Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Popped in to Stourhead on the way back. Not as productive for birds as others have found , but the combination of low sun and dark clouds made for some spectacular views between the hail storms.

After that we headed home. We were held for an hour whilst someone was helicoptered off the A303. then D#4 projectile vomitted all over the car, and finally as the temperature dropped below zero we had a blizzard on the M25, with the snow beginning to settle on the windscreen and articulated lorries hurtling down the middle lane. But apart from that it was fine.

Is Radipole worth a visit?

When staying in Weymouth we are in close proximity to Radipole, but I rarely go there. I thought I'd take the camera for a walk round the reserve and see what turned up.

I started (Monday 8 am) on the SW side, and stopped opposite the RSPB centre. There was the usual healthy collection of commoner water birds - Great-Crested and Little Grebes (about 10 of the latter), Shoveler, Gadwall, Teal, Shelduck, and lots of gulls.

A kingfisher perched on a reed for a couple of ticks (not common for me here), a Cetti's Warbler sang from a nearby bush, and a male Stonechat showed some interest.

There weren't many BH Gulls present, but there were a large number of Mediterranean Gulls amongst them. I counted 13, a mix of adult, 1st and 2nd Winter, but this is a small fraction of the numbers here recently (this pic taken from the other side later).

I checked for one of the varieties of Herring Gull that have been seen here recently, but the best I could come up with was this. Any comments?

I went up to the Buddleia loop and looked NW across the mere to north hide. Here's the view, with a Common Buzzard in the middle.

There was a constant pinging from the opposite bank, and eventually 4 Bearded Reedlings flew up and off. Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail made their presence known with calls, and there were 30 Gadwall, more Shovellers, and 2 Pochards.

Back via the centre where there were 8 Snipe, and of course Hooded Merganser on the boating lake.

So not a bad list. But the problem with Radipole is that list doesn't change much during the winter. You could see Bittern if you were lucky or persistent, and maybe a Scaup will turn up amongst the Pochards, but it has lost quite a lot of the variety over the years. I'll fish out my records from winter visits over the years soon for a comparison.

Land of the Dead

Back in Weymouth for half term, we headed north to Wiltshire, and the area where Mrs D grew up.

The landscape of Wiltshire is one defined largely by the long-dead. Apart from well known sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, there are hundreds of ancient barrows, and every hill seems to have a hill-fort on top and strip-lychetts on the side.

We started in Devizes at the museum, which was having an exhibition of some of the gold artefacts found 200 years ago in Bush Barrow. Then braved the weather to visit a couple of the less famous sites. Firstly West Kennet Longbarrow, a set of three burial chambers that pre-dates Stonehenge by a couple of thousand years.

I have no idea whether the fine layers of sates between the Sarsens are original or added later.

The barrow is close to Silbury hill. The purpose of this huge manmade structure has so far eluded archaeologists. One theory is that the surrounding depression would have been flooded in Neolithic times so making the hill a large island.

Finally we headed up to Avebury. We approached from the south past the avenue.

My appreciation of this landscape has been helped by reading Time Team’s France Pryor excellent “Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans.“

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's in a name?

An Amur Falcon originally identified as a Red-Footed Falcon is causing some frustration on certain bird forums. The essence of the posts is “because you useless idiots failed to identify an obvious Amur Falcon I’ve been denied an opportunity to add a bird to my UK list”. People are drawing attention to the underwing pattern in various photos and reduced to spluttering incredulity, but even from my limited experience, I know that modern cameras produce much better images than were available to the eye at the time; light and colour balancing and magnification allow us to see features at our leisure that were not evident as the bird was hurtling past.

I don’t keep a close eye on these things, but I think over the last two years most additions to the UK list have been identified after the original sighting from photos posted on the internet. Good birdwatchers are being outed as useless because they failed to correctly identify a bird they weren’t expecting and had never previously seen.

Now fortunately we have a data point that should cheer up all those birders who are less than perfect. Graham Catley owns up on his blog to overlooking a 2nd for Europe. He even took a photograph of it, but only registered whilst news came through of the sighting.

Now I’ve never met Graham, but whilst a birder in Yorkshire in the 1980’s I was aware of his reputation as an expert birder, and its clear from his blog that he hasn’t spent the intervening twenty years sat on his backside. So if an expert birder like Graham overlooks a new bird, then what chance have you or me (particularly me) got?

Most things are obvious in retrospect. Einstein’s theories of relativity make sense once they’ve been explained to you, but it took a genius to see it. The banking collapse was inevitable once it had happened, but few predicted it before hand. The evidence all points to the fact that when presented with an unexpected and unfamiliar bird, many experienced birders don’t identify it correctly at the time.

On this occasion, I think the name has subconsciously influenced people’s reactions. An Amur falcon sounds completely different to a Red-footed Falcon – how could you possibly confuse birds with such different names? If the bird was known by its old name – Eastern Red-footed Falcon – then I think people may have been more prepared to accept some id confusion.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vis Mig

I’ve been following Visible Migration records for a while (eg here and more locally here). The Vis Mig yahoo group were having a big day today, so I thought I’d have a go.

The watch was taking place from 7-10, so at 7:30 prompt I arrived at my chosen place, Harlow Town Park. My recollection of many visits to the park was a clear vista over the Stort valley. It’s funny how your memory plays tricks, because as soon as I got there I realised it was unsuitable. It’s a great park, but the view is primarily of tree tops. Also, a difficulty is knowing whether some birds are genuinely migrating or simply moving round the park.

Anyway: here’s the records.
7:30 to 7:45. Redwing 10 NW, Sisking calling (3?), Jay 1 around.
7:45 to 8:00 Chaffinch 3N, Woodpigeon 400 W, Meadow Pipit 1 calling, Goldfinch c5W, Cormorant 3E
8:00 to 8:20 (I was interrupted by a curious passer by at this point) Redwing 8W, Grey Wagtail 1E (one of the park birds I think), Chaffinch 2N, Greenfinch 5 S
8:20 Lapwing c200 over the valley, with c50 Starlings, 1 Sparrowhawk.

At this point I decided to cut my losses. There weren’t many birds, and my calls are a bit crap as well; for instance I thought I heard a Yellowhammer early on, but as that would be an unusual record for the park, I’d prefer to see it.

Most moving birds seemed to be over the Stort, too far in the distance to ID from the park. I think its worth continuing to find a reasonable spot from which to view migration, but Harlow Town Park isn’t it.

I went home via Trim’s Green. 3 Golden Plover, several Skylarks up and singing. And nothing else.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


It was a beautiful morning – surely there won’t be a better one this year – so I sat in the garden with my camera. The house is in the centre of the town, and the garden is small – think half a tennis court – and surrounded by hedgerows and trees.

There was the usual stuff – Starling, Magpie, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, a few Blackbirds, Robin, and Wood Pigeons over. This morning there was a Goldcrest, and a Meadow Pipit and Skylark over.

Suddenly there were birds around. Finches and Jackdaws flew over, and a tight-knit group of Starling went past. This is invariably a sign of a Sparrowhawk in the area, and one shot into the garden next door, sat in a tree for a couple of minutes, then shot out again.

As usual there was some traffic from Stansted, and courtesy of the internet we can see this one gets around a bit.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rockit at SLRS

Every now and then my lackadaisical approach to birding catches me out. I mean it’s not as though I don’t know what a Rock Pipit looks like, as I see them regularly at Portland Bill, but they're birds you just walk past. I’ve never really sat down and looked at one in detail.

So this morning I popped down to SLRS for the first time in a while, and there on the mud is a pipit. And my first thought was “that looks like a Rock Pipit”, and my second thought was “how do I clinch it?” And I realised I don’t know.

It was dark brown/grey on the back, heavily marked on the breast in splodges (as if the colours had run); an eye ring and no particular supercilium. The bill was dark and stout, and the legs had a pinkish tinge. In some lights it seemed to have a yellowish vent. But it didn’t really have anything definitive.

Never mind, I had my brand new mobile phone, specially selected for its impressive Zeiss lens and optical zoom facility. I’d just take a few pictures to confirm the id at my leisure.

Well, taking a picture seemed just impossible. By the time I’d found the exact location of the phone on the lens required to get a picture, the bird had moved, and I ended up with a collection of pictures of mud, close up. The kind of pictures that normally feature Buzz Aldrin in his Moon buggy, not pipits.

I was saved by the arrival of a couple of Meadow Pipits, which posed next to the target bird. Completely different. Phew. Rich Brown with fine black markings, bright pink legs, a thin beak you could just reach out and snap off. When I moved position and had to refind the Rockit it was obvious which one it was.

Otherwise the scrape, just a small puddle now, held 2 Lapwings, 10 Snipe, and 18 Moorhen. Slowly the local specialities appeared; a mixed flock of about 30 at Feakes Lock held Yellowhammers, Reed Bunting, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Greenfinch. Bullfinches were occasional throughout; otherwise a couple of Sparrowhawks, a Green Woodpecker, a GSW, and 2 Jays. The whole area looked particularly fantastic today, the colours of the autumn leaves standing out against the clear blue sky.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

local stuff

The weather forecast had been cancelled and been replaced with a reading from the old testament. Gale force winds, torrential rain, floods. All scheduled for exactly the brief period of time this weekend when I'm free. I managed a few minutes at Trim's Green, mainly on the ploughed field that has been delivering this autumn, before the plague of frogs arrived.

The field held 330 Golden Plover (a local record for me), and roughly 100 Lapwing, 50 BHG, 200 Starling. A few Goldies still had the remains of black bellies, and some looked greyer than others, but the distance and the gale force wind made counting and finding any variety amongst them impossible.

There were 8 Red-Legged Partridges at Lysander Park, and earlier a Common Buzzard was seen in the distance struggling south over East Sawbo - a tick for the house list.

Commonly Spotted Orchids

We are fortunate in the UK in that the commonest orchids are also amongst the most beautiful. I spent a morning photographing some on the lo...