Serenpipity

Well, I had got to the final day of the year and I was still giving this challenge a go.  Knowing me as I do, this was surprising.  For the past 364 days I had been rummaging through hedgerows, scouring treetops and looking skywards with the aim of seeing as many different species of bird as possible in the fifty-two weeks of 2014.  If I’m honest, I think I had probably got a bit carried away with the challenge: arranged holidays and weekends away in areas that might bring about new sightings, dreamt about things with wings and even started buying ornithological magazines.

As my obsession with the challenge grew, I lost my shame in wielding my binoculars in public locations, I could walk up to a stranger in a park and ask them if they had seen any interesting wildlife and even started volunteering at a semi-local RSPB reserve.

During the year, I learned so much about the world around me and, dare I say it, had a brilliant year.

However, as the clock ticked over into the final twenty-four hours of the challenge, I was looking forward to it all being over.  I was tired.  I had lost count of how many miles I had racked-up traipsing across the countryside in search of birds that, a year ago, I had never even heard of.  I was looking forward to a lie-down.

Wednesday 31st December: T-minus 24 hours and 2 to go

After the previous day’s unanticipated haul of four new species at WWT Slimbridge, the quest to get to two-hundred birds for the year (something I imagine Casanova did with ease annually) was well and truly back on.

I only needed two more to achieve my target and had all the hours of daylight your typical end of December day could muster to do it…

Seeing as I had missed out on all of the four reported  species (Lapland Bunting, Water Pipit, Jack Snipe and Twite) at Brean Down a couple of days previous, I thought it was worth another visit on the way back home from visiting family in Weston-Super-Mare.

Despite a distinct lack of reported sightings of note in the area for the past few days, I reasoned that this was my last chance to add to my 2014 list.

As soon as I arrived, I noticed a couple of birds on the fence – Linnets – that temporarily distracted my attention from a large, black bird stood in an adjacent field.  I assumed it was a Carrion Crow, but it was only when it flew off over the farm buildings making a distinctive ‘cronking’ sound, that I contemplated that it might be a Raven.  It sounded different to a Carrion Crow and looked larger, but how could I be sure?

A few months back, I also thought I might have seen a Raven, but my hopes had been dashed by some people on the internet who said my photos were clearly of a Carrion Crow.  The ‘helpful’ advice I was given was ‘You KNOW if you’ve seen a Raven!’  Sadly, on that occasion, I didn’t see enough of it to make a judgement either way.

I frantically scoured the sky beyond the farmhouse with my binoculars to see if I could catch another glimpse…  To my delight, two large corvids swept into view.  They were clearly Ravens!  That internet oracle was right, somehow I just KNEW they were Ravens.

It's obviously a Raven!

It’s obviously a Raven!

Quite clearly two Ravens

Quite clearly two Ravens!

A Raven for sure!

A Raven for sure!

With bird number one-hundred and ninety-nine in the bag, I turned my attention back to the beach…

Two groups of people were now on the shingle in front of me.  Whilst a couple of chaps with binoculars were respectfully observing the birdlife from a distance, a trio – kitted out with semi-camouflage gear and cameras with lenses the size of Roberto Carlos’ thighs – were marauding along the beach, chasing anything that moved.  The threesome were seemingly scaring-off all the birds in search of the perfect photograph, when, with lenses like that, they could probably get better snaps than I could dream of whilst standing on the Moon.

I sauntered up to the pair and enquired what they had seen, to which they replied ‘not a lot, because those three over there were scaring everything away’.  I’m no body language expert (I’m yet to find anything I’m anywhere near expert at), but I could tell they were annoyed.  Their nature-watching had been scuppered by a bunch of selfish donuts who cared more about photographs than the creatures they were photographing.  I was annoyed too – It was these sorts of people who give bird-watchers a bad name.  They are the type of people who would think nothing of climbing over someone’s back fence to get a photograph.  They show no regard for nature.  Rant over… for now!

Beware of inconsiderate donuts brandishing cameras

Beware of inconsiderate donuts brandishing cameras

Then, without warning, a small bird flew from the undergrowth at the edge of the beach from directly underneath the footfall of one of the people.  I had done my research before my last visit to the area (I’m such a swot!) and the bird bore all the hallmarks of a Jack Snipe.  My studies had informed me that a Jack Snipe: –

  • Will not be flushed unless almost stepped on – Check
  • Is Starling-sized – Check
  • Has a long, slender bill – Check
  • Does not call when flying – Check
  • Flies fast, low and straight, before seeking nearby cover – Check

Was this countable as bird number two-hundred?  Had I finally done it?

Um…

The problem was that I didn’t get enough of a look at it to be one-hundred percent sure that it was a Jack Snipe.  It had exhibited the correct behaviour and had some of the key physical features, but I only saw it briefly from distance.

As much as I really wanted to count it, I just couldn’t guarantee my instincts were accurate.  It had to stay off the list…  Bugger!

Don't do it... Unless you are an inconsiderate nature-harassing photographer!

Don’t do it… Unless you are an inconsiderate nature-harassing photographer…  Then be my guest!

On my way back to the main path, I did a quick binocular survey of the area where I saw the mystery Pipit on my last visit…  There was what looked like a Water Pipit foraging in the greenery [Note: I originally wrote ‘furtling’ rather than ‘foraging’, but my word processor didn’t like the spelling.  When I looked it up for clarification, I made a shocking discovery.  I can’t believe how often I’ve used the word in the past and no-one has said anything.  Apparently, having a ‘furtle’ doesn’t mean you are ‘furtling’!]

I checked my reference materials (sadly no ‘Audio guide to Pipits of the World’ was available this time) and, yes, it was indeed a Water Pipit.

I had only bloomin’ gone and done it!!  The Water Pipit in front of me was bird number two-hundred for the year!

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

Water Pipit

As I looked back towards the most numerically significant bird of my year, it flew off.  The three camera-wielding idiots had barrelled towards the bird and scared it away.  They didn’t apologise to me (or to the bird).  Judging by their conversation, they clearly didn’t know what they had frightened off either…  These rude, ignorant people had somewhat taken the shine off what should have been a special moment for me.  Despite being incredibly annoyed, I didn’t say anything to them – I’m British after all.  Instead, I secretly hoped the Pipit had gone off to crap on their car!

There were still a few hours of daylight left…  Would I be able to get to two-hundred and fifty before the year was out…?

For the full 2014 list, click on the ‘Bird Board‘ tab at the top of the page.

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Crane Man

After drawing a major blank, I was left with the inconceivable task of spotting six new species in the remaining two days of the year to get to two-hundred.  Three a day?  Not a chance.  If I’m honest, I was a bit gutted – I had got so close, but had finally realised that it probably wasn’t going to happen.  My previous six new birds had taken six-weeks to find.

In the scheme of things, it really didn’t matter.  The year had already been a brilliant mix of exploration, learning and dodgy bird puns.  That said, I had really thought I might just be able to do it.   To finish the year off by getting to an arbitrary figure would have been a perfect end to a great adventure, but I had accepted that it simply wasn’t to be…

Tuesday 30th December: T-minus 2 days and (still) 6 to go

When I had gone to bed, I had semi-planned on going to have a look at the WWT reserve at Slimbridge, but woke up with a bit of a ‘what’s the point?’ mentality.  If I couldn’t reach my target, why bother?

I had a shower, ate some breakfast and grew the hell up!  Chastising myself for almost giving up, I then got in the car and headed off to score me some bird action – Oo-er! (Obviously, using the phrase ‘score me some bird action’, I hadn’t grown up too much… perhaps just enough to get over myself).

The reserve at Slimbridge was the first opened by the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and sits on the Severn Estuary between Gloucester and Bristol.  It houses an array of exotic waterfowl, kept on site by a simple process of wing-clipping – a painless procedure that usually involves the trimming of the primary flight feathers (primaries) to prevent the birds from flying off.  The reserve is also a popular place for free and unclipped birds to visit.  These were obviously the ones I was most interested in.

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

It is a tricky task to work out which birds are pets and which are just visiting.  By my reckoning, if a bird was flying around, it was countable for my list and if it didn’t have a leg ring, I could also add it.  If it had been logged on the reserve’s sightings board, I could be confident that it was wild.

Simple… Sort of.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan

However, in the case of ducks, for example, they spend a lot of time floating around on water – simultaneously not flying and not showing off any leg jewellery.  In these situations, how could I possibly tell if they were ‘real’ birds?  As a case in point, I had seen a Lesser Scaup (an American diving duck that is a very infrequent visitor to the UK) within thirty-seconds of exiting the visitor centre.  Was it here of its own volition?  Or was it essentially an exhibit?  Just as I was wrestling with the ‘tickability’ of the bird, I saw another… and another.  That emphatically answered my question – To see one in the UK was a possibility, but three: not a chance.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup (Prisoner!)

Lesser Scaup (Prisoner!)

Lesser Scaup (Prisoner!)

I had a feeling that today would be a challenge.

My plan was to wander around the non-zoo parts of the reserve first (the hides over-looking the Severn Estuary) – This would hopefully increase my chances of wild sightings, avoid the captive birds and therefore make my task a bit more straightforward.

And it worked…

A couple of hides in and I saw a group of geese towards the back of a field.  Closer inspection revealed them to be European White-Fronted Geese – Bird number one-hundred and ninety-five for the year.

White-Fronted Geese

White-Fronted Geese

White-Fronted Geese

White-Fronted Geese

Was the quest for two-hundred back on?

In another hide, I overheard someone talking about a wild Ruddy Shelduck that had been hanging around with its captive compatriots in the Asia Zone (perhaps the one that didn’t make the final cut on the Crystal Maze due to Richard O’Brien’s frequently inappropriate Chinese impersonations) [This, of course, is untrue].  I figured it was a great opportunity to see something else that wasn’t on the list, so I sped off to see what I could find.

At the Asia Zone (Mystery, two minutes, automatic lock-in), I counted eight Ruddy Shelducks.  I just needed to systematically work through them to find one with wings intact and no leg ring.  After a while, I had seen that seven had rings (this task was helped by the fact that the water had frozen, meaning no appendages could be hidden below the surface), so this meant the eighth bird must be the wild one.  However, it was standing on one leg on the far side of the pond.  I couldn’t allow myself to add it to my list until I could see for sure that the hidden leg un-ringed.

Ruddy Ruddy Shelduck, show me your other leg!

Ruddy Ruddy Shelduck, show me your other leg!

You wouldn’t believe how long a duck can stand on half its legs for!

The wait was worth it… Bird number one-hundred and ninety-six.

Ruddy Shelduck

Ruddy Shelduck

Ruddy Shelduck

Ruddy Shelduck

A trip to the hide at the South Lake revealed a number of people excitingly staring at somewhat unremarkable brown duck in the distance.  It turned out to be a female Ferruginous Duck (one-hundred and ninety-seven), which would usually spend its days in southern Europe or Asia.  Ferruginous is another word for describing something of iron-rust colour, so I was ignorantly doing it a disservice by calling it brown.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – Definitely not just brown

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck – Russet?  Dark tawny?  Tan?  Brunette?

Ferruginous Duck - Ferruginous-coloured!

Ferruginous Duck – Ferruginous-coloured!

As the light began to fail, I popped back into one of the hides near the visitor centre.  Excitingly, there were three Common Cranes on the far side of the water.  This trio are a third of a group of nine from the Great Crane Project that have made the Slimbridge area their home.  The project has sought to help reintroduce the species back into the wild in the UK, by releasing a number in Somerset.  Additionally, there are three small populations of Cranes in Lakenheath, the Norfolk Broads and in Humberside.

To prove their liberty, the Cranes took flight and disappeared into the sunset.

Common Crane

Common Crane

Common Crane

Common Cranes

Common Crane

Common Crane

What a superb end to a great day!

I was now up to one-hundred and ninety-eight for the year.  Could I really get to two-hundred?

The final day of 2014 was shaping up to be a nail-biter…  For me, anyway.

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard

Common Buzzard

Pintails

Pintails

Pintail

Pintail

Water Rail

Water Rail

Rook

Rook

And in other news: I finally have a friend!

And in other news: I finally have a friend!

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Twite of the Navigator

Well, my Intermediate Year of bird-spotting has come to an end and, in some ways, I am glad, as it has been both physically and mentally tiring.

Way back in January, when I set out to see as many species of bird as I could in fifty-two weeks, I didn’t really know much about the avian world at all.  I’m no expert now, but I know a heck of a lot more than I did before.

Not really knowing what to expect from the challenge, I initially set myself a target of one-hundred and fifty, but managed to reach that by the end of July.  I then readjusted the target to two-hundred in order to further motivate myself to keep crawling through undergrowth, wading welly-deep across boggy fields and getting monsooned-on in the middle of nowhere.

As the weeks ticked by, I slowly but surely managed to add new species to the list (a lot of which I had never heard of at the start of 2014) and with just three days left of the year, I found myself still needing to see six new birds to reach my goal.

I could just tell you all what number I got to and be done with it – but where would the suspense or intrigue come from?

If I was lucky, I might have one additional sighting of a flock of birds that looked a bit like Cranes or Storks to add to my list if I could definitively work out what they were.  The only problem was that the photo I took was really rubbish owing to the fact that I had taken it out of the back window of a car that was going at about 80 miles an hour with my camera on a shaky 200x zoom on the way to the airport in Cologne over Christmas.

Zoom in and squint and you might just work out what birds these are...  Or get a headache

Zoom in and squint and you might just work out what birds these are… Or get a headache!

Even if I could work it out, I would still be five short.  That would leave me with two-and-a-half new birds a day to spot and it doesn’t take a fully-fledged ornithologist to know that birds don’t come in halves.

My task was clear: I would need to see six new birds in three days.  My limited mathematical expertise told me that that was an average of two per day.  My knowledge of reality told me that this was pretty much an impossibility.  It looked like I would fall just a bit short.  However, in the spirit of adventure, I would give it a go…

Monday 29th December: T-minus 3 days and 6 to go

I was spending the last three days of the year visiting the in-laws in Weston-Super-Mare, so I reasoned that, at the very least, this would provide me with a different set of fields, ponds and shrubbery to trawl through from the usual (and definitely score me an additional Christmas dinner).  I wasn’t sure if this would help me find new birds, but as I was geographically closer to America, I reasoned there was always a chance of a more exotic sighting.

Nearby SightingsA quick scan of the ‘nearby’ section on my bird stalking app had informed me that there had been a Lapland Bunting, two Water Pipit(s), four Twite(s) and four Jack Snipe(s) spotted at Brean Down just down the road.  At the start of the year I hadn’t heard of any of these, but now (after spending a lot of my spare time with my face in a bird identification book) I instantly knew what to look out for – I just hadn’t learned what the plurals for a couple of them might be.  I hadn’t seen any of these four species this year (or ever), so if I could catch a glimpse of all of them, the quest for two-hundred would well and truly be back on.

Exciting times!

When I arrived, I was greeted by the beautiful sight of a vast frosty landscape… A large chunk of the Severn Estuary fringed by a saltmarsh out in front, the 300-foot tall Brean Down promontory looming imposingly to the left and an expansive set of fields and a farmstead behind and to the right.  After a quick scan with my binoculars, I wasn’t confident of finding anything new – unless, by sheer chance, it decided to hang around near the assembled humans.  Over the past year, I have found that this sort of thing rarely happens.

The Severn Estuary

The Severn Estuary

Spot the birds...

I know you’re all singing that song from ‘Frozen’ in your heads right now…

A couple of chaps suggested that they had seen some Twite(s) [I wasn’t paying enough attention to notice the plurality they used] earlier, but not for a while.

I saw a couple of what could be Twite(s), but turned out to be Linnets – Grey beak instead of yellow and light rather than dark primary feathers, apparently.

Linnet

I thought this might be a Twite…

Linnet

… But it was a Linnet, innit.

I got excited when someone pointed out what they thought might be a Water Pipit in the distance…  As much as I wanted it to be one, I couldn’t see enough distinguishing features to confirm the ID.  As I checked my bird identification app for clarification, I’m fairly sure the man who pointed it out pulled a Dictaphone out of his pocket and started playing an audio guide to Water Pipit(s).  Bizarre.  However, even using a range of multi-sensory sources of information, neither of us could be sure of the identity of the bird.

Your audio guide to 'Pipits of the World' continues on Side B

Your audio guide to ‘Pipits of the World’ continues on Side B…

Pipit... Most likely of the Meadow variety

Pipit… Most likely of the Meadow variety.

I had seen no new birds and dabbled with frostbite – All a bit demoralising.

On the way back to the car, I took a wander to the beach to see what was about.  A couple of girls were kicking around a large inflatable football that would be too big to fit in a goal (I wish I’d had that excuse when I used to play competitive football – ‘Sorry I didn’t score again, the goal was actually too small!’).  Aside from that, there was a group of twenty or so Sanderlings dabbling for food at the water’s edge.  Their constant skittering about to avoid getting their feet wet cheered me up no end.

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Sanderling

Sanderling

FYI

  • The plural of Twite is Twites
  • The plural of Pipit is Pipits
  • The plural of Jack Snipe can be Jack Snipe or Jack Snipes

Isn’t the English language helpful?

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipit

Robin

Robin

Jay

Jay

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Lord of the Ring Bills

In the past, I have always found it a bit tricky (i.e. near-impossible) to decide what to do with myself if I happen to have any spare time.  However, this year – the year of the bird stalk – it has been easy…  I open up my bird app and scan through the list of sightings for somewhere with a few I haven’t seen before and get in the car and try to find them.  I suppose it’s a bit like that ‘click and collect’ internet shopping thing that a number of companies that still have physical shops offer – Only there’s absolutely no guarantee that when I arrive, my chosen product will be in stock.

Today, I scanned the app and saw that there had been a sighting of three Slavonian Grebes added to the list at the end of the previous day at Farlington Marshes in Hampshire.  It would be a bit of a drive, but with no other options presenting themselves, I felt I had to give it a go.  If I was to genuinely try to spot the seven new species I needed to make it to two-hundred for the year, I should really make a bit of an effort.

I scrolled up and down the list to see if I could piece together some kind of bird-crawl and make a day of it.  According to the list, there was also a Ring-Billed Gull in Gosport, but that was about it.  These two places weren’t especially close together, but were in a similar area of the country, and were, therefore, pretty much all I had.  It would have to do.

Just before I left, I decided to check the app one last time – I had noticed there had been a newly added Slavonian Grebe report…  Unhelpfully, it was telling me that the previous report was erroneous.  What do you mean erroneous?  I had planned my day around going to see these birds and you’re telling me that someone has mis-identified three Grebes?  What?  Really?  Oh, for goodness sake, use a bird book! [Note: This is the actual transcript of the conversation I had with my phone].

Slavonian Grebes... I probably wouldn't have a clue what they looked like either!

Slavonian Grebes… I probably wouldn’t have a clue what they looked like either!

This incorrect identification had thrown my plans into disarray (and the resulting rather one-sided conversation I had with my phone had knocked my street cred to an all-time low) … I couldn’t justify travelling all the way to the far side of Portsmouth just to see a Seagull, could I?  In the past, I once convinced myself to go to Portsmouth to visit the Cadbury’s shop at Gunwharf Quays with the aim of buying my own weight in chocolate Mis-Shapes… but that was chocolate and this was a Seagull.  In my mind, there was a statistically significant difference between the two.

I then did a bit of reading and discovered that the Ring-Billed Gull is a very infrequent visitor to the UK from North America and reasoned if it could make it across the Atlantic to get to Gosport, I could probably get there from Reigate.  I also reasoned that I could get some chocolate on the way.

Chocs away!

When I arrived at Walpole Park, the weather was pretty dismal.  Scattered across the grass were a few Mute Swans and dozens of what looked like Black-Headed Gulls.  I imagined that amongst them must be a Gull of the Ring-Billed variety, so did a couple of binocular sweeps of the area.  No luck.

Can anyone help with the ID of this fish?

Can anyone help with the ID of this fish?

I walked a few circuits of the lake and still couldn’t see the bird I was looking for.  With each lap, I became less confident that the trip would be a success.  A small flock of Brent Geese flew in to, at least, break up the monotony.

Brent Goose

Brent Goose

Then, I saw it…  Something that didn’t look like all the Black-Headed Gulls.

Excellent.  I had finally caught up with my target and just in time too – the light had started to dwindle and my hour in the car park was almost up.  The ring on the beak was a little less pronounced than I had imagined it would be, but it was good enough to prove to me that it was the bird I came here for.  I managed to take a few photos and then logged ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ on my imaginary bird list, before it flew off towards the marina.

194 - Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport

194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

I decided to finish my current lap and then make my way home.  Today had been a semi-successful day.  A quick scour of the mudflats along the coastal path revealed a group of gulls that all looked suspiciously like the bird I had just added to my list.  Were there really four more Ring-Bills in the area?  Had I made an amazing discovery?  This was incredibly unlikely and it caused me to start doubting myself and my identification skills.  The birds on the mudflats looked suspiciously like Common Gulls in their winter plumage, but also pretty much identical to the bird I had been photographing and adding to my list moments earlier.  What if the bird I had assumed was a Ring-Bill was, in fact, a Common Gull?

Four more Ring-Bills?

Four more Ring-Bills? … Oh dear

I fumbled through some ID photos of both species on my phone and compared them to the photos I had just taken…  Each time I looked back and forth between the two, I was finding another reason to curse my rubbish gull identification skills…  The beak was too small, the ring around it was not thick or pronounced enough, the eyes were black and not yellow.  Although superficially similar, the birds were different.

Crap!  I had blundered big time.  My first thought was to curse myself.  My second thought was to apologise to the person who had erroneously identified the Slavonian Grebes – I was a first-hand example of how easy it is to misidentify things.  I took a little comfort in the fact that, at least, I hadn’t broadcast my identification inadequacies to the bird-spotting masses…  But, it was only a little comfort – It was getting dark and I had missed my opportunity to find a Ring-Billed Gull.  Reluctantly, I removed ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ from my imaginary list.

As I started to trudge back to the car in failure, a couple turned-up on the far side of the lake and started throwing bits of bread into the air for the gulls and swans.  I’m always really against people feeding bread to birds as it’s really not very healthy for them.  The couple started to get overwhelmed by gulls flying in from all angles.  Even the info panels dotted around stated that people should not feed the birds.  Tut Tut.  Why don’t people pay attention to the rules?  You wouldn’t catch me transgressing like that.

Do not feed the birds

Do not feed the birds (or they’ll crap on the signage!)

More gulls started flying in to the area to get a free feed.  It looked like they were all of the Black-Headed variety, but what did I know?  It was then a larger gull appeared…  A quick look through the binoculars got me excited;  I had just seen a woman changing through a nearby window… Not really!  I was excited because the bird in question seemed to tick all the ID boxes of the bird I had travelled all the way to Gosport for.

Eventually, it settled on the water and I was able to get a better look and re-add ‘194. Ring-Billed Gull, Gosport’ to my imaginary list.

Actual Ring-Billed Gull

Actual Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

Today, I learned two lessons: –

  • Sometimes something looks exactly like you think it should, but then turns out to look exactly like something else does. Be careful before you add it to a list.
  • If you break the rules, I get to see a Ring-Billed Gull.
Little Egret

Little Egret

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The Empire Shrikes Back

Having already seen two new species, I figured it was worth trying to find the reported Great Grey Shrike at Chilham on the way home from a double-Bunting day in North Kent.  Giving it a go only meant a small detour.

Shrikes (also known as Butcherbirds) catch small mammals and impale them on thorns or barbed wire, so that they can rip them into smaller bite-sized chunks.

This particular Shrike had been reported as sitting on the top of a tree by a bridge on Branch Road in Chilham… and, do you know what?  As I drove up the road, it was exactly where it was supposed to be.

If only more bird stalking was this easy!

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike

Bird number one-hundred and ninety-three – and possibly my favourite of the year:  Super hero-style feathers, vicious-looking hooked beak and a love of kebabs!

Stonechat

Stonechat

Stonechat

Stonechat

Meadow Pipit

Meadow Pipit

Redwing

Redwing

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Good Will Bunting

When I started this bird-spotting challenge back in January, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I hadn’t really done much bird-watching in the past, so decided to pluck a random number of one-hundred and fifty as my target for the fifty-two weeks of blindly wandering around the natural world with a pair of kiddie binoculars.  I didn’t really know what number I should be expect to be seeing, so I picked a total that, to me, seemed a combination of challenging and semi-achievable.  In my distant educational past, I’d studied the principles of goal-setting in GCSE Physical Education, so thought my aim met at least some of the SMART philosophy.  Sort of, anyway!

Well, somehow I managed to get to the magical 150 by the end of July, leaving five months to see how many more I could add to the tally before 2014 was out.  New birds became quite hard to come by without getting in my car, doing some stalking via a bird app and organising weekends away to get to places that might bring about sightings of new species.  It was in these weeks and months after achieving my initial target that I finally had to admit that I had (at least for the remainder of the year) become a proper bird-watcher and, dare I say it, a bit of a shameless twitcher.

With just under three weeks to go to the end of the challenge, I found myself on one-hundred and ninety.  Wouldn’t it be great if I managed to get to two-hundred?  For me, anyway.

This weekend, a trip to the Isle of Sheppey presented me with the opportunity to have a bit of a scout around some different shrubbery for new bird species.  The bird stalking app had suggested that a Hooded Crow (sadly, no relation to Penelope Pitstop’s similar sounding arch nemesis) had been spotted at Capel Fleet – I had previously missed out on one at a rubbish tip/disused quarry in Portland in Dorset over the summer, but strangely never mentioned it to you…  Which is odd, because, unlike a lot of stuff I write at you, it almost sounds interesting.

Crow? Oh no!

Crow? Oh no!

To cut a long story short, I found loads of standard Crows and got a bit lost, but never found a Hooded Crow.  On this occasion, I didn’t find a Hooded Crow either, but I didn’t get lost, so I suppose that’s progress.  I did, however, notice what I thought might be a Corn Bunting sat on an overhead power line.  According to the RSPB website, the Corn Bunting is a ‘nondescript, stout, dumpy brown bird that is most usually seen perched on a wire or post’ – To me, that all seems a bit harsh – especially for bird species one-hundred and ninety-one for the year.

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

The road I was on led to a place called Harty Ferry – the site of Sheppey’s one-time only passenger boat crossing to the mainland.  I had been to Oare Marshes a couple of times before, which is where the ferry crossed the Swale River to, so thought I’d have a wander and get the view from the other side.  I guess it’s always nice to get both sides of the story.

I hadn't yet seen a Clay Pigeon for my list...

I hadn’t yet seen a Clay Pigeon for my list…

At the end of the road was a pub, a car park and a big sign indicating a clay pigeon shoot.  I had wondered why there were a handful of people carrying guns around – I had initially thought it might just be the Sheppey way.  A friendly chap indicated that he was the landowner and that it was fine to have a walk around.  He promised that, as long as I didn’t deviate from the path, I wouldn’t get shot.  I’m not sure if that counts as helpful or threatening behaviour.  I imagine that he couldn’t really guarantee the shooting accuracy of his clients the morning after one of the biggest nights for Christmas parties of the year. In spite of my concerns, I pressed on…

I didn’t see any new birds, but I didn’t get shot – So, I considered that a fairly successful half an hour’s walkabout.

Grey Plover

Grey Plover

Common Gull

Common Gull

The next stop was Swalecliffe – a village situated between Herne Bay and Whitstable on the north Kent coast, the venue for a hearty cooked breakfast and, for the time being, home to a reported six Snow Buntings – a new species for the year and, indeed, a new species full-stop.

It was unclear if I should put my clothes back on or not!

It was unclear if I should put my clothes back on or not!

I wandered along the seafront for a while and eventually managed to spy a few small birds flitting around in the distance at the edge of Swalecliffe Brook.  I got a bit closer and could just about make out that they were the Snow Buntings I had been looking for – Species number one-hundred and ninety-two!

Just as I had got in a better position, a man and a woman decided to walk in front of me, resulting in the Buntings flying off.

This was the first time I had found myself getting annoyed for purely bird-watching reasons.  These people must have known I was looking at something – I was obviously pointing my camera at something close by – but they opted to walk directly between me and the Snow Buntings.  What?  Really? Have you no manners?  Could you not have walked on the path behind me?  Grrrrr.

The birds had flown across the Brook and were hopping around on the shingle over the other side.  I spent a few moments cursing the ignorance of some people, trying (and failing) to get a decent view and working out if I could jump far enough to clear the water feature in front of me.

Never one to shirk a challenge, I gave it a go…

Close...  Mike Powell I am not!

Close… Mike Powell I am not!

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

I crossed back over the Brook using the sewage pipe I had just seen a woman and her two dogs traverse and continued my bird hunt, proud that I had almost seen enough Buntings for a street party…

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Wyatt Purp

My parents had asked me if I wanted to meet up, as I hadn’t seen them in a while.  I think they just like to occasionally check if I’m still alive and, if I am, that I’m washing sufficiently or not just walking around in public with my clothes on inside-out.

I, of course, agreed to the rendezvous – I’m proud that I can wear my clothing the right way round and was keen to garner a free lunch that the get-together would be sure to come with.  Oh, and it’s always lovely to see my parents – They’re great!

They had originally suggested that I go and visit them, but I thought I’d get creative and randomly propose a trip to Brighton.  I say ‘randomly’, but I had noticed that there had been some Purple Sandpipers roosting at Brighton Marina recently.

Collared Dove

Collared Dove

My plan was to spend most of the day tolerating wandering around various shops full of the people who had survived the Black Friday ruckus and had decided to go back for more, collect my complimentary food and then suggest a wander to the Marina.  I decided not to mention the Sandpipers in case I got the skyward look, shake of the head and the muttered ‘why don’t you get a proper hobby, like boxing or crocheting bobble hats?’ that I imagine  greets news of my bird-chasing escapades.

I sound a bit underhand, don’t I?

Woodcock... Stop sniggering!

Woodcock… Stop sniggering!

Anyway…  With my secret plans stored secretly in my head, we all did a bit of shoppy stuff, visited the rather eclectic Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and had some lunch.  The only possible new bird sighting along the way was a Woodcock in a glass case on a stall at a street market.  It didn’t seem to move for the minute or so I stared at it, so I assumed it was stuffed.

It was then I suggested a wander to the east arm of the Marina to coincide with high-tide at 15:55.  On reflection, it was a suggestion that appeared quite specific for something I had just randomly come up with.  If I’m going to do any more scheming in the future, I should probably work on my subtlety.

It turned out that it was quite a long walk and the sun had started to think about setting when we arrived at the eastern part of the Marina – If I was going to find the Purple Sandpipers, I would have to be quick.  The only problem was that there was a lot of harbour wall to check and I wasn’t entirely sure where to look.

I still can't identify Gulls!

I still can’t identify Gulls!

There were some rocks right at the start of the wall (where the marina met the beach) and I considered this to perhaps be my best chance of success.  I had a quick scan around for my targets, but to no avail.  The light was continuing to fade, so I had a decision to make – Do I hang around here and risk missing the Sandpipers a bit further along the wall?  Or do I push on and walk along the entire wall, taking the chance that they would turn up somewhere near where I was standing?

I hate decisions.

I opted to press on and got to about halfway along without a sniff of Sandpipers (No, this isn’t a collective noun).  A couple of Turnstones perching on the edge of the wall made for a nice sight, but weren’t what I came here for.  All the time I was pressing on, I kept ruing my decision to not stay and keep an eye on the rocks on the beach, but a quick binocular scan revealed that my Mum had reached the end of the wall (and probably the end of her tether that I had made her walk for miles!)  In spite of wanting to hurry back to the beach end, I scampered to catch up, reached the end and, together, we all turned to make the return journey.  It would have been rude to drag everyone to the far reaches of the Marina and then run off and abandon them – I’m not THAT bad!

Still no sign of the Sandpipers…  In the distance, I could just about make out a trio of plump grey-coloured birds perched on the outer edge of the wall.  My first guess was that they looked like Wood Pigeons as there had been a large number sheltering under the inner part of the Marina.

Rather naughtily, I climbed over the fence to get a slightly better look [Manipulating parents for my own gain AND now climbing over a fence I probably shouldn’t have – This bird-spotting challenge had seemingly turned me into a right little tearaway.

Miraculously, they were the Purple Sandpipers I had come to see.  Result!

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

If you hurdle the barrier, your demise will not be pleasant

My fence hurdling could have doubled as an audition for Tom Daley’s Splash…

If my mum hadn’t pressed on in order to get to the end of the wall, I would not have seen them.  I owed her a debt of gratitude and maybe now that my scheming is in the public domain, I can try to seek forgiveness for my unscrupulous ways.

The moral of this story is that Mum is always right – Even when being used as an unknowing pawn in a bird-watching mission!

All I can do is sincerely apologise to my family via the medium of this internet blog and celebrate seeing my one-hundred and ninetieth bird species of the year.

Brighton beach by night

Brighton beach

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

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Some Like Tit Hot

During my visit to WWT Welney, there happened to be a bird-ringing demonstration taking place.  I had never seen this in action, so went and had a look to see what it was all about… personal development and all that.

A representative from the British Trust for Ornithology had been busy catching birds in mist nets in order to show how to ring, weigh and measure them.  This process is incredibly important in the quest to find out more about birds and their movements, including helping to monitor population increases and decreases.

A red drawstring bag containing a previously captured bird, was brought out from under the table – It was a bit like an FA Cup draw.  ‘And to complete the fixtures for the third round, Kidderminster Harriers will play… Blue Tit City.

Seeing a Blue Tit in someone’s grasp showed just how small it was – unless the holder had unusually large hands, I suppose.  The bird was given a quick once-over: measured, ringed and rather undignifiedly weighed by being put head-first into something resembling one of those old black plastic camera film containers.  In spite of all this upheaval in its life, the bird remained calm and didn’t seem at all distressed.

Blue Tit

After all the scrutinizing, the chap asked a couple of children in the small audience if they wanted to release the Blue Tit.  Strangely (to me), both of them looked incredibly nonplussed, shrugged their unenthusiastic shoulders and said that they didn’t want to do it.  As I started to wonder why the youth of today would be quite happy to hurl irate cartoon birds at oddly green-coloured snouted mammals on their phones, but would not want to return an actual, real bird to its freedom, the release request was thrown out to the grown-ups.

I casually said ‘I’ll do it’, when internally, I was jumping up and down and shrieking ‘YES, YES, YES, ME, ME, ME!!’ in a very high-pitched tone.  At least, I think it was that way round.  I hope it was, anyway.

This was SO exciting…  I had never held a tit before (Oo-er!)

I was shown how to gently take the head between my fingers (Oo-er!) and, whilst examining its shiny ring (Oo-er!), I transferred the bird to the flattened palm of my other hand.  It sat there for a few seconds before flapping off, hopefully, in the direction of the nearest pig farm.  This was a level I had yet to complete…

Bird Ringing

I didn’t realise I was being stared at like I was just about to be stabbed with a small perching bird, then stuffed in a little red drawstring bag…

Bird Ringing

Pass the passerine…

When I'm super excited, I go out of focus...

When I’m super excited, I go out of focus… It’s physics, or something!

In all seriousness, it was a great moment and was a privilege to have been able to get so close to something so amazing and learn a bit at the same time.

If you are interested in learning to ring birds, you can find out more here.

I remember the first time I rang a bird* to ask her out on a date…  I think I was in Year 10 and, after I managed to explain who I was (I had been in her bloody form group for three years and she still didn’t seem convinced she knew me – How’s that for a bad start?), she said she couldn’t as she was washing her hair.  She actually said she was washing her hair! It seems people really do use that as an excuse to fob of unwanted admirers.  I learned a harsh lesson that day…

I never asked again and the knock-back meant I didn’t attempt to ask out another girl for a couple of years (That was also a similarly embarrassing and unsuccessful venture).  It was a dark day for my self-confidence.

* Note: I have only used the term ‘bird’ to describe a woman in order to crow-bar in a desperate tale of rejection from my youth.  Please forgive me – As a reward for your forgiveness, I have provided you, in advance, with an insight into how upsetting it was to be me as a teenager.  Don’t worry, though, I’m way cooler nowadays – I hang around nature reserves and spend my free time bird-watching.  Score!

And now over to Elton Welsby with news of today’s FA Cup draw: –

FA Cup fixtures

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Swan in Sixty Seconds

On the way home from my weekend in Norfolk (Did I mention I’d been to Norfolk??), I decided to pop into the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney, situated on the Ouse Washes.  The Washes are the largest area of frequently flooded grazing marsh in Britain and are internationally important for wildfowl.

The purpose of my visit was two-fold: to provide me with a mid-morning tea stop and toilet break and, hopefully, enable me to tick off two new bird species for my 2014 bird list –Whooper and Bewick’s Swans.  Tea, toilet and swans…  Is that three-fold?  Never mind.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) is a conservation charity, founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott – a celebrated ornithologist, artist, one-time Olympic medallist and only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Scott.  He also designed the original panda logo for the World Wildlife Fund.  Quite a talented chap – I’d take being celebrated in just one thing…  Like bird blogging, for example.

The main hide at the Welney reserve provides the visitor with an unusual twist on the traditional bird-watching experience … The faux-leather seats, toasty warm central heating, double-glazed windows, games for the kids, caffè latte on tap and touchscreen info panels to look up sightings are an incongruous far cry from the cold, damp sheds with opening windows that I had started getting accustomed to throughout the duration of this year.  I had started to think that it was the lot of the seasoned bird-watcher to spend the remainder of their days battling the onset of hypothermia in rickety wooden outhouses.

If I’m honest, I think I’d be happy with something in between (and tea rather than coffee).

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

On looking out of the window, I was greeted by the sight of a load of swans – the collective noun escapes me.  There were a number of Mute Swans (orange and black bills), but, more significantly – for 2014 listing purposes, anyway – a sizeable smattering of swans with yellow and black bills…  This meant that they were either the rather similar-looking Whooper or Bewick’s Swans I had popped into the reserve to seek out.

I had never seen either before, so wasn’t entirely sure how to distinguish the difference between the two.

Whooper or Bewick's?

Whooper or Bewick’s?

I recalled that one species has more of a yellow wedge on their bill, compared to the other, which has more of a smaller, rounded canary-coloured area.  I couldn’t recall, which was which, which was unhelpful.  What it did result in, however, was the creation of an unusual sentence containing three whiches – Something I’ve only ever encountered before whilst reading Macbeth in Year 9.  [By reading Macbeth, I, of course, mean reading the York Notes for Macbeth].

A helpful WWT volunteer was able to point out the difference – The wedgy beak belongs to a Whooper Swan and the blobby beak to a Bewick’s Swan.  This meant, the multitude of swans in eyeshot were Whoopers.

Whooper Swan

Whooper Swan

Juvenile Whooper Swan

Juvenile Whooper Swan

Swan Photobomb

Swan Photobomb

Sadly, my hopes of seeing a Bewick’s were pretty much dashed, as the I was told that only a few had arrived in the area so far and they usually spent their time away from the reserve.  This meant that I was probably only going to add Whooper Swan to the list during this visit.

Possibly the closest I would get to seeing a Bewick's Swan

Possibly the closest I would get to seeing a Bewick’s Swan

I scoured the flooded landscape and surrounding grassland in the desperate hope of picking up my second new swan species of the trip, but to no avail.  It seemed that all the yellow-beaked swans in the area were Whoopers.  My interest was semi-piqued by one with an odd dark splodge on its beak in the distance, but, in the end, I reasoned that it was just a bit muddy.

Muddy-faced Whooper Swan

Muddy-faced Whooper Swan

As darkness fell and there was no further chance of spying a Bewick’s Swan, disappointment set in.  I realised that I would probably not get another chance before the year was out.  Hmmm, maybe that sounds a bit melodramatic – It’s only ticking a bird off a list!

Later that evening…

After arriving at home after a day paparazzi-ing nature, I always spend a few moments flicking through my photographs – selecting the best ones to proudly show you lovely people what I’ve seen.  This very evening was no different, but as I got to the long-range photos of the muddy-faced swan, I happened to notice that there was another swan in the foreground…  I squinted a bit and sought textbook enlightenment.  It was a bloomin’ Bewick’s Swan – I had seen one, but just didn’t notice. [Further inspection also shows another to the left also]

With peripheral vision like that, I wonder why I don’t get run over more when crossing the road.  I also wonder how many bird species I had missed-out on.

Bewick's Swans - I should've gone to Pecksavers!

Bewick’s Swans – I should’ve gone to Pecksavers!

In spite of all this obliviousness, I am now at one-hundred and eighty-nine for the year.  If you’d like to have a look at the list, click here.  If you’d like to look at cute dancing kittens, click here.

Male Pochard

Male Pochard

Female Pochard

Female Pochard

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Twite Club

The first rule of Twite Club is you do not talk about Twite Club

The second rule of Twite Club is you do not talk about Twite Club (but blogging about it is fine)

The third rule of Twite Club is you do not mistake Linnets for Twites…

As I was in Norfolk and am a forgiving sort, I decided to give RSPB Titchwell Marsh the opportunity to make up for the filthy weather it inflicted on me on my last visit.  If you recall, my previous visit caused me to swear out loud, a lot, at the weather and wet my pants (no, not in that way!)…

From out of the window of the north-facing Parrinder Hide, there was a small flock of about twenty or so little brown birds flitting around in the vegetation.  It was quite tricky to make out what they might be as the light was beginning to fade and they were doing the bird equivalent of scampering amongst the plant life, but to me, they looked like Linnets.

Linnet, innit?

Linnet, innit?

However, there was a chap sat next to me with his wife (or partner or lady friend or sister or random female person that he happened to be talking to) who was looking at the same birds, but he seemingly had come to the conclusion that they were Twites.

This confused me a bit…  Was I mistaken?  Quite possibly.  Was he mistaken?  Also, quite possibly.  I hadn’t seen any Twites this year (or indeed ever), so I was hoping he was right and I was wrong.

It felt a bit odd to want to be wrong.  Is it wrong to want to be wrong?

I subtly checked my phone-based bird app to see if I could confirm who was right with their identification.  There are a few slight differences between these two types of closely-related finches (beak colour and size, depth of fork in the tail feather etc.), but I couldn’t see enough in the birds in front of me to persuade me that they were anything other than Linnets.

At the same time, I was continuing to eavesdrop on my binocular-wielding neighbour and he affirmed that they were Twites a further couple of times.  I silently disagreed with him in my head (twice) and he left the hide, blissfully unaware that his bird ID had been telepathically challenged.

One day I’ll encounter someone with extrasensory perception and they’ll give me a good mind slap for being so cheeky!

One day, I’ll see a Twite.

If only the Twites/Linnets were this obliging with ID assistance

If only the Twites/Linnets were this obliging with ID assistance

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

Common Gull

Common Gull

Grey Plover

Grey Plover

Spotted Redshank

Spotted Redshank

Teal

Teal

What better way to end a day looking at waterfowl than with a slap-up duck dinner!

What better way to end a day looking at waterfowl than with a slap-up duck dinner!

It’s been a while, but I proudly introduce a (likely to be one-off) new section to this blog.  With a big nod to the Fauna Corner from times gone by, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Former Corner – an homage to a weekend of seeing more dead things than new bird species: –

Former Corner

Pink-Footed Goose

It’s dead, Jim… Pink-Footed Goose

A done-in Dunlin

A done-in Dunlin

A rabbit that's had it

A rabbit that’s had it

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