Crane’s World

The cows at work always seem to look at me like I’m a bit odd. I don’t know if they look at everyone that way, or just save it for when I’m around.

I should probably explain…

For the past few months, my cow colleagues have being dutifully doing some conservation grazing at Snakes Field – part of the Ockham Common nature reserve I am currently keeping an eye on. By ‘keeping an eye on’, I obviously mean keeping both eyes on – I am incredibly conscientious.

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Belted Galloway at Snake’s Field

We have our distinct roles in this conservation partnership… The cows – Belted Galloways x 10 – voraciously munch their way through the greenery (removing the nutrients from the meadow in a haphazard, uneven biodiversity friendly way), crap out great invertebrate habitat as they go and look cute and cuddly to passers-by and I – apparently odd wannabe conservationist x 1 – regularly go along and check that they are all still there, look well and have enough to eat.

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Snake’s Field, Ockham

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Help me Obi-Wan Cownobi. Moo’re my only hope!

At this time of year, the fields are a great place to see good numbers of Meadow Pipits and there’s usually a Kestrel or two hanging around. Buzzards often soar overhead and the berry-laden trees on the outskirts of the grassland are full of thrushes (Song Thrush, Redwing and Fieldfare).

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Moo had me at hello!

As I got to the third cow’s bottom (part of the comprehensive Service & MOT for cows is to check if they look like they’ve got diarrhoea – I bet you don’t get that as part of your 40-point Kwik Fit service), I happened to look up and see four quite large birds distantly in the sky.

If I wasn’t just about to stick my face in the vicinity of a bovine arse, I probably would have ignored the birds and carried on with my business. Unsurprisingly, I grabbed my binoculars from my bag and tried to see what the mini-flock of four approaching birds was.

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4 birds – Identity TBC…

For those of you who have read this blog before – and are probably revelling in the fact that I now spend some of my week checking cows for dribble, weepy eyes and excessively loose stools – you will already know that I am sometimes pretty rubbish at ID-ing birds… This particular occasion was a good case in point: –

Ah, four Gulls… Herring, perhaps!” I exclaimed.

The birds continued to get closer… and, because of science, got larger.

Ah, four Cormorants!” I re-exclaimed.

The birds began circling directly overhead… bigger still.

Ah… Um… Er… What’s bigger than a Cormorant that’s not a Swan? They definitely weren’t Swans… Um…

And this is where I did the thing that I think the cows found odd (If, of course you first overlook the fact that I had been having a full-on conversation with myself in a field)… I actually turned to the assembled group and asked, “What do you all think?

They didn’t answer. Instead, just looked at me like I was a moron – or mooron in cow-speak. Fair enough. I suppose I had just asked them for their opinion on ornithological matters… and was expecting a response.

I consulted my phone-based bird ID guide – In my addled mind, I had decided the birds were either Storks or Cranes, but I had imagined that neither were especially likely to be flying over an odd man checking judgemental cows in a field in Surrey.

After a lot of umming and erring, I decided that they were Common Cranes.

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Common Cranes

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Common Cranes

Previously, I had only ever seen them at WWT Slimbridge, where they have released some as part of the Great Crane Project’s reintroduction programme, so it was exciting to see some pass directly over me. At the last count, there were estimated to be around 160 Cranes in the UK – most in the Somerset area (reintroduced population) and East Anglia (naturally recolonized population) – so any sighting was a bit of a rare occurrence.

As far as I was aware, I could well have been the only person to spot Cranes in Surrey in the whole of 2016. I was definitely the only person in Surrey to have ever sandwiched a Crane sighting between two lots of staring at a cow’s arse.

I did the dutiful thing and reported the sighting to the relevant authorities: Birdguides and the Surrey Birding Facebook page and then diligently returned to the task in hand.

The cows have still not answered my question…

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Moo you gonna call?

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Beverly Hills Scaup

Note: This entry was written last year, but for some reason I misplaced it / my dog ate it / I left it in my other trousers / I lent it to a friend and they’ve only just returned it.

I do hope you are excited and grateful that I have found it / that my dog regurgitated it… in one piece… after all this time / that I am currently wearing my other trousers / obviously the last one was a lie because, sadly, I don’t have any friends.

Will you be my friend?

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Is it any wonder I’m crap at bird spotting?

Admittedly, this is quite a vague start to a blog entry, but, for one reason or another, I found myself in Wales for a few days in mid-February.

Even though my bird-stalking days of old (when I was trying to see as many different bird species as I could in a calendar year) are behind me (Honest!), I still keep an occasional eye on my Birdguides phone app to keep tabs on what’s going on in the titillating world of ornithological sightings.

The previous day, a Lesser Scaup – which I had never seen before – had been reported at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, which was just up the road from where I was staying, so I thought I’d pop along to see if I could find it…

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“You are here”… I assume ‘here’ is Welsh for Cosmeston Lakes Country Park

The Lesser Scaup is a North American diving duck that has appeared in the UK, on average, twice a year since it was first recorded in the late 1980s. The one I was looking for has seemingly been an annual winter visitor to the Cardiff area since 2008, so must be a big fan of rugby, Charlotte Church and/or lovespoons. Well, who isn’t?

The Country Park is a former quarry and landfill site that has, over the years, been carefully returned to nature in the form of two lakes, extensive reed beds, broad-leaved woodland and open grassland. It is testament to how the invasive meddling of humankind can be reversed for the benefit of wildlife. It just takes a while!

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A Cosmeston Lake

I scoured the lake with my binoculars and couldn’t find the Lesser Scaup anywhere.

Maybe scouring a waterbody was never going to work… So I looked instead.

It wasn’t anywhere to be seen amongst an assortment of Tufted Ducks, a glut of unidentifiable gulls and a gaggle of geese and swans. Although I’d had a great morning wandering around the Country Park in the glorious spring-like sunshine, I was disappointed that I had failed to find the one bird I had come to see.

In spite of the tea shop calling me in for a big slice of cake or a portion of chips and a hot beverage, I didn’t want to leave until I had found the Scaup. The sense of disappointment I was feeling had reminded me just how much of a rollercoaster ride it was to go chasing around after a specific bird target. My previous experiences had taught me that it usually ends in failure. When would I learn?

What further compounded my semi-misery was the fact that I had started to prioritise a duck over chips. What had I become? When had my priorities become so muddled?

Pulling myself together, I decided to stop asking myself rhetorical questions and make one final binocular sweep of the water before heading café-wards for some fried potato products.

There was still no sign, but my attention was drawn towards a close-by photogenic Tufted Duck.

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Tufted Duck

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Particularly tufted Tufted Duck

Whilst I was in the process of positioning myself on my knees trying to get on the same level as the Tufted Duck, it was pointed out to me that the Lesser Scaup was floating around about ten-feet away from me.

I really was pretty crap at this bird-hunting thing, wasn’t I? (I had lied about not asking any more rhetorical questions, hadn’t I?)

As I marvelled at my ineptitude, I wondered just how long the Scaup had been sat there in full view whilst I desperately scanned the horizon and the middle distance.

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Lesser Scaup

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Lesser Scaup

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Lesser Scaup

I stared at it for a bit, added it to my imaginary lifetime bird list and then went and ordered some chips.

I might not know where to look for birds, but I ALWAYS know where chips are.

Maybe my next annual quest should be to find as many different species of potato products as I could in a year.

I bet you’d all read that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cirley Valentine

I can’t quite remember how I came across it, but from somewhere, at some point, I picked up a book that itinerizes a whole year’s worth of nature-based things to do at weekends.

As someone who is notoriously bad at deciding what to do with himself (unless moaning about not being able to decide what to do with himself counts as doing something, of course), it seemed like a great purchase. The price sticker suggested I paid a fiver for the book – which is less than ten pence an itinerary – so, wherever I was at the time, I got myself a bargain.

52 Wildlife Weekends by James Lowen revolutionarily divides the calendar year up into weeks, removes the Monday to Friday dross and focuses in on the glorious Saturday and Sunday bit. It then provides a list of seasonal naturey things to go and find on each of the weekends. What a great idea.

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52 Wildlife Weekends – 234 pages of sorting my holiday choices out!

I had initially thought I could try to do everything in the book in one year as my annual blog challenge for 2016, but fairly quickly thought better of it when I started to work out how much it would cost to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles to weekend my way through the fifty-plus schedules – both from a financial and a time point of view. If I’m honest I probably should have known that before I sat down and started to calculate things. I really do wonder about my intelligence sometimes.

As, a compromise, I decided I could use the book to guide me with my nature-based holiday choices whenever I found the opportunity to get away.

It was the first week of April and I had some time off work, so I delved into the book.

Where would it take me?

“April Weekend 1 – Sand and Deliver” – The entry kicked off with a pun, and, as you may have previously noted, I love puns. This was already excellent! “Devon for sand crocus, sand lizard, wild daffodil, rockpool species, cirl bunting” – Even more excellently, the hit-list included a bird I had never seen, so it meant I could legitimately crow-bar it into my now occasional bird-spotting blog. It was as if it was meant to be… and I was surely about to find myself in seventh Devon!

Oh, and before I continue, please please please don’t Google ‘seventh Devon’ – as I just did – to see if I had just invented an amazing play on words… because I hadn’t. It would appear that it’s the title of a porn film from the year 2000. According to the blurb, Devon is a ‘very naughty girl with the face of an angel and a hell of a body. You’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to Devon’ – I imagine that this is probably an issue the Devon tourist board has had to hire an expensive legal team to sort out at some point.

I imagine the follow-up would have be called ‘Stairway to Devon’, where our scantily-clad protagonist moves to Torquay and lives in an attic… Or something like that.

Anyway, I digress…

The book had directed me to the south coast, so I got in the car and headed for a little cottage just outside the village of Broadclyst to commence my wildlife weekend.

My initial challenge was to go to Dawlish Warren – part National Nature Reserve (hooray!), part beach resort (boo!) – and find a Sand Crocus and a Sand Lizard.

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Dawlish Warren NNR

The book suggested I spend the ‘morning on hands and knees [and] search for rare plants’… With X-rated straight-to-DVD movies on my mind, I wondered if this was a euphemism I just didn’t quite understand.

Now, this was the first time I had ever gone anywhere with the intention of finding a plant and, if I’m honest, I thought it was a bit of a strange thing to do.

The Sand Crocus is a nationally rare plant and is only found in two locations on mainland Britain – at Dawlish Warren and a coastal site somewhere in Cornwall. It grows on sandy turf and it has very small pale purple flowers that are only supposed to open when the sun is out.

Given that the flower was so small, the potential searchable area was massive and the sun was only intermittently peeking out from behind the clouds, I didn’t fancy my chances much.

Would I fail my wildlife weekend challenge at the first hurdle?

In order to avoid any hint of drama, I’ll tell you straight away that answer was a resounding no. It turned out to be quite straightforward… Just behind the visitor centre was a fenced-off area and in that fenced-off area was a man on his hands and knees looking at rare plants. As the sun poked enough of itself around the edge of a cumulonimbus, I put these clues together and found my very first Sand Croci. There were hundreds of them nestled amongst the tightly cropped grass.

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Sand Crocus observation area

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Sand Crocus

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Sand Crocus

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Sand Crocuses

I assumed the rare flower watching position and wondered how long I should stare at the tiny purple blooms before moving on.

Twelve seconds later, I was off in search of a Sand Lizard.

Sand Lizards are rare in the UK and are only found on sandy heaths and coastal dunes. They are Britain’s only native egg-laying lizards. The population at Dawlish Warren is a re-introduced one. Like the Sand Crocuses, they are fond of sunny spells and when the sun is out, they like to bask out in the open.

I walked along the sandy track and although occasionally distracted by the sporadic appearance of some scuttling Common Lizards, I found my first ever Sand Lizard. I assumed the rare lizard watching position (which, coincidentally, was exactly the same as the rare flower watching position) and stared at it for a few minutes, before getting my book out to see where I was heading off to next.

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My Lizard Patrol assistant in action

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Sand Lizard

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Sand Lizard

I decided against going to look for Wild Daffodils (12-seconds of looking at crocuses had been quite enough flower watching for one weekend). I also opted to skip the search rockpools for Beadlet, Strawberry and Snakelocks Anemones… Why I did this was anemonebody’s guess, although, it could have been something to do with the fact that I used to have nightmares about what might happen if Day of the Tentacle came true. This, of course, is a lie and, if you’ve never played the computerized adventure game, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do so (after you finish reading this!) – Then give The Secret of Monkey Island a go!

After a brief dalliance with my computer game playing of years gone by, I whizzed off in search of the final creature in the chapter: the Cirl Bunting.

I had successfully found two things on my wildlife weekend checklist, tactically ignored a few and now was on the hunt for a bird I had never seen before…

Cirl Buntings are predominantly found in Devon in the UK and have been the subject of an RSPB reintroduction programme that is trying to counter their rapid decline. As is the case with most nature declines in recent times, dwindling Cirl Bunting numbers have been caused by loss of suitable habitat and changes in farming methods. By carefully managing farmland (for winter feeding) and unimproved grassland with hedges and scrub, (for summer nesting and feeding) the programme has successfully seen an increase in numbers from a low of 118 pairs in 1988 to almost 1000 pairs now. The Buntings have even started spreading further along the coast into Cornwall.

The book suggested that I visit Wembury, but the sentence ended with ‘where seeing Cirl Buntings will take patience’, so I decided to go rogue and find somewhere where I could see them without patience.

Que Sera, Sera, whatever would be, would be, I wasn’t going to Wembury, Que Sera, Sera” – Or something like that…

A quick Google search directed me to RSPB Labrador Bay, which, as it turned out was an absolutely stunning piece of coastline. There was even an ice cream van in the car park, so all was falling into place. All I needed was a Cirl Bunting to appear before me.

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RSPB Labrador Bay

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Labrador Bay – Fields managed for Cirl Buntings

As I wandered around – marvelling at the beauty of the landscape (and thinking about my end of walk Mr. Man ice lolly) – I could hear Cirl Buntings calling from the relative safety of the footpath-side hedgerows, but they were keeping out of sight.

Eventually, they started to appear and I had ticked-off the last species in my wildlife weekend adventure. I had never seen a Cirl Bunting before, so it was a special moment.

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Cirl Bunting

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Cirl Bunting

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Cirl Bunting

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Cirl Bunting

I wholeheartedly recommend you grab a copy of 52 Wildlife Weekends if you like looking for nature and discovering new places to visit. It is a great book – especially, if, like me, you need a bit of direction when it comes to deciding what to do with your free time. I also recommend you buy your ice lolly before going off in search of Buntings, as the ice cream van had gone by the time I got back to the car park.

You can’t win them all…

Next week I’ll be in the Highlands!

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Wheatear at Dawlish Warren… The book had omitted to tell me that I would be spotting this!

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Warbler of the Worlds

As you have all (the two of you who read this blog – hello Mum and Dad!) probably noticed, I spend a lot of time outdoors. Most of this time is spent staring at wildlife through a pair of binoculars. With this in mind, surely, it should only be a matter of time before I stumble upon something that is particularly uncommon – a rare species that isn’t often found. I would be an ornithological discoverer… A leading light in avian detection… A pioneer in birdy unearthing. Or something like that.

Obviously, this had not yet happened… Until, perhaps, last week during a trip to East Yorkshire…

I had arrived at RSPB Bempton Cliffs a little before the visitor centre opened, so as any normal person would do, I went for a nose around the overflow car park – That is normal, isn’t it? There were a few Tree Sparrows flitting about in the nearby trees, a handful of Goldcrests being typically elusive and a solitary Chiffchaff skulking around in the brambles. At least it appeared to be a Chiffchaff – small, olive-brown and with the hint of a yellow stripe above the eye (if you are a knowledgeable birdy person, this stripe above the eye is called a supercilium. If you are me – who is not – it is known as a stripe above the eye).

On closer inspection, there was something about the Chiffchaff that didn’t look quite right – It had pale wing bars (which are distinct markings on a bird’s upper wing, not a place where pilots go for a drink), which Chiffchaffs do not have. This bird was clearly something different… but what was it?

I desperately tried to take some photographs that would help me remember what I was looking at, because, no matter how hard I try, I really struggle to recall what I have been looking at as soon as I’m not looking at it anymore. My brain doesn’t work like that.

However, this was proving to be a near impossible task – The bird in question just wouldn’t stop moving for any length of time. It just kept going about its business – and its business certainly didn’t involve stopping and posing for photos. Sadly, my ageing camera is incredibly slow at responding to a press of the shutter button and, coupled with the fact that I’m pretty slow at pressing the button in the first place (sadly, I’m ageing too), this meant that all my photos were of a leafy area where the bird had been at some point in semi-recent history.

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As a small amount of frustration was beginning to kick in (I refer you to a similar experience with a Goldcrest here), I changed my tactics. I decided to pick a spot in the shrubbery where I thought the bird would move to, click and hope that I might get lucky… I guess, for a while, I was attempting to be a photographic Nostradamus. [I bet no-one’s ever said that before!]

The results weren’t especially successful. However, this time, instead of photos of areas of foliage the mystery bird had recently been in, the photos were of foliage the bird was just about to appear in. If this endeavour were a maths problem, I would simply be able to add the two sets of images together, divide by two and average it out, leaving me with a photo of the warbler right in the centre of the frame. Strangely, no one has invented this technology yet. Come on Canon, what are you playing at?

Nevertheless, I pressed on and, to some degree, it eventually paid off…

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I looked at the images and the bird looked like it might be a Yellow-Browed Warbler – a small warbler that breeds in Siberia, several hundred of which end up in Britain on migration each year. I only knew about this because someone had pointed one out to me at RSPB Pulborough Brooks a couple of weeks previous. It was officially a scarce bird – not one that would make me a bird-spotting legend in the slightest, but still quite exciting.

I enquired in the visitor centre if there was a ‘warbler expert’ around and, when someone appeared, I unapologetically showed him my poor photos. He mumbled some stuff about superciliums, primary projections and wing bars and confidently stated that it was, indeed, a Yellow-Browed Warbler. I thanked him, excitedly submitted my sighting via my bird-stalking app and someone at the desk wrote it up on the sightings board. Not a bad start to the day.

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If you haven’t been to Bempton Cliffs before, I highly recommend it. My visit was too late in the year to see all the nesting seabirds on the rocky precipices. I had missed the Gannets, Puffins, Guillemots and Razorbills, which are present in large numbers throughout the breeding season, but the sun was out, the air was remarkably still and it was one of those moments when it was just wonderful to be out. There were the most Tree Sparrows I had ever seen in one place and a few Gannets still remained – flying low across the sea in the distance.

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Bempton Cliffs

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Gannetry… Or Gannetarium… Or Gannet Earth… Minus Gannets

After a couple of hours of wandering backwards and forwards, along the coastal path I thought I’d check if my Yellow-Browed Warbler sighting had made the cut and had appeared on the bird-spotting app. It had, although, there had been an additional sighting added from the same car park – A Hume’s Leaf Warbler had been reported in the same area as ‘my’ warbler.

I had never previously heard of a Hume’s Leaf Warbler, so was intrigued to find out what it might look like. My novice guess was that it would, like pretty much all other warblers, be small, olive-brown and have the hint of a yellow stripe above the eye.

The overflow car park was significantly busier than first thing in the morning, with an array of people looking into the trees and bushes. I asked a few questions about warblers with the aim of finding out if it was the same one I had potentially erroneously identified earlier and showed my photo to anyone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about – In comparison to me, that was everyone.

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Ah yes, they look so different! (Illustrations courtesy of http://www.birdguides.com)

The Hume’s Leaf Warbler breeds in Central Asia and there have been, apparently, less than 150 sightings in the UK previously. They usually winter in India, so this one had gone wrong somewhere along the way – probably turning right at the crossroads in the High Street in Outer Mongolia instead of going straight on. This was likely to be the first sighting on an RSPB reserve, so was a fairly special sighting.

Quite quickly, my photo was confirmed to be a Hume’s Leaf Warbler. I had finally found a rarity… Sort of… Although, it all depends on how you dish out the credit for that sort of thing.

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It’s a Hume’s Leaf Warbler, of course! 

As it had probably arrived overnight (warblers tend to do their migration journeys under the cover of darkness), it was likely that I had been the first person to have seen it… But then I made the crucial mistake of misidentifying it… Then, someone (who actually knew something about birds) saw it and identified it correctly.

Legally, who should get all the glory? You decide…

As it turned out, there was another Hume’s Leaf Warbler a few miles up the road at Thornwick Pool. Much like buses and all that…

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Stonechat

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Jackdaw

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Glauc and Mindy

Well, it’s been a while…  I hope you’ve all been keeping out of trouble.

Sadly, I have to start this entry with a report of the passing away of my beloved Sat-Nav.  For the past couple of years its presence in my life had meant that I hadn’t had to try to guide myself through car journeys by using a map.  After directing me just past Gatwick, it died…  Its jaunty Australian brogue silenced forever.  Repeated thumping of the on/off switch had no effect.  It rarely does in this sort of situation.

I didn’t have time to mourn, however, as I was busy coming up with brand new swear words to fling at the now deceased lump of techno-crap stuck to the windscreen in front of me, whilst trying to work out where I needed to turn at the next roundabout.  How’s that for a novel multi-task?  The shitty Sat-Naff had let me down and I didn’t really know where the hell I was going.

My plan had been to use a rare weekday off work to whisk myself away on a bird-fuelled day on the south coast.  I was aiming for Widewater Lagoon (situated almost halfway between Brighton and Worthing), but, as I hadn’t looked at a map for about two years, I wasn’t sure how to get there without an Australian-voiced automaton helping me on my way with his relaxed ‘turn left here, mate’ and his ‘you bloody dingo, I said third exit’, all delivered in traditional Aussie quizzical fashion.

By the time I got my bearings, headed south and arrived at the seafront, Storm Henry had whipped himself into a right frenzy.  The usually placid waters of the Lagoon were, to put it mildly, a bit choppy.  Standing upright was a challenge.

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Widewater Lagoon

There wasn’t much to see out on the water, although a solitary male Goosander and a pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers made the trip worthwhile.

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Male Goosander

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Goosander – Or, for all of you learning your Latin – unhelpfully – mergus merganser

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Red-Breasted Mergansers (mergus serrator)

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Female Red-Breasted Merganser

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Male Red-Breasted Merganser

I spoke to a very helpful chap who pointed me in the direction of Shoreham Fort, just up the road, where I would be able to see ‘three Purple Sandpipers and a Turnstone’.  He also told me where to park to avoid paying for the privilege.  I, however, figured that I would happily pay the 50p charge to support the local economy and, at a potential of 12.5p per bird, was a bit of a bargain.

After a period of about half an hour trying to not get blown into sea, I managed to spot three Purple Sandpipers and a Turnstone – Had I met the Nostradamus of the bird world at Widewater Lagoon?  Had he also predicted I would avoid getting blown into the sea?

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Shoreham Seafront

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Somewhat Choppy!

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12.5p’s worth of Purple Sandpiper

Seeing as I was nearby, I decided to pop to the WWT reserve at Arundel and had a wander around.  The highlight of the visit (aside for the inevitable cake at the café) was an unusually confiding Water Rail hanging around with the pet birds in one of the enclosures.

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Water Rail

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Water Rail

Whilst enjoying a cup of tea and cake in the café, I thought I’d check my bird-stalking app – yes, in spite of promises to the contrary, I still haven’t cancelled my subscription – to see if there were any birds of note in the vicinity.  As it happened, a juvenile Glaucous Gull had been reported less than eight miles away.  I’d never seen one of those before, so, in the spirit of adventure, I inhaled the rest of my Belgian bun and ran to the car.

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3-2-1- GO!

The chase was on…

I arrived at Goring-by-Sea and parked my car at the side of the road near where my grandma used to live, many years ago, when I was a child – just for old time’s sake.  Things have changed quite significantly since my last visit… I now possessed the skills to park a car and, for that matter, owned a car, plus back in those days, she was still alive.

As Storm Henry continued to blow a hoolie, I headed for Goring Gap, as indirectly requested by my bird app.  I wandered along the promenade and then through a copse of trees (getting ever closer to the blue ‘this is where you need to be’ dot on the map), expecting to find a small patch of grassland containing the gull I was looking for.

Unfortunately, as I exited the wooded area, I was greeted by the sight of acres of grassland and thousands of gulls.  My task was made even more impossible by the sad fact that I didn’t really know what a Glaucous Gull looked like.

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Goring Gap… Where’s Gull-y?

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Goring Gap

I had vague recollections of visiting Goring Gap when I was very much younger and, going against the notion that things seemed bigger when you were a child than in actual reality, the area of greenery was significantly more massive than I had remembered it.  I had no recollections of a Glaucous Gull from my youth – mainly because I had only learned their existence about thirty minutes previously.

It was clear that I had forgotten how tricky this chasing after birds malarkey was.

I speedily formulated a plan to scour the area with my binoculars and wander in the direction of any gull that looked slightly out of the ordinary.  If you were there with me and knew anything about gull identification, it is at this point that you would have taken me to one side and politely slapped me in the face for being stupid.  As I should have remembered that gull identification is a bit of a minefield, I would have thanked you for your time and promptly waded into the Channel in the direction of Le Havre, never to be seen again.  The world would quickly become a better place and you would not currently be reading this.

Obviously, you weren’t there to advise me of the ineptitude of idea, so I dashed around the Gap like a gull in a china shop after unusual-looking birds.

On no less than three occasions, I thought I’d found the gull I was looking for.  Each time I was much mistaken.

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Not a Glaucous Gull 1

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Not a Glaucous Gull 2

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Not a Glaucous Gull… Maybe not even a Gull at all. Bloody crosswind!

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Not a Glaucous Gull 3

It was at this point – in fading light – I decided to do the sensible thing and look up some Glaucous Gull pictures on my phone. My all-too-tardy internet search confirmed I had been excitedly trying to take photos of non-Glaucous Gulls in a hurricane, so I admitted defeat and headed back to the car.

I decided to drive home via the road that bisects the Gap and the beach and noticed a gathering of gulls around a flooded area in the field.  I pulled over and, remarkably, in the centre of the gaggle was the Glaucous Gull.  It was significantly larger and looked very different than all the Black-Headed Gulls around it.  I was able to watch it for a couple of minutes before all the birds took to the sky and disappeared.

55.22

Glaucous Gull – Obviously!

55.20

Glaucous Gull – Of course!

The finding of the Gull I was searching for just as it was getting dark was the stuff of dreams.  It was the bird-watching equivalent of David Platt’s last-kick-of-the-game goal for England against Belgium in the 1990 football World Cup OR the equal of James Bond managing to detach himself from a conveyor belt pulling his delicate areas towards a circular saw blade just as it had started cutting into the crotch of his exquisitely-tailored suit trousers…

Or maybe not.

55.21

Gascoigne with the free kick just inside the Belgian half… Floated into the area. David Platt, oh my word… What a GULL!

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Ploverview

I originally wrote this entry back in March as a summing-up of my bird-spotting endeavours back in 2014 – but promptly forgot about it.  I have now rediscovered it, so have decided to share it…  I guess it’s a bit like finding a single chocolate Hob-Nob in the back of the cupboard that you forgot was there.  When you examine it, you find that it’s gone mouldy.  You dust it down and then eat it.

 Lucky you!

 

A round-up of 2014’s Bird-Spotting Challenge

Well, it’s been a few months since my year of bird spotting has finished and I’ve had the opportunity to look back over the fifty-two weeks of gawping skywards, ogling treewards, goggling seawards, staring hedgewards and gawking pondwards.  I also just looked normally at stuff… One-eyed… Through broken binoculars… Whilst crawling on the floor.

You see, I’m not as weird as I first sound!

If I’m honest, I have been surprised how enthusiastic I got about the challenge – As someone who doesn’t really get excited about anything, I found myself really getting… er… um… well… excited.  This was… exciting.

In my naivety, I had plucked a random figure of one-hundred and fifty as my target way back at the start of January, but managed to surpass it by the end of July.  I subsequently re-jigged the target to two-hundred and found myself reaching it on the final day of the year in dramatic fashion with an injury time Water Pipit from twenty yards.  Score!

That said, after a bit of contemplation, I have decided that I actually got to two-hundred and one species in 2014.  I thought I saw a Jack Snipe at Brean Down on the final day of the year, but, at the time, couldn’t be sure.  However, I have since definitely seen one and it was certainly what I saw at the time.  This retrospectively makes the Water Pipit bird number two-hundred and one and makes a mockery of the tension I was trying to build up in the last blog instalment.  The uncertain-at-the-time Jack Snipe was the magical goal-reaching bird.  I don’t have any photo evidence of this claim, so you’ll have to trust me.

Never mind…

As seems fitting for a review of a year, here’s 2014’s bird-stalking adventure in numbers: –

201 species seen
199 seen in the UK
2 overseas (Germany)
80 birds I had never seen before
1 pair of binoculars broken
1 pair of binoculars fixed (temporarily) (with toilet roll)
At least four failed trips to find a Garganey
Hundreds of miles walked
Two rail replacement bus journeys endured
1 monthly bird-stalking service subscribed to
And, of course, countless cool points mustered!

Magpie Chart... Who doesn't love a pictorial representation of numbers? And a bad play on words?

Magpie Chart… Who doesn’t love a pictorial representation of numbers? And a bad play on words?

Here are just a few highlights from the year [Cue emotional re-cap montage music, probably by Coldplay or Take That]: –

  • I learned a phenomenal amount about the avian world, about myself and about others who like to watch birds. I lost my shame about whipping my binoculars out in public (even along Redhill High Street – Pied Wagtail above Greggs), thought nothing of running approximately twenty miles after a bird I hadn’t previously heard of (Short-Toed Eagle) through a forest I hadn’t previously heard of (Ashdown Forest) and even got up when it was dark to look for birds, before realising that evolution hasn’t given me night-vision (yet).
  • I joined my first ‘Twitch’ – for the above-mentioned Eagle – and met some friendly bird maniacs. I think I fitted in just nicely.
Who twitches the twitchers?

Who twitches the twitchers?

  • I started volunteering at a semi-local RSPB reserve in an attempt to pass on my new-found ornithological ‘knowledge’ to others, but mostly ended up talking to visitors about the weather, holidays and just how good the café was – I mainly used this as a technique to avoid having to pass my ornithological ‘knowledge’ on to others.
Please don't ask me about birds... Nice weather we're having!

Please don’t ask me about birds… Nice weather we’re having!

  • I disagreed with TV’s Nick Baker (I didn’t realise it was him at the time) about the identity of a small, brown warbler in a nearby hedge at RSPB Minsmere – without knowing I was challenging the knowledge of one of Britain’s best-loved naturalists [I’m still adamant I was right and he was less right].
Cetti's Warbler (TBC!)

Cetti’s Warbler (TBC!)

  • I stood next to Michaela Strachan in a book shop and blogged about it. I imagine she did not write in a blog that she stood next to me in a book shop.
  • I discovered that the Farne Islands was off the Northumberland coast and not adjacent to the Shetlands.
Come back GCSE Geography, all is forgiven...

Come back GCSE Geography, all is forgiven…

  • I found that Goldcrests – In spite of being tiny feathered-balls of cuteness – turn me into a foul-mouthed blasphemer. Firecrests came a close second.

Firecrest

  • I learned – sort of – how to converse with fellow bird-watchers using ornithological lingo… My forthcoming book ‘Twitchionary: Birding Lingo for Beginners’ will, amongst other things, include: –
The Twitchionary

Out now in all good bookshops…

It was a truly great year and there are loads of other highlights [including covertly trying to photograph a Common Gull on a nudist beach, showing my dad his first Goldcrest – He actually let out a celebratory cheer! – and mistaking my phone for a large-beaked wading bird], but you can always click the archives to find out about those.

I seriously considered doing this all again in 2015 and going for a bigger total – But, the truth is, something just didn’t feel right about it.

It’s an odd feeling to have spent 365 days accumulating a list of sightings, then on the 366th day – the dawn of a new year – it all gets re-set and you have to start all over again.  You have to remember what you have and haven’t seen this year rather than last.  Sparrows temporarily become special* again and you have to think about planning another trip to the Farne Islands so you don’t miss out on the ten or so new species you saw there last year.  You have to hope that an Eagle turns up again in a nearby forest and have to go to drizzly Gosport in search of a seagull.

* Sparrows are always special, but I hope you get what I mean.

Obviously, I have still been keeping a list and, if you’re interested, I have got to one-hundred and one without really trying – I was at one-hundred this time last year and was really going for it.  It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that, bizarrely, I’m doing better this year (End of March).

Note: It’s now mid-November and I’m only one-hundred and sixty-six compared to one-hundred and eighty-six in 2014 – maybe really trying does make a difference!

Thanks for reading…  I hope you’ve enjoyed my ‘adventure’, maybe even learned something and, I really hope you might be a little bit inspired to stop and look skywards or treewards now and again to see what’s flapping around – As a guess, it’s probably a Dunnock!

And, as a parting gift to you, I present this…

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And, as a bonus (because everyone loves bonuses!), here are the birds I couldn’t count for the list…

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I will pop back here now and again to update you all if I see a new bird not on the 2014 list…

Hopefully, I’ll be able to unveil ‘You’ve Got Quail’… ‘Butch Cassowary and the Sundance Kid’… ‘The World is Not a Chough’… ‘Haw the Finch Stole Christmas’… ‘Shearwater World’… and many more.

I bet you can’t wait!

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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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