Phalarope Floats

It has been almost one month since I last saw a new bird to add to my list and this whole bird-chase challenge has become a bit frustrating.

As I write this, I have got to 181 and fear that I have run out steam.  It was bound to happen, I suppose.

On a positive note, the autumn migration is in full swing, so, I’m hoping that it is only a matter of time before millions of the birds that visit the UK for the colder months start streaming-in from further north.  I have probably seen some of them already, without realising, so, in effect, I should get another chance to identify a few of the species I missed at the start of the year.  I’m hoping my ID skills have improved a bit – I’ve spent enough time with my face in bird books.

Using my trusty RSPB British Bird Finder book, I have spent a little bit of time writing a ‘shopping list’, of sorts, of the birds I could try to catch up with before the year is out.  I have consequently realised that I could probably get very close to the magical 200 mark with a combination of a trip to Scotland and a pelagic boat trip and way beyond if I see all the others.

However, I’m not likely to be anywhere near Scotland in the next two or so months and have no plans to get on a boat, so will just have to take my chances that I might bump into some of the others on the list whilst randomly traipsing around the Surrey countryside.

Bird Shopping List

Excitingly for me (and probably less so for you – as it means more words to wade through), since writing the above, I had the chance to break my duck after almost four barren weeks…

As luck would have it, a couple of Grey Phalaropes had been reported at the RSPB reserve at Pulborough.  The only problem was that I wasn’t due to be at the reserve for my volunteer duties for five days.  As I’m no longer allowing myself to go gallivanting around the country after birds, I had to hope that they planned on sticking around for almost a week.

Grey Phalaropes are small wading birds that breed high up in the Arctic Circle and then migrate for the winter to the Atlantic Ocean of the coast of West Africa.  They infrequently end up stopping off in the UK if a storm blows them off course on their journey.  Rather confusingly, they are known as Red Phalaropes in America.

Thankfully, they stuck around for long enough for me to go and have a look.

Before I show you the evidence of what I saw, I’d like to apologise for the standard of my photographs of late.  They have been a bit ropey, at best.  There seems to be a phrase in bird-watching circles to describe such images – a ‘Record Shot’.  This is a photograph that is usually grainy and out of focus, but (just about) provides enough detail of the subject to work out what it is with a great deal of squinting.  They won’t win any awards, but they will prove you’ve seen what you said you have and I seem to be able to take a lot of them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my ‘Record Shots’ of Grey Phalaropes: -

Grey Phalaropes - Magic Eye Edition

Grey Phalaropes – Magic Eye Edition

Spot the Grey Phalarope

Spot the Grey Phalarope

I don’t know if Pulborough Brooks has become a place where escaped captive birds can seek asylum because in the grass adjacent to the Phalaropes was a Red-Breasted Goose and a Bar-Headed Goose – Neither of which seemed to be causing too much excitement to the other onlookers.  Why?  Because everyone seemed to assume that they were likely to be escapees – probably from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Arundel down the road.  As escapees they fell between the floorboards of my far-from-comprehensive rules for the year…  To count, a bird must be wild.  While, they were almost certainly birds from a collection (and therefore shipped-in from abroad to make someone’s pond look particularly exotic), the geese in front of me were, to all intents and purposes, free birds.  They had flown in from somewhere up the road through choice and were comfortably going about their dabbling business amongst the other geese.  Sadly, I still couldn’t count them as they shouldn’t really be in the country.

And here are my ‘Record Shots’: -

Bar-Headed Goose

Bar-Headed Goose

Red-Breasted Goose

Red-Breasted Goose

After missing out on Ring Ouzels a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly found a couple during a visit to a local pub…  They were in a glass case, most definitely stuffed and bizarrely called Edward and Phylis, but seeing them persuaded me to make a final trip to Leith Hill to try and find some before they depart south for the winter for another year.

A drunken vision of a future sighting?  Or a couple of faded stuffed Blackbirds in a fish tank?

A drunken vision of a future sighting? Or a couple of faded stuffed Blackbirds in a fish tank?

And, do you know what?  I managed to find some… and a Brambling, to take my total for the year to one-hundred and eighty-four.

Here are some evidential photographs – Cross your eyes and squint a bit and all will be revealed: -

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Ring Ouzel

Brambling

Brambling

No new birds for ages and then three (plus two escapees) in two days.  Hopefully, this is the start of a good run.

Just to prove I can take the occasional partially-semi-good photograph, here is some of the other less elusive (and closer) fauna I have seen lately…

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipit

Stonechat

Stonechat

Little Owl

Little Owl

Partially leucistic Egyptian Goose

Partially leucistic Egyptian Goose

Rutting Red Deer

Rutting Red Deer

Red Deer

Red Deer Stag and his ladies

Red Deer

Red Deer

Red Deer

Red Deer

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Ouzel’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

I had been alerted that a Ring Ouzel had been spotted near Leith Hill and, seeing as I had never seen one before, I thought I’d make the effort to travel the five or so miles from home to have a look for it.  I figured that it was close enough for me to go on an escapade without having to call myself a ‘crazy twitcher’ again.  Can’t have that.

It had been reported in Duke’s Warren, a sizeable area of heathland edged by woodland to the north of the village of Coldharbour.

Ring Ouzels are the upland, higher ground version of our common Blackbird, with the notable difference of a chunky white collar around the upper breast and notably paler wing pattern.  They are also a lot less common, with the majority of the UK population spending the summer in northern England and Scotland, before heading southwards to over-winter in Africa.  They can turn up pretty much anywhere in between on their autumn migratory journey.

Leith Hill Tower in all its Gothic finery - Tea and biscuits at rear...

Leith Hill Tower in all its Gothic mountain-making finery.

Leith Hill is the second highest landmass in the south-east (at 965 feet above sea-level) and the tower that sits atop it was built (in the mid-1760s) with the aim of breaking through the 1000-foot mark to, kind of, make it a geographically-acceptable mountain of sorts.  I suppose it might vaguely mirror the plot of The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, but I have never seen it, so can’t be entirely sure.

When he died, the Tower’s builder, Richard Hull, was buried under the floor.  At his request, he was submerged amongst the foundations upside-down, in the belief that on Judgment Day, the World would flip on its axis, rendering him the right way up.  I imagine God would applaud the initiative of the only man not standing on his head in the queue for judging and grant him an all-expenses paid trip to Heaven.  I assume that’s what would happen, anyway.

Nowadays, at the base of the Tower, there is a serving hatch that sells refreshments to ramblers, cyclists, horse riders and the odd twitcher in denial.  I imagine that Mr Hull would turn in his grave if he saw that the National Trust was now hawking frappuccinos and small slices of carrot cake out of the lower window of his Gothic legacy – That would bugger his End of Days plan, wouldn’t it?

"I'll have a chai latte, a cherry bakewell and one of those men spinning in his grave, please..."

“I’ll have a chai latte, a cherry bakewell and one of those men spinning in his grave, please…”

Anyway, as I contemplated whether or not to sample a mini Battenberg or not before going off in search of the Ring Ouzel, I went up the Tower to take in the view… and to see if I could work out where Duke’s Warren was from a handily-located vantage point.

Perhaps as a result of my small-scale mockery of Judgment Day, the weather went a bit Wuthering Heights as I reached the top.  Visibility was reduced to not very much at all and I couldn’t see the end of my face, let alone some heathland some way in the distance.

Consequently, I had to use my OS map – Which is always a dangerous proposition.

On a good day, you are supposed to be able to see 13 counties... Today, I couldn't even see the one I was in!

On a good day, you are supposed to be able to see 13 counties… Today, I couldn’t even see the one I was in!

The National Trust Signage Department don't help dodgy map readers

The National Trust Signage Department doesn’t help directionally-impaired map readers

After a bit of wandering and trying to re-fold my map correctly, I found Duke’s Warren.  It turns out I had walked past it on my way to the Tower.  What I didn’t find, however, was a Ring Ouzel.  With the weather clearing, I saw a couple of black birds far in the distance that were probably just Blackbirds and sat underneath a tree for a good fifteen minutes waiting for something Ouzel-ish I thought I saw fly in, fly out again.  It never reappeared, but during the quarter of an hour fruitlessly gawping up at the uppermost branches of a pine tree, I found out a lot about myself:  I discovered that I get neck ache fairly quickly when looking upwards, I learnt that I only have fifteen minutes’ worth of patience for trying to find something that I feared I had probably imagined, and I then found that I probably hadn’t imagined it because something shat on me big time.

It's supposed to be lucky, but I'll only accept it as such if DNA tests confirm it to be Ouzel poo!

It’s supposed to be lucky, but I’ll only accept it as such if DNA tests confirm it to be Ouzel poo!

Blackbird or Black Bird?

Blackbird or Black Bird?

In Other News…

When I said I was going to be a Ranger, I meant Feather Arranger...

When I said I was going to be a Ranger, I meant Feather Arranger…

Apart from unintentionally collecting bird poo, I sometimes pick up some of the more interesting feathers I find whilst out and about and try to identify them when I get home.  I figure it’s a good way to simultaneously improve my bird plumage identification skills, sound way cool and fill up the flat with a bit more junk [One day, I’m going to run out of space and have to choose between the feathers, my Meg Ryan DVD collection and my Star Wars figures – It’s a decision every real man has to make at some point].

At the weekend, on a trip to Saunton Sands in North Devon, I unexpectedly encountered an opportunity to add a Gannet feather to my dubious collection…  As is not the case with the majority of feathers already in the collection, I was sure of what bird it came from and the chance to stick it in the jar with the others was quite an unusual one.

How could I be so sure that the feather was from Britain’s largest seabird? (I pretend to hear you ask).

Well, it was still attached to the partially-decomposing remains of an ex-Gannet.

This Gannet is no more! He has ceased to be! He's expired and gone to meet his maker! 'He's a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! He is an ex-Gannet! Ooh, nice feathers...

This Gannet is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! ‘He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! He is an ex-Gannet! Ooh, nice feathers…

I thought long and hard about selecting one of the less fetid feathers and yanking it out of the corpse, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.  As odd as I appear to be, I draw the line at grave-robbing.  Instead, I stared at the cadaver for a while, took a couple of photos and then regretfully moved on without a prized feather.

I suppose that the lack of a sizeable Gannet feather in my flat has given You’ve Got Mail and Lando Calrissian in Skiff Guard disguise a stay of execution…  For now.

Spot the Roe Deer...

Spot the Roe Deer…

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The Stintstones

I got some good news this week…

No, I haven’t been approached by Hollywood asking for the rights to the story of my 2014 bird challenge…  I guess they’ll wait until the year is out before sending the blank cheque and the offer of an executive producer role – They might not like the grisly plot twist I’ve got planned for New Year’s Eve.

In the week, I had an interview for a Trainee Ranger job at the Surrey Wildlife Trust and, after bumbling my way through explaining the key features of a chalk grassland habitat, how I’d check if a herd of Belted Galloway cows were feeling chipper or not, getting changed in a car park and then chopping down a fifteen-year old birch tree, they offered me a place on the programme.

To say I’m chuffed is an understatement.  To say I’m really chuffed is about right.

For the next year, I will be honing my cattle whispering skills, learning how to tell the difference between stoat and weasel poo and trying really hard not to remove all my limbs with the sharp end of a chainsaw…  Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

This past week or so has also been a bit better than recent weeks for spotting new birds for my list.  Before a trip to the Hampshire coast, September’s new additions stood at one (Boo!), however a visit to Keyhaven Marshes saw three more species added (Yay!)

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit

I had been camping in the New Forest, partly for my birthday, but also to hone my animal husbandry skills on the wild ponies that roam the woodland (I was sure it would help me in my upcoming career change – as long as I didn’t get kicked in the neck and die, of course) and my Bird Stalking App had suggested that Keyhaven Marshes might be an interesting place to visit.

There had been a reported Richard’s Pipit in the area and a few other species I had yet to see this year, so I guessed it was worth a slight detour on the homeward journey to go and have a look.

Like a lot of the highlighted sightings of interest, I had never heard of a Richard’s Pipit, so was unsure what it would look like or where it was likely to be spending its holiday at the coast.  Because it popped up on the app, I assumed it was fairly uncommon in the UK, so thought I would be able to turn up, use the expected gaggle of bird-watchers pointing their binoculars in the direction of the Pipit, and then find it myself.  It is a tactic that has been fairly reliable on a good few occasions so far this year.

Alas, there wasn’t a gaggle, so I had to look around for myself.

My cause wasn’t helped by the fact that my binoculars had started acting like they had been out the previous night and hit the Jägerbombs hard, by showing things double-vision style.  I don’t really know much about binoculars, so twiddled the eyepieces a bit.  This didn’t work and I was out of ideas.

After a bit of Googling, it turns out that the lenses might be collimated… or de-collimated… or out of collimation.  Whichever the correct term was, they were wonkily visioned, so if the Richard’s Pipit was more than thirty feet away, I would be unable to see it clearly or at all (or, I suppose, see two of them).

Suffice to say I never found it (or them).

Michael's Pipit - definitely not Richard's!

Michael’s Pipit – definitely not Richard’s!

I did, however, manage to see three new birds for the 2014 list: a Spotted Redshank, a Grey Plover and a Little Stint.

Some helpful chap had rather excitedly told me where I could see the latter – just as I was wandering past him… The great thing about bird-watchers in general is that they are super-keen to share what they have seen with the wider world.  I thanked him and another obliging chap let me use his telescope to get a good view of three juvenile Little Stints (This saved me from trying to use my binoculars crossed-eyed).  The bird-watching community should be used to teach young children how to share.  Ah, group hug!

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank

Grey Plover

Grey Plover

Little Stint (left) Dunlin (right)

Little Stint (left) Dunlin (right)

My total for the year now stands at one-hundred and eighty-one and the full list can be found here.

Shoveler

Shoveler

Common Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper

In other news…

My idea for a bird-watching dictionary is slowly starting to take shape.  The Twitchionary, as I have now christened it, is being regularly added to – Take the following as cases in point: -

Throughout the year, I have been trying to pick up some of the specialist language used by bird-spotters so that I might be able to, one day, have an ornithological conversation without recourse to having to guess what the hell is going on (Although, this sort of thing happens in the ‘real’ world too, so it might actually just be an issue with me!)  I am now au fait – amongst other things – with “dipping out” (a lot!), “little brown jobs”, have seen a potentially “plastic hoodie” and have done a bit of small-scale “twitching” for an “LTS” and a “BWS”, so am slowly learning the language of Birding.

That said, there always seem to be new words and phrases that pop-up to cause me some bewilderment – This week I encountered someone mentioning “getting on a bird” in a field report.  Take this as an example…

A Wryneck flew out of the thicket by the footpath.  Unfortunately, it flew low away from the group… with only a few of us managing to get on it as it flew.”

When I first read it, I thought that it was amazing that the bird in question managed to get away with at least three fully grown men straddling it.  Obviously, its meaning isn’t literal, as it is used to refer to seeing rather than mounting.

A similar phrase is to “connect with a bird”, which sounds equally harsh…

As I rounded the corner, I managed to connect with a Melodious Warbler as it darted into the undergrowth

That seemed unnecessarily violent… I hope the Warbler ventured out and punched back – Hard!

I’m obviously only making light of these words and phrases because (1) I’m childish and (2) envious that I can’t speak the lingo (I am well aware that jealousy is unbecoming).

Once I’ve learned how to order a baguette and work out how to ask directions to the Town Hall and I might be ready for my GCSE exam…

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe

Song Thrush

Song Thrush

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Lady Whinchatterley’s Lover

In spite of the autumn migration bringing all manner of new birds to the country (as detailed in mind-numbing depth last time), September has, so far, been the worst month for new sightings since records began way back in January 2014.

So, I’m going to introduce a new feature inspired by the upcoming ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition at the National History Museum.  It is designed to showcase just how ‘special’ a photographer I am and pay a small homage to a favourite televisual treat from my past (and, perhaps, your past too…)

Oh, and I’ll always find something to write about – It’s one of life’s inevitables…  Sorry about that!

Whilst volunteering at RSPB Pulborough Brooks at the weekend, I did think I might have seen a Raven – which would have been an additional for the 2014 list.  Through the fog that often greets the start of the day in that part of the world, I could see that the bird in question looked significantly bigger than its far more common relative, the Carrion Crow.  I took a couple of rubbish photos – as is usually the case when I wield my camera at anything – but felt confident I could blame the prevailing weather conditions on their poor quality.  My intention was to get home, consult my bird books and definitively identify the bird one way or the other.

Crow or No?

Crow or No?

I guess I could have asked anyone at the reserve for their opinion, but I felt a bit embarrassed that my inability to identify a relatively common bird whilst wearing a uniform and name badge might bring the good name of the RSPB into disrepute.  Besides, most people seem to want to talk about their holidays or the weather anyway – which is great, as I’m far more comfortable with ‘Isn’t it foggy?’ than ‘Is that a Raven over there?

When I got home, I pored over a number of books and, shamefully, still couldn’t work out what the large, black crow-like bird was.  I tried to convince myself it was a Raven and bird number 178 for the year, but couldn’t be sure.

Raven mad?

Raven mad?

After a good half an hour of squinting at my crappy photos and leafing through the corvid sections of numerous avian textbooks (How cool do I sound?) I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t come to a conclusion.  I was stumped.

In desperation, I joined a bird identification group on Facebook and posted my pictures with a simple plea for help.  Within moments, a number of people had, in no uncertain terms, told me that it was definitely a Carrion Crow.  Apparently, you KNOW if you’ve seen a Raven and, also, if you think it’s a Raven it’s probably not a Raven.

Um…  I’m glad that’s all cleared up!

Wheatear

Wheatear

So, as it stands, my only new bird sighting in September, so far, has been a Whinchat – a small perching bird that is a summer visitor to the UK.  If you’re in the right place for Whinchats (usually open grassland), they are usually quite easy to see, as they tend to perch atop low bushes before dropping to the floor to nab an insect.  As it’s my only new sighting of the month, I’ll treat you to a series of photos taken at Elmley Marshes on the Isle of Sheppey and Papercourt Meadows in Send…

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Whinchat

Yep, you've guessed it... Whinchat

Yep, you’ve guessed it… Whinchat

At the current exchange rate, five Whinchat photos get you one Stonechat...

At the current exchange rate, five Whinchat photos get you one Stonechat…

Do you remember a few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was really struggling with the tendency of the bird-watching world to abbreviate and how this has sometimes left me a bit clueless in conversation?  I imagine this is done to (i) Get more words out into a conflab in a shorter period of time, and (ii) to exclude me – Logically, they can be the only reasons!

Since then, I’ve been trying to gen up on my ornithological abridgements…  By this, I of course, mean trying to think of some I consider to be moderately amusing.  It has been difficult, but I can now announce my winner…

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wag – Coleen Rooney after a trip to Greggs

The Whinchat was bird number one-hundred and seventy-eight for the year and reaching two-hundred is still a possibility – providing I see a few more than one bird a month before 2014 is out (Obviously!) Click here for the list

Fauna Corner

Here’s what’s been spied in the section of the blog where birds are not allowed: -

Small Copper

Small Copper

Brown Hare

Brown Hare

Marsh Frog

Marsh Frog

Mystery caterpillar - Answers on a postcard...

Mystery caterpillar – Answers on a postcard…

Well, there you go – Not much happening and I still managed to get near to the customary one-thousand words.  I would apologise for this, but I think I’ve already said enough…

Cheating at migration, this Osprey boarded the Easyjet flight from Bristol to Yaoundé

Cheating at migration, this Osprey boarded an Easyjet flight from Bristol to Yaoundé

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My Ruddy Valentine

As the autumn bird migration gets into full swing, my avian equivalent of the bat phone has been going crazy with all manner of unusual bird sightings flashing-up on the weathered display – Most of which I’ve never heard of.

If I was able to see them all, I would comfortably get to double my original target of one-hundred and fifty within the week.  I won’t see them all, so this won’t happen and, if I’m honest, I’d just take one or two as unexpected bonuses and keep my eye out for something more within my comfort zone.

I have almost been overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds I have never heard of turning up in various parts of the country over the past few weeks.  A Lanceolated Warbler sounds like Mariah Carey has had an accident at a medieval joust, whilst a Rustic Bunting suggests decorations at a barn dance, but they are actual birds that occasionally pop up in the UK.  Mind-boggling, isn’t it?

It is amazing how these unusuals are identified in the first place.

I am in awe of someone who can look at a little brown bird flitting in amongst the leaves of a hedge and confidently state that it is, for an example, a Two-Barred Greenish Warbler.  To be able to differentiate between that and all the other little brown birds that might be in that hedge is a phenomenal skill.  If said bird had sat motionless two-feet in front of me for a good half an hour, holding up a sign saying ‘Hello comrade, I’m a Two-Barred Greenish Warbler and I’m from ze east of Siberia’, I would have probably identified it as a Sparrow.  The text on the mini-placard was a bluff to catch me out…  Surely?

Obviously, the chances of a Two-Barred Greenish Warbler turning up in a privet in the UK are slim to none, but the fact that it might makes the identification of birds for an amateur like me incredibly daunting. The knowledge necessary is mind-blowingly immense.  And, at times of migration, almost anything could get a bit blown off course and end up here.

With all these interesting new arrivals showing up, I decided that I had a decision to make.  Well, two decisions…  The first was to decide to decide to make a decision and the second, to actually make a decision.  The course this paragraph has taken has made me realise that there is probably a third decision to make – Which darkened room to lock myself in.

What I had to decide was whether or not to career around the country (well, the local bits) after these interesting new sightings to add to my year list.  If you’ve been reading this blog, you will have noticed that recently I have made the odd effort to chase-down a new species here and there.  My success-rate has been a tad hit and miss – I have been lucky enough to see a Long-Tailed Skua and some Bee-Eaters, but missed out on almost too many to list.  For example, I’ve been eluded by a Garganey (Britain’s only summer visiting duck) at local water features on no less than five occasions – Although, as the female looks similar to a Mallard, I may well have seen it five times from distance and not realised it.

The problem with chasing after birds that turn up somewhere on their migratory route is that they usually only stop-off briefly for a quick rest and some dinner, then quickly continue on their travels.  By the time someone has taken the trouble of texting their sighting to the bird app people, the bird app people sent the information out to the subscribed masses and I’ve read it, the bird is probably sunning itself somewhere in the vicinity of the Côte D’Azur.  That’s before I’ve started wrestling with my conscience as to whether I could justify getting in the car to stalk it (and even before I’ve struggled with my shoelaces).  In sum, the chance of catching up with it is quite small.

As a result of the slim chances of success, I have decided that it would be unwise to go gallivanting after a bird unless it’s within the local area or there have been a number of different birds sighted at the same nature reserve, wooded area or reservoir*

* Do you notice how I have been unclear with the specific details to allow myself the opportunity to renege on my decision and go gallivanting after a new sighting?  I’m sneaky and should not be trusted!

Anyway, let’s not probe too deeply into the depths of my personality – You might never get out…  Here are some photos of the latest new birds for my year list (all seen by chance and not because my bird app implored me to track them down): -

Ruddy Duck at Chew Valley Lake

Ruddy Duck at Chew Valley Lake

What a Ruddy Duck actually looks like

What a Ruddy Duck actually looks like

Ruff at Oare Marshes

Ruff at Oare Marshes

Curlew Sandpiper at Oare Marshes

Curlew Sandpiper at Oare Marshes

Black-Necked Grebe at RSPB Dungeness - Squint and you might be able to see it...

Black-Necked Grebe at RSPB Dungeness – Squint and you might be able to see it…

Budgerigar at Dungeness - Not listable due to concerns over the validity of its visa

Budgerigar at Dungeness – Not listable due to concerns over the validity of its visa

In other news…  Fauna Corner returns to prove that I am a multi-faceted individual who doesn’t just spend all his time gawking at birds.  I, in fact, gawk at a great many things: -

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Dark Bush Cricket - Don't mess!

Dark Bush Cricket – Don’t mess!

Common Lizard

Common Lizard

Common Darter

Common Darter

I'll get you next time, Willy Fog... Muhahaha!

I’ll get you next time, Willy Fog… Muhahaha!

And before I start suffering withdrawal symptoms, here are some more birds…

Little Egret

Little Egret

Common Snipe

Common Snipe

Redshank

Redshank

Dunlin

Dunlin

Birdwatching: Bring a telescope... Bring the family...  Watch out for voyeuristic people taking photos of you through a hedge!

Birdwatching: Bring a telescope… Bring the family… And watch out for voyeuristic people taking photos of you through a hedge!

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Star Warblers

This particular entry has been a long time coming…  I suppose you could say that it was started a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away).

It was meant to be a bit of a round-up of all the warblers I had seen on my wanderings throughout the late spring and early summer, but had been repeatedly held up because I didn’t really have the computer skills necessary to pull through with an idea for the audio-visual spectacular I had conjured up in my mind.

I still don’t have the computer skills, as will shortly become evident…

Apologies go to George Lucas for potentially bringing the legacy of Star Wars into disrepute (although, I think the Phantom Menace did that already!) and also to the wider world for inflicting a load of dodgy bird wordplay on it.  I acknowledge I have ‘borrowed’ the official Star Wars theme, but, in my defence, I did try to learn it on a keyboard, but I neither have a keyboard nor any musical talent.

And now, just as most of the Warblers are starting to disappear south as part of their annual autumn migration, I present Star Warblers in all its dubious glory… Enjoy!

 

I am not sure how long I’ve got before lawyers acting on behalf of Lucasfilm turn up and shut me down, so I’ll fire off a quick a photo montage of some warblers that have sat in front of my camera over the past few months and say a big thank you to the three or four of you who read this blog…

May the force be with you!

Reed Warbler

Reed Warbler

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler

Willow Warbler

Willow Warbler

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Garden Warbler

Garden Warbler

Cetti's Warbler

Cetti’s Warbler

Blackcap

Blackcap

Common Whitethroat

Common Whitethroat

Lesser Whitethroat

Lesser Whitethroat

And Finally…

If a butterfly flaps its wings, will I hack my legs to bits on brambles whilst taking a photo of it?

If a butterfly flaps its wings, will I hack my legs to bits on brambles whilst taking a photo of it?

You bet I will!

You bet I will!

 

 

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Whimbreldon

Although, I always come across as someone who is educated, unflappable and a mine of useful information (Ha!), there are times when this probably couldn’t be further from the truth.  Take the following as cases in point: -

 

Exhibit A:      Technophobe

I thought I had made a pretty exciting and unexpected bird-related discovery on a lunch-time walk around Papercourt Meadows in Send.  In the reeds alongside the River Wey, I could hear a bird call – a loud, rolling twitter – that I had never heard out and about before, but had, coincidentally, come across on an episode of Radio Four’s Tweet of the Day (Yes, I’m that cool!).  Now what bird was it?

I reached into my pocket for my phone with the intention of scrolling through the past podcast episodes to try and prod my memory.  When I unlocked the keypad, I found that my bird identification app had opened itself and was displaying information on Whimbrels (a large wading bird, with a long down-curved bill).  A couple of seconds later, it began to play a recording of the bird’s call…  It was exactly the same call as I had heard in the reeds moments earlier!

I marvelled at the cleverness of the app. It had recognized a bird call, opened the relevant section and played the call back to me…  All whilst still in my pocket.  Isn’t technology amazing?

In sheer amazement at such space-age wizardry, I totally disregarded what I had learned about Whimbrels from the podcast and ignored the fact that the chances of one skulking in the reeds in front of me on the banks of a small inland river were minimal – They’re more of a coastal mudflat kind of bird.  I had also overlooked the fact that amongst all of its spangly features, the app had never mentioned an ability to ID a bird from a background noise without prompting.

For about ten minutes, I stared silently at the reeds, hoping for a glimpse of the unanticipated bird… but nothing.  Then something in my very tiny, not very clever brain clicked…

… The app was bloody playing the call all the time, wasn’t it?  I had obviously somehow pressed some buttons in my pocket and the bird was never there at all.  What an idiot!

iBird - Playing cruel Whimbrel-related jokes on people since 2014

iBird – Playing cruel Whimbrel-related jokes on people since 2014

An actual Whimbrel - Unlikely never visited Send

An actual Whimbrel – Unlikely to be planning a visit to Send any time soon

The sad thing about this error of judgement is that it wasn’t the first time it had happened.  On a search for Turtle Doves in Norfolk, I had used the very same app to remind myself what one sounded like.  Within about a minute of putting my phone away, I could hear the very same purring sound I was listening out for.  I got very excited until, yep, you’ve guessed it… 

At least I’m a consistent idiot, I suppose.

Check out Bill Oddie doing a similar thing with a Buzzard on Springwatch here. I guess this sort of thing can happen to the best of us…

 

Exhibit B:       Not up on my ornithological lingo

I was fortunate enough to be volunteering at RSPB Pulborough Brooks when a Pectoral Sandpiper (a scarce visiting wading bird to the UK from North America) happened to drop into the reserve for a paddle around and some food (the café on site is supposed to be excellent). 

Hi, my name's Michael and I'm not quite sure what's going on anymore...

Hi, my name’s Michael and I’m not quite sure what’s going on anymore…

When a bird of interest appears, lots of people descend to have a look.  When on duty, my job is to provide information as to what species are around and where and also to have a good gossip with visitors.  If I’m honest, I’m a lot better at the gossip than the bird-related stuff…

I was talking to a woman about birds and bobs and, after a while, she asked about the ‘Pec Sand’…  For a moment, I didn’t have a clue what she meant.  For another moment, I still didn’t know what she meant, so.  I had to probe…  It turns out she meant the Pectoral Sandpiper and expected me to know what she was on about – I don’t know why she didn’t just say that in the first place.

Sadly, this sort of situation is quite commonplace when bird people talk to me…

It seems that a lot of people have taken to using abbreviations to avoid having to waste effort with using unnecessary syllables – I don’t know if it’s down to a bit of laziness or suggests the importance of a secret code to keep those not in the clique out, but, I guess, it happens in pretty much every walk of life.

This phenomenon is no different in the ornithological world and seems to take one of three possible forms: -

  • Sometimes, the constituent parts of the bird name are shortened and smashed together to form a ‘catchy’ shorter name – Meadow Pipit becomes Mippit… Sparrowhawk becomes Sprawk… Grasshopper Warbler becomes Gropper… Spotted Redshank becomes Spotshank and so on… Quite why Barn Owl doesn’t turn into Bowl or a Great Bustard into GreatBust! is beyond me.

 

  • Sometimes, the parts of the name are shortened and kept separate. Examples include Spotted Flycatcher becoming Spot Fly…  Green Sandpiper becoming Green Sand… and, obviously, Pectoral Sandpiper becoming Pec Sand.

Spot Fly?  Nope, but I can see a bird!

Spot Fly? Nope, but I can see a bird!

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher

 

  • Sometimes, just the initials are used – which, in context makes sense, but out of context can cause confusion. To a birder, BWS means Black-Winged Stilt, but to an alcoholic, Beers Wines and Spirits might first spring to mind.  The British Trust for Ornithology has its own set of two-letter codes just to make the matter just a little more challenging…  According to the BTO, a BWS is an IT.  OMG!

BWS? After the day I've had, don't mind if I do...

BWS? After the day I’ve had, don’t mind if I do…

I knew this photo from a trip to Cairns, Australia would come in handy one day!

I knew this photo from a trip to Cairns, Australia would come in handy one day!

I guess it’s going to take me a while to learn this new language.

 

Exhibit C:      Not as funny as I think

The woman who was after the Pectoral Sandpiper had to nip off to the coast to find an LTS (Your guess is as good as mine!) and I enquired if she had packed her Pectoral Sandwiches for lunch.  She groaned and looked at me with a look of contempt.  I get that a lot.

Pectoral Sandwich on wholegrain-y (photo) bread

Pectoral Sandwich on wholegrainy (photo) bread

 

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Mrs Doubtfirecrest

I don’t know if anyone remembers, but back in the early days of this bird-spotting challenge, I acquired a nemesis.  An arch-enemy of such despicableness that it caused me to swear in frustration in front of a nine-year old child.

That nemesis was a Goldcrest and the frustration was a result of trying (and failing dismally) to take a semi-reasonable photograph of it.  It merrily flitted around a tree, every now and then pausing long enough for me to get my camera pointed at it, before moving on just a fraction of a second before I was able to click the shutter.  This happened on numerous occasions before I said one, loud, debased word in front of an underage audience.  I felt bad – not for cursing in front of a minor [kids nowadays seem to know most obscenities before their first decade is out anyway – I blame rap music, the internet, shoot-'em-up computer games and amateur wildlife photographers with poor reaction time and an unreasonable lack of patience], but for not getting the picture I wanted.

"I promise that I will do my best... To do my duty to God and the Queen... To not swear in front of children... To not make bird sightings up... and to keep the Cub Scout Law"

“I promise that I will do my best… To do my duty to God and the Queen… To not swear in front of children… and to keep the Cub Scout Law”

Anyway, I eventually got over the frustration, promised never to swear at nature again and moved on with my life.  My dalliances with my nemesis consigned to history.  If I’m being honest, I had forgotten all about the episode until I unexpectedly bumped into a small group of Firecrests (also members of the kinglet family) on a day-trip to Brownsea Island in Dorset.

Firecrests are very similar to Goldcrests in that they are tiny, have a colourful crest on the top of their head and are an absolute bugger to photograph.

I spent some time observing the group of probably four or five bouncing around the upper branches of a conifer, before taking a deep breath and readying my camera for battle.  As expected, they did exactly the same as the Goldcrests had done before on that dreary January morning – buzzed around the tree, stopped for long enough for me to think I could take a photo, then moved off at an inconvenient moment.  I frantically clicked away at branches that once had Firecrests perched on them until I felt that my frustration had nearly reached profanity levels, put my camera away, took a deep breath and carried on with my wander around the island.  I love nature and didn’t want to break my ‘no swearing at it’ promise – That would be rude.

Spot the Firecrest - Hmmmm...

Spot the Firecrest – Hmmmm…

About half an hour later, hindsight prodded me in the brain and suggested that maybe I could have videoed the birds instead.  Yes, that would have worked.

As it stands, I have no proof I saw my first Firecrests of the year – You will just have to believe me when I say that I did.

Apparently, there’s a bird-watching term for someone who fabricates bird sightings.  They are referred to as a ‘stringer’.  They can either do this intentionally – perhaps through an over-riding need to get attention – OR unintentionally – by misidentifying a common bird as a less common one.  Either way, these people are viewed, in bird-watching circles, along similar lines to those oddballs who like to eat children or those unfortunates who wear socks with sandals.  Someone who ‘strings’ more than once is a ‘re-stringer’ and is useful to know if you play a lot of tennis.

I do definitely have an over-riding need for attention and my bird identification knowledge is, at times, a little bit sketchy… but, I am an honest person – Honest…

All this said, I hope you will believe me when I say that on this trip, I also saw a pair of Indian Peafowl (on Brownsea Island) and a Hooded Merganser (at RSPB Radipole Lake) – Almost unbelievable, I know.  But I did.  No word of a lie!

But can I count them for my list?

The Peafowl are obviously from some ornamental bird collection.  They are native to southern Asia and can only fly a matter of yards before needing to land, so unless they walked the six-or-so-thousand miles and booked the odd ferry trip here and there, they were deliberately introduced to the UK.  This means I definitely cannot add the sighting to my list.

Indian Peacock

Indian Peacock

Indian Peahen

Indian Peahen

The Hooded Merganser, however, is apparently a little more of a conundrum.  The species is usually confined to North America and there is some debate as to whether they could possibly cross the Atlantic and end up in the UK as ‘vagrants’ (birds who inadvertently turn up in places far outside their usual breeding or migratory range).  This is always a possibility, but is likely to be unlikely.  What confuses the issue is that there are obviously Mergansers in bird collections across the country, so it could either be a fence-jumping escapee or an intrepid ocean-crosser.

Hooded Merganser - Origin unknown

Hooded Merganser – Origin unknown

The official line on the bird is that it is probably an absconder from someone’s exotic pet collection.  It appears that this decision is subject to an incredible amount of internet discussion and I’ll guess we’ll never know its true origin – Unless, of course someone is able to work out if the bird has an American accent or not.

Hooded Merganser - No sign of a ten-gallon hat or a gun club membership card... So what might that suggest?

Hooded Merganser – No sign of a ten-gallon hat or a gun club membership card… So what might that suggest?

So, as it stands, it is uncountable for my 2014 list…  Except if the powers that be change their minds or I finish the year on one-hundred and ninety nine.

I added a Knot to the list at Shell Beach on Studland Bay – Fortunately, I found it just further along the coastline from the naturist area of Knoll Beach, so was able to take a photograph without potentially looking like a peeping Michael.  It was a little chilly for nudism, so well done to anyone who gave it a go.

Knot

Knot

Knot

Knot

According to the National Trust, Studland was the inspiration for Toytown in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books…  Perhaps the name Noddy came from Nuddy and the author was a secret naturist – Just a thought!

Tufted Duck family

Tufted Duck family

Blackbird

Blackbird

Common Tern

Common Tern

Juvenile Cuckoo

Juvenile Cuckoo

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

 

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What’s Bee-Eating Gilbert Grape

In the last blog entry, I revealed that I had temporarily become a bit of a twitcher and consequently threatened to travel to the Isle of Wight to calculatingly add a specific plus-one to my 2014 bird list.

Well, guess what?  Yep, I actually gave it a go – My journey to the dark side complete (at least for one more day)

I found myself getting up at a ridiculously early 4.30am in order to drive to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to the Isle of Wight with the aim of seeing the European Bee-Eaters that had nested and raised a number of offspring on the south of the island.  This was significant for a few reasons: -

  • This was only the third time a pair of Bee-Eaters had successfully bred in the UK for more than a century.
  • This was only the second time I had got up before 5am this year – The other was for International Dawn Chorus Day back in May.
  • This would be the first time I would have ever seen a Bee-Eater.

I had decided to make the journey after (the usual) excessive thought and deliberation (I am, by nature, a ridiculous procrastinator) because I considered it one of my best ever chances to see the species in the UK.  Bee-Eaters usually reside in southern Europe during the breeding season, but an incredibly small number overshoot on their journeys from Southern Africa (their winter home) and turn up in this country.  As a result, to see one in the UK would take an outrageously large amount of good fortune…  Unless, of course, a pair nested – and somebody advertised where and when and how many.  Consequently, I was fairly confident of a sighting as the parents would still be in the area feeding the juveniles, whilst teaching them aerobatic skills, manners and how not to get bee-stings lodged in their throats.

The signage at the port made me a little uneasy!

The signage at the port made me a little uneasy!

Bee-Eater

Today’s bird -stalking venue

On arrival, I was greeted with the sight of a large field with some trees at the end, a rope fence (assumedly to keep the masses a safe distance away), and a solitary telescope-wielding man at the far end.  It wasn’t what I had expected – mainly because I don’t ever seem to have any expectations about anything.  A helpful woman from the RSPB furnished me with a leaflet full of Bee-Eater factoids and walked me towards the best place to see them.  As we approached, the telescoped chap started gesturing.  I don’t know bird-watcher sign language, but this man either had the overwhelming urge to dance… or had his scope pointed at a Bee-Eater somewhere in the distance.

It turns out it was the latter (although, he looked like he knew how to throw some crazy shapes) and he kindly let me have a look at my first ever Bee-Eater through his magnification equipment.  Within five minutes of turning up, I had added a new tick to my 2014 list – How efficient was that?!

Although distant, I could make out the bird’s particularly vibrant plumage, with almost one of every colour imaginable.  In the same tree, there was a Spotted Flycatcher – similarly threatening to insects, but at the total opposite of the colour spectrum.  The Bee-Eater then flew off out of view.

European Bee-Eater (Taken at 200x zoom, making it look more like a watercolour painting than a photograph)

European Bee-Eater (Taken at 200x zoom, making it look more like a watercolour painting than a photograph)

And then, from no-where, a dilemma appeared…

How long should I stay to justify my early start, drive and ferry trip?  I had got my plus-one, so I could conceivably bugger off to the beach for the rest of the day, couldn’t I?

These quizzical thoughts raised an interesting question (and a few interesting sub-questions) about the phenomenon of twitching and roaming around the country with the specific aim of adding birds to a list – How long should you stay and watch before you move on?  Do you see the bird, put a tick in your I-Spy Birds book and then promptly set off in search of the next one?  Do you see the bird and watch it for a pre-determined time period before setting off?  If so, how long is long enough?  Five minutes?  Half an hour? A whole morning?

Because there are no definitive answers to this barrage of questions and I wanted to learn as much as I could about these birds, I decided to hang around (for an undetermined time period) to see if I could get a better look…

Every now and then, a solitary Bee-Eater would pop into view distantly and perform a bit of a fly past, before disappearing again.  After a while, however, the assembled few onlookers (safely behind the rope cordon, of course) were treated to the amazing spectacle of seven Bee-Eaters gliding across the sky.  Not long ago, I had a feeling that I would never see one in the UK and there I was, ogling at SEVEN in a solitary eyeful.  Wow, three hours well-spent!

The Bee-Eater by Claude Monet

The Bee-Eater by Claude Monet                    (As imagined by me!)

As fatigue from the early start (and, perhaps, all the excitement) was setting in, I decided to grab some lunch and found a beach to fall asleep on.  Unless, I was still asleep, and strangely dreaming about wading birds, I also managed to add a Sanderling to my 2014 list.

Sanderling

Sanderling

Sanderling

Sanderling

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The Reskuas

Well, I guess it had to happen at some point…  Today marked the final stage of my descent from casual observer of birds to full-on crazed twitcher.

For the past week or so, I had been aware of the presence of a Long-Tailed Skua that had set-up camp along the south-coast in West Sussex.  Before the internet kerfuffle about this uncommon bird began, I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of a Long-Tailed Skua – I was familiar with chicken skewers, but this was probably down to one too many visits to Harvester restaurants during a low-budget misspent youth… Have you ever been to a Harvester before?

My research suggested that, during migratory periods, these Skuas travel out at sea between northern Scandinavia and beyond (for breeding) and the South Atlantic (to over winter) via the coastline of western Britain and are very infrequently seen on land in between.  According to reports, this one had been spending its days bullying terns into dropping their dinners out at sea and resting on the beach in the Selsey area.

Initially, I resisted the urge to get in the car and drive a couple of hours to add a plus one to my 2014 list because I didn’t really want to become someone who travels the length and breadth of the country looking for notable birds to stare at.  Something about doing stuff like this, for some reason, has never sat too well with me.  Maybe I don’t want to admit that I’m a birdwatcher.  Maybe twitching for birds, for me, would be a bit like Luke Skywalker saying ‘Oh go on then.  What harm could it do?’ when the Emperor asked him to join the Dark Side.  Maybe I just don’t want to run the risk of turning a nice hobby into a relentless quest to stick ticks in a notepad.  Maybe I’m just a bit odd.

My reasons for, after a period of careful contemplation and soul-searching of course, finally deciding to get in the car and travelling a couple of hours to add a plus one to my 2014 list were two-fold: -

  • The chances for me to ever get such good views of a Long-Tailed Skua again were, in all likelihood, very small. I’m keen to learn as much as I can about the natural world, so I shouldn’t be turning down opportunities to see things like this first hand.  
  • Adding ticks to my imaginary bird-spotting notebook is what this year’s challenge is all about, so would seem strange to avoid chances like this.

All that internal reflection gave me a bit of a headache!

Selsey: Binoculars? Check! Sandwiches? Check! Raincoat? Bugger!

Binoculars? Check!   Sandwiches? Check!   Raincoat? Bugger!

On arrival at East Beach in Selsey, I didn’t really have much of a clue where to look for the Skua, so I scoured the area – not for the bird, but for people with telescopic equipment.  In the past, I had always found that this was the best way to scout out things worth looking at.

To make things difficult, there was a small gathering of people at either end of the promenade – all seemingly looking out to sea for something.  In true Miss Marple fashion, I deduced that the Skua must have been elusive to this point and was out at sea somewhere.  I considered this supposition my best chance of being nominated for detective of the year.

For no reason other than I was facing that way, I took a bit of a wander eastwards, seeing a couple of Wheatears on the breakwaters on the way, and sat down on a bench to eat my sandwiches.  I have noticed that birdwatchers are nearly always prepared with a good on-the-go lunchtime spread.  Eating is always important during a stake-out and, I guess, the foodstuff could always (unethically, perhaps) be used to tempt birds into the vicinity.

Wheatear

Wheatear

Between mouthfuls, I scanned the area with my binoculars, not sure if I’d be able to identify the target bird if it appeared.  After about ten minutes (the sandwich had long been dispatched) the Skua appeared from the west, glided past and settled on the shingle beach about three groyned sections along.

The two groups of bird-spotters at either end of the promenade speed-walked towards a near-central point on the seafront and set up their telescopic equipment.  I moved about fifty yards eastwards and took my place amongst the assembling crowd.

The Long-Tailed Skua was sat on the beach seemingly oblivious to the fuss it was stirring.  It was a great sight to behold and I was glad I had decided to ignore my concerns about joining a twitch to go and see it.  I doubt that I will ever get to sit on the same beach as a Skua again.

Long-Tailed Skua

Long-Tailed Skua

Long-Tailed Skua

Long-Tailed Skua

Long-Tailed Skua

Long-Tailed Skua

Who needs an OS map? ... Um... Probably me!

Who needs an OS map? … Um… Probably me!

Seeing as I had become a maniacal twitcher for the day, I decided to spend the afternoon rushing around public footpaths in nearby Sidlesham, with the aim of tracking down a reported Cattle Egret using a dodgy photograph of a map I had taken with my phone from a noticeboard at neighbouring RSPB Pagham Harbour.

I failed to locate it – my chances of being detective of the year probably lost somewhere in a cow field nearby – but I did manage to see a Whimbrel (a first for 2014 and ever) and a juvenile Sedge Warbler scurrying through the undergrowth and stealing flies from the webs of likely-to-be disappointed spiders.

Surprisingly, I had had an enjoyable (and productive) day of being a member of the Dark Side.  Next stop: The Isle of Wight to stalk a family of European Bee-Eaters…

Sedge Warbler

Sedge Warbler

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

Curlew

Curlew

Turtle Dove at Woods Mill

Turtle Dove at Woods Mill

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