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.