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...