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.