Monday, 5 April 2010

A little souvenir of a terrible year...

You may have noticed that it's been a while since I posted. Less is more, that's my motto, and I'm sure you've all been awaiting my return with the same breathless expectation that awaited the third Sundays album (well done to those of you who spotted the Sunday's lyric title, and no excuse needed for a photo of the divine Ms Wheeler). Nearly five years waiting to find that they seemed just to have recorded the same album again but with different titles. At least the Stone Roses had the decency to record something that sounded different.
Anyway, all work and no play makes Adrian a dull boy. Suffice it to say, "dull" is currently my middle name. But light is at the end of the tunnel.

We did at least have Saturday and Sunday off and spent them in Hertfordshire with the grandparents. I'm still not used to the sight of Red Kites floating over the garden. I suppose that some day they'll get the same attention a Little Egret does. Saturday we took the Assistant to that mecca of ornithological research, the Natural History Museum at Tring. I was hoping that she would join me in close examination of the structure of closely related fairywren species. Maybe I was being over ambitious. She spent most of her visit cuddling a badger. It was the first time I'd been to Tring since I was a kid and several things struck me:

1) The Elephant seal is really very very big

2) Fish don't look real when stuffed

3) It's free! I was so impressed I made a generous donation.

Anyway, a variety of stuffed birds was as close as I got to birding this weekend, but my lack of attention to our avian friends was rewarded this evening on the train back from work. I have mentioned the delights of the Exe Estuary as observed from the train before now, and today, the tide was out so there were few waders to spot. However, as we neared Starcross, where the water's edge drew near to the train, there striding elegantly (not - there's something endearingly inelegant about these fellows) was a Spoonbill. Nice.

I've always had a soft spot for the Spoonbill, and indeed prefer our alternative name for it - the Bongo Bird. I can't lay claim to that most apt of nicknames, which derives from a hurried phone call taken by Ray (I think...he will no doubt correct me) from Mr Heysham - Pete Marsh, many years ago. Which went something like this:

Ray: "Hello"
Pete: "Ray, Bongo at the bog!"
Ray: "Wha..?"
Click, brrrrrrrrrr

Now to interpret. This means "Ray, there's a Spoonbill at Leighton Moss, thought you'd like to know". But "Bongo at the Bog" has gone down in folklore. Several years later, when Little Egrets were still rare in Lancashire there was a Spoonbill and a Little Egret at "The Bog". They became affectionately known as "Bongo and Son".
Finally, a little competition, and an excuse for a photograph. On the right is Mr Carter (J) celebrating a "top birding event". I found this in a stack of faded old photographs when preparing for the Clerk of Works car boot extravaganza. This was undoubtedly the highlight of a trip to The Gambia (there's a big clue) what enigmatic bird had we just bagged? A virtual prize to the most surreal answer.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Still a trickle...

Another day in front of the computer, but as yesterday managed to escape pre and post the slog. Got up to Siblyback early and it immediately had a different feel to yesterday. Although cloudy it was much brighter and there was just a hint of a SW breeze. As I got out of the car a Chiffchaff was singing in the Gate Copse - a new bird since yesterday - and I headed off with some optimism. There was definitely a sprinkling of new migrants - a nice White Wagtail being seen off by the resident Pieds in the Wagtail Field (initially picked up on call - some Whites really sound different) and 9 Chiffchaff in all. 2 Wheatear were standing sentinel on the rocks in the pasture at the southern end.
Out on the water were 5 Great Crested Grebes with one pair endulging in a bit of courtship head shaking. Coot numbers down to 23. I'm sure the fishermen (and the season has just started -yesterday there was an array of identikit fisherfolk casting their flies out on the choppy water and with a great deal of success from the selection of Rainbow Trout lying on the banks) were pleased to see 10 Cormorant joining in!
Later I drove down to Hannafore and had a quick foray along the Prom in the drizzle. It was a really high tide and 6 Pied Wagtail and 3 Rock Pipit squabbled over the remaining exposed rocks while 38 Turnstone were crammed on to few square metres of shingle. A brief stare at the horizon resulted in nothing more than a very distant Gannet, and an Eider was feeding just off Looe Island in the company of a Grey Seal.
So that's the weekend.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Courage of Others

I've been listening non-stop to this fantastic album by Midlake today - made my lonely vigil in front of my PC slightly more bearable. I think they show signs of being into birds. Note how one of them has climbed a tree to get a better view of whatever they're all twitching. They are obviously far too cool to sport a pair of bins in a publicity shot, but I bet they have them stashed away just out of the picture.

Anyway, it is officially Spring in my book. The garden pond is crammed full of frog spawn (that's the newts well fed for the year then), and despite being confined to the house to work in the absence of the Clerk of Works and Assistant, I managed a trip to Siblyback at either end of the day. This morning was damp and cold and low cloud hung over the moor, which added atmosphere to the distant sound of bubbling Curlew somewhere way off to the north, and I tramped round. Not a great deal doing - 4 Chiffchaff and on the water 10 Tufted Duck, 2 Little Grebe, 2 Great crests and 27 Coot. A couple of Siskin were tazzing about, and 3 Reed Bunting. I was expecting my first hirundines but they were surprisingly absent. However, in the willows at the North end, was a very weakly singing Willow Warbler - one of those early birds that sounds like its a distance away, until you realise it is just above your head. Always nice to get in March, and I don't think I've seen one before Sand Martin very often.

After getting quite into Yeovil's economic fortunes, helped by the aforementioned Texan combo, I headed back up to Siblyback at about 5:30 thinking that this would guarantee me the evening hirundine influx. Sure enough - a dozen or so were hawking over the lake - about equal numbers of Swallow and Sand Martin. Job done. A couple of Greater black backs were also loafing on the raft.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Wheels on the bus...

A good weekend.

Yesterday was dull and drizzly. The only forays were two trips to Hannafore. One which coincided with high tide and where a misty rain meant that anything moving further then a few hundred metres offshore was lost in the murk. I was hoping for a bit of seabird movement, but had to make do with a quick trundle (with Assistant Clerk snug in rainproof buggy) along the promenade. Was rewarded with the first Wheatear of the year, flitting round the rocks, and no doubt wondering why it had bothered (this, I hasten to add, is not a comment on making landfall at Looe). It was also notable how the Turnstone numbers have dwindled.

Later in the day, it cleared up and the wind freshened, so I popped down again to see if there was anything moving. Light was fantastic and visibility superb. Shame the birds didn't match! A trickle of VERY distant Gannet and Fulmar. Wind had a bit too much north in it really.

On the way back noticed a group of large gulls on the river north of the bridge and swung into the car park to have a scan. What followed was one of those really frustrating birding events. The wind is blowing towards me so all the birds are, of course, facing away from me. One gull immediately catches my eye. It's much paler than the surrounding Herring Gulls, and looks like it's in heavy moult, or has very short primaries, Glaucous like. Problem is, as it faces away from me and preens it has dark tertial centres and what may or may not be a dark band on the upper tail. Its primaries (although when it turns for a moment it doesn't seem to have many) are totally white. It's fairly heavily built, a shade bigger (perhaps) than the surrounding Herrings.....and then Assistant decides she's had quite enough of this and complains loudly. I wish the thing would fly to get an idea of what the underwing looks like and what state of moult it's really in and for another five minutes I try to combine keeping a scope steady resting on the the car window in a brisk wind and singing "the wheels on the bus" to placate the passenger. I turn briefly to soothe the complainant and when I look back all the gulls are in the air. Absolutely typical!! I fail dismally to pick up the bird in amongst the wheeling masses and drive home, perplexed.

Today, Sunday, Clerk of Works is car booting - we're de-cluttering ahead of putting the house on the market, and she departs with a car full of tat that we have no need for, leaving Daddy and daughter to a full day together. This is important as, what with the work schedule ahead, it looks like I won't see my beloved again for a week after today. And people wonder why I'm changing jobs! Getting rid of stuff is also quite alien to the Clerk of Works, who tends to collect tat rather than dispose of it - she came home from work with half a dozen demi-johns a month or so back because "someone at work was getting rid of them" (Why this meant we had to find space for them I don't know). So this is a big event, and I give her every encouragement.

We head up to Siblyback with high hopes of the first Sand Martin of the year (well I have high hopes of this, my willing accomplice probably has high hopes of a go on the swings). While I was disappointed on the hirundine front, the Smew made a re-appearance. In addition there were 14 Tufted Duck, 20 Coot, and 2 Great Crested Grebe on the lake. 2 Chiffchaff were the only migrants. 10 Buzzards were milling about over the eastern shore. A badger has been here before us - see below, and Assistant Clerk of Works adds a new word to her vocabulary - "geese". She has plenty of opportunities to practice it on the walk round.

After the obligatory swing and slide, followed by consumption of toddler picnic (which features rather a lot of baby-bell cheese today) we head off to do the Dozmary circuit. After a few rounds of "Wheels on the bus" and "Row row row your boat" she is fast asleep. First stop at the north end of Colliford reveals a couple of Goldeneye, 4 Teal, 2 G C Grebe and 4 Little Grebe, but my scan for that most glamorous of birds - the Black duck - is fruitless. Still fast asleep at Dozmary (her not me) and I clock the Lesser Scaup-like thing.
Next stop further down Colliford and I'm scanning the odd mallard and another couple of Great Crested Grebe, when a cracking male Hen Harrier flies through my scope view! I watch it quartering the lake fringes for 15 minutes before it heads west over the brow of the hill. Hen Harrier is a bird I always think about when up here, but this is the first time I've seen one, and the first I've seen in Caradon.
Buoyed by this success, we decide (by we, I of course mean "I" as the sound of snoring is still emanating from the back of the car) to head down to Looe, in the vain hope of relocating yesterday's mystery gull. Assistant Clerk of Works is particularly excited by the prospect.

She proceeded to invent a new game down at Hannafore. As on many promenades every few metres there is a granite bench, with a personal inscription for people "who loved the sea" or "who loved this view" etc. The rules are we have to sit briefly on the first bench, before pointing excitedly at the next one, trotting the few metres to it and sitting on this one. Repeat ad infinitum. It makes a stroll along a few hundred metres of prom last a good hour.

Only bird of note was a White Wagtail. We didn't find the gull.

PS: Clerk of Works made £80 selling our rubbish. Result. She also came home with a set of golf clubs. Neither of us play golf. Enough said.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again..

Proverbial weekend of two halves, neither of which involved any birding. Yesterday (Saturday) I went into the office - it's that time of year when every client suddenly wants things done by the end of March. I'm sure they were all enjoying their weekends, and as is "working at weekends law" - it is absolutely glorious. Ho hum.
Today, of course, is mother's day, and a three line whip about not working. Quite so. We head down to the coast near Fowey (pronounced Foy) for a walk that circumnavigates the Menabilly estate - the home of Daphne Du Maurier and the inspiration for Manderlay. We once saw a stage version of Rebecca starring Nigel Havers. It was awful.
Anyway, down on the coast and a mile or so walk from the nearest car park is one of those spots that you just think if it got decent coverage (it may well do for all I know) would really turn up the goods - a sheltered valley with a lake right on the beach. Today there are 7 Wigeon and 4 Tufted Duck, but you can easily imagine a Ring necked duck hanging out here. There are 20 Moorhen diving for weed in the middle of the lake which is a rather unusual sight. In the woods a Chiffchaff is singing - a sound that always lifts my spirits. It is one of those fantactic moments that birders (or indeed ex birders) get every year - the first Chiffchaff, Wheatear, and for me the first lilting song of the Willow Warbler. But Chiffchaff is good enough for today - Spring is really on its way.
I think it's a sign that I was never a real hardcore birder that I always preferred Spring to Autumn. Don't get me wrong, a post easterly bush bashing is exciting, and I've had some really special days on the East coast in September and October, but Autumn is always tainted by the fact that the cold grey of a british winter is on its way. Spring on the other brilliant!! And I think my most memorable finds have been Spring birds. Two Subalpine Warblers, including a singing bird on St Mary's, several sparkling Bluethroats, and perhaps the best - a male Rustic bunting. A really stupendous bird!! And there's also something nice about being warm and dry when you find a bird!!
Roll on next weekend.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Surreal moments in birding No 1

Picture the scene. It is February. Three birders are on their way up to the Scottish Highlands for a bit of speciality year ticking. Thoughts of Capercaillie, Ptarmigan, Crested Tit and Scottish Crossbill (yer, right) are in the minds of the enthusiastic trio.
Having travelled overnight it is a misty grey dawn as they hurtle up the infamous A9, one of the most evocative of birding roads. I think it's only ever either the middle of the night or the early hours on that road. Daylight doesn't exist in a strange silent world.

At the wheel is Mark, owner of Dusty Monkey (see the monkey's new blog, now in my blog list - the strange goings on in the head of a Caribbean monkey made of a coconut). Dozing in the back is Dave - who's hat once blew into a tiny ornamental pond in someone's front garden when birding round Silverdale in Lancs, and in the front trying to stay awake as is birding law (the front seat passenger is responsible for ensuring that the driver remains the right side of consciousness), is me.

Daylight comes slowly on the A9, and then as the road stretches out in front of us, with wilderness on either side, far off in the distance, cresting the brow of a hill and travelling quickly in the opposite direction, something appears. We haven't seen a car in what seems hours, but even so I think I can remember what one looks like, and it isn't like the faint shape which is now hurtling towards us. Somehow from the change in atmosphere in the car it is obvious that all three of us have clocked it.

Mark breaks the silence "What's this??" - as whatever it is, and it really hasn't turned into anything remotely recognisable as a normal road user yet, closes in at what seems astonishing speed, and then, in unison we all shout "IT'S A CREME EGG!!!!"

And that's what it is - a creme egg travelling at breakneck speed, with what seems a tiny windscreen and a bloke with a large pair of what look like comedy glasses hunched over the wheel. It passes us in a flash, and is gone, and a strange eerie silence descends as we all digest what we think we've just seen.

No-one believed us when we told them, and for some years afterwards we tried to forget this bizarre occurrence, wondering if it had indeed been a collective hallucination brought on by lack of sleep and oversupply of rubbish food. Several years later, however, I was stopped at a motorway services and there it was. It or another of its kin, with a gaggle of bemused motorists taking photographs. Proof at last! And there it is to convince you too. It might look slightly weird on a city street, but imagine how incongruous this would look hurtling towards you on a remote stretch of scottish road in the early hours of the morning.
So, birding memories are not just about the birds, and to be honest I couldn't tell you what birds we saw on that trip. A trip that also featured an eventful night out in Braemar and an early morning escapade on icy roads where Mark overtook the snow plough going up to Glenshee. But that's another tale!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Another weekend over...

Part One
I'm writing this while supposedly meant to be working. Two presentations and a report to finish, but it's sunny outside. Clerk of Works and her assistant have headed off into Plymouth, my credit card in hand to "give me some quiet" to work. So The Decemberists are on the CD player ("The Hazards of Love" - not quite as remarkable an album as "Crane Wife" but still pretty outstanding - and you can add Mistle Thrush to your "bird references in songs list".......if you had one....Corncrake also gets a mention but this appears on Billy Bragg's re-telling of "Hard Times of Old England" so doesn't constitute a song tick.

Siblyback yesterday was pleasant, with that air of expectancy you get in "pre-Spring". Goldcrests, Chaffinches and Goldfinches singing away, and that wait for the first Sand Martin or singing Chiffchaff doesn't feel so far away. A good sign of Spring's forthcoming return was the presence of 4 Great Crested Grebe, a couple of pairs of which now breed on the lake. Golden Plover have been notable by their absence from the pasture at the north end this winter, but yesterday over 2,000 were in the air over the northern fields. Best bird, however, was a Lapwing. Strangely, Lapwings are not frequent at Siblyback. I usually see one or two a year, in what one would think of as pretty typical wintering habitat. This one flew up off the northern shore. Tufted Duck count was 12, while Little Grebes are dwindling fast.

Later in the day we popped down to Hannafore. Tide was well out and an Eider and 3 Med Gulls were the only things of note.

Part Two

I gave up at about 2:30, convincing myself, half truthfully, that I had done enough work. It was still glorious but with a biting east wind. The light was fantastic so I thought I'd head down to Hannafore to see if I could get any shots of the Rock Pipits that seem quite tame at the moment. I find Rock Pipits at this time of year fascinating, as the range of plumages is really striking, as they begin to moult into summer plumage, and I'd had brief views of one yesterday which looked good for a Scandinavian. Anyway, I spent a good hour or so in a sheltered spot just enjoying the comings and goings of Pied Wagtails and Rock Pipits with a solitary Grey Wag. Now this is patently ex-birder behaviour - just enjoying common birds. I would once have scoffed at such patently ridiculous goings on. Anyway, my battery ran out just as the Pipits (one of which had been indulging in bouts of song) started to get used to my presence, but I did get a great opportunity to snap another common bird which was hopping around the rocks. Now just look at these and tell me Wrens are rubbish!

Other bits and bobs were 1 Slav Grebe, sparkling in the sunlight and the usual Eider. A Fulmar and Gannet were milling about aimlessly, but 5 Kittiwake seemed to be more intent. Still one Grey Plover hanging round.
PS: Clerk of Works was quite restrained - a coat for Assistant Clerk was the main purchase and very beautiful it is. It won't fit her however until she's at least three I reckon. Blokes just don't do this sort of forward planning.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Out of the mouths of babes...

I've spent the last week looking out of an office window at crystal clear blue skies. This work thing is rubbish. A soaring Sparrowhawk has been the highlight of the office list this week, unless you include my train journeys. The line from Plymouth to Exeter may meander so far out of a straight line that it takes about half an hour longer than the car but the consolation is that it runs along the coast at Dawlish and then up the Exe Estuary. I reckon it is the best main line birding train journey. If the tide is right you can clock up an impressive list of wildfowl and waders, and I always seem to get diverted from the laptop at this point. Greenshank and Black tailed Godwit have been showing well this week.

Before I grew up I used to always keep stupid casual lists (I had a car list once - the rules were one had to have at least one foot in the smewmobile - which featured various rares) but I have also been fortunate to having one of the best office lists imaginable. I wish I still had the records but to give you an idea it included Red breasted Fly, Greenish Warbler, and a host of other passerines as well as seabirds including Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk. Admittedly I did have the good fortune to have an office in the Bluebell at Spurn.

Anyway - I am pleased to announce that Assistant Clerk of Works is coming on great guns with her birding skills. Some might call it indoctrination but her first word was "ducky", quickly followed by "birdy". I am now proud to say that she can identify her first species, not that it will come in particularly handy that frequently in Cornwall, but she can now positively id a Hoopoe. This is in no small part down to the RSPB's excellent soft toys with real bird calls. Can you spot the difference to the real thing?

She has also contributed her thoughts on the lumping and splitting debate, which are about as informed as most people's. She reckons all birds fall into two species - firstly those that go "tweet tweet" and secondly those that go "quack quack". Thus, armed with nothing more than a slice of soggy toast one can clear up on the whole British list over breakfast!
(I was going to claim credit for that, but I will admit that I have shamelessly plagiarised it from the distant past - can you plagiarise something for which you can't remember the source. I'm sure Morrissey would have an answer).

Monday, 1 March 2010

Lies, damn lies and statistics

Well, you will be pleased to know that 80% of you were correct in suggesting that the two unsynchronised birders on the left were indeed looking in vain for Ruppell's Warblers. From this I can summise:
1) That 80% of you have visited this unprepossessing site by a main road in Lesvos.

2) That 4 out of 5 of you recognised immediately the typical Ruppell's habitat of barbed wire and concrete

However, the results are arguably statistically flawed by the fact a paltry 5 of you summoned up the half hearted interest to play. I presume that this also included a person in the photo, who I would venture to suggest would have had a slight advantage. Now I use stats unashamedly for work and even I would struggle to draw a meaningful conclusion from such a result, although I'm sure I once proved the economic value of Bitterns from a survey of people visiting Leighton Moss. It's amazing what people say they will pay to see a bird when it doesn't involve real money (it's called hypothetical bias if you must know - extremes of which have been shown to involve people stating a willingness to pay for stuff in excess of their annual income). If you're ever approached by a graduate researcher at a nature reserve and asked the question make sure you inflate hugely what you'd pay to visit - and then take satisfaction in the fact that the findings will be totally invalid. How you'll laugh...or am I a bit out of touch? Thought so.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Very aptly named...

Now ever think that there might be a better use for those £1000 bins you see round the necks of bird spotters who plainly are a little challenged in the ID department? I well remember being sat at Leighton Moss next to one such expensively equipped and well spoken gentleman when the following conversation ensued (and this is verbatim)

He: "Oh, excuse me, what's that, that bird there?"
Me (always eager to provide advice): "That's a Lapwing".

He: "Ah, Lapwing......oh yes....very aptly named"


He: "Oh, oh, what's that bird there, that one with the long skewer, the long skewer like bill"
Me: "Ermm, that's a black headed gull carrying a stick"

I was so tempted to tell him that his Swarovski bins were rubbish and he should swap them for whatever russian things I was sporting at the time.

Anyway, fret no more. For I have the answer. For those who find that their top of the range kit still doesn't make it any easier to identify a stick carrying bird, there is an alternative pursuit. Check out This is absolutely hilarious and I think would also add a bit of spice to the annual birders vs locals footy match on the Scillys.

My only birding today had to fit around work (writing a local economic assessment of Somerset as it happens - no I thought you wouldn't be interested). It was blowing a gale and squally in the morning and I weighed up going to Hannafore then and working later (always dangerous) or getting a few hours under my belt and then heading off late afternoon for high tide. Opted for the latter, and as the afternoon wore on the sun came out, the wind dropped so that by the time I reached Hannafore there was nothing but a gentle breeze and bright sun. This also meant that the promenaders were out in force. Scoping the horizon showed there were plenty of Gannet out there but nothing moving closer in. Still 2 Slav Grebe and 2 Great Northern Diver, as well as a drake Common Scoter in the bay, and a Great Crested Grebe. At one point a GN Diver and Great crest passed in close proximity, the diver dived (very aptly named) and immediately surfaced right by the grebe and took up an aggressive outstretched necked position, causing the grebe to scarper pronto. You don't appreciate how big a great northern is until you see it alongside another bird. A different (or remarkably quick moulting) immature male Eider was also about, and 4 Med Gulls (1 adult, 2 2nd winter and 1 3rd winter). However, probably the best patch bird was a lone Bar tailed Godwit roosting with the oystercatcher and Turnstone.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Spring at last?

Having been very jealous of Mr Carter's recent missives from the colonies, where it seems Spring has well and truly arrived, it was great to open the front door to hear Skylarks singing this morning. This was then followed promptly by a biblical downpour! Hmmmm.

Anyway, a perfect example of mixing quality family time and a bit of low key birding today. We headed for Whitsand Bay where Assistant Clerk of Works could run about on the beach (well, stand staring at the sea in the main as it turned out - I reckon she was checking for any wind blown seabirds if truth be told). A rather rapid incoming tide led to some exciting events as Clerk of Works had to rescue the little one from a freak wave which caused much hilarity from yours truly. After a slap up veggie breakfast at the Clifftop cafe (thoroughly recommended) and with daughter fast asleep in the back of the car it seemed rude not to pop to Torpoint where a Ring Billed Gull had been seen. I can't get excited by birding here and the extent of my interest can be gauged by the intent way I scanned for the bird for all of 5 minutes before losing interest. 5 Pale Bellied Brents were nice.

Tide was in so a diversion to Hannafore was negotiated (well both of them were asleep by this point so it was a short discussion - Clerk of Works has a miraculous ability to fall asleep as soon as she gets in a car which I am quite envious of). With the tide so high the flock of Turnstone was close in and apprachable allowing me to fire off several hundred shots, of which no more than two were even half decent. I remember the first time I ever went to Hannafore there was a small flock of Purps. I've never seen one there since, but am always hopeful. Purple Sand is one of those quite enigmatic birds that I always get pleasure from seeing. Anyway, the light was fantastic and yesterdays blow had obviously had an effect. There was 1 Great Northern Diver and 3 Slav Grebes out on the sea, and the resident Eider put in an appearance. I don't know where the Med Gulls go at high tide.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Birds and booze Part 1

It is surely one of the finest combinations - supping a pint of foaming ale while birding, or at the end of a GREAT BIRDING DAY. It has long been an unrealised aspiration to write a book (which would of course require significant research) that focused on this divine mixture. And because the current fad seems to be to list the top 10/100/50 (delete as appropriate) of everything why not join in (I note that "the 50 best TV hard men" was on the box last night - strewth!)

This is the first of what I brazenly promise will be an occasional series by the end of which I hope to have arrived at the definitive top ten. For the first in the series, I will be quite predictable, as there must be very few birders who haven't at one point or another spent several hours in this particular establishment. However, it also is associated with a number of special personal memories - The Dun Cow, Salthouse, Norfolk.

For many a Spring, on our annual May trips to Norfolk, the Dun Cow was a central feature. We used to wild camp on Salthouse Heath, as you could get the car well off the road, ignoring the signs threatening prosecution (who, I ask you, is going to be wandering around at night on a remote heath looking for skint birders), and after a few pints (well not that skint), dozing off with the sound of Nightingales and Nightjars would have been quite romantic were it not for sharing a tiny ridge tent with one or other birding companion. The team was often the two Carters (Dave and Jon) and I, and if memory serves Dave invariably volunteered to sleep in the car. I also recall that, one early morning as I was just beginning to enter that sort of waking / dream state, I distinctly heard a voice shout "buttered scones are served at nine!" I was awake in a flash, to a grey dawn and silence. After a few minutes of coming to consciousness and trying to extricate myself from my sleeping bag, I asked Jon next to me whether it was me or had Dave shouted something a few minutes ago. "yes" came a very drowsy and grumpy voice "he said 'buttered scones are served at nine'". Oh that'll be alright then! That'll be Dave! And that'll be evidence of the rather surreal nature of our birding trips (coming across a huge pile of offal in the middle of the road somewhere in the brecks was one particularly strange moment).

Anyway, I digress. My first trip to Norfolk where I clocked up an embarrassing number of ticks, and which led to me falling head over heels in love with the place, involved drinking at the Dun Cow, with its views out over Salthouse Heath. On a good day you can clock up a range of Norfolk specialities - Egyptian Goose, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Avocet etc without trying too hard. It's also a great place to watch Barn Owls in the evening.

Jon, Dave and I spent one New Year's Eve in there (the year of the Red breasted nuthatch - a painful memory I'd rather not go into), where we were the only people not wearing fancy dress, and where they brought us over party hats etc. I also recall that one of the barmaids was dressed up as Aveline from Bread and that we all took a shine to her, until the end of the evening when she removed the wig that we had presumed had been her own long hair. Jive Bunny's Christmas medley seemed to be on a constant loop and even know the shout of Noddy Holder "It's Christmas!!!!" takes me back in a flash! Eventually we retired to our luxury accommodation - otherwise known as my car (three of us in the Polo!), with the party still in full swing. An hour or so later we were awoken by all the locals doing a conga round the car! You see what I mean by surreal?

So I've never seen anything really rare from there, but a visit is as much a part of a trip to Norfolk as blagging onto Cley. It's changed a lot since my first visit and is now very popular as a place to eat, but when Jon and I decided that we should have one last birding weekend before he and Jenny left us for Canada, it was somehow spot on that it should involve a few pints, some run of the mill bar food (with chips) and that view.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

It's the big one!

Bird spotters will be flocking to the South West after a potential first for the western palearctic was found near Plymouth. Experts are also considering the possibility that the bird may be a species new to science, and that this may be the most important ornithological discovery since Mr Bewick hung up his shotgun.

The potential new species of duck is believed to be distantly related to the humble mallard, but through a remarkable genetic isolation lasting several years is now considered to be a separate genome. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the urgent need to find more ticks that has led to the splitting of redpoll into three thousand distinct species, and the decision that actually every chiffchaff you see is probably a different, but closely related species. As Professor Levens states in his book "the science of splitting - a roadmap to the 600 club" - the old fashioned idea that if a bird looks identical and sounds identical it must be the same species is as outdated as the view that all Lady Amherst's pheasants in the home counties aren't tickable.

And if this discovery weren't enough the same top secret location has already turned up another remarkable find. This picture of a drake Mandarin which was described as "wary" and "sort of full winged" demonstrates the very special nature of the site, which is set to become a mecca for twitchers from across the world. Experts have conjected that the presence of these species at one small site may have something to do with the unique habitat, the most important element of which is considered to be the almost abnormal presence of stale bread floating in the water, a fact which is yet to be explained.

Other news from today - but obviously paling into insignificance in the light of the above - is that I actually went on A TWITCH. Now before you start scoffing inwardly, it was a twitch that involved driving all of 5 miles, and was also en route to buying a new washing machine (a mission which was doomed to failure when met with the several hundred models on offer - I think some lumping is required in the white goods department), so it wasn't really a twitch, honest. However, it did involve standing in a muddy field for half an hour gazing at a strip of set aside and a hedge (the fact that for the most part I was sharing said field with one other person also made it feel un-twitch like). And it was also rewarded with brief, but good views of a Little Bunting. Only the second I've seen so well worth the slight diversion. How far I've come from being a "Proper birder" is demonstrated by the fact that I was seriously in two minds as to whether to bother. It was a stunning spot overlooking the river Lynher and the sojourn was also enlivened by an overflying Greenshank and a couple of Red breasted Merganser.

But the biggest news of today is that the Assistant Clerk of Works uttered the word "pie" for the first time. I was so proud.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Swing low...

It was Daddy-Daughter day today. Now I face the age old thorny issue - how do you combine spending "quality time" with, in my case, 16 month old daughter, and take in a wee spot of birding? Well, here's an idea - start a playground / play park list. Mine has already got Black Redstart on it (Seaton, January this year). You'll be amazed how many decent birding sites have some conveniently placed swings or slides in close proximity. Most reservoirs offer something, but the best are those where an attentive father (or indeed mother) can entertain offspring while keeping ears open for grounded migrants. There's one in Baltimore a stones throw from where the boat to Cape Clear leaves, which has a number of sheltered sycamores and shrubs that are crying out for a crippler (and that's not what happens when daddy gets too distracted by the skulking phyllosc and little one takes a nose dive off the slide). There's also one on the Garrison on St Mary's complete with pirate ship. However, I would suggest that care needs to be taken when combining parenting in such a fashion and birding, as the presence of your standard birder in the midst of a play park may cause alarm. I have some tips:

1) Only take bins if you are sure the coast is clear. Now think of this as being highly instructive as you'll have to rely on fieldcraft, eyes and ears - this is quite liberating (although I know would bring your average twitcherer out in a cold sweat - but you really aren't going to get away with wandering around the swings with your tripod fully extended, try it - the legs do actually retract you know)

2) Try and dress down (you know - like a normal person). There's no need to wear full birdy greens and it might actually stop you looking like such an arse, especially if you are one of those people that seem to have to dress in full twitcherer regalia at the bird fair while browsing through the holiday brochures - although I can see why you'd want to blend in with the surrounding countryside while stood in a marquee talking loudly to other similarly clad folk about the last twitch you went on).

Take these two tips on board and you are assured a trouble free bit of playground birdspotting.

Anyway, Siblyback coincidentally has just such a playground. No decision to make. The Smew was still there, and being watched by another birder. Now is it just me or does everybody get a teeny weeny bit narked when another birder invades their patch. Those who adopt patches that actually have decent birds regularly probably get used to it, but for someone who goes out of their way to find one that will attract decent birds so rarely that they will never have to cross paths with another spotter, it is different. And to make it worse, said imposter announces that oh yes, it's been around a month and was originally seen on Siblyback before moving to Dozmary. What the.....Welcome to Cornwall birding. Now I know I don't spend all my days with one hand on a pager (sorry that dates me - it's all texting now I believe) but I do keep an eye on what's around locally. Oh well.

Supporting cast was a female Goosander, Kingfisher, still 43 Coot, and a staggering 5 Tufted Duck. It was a bonny morning though with a smattering of snow but clear skies and whisps of mist, and in response to the sunshine the first few hints of springtime sound - a few Siskins in the pines, Goldfinches chattering and a Mistle Thrush singing.
Later headed down to Hannafore, 6 Med Gulls, 1 Eider, 1 Grey Plover and a Ringed Plover the only things of note.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Flight of fancy

It's been a long week. But now it's Friday and the weekend lies ahead - cue torrential rain more than likely ( you must be really mystified why people call me a "half empty" kind of guy - I've spent half the week trying to convince people we're heading for a double dip recession -professionally I hasten to add - not just anyone I met on the street). Tuesday involved a return trip to Leeds - the red eye flight from Plymouth and a six hour train journey back. having been up at 4:20 to drive to Plymouth's tiny airport I slept for most of the flight. I awoke at one point to find the sun had risen and we were flying over the Brecon Beacons. I could see the snow on Pen Y Fan, and as always at such a sight, I get a little tingle of regret that I'm heading to a meeting to talk about Yorkshire's economic development, when some bastard is probably down there with the hills to themselves. On one flight up to Manchester a year or so ago, as I gazed westward into the early morning as we flew over the north wales border I could distinctly make out the snow capped summit of Snowdon in the far distance catching the light of the rising sun - almost brought tears to my eyes!

Snowdon is also known as Yr Wyddfa. On a weekend in its shadow a few years ago when we were helping celebrate our pal Neil's 40th, we were imbibing the local ale in a pub in Old Llanberis (near a campsite the facilities of which wouldn't find it winning any awards) when, after sampling a number of pints we asked a local what Yr Wyddfa meant. After some consideration, and prolonged discussion amongst his friends he knowledgably informed us that Yr Wyddfa actually meant.... "the snowdon". Taken aback by our incredulity, and this sums up the north welsh for you, one of the locals took it upon himself to go home, fetch a book, and bring it back to the pub. This told us that actually Yr Wyddfa, far from meaning "the snowdon" actually means the burial place of a giant called Rhita (I'm sure I knew her) who made a cloak out of the beards of all the men s/he killed. Slightly more interesting than "the snowdon", I'm sure you'll agree.

I love welsh mountains, it has long been one of my "things to do before you die" to climb every one over 2000 feet. There's 180 or so of them but it means you get to see more of Wales than the traditional 15 3000'ers. I've gratuitously included a couple of pics of me and the Clerk of Works (pre arrival of the assistant), on fairly indistinguishable welsh tops (the top one could be the fairly unimpressive summit of Pen Y Fan itself - a bit rubbish for the highest peak in south wales). I restrained myself from including a shot of her on Lord Hereford's Knob, as Twympa in the Black Mountains is otherwise (and hilariously known). Twympa is probably welsh for "lord hereford's knob" (and I'm not making this up - check out the ordnance survey). I have nothing but sympathy for any teacher taking a school trip anywhere in the vicinity.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

What a difference a day makes

I was pondering various topics for future posts last night, on the basis that I had better start thinking of things to write now I've joined the blogosphere. One of the obvious candidates was "birds I'd like to see at Siblyback that I haven't". Not that this would be of any interest to anybody, but it is one of the enduring appeals of a local patch that mundane species take on a rather extraordinary importance. For instance I clearly recall punching the air when finding a Coal Tit at Aldcliffe (a previous patch and now quite renowned site - mainly due to the sterling work of Mr Carter - check out birdingaldcliffe.blogspot). Admittedly I was younger (much) and rather impressionable, but there you go.

Anyway, one of the birds that would be top of this list would be Smew. As friends will tell you this is one of my all time favourite birds, I remember the first one I saw, I remember finding one at Aldcliffe, and its been a long time since I've seen one. My first car was a knackered old pale blue VW Polo that had a registration starting SMB, which the aforementioned Mr Carter furnished with a rather nice vinyl pic of a drake Smew, and immediately became known as the "Smewmobile". Classy. The Smewmobile carried us to many a rarity, although I had to run it without an air filter as for some reason that more technical people would know, oil would find its way into the filter and suffocate the engine. Both door handles broke and I had to get in by opening the boot and with a cunningly shaped stick, pull the internal door handle from within. This was all fine until the internal door handle also broke (probably as a result of being yanked by a bit of wood), and I had to resort to climbing in through the boot. At least it was a hatchback.

Enough diversionary rubbish. After yesterday's impressive foray to Siblyback I actually did have a lie in. Decided to do Hannafore first before it was totally grocked out (its one major disadvantage) but when I arrived there were already sundry folk and assorted dogs and children in evidence. A quick trundle along the promenade was enough to tell me that, what with the tide being out and all (one day I'll learn to time my visits right) that a couple of Med Gulls was all I was going to see. I did pick up a flock of 8 Common Scoter heading east at range, but that was it. So to Siblyback, not feeling particularly enthusiastic but I had work to do and if nothing else it would be pure prevarication.

The sun was out when I got there, and it was quite pleasant. The photo is looking north towards Twelve Mans Moor. Certainly better than writing a communication plan. And it got better. Now this is one of those fabulous coincidences (and you know what's coming) because there in all its delicate glory was a fine Redhead Smew. I remind you that this is Cornwall and these birds are by no means common down here. It was an adult female. To give you an idea of how rammed with birds Siblyback usually is, the only other waterbirds were 13 Tufted Duck (not a bad count), 11 Little Grebe, 47 Coot (a notable number) and "some" Canada Geese. This is on a water body that is 3.5 miles round. Still, my second patch tick of the year (the previous was Great Northern Diver). Marvellous.

I also took a photo of a Buzzard being mobbed by a local corvid, which when adjusting the levels, became this psychadelic study! As you will already be able to tell, photography is not my forte!!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Well here it is, not by popular demand, not for any purpose at all in fact, my blog. Don't expect daily postings of fantastic birds, cos I have another life these days that means birding has to take second place to more serious stuff.

But talking of birds - Clerk of Works and her assistant are away for the weekend, so I got out for several hours for the first time in a while. Siblyback was cold, grey and predictably devoid of birds. I would be lying to say there were any highlights. Unless you like Canada Geese....which I don't....or Coots - I'm still traumatised from the sight of several thousand Coot at Laguna De Medina in Andalucia many years ago, and a desperate (and ultimately futile) search for a Crested amongst them. The sharp eyed amongst you will have immediately noticed Hewy, Lewy and Dewy the Barnacle Geese in the cripplingly outstanding photo above. They're not real, no really. And I could have had a lie in! Ho hum.

I'll have a blast round to Dozmary Pool thinks I, having heard that a Lesser Scaup has been hanging round. Now Dozmary is one of my supporting cast of sub patches and as the crow (or indeed duck) flies is not far from Siblyback. En route I stop at the north end of Colliford Lake and the first bird I see is a drake Lesser Scaup-like thing. Trouble is, and this is the reason I hate Colliford - it's half a mile away. It's small, its quite dark backed, but that's it. Now I'm not one to doubt others and apparently better views have been obtained, but I had crippling views of a Lesser Scaup type thing last winter at Siblyback (a bird that had been at Dozmary so surely the same). At close range the black on the bill just spread off the nail, but at any normal view it would have looked just restricted to the nail. Now I'm no expert (plainly) but comparing that bird to photographs at the time I concluded it probably was real. However, others concluded otherwise. So forgive me for staying out, jury wise. Anyway, there were 3 Shoveler, a few teal, 3 Pochard and a Goldeneye - so there.

Down to the coast and Hannafore. Now I like Hannafore for two reasons - it's a good place for Divers and Grebes and for seawatching, and you can sit in the comfort of the car and listen to the football. It's also a good place to take the Assistant Clerk of Works when she won't go to sleep, as by the time we get there she's snoozing in the back and I can spend an hour combining being a brilliant father and scanning the sea. Today, being solitary, I could actually get out of the car, immediately wish I hadn't (it was bloody freezing). Still the cafe was open and I could buy a hot chocalate and sit in the car again. Seven Med Gulls, including one adult just coming into Summer plumage, an immature male Eider, and a Grey Plover were the highlights. Now the Grey Plover is one of my favourite birds, and I realised how long it had been since I'd seen one - I really do need to get out more.