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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Footgoose

Seeing as I was in Norfolk for the weekend, I thought it would be rude not to try to add to my bird spotting challenge list by popping along to the RSPB nature reserve at Snettisham.  I had read somewhere that the reserve is the site of one of nature’s great spectacles – with over 40,000 Pink-Footed Geese spending the winter commuting between their overnight roost on the beach and their daytime feeding grounds in local fields.  Great for ornithologists, bad for farmers!

I had yet to see a Pink-Footed Goose this year, so I figured that I stood a good chance of coming across one if there were enough flying around to fill Goodison Park… or The Gabba – for you cricket fans… or the Fisht Olympic Stadium – if you’re more of a speed skating aficionado.  Obviously, by fill, I mean that they would all have to sit in an orderly fashion in an allocated seat.

I had done my research, so knew what to look out for: A medium-sized, predominantly grey goose, with a brown head and neck, a pink beak and pink legs.  I imagined that it would be quite an easy task picking one out from the other waterfowl dabbling around the reserve.

I, of course, was wrong!

There were plenty of other birds…  Greylag, Canada and Brent Geese, Lapwings, Teal, Wigeon, Little Egrets, Moorhens, Coots, Mallards and even a Short-Eared Owl.  But could I find even a solitary example of the purported 40,000 Pink-Footed Geese?  Could I heck?!

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

This was possibly turning out to be my biggest bird-watching failure of the year so far.  To put it in context, it is a failure comparable to going on holiday to Liechtenstein and not seeing a single one of its residents.

As if to mock my failure, there was a notice up in one of the hides with sightings at the reserve that helpfully informed me that there were 15,000 in the area two weeks previous to my arrival and that the numbers were swelling by the day.  Where the bloody hell were they?

Sightings List

It transpired that elements of my research were significantly lacking…  Yes, I would comfortably be able to recognise a Pink-Footed Goose IF I saw one, but, as it turned out, I would apparently only stand a good chance of a sighting if I arrived at the reserve at the crack of dawn to see them flying inland to feed from their roosting sites far out on the mudflats.  By turning up at lunchtime, I had missed all the geese by a good six hours.

On my return journey to the car, I remained hopeful that I might see a stray goose who had been out the night before and had a bit of a lie-in, but the closest I got was discovering the putrefying remains of a dead one on the beach.  If my decomposition calculations were correct, I had found 61% of a Pink-Footed Goose.  A poor effort and, of course, not countable for the year list.

Is this a Pink-Footed Goose? Of corpse it is!

Is this a Pink-Footed Goose? Of corpse it is!

My failure to espy a living, complete Pink-Footed Goose had meant that if I wanted to see one, I would have to return at some silly time the next day.  And that is just what I did.

Flash forward to 6am the following morning…

Do you ever get the feeling you're breaking into a nature reserve?

Do you ever get the feeling you’re breaking into a nature reserve?

6am - The only time I look semi-good in photographs

6am – The only time I look semi-good in photographs

There I was, not very well dressed for the cold, standing at the edge of the beach in the pitch black at some ungodly hour, listening to thousands of geese honking from the darkness in front of me.  You could say that this wasn’t so much a wild goose chase, as a wild goose wait… and not especially dramatic.

As the early morning blackness began to slowly creep towards the misty gloom of a grim mid-November dawn (and my toes contemplated the potential ramifications of impending glaciation), I could begin to see some movement on the beach in the distance – There were clearly a lot of somethings out there in the murk, but I couldn’t see well enough to tell what they were.  The honking persisted, indicating the presence of geese… but which ones?

Pink-Footed Geese

Pink-Footed Geese

Pink-Footed Geese

Pink-Footed Geese

It was then the ‘spectacular’ commenced:  Wave after wave of Pink-Footed Geese started to fly inland towards the fields for breakfast from the mudflats and over my head in traditional v-formation.  Some in groups in excess of two-hundred.  I had a new addition to my list – one I had to really put some effort in for.

Pink-Footed Geese... Spectacular!

Pink-Footed Geese… Spectacular!

However, as with most spectaculars I’ve witnessed before, I was a little underwhelmed.  Yes, there were an awful lot of geese flying overhead and they kept coming for a long time, but the fact that the process happened in drip-fed instalments rather than one big airborne mega-flock somewhat took the edge off the experience for me.  Maybe I’m just one of those people who are never happy.  Maybe the earliness and chilliness of the occasion had clouded my judgement.  Maybe I am simply unable to appreciate anything before I’ve had breakfast.

This is not the last you will hear about my weekend in Norfolk…

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Jurassic Lark

I have a confession to make…

A while back, as you might well remember, I said that I would not turn into one of those bird-watchers who dash around the country in search of a new bird for my 2014 bird challenge list.

Unfortunately, it seems that I have not been a man of my word and have done just that…  Sort of.

On Monday, I got in my car and drove for slightly more than an hour across the country to look for three new birds to add to my list…  If I recall correctly, I said I wouldn’t rush off somewhere for a solitary bird, so I felt that going after three was, technically, semi-acceptable behaviour.  Perhaps.  Maybe.

I had seen reports that, over the weekend, a Desert Wheatear, a Shore Lark and a few Snow Buntings had been seen in Reculver in Kent.  I hadn’t seen any of these birds this year (or ever), so temporarily put my promise to not be a crazed twitcher to one side and headed eastwards for a day at the seaside.

When I arrived at my destination, Reculver Country Park, I was greeted by the imposing sight of Reculver Towers, a long, sweeping shingle coast line disappearing off into the distance and a car park that only wanted a contribution of one pound for a whole day’s worth of parking.  I was pleased by the bargainous nature of the car parking fee, but less enthused by the length of the beach that potentially housed my target birds – Finding them would clearly pose a bit of a challenge as the birds wouldn’t be much larger than any of the pebbles strewn as far as the eye could see.

Reculver Towers

Reculver Towers

Made-up fact #1: In 1966, The Beatles were inspired to name their upcoming album after a trip to Reculver.

Made-up fact #1: In 1966, The Beatles were inspired to name their upcoming album after a trip to Reculver.

As per the bird sighting report that drew me to the area, I needed to head in an easterly direction from the Towers, so that is what I did.  I wandered along the seafront hoping to see a gathering of bird-watchers standing and staring at an unusual bird – a technique that had helped me find a Short-Toed Eagle, a Long-Tailed Skua and a Little Stint earlier in the year – but I couldn’t seem to see anything that resembled a crowd of camouflaged, telescope-wielding folk.

It seemed that finding what I was searching for might be difficult, but I pressed-on.  After about five minutes of walking I saw someone I recognised from a previous bird-spotting jaunt.  Here I was, miles away from home and I had found a familiar face.  On one hand, this was a relief, because it might improve my chances of adding something new to the bird list, but on the other hand, I feared that it meant that I might have spent a bit too much of my time chasing after ornithological discovery.  Did this mean that I had now become a bona fide bird-watcher?  Was I now an official twitcher?  Or did the man standing in front of me just look a bit like someone I had seen somewhere else at some point?

If I’m honest, it didn’t really matter, as the chap cheerfully pointed me in the direction of what I was looking for.  Although, he said that no-one had seen the Desert Wheatear, so it must have moved on.  This left me with the hope of seeing a Shore Lark and a Snow Bunting.  In the words of Meat Loaf, I reasoned that two out of three ain’t bad.

A distance up the beach I saw a mini-throng of people pointing cameras and binoculars at a small bird that had just popped-up on the top of a shingle bank.  So as not to look out of place (and also see what everyone was staring at), I alternated between pointing my binoculars and camera at the bird.  It was a Shore Lark, a small brown-grey coastal-dwelling bird with an unmistakeable yellow and black head pattern and, in the breeding season, the male has distinctive feathered horns.  This is why it is called a Horned Lark in the USA.  It is a species that is an uncommon visitor to the UK, so any sighting is a treat.

It took my total for the year to one-hundred and eighty-six.

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

Shore Lark

A Lark?  It Shore is!

Is this a Lark? It Shore is!

After a minute or so, the Lark disappeared behind the bank and I didn’t see it again – Mainly because I wanted to push on and find the other two birds on my hit list.

It turned out that I didn’t see either.  I guess one out of three ain’t quite as good as two, but I did get to see some other excellent birds and had a lovely day beside the seaside.

Black Redstart

Black Redstart

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover

Grey Plover

Grey Plover

Dunlin

Dunlin

Sanderling

Sanderling

Turnstone and Sanderling - A great name for a TV detective series, perhaps...

Turnstone and Sanderling – A great name for a TV detective series, perhaps…

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Paranormowl Activity

I was out for an early morning walk before work around Papercourt Meadows and, in the distance, I could see a large brown bird being harassed by Crows.  It was still fairly dark and the bird was quite far away, but my burgeoning instinctive bird ID skills kicked-in and immediately told me that it was a Common Buzzard.  I was so confident that I didn’t even need to get my binoculars out.  At the start of the year, I would have struggled to make such a straightforward and confident identification, so I was proud of myself.  That doesn’t often happen.  Go me!

Buzzards are nice to see, but are seen frequently and therefore nothing to get especially excited about.

I continued across the field – in the general direction of the Buzzard – and observed a handful of Magpies joining the mêlée and the bird started to not look quite as Buzzardy as it initially had.  I’ve never seen Magpies pestering a bird of prey before and it wasn’t as big as I thought it was.  My less instinctive, more considered, bird ID skills began to kick in and question their rash instinctive counterpart.  I decided to get the binoculars out and have a better look…

… It was most definitely not a Buzzard, and, in actual fact, a Short-Eared Owl!

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl

A new sighting for the year, taking my total for the year to one-hundred and eighty-five.  It was also the first time I had ever seen one and the first opportunity I had ever had to take really bad photos of one.

I started to wonder how many new birds I had missed this year because I thought they were something else.  I banished my instincts to the naughty corner to think about what they had done.

An actual Buzzard

An actual Buzzard

Also an actual Buzzard

Also an actual Buzzard

Fauna Corner   

This week’s Fauna Corner is a little different as it involves hand-crafted animalia…

I’ve started helping out at an RSPB junior group and this month we had the chance to make Otters out of clay.  My artistic skills are about on a par with the standard of my Short-Eared Owl photography, so I apologised in advance to the art world.

Otter in Clay - A possible Turner Prize winner for 2015?

Otter in Clay – A possible Turner Prize winner for 2015?

After I had finished my Otter (described as looking like a spatchcock squirrel by one kind-hearted Sister Wendy wannabe – You know who you are!), I complimented one of the group on his creation, when he turned to me and enquired “Where do baby otters come from?”

I replied by stating that they stay in the holt until they are about ten weeks old.  They then are coaxed into the water by the parents.

“No, no, no”, he said.  “Where do baby otters come from?”

Oh my god, he was asking me about the mammal version of the birds and the bees, wasn’t he?  I hadn’t prepared for this… and his parents probably hadn’t prepared for their once-innocent five-year old child coming home from Wildlife Fun Club and telling them that “Some strange man talked to me about steamy otter-on-otter action.”

To buy some crucial thinking time, I asked him to clarify his question and then ummed and erred for a bit (to buy some more time), before mumbling something about ‘mummy’s tummy’ and then speedily removing myself to the furthest corner of the room for a sit down.

I am going to be the world’s worst parent one day, aren’t I?

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