Monday, January 07, 2019

On being a stupid birdwatcher.

My name is Dorset Dipper and I'm a stupid birdwatcher.

I don't mean the mis-ID's last week at Abberton. There was a Spoonbill somewhere around, and when I saw a large white bird flapping over a distant shore I called out "is that the Spoonbill?" and no it was just another GWE. Then a large raptor over the same shore - "Is that a Marsh Harrier" but before I could get on it someone else had confirmed it as a Buzzard. and then a flock of Dunlin and one with a massive curved bill. "Hang on everyone - is that a Curlew Sandpiper?" and after a while watching, on the ground and in the air, we decided it was probably an Alpini race. But what a bill! No. I'm not talking about those, all of which I think fall into the category of calling out first and then ID'ing later. Better to risk public mistake than announce after the fact you saw something noteworthy.

I mean the what-on-earth was I thinking? Why exactly did I fail to go back and have a proper look at that larger-than-a-stint-smaller-than-a-Dunlin wader, which may well have been the White-Rumped Sandpiper that appeared shortly afterwards? Why did I not listen to the inner voice saying "are you sure that's not just a juvenile ruff?" before announcing to the local RSPB warden I had rediscovered the Pectoral Sandpiper? I mean the ones where in retrospect all the evidence was available and I just ignored it.

Well now I have the answer as to why, on occasion I am a stupid Birdwatcher. It is here in the article suitably titled "How not to be stupid".

Stupidity is defined as "overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information". The article lists seven reasons why one might do this, and quite a few are relevant to birding. Being in a rush would explain the WRS above, or that feeling that I had a lot of ground to cover and not much time to do it.

Others also pertain to birding. Being outside your normal environment. Information overload. Being in the presence of a group with an expert, or being an expert. Doing any task that requires intense focus. Being tired.

I'm not sure where List Fever occurs in that list, that feeling that you have made an emotional commitment, not to say financial and time commitment, and have already rehearsed the excitement of seeing a particular bird, so the emotional cost of admitting that it isn't the bird in you were hoping to see is considerable.

From work experience, the issues that trip you up are the ones that come from left field. The projects that come through the usual route and fall into the standard processes get done; the ones that come in by circuitous routes don't fall into the usual process and get screwed up. Well, birding is full of birds that don't come when, where, and how you were expecting them.

So this year, I'm going to try and exercise a bit more proper process, to relax and do the due diligence, to be, well, just less stupid.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Another rubbish day on the patch

The patch has been, comparatively speaking, rubbish this year. The pond at the heart of the patch is overgrown and has no standing water despite recent rains, and location means that it doesn't get much in the way of vagrants, so I set off this morning with low expectations.

A flurry of tits and a couple of Goldcrests at the bottom of the drive, then round the corner and up to Nursery Wood at the NE corner of Pishiobury Park. A brief stop saw a Nuthatch and a family party of Bullfinches, and another Goldcrest.

Not much then until the three-bridges area. Capability Brown designed Pishiobury Park to have a serpentine lake below the park toward the river. This area is no longer a lake but is private farm-land. When there is heavy rain water flows over the west and fills the still-present depression. Viewing is hard in winter as it is through a hedge, and impossible in summer. Today I managed to see Teal, Gadwall, and male Wigeon. The Gadwall numbered about 5 and the Wigeon and Teal were recorded in single but may have been more.

Down to Feakes Lock - 2 Cormorant in the Cormorant Tree, 13 Redwing over, then round the Loop field - more Bullfinches, Yellowhammer over, 70 mixed Common Gull and Black-headed Gull in a field, Kestrel, more Goldcrest, then back to the three bridges for a second look at the wildfowl. A flurry of birds with 2 Ring-Necked Parakeets calling loudly and flying around, Stock Dove, and a look around revealed the cause of the excitement - a male Sparrowhawk slowly causing over the field. 2 Siskin over and 4 Jays , and it was off home, stopping by the willows by the navigation for a small flock of tits including a Treecreeper, back to Nursery Wood where there were now 2 Nuthatches, then Bullfinch again and excitingly 2 House Sparrow - always noteworthy on the patch as they are not an everyday occurrence.

So not Minsmere, but some nice stuff and a few local notables courtesy of the flooded field.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Home and Away

A couple of recent trips

Abberton. Quite a list! Black-Necked Grebe , Long Tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Bewick's Swan, distant Little Gull, Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Ruff, Black Tailed Godwit, Marsh Harrier, and I've stopped looking at Great White Egrets there are so many of them.

Canvey Point - a bit gloomy, but a diver flying around was probably a Black-Throated, then off to Rainham. Howard on the desk. Anything around? Howard rattled off an okayish list, and then said that a gloomy day with an easterly breeze something like White Fronted Goose was a possibility. Just before the Ken Barrett hide 5 geese over - one of them has massive black barring on the belly - thank you Howard! Then Water Pipit, Pintail, Ruff, and a couple of Marsh Harriers. So some decent stuff.

This all contrasts with the patch, which has been  ... okay. A Chiffchaff calling incessantly in river-side willows eventually gave pleasant sepia views; my first winter chief on the patch. A Little Owl prowling at dusk. Then in the park, 5 Lesser Redpoll were the first of the winter, and a few Siskin were flying around.

Today I managed an hour or so. Three Green Woodpeckers in the field, a few Bullfinches, then some bird action visible over the railway line. A flock of a few hundred Woodpigeon with some Stock Doves, about the same number of corvids, and about 50 Chaffinches and 20 Yellowhammer, with good numbers for the patch. Now many areas have seen Bramblings passing through recently, and as its one of my favourite birds I had as good a look as I could through the finches. I'm sure you can imagine my joy at finding I had possibly the biggest flock of Chaffinches in the south of England that does not have even a single sodding Brambling in it.

But anyway ... onwards, and quite a few Fieldfare including ones feeding in bushes not too far off, and a distant Red Kite.

The thing is, I think I enjoyed my common birds about as much as I enjoyed all those rarities at Abberton. I guess we all started birding because we love birds. And not just rare birds, but any bird. I'm increasingly conscious that the best moments of bird trips aren't necessarily the target birds, but are the ones that give confiding views, or that you stumble upon and didn't expect. Take that Chiffchaff - is there a duller bird than a winter Chiffchaff? But I really enjoyed its smooth sleek plumage and warm tones.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Wallasea Island

For a while now, Wallasea Island has been the next big thing. Powered by the diggings of Crossrail, the RSPB were going to make this the next Minsmere, a place where expanding populations of Mediterranean and continental birds would make their homes.

It has all gone quiet for a while, with very few records coming from the reserve, until recently when winter raptors and owls have been recorded and most recently a Rough-Legged Buzzard. Time for David and myself to make our Wallasea Island debuts.

We got their early afternoon, satnav having thankfully guided us there in the absence of any signs. We parked in the 'car park' and headed up to the sea wall for a scan over the reserve in the slowly waning light. Lots of rough fields, some spaced out groups of cattle, some distant lagoons. On the estuary side, mud. In the distance a female Hen Harrier, and then flocks of Golden Plover and more common estuary waders, and a distant group of ten Black-tailed Godwits.

We had learned that the best place for the roost was by a gate just before the entrance, so we returned to the car park. On arriving there was a strange unfamiliar wader-like call. I looked up and a female Merlin was belting over which then proceeded to put up flocks of Lapwings and Plovers as it dashed low across the reserve. I guess that strange call was waderese for 'Merlin!'

We made our way to the gate where a couple of people were already present and started scanning, Apart from a couple of Kestrels hovering there wasn't much. Just a female Sparrowhawk through Then I got the scope on to one of the kestrels, and as it sank to the ground realised it was considerably bigger! Dam and Blast! Yet another in this blog's roll call of missed opportunities. Surely, at half a mile, there would be no second chance on this probable Rough-Legged.

Repeat scanning of the area produced a large raptor sat on the bank. Zooming in, it was buzzard-like with a whitish head. Then, it took off and miraculously flew towards us. It flew around at a range of about 200 yards, hovered, flew round some more, hovered some more, then sat on a bank. Whilst a couple of crows sat in attendance. Wow! Full white tail, white feather edges, whitish on the upper primary base, pale underneath with dark breast and dark tail band, the lot. We got ten minutes or so, possibly longer, until it flew down into the field out of site. Quite the best views either of us have ever had of Rough-Legged Buzzard.

And that was pretty much it. Just a flock of 35 Corn Buntings flying around, 6 Marsh Harriers, and a distant Barn Owl.

So on its own terms, Wallasea Island is doing okay. I guess over the years the RSPB will start to deliver infrastructure, and a bit more variety of birds. But for now, at just over an hour's distance, it is well worth adding to the list of local places worth visiting.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Dream list in Norfolk

What a list! E/NE wind on the Norfolk coast in Late October (29th). Start the Day at Cley with White-Billed Diver, a distant White-Tailed Eagle coming over Salthouse, and a handful of Little Auks; go to Salthouse for the Stejneger’s Stonechat, Then Titchwell just in time for the Red-flanked Bluetail, and finally Red-Necked Grebe and some passage on the sea. Truly a list of dreams.

And dreams is unfortunately what that list is, because someone, no prizes for guessing who, managed to convince his mates that the place to start was Titchwell, not Cley. The first unpleasant surprise was that in contrast to the empty roads through Swafham and Fakenham, Kings' Lynn on a Monday morning has turned into the M25 on a Friday afternoon. Whilst seabirds whizzed along the Norfolk coast, we sat stationary on the A149. Eventually, we pulled up at Titchwell to a car park busy with birds. 4 Chiffchaffs and a Brambling. We strolled down to the beach to hear that we had just missed a Little Auk. Not to worry, they were clearly passing and it was just a matter of time. We got the Red-Necked Grebe off the shore, and a few other birds in the swell including a mystery grebe which I kept getting confused with the Red-Necked Grebe. Others claimed it as a Slavonian, and I wouldn't argue, but the few occasions I saw it didn't give me a conclusive view. So we left not having seen any decent seabirds, no Little Auks, and with the news from Cley about the White Billed Diver and the Eagle in our ears.

We returned to the car park, having a minor drenching on the way back, then a good look round the centre again with more Thrushes and calling Redpoll sp. Then a leisurely lunch in the car park. I note these prosaic details because when we arrived at Cley, where we found out that there was nothing on the sea, we learned that there had been a Red-Flanked Bluetail seen on the path back at Titchwell. I suspect it was the rain that brought it down. Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, it may not have been known by the reserve staff at the time we left, but I sincerely hope that whenever they were informed someone got right down to the car park to stop anyone leaving without having the option of going to see it. All I can say is that when it comes to communicating what is around to the punters, RSPB Minsmere sets the standard.

So to that Stonechat. The Stejnegerjgerjgers whatever. It was nice, performed well, had a bit of Whinchat about it, but lets face it, we are all waiting for that paternity test to come back so we can tick it. We did get to hear about the moment the White-Billed Diver had flown by, and how the watchers got really excited when they saw that banana bill gleaming in the sun. Fantastic. I'm really happy for them.

We heard that RFB had been seen back at Titchwell, so back we went, and spent the last half hour of useful daylight standing by a freezing clump of sueda bushes with a group of cold disgruntled watchers. And then tantalisingly, my luck changed. Just me and one other saw the bird fly between bushes. It was only a nano-second, no red, no blue, just a flash of pale grey, but absolutely, definitely it. Out of deference to my travelling companions who missed it, I have graciously decided not to tick it. And, to be honest, having had one in touching distance for about half an hour a few years ago, a fly-by doesn't really hit the spot.

Then back to the gridlock of metropolitan King's Lynn. Just as well I had my travelling companions to turn what could have been a seriously miserable trip back into something much more relaxed and enjoyable. And there we have it.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Inland sea-watch and The Beast From The North

A flex day for Mike meant a chance to put the band back together again even if for just one day. I inspected the weather map and saw a repeat of the strong NE winds in the Thames Estuary which had recently brought seabirds galour to the Oare Marshes, and at just after 9 we were looking into a blank expanse of intertidal mud and low-tide estuary from the Sea Hide by the mouth of the Oare. "It doesn't seem an obvious place for a sea-watch" said David, helpfully, and as 60+ Avocets settled in front of us, I could see his point.

We walked round the reserve collecting c20 Ruff, c60 Golden Plover, and 1000+ Black-tailed Godwits but with none of the rarer waders for which the reserve is renown. It was turning into a bit of a disappointment when as we headed back to the car Mike spotted a Great Skua over the reserve - sea birds at last! A Peregrine appeared over the car, a massive female we would guess, and as we headed back to the sea watching hide now on a rising tide and buffeted by a howling NE wind we were treated by 7 Gannets high up drifting slowly inland.

An hour later we were heading back to the car with 4 Arctic Skuas, another 15-odd mainly juvenile Gannets, an adult Little Gull and a few Commic Terns to the good. The Swale channel in front of us and the winds had brought these birds in quite close too. Well, close for a sea-watch. Not bad for a marshland reserve!

And so, on the way back to Stortford we came to the Beluga. Riverside Saxon Way duly located, we were met by a birder heading back on his phone who kindly paused to indicate it was just off-shore, and there it was, a large disc of porcelain-coloured blubber rotating through the water and then gone. We watched it for an hour or so getting several decent views as it appeared to happily hunt along our stretch of river about 50-100 metres out; a surprisingly prominent spine, no dorsal fin, a marbled pale grey appearance, a blast from the air hole as it was about to surface and a nice length of body arcing through the water. I would guess 2m-3m long. A much better than expected series of views of this completely unexpected creature, and a collection of a spectators with many more women and young folk than attend the average twitch.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Welney Wonderland

The moment when the magic of the place hit home was when we picked up a Merlin whizzing down the back of the washes, past the three Common Cranes, just behind the grazing family party of Whooper Swans, and down on to the deck. This could be some piece of bogy tundra well beyond the arctic circle. And all from a large lounge which is certainly the most luxurious place to see birds I've encountered in the UK.

I hadn't been to Welney WWT for a while. Probably because if you're going to go all the way to Welney, you may as well carry on to the Norfolk coast, and also, its quite expensive. But the chance of seeing my second Pallid Harrier in three days (lol!) as well as the possibility of seeing Common Crane, a bird whose expansion in the UK had managed to pass me by, saw David and me handing over our money and heading across the wooden walkway to view the washes.

That Merlin moment didn't happen until after we had gone the full length north from the main hide to find the Harrier, only to be told it had been seen early and scooted off north somewhere. We did catch up with a couple of Marsh Harriers, one of which came really quite close, and a few Ruff amongst the Teal. A couple of distant Hobbies patrolled the far side of the wash, and Kestrels and Snipe kept us busy in the search for the Harrier. And three enormous Cranes drifted close by back toward the main hide. Wow.

The path was out of the path of the howling wind so had a surprising number of insects. We got Wall Butterfly - new for the year for both of us, one in a prolonged spiralling fight with a Small Copper; plenty of Migrant Hawkers often resting up out of the wind, and even a Willow Emerald. This species is becoming the Little Egret of the Damsel fly world. Last year we were thrilled to find one. This year we are delighted to see so many. Next year we will be disappointed not to see one in the usual places. The year after that we will have stopped counting them.

Time for lunch in the clean and overpriced modern cafe, up on the second floor to give a good view of Lady Fen. And what a view, as 9 Common Cranes flew around the fields, bickering and arguing with each other. It seemed there were three parties of three, with each having two adults and a drab brownish bird of the year. We almost overlooked the Tree Sparrows on the feeders, a treat for us Southerners.

Then back to the main hide to find the three Cranes still there, so 12 in total. A scan along the waters edge had single Avocet, three Black-tailed Godwit, and a couple of Dunlin with many wigeon and Teal there too. Then four Cranes flew in and we had seven birds doing the full Crane thing at a distance of, I would guess, between 50 and 100 yards. Those birds filled the scope view without having to touch the zoom. Jumping, jostling, then head-down arse-up feeding, and a bit more of that slow, languid flight and bounding landing. And then the Merlin doing what Merlins do. We quite forgot we hadn't seen that Harrier.

Here's a couple of photos. If you are thinking those are quite good for me, that's because they were taken by David. For more, see his excellent blog

Cranes from the main hide. 

Migrant Hawker resting out of the wind.