but Waxwing is a glaring gap on the current Charmouth patch list. Another oversight, surely? The only waders are Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock. And finally, no seabirds! Apart from Med Gull and Cormorant there is not a single bird that you might have to look offshore to see. No Gannet, no Common Scoter, nothing.

Given its current amazing form I dread to think what will be found when eyes on the Charmouth patch turn seawards...

Altogether a very singular list. Perhaps in a league of its own.

Somehow I really don't think I am able to compete with Charmouth, and will henceforth ignore it...



Which leaves Chris Townend at Budleigh Salterton. Admittedly Budleigh does have an estuary and on paper might have a better list potential than Burton/Cogden, but we shall see. If you read this, Chris, game on!

Standing on Cogden Beach, looking W and contemplating the gruelling task ahead. #PWC2017

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Final Tally?

After the morning's Pom bonanza yesterday, I couldn't resist another look in the evening. In previous springs I've sometimes done okay late in the day. It was worth the effort, with a distant pale phase Pom Skua past E at 17:35 and a nice dark phase Arctic at 18:11. So my skua total for the day was 15, comprising 14 Poms and one Arctic. That's a ridiculous 26 Pomarine Skuas in the last week, compared with my Seaton total of 17 in countless hours of seawatching across 10+ years! I am slightly mind-boggled...

Burton Bradstock, yesterday morning at 06:45. As you can tell from the old towel hastily fetched from my van as a concession to my protesting backside, I haven't yet sussed a comfy seawatching perch at Burton...

Friday, 12 May 2017

Sharing is Caring

I should definitely play my hunches more often. I was down at Burton Bradstock beach not long after 05:00 and, despite the pathetically gentle onshore breeze, was absolutely brimming with confidence. Yesterday morning I did an hour and twenty minutes in two bites, and my highlights were flocks of 6 and 22 Common Scoters. Poor. Yet Pom Skuas were reported here and there; Steve had one at Seaton finally! Even 2 Long-tailed Skuas popped up along the S coast - the nearest at Berry Head, Devon. I just had a strong hunch that there would be some more Poms pitching up in Lyme Bay later in the day, making an early start essential...

However, by 06:00 I'd managed no more than just a few Common Scoters and a Great Crested Grebe. It was very slow. I began to worry that if there were going to be any skuas I might only get one chance, and I didn't want to accidentally miss it because I was looking at Twitter or playing Minesweeper or something. A heads-up from the West would be nice. I texted Steve...

06:02 'R u seawatching Stevie??'
06:03 'Do I need to be? Is it busy?'
06:03 'Ha ha! Not so far!'
06:04 'Just doesn't seem as good weather conditions as forecasted?'

Steve was right. Hardly a breath of wind. It didn't look promising at all. And yet...

At that precise moment a very distant bird appeared above the horizon and climbed rapidly, coming straight towards me. "Is that a Whimbrel?" I thought. It then stopped abruptly, turned E and sailed gently down to land on the sea. A skua! Too far out to ID, but definitely a skua.

Some more tippy-tappy...

06:06 'Mind you, just had my first v distant skua, has landed on sea...'
 [note 'first' skua. Confidence!]
06:07 'Oh there's no harm in me popping down for an hour is there...'
06:08 'Let me know when the Long-tailed comes past!'

Ah, if only...

I kept an eye out where the skua had landed, and after a little while picked up two familiar shapes cruising E, low to the waves. I had to zoom right up to clinch them, but definitely 2 Poms; I assumed my initial sighting had been one of these two.

06:16 '2 distant Poms E'

Soon we were chatting on the phone, talking up the potential and generally being wishful, when my scope eye was suddenly full of Pom! Another two fully-spooned stunners were muscling E at no more than 2-300 yards! I rang off a bit abruptly. Brilliant!

Then it was Steve's turn...

06:29 '9 Poms on sea off Spot-on'

Steve was so excited he inadvertently sent it twice!

NINE!! Shortly we were talking on the phone again. All nine had evidently taken off, circled over the Spot-on kiosk, directly above Steve and Richard, the only two birders seawatching there, and then headed my way! To say Steve was ecstatic would be an understatement. I now had the heads-up I had been hoping for.

At 07:05 they came past me. Simply superb. Probably 400 yds plus, low to the waves, powering eastwards with seemingly no effort. All pale phase birds except one, which I guess was intermediate-ish, and I reckon all or nearly all of them had full spoons. In a previous post I promised birdy #recordshots, so duly made the effort...

I reckon a couple of those specks actually look Pom-shaped. Amazing. I can only make out 8 in the photo, but even that's a minor miracle.

With the aid of the technological marvel that is Twitter, those 9 Poms were tracked all along the S coast from Seaton, via James McCarthy at Lyme Regis, via me at Burton, all and sundry at Portland Bill, and on round past Hurst Point in Hampshire and into the Solent. I'm not sure how far they got after that, but they do appear to have stopped for a breather somewhere before Selsey Bill. It was great to be aware of the shared experience and, as I've yet to meet a birder who isn't fired up by seeing skuas, to know that a lot of fellow birders were on cloud nine this morning!

Something weird is happening. Has birding changed dramatically while I've been away, or something? Because I am seeing LOADS more decent birds than used to be the case.