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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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Curlew

After a great trip to Northumberland, I decided to break-up the lengthy return journey by booking into a campsite just outside Bury St. Edmunds. I thought this would enable me to do a bit of sightseeing in the area and ensure I didn’t have to do too much travelling in one go.

England is bigUnfortunately, my geographical idiocy had struck again. I popped the campsite’s post code into the sat-nav and recoiled in horror as it informed me that I would reach my destination in five and a half hours. Five and a half hours?? What? Really?

I had estimated that the journey would take two and a half at most.

Why, in spite of living in Britain for my entire life, did I not know how big the bloody country was? Did it all stem from me opting to take history instead of geography in year nine? Or would I still be a moron if I had opted for a different humanity?

In recent times, I had discovered that the Farne Islands was not the Shetland Isles… and that Bury St Edmunds was not anywhere near halfway between Bamburgh in Northumberland and Reigate in Surrey. I wonder if this new knowledge qualified me for an honorary GCSE in geography?

Five and a half hours, one toilet stop in a grubby service station just south of Leeds and a death-defying drive through a monsoon later I arrived at the campsite with just enough time to throw the tent up and ‘cook’ some couscous for tea before the fall of darkness.

If I’m honest, I didn’t sleep too well – Mainly through excitement at the thought eyeing-up some new nature in the morning, but also due to the fact that I was woken at 4am by the ear-splitting roar of the engines of an aeroplane seemingly flying about ten-feet above the tent. It was so low, that I thought it was going to join me in my sleeping bag.

I was aware that the campsite was right next to a military airbase as the website had mentioned that it was popular with aviation enthusiasts, but I never expected the US Air-force to be simulating strafing runs (obviously without the shooting bit) at night directly over my head.

Is that a Nimrod in your pyjamas or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a Nimrod in your pyjamas or are you just pleased to see me?

Having somehow survived the night’s military manoeuvres, a trip to Lackford Lakes afforded my best ever views of Kingfishers. Usually, the only sight you get of one is a flash of blue as it darts past. This time, however, a juvenile sat a few feet away on a stick for a good ten minutes before being joined and fed a fish almost the same size as it by a parent.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

The following new bird species for this trip all had one thing in common – They were all seen from a long, long way away in the distant distance and tested my hand steadiness with my camera on 200x digital zoom to the full…

New Sightings – Sponsored by Hubble Telescopes Ltd

Stone Curlew... Apparently, people used to think that looking one in the eye cured jaundice

Stone Curlew… Apparently, people used to think that looking one in the eye cured jaundice

Turtle Dove... On the second day of Christmas my true love only gave me half the number I was expecting!

Turtle Dove… On the second day of Christmas my true love only gave me half the number I was expecting!

Black-Winged Stilt

Black-Winged Stilt

This is how far away the Black-Winged Stilt was...

This is how far away the Black-Winged Stilt was…

Great White Egret

Great White Egret

The Great White Egret is a very uncommon visitor to the UK and I was excited to spot one in the waterway on the outskirts of RSPB Lakenheath Fen. I haven’t found a scarce bird myself before (anything uncommon has always been pointed out by others), so it was extra exciting to make the discovery. To commemorate the occasion, I thought I’d report my sighting to the Bird Guides people who provide the location of interesting birds to people who have signed-up to their app (the app I signed-up for a month out of interest and keep forgetting to cancel!) – It’s sort of a bird-stalking service for… er… bird stalkers.

Before submitting, I spent ages checking and re-checking that it was actually what I thought it was. I didn’t want to report a Great White Egret when it was actually a swan… Or, heaven forbid, a Little Egret. I then spent ages trying to craft an interesting sentence to make my report sound a balance of factually accurate and fascinating.

Within a few minutes, my report was on the system – For the first time ever, I had found and reported a bird of interest. After all these months, I was finally contributing to the bird-spotting community. I had not been as proud as this since I learned to tie my shoelaces the grown-up way (just a couple of months ago). Strangely, however, they edited my ‘interesting’ sentence – It clearly wasn’t as interesting as I had thought.

I wasn't as interesting as I had thought...

Clearly, I wasn’t as interesting as I had thought…

I wonder how much of this blog post would be left if the Bird Guides editing team got their hands on it…

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Much Ado About Puffin

If you were reading last time, you will know that I had just seen my one-hundred and fiftieth bird species of the year during a trip to Northumberland.  When I started out, I really didn’t know what to expect from the challenge.  I certainly didn’t know that much about birds and was sceptical about my chances of being able to identify much of what I saw.  One-hundred and fifty seemed like an impossibility, but now I’m finally there, I am keen to find out just how far past it I can go…

So far, it has been a really interesting seven months of wielding binoculars, wading knee-deep in mud, gawping in awe as a Barn Owl ghosted past me in the gloaming and getting nicely frustrated at the challenge of trying to tell a third-winter Herring Gull from a Lesser Black-Backed Gull.  I have learned a lot and seen some amazing things.

The experience has been an eye-opener as to just how magnificent the natural world is.  Its splendour.  Its ingenuity.  Its variety.  If you don’t already, I can’t encourage you all enough to go out and see the wonders of wildlife that run, fly and crawl in your local woodland or even in your back garden.  If you stop and take a moment to look, you will be amazed at the marvels all around.  Sadly, it might not always be there.

Before I start weeping or burst into a rendition of Earth Song, I’ll move on…

 

Farne IslandsWhen I started this year of randomly chasing birds around, I hadn’t heard of the Farne Islands.  When somebody first mentioned that I should pay them a visit to see one of the UK’s largest seabird colonies, I instinctively said that going to Scotland was quite a trek.  They agreed with my comment, but obviously decided not to call me a geographically-ignorant moron through good manners.  I thank them for that because after a bit of research, I discovered that the Islands aren’t in the furthest reaches of northern Scotland, but off the coast of Northumberland.  Google Maps has suggested that I was wrong by about 450 miles – It’s a wonder I make it home after a day at work.

My research also revealed that the archipelago of fifteen or so islands is home to twenty-two different species of nesting birds.  Looking down the list, I could count (although not with any conviction after my issue with two 108s on my Bird Board last time) seven of which I had never seen before.

And this is why I found myself boarding a small boat at Seahouses harbour to go on a trip… First to Staple Island and then to Inner Farne.  This was probably the most committed birdy thing I had done so far this year – Had a trip of 350-plus miles and the booking of a boat trip entitled ‘All Day Birdwatch’ with the sub-heading ‘particularly suitable for the enthusiastic ornithologist’, proved my transformation into dedicated bird-mad crazy twitcher?

Probably not…  I’ve just always wanted to see Puffins.

Staple Island

Staple Island

As the boat pulled-up to the jetty at Staple Island, I was almost overwhelmed by a pervasive pungent pong of poisson-perfumed poo (and an almighty attack of alliteration) and definitely overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds that were crammed onto the rocky outcrop nearly as far as the eye could see.  It was such a staggering sight that I became giddy (although this may have been due to me being stood on a boat).  Even at first glance, I could tell I was going to love this place.

A National Trust ranger came to greet the vessel-load of tourists, the skipper of the boat remarked that the fishy-pooey smell was due to our welcomer not showering for a week.  It was probably a comment he repeated daily for the benefit of his passengers and was the sole reason the ranger, perhaps, was desperately trying to train the seabirds on the island to attack smart-arses on command.

The island was absolutely breath-taking.  There were nesting seabirds pretty much everywhere… and so unbelievably close… and so many I had never seen before… and there were so many…  I almost didn’t know where to look and almost forgot how to breathe!  My imaginary bird-list notepad took an absolute battering.  Guillemots.  Razorbills.  Puffins.  Shags.  Fulmars.  All new for the year and just all new full-stop.

Puffin

Puffin

Puffin

Puffin

Puffin

Puffin

Razorbills

Razorbills

Shags (and not the slightest hint of a crass comment from me in sight)

Shags (and not the slightest hint of a crass comment from me in sight – Strange)

Fulmar

Fulmar

Common Guillemot and Bridled Guillemot (The same species, but one with an eyesight deficiency)

Oystercatcher

Oystercatcher

Lesser Black-Backed Gull Chicks

Lesser Black-Backed Gull Chicks

If you like birds: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season.  If you’re not all that fussed with birds, but have a passing interest in nature: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season.  If you’re not all that fussed with birds, or nature, but have a pulse: go to the Farne Islands during breeding season.  I promise you that it will blow your mind right off of its moorings… and then some.

Bird Sightings

The second stop was Inner Farne: home to, amongst others, four-thousand or so breeding Arctic Terns.  When I had mentioned that I was visiting, pretty much everyone warned me that I needed to make sure I wore a hat, as the Terns were pretty belligerent to anyone coming close to their offspring.  I’ve seen pictures of people with blood streaming down their foreheads after an encounter with an Arctic Tern in attack mode.

I haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’, but I imagine it would be something like a typical experience on Inner Farne.  Synopsis: A disused mediaeval church on an island is surrounded by thousands of birds hell-bent on pecking the crap out of anyone unfortunate enough to stray close by.  The victims face a struggle for survival until their boat returns to collect them two hours and fifteen minutes later.  Bird-related horror ensues…

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

Arctic Tern

Sandwich Tern

Sandwich Tern

In spite of the threat of imminent blindness from the sharp-end of beaks (logically, the non-sharp end attached to the birds’ faces were never going to pose any danger to health), the two or so hours on Inner Farne was a phenomenal experience.

Without sounding too much like an advert for Visit Northumberland, I highly recommend a trip to the Farne Islands – Just mention my name and you’ll get a whopping 0% discount and a funny look.

Lindisfarne Castle had disappeared during my visit... and so had this Golden Plover (almost)

Lindisfarne Castle had disappeared during my visit… and so had this Golden Plover (almost)

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