Dukes of Buzzard

A walk along the North Downs Way between Reigate and Dorking was the setting for this week’s desperate sweep of the natural world for sightings of new species to add to my 2014 bird list.

North Downs Way - Britain's countryside at its finest

North Downs Way – Britain’s countryside at its finest

In the bushes I heard a rustle (Perhaps it was a Crow?)…  I peeked between the twigs and branches and could make out a rather panicky-looking Red-Legged Partridge.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one before, but these birds always appear startled and nervously dashing about.  They rarely fly when trying to evade predators or prying eyes, instead, they speed-waddle away from potential danger in a manner akin to a Benny Hill episode closing sketch.  The Partridge skittled across the path in front of me – out of the undergrowth on the left and into the vegetation on the right.  I was half hoping it would be followed into the bushes by a couple of policemen, a gaggle of nurses and a pair of nuns…  But, was left somewhat disappointed.

Another bird species for the list, but no vestal to tick off in my I-Spy Book of Religious Figures.

Aha! A Partridge

Aha! A Partridge

A bit further along the path, I saw a pair of Nuthatches doing a bit of do-it-themselves to their nest – making the entrance hole in a tree-trunk smaller by adding earth.  They do this to keep larger birds nipping in when no-one’s looking and snacking on their offspring.  Imagine having to pick up cement with your mouth to brick-up your back door so that your neighbor doesn’t eat your baby.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

In the sky – circling way, way up were a pair of Buzzards.  People seem to always refer to this as ‘wheeling’ – I don’t quite understand this, but I’ll go with it.

Another bird of prey wheeled in from over the trees…  But, it didn’t look like the other two.  It was smaller and greyer than a Buzzard.  This was exciting.  What was it?  My inner JIZZ computer whirred into action…  Brrrrrrrrr….  Processing… Smaller than a Buzzard…  Greyer than a Buzzard…  Calculating… It can’t be a Buzzard, so must be a Hen Harrier – They’re smaller and greyer.

Does Not Compute - ID Systems Error

Does Not Compute – ID Systems Error

It was a Buzzard! (a juvenile one)

I clearly need to load up some bird ID expansion packs into my memory sockets.

Great Tit

Great Tit

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Excitingly, it seems that Fauna Corner has been commissioned for a second episode after the pilot received glowing reviews in the national press…

”There aren’t many words that rhyme with ‘corner’ and ‘fauna’ is almost one” – Former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion

“I was especially interested in the picture of the mouse” – Sylvester the Cat

“The arrival of Fauna Corner proves there’s more to life than birds” – Hugh Hefner

Small Tortoiseshell

Small Tortoiseshell

Field Vole

Field Vole

Roman Snail - Britain's largest land snail

Roman Snail – Britain’s largest land snail

I’m going to Germany at the weekend, so hopefully the next blog installment will be used to regale you with stories of parrots, emus and a whole host of exotic new sightings.

If you feel like you’re having a hard week, spare a thought for this Mallard who is raising 21 little Mallards all by herself!

Cheeper by the dozen (and then some)

Cheeper by the dozen (and then some)

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Redpollice Academy

Bird hides are strange places.  They are basically garden sheds with windows that open, but instead of being full of trowels, that bicycle that you promise yourself you’ll ride down the canal in better weather (yet never do) and the Flymo that gives off electric shocks when you use it, they are stocked to the rafters with expensive, hi-tech camera and telescopic gadgetry.  They are also full of people wearing non-rustle camouflage clothing, sitting – for the most part – in silence…  I assume this is also a difference from your sheds too – If not, I’m afraid I have misjudged you all.

In his book, Birdwatchingwatching (2009), Alex Horne describes bird-watching as ‘essentially an enormous game of hide and seek, in which you do the hiding and the seeking and the birds have no idea they’re involved in a game.’  The birds go about their business unaware that they are basically being pried upon by a group of voyeurs – It’s a brilliantly simple way to watch nature up close and the birds aren’t bothered by any of this…  Until the deafening silence is broken when someone’s phone rings.  In my experience, mobiles that ring in bird hides seem to embarrass the owner in two ways: (i) They feel bad that they forgot to switch the device to silent and this may scare off anything outside and (ii) The ringtone is always seemingly cringe worthy.  My two experiences of phones going off in bird hides has brought the sound of something akin to Motörhead and, more recently, a computerized voice loudly repeating ‘YOU ARE BEING CALLED BY YOUR DAUGHTER… YOU ARE BEING CALLED BY YOUR DAUGHTER!’  Both of which seem incredibly out of place in a shed… and possibly out of place anywhere.

My phone is always on silent, but I always check before entering a hide – I would hate to scare off a Blue Tit with something from my extensive Celine Dion collection.

Anyway…

A visit to Warnham Nature Reserve was my means of adding to my 2014 bird list.  It is a great little place just outside Horsham and it was here that I saw my first ever Osprey a couple of years ago.  They also serve the biggest slices of cake I have ever seen.  It is also home to my (so far) favourite bird hide (How cool do I sound?)

CAKE!

CAKE!

Outside the hide is a wooded area that attracts a remarkable array of wildlife.  Birds line up in the trees and take turns to visit the feeders – It’s a bit like aeroplanes waiting for their turn to come in and land at an airport.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll

Greenfinch

Greenfinch

Great-Spotted Woodpecker

Great-Spotted Woodpecker

Robin

Robin

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll

Blackbird (plus soon to be ex-worm)

Blackbird (plus soon to be ex-worm)

Siskin

Siskin

Lesser Redpoll (with dubious bird-table manners)

Lesser Redpoll (with dubious bird-table manners)

Shoveler

Shoveler

No new species, but a slice of cake the size of my head and some great views of birds from the warmth of a glorified potting shed made for a superb day.

 

After the unmitigated success of Fauna Corner last week, I am proud to announce the launch of my 2014 Butterfly Board, where I pictorially highlight the Lepidoptera I’ve managed to spy whilst out and about.

Butterflies are beautifully photogenic creatures and usually fairly cooperative when having a camera pointed at them.  That said, I am pretty sure that one will, one day, be the death of me as I tend to give pursuit whenever I see one, following them without due care and attention.  Last year I almost fell off the North Downs whilst trying to get a photograph of a Marbled White.  I got no photo, but did get grass burnt elbows.

Small White

Small White

Orange Tip

Orange Tip

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Captain Corelli’s Mandarin

You wait for ages for a bird to come along… and you see it on three outings running.

A lunch-time walk along the River Wey in Send, a trip to Warnham Nature Reserve and a saunter through the unimaginatively named Horsham Park, which is, unsurprisingly, a park in Horsham, all brought with them sightings of Mandarin Ducks.  They are always a treat to see, as the drakes (that’s the man) are probably Britain’s most strikingly colourful ducks.

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

Some dubious in-depth research has unearthed the following facts about Mandarin Ducks:

  • Duck in Mandarin is 鴨子(yāzi).
  • They are not to be confused with Peking Duck – which is #88 on the menu at the Beijing Restaurant in Horsell.
  • Originating in Asia, the feral populations found in the wild in the UK have descended from escapees from private ornamental collections.  I guess it’s bit like Chicken Run… but without Mel Gibson… or chicken pies… or, indeed chickens…  So, in actual fact, nothing like Chicken Run.
  • Apparently, they taste horrible!
  • This is quite a food-obsessed list.
Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

I also unexpectedly spied a pair of Goosander on the River Wey during a different lunch-time wander, taking my total for the year to a semi-whopping 102 bird species.  I don’t have any Goosander facts to hand, which, I’m sure doesn’t disappoint you!

Goosey Goosey Goosander

Goosey Goosey Goosander

And in other news…

In order to try and avoid this blog becoming a little too uni-dimensional in a bird-centric way, I proudly announce the launch of Fauna Corner*

* Whilst not, strictly speaking, in a corner, I think you’ll agree that ‘Fauna Corner’ sounds a bit more snappy than ‘A Section About Various Animals (Not Birds) That Finds Itself at the Bottom of the Page on Occasional Blog Posts’

Those cynics among you will think that its introduction is solely due to me not seeing many new birds each week and wanting to fill space.  Shame on you!

So, here we go…  Welcome to Fauna Corner #1 (Apologies if I’ve misidentified any of the animals – I welcome all corrections)

Field Vole...  Or Mini-Beaver

Field Vole… Or Mini-Beaver

Grey Squirrel - Confused after someone cemented over his acorn stash

Grey Squirrel – Confused after someone cemented over his acorn stash

Oh dear, it's a Roe Deer

Oh dear, it’s a Roe Deer

Common Frog - Scoring a big fat zero in a game of 'Pass The Frogs'

Common Frog – Scoring a big fat zero in a game of ‘Pass The Frogs’

Common Lizard

Common Lizard

Grey Squirrel - Literally squirreled away!

Grey Squirrel – Literally squirreled away!

 See you next time…  Thank you for reading.

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Scaup’s Bride

Subtitled: Oystercatcher in the Rye

Sub-subtitled: A Room With a Smew

Could this be the week that I finally got to one-hundred birds for the year?

A trip to Dungeness was this weekend’s bird-centric activity.  I know two things about Dungeness – It is the site of a nuclear power station and home to the RSPB’s oldest remaining reserve.  I’m sure there are other exciting facts about the place, but my ignorance holds me at this duo of details.

Collared Dove from last week at Littlehampton that somehow seems more appropriate to show this week in the presence of a nuclear power station

As the year has gone on, my life seems to have become increasingly birdy.  Someone even suggested that I had become a bit of a ‘birder’…  But I challenge that.  There’s something about being labelled anything that really irks me.  I can’t quite put my finger on why.  I’m happy to be Michael, but Michael-the-something doesn’t sit well with me.  This is why I couldn’t go on a quiz show – I just couldn’t stand behind my buzzer, look directly into camera one and say “Hi, I’m Michael, I’m thirty-six and a temporary wheelbarrow operative from Woking… I’m hoping for questions on the life and times of Dungeness and 21st century wheelbarrow technology”.  I just couldn’t do it.

I’m vehemently not a birder.  I’m someone who likes to be outside and appreciates the natural world.

I just labelled myself, didn’t I?  Oh dear.

Hi, I’m Michael, I’m thirty-six and am a massive hypocrite!

Anyway…  The sun was shining and I was keen to get on with some serious birding…  um… er…  I mean being outside and appreciating the natural world.

I took a quick look at the ‘Birds to Look For’ board in the reserve reception building.  Scanning the list, I counted eight birds I had yet to see this year.  If I could see all of them during my visit, I could break through the one-hundred barrier.  This would move me two-thirds of the way to achieving my goal of seeing one-hundred and fifty species in 2014.  This excited me more than it probably should have done.

Got… Got… Got… Need… It’s like collecting Football ’86 stickers all over again

Got… Got… Got… Need… It’s like collecting Football ’86 stickers all over again

I had already added Oystercatcher to my list before sitting in a hide and surveying the vast body of water in front of me…  Lots of gulls and lots of Tufted Ducks.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  However, floating inconspicuously amongst the throng of Tufted Ducks was something that looked a bit different – It was a duck that initially looked like all the others, but on closer inspection had a greenish head with a lack of a tuft and a whiter back.  My first instinct said Scaup (It looked similar to a picture of the one that is in my bird book – The book that I always seem to have my face in nowadays).  My second instinct said hybrid (a Tufted Duck crossed with something as yet unknown).  Maybe they weren’t instincts.  Maybe they were guesses.

Tufted Duck and Scaup?

Tufted Duck and Scaup?

Bizarrely, there’s something in bird-watching that’s referred to as ‘Jizz’ – The first time I heard someone utter the word ‘jizz’ in a bird hide, I’ll have to admit I was taken a little by surprise.  I know that observing nature is exciting – seeing a Kingfisher flash past you for the first time or an Osprey crash-landing into a lake in search of dinner are truly awe-inspiring sights, but jizz-worthy?  Surely not?

In actual fact, the term is used to refer to the instinctive identification of a bird, based on what it looks like, where it is found, how it flies and the like.  It may be based on the WWII military acronym ‘GISS’, which was used to refer to the general impression of size and shape of an aircraft or an evolutionary avian-based adaptation of the word ‘gist’, which obviously means a similar sort of thing.  Either way, it’s not a word I tend to shout out in public (or in private for that matter), but could explain how I thought the Scaup in front of me was a Scaup – in spite of having never seen one before.  Maybe I’m the bird-watching equivalent of Magnum…  Magpie PI?  Maybe not.

Scaup

Scaup

A little later, a woman walked past and said ‘Have you seen the Slav?’…  My goodness, was there a Yugoslavian warlord on the loose in the reserve?  It took a while to work out that she actually meant the Slavonian Grebe that had apparently been spotted earlier in the day and not Ratko Mladic.  Obviously, my reply to both questions was a big ‘No’.  It is funny how someone thinks you are up on all the ornithological jargon just because you happen to be on a bird reserve carrying a pair of binoculars.

As the afternoon progressed, I managed to add Common Gull, Cetti’s Warbler and a distant Smew to the list…

Common Gull

Common Gull

Cetti's Warbler - Honest!

Cetti’s Warbler – Honest!

Here's looking at Smew - Just about!

Here’s looking at Smew – Just about!

I had got to ninety-nine…

Would I be able to sneak in one more before the end of the day?  I popped back into the hide by the entrance on the off-chance that something exciting had appeared since my last visit.  A helpful chap pointed out the Scaup that I had seen earlier.  I thanked him and followed his waving pointed hand to a big area of uninhabited water.  ‘Do you see it?’ he said.  ‘No’, I replied.  ‘It’s just over there’, he once again gestured by waving his hand, ‘Next to the Tufted Duck right in front of us’.  I still couldn’t see it…  If it was so close and I couldn’t see it, would he think me a bit of a moron?  ‘Oh, yes, thanks.  Got it!’ I confidently stated…  I hadn’t got it.  I still had no idea where he meant.  I wished he had used a motionless point rather than an erratic wavy point – That might have helped a bit.  An elderly man was trying to be helpful and friendly and I repaid him by telling a lie.  That’s got to be a massive karma mistake.

At this stage, seeming quite happy that he had shown me a Scaup, he proceeded to try to point out a Black-Throated Diver in the distance – I hadn’t seen one of those this year, so really had to find it.  He, again, vigorously wave-pointed, suggesting that I would see it if I looked all the way across the water, over a bank and into another body of water.  If I was correct, I think he meant it was in France.  I didn’t fancy my chances.

In the distance, there was indeed a bird – I caught a quick glimpse of it in my binoculars.  If I’m honest, it could have been anything, but others in the hide confidently said that it was a Black Throated Diver.

Black-Throated Diver?   Loch Ness Monster?

Black-Throated Diver? Loch Ness Monster?

I had done it.  I had got to one-hundred different species for the year… I was an uneasy combination of elated and disappointed.  I hadn’t properly seen the one-hundredth bird, had I?  I considered yet another rule change – That I should have to be in the same time-zone as the bird for it to count or at least the same postal code.

 

Tune in next time for some more bird stuff…  And the semi-exciting launch of ‘Fauna Corner’

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Romancing the Turnstone

At the dawn of time, when names were carefully being picked for the flora and fauna of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve thought they would benefit future generations of nature spotters by giving birds names that reflected their behaviour, their appearance or their songs.  This would prove to be both a help and a hindrance, but we will return to this in due course.

Approximately six-thousand years later, one such nature spotter found himself getting off a train at Littlehampton Station.

That person, as you’ve probably guessed, was me.

I had mixed emotions.  On one hand, I was excitingly looking forward to tucking into a massive portion of chips on the beach.  On the other hand, I was feeling a bit apprehensive as to the birds I might shortly be seeing and struggling to identify.  As luck would have it, the mixing of emotions was limited to these two, as I don’t have any more hands.

Redshank

Redshank

As I wandered in the direction of West Beach, I began to see an array of gulls.  This was part of my apprehension – I really struggle telling one species from the other.  What if I saw a species I hadn’t seen before, but failed to identify it?  If I was remiss with my IDs a number of times over the year, I might not get close to my goal of one-hundred and fifty.

It would be like my goal to eat a new food a week throughout 2013 and only getting to twenty-eight!  I couldn’t have that.

A group of Black-Headed Gulls were sat (well, stood) at the shoreline.  I can usually identify a Black-Headed Gull because of its chocolate brown head – Why Adam and/or Eve chose to name them black-headed is anyone’s guess.  However, in amongst the throng was a gull with a proper black head.  It was a Mediterranean Gull – I knew that because I have spent hours poring over the pictures in my bird book (How cool am I?)  Result!  A new species for the list (and minus five cool points for getting so excited!)

A brown-headed Black-Headed Gull and a black-headed, non Black-Headed, Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull

Mediterranean Gull

I took some photos of some other troublesome gulls, in the hope that my crack squad of bird identification experts could help when I got home [They all proved to be Herring Gulls]

Herring Gull - Looking nothing like a herring

Herring Gull – Looking nothing like a herring

Herring Gull

Herring Gull – Ditto

In the distance, I could see a line of smallish birds standing on top of one of the groynes. [They’re also known as breakwaters, but for some juvenile reason, I prefer the term groyne!]  I ventured closer, but I just couldn’t work out what they were – Too far away, too similar looking to a whole host of other birds that flap around at the coast and too looking in the wrong direction to show any distinguishing facial features.  It seems that I’m totally out of my depth identifying birds at the seaside – both metaphorically and almost literally as I continued to almost forget that the tide was coming in, as I strained to make out any potential distinctive attributes with my binoculars.

When I first started taking my binoculars out on nature-spotting visits, I was incredibly self-conscious and would not use them if others were passing me.  I felt that they would probably be judging me – “Oh, look at that bloke over there with the binoculars…  I bet he’s pretending to look at that pigeon over there whilst we’re here.  As soon as we go, he’ll go back to looking into upstairs windows in the hope of seeing someone changing.  Weirdo!

Now I just don’t worry about that sort of thing.  I’m not sure what that says about me.

There were a few of the unidentified birds a bit closer, picking at the seaweed on the angled sections of the breakwater.  I could make out that they had bright orange legs, a dark short pointed beak and was a mixture of brown and white feathers.  It still didn’t help with identification.  However, a quick whizz through an app on my phone helped me to reason that it was, in actual fact, a Turnstone – one of those birds I probably could have worked out what it was if it was doing as its name suggests, that is, turning over stones on the beach.

Turnstone

Turnstone

Turnstone

Turnstone

This is where we return to the minefield that is bird names…  Some birds are named after their behaviour, what they look like and sometimes after their calls.  Unfortunately, this is this is not an exact science, as birds don’t display the behaviour that gave them their name the entire time.  There are also other birds that display the same behaviour and birds that don’t always look like their name.  The exceptions that disprove the rule can cause novice observers like me confused headaches: -

  • Woodpeckers peck wood, but so do Nuthatches
  • Male Blackbirds are black birds, but the females are brown
  • Oystercatchers do eat oysters, but also other bivalves
  • Male Blackcaps have a black cap, but the females’ cap is a rusty brown
  • Storks do not follow people around under the cover of darkness
  • Bearded Tits have moustaches rather than goatees, although it’s not really a moustache as it’s formed of feathers
  • Black Grouse don’t ever drink whisky

and

  • Turnstones turn stones to find food, but also rummage through seaweed on breakwaters for food
Who needs a bird book or bird app when the signage tells you what you will see (bottom left)

Who needs a bird book or bird app when the signage tells you what you will see? (bottom left)

I sat on the beach and devoured a large hard-earned portion of chips – In one afternoon, I had added three new species to my 2014 list and probably added about three kilos in weight.

My total for the year now stands at NINETY-FOUR.  If you what to see what and where, please click the Bird Board tab at the top of the page.

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Jonah and the Rail

Firstly, owing to recent disputes and bureaucratic wranglings (with myself!) over what I can and can’t add to my 2014 bird list, I have amended my rules.

They are now as follows: -

  • Identification of bird must be 100% certain before counting (Small brown bird with little legs is not acceptable)
  • Bird must be wild (Pet shop sightings are, therefore, not permissible)
  • Bird must be alive (Insert your own Monty Python reference here)
  • Bird must be seen (Hearing one is not acceptable)
  • Bird must be a pure breed (Hybrids do not count)

I’m sure something else will come up in the future to challenge the fragility of my rules.

Anyway, that’s enough admin!

This weekend I decided to make the most of the balmy weather and take a trip to the seaside.

After the time-consuming dalliances with the dreaded rail replacement services a couple of weeks ago on an epic journey to Staines Reservoir, I chose a coastal town that didn’t have engineering works between me and it.  The destination of choice was Littlehampton – which was great because it meant that I would be able to squeeze in a sneaky visit to RSPB Pulborough Brooks on the way.

On my last visit to Pulborough Brooks, I managed to add a whopping TWENTY-SIX birds to my list…  It was day two of the challenge, so that explains the hefty number of additions in one go.  It is a daily figure that is incredibly unlikely to be matched for the rest of the year – Unless I go to a rainforest… or Birdworld.  Obviously, a trip to the latter would score me zero – If I haven’t changed my rules again by then, of course!

Given the paucity of new sightings of late, on this particular visit, I’d be happy with one.

Brimstone and Comma butterflies - A sure sign spring is here!

Brimstone and Comma butterflies – A sure sign spring is here!

Springtime is a wonderful time of year to watch nature – The World is boisterously waking-up after a lengthy period of darkness, coldness and, in the case of this particular winter, ridiculous wetness.  Seemingly overnight, the trees burst into blossom and a verdant glow brings a renewed sense of joy to the previously bleak, brown countryside.  Birds burst into life, singing from all available vantage points, in the hope of impressing potential suitors.

Blue Tits flit amongst the shoots of virgin leaves, aerobatically pursuing each other, as if auditioning for the latest Disney fairy-tale; Wrens shiver with sheer effort whilst announcing their presence at a volume seemingly impossible for something so small; and I consider wearing shorts for the first time this year.

The natural world is singing loud and proud, declaring that it has made it through the hardship of another British winter.  It is melodically announcing that it is ready to pair up and produce the next generation.

I love this time of year.  Everything just seems better, brighter, happier.  It even makes me write a little less sarcastically and perhaps a little more poetically.

Sunbathing Wren

Sunbathing Wren

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great Spotted Woodpecker

From a bird-spotting perspective, the springtime also increases my chances of seeing new species…  Migrants start arriving from overseas – bringing new types – and our year-round species begin to think about producing mini-versions of themselves.  The upshot of all this is that the bird population swells significantly.

However, in spite of all this, after a great couple of hours wandering around the reserve, I found myself wandering back to the visitors’ centre empty notebooked.  A superb morning in the sunshine, but no new species.

I saw what I thought was a Blackbird skulking around the undergrowth.  I almost walked on, but, for some reason, decided to wave my binoculars in its general direction…  It wasn’t a Blackbird – It wasn’t one of Britain’s most common birds…  It was, rather unexpectedly, a Water Rail.  This was exciting as I’ve only ever seen two of these in the past and both were a considerable distance away.  One of these was an interesting leucistic bird – that is, one that has reduced pigmentation – So, you could say, on that occasion, I had actually seen a Whiter Rail.

This Rail was only about ten yards away and merrily going about its business, semi-concealed by a smattering of brambles and probing the mud for lunch with its long red beak.

Water Rail

Water Rail

Water Rail

Water Rail

Water Rails are well-known for squealing like a pig – If I’d have known I’d be seeing one, I would have brought my torch along for a chit-chat.

 

Next stop:  Littlehampton and a probable date with considerable numbers of unidentifiable seagulls and a large portion of chips on the beach…

 

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Chiffy Chaffy Bang Bang

This week, once again, has been difficult – New birds no longer appear in front of me when I’m out walking.  I have seemingly seen all the easy, local ones and will probably not add too many more new species to my 2014 list until I (i) venture further afield or (ii) the spring migrants start arriving in the country from their winter sun vacations far south from here.

My scoring system has been called into question once again…  At the outset of this challenge, I think I probably should have spent a little more time formulating a comprehensive set of rules – mainly to avoid any potential issues regarding what I could include and what I could not include.

The first challenge to my rules came quite early on in the year when I spied a hybrid goose – part Canada Goose, part Greylag Goose…  At that point I had not yet seen a Greylag, so wondered if I might count it as at least a 0.5 (or half a tick) – I referred back to my rules and I hadn’t made provision for cross-breeds, so I decided not to include it.  I have since seen a 1.0 version of a Greylag, so, I guess, it didn’t really matter either way.

Rules is Rules is Rubbish

Rules is Rules is Rubbish

The second challenge to the rules came a couple of nights ago…

It was just gone 1am and I was lying in bed – either in the nude or in my Bill Oddie pyjamas… I’ll leave it to you to pick the one that disturbs you the least!  Outside the window, I heard the unmistakeable ‘Hoot’ of an owl.  Instinctively, I knew it was the call of a Tawny Owl – the only British owl to make the stereotypical ‘twit twoo’ calls.

I scrabbled around for my torch, found it and quietly opened the window…  I switched my torch on and pointed it in the direction of the trees and the owl sounds.  It is at this point I should point out that my torch is crap.  It only exists in the world because of humanity’s inexplicable need to possess novelty items that actually serve no real practical purpose – My torch is a case in point: it is bright pink, resembles a pig and probably has a lumen rating of almost zero.  The light emitted probably just about reaches the end of the bulb and, in actual fact, gives off less light than a real pig!

Pig Torch - Neither an actual pig nor an actual torch...

Pig Torch – Neither an actual pig nor an actual torch…

[As an aside, I was introduced to the wonderful world of lumens when I looked directly into a high-powered head-torch just as I pressed the on-switch in Cotswold Outdoor a couple of years ago – It was not my brightest moment!]

Anyway, where was I?

Believe it or not, I was hanging out of my bedroom window, in the nude (or in a Bill Oddie signature edition pyjama set), waving a useless pink pig torch in the direction of some nearby woodland, in what was rapidly becoming a futile attempt to see a Tawny Owl.

Spot the owl - No, I couldn't either...

Spot the owl – No, I couldn’t either…

After a good (well, bad!) five minutes, I gave up.  I closed the window and slid back into bed.  I had failed to see the Tawny Owl that was possibly about as close as ten metres away from me.  To say I was disappointed was an understatement.  To say I was very disappointed was about right.

Could I include something I had not seen but heard?

My rules for the year hadn’t catered for this occurrence – They didn’t specify if I had to see the bird, but they also didn’t suggest I could put it on the list if I had just heard it.  This was the hybrid fiasco again, wasn’t it?  Maybe I should have just stolen someone else’s rules for the challenge – They would have pre-considered things like cross-breeds and aural sightings, wouldn’t they?

I haven’t included Tawny Owl on my 2014 bird list, but I have added ‘a torch that works’ to my 2014 birthday list.

Today, I was enjoying the sunshine at Earlswood Lake and in the semi-distance, I heard what I thought might be a Chiffchaff – a new bird for 2014 for me and one who’s arrival back from wintering in warmer climes heralds the onset of spring.  The Chiffchaff is one of those birds whose song helpfully tells you exactly who you’re dealing with – a repeated “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff” – Well, that’s as close as English phonetics can get to it – It often struggles with birdsong.  Other similarly obliging birds include the Cuckoo “cuckoo, cuckoo” and… um… er… well, that’s the only other one I can think of at the moment, but I’m sure there must be others.

I followed the calling into the woods and started to scour the treetops for the source…  I could hear it clear as anything, but I couldn’t see it.  I was hoping that this wasn’t going to be a repeat of the Tawny Owl incident – I’m not sure I’d be too happy with a duo of failures in as many days.  You could say it might cause me a ‘double dip depression’.

Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff”… The bird continued to shout loudly and incessantly.  It was as if it was mocking my inability to locate the origin of the sound.

Spot the Chiffchaff - This one actually has a bird in it...

Spot the Chiffchaff – This one actually has a bird in it…

Come on, where are you?

I gazed treewards for a good ten minutes without success, until, finally, the little olive-brown warbler darted out to catch a passing insect.  Excellent, I could now add Chiffchaff to my 2014 list and stop cursing myself for not setting up better rules…

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

If anyone can think of any birds named after the sounds they make, please let me know – I’m sure there must be more than two!

Here’s some other birds I saw this week: -

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe

Long-Tailed Tit

Long-Tailed Tit

Dunnock

Dunnock

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Treecreeper

Treecreeper

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Loonraker

After last weekend’s dismal bird-watching dip-a-thon, at Staines Reservoir, I decided to try again to see the reported Great Northern Diver, Slavonian and Black-Necked Grebes, Mediterranean Gull and Scaup.  I surely couldn’t draw a blank for the second week running, could I?

Staines is about ten miles from my nearest station, but unfathomably it took me two hours to get there using those wonderful rail-replacement bus services that train companies love to inflict on the Sunday adventurer.  Ironically, I think I could almost have arrived quicker if I had walked at a swift pace – It would have saved me £8.20 and worked wonders for my calves.

On arrival at the Reservoir, I was dismayed to see that the gate was locked.  I had spent half a morning merrily cursing rail improvement works and was unable to get to my final destination.  I rattled the chain and padlock ensemble in a desperate attempt to see if it would unlock…  It didn’t.  I rattled it again, just in case I hadn’t jiggled it sufficiently to open it during try number one.  Surprisingly, it still didn’t unlock.  How did Houdini do it?

It was then it dawned on me that there was another gate just three feet to the left – The gate I had used to get into the Reservoir just a week ago.  What an idiot…  But, at least no-one will ever know about it.

Open sesame... Oh, okay, don't then!

Open sesame… Oh, okay, don’t then!

As I made my way to the causeway between the North and South basins, the wind was blowing relentlessly, causing significant waves across the Reservoir’s surface.  It was just like a traditional day at the British seaside – minus donkeys, bathing suits, beach huts, ice cream and the fact that I was a good fifty miles (probably six and a half days by train) away from the nearest beach…  So, in actual fact, nothing like a traditional day at the British seaside.

I can’t open padlocks without a key and can’t conjure up a good simile when required, so there’s really not much hope for me…  If I’m honest, it’s probably not actually a simile either, is it?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Before I had even got my binoculars out of my bag, I noticed a Great Northern Diver bobbing around in the choppy water about thirty or so yards away.  Excellent!  The only time I have ever seen one of these before it was so far away, I almost needed to use the Hubble Telescope to catch a good view of it – I obviously didn’t have access to the Hubble Telescope and apparently you cannot book it, so it remained a grey and white blob in the distance.

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Divers are known as the Common Loon in North America.  This is an apparent reference to their clumsiness on land – Their legs are so far back on their bodies that they are too front heavy to walk anywhere with any sort of elan.  They are excellent for propulsion in water, though, and can dive to depths of approximately two-hundred feet in search of dinner.

They are usually winter visitors (mainly from their breeding grounds around Iceland) to the UK.

Great Northern Diver

Great Northern Diver

A quick wander up and down the causeway revealed no other new birds for the year, although last week’s male Goldeneye had been joined by a female acquaintance and a group of Wigeons sat a nice distance away for watching.

Goldeneyes

Goldeneyes

Nab him.  Jab him. Tab him. Grab him. Stop that Wigeon now!

Nab him. Jab him. Tab him. Grab him. Stop that Wigeon now!

I did see a small grebe, that initially got me thinking it might be of the Slavonian or Black-Necked variety, but it was just wishful thinking as it was a Little Grebe – a bird that looks nothing like the other two in terms of colour.

Little Grebe...  It's a grebe and it's little - which should have helped with identification!

Little Grebe… It’s a grebe and it’s little – which should have helped with identification!

I contemplated returning to Staines Moor in search of a Short-Eared Owl, but, given the length of time it took me to get to Staines, thought better of it – I did have work in eighteen hours’ time after all and didn’t want to risk being late.

Pied Wagtail

Pied Wagtail

My Bird Board total for 2014 now stands at EIGHTY-NINE – If you like numbered lists of birds, check it out by clicking the tab at the top of the page…

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Parakeet the Parents

My low-scoring run has continued to continue…  Since last week’s desperate attempts to add to my 2014 bird sightings lists by appealing for help with pictures of unidentified gulls, I have pretty much drawn a blank.  Gone are the days of going for a wander and picking up ten… fifteen… or twenty new bird sightings.  I’m lucky if I stumble across one.

As a result, I am increasingly finding the need to use the internet to find reports of more uncommon birds in the local area…  As mentioned previously, my current favourite source of information is the Surrey Bird Club website – They appear to have a network of people armed with binoculars and good bird identification skills who scour local hedgerows, trees and water features for noteworthy birds.  My thinking is that they do the leg-work and I swoop in and add a load of exciting new birds to my list.  Simple!

Well, simple in theory…

According to my sources, over the past few weeks or so, there have been at least five birds I have yet to see residing at Staines Reservoir – Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Black-Necked Grebe, Mediterranean Gull and Scaup.  Four of these I have never ever seen.

My plan of action was to familiarise myself with the birds on my train journey using my Collins Bird Guide, turn up at the Reservoir and add all five to my list, take a wander to the nearby Staines Moor and also add the Short-Eared Owl that had been reported there on a daily basis lately.  I would then get back on the train, go home and then go out for dinner to celebrate adding a whopping SIX new birds to my list.  Hooray!

Well, that was the plan…

I hadn’t envisaged the Reservoir being quite so massive.  There was water almost as far as the eye could see.  It was something akin to standing at Land’s End and squinting really hard in the hope that you might catch a glimpse of New York.  Obviously this is an exaggeration, fuelled by a sense of impending disappointment – With my intermediate-strength binoculars, I would really struggle to see anything unless it had decided to hang around the edge near the walkway that bisected the north and south basins.  I would be lucky to see anything new.  Un-Hooray!

Is that the Statue of Liberty?

Is that the Statue of Liberty over there?

There were plenty of Coots, Black-Headed Gulls and a handful of Gadwalls on the water, a Pied Wagtail and Stonechat on the walkway, but no sign of any of the birds that drew me to the Reservoir in the first place.  Someone asked me if I had seen the Great Northern Diver – Almost fighting back the tears, I said ‘No’. (I wasn’t that emotional, but it adds to the scene, doesn’t it?)

Bring on the Gadwall!

Bring on the Gadwall!

Stonechat

Stonechat

A sighting of a Grebe in the distance got me excited…  Was it a Slavonian?  Or a Black-Necked?  Nope, it was a Little Grebe.

To make the trip semi-worthwhile, I did spy a Goldeneye – The duck, not the fictional (perhaps!) Russian satellite weapon.  This was exciting and added an unexpected tick on my 2014 list.

Ah, Meester Bond, zis is not ze Goldeneye you are looking for!

Ah, Meester Bond, zis is not ze Goldeneye you are looking for!

I then made the move to Staines Moor in search of the Short-Eared Owl.

The wander was notable for the number of Ring-Necked Parakeets – Britain’s only naturalised parrot – squawking noisily in the treetops.  There are some interesting (and unproven) stories about how these exotic birds came to be in the UK, but the best is possibly that Jimi Hendrix bred some and released a pair as a psychedelic alternative to doves of peace when he lived in London.  Fly on little wing indeed!

Parakeet (origin undetermined)

Parakeet (origin undetermined)

Parakeet

Parakeet (origin also undetermined)

Staines Moor was notable for two things: (i) A large number of Skylarks (another new bird for the year) singing like it was summertime as they parachuted groundwards and (ii) a distinct lack of Short-Eared Owls.

Skylark

Skylark

Today, in bird-watching parlance, I had majorly ‘dipped*’ – not just on one bird, but SIX.  This might just make me the world’s worst birder.  As a positive person, I reason that it is best to do this when travelling the ten miles from Woking to Staines than the eight-hundred miles from Woking to Baltasound on the Shetland Islands in a failed search for Tundra Bean Geese.  I can always try again next week.

* To ‘dip’ or ‘dip out’ means missing out on seeing a particular bird that you have travelled to see.  On the next slow news week, I will run through some key bird-watching terms – Lucky you!

In spite of much of the day not going to plan, I did manage to stick to the remainder of the itinerary by getting the train home and then going out for a meal.  I would never dip out on dinner!

Chaffinch

Chaffinch

Treecreeper

Treecreeper

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Gull-iver’s Travails

Well, I guess it had to happen at some point…  I failed to see any new bird species this week.  My 2014 list remained unmodified and stagnant on EIGHTY-THREE.  Disappointing!

In a fit of semi-desperation I thought I’d wade through some of the photos of gulls I had taken so far this year in a frantic attempt to see if I could positively identify any of them and retrospectively add them to my list.  I have seen a number of gulls so far, but I have massive issues telling one species from the other.

The problem is that they all look the same to me.  Does this make me racist??

As a bird-spotting novice, Lesser Black-Backed, Great Black-Backed and Herring Gulls all look very very similar to my untrained eye.  I could well have seen all of them in 2014, but because I can’t be sure, I have not been able to add them.  Sadly, my ignorance has cost me some much-needed ticks.

I wonder if anyone else has a similar problem.  Or maybe I am just one of a minority of gullerblind individuals?

Take this as an example…

The birds in the pictures below are all Black-Headed Gulls, but look distinctively different.  These birds don’t reach maturity until the age of one and also have a separate winter and summer plumage, so their appearance can vary quite significantly (1st winter, adult winter, 1st summer, adult summer – That’s four potential varying appearances, plus the addition of differences during the transition between each of the developmental phases).  Leg and beak colours also change during development and head colour changes depending on the time of year.  This head colour is either white or chocolate brown and never black (which is confusing, given their name!).  If Black-Headed Gulls have brown head some of the time and white the other, it is no wonder I have trouble!

1st winter Black-Headed Gull

1st winter Black-Headed Gull

Adult winter Black-Headed Gull

Adult winter Black-Headed Gull

Winter-summer transition adult Black-Headed Gull (taken in 2013 in Worthing)

Winter-summer transition adult Black-Headed Gull (taken in 2013 in Worthing)

Summer adult Black-Headed Gull (taken in 2013 in Redhill)

Summer adult Black-Headed Gull (taken in 2013 in Redhill)

1st winter (top) and adult winter (bottom) Black-Headed Gulls - for comparison

1st winter (top) and adult winter (bottom) Black-Headed Gulls – for comparison

I sent a few of my unidentified gull pictures to my crack squad of bird experts (i.e. the in-laws!) and got some great news.  It turns out I had seen a Great Black-Backed Gull (pink legs are apparently a giveaway in an adult bird) at Mercers Lake in Merstham and a 2nd winter Lesser Black-Backed Gull at Earlswood Lake in Redhill, but didn’t have the skills to realise it at the time.  In my desperation, I had also distributed a photo of a 2nd and 3rd winter Herring Gull in my cry-for-help email, but have since realised that I took it at the end of 2013, so it doesn’t count.  Rules are rules!

Great Black-Backed Gull (picture taken with my camera in Hubble Telescope mode)

Great Black-Backed Gull (picture taken with my camera in Hubble Telescope mode)

Lesser Black-Backed Gull

Lesser Black-Backed Gull (2nd winter)

Herring Gulls - One month too early for my 2014 list!

Herring Gulls – One month too early for my 2014 list!

A big thanks to Paul Lyons for his ID skills…  I’m off to trawl the Groupon website for a heavily discounted gull identification course.

Here are some other birds I’ve seen of late – Hopefully, I have labelled them correctly: -

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipit

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Starling

Starling

Redwing

Redwing

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