Kittiwake-ing Ned

When I was in Australia a few years back, I promised myself – and any koala that happened to be in ear-shot – that I would never again complain about the weather.  On this particular occasion, it was raining to almost biblical proportions and I had spent about ninety minutes cowering under a small tree with all my worldly travel goods (including some water-hating electrical items).  For an hour and a half, I had been stuck under a branch of some sort of eucalyptus tree unable to go back to where I had come from (Port Macquarie Koala Hospital) or go to where I wanted to get to (an unofficial aunty who’d probably never even heard of me and definitely wasn’t expecting me to turn up’s house).

To say that I was annoyed at the situation was an understatement.  On leaving the Koala Hospital, I had turned down a lift – to wherever I wanted to go – from the kindly lady behind reception, to wherever I wanted to go.  It was only threatening rain, so I declined the offer.  However, as the car pulled away, the heavens opened and I had to seek solace under a gum tree.

This was the worst weather experience of my life.

Like the good boy I am, I dutifully kept my promise of not complaining…

Until now…

Flash forward (maybe that should be flash flood?) three years to a bird hide at RSPB Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk…

It was raining so hard and so sideways that it was coming in through the wooden walls of the building that I had dashed to cower in.  It was so rainy that the floor was beginning to flood, the benches were sodden and I had got soaked through to my pants.

I swore… Out loud… A lot!

Good Grief! Charlie Brown was having a bad day...

Good Grief! Charlie Brown was having a bad day…

The weather was ridiculous.  It was British Summer Time and I was in Norfolk (statistically the driest county in the UK), wringing out my underwear whilst sheltering from what can only be described as a *@$%ing, @*%tty monsoon!  To quote Kevin Patterson, “This was so unfair!”

Looking out of the window, I could see the waterfowl cursing the weather under their breath… That’s how bad it was.  A sodden Avocet looked miserable – Rainwater was pounding onto its head, roller-coastering down and up its up-curved beak and forming sizeable droplets at the end.

Avocet

Avocet

In spite of me experiencing the early signs of trench foot (and, perhaps its groinal equivalent) I did manage to see a Little Tern and a Little Gull – firsts for the year – out in the distant gloom.  The Little Gull was having great trouble remaining in Norfolk due to the powerful crosswind.

Little Gull

Little Gull

Little Gull

Little Gull

Eventually, the monsoon was downgraded to a severe storm and I made a mad dash to the solace of the car, hoping that I had packed a change of underwear.  I was disappointed that I had broken a long-standing promise to never complain about the weather, but vowed to start it again… From now!

The next couple of nights were due to be spent camping in Suffolk, so I stopped in on Lowestoft – One of the best places to see Kittiwakes on the east coast of the country.  Other facts about Lowestoft: It is the most easterly point in the UK…  Composer Benjamin Britten was born here and it is statistically one of the driest places in the country [That’s my favourite one!].

Sadly, Kittiwakes, a medium-sized gull with a yellow bill and dark eye, are a species in decline in the UK and this has been put down to waning supplies of sandeels – I suggest they might consider trying Clarks in Lowestoft High Street.

Down near the seafront, whilst hopelessly trying to work out which of the gulls swooping overhead might be Kittiwakes and which were not, I happened to see something odd fraternising with a group of Starlings – Even with my dubious bird identification skills, I could tell it wasn’t a Starling…  It was a bit too green to be one of those!  It looked like a parrot… In actual fact I had seen a couple in Canberra on my trip to Australia [The trip I seem to be banging on about today].

Green Starling?

Green Starling?

It was a Red-Rumped Parrot, which is native to south-eastern Australia.  It couldn’t possibly be here of its own volition and was clearly an escapee from a local birdcage.    I could not count it for my list, but it’s always nice to see a captive bird making a bold bid for freedom.

Red-Rumped Parrot

Red-Rumped Parrot

I finally found some Kittiwakes busying themselves on the side of a building with specially installed areas for nesting.  It’s far easier to ID something when it’s sitting down.

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

In Other News…

Quick visits to Strumpshaw Fen, Buckenham Marshes and Dunwich Heath, plus the main road through King’s Lynn brought about sightings of the following…

Little Owl

Little Owl

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl

Red-Legged Partridge

Red-Legged Partridge

Black Swan

Black Swan

Grey Partridge

Grey Partridge

It hadn’t yet rained again, so my pants lived to fight another day.

 

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Eat, Osprey, Love

After all the excitement of tracking down an Eagle in Sussex, I totally forgot to provide you all with a comprehensive field report of my trip to “Up North”.  I do hope you forgive me for my remissness…  I was also going to apologise for making the word ‘remissness’ up, but Microsoft Word has not underlined it with a squiggly red line.  This can only mean one of two things – Either ‘remissness’ is actually a word, or I made it up ages ago, saw the red squiggly underline, clicked ‘add to dictionary’ and then promptly forgot all about it.

If you think the above paragraph is exciting, I bet you can’t wait to read my upcoming six-part (minimum) blog dissertation on my trip to see family in Lincoln, getting monsooned-on in Norfolk and unintentionally mingling with the cast of Springwatch at RSPB Minsmere.

[Interestingly, ‘monsooned’ did get the red underline treatment – Who’d have thought it?]

As I was heading in the direction of Rutland (England’s smallest county) on my way to visit Lincoln-based family, I thought it would be rude not to pop along to Rutland Water (England’s largest reservoir).  The reservoir is possibly the best place to see Ospreys in the country, so I could pretty much guarantee adding a new species to my year list.

Rutland Water - Not as big as I had imagined...

Rutland Water – Not as big as I had imagined…

On walking into the visitor centre, I could see that they had a television in the corner showing the birds on one of the nests at the reservoir (you can watch it here).  As it was live footage, I wondered if this meant that I could add it to my list right there and then.  If you’ve been following my misadventures, you will know that this is not the first time that my rules for the year had been challenged…

It wasn't a Sunday, so it couldn't have been 'Songs Ospreys' on the TV

It wasn’t a Sunday, so it couldn’t have been ‘Songs Ospreys’ on the TV

2014 Rules - Called into question almost weekly

2014 Rules – Called into question on an almost weekly basis.

If you work your way through them, you could realistically argue that watching a bird live on TV is actually countable – It was definitely identifiable.  It was definitely wild.  It was definitely alive.  This potential loophole could mean that I could add practically limitless numbers of birds to my list…  All I needed to do was go home, subscribe to a satellite bird channel, sharpen my pencil and get ticking (This sentence sounds dodgy and may well get amended by the moderator!)

But, that wouldn’t really be entering into the spirit of things…  Challenge overruled!

Out of the window, I could see Tree Sparrows.  Before adding this new species for the year to my list I had a quick check to see if it was actually a window and not a 9000-inch flat screen TV.

It was a window.

An HD Widescreen Tree Sparrow

An HD Widescreen Tree Sparrow, brought to you in Dolby Surround Sound (Sort of)

The Ospreys were viewable from a hide a twenty or so minute walk away.  The hide was busy and full of people eager to catch a glimpse of a scarce summer visitor to the UK.  One of the pair was sat in the nest atop what looked like a reused telephone pole; the other was on the perching post up near the camera a few feet away.

Ospreys

Ospreys

All of a sudden, with the instinctive urge to reproduce kicking-in (perhaps, also, with one eye on featuring in this week’s ‘Naughty Corner’), the one near the camera flew to the nest and mounted the other (The kids watching the live footage in the visitor centre were about to get an unexpected sex education lesson).  Instantaneously, the hide was filled with the sound of machine gun-like clicking of camera shutters – Everyone seemingly wanted to document this private moment of intimacy for posterity.  For the safety of nature, it was fortunate the crowd appeared to be subscribers of Digital Camera World rather than Guns and Ammo.

Naughty Corner - Osprey Foreplay

Naughty Corner – Osprey Foreplay

Ospreys

Ospreys

As seems to be the case with much of the animal world, the love-making only lasted fleetingly.  Job done, the duo sat next to each other in the nest and didn’t even cuddle.  The volley of camera clicking subsided and the parents in the visitor centre began to remove their hands from their children’s eyes.  As I always do after watching Ospreys copulating, I went outside and ate a cheese sandwich.

And in other news…

My hobby is taking poor photographs of nature...  This hobby's hobby is being a hobby.

My hobby is taking poor photographs of nature… This hobby’s hobby is being a hobby.

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker

Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker

Brown Argus

Brown Argus

Thanks for reading.  Holiday Report Part II coming soon… Lucky you!

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The Eagle Has Landed – Part II

Subtitled:  And I know Where It Is This Time

After some soul-searching (I was genuinely gutted to have run across most of East Sussex in vain), a bath and a self-administered calf massage, I was ready to try again to find a Short-Toed Eagle – This time in a car.

I fixed on my L-plates, strapped my co-driver into the adjacent seat and set off to find me an eagle…

My sources had informed me that the target bird was in a tree just south-west of Long Car Park in the Ashdown Forest, so that is just where I went.  I made sure I mirrored, signalled and manoeuvred in a safe and orderly fashion, stuck to all speed limits and thought bike at all times – Yes, I know it’s hard to believe I could have failed my driving test!

Spot the eagle... If only there was someone here to help me.

Looking for an eagle in a haystack… If only there was someone here to point it out.

On arrival, the eagle was in a tree (amongst a forest’s-worth of other trees) about 400 yards away from the larger ends (I know all the technical terms) of the telescopes and binoculars of an assembled crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of a phenomenally rare sight in the UK.  My Fisher Price binoculars were put to shame by the magnification technology on show, but a number of kind individuals seemed keen to share their equipment with me so that I could see the bird for myself.

Me, watching them, watching it...

Me, watching them, watching it…

All I could see was a small part of what might be the back of the head.  The rest of the animal was shielded from view by an array of branches and pine needles.

Strictly speaking, I had just seen a Short-Toed Eagle and could add it to my list for the year.  I tried to think back to my rules for seeing as many birds as I could in 2014 and tried to remember if I had specified that I needed to see a certain percentage of a bird for it to be acceptable.  As it stood, I had probably seen about 2% of an eagle… and I wasn’t entirely sure which part it was either.

After a wait of an hour or so, it decided to reveal the other 98% to the world and soared into the sky for a minute or so.

It was a remarkable sight…  An eagle – with extraordinarily bright yellow eyes and a wingspan probably in excess of one and a half metres – soaring across the Sussex skyline.  It was definitely one of those ‘wow moments’ I was banging on about a few weeks ago.

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

Short-Toed Eagle

In those sixty-seconds, I forgot about yesterday’s futile dashing around and my ridiculously achy calves.  I fortunately didn’t forget how to stand up or how not to wet myself.  The efforts of the past couple of days had all been worth it.

I could definitely add it to my list now.

To continue the run of poor photos, I tried to use my phone camera and a telescope - And failed!

To continue the run of poor photos, I tried to use a phone camera and a telescope combo  (Also known as digiscoping) – And failed!

There was now a big unexpected tick in my imaginary notepad for a Short-Toed Eagle… and a slightly smaller one for the Spotted Flycatcher I spotted not catching flies on the way back to the car.

Spotted Flycatcher - You'll just have to believe me when I say it is!

Spotted Flycatcher – You’ll just have to believe me when I say it is!

I was now up to ONE-HUNDRED and FORTY SIX birds for the year, leaving four more to get to my target.  This bird challenge malarkey is going pretty well so far…  And the day after all this, I actually passed my driving test – Time for my co-driver to go on holiday!

Stonechat - Wondering why fifty people were watching it eat its dinner.

Stonechat – Wondering why fifty people were watching it eat its dinner.

 

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The Eagle Has Landed – Part I

Subtitled: But I Haven’t a Clue Where

As new sightings for the year have started to wane, I’ve signed-up for one month to a service called Birdguides in a semi-desperate attempt to locate new birds.  Birdguides provides the user with access to an up-to-the-minute list of interesting birds all across the country.

Basically, it’s a veritable where’s who of notable things with wings nationwide.

According to my sources (I can now say this and mean it, as I do actually have sources), there has been a Short-Toed Eagle making its way backwards and forwards across southern England over the past week or so.  If I’m honest, I’d never heard of a Short-Toed Eagle, but the fact that the latest sightings report – stating that it was currently hanging around a forest just twenty-miles away in East Sussex – had three exclamation marks next to it (!!!), suggested that it might be bit of an uncommon visitor to the UK.  In bird-watching lingo, you could say it was a ‘MEGA’ bird.  Although, I would never say that, as I’m still not admitting to being a bird-watcher.

In spite of my continued resolute non-bird-watcher status, I was quite excited for three reasons: -

(1)   I’ve never seen an Eagle in the wild before.

(2)   An Eagle is definitely not on my 2014 bird list.

(3)   My investment of £4.99 had almost instantly started to reap dividends.  In fact, as far as investments went, this was already potentially up there with the time I purchased a girlfriend from an internet dating website for a one-off payment of £9.99 [I think my profile is still online somewhere, so if you’re bored (or one of my stalkers), you could always try to find it – I make no apologies for listing Ceefax as one of the things I couldn’t live without!]

A bit of research revealed that the Short-Toed Eagle (also called a Snake Eagle) usually spends its summers in southern Europe, so for it to turn up in southern England is apparently a big deal.  As far as I can tell, it is named short-toed after the fact it has shorter toes than other eagles.  I imagine you could have guessed that.

The bird had been seen since early morning in the Wych Cross area of the Ashdown Forest, so I took a train, a bus and walked a couple of miles (it’s times like this that make me further rue my recent driving test failure) to the location suggested on the map.

Ah, Mr Eagle...  Your movements are being tracked!

Ah, Mr Eagle… Your movements are being tracked!

Rather unsurprisingly, it wasn’t there – seemingly, wildlife tends to move about a lot… and I had given it a couple of hours’ head start, so it could have been anywhere (Well, maybe not in the pub, or the local swimming pool…)

I looked skywards and could see for miles.  There were a number of potential eagles in the distance – But were they eagles?

1. Eagle?

1. Eagle?

2. Eagle?

2. Eagle?

3. Eagle?

3. Eagle?

Picture 1 was most likely a Lesser Black-Backed Gull.  Picture 2 was probably flight EZY8667 from Gatwick to Alicante.  Picture 3 was perhaps the closest I was going to get to seeing an eagle, but as it was so far away, it could well have been Superman or those aliens who kidnapped Elvis coming back for another celebrity icon (please let it be Dappy from N-Dubz).

I checked my sources again…  The bird was apparently ‘showing well’ (a birding term for letting people with binoculars gawp at it without putting leaves and branches between it and them) ‘c.500m east of Gills Lap car park’.  I opened Google Maps and saw that that was about a four mile run away from my current location (this failed driving test was going to continue to bite me, wasn’t it?).  I swiftly set off to Gills Lap car park, only stopping to have a look at a Common Redstart and a Tree Pipit and to have the odd recuperatory lie-down.

Redstart

Redstart

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit

Eventually, I got there to see that the eagle had decided to fly off somewhere else…

Gills Lap - Home to Winnie the Pooh.  Oh Pooh indeed!

Gills Lap – Home to Winnie the Pooh. Oh Pooh indeed!

Tired, hungry and feeling deflated, I decided to give up…  I had failed to see a !!!-level bird.

At this point, it was more of a !@£* bird to me.

All in all it was a bit of a disappointing day.  In fact, I had seen as many eagles today as I had seen yesterday.  Only yesterday, I hadn’t spent a small fortune on public transport and walk-jogged the equivalent of a half marathon.  To, once again, use bird watching parlance, I had ‘mega dipped’.  You could also say that I had ‘dipped a mega’.  Bugger!

After a pretty dismal day’s bird-stalking, I wasn’t quite sure which cross I should be…  In the end, I went with ‘somewhat irked’

After a pretty dismal day’s bird-stalking, I wasn’t quite sure which cross I should be…  In the end, I went with ‘somewhat irked’

The only comfort I could draw from the day was that all that dashing around was sure to buff-up my calves a bit.

 

To be continued…

 

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A Wagtail of Two Cities

The Isle of Sheppey is a place of contrasts.  At one extreme, dreary, run-down former industrial hub and, at the other, a massive expanse of beautiful marshland set under a big, open sky.  It is also the site of my first (and likely to be only) dalliance with jellied eels – Go on, click the link, there’s even a video.

Oh, what a ghastly, dreary industrial scene...

Oh, what a ghastly, dreary industrial scene…

Elmley NNRElmley Marshes National Nature Reserve is situated on the south-west corner of Sheppey.  It is a 3000-acre freshwater grazing marsh that provides an important habitat for wildlife.  An Elmley-inspired marshy landscape featured in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.  King James II was also held at Elmley in 1688 whilst attempting to flee the country.  Also, before the water channels dividing them silted up, Elmley (along with Sheppey and Harty) used to be one of the three islands that made up the Isles of Sheppey.

Right, that’s your history lesson over…

Looking out from one of the hides, I could see a group of Godwits in the semi-distance – long-beaked, long-legged wading birds, probing into the shallow water for food.

Globally, there are four species of Godwit: Black-Tailed, Bar-Tailed, Marbled and Hudsonian, but being a bit of a dimwit when it comes to Godwits, I couldn’t be sure which type they were.  All I could say for certain was that I hadn’t seen any of them this year, so whatever they were, they would be a new species for the list.

Black-Tailed Godwit - Winter plumage

Black-Tailed Godwit – Winter plumage

Having just stated that there are four types and listed them, I probably don’t sound like much of a dimwit, but this is where a good bit of looking in a bird reference book comes in.  Before I acquired my Collins Bird Guide, I’m fairly sure that I thought British birdlife consisted of Blue Tits, Blackbirds and Sparrows (just the one type, mind you, and not the three resident species we have over here…  That said, if I’m being factually precise (for once), the inaccurately-named Hedge Sparrow (or Dunnock) is actually an Accentor and not a Sparrow).  The first time I had a flick through the book, I was astounded at the vast array of birds that live in or visit the UK.

As it turns out, the birds pottering around in the shallow water in front of me could realistically be one of two: Black-Tailed or Bar-Tailed – The other two are far too international for these parts (although, the Hudsonian has turned-up in Britain on a few occasions, evidently).

To my untrained eye (well, eyes) the pictures of the possibles showed two incredibly similar birds, so I asked for help…  Evidently, the best way to differentiate between the two was to see them in flight as one has a black tail and the other has a barred tail (Plaudits go to the bird namers!).

We were basically waiting for godwit to decide to fly. [It has taken me five paragraphs to crowbar that sorry attempted play on words into this post – I do hope I can Beckett up with some interesting ramblings].

Eventually, the small flock decided that they wanted to be somewhere else – slightly out of wading range – and took to the sky.  It was clear to see that they were Black-Tailed Godwits and I finally had a new addition to my bird list for the year.

Black-Tailed Godwit - Summer plumage

Black-Tailed Godwit – Summer plumage

Additional new sightings at Elmley for 2014 were Yellow Wagtail and Ringed Plover.  Both of these were significantly easier to identify.  The Yellow Wagtail is a Wagtail that’s yellow, and the Ringed Plover looks just like a hooped jumper (#excessivelycryptic) – Can you work that one out?

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

Ringed Plover (AKA Hooped Pullover!)

What a Ringed Plover (AKA Hooped Pullover!) would look like if viewed from Space

I also managed to spy a female Common Pheasant before it scared me witless.  My usual sightings of Pheasants involve them flying out of the undergrowth from within a few feet, squawking hysterically and flapping violently, whilst I have a small cardiac incident.  There have been numerous stories in the news of the species getting militant – If I was a betting man, I would wager that they are planning some sort of coup…  A Pheasants’ Revolt, if you will.

Common Pheasant - What Michael didn't know is that there were eight machine-gun wielding pheasants assembling behind him

Common Pheasant – What Michael didn’t know is that there were eight machine-gun wielding pheasants assembling behind him

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Skylark

Skylark

Juvenile Lapwing

Juvenile Lapwing

Common Redshank

Common Redshank

Avocet

Avocet

Fauna Corner

Fauna Corner has been a little butterfly-centric of late, so, in order to keep it from getting monotonous…

Brown Hare - Hare today... Hare tomorrow, most likely

Brown Hare – Hare today… Hare tomorrow, most likely

Marsh Frog

Marsh Frog

In Other News…

It has been a well-kept secret, but shockingly Fauna Corner has two illegitimate children: Fruit Corner – which deals with hard-hitting yoghurt-related issues and Naughty Corner – which highlights the natural world… um… er… well… getting jiggy.

Due to copyright issues, however, I have been informed that I am no longer allowed to mention the former.  It seems that the legal departments of fermented milk product companies don’t hang about with cease and desist proceedings.

As a result, I proudly unveil the very first (and possibly only) Naughty Corner.  Please set your shame levels to zero and switch voyeurism mode on…

Green-Veined Whites

Green-Veined Whites

Five-Spot Burnets

Five-Spot Burnets

Do my flies look big in this?

Do my flies look big in this?

Banded Demoiselles

Banded Demoiselles

Froggy-Style

Froggy-Style

Do Cows Use the Farmer-Sutra?

Do Cows Use the Farmer-Sutra?

Please address all complaints to Me and send them to the ‘Comments’ section below…

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Cuckoo’s Talking

Hello!  Apologies for the lack of ‘exciting’ stories of late.  I’d love to be able to say I’ve been up to lots of adventuresome things in rainforests or getting stuck in ravines in search of the Holy Grail, but I haven’t.  I’ve mostly been spending my spare time making the most of the longer evenings by foraging through local undergrowth in search of mini-beasts, moths and hedge-dwelling avifauna.  I’ve also eaten some toast, slept a bit and misidentified Cuckoos.

The Cuckoo is one of those helpful birds that calls out its name to provide assistance in identification.  Being distinctive looking birds, a Cuckoo is fairly straightforward to recognise if you see one – Grey back, wings and head and a white and grey striped chest, with bright yellow eyes.  They are usually perched in an ungainly fashion on an overhead wire or tree branch and, in flight, have the appearance of a bird of prey – like a Sparrowhawk.

They make an arduous journey between Western Africa (where they spend the winter) and Northern Europe (where they breed).  After about an eight-week lay-over in Europe, where they lay a solitary egg in a number of other birds’ nests – this is known as brood parasitism – they head southwards once more.

Recently, I have been hearing Cuckoos calling quite a lot…  Or so I thought.

I was walking through a small area of woodland and I heard the unmistakeable call of “Cuckoo…  Cuckoo…” and it was close.  I stopped for a moment in order to get a better idea of its exact location and quietly crept towards the source of the noise.  “Cuckoo…  Cuckoo…” – It was getting louder, which suggested to me that I was getting closer.  Or, I suppose it may have just increased its volume level…  Maybe “Cuckoo…  Cuckoo…” in certain circumstances means “Sod off and leave me alone!”  Perhaps if I had studied Avian at GCSE instead of French and German, I would have known that.  The National Curriculum is so limiting.

I found the tree the bird was perched in and, to my surprise, it was actually a Collared Dove.  It was calling “Coo Coo…  Coo Coo” which, I guess, is the same as “Cuckoo…  Cuckoo…” only delivered with a slightly different regional accent.

Collared Dove

Collared Dove – Coo Coo…  Poo Poo

Not for the first time in my life, I felt a bit of a fool.

In spite of this setback, I did manage to track down a bona fide Cuckoo…  An exciting new addition to the year list.

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

Cuckoo

In Other News…

I took a bit of a wander around Denbies Hillside, which is a lovely part of the North Downs (when the sun’s out).  At this time of year, the area isn’t especially good for birds, but is great for butterflies, day-flying moths, various other insects and the odd rodent – Perfect fodder for Fauna Corner.

Do you like my fancy watch?  The attached peripheral tells me it's May!

Do you like my fancy watch? The attached peripheral tells me it’s May! (Well, it was at the time)

In order to take close-up photos of winged-things I lost count of the number of times I knelt in stinging nettles.  I figured I would either have got stung enough to die in a painful rashy mess by the end of the day, or wake up in the morning with some nettle-related mutant superpower…  Given that nettle is another word for irritate or annoy, I’m fairly sure I could probably lay claim to the title of Nettleman anyway, so I imagine there wouldn’t necessarily be a noticeable transformation.

Fauna Corner

Cinnabar Moth

Cinnabar Moth

Common Blue (Male)

Common Blue (Male)

Common Blue (Female)

Common Blue (Female)

Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak

Small Heath

Small Heath

Drinker Moth Caterpillar

Drinker Moth Caterpillar

Two-Headed Ten-Spot Burnet

Two-Headed Ten-Spot Burnet – Honest!

Um...  Er...  Introducing the Shimmering Emerald Bug (or correct equivalent)

Um… Er… Introducing the Emerald Shimmer Bug (or correct equivalent)

As I got to my feet after photographing a particularly green, particularly shiny, particularly beetley creature (In case you’re wondering, I have no idea what it was!), I happened to notice an interesting pinky, flowery flower (Yep, same as above!)…  Just as I was about to take a photo, I stopped myself.  I was already on the limit with this year of nature discovery as it was: Fifty-two weeks of birds had already been joined by thirty-seven weeks of butterflies and a whole heap of moths, dragonflies, ladybirds and a near infinite supply of other insects.  Adding flowers as a new area of discovery would simply explode my tiny little mind.  There was no way I could find the mental resource to curate a, for want of a better title, Flora CornerBesides, I’m an incredibly manly man, and such high levels of macho-ness and flowers just wouldn’t sit well together.  I put my near-dalliance with considering buying an Alan Titchmarsh flower arranging DVD down to an acute case of patellar nettle rash and lowered my camera.

Phew, a lucky escape!

Here's a photo of the flower I almost took a photo of...

Here’s a photo of the flower I almost took a photo of…

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And Now For Something Completely Dipperent

Guten tag!

A trip to the Leverkusen area of Germany in search of exotic bird life (oh, and to visit some in-laws) has resulted in me wracking my brains to see how much German I remember from Mrs Dawson’s GCSE classes…  As it turns out, it’s not a great deal – Mainly items of food.

The pre-planned new species excitement was due to be a visit to the Wupper (a river that sounds a bit like a Pokémon…  Not that I know anything at all about Pokémon – Honest!) to re-visit the only place I have ever seen a Dipper before.

Dippers are one of those birds that are actually correctly named after what they do – When standing on a rock in their favourite habitat of fast-flowing water, they bob up and down.  They are plump black/brown birds with contrasting white chest plumage

This is obviously not the same as a skinny dipper.  If you discover one of these, you have probably stumbled across Magdalen Bridge in Oxford in the early hours of May Day (and have used a time machine to get there, as this activity is now banned)  If you ever see a big dipper, you are probably looking skywards during a night time visit to Thorpe Park.

Chicken dippers on the other hand…

Before the trip to the Wupper, however, I went for a stroll around the woodland just five minutes from the house and was just in the process of trying to stalk the first Speckled Wood Butterfly I’ve seen this year when I heard the whispered shout of “Dipper” from a member of my scouting party.  I stopped pursuing the fluttering insect, briefly considered if ‘whispered shout’ was an oxymoron, and swiftly walked in the direction of the bridge over the nearby stream.

Just a few metres away, with a beak full of what looked like insect larvae was a Dipper.  It was doing exactly as it was supposed to – dipping up and down.  What an excellent new species for the year that was spied even before the scheduled trip to go and hunt it out.  That’s efficient bird-spotting!

Dipper

Dipper (Wasseramsel)

Dipper

Big Dipper

Little Dipper

Little Dipper

I managed to get some very amateur video footage of the Dipper in action – I imagine the BBC Wildlife Unit won’t be head-hunting me to help with the filming of the next ‘Planet Something’ series…

 

A different-to-the-usual looking Buzzard was in the sky up ahead – A lot lighter in colour than your average Common variety…  Could this be my second new species of the trip?  Could it be a Rough-Legged Buzzard?  Or was it just a Common Buzzard?

Buzzards often catch me out as there seems to be potential for considerable variations in their colour.  After the mis-identification of a juvenile Buzzard (I foolishly thought it was a Hen Harrier) a few weeks ago, I’m always a bit wary when I see a bird of prey in local airspace.

Mystery Buzzard

Mystery Buzzard (Bussard)

Later on, after a post-dinner discussion, the judging panel decided that it was a Common Buzzard – which, I guess, is what it was always likely to be!

As a formidable linguist, I was expecting the Eifel Tour to involve a big pointy metal structure (and a stripy-jumpered, beret wearing man on a bicycle)

As a formidable linguist, I was expecting the Eifel Tour to involve a big pointy metal structure (and a stripy-jumpered, beret wearing man on a bicycle – possibly wearing a string of onions and drinking vin rouge for petit dejeuner)

A day trip to the Eifel National Park would hopefully provide a great opportunity to rack-up a few new sightings for the list…  According to the leaflet I had downloaded from the internet I would have a chance of seeing Black Kites, Black Woodpeckers, Beavers and Wildcats.  This leaflet promised much, but never once suggested that I would have to endure occasional bursts of torrential rain and hailstorms.  It’s odd how publicity materials don’t mention the weather – Unless it’s 35˚ C and sunny every day.

For the purpose of the bird spotting challenge, I was especially keen to see the Kite and Woodpecker.  For the purpose of innuendo, I was hoping to see the odd Beaver.  Shameful, I know.

Within moments of the first rainstorm ceasing, I had (provisionally) ticked Black Kite off the list.  There was a bird of prey swooping over the lake in front of me.  It was instantly recognizable as a Kite (forked tail), but looked darker in colour than the Red version that’s on the increase in England.  I took some photos in anticipation of presenting my findings to the judging panel later on.

Black Kite (Schwarzmilan)

Black Kite (Schwarzmilan)

And now for the next bird on my list…  I had absolutely no idea how large a Black Woodpecker was or in which trees I might be likely to see one.  As a result, I quite often found myself excitingly whisper-shouting (it’s catching on, evidently!) “Black Woodpecker!” whilst scrambling for my binoculars, only for it to ALWAYS turn out to be a Common Blackbird.  Each whisper-shout was immediately followed by an apology.  I was embarrassing myself.

After a number of erroneous IDs, I finally got to see a Black Woodpecker…  However, it was only a picture of one on an info panel (this information provided details on the National Park, from its history, to its trees, to its animal inhabitants, but, strangely, never once mentioned a risk of hailstorms).

Black Woodpecker (Schwarzspecht)

Black Woodpecker (Schwarzspecht)

I managed to add a Marsh Tit and a Common Redstart to my list.  The former gave itself away with a ‘pit-choo’ call from miles up a fir tree.  The latter just landed on a metal post a few metres in front of me as I was about to get in the car.

Marsh Tit (Weidenmeise)

Marsh Tit (Weidenmeise)

Common Redstart (Gartenrotschwanz)

Common Redstart (Gartenrotschwanz)

The judging panel has deemed the bird to be a Black Kite.  I never did get to see a Beaver…

 

Quick Quiz

Can you work out what each of the following birds I saw on my trip are in English?

Die Vogel ListeAnswers

Bird List

And the prize for the best German-named bird goes to the Zilpzalp

Chiffchaff (Ziplzalp)

Chiffchaff (Ziplzalp)

 

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The Terninator

In case you didn’t all know, yesterday was International Dawn Chorus Day…  It’s an event designed to get people out of their beds at some ungodly hour of the morning and out into the natural world with the chief purpose of connecting with the wildlife that’s around them.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The dawn chorus consists of a lot of birds doing a lot of singing very early in the morning to herald the start of a brand new spring day.  I guess many of them have been practicing for weeks to make sure each of them sing the right notes at the right time in order to impress all those people gathered to witness the spectacle on the first Sunday in May each year.  Either that, or they just do exactly as they do most mornings and sing their little birdy hearts out, oblivious to the hordes of weary nature-lovers standing under a tree in the pitch blackness.

In my case, I set my alarm for 4.30am and when it went off, I cursed my previous night’s keenness to forgo a Sunday lie-in to immerse myself in the trilly-warbly-tweety splendour of crack-of-dawn-birdsong.

I opened the window and could already hear the warm-up act – a solitary Blackbird, sitting atop the tree in the garden, was belting out an improv version of ‘Morning has Broken‘ (obviously, not the Cat Stevens version, for logical avian vs. feline reasons).  Could I get away with participating in this year’s event from the comfort of my bed?  Would that be cheating? Would it undermine the spirit of International Dawn Chorus Day?

The answer to all three was probably ‘Yes‘… but I was awake, so felt compelled to drag myself out from under the sheets and get to Earlswood Lake.

Ten minutes later, I was standing at the edge of the lower lake in the sort of Sunday morning half-light non-partying Michael is no longer especially familiar with.  I used to be fun once upon a time – Honest!

Earlswood Lake.  Sunday. Really bloody early!

Earlswood Lake. Sunday. Really bloody early.

It was difficult to hear the birdsong because someone was moaning about how wet and cold their feet were from walking across the dewy golf course… Obviously, that person was me.  I used to not moan about everything once – Honest!

Earlswood Lake.

Earlswood Lake. Sunday.  Two minutes later than really bloody early.

Before I wasted the early start, I decided to get over myself, silence my whinging and listen… I could hear Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs, Robins and Wrens all trying to be heard over the top of each other, as the sun was trying to drag itself over the distant tree-line.  A brand new day was beginning with a cacophony of tweets and an increasingly stunning pinkening sky.

It was quite the aural and visual spectacle… One I was increasingly glad to be experiencing (as long as it was only to be a once a year occurrence, mind you).

If anyone’s interested, it’s National Doughnut Week next week – probably easier to get out of bed for that one!

Guess the birds in the silhouette...

Guess the birds in the silhouette…

The sole new bird species for the weekend was a lonely looking Common Tern at Warnham Nature Reserve .  He had positioned himself (or herself) next to the newly installed tern nesting raft and appeared to be waiting for a female (or male) to come and join him (or her) to pair up and start a family…  Maybe he (or she) could try in-tern-et dating to speed the process along.  I used to be funny once – Honest! (This is, of course, a blatant lie).

Revealed:  The real reason Peter Shiltern was never any good at saving penalties...

Revealed: The real reason Peter Shiltern was never any good at saving penalties…

One good tern (picture) deserves another...

One good tern (picture) deserves another…

Fauna Corner

Now that spring is in full swing (I’ve been to the dawn chorus to prove it), I sense that Fauna Corner is going to get quite busy with photographs of winged things.  I also predict that the pictures will have a lot of captions containing something along the lines of ‘um… er… I’m not sure what this is. Help!’, because I only know about four of the near two and a half thousand British moths, the commonest of our seventy(ish) butterflies and can name more members of The Beatles than I can name actual beetles.

I apologise in advance for this.

A wander along the Riverside Walk in Horsham and Denbies Hillside, just outside Dorking, revealed these six-legged (and one no-legged) wonders: -

Beautiful Demoiselle (Female)

Beautiful Demoiselle (Female)

Beautiful Demoiselle (Male)

Beautiful Demoiselle (Male)

Mint Moth

Mint Moth

Green Hairstreak

Green Hairstreak

Grizzled Skipper

Grizzled Skipper

Common Blue

Common Blue

Dingy Skipper

Dingy Skipper

5-Spot Burnet

5-Spot Burnet

22-Spot Ladybird - Apologies for the state of my hands. If I'd have known I'd be modelling a ladybird, I would have moisturised (or, at least, washed)

22-Spot Ladybird – Apologies for the state of my hands. If I’d have known I’d be modelling a ladybird, I would have moisturised (or, at least, washed)

The rare no-bodied lizard...  Still wriggling after being dropped by a bird

The rare No-Bodied Lizard… Still wriggling after being dropped by a bird

I wasn’t sure if I should mention it here, but I discovered something incredibly exciting.  I imagine I can’t reveal where I saw it, but I saw what is possibly the Western Palearctic’s first recorded sighting of the phenomenally rare Rainbow Kite.  I stopped to have a sandwich (lettuce, ham and salad cream) – in a secret location – and happened to glance up at a nearby tree and saw it uncomfortably perched amongst the branches.  Sssshhhh, don’t tell anyone!

Rainbow Kite

Rainbow Kite

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Saturday Nightingale Fever

I decided to return to RSPB Pulborough Brooks for the fourth time this year (the woman at the reception desk recognised me, so I must be becoming a bit of a regular) in search of one particular bird to add to my 2014 list.  I had heard (well, I had read it out loud to myself) that a couple of Nightingales had been seen on the reserve throughout the week, so I thought I’d move myself from casual bird-spotter to super keen twitcher for an afternoon.

I had never seen a Nightingale before (with the exception of the one on the back of £10 notes in the 1980s), so I had done some research.  However, I wasn’t entirely sure it would help me when out in the countryside staring longingly into the depths of a hedge.  Like a large number of birds that flap around Britain’s undergrowth, the Nightingale is small and brown…  It is potentially, what a birdwatcher – who likes to use bird watching jargon – would call a prime example of an LBJ – No, it’s not one of the ten ways to get out in cricket, but, in actual fact stands for Little Brown Job.

The first time I heard someone utter the phrase ‘It’s a little brown job’, I was a somewhat taken aback.  My juvenile mind immediately went into role-play mode and started conjuring up scenarios where LBJ might be said…“Oh no, Thomas has just done a little brown job all over his playmat” was my creative best (This is a great example of best not always being good!)

Little Brown Job - Dunnock

Little Brown Job – Dunnock

When I arrived at the area of the reserve where the Nightingales had previously been seen, I came across a line of people all pointing their binoculars, telescopes, cameras and eyes (obviously) in the direction of a sizeable area of undergrowth.  Were they looking at/for the bird I specifically came to Pulborough to add to my list?  Was a Nightingale in the vicinity?  I always find this sort of situation a little awkward…  I never quite know how to act.  Should I say something?  Or remain silent?  I really wanted to know what they were looking at, but I certainly didn’t want to be the person whose enquiry scared off an uncommon bird.

This photo will self-destruct in five seconds...

This photo will self-destruct in five seconds…

I decided it was best to stand a few yards away and eavesdrop…  At some point, someone was bound to utter code word: Nightingale.  Or, I guess, a different code word.

One of the observing men was getting a bit of hassle from his wife…  He wanted to wait for as long as it took to see whatever everyone was looking for, but she – not apparently especially bothered about the hedge-lurking bird – was keen to move on.  He accused her of lacking patience and being a person who needs ‘quick satisfaction’.  She accused him of showing off in front of his bird-watching colleagues.  As I was still trying not to snigger audibly at the suggestion of someone needing quick satisfaction, he slung his telescope over his shoulder, muttered something about what she was missing out on and followed his wife up the path.

I was quite glad I had come out on my own…  It meant I could spend as long as I wanted staring at a hedge without my wife hassling me.  Not that I have a wife…  But if I did, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be the hassling type.

A few minutes passed and the masses began to disband.  I was the only person left.  This felt more comfortable.

I scanned the dense undergrowth for signs of movement… Nothing.  I scanned again… Still nothing.  How long should I wait before calling it quits and admit that I wasn’t going to see the one species that I had come to see?  This was going to be another one of those dip-out days, like Staines Reservoir a few weeks back, wasn’t it?

As I was just about to move along…  Movement…  It was a Dunnock – a little brown bird, but not the right one…  More movement…  It was another Dunnock.  The female stood on the ground and twitched her tail vociferously for a good minute, whilst the male looked on.  She continued to twitch until he mounted her for what could only have been a fraction of a second, before both went their separate ways.  As incredibly promiscuous birds, this was probably the umpteenth one-second stand of the Dunnocks’ day.  I wanted to pass judgement on the moral decline of bird society, but stopped when I realised that I had just been gawping at avian procreation in a dirty voyeuristic manner!  Shame on all of us!

Mrs Dunnock needed a lie-down after a busy morning

Mrs Dunnock needed a lie-down after a busy morning’s antics

It was then something unexpected happened…  A new little brown bird emerged from the leafy cover…  It wasn’t a Dunnock…  It was what looked suspiciously like the picture of the Nightingale I had seen in my bird book.  Slightly larger than a Robin, predominantly brown on the upperparts, greyish on the underside, with a pale ring around the eye.  I had to do one of those cartoon-esque double-takes as I was distinctly under the impression that Nightingales didn’t flaunt themselves out in the open very often.

It just sat atop some dry bracken about ten yards away and stared at me.  I gawked back at it.  Subtly, I did a small internal fist-pump.  In this brief moment, I realised why hardened twitchers spend lots of time and lots of money to hang out with brand new birds [Insert internet dating quip here].  I can quite explain it, but this was amazing…  One of life’s ‘wow moments’.

Nightingale

Nightingale

Nightingale

Nightingale – The usual view

As an aside, some of my other ‘wow moments’ include the first time I played FIFA International Soccer on the Mega Drive (the switch from 2D football games to semi-3D was, for me, mind-blowing), Felix Baumgartner jumping to Earth from the edge of space and Mo Farah kicking for home at the bell in the 5000m final at the 2012 Olympic Games.

The Nightingale then proceeded to hop around on the grass in front of me for a few minutes before disappearing back into the undergrowth once again.

Nightingale

Nightingale

I did an external fist-pump, also added a Sand Martin to my year list and went home pleased with a productive afternoon.  I wondered if that chap had satisfied his wife yet…  But didn’t give it too much thought, as that would be weird.

Little Blue Job

Little Blue Job

Great Tit disguised as an unseasonal Father Christmas

Great Tit disguised as an unseasonal Father Christmas

Fauna Corner

Here’s what’s been going on in the wider world of Animalia of late…

Rabbit

Rabbit

Green-Veined Whites - There seems to be a sex theme developing this week!

Green-Veined Whites – There seems to be a sex theme developing this week!

I get the feeling I was being Fallowed

I get the feeling I was being Fallowed

And in other news, I think I may have stumbled across celebrated magician Paul Daniels’s house…

Some Doves... But no a lot!

Some white Doves… But not a lot!

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Blackcap Down

Disaster struck this week…  I had a bit of a mishap whilst yomping through some heavy undergrowth in search of a better angle to photograph a Linnet.  Not only did I get savaged by brambles, but it seems that I also lost an integral part of my binoculars.

One of the eyepieces fell off, essentially turning the binoculars into monoculars – Not a problem if I was Poirot, but I’m not, so it was.  The binoculars were now rendered pretty much unusable – I pull odd-enough faces when using both eyes, so God only knows what sort of horrific one-eyed squinting visage I’d be capable of.

Unpopular Monoculars

Unpopular Monoculars

It is amazing just how much you take a piece of kit like that for granted.  You see something moving in a hedge in the distance, grab your binoculars and instantly see that it is a Sparrow…  It usually is a Sparrow, but one day it might be a really rare species that has never been seen in the UK before; something here by accident – thousands of miles from home; something that’s discovery would bring me recognition in the bird-spotting world.  I would be lauded as the discoverer of the first ever Spangled Drongo (the World’s best-named bird) in the British Isles.  I would dedicate the feat to my trusty binoculars, my inquisitive nature and Bill Oddie.  It would be a great time.

However, this dream would remain on hold.  When your binoculars are missing integral parts, you can’t see that far into the distance and nature watching becomes an incredible frustration.  What’s that in the hedge?  I don’t know how many Spangled Drongos I might have missed out on.

The opticals shop (not to be confused with the opticians) wanted £60 to fix it.  £60 for a small bit of plastic and a rubber eyepiece – In fact almost as much as replacing the binoculars themselves.  It is at this point that I really want to make a cutting comment about the wasteful, throwaway culture in which we live, where it almost costs as much to repair something as it does to throw the original away and buy a brand new replacement, but I’m just not good at stuff like that.  So, I’ll leave it unsaid.

I was not going to pay that much to repair the binoculars, so I would have to do something myself.

Firstly, I spent each of the next three lunch-times retracing my steps to relocate the errant bits – reacquainting myself with the unfriendly brambles – and managed to find the rubber eyepiece.  No sign of the plastic connector though.

After work, I went home and mentally positioned myself on the ‘Creativity Continuum’ (that I had just made up) between the A-Team’s B.A. Baracus and Blue Peter’s Valerie Singleton – They were both good at making things, so I figured it was a good place to start.

And here, children (or crazy fools), is what I did…

Binocular Repair 1

Binocular Repair 2

Remarkably, it worked and I can now use my binoculars to hunt out Drongos again.

Obviously, I didn’t see any.  However, I did see my first Blackcap and Common Whitethroat of the year… Both sound like they’d make excellent pirates.

Blackcap

Male Blackcap

Female Blackcap

Female Blackcap

Male Blackcap

Male Blackcap

Skylark

Skylark

Male Reed Bunting

Male Reed Bunting

Female Reed Bunting

Female Reed Bunting

Common Whitethroat

Common Whitethroat

Male Mallard - Mocking my Jack Duckworth-esque binoculars

Male Mallard – Mocking my Jack Duckworth-esque binoculars

Only one new addition for Fauna Corner this time… and I’m not sure if it really counts.  I saw what appeared to be a bear just outside Reigate.  Should I be informing the authorities or be making an appointment at Specsavers?

Follow the bear?  Not bloody likely!

Follow the bear? Not bloody likely!

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