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Gavin Haig
Updated: 31 min 40 sec ago

Includes a Garden Whale

Wed, 08/04/2020 - 22:33
On Monday night I settled down for a bit of naked nocmigging, expecting the usual silence, and within a few minutes a Moorhen called, directly overhead! Unmistakable, just the sort of noise you'd hear if you startled one out of the bankside vegetation during a stroll round your local lake. I was ridiculously chuffed, out of all proportion to the status of the species involved. Number 36 on my #BWKM0 list, and a new one for the garden.

Last night I gave it an hour. Within seven minutes I heard a faint, presumably distant, Canada Goose. Number 37.

Sitting in the garden after dark, ears cocked, has become slightly addictive. My hit rate is dire, yet I keep trying. I simply cannot help myself. However, I am not the world's best at calls, and need to up my game. And I will. More on that later...

This morning it was another long walk. A chap in West Bay noticed my bins and said "Are you looking for birds?" Responding to my affirmative, he went on: "There's a nice Sandwich Tern perched on a buoy in the harbour." It was great to get gen from a fellow 'exerciser'. There currently seems to be a marked increase in friendliness (in a two-metres-plus kind of way) when locals encounter one another. I don't think I'm imagining it. And if it helps me see birds, terrific...

Phwoarr! Sarnie. What a cracker.
And another, slightly more distant shot to give it a bit more context...

Great hair-do.
Not too long after this I came across a fresh-in male Wheatear. I will never tire of Wheatears. Especially spring males. They are simply outstanding little things. I spent a bit of time with this bird, and although it was never confiding, the P900 did it proud. I believe there is a saying: 'you can never have enough Wheatear photos'...

There isn't? Please let there be.

I am a sucker for this pose. As you will notice...Leatherjacket breakfast.

And while we're on chats...

Stonechat. Having them breeding on my doorstep is easy to take for granted. Mustn't.
Most of the rest of the day was spent in the garden. Adding to the #BWKM0 list has been a slow but steady process. As of today I am on 39, with Long-tailed Tit added yesterday and House Martin today. Best bird this afternoon was Red Kite x4. Three came over simultaneaously (two went W, one S) and another single S later, encouraged on its way by a Herring Gull.

Red Kites. The two that drifted WAnd the one that got grief.
And finally, cetacean of the day. Around 10:55 a plane flew over. Planes are infrequent right now, so I had a look at it. The odd shape reminded me of the subject of a tweet which Cliff Smith posted a few days back, and belatedly I thought to get the camera out and take a snap. This decision coincided with it heading away into cloud, and the two photos are shockingly bad. However, it is pretty amazing what you can extract from a digital image if you're prepared to be brutal...

On the left: my original smear. On the right: Beluga! BGA114D Airbus en route from Toulouse to Chester. With grateful thanks to John Down for the gen.
Needless to say, this is the first whale I've seen from my garden.

Earlier I mentioned upping my game re bird calls etc. Ooh! That reminds me! Today I heard a singing Goldcrest. Which is brilliant. Why? Because I could hear it. Some ears of similar vintage have not heard Goldcrest for a while. So I am pleased. Anyway, I was saying...

I have ordered a digital sound recorder. Living as I do in Dorset, one day something is going to fly over me in the dark, going 'plik'. Once. Faintly. And when that happens I want to be able to save that 'plik' for posterity. To replay it at my leisure, time and time again. To view its smudgy little spectrogram with self-satisfied delight.

After all, one cannot live in Dorset and not have Ortolan on the garden list.
Categories: Magazine

Walking. Not Gardening.

Sun, 05/04/2020 - 22:04
I must write a gardening post soon. I am well aware that many birders are all-round naturalists, and will be very interested in my efforts to tempt creepy-crawlies into the grounds of NQS Manor. Actually I am a shocking gardener, and must tell you about when I...

No. Another time.

Anyway, while I was up to my knuckles in green fingers today, at least 5 Swallows went through, and a bonus Red Kite which actually set off the gulls. The first one this spring to do so; the others have been too high. Swallow brings my #BWKM0 list to 35. Frustration of the day was an egret sp which went over N. Only my second egret from the garden, and I caught only the back end. A two-second glimpse really. Dark feet! Possibly. I ran around to the front, but the bird was hidden behind trees. Yeah. I know. Of course it was a Little Egret, but you've got to take any and every opportunity to gee yourself up a bit in these #BWKM0 times, right?

Yesterday I went for a serious exercise walk. Nice and early, and all the way to the sea. Obviously I didn't actually seawatch, but a couple of scans produced some 30+ Common Scoter heading E. So that's what the treacherous creatures are doing; migrating by day, over the sea, instead of by night, over my house. Two ducks which obviously were not Scoters, but were a little too far out for my bins, succumbed to the P900...

Nikon Coolpix P900 sorts distant ducks. Wigeon.

I am so gutted that the spring seawatching season has been blown out of the water by this poxy virus. I am really looking forward to trying to get skua photos/video with this camera one day. One day.

Other stuff from the big walk...

Confiding Skylark. It was great to hear quite a few in song.
A presumed migrant Mipit having a breather.
One of just two Wheatears seen. A bit coy.
Call that a bill? This is a bill. (Movie reference for the almost-elderly) Raven.
First Holly Blue of the year. Always a real treat.
There was basically nobody about during the outbound part of my walk, but a few more on the return. Living in an area with such a modest population density has its advantages when the only folk you ought to be encountering are locals, because there are relatively so few of them. I would hate to be trying to get some socially-distanced exercise in a city.

Most of the day was then spent in the garden. Bird-wise unexciting, until a dark shape appeared, heading S. I grabbed the camera, switched it on, zoomed, focused, and rattled off a single burst of three shots before it went out of eyeshot. Cormorant! New for the BWKM0 list. We get the odd one in winter, but they're not common.

Cormorant. Sometimes I can do flight shots.
It is now about 22:00. For the last three nights I've been outside about now, wrapped up in winter clobber, listening carefully to the sound of an empty sky. I think I've given it a fair crack.

A night off, I think. I'm not a complete idiot.
Categories: Magazine

Naked Nocmig and Other Stories

Fri, 03/04/2020 - 22:01
Last night nearly the whole birding community was mobilised in a shared endeavour: getting Common Scoter on the BWKM0* list. After dark, seething hordes of them lift off from their wintering grounds and undertake a stealth migration. Their nocturnal route takes them overland, and their calls can be heard from the ground. It's a route which carefully avoids Bridport.

I was outside in the amazing silence for two hours from 22:45. The only definite bird noises I heard were an optimistic Robin and something which sounded like a muted version of a Great Spotted Woodpecker's 'kik', presumably a Tawny Owl. Ultra-distant dogs are a pain. Their yaps and yelps can easily sound like an interesting flight call. Or perhaps it's the other way around, and I mucked up several cool birds by dismissing them as dogs.

So, of the 5,320 birders either outside on the patio or recording last night, it seems that just me and three others failed to get Common Scoter.

Naked nocmig? That's the acoustic kind, with ears, as opposed to the electronic version, with its microphones, recorders and software...and blissfully sleeping operators.

I did make one schoolboy error. I thought it would be pleasant to start the session with a nice cup of tea and some biscuits. The moment I bit into my first chocolate and ginger cookie, I realised I shouldn't have. Crunch, crunch, CRUNCH! It's deafening. From then on it was 'dunk and suck'.

I shall try again, but it was not an auspicious beginning...

My BWKM0 list is pretty rubbish. I'm on 33 right now. Today's additions were Coal Tit, Bullfinch and Grey Wagtail. The sky was enlivened by a Red Kite - my first for several days - and up to six Buzzards, plus one or more Sparrowhawks and a Raven.

My first hirundine of 2020 was a Swallow on April 1st while out for a bike ride.

This might be Buff-tailed Bumblebee. Whatever, it's number 2 on the bee list.
Raptor Watch Squad. Very useful to have around.
Nikon P900 on a tripod. ISO 100 and a 2" shutter delay. Very pleasing
I've heard tell that you can set up your scope and point it at the full moon, and then enjoy the spectacle of nocturnally migrating birds passing across its glowing orb as silhouettes. I first heard about this back in the very early '80s when I was quite new to proper birding. The bloke who told me about it was a well-known (at the time) London birder, a lot older than me, and he happily bragged about the two Cranes which had repaid his moon-watching efforts just the other night. I lapped it up of course. The notion of such 'advanced' birding, and the skills it clearly required, impressed me hugely. However, as I later learned, the birder in question was actually a notorious stringer...

For some reason I have never forgotten that little experience, and have consequently not once pointed my scope at the full moon and sat down for a session of moon-migging. Have I missed anything?

Who said 'Loads of Scoter!'?

Blue Tit posing.
Coal Tit. Not an everyday garden bird for me.
Slow worm today. Just look at that slinky perfection.

* That's 'Birdwatching at Kilometre Zero'
Categories: Magazine

Exercise and Birds

Mon, 30/03/2020 - 23:10
Do my fellow bloggers ever wonder, like I do, what impels our audience to click on a post and read it? Sure, sometimes it will be because the subject matter is clearly going to be of interest, something topical or controversial perhaps. But what about the mundane, everyday posts? Because that is what the majority are. Speaking personally, often I click and read because of the person behind the keyboard. The vast majority I've never met, but over time have come to enjoy their virtual company enough to want to spend a few minutes in it, whatever they want to talk about. So if that's why you are reading this, thank you, because 'mundane' and 'everyday' is what we have here today...

For Mrs NQS and me, 2019 was a rubbish year in one or two profound ways. None of this stuff ever makes the blog, and I guess this is generally true for other bloggers too. Life is life, and we all have our various coping mechanisms to help smooth the ups and downs, but baring all on the internet is not one of mine! Last year, feverish DIY helped a lot, but there was a cost; my exercise regime gradually went from regular to sporadic to non-existent. Up until yesterday I hadn't been on a proper bike ride for almost 12 months.

I own three bikes, and watching them grow a fine stubble of dust has been a constant source of shame. A few weeks ago I started running again, and quickly gave myself a knee injury in the usual way - by doing too much, too soon. Being about 20 pounds heavier doesn't help. So yesterday I wheeled out my winter bike, gave it a clean, adjusted the brakes, lubed the chain and took it for a spin.

The winter bike? It has mudguards and 28mm tyres, and a steel frame of leisurely geometry. But none of that influenced my choice. No, it has one other, more pertinent attribute. It has low gears. Very low. I am so unfit right now...

Grimly, I took it to Eggardon Hill. The climb that begins with Spyway Road is my go-to fitness tester, and I was determined to somehow navigate its assorted ramps without stopping. The first half is the worst, with a nasty stretch of 16-18%, but I paced myself. My strategy was basic. Engage bottom gear at the foot of the hill and keep turning the pedals. It worked a treat. There is a Strava segment based on the first 2/3 of the climb. Once upon a time I turned myself inside out to do it in 8'15". Yesterday I took a cool 13 minutes plus.

Eggardon Hill. Looking back, a sliver of distant shiny sea just visible.
At the top of Eggardon Hill is an expanse of farmland, and I passed a nice flock of Corn Buntings, with a few Yellowhammers for colour. It was blowing pretty hard though, a blasting cold NE, and the spooked birds were whisked rapidly away. I was glad of winter clobber and thick gloves.

Looking sideways. towards Devon. The view from this road has got to be one of the best in Dorset.
The worst of the climb is done at this point, and through eyes stinging with sweat you can enjoy the stunning view to the west, and up ahead see the looming ramparts that once flanked an iron-age hill fort. It is truly impressive. And knackering.

The worst of the climb is done at this point,
Birds? I've mentioned the best on offer yesterday. Apart from a couple of in-flight Little Egrets I didn't see anything else of particular note. But there were birds. Birds going about their daily routines like the world was normal. Which it isn't. Which is why we need them.
Categories: Magazine

Close to Home

Fri, 27/03/2020 - 23:07
I've never been a garden lister. I can tell you some of the smart birds we've had in/from our various gardens over the years, but I can't tell you numbers. Not even roughly. It's never interested me. However, this lockdown lark has prompted me to join in with Steve Gales's #BWKM0 Garden Birdwatching Challenge. I can't be involved in a competitive way (you need a current garden list for that) but certainly in spirit. So, how's it going?

Pretty slowly if I'm honest. Having lived here for five years I already know we don't reside beneath some birdy M1. If there is a flight line above us it is one of the migrant map's 'unclassified' roads. Skywatching from the garden is akin to the seawatch of death. You know the kind. You sit there, willing it to happen, just another 15 minutes, and another, and another...oh okay, ten more minutes, tops... And before you know it, hours of nothing have passed. Still, I did get a fly-by garden tick on Wednesday. Little Egret. Not a surprise really, because the River Asker runs just to the east of us, a regular haunt of at least one individual. Three Red Kites on Monday were delightful of course, plus I've had Raven most days, and Sparrowhawk a couple of times. But invariably, when the local Herring Gulls go off, it'll be a Buzzard or three.

Our garden is tiny, and extremely unattractive to birds, but at least we have one. I feel for birders stuck in garden-less appartments. After all, I can sit outside...

Mind you, there's been much less sitting than I'd like. Being at home all the time is a fine way to spot the myriad jobs which need doing. Or have them spotted for you. Which is a right nuisance. Today's #BWKM0 tick came during a tea-break. Jay. It takes my total to 30 species.

Being stuck at home is never good for me. I am well aware of this fact, and have struggled to keep the stir-craziness in check. Last night I finally cracked, and decided to take advantage of the 'exercise' concession this morning. I set the alarm and was out pretty early. In my whole circuit I encountered just six other people, all dog walkers. I met the local Little Egret, and was probably its first human of the day. It flew up from the river and perched rather obligingly in a nearby tree...

Little Egret, waiting for me to pass so it can get on with breakfast. Probably wondering why I have no dog.

On some high ground I came across a flock of 50+ Fieldfares, which was a surprise...

Fieldfares. Standard views.
And returning home I spotted something bobbing about in the long grass up ahead of me on the path. I was absolutely delighted to discover that it was a Stoat, the first I've seen in years. And the first I've got any kind of photo of...

Stoat. The only photo I managed.
Other highlights were 16 singing Chiffs, my first 2 singing Blackcaps of the year, a Yellowhammer, and nice views of a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers.

It was nice to get out for a walk, and I shall certainly do it again, but probably not every day.

In the spirit of making the most of the situation, I photographed a bee yesterday. We have three pots of rosemary, and their abundant flowers attract the odd bee now and then. Tentatively we identified this one as a female Hairy-footed Flower Bee, so was delighted to have this ID confirmed by a helpful chap on Twitter this evening...

Hairy-footed Flower Bee (female)
So that's it. The bee list is off and running...
Categories: Magazine

Lockdown Rulebook. Not.

Tue, 24/03/2020 - 22:14
Mrs NQS and I haven't bothered with regular TV for about 35 years, so missed the PM's broadcast to the nation yesterday evening. Our son Baz sent a video clip and the transcript. As predicted, it's lockdown, if a somewhat soft version.

Like many, many others, my immediate concern was how it would affect me. Me. Because, regrettably, like many, many others, the first person I think of is me. Would I be able to work? Go birding? What did Boris say that might have a bearing on such matters?

Predictably, my interest focused in on this bit...

'That is why people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes:

  • shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • one form of exercise a day - for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household;
  • any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.
That’s all - these are the only reasons you should leave your home.'

NQS regulars may well know that I clean windows for a living these days. It has its pros and cons. Flexible 'lunchtimes' are handy for the birder in me of course, but rain is a killer. I simply cannot work in wet weather. After the most relentlessly wet autumn and winter I can recall since earning a crust in this fashion, I was so looking forward to this settled spell of dry stuff we're having right now. I actually want to go to work. I need to, if you get my drift. So, what guidance did Boris have for me?

Hmmm...what does 'only where this is absolutely necessary' mean? Travelling? Well, obviously I have to travel to jobs in order to work, so yes, it is 'absolutely necessary' to do so. Actually no, that is not what the sentence is saying. The grammatical object of everything after the comma is actually work, not travelling. Is window cleaning 'absolutely necessary'? Er...

Okay, so I'm not a key worker after all, but what about my birding? Decent seawatching is going to kick off soon, and the local coast will be jumping with migrants. Ah! Look at that! 'One form of exercise a day - for example a...walk...' Winner! I can walk and bird at the same time.

And then the icing on the cake. This guy...

Screen-grab from a BBC clip which appeared on Twitter this afternoon
Her: 'A question from Dave about exercise...'

Dave wants to know if his half-hour drive to the start point of his walk is okay, or must your exercise begin from home, ie, no driving. How does respond to this?

Him: '...I think it's fine to drive and take exercise. There's no new regulations or new rules about that...and certainly there's no law that's going to stop you driving to take exercise.'

Cheers pal! Right, where are my car keys?

Perfect, eh? I can drive down to the coast, take my 'exercise' with bins and camera - steering well clear of all the others doing likewise of course - and upload my haul of goodies on social media later. My fellow birders will love that, won't they? Especially those stuck in some pokey little apartment in the middle of a city. Nothing better than a big fat dose of what you're missing out on.

Dave's question is an interesting one. It's the sort of question I would ask if I was looking for validation of an action I knew in my soul was a bit questionable. And that's exactly what matey on the TV gave him.

I'll be honest here. When the lockdown was announced, my initial thoughts revolved around what I might still be 'allowed' to do. That's because I'm basically a bit selfish and am keen to know what benefits me. One's instinct is to want rules. What can I do? What can't I do? Please draw the line for me...

But this is not about rules. It's about principles. And the underlying principle in this whole horrible mess is this:

Covid-19 is super-contagious and kills people.

And I'm perfectly aware that if I do everything in my power to be guided by that principle, then I hopefully won't even catch it. And if I have it already, keeping that priciple in mind all the time will ensure I am much more likely to keep it to myself.

And when we operate on principles (rather than rules) we don't need anyone else to draw the line for us. For example...

Shall I stay at home or go out?
Principle: Covid-19 is super-contagious and kills people.
So then, which action shows that I am being guided by that priciple? Staying at home or going out? Staying at home or driving for half an hour and then taking some essential exercise?

It ain't rocket science.

But that's me. I realise everyone's circumstances are not the same, nor their viewpoint come to that, and it certainly isn't for me to judge. But if the infection/death rate doesn't slow down pronto, I guess we can expect restrictions to become more draconian. And go on for longer.

So, basically, I am at home. Do pop in for a cuppa. Oh, wait a minute...

Anyway, today's birdy highlights were a Raven and a Meadow Pipit. Yesterday I had 3 Red Kites over, and was really expecting one or more today in the superb high-pressure conditions, but no. In the absence of Red Kites today then, have one of yesterday's, and a House Sparrow...

Not quite stratospheric, but pretty highNice to have a few of these chirpy little oiks on the estate.
More about the from-home birding, Lockdown List, #BWKM0 etc shortly...
Categories: Magazine

Thoughts For a Point in Time

Mon, 23/03/2020 - 15:13
Yesterday I did a stupid thing.

Keen for an afternoon walk I headed for Burton Bradstock beach with the intention of a long, shingly trudge to West Bexington and back. Unfortunately I hadn't thought this through. Alarm bells began to sound the moment I saw how full the car park was. Foolishly I pressed on regardless and ventured onto the beach, giving everyone as wide a berth as possible. By the time I got to Cogden I was fed up with zig-zagging back and forth to avoid people, and about-turned...

Burton Bradstock Beach. Taken with my phone, and therefore a wide-angle shot, this photo grossly understates how busy it actually was. 
I'll be candid here. I don't want to catch Covid-19. Both my wife and I are 60+ and I am sure it would at the very least be extremely unpleasant, at worst terminal. Our eldest son Rob lives in Switzerland right now. He is 37, but at 18 months of age he underwent open-heart surgery to correct something called Fallot's Tetralogy, a congenital condition. If he caught Covid-19 he would almost certainly do very badly. He is keeping away from people as much as possible. Both Rob and I are optimistic by nature, never melodramatic about risk or danger, yet both of us are trying to be cautious and prudent when it comes to this poxy virus. To me it is simply a no-brainer.

But all around me I see people seemingly oblivious to it all...

I must admit it's got me thinking. In W Dorset it is actually quite easy to go birding without crossing paths with anyone. The other day I took a couple of scenic shots locally which illustrate this...

West Bexington from the coast road. West Bex Mere on the right, village and beach car park on the left. 
East Bexington, viewed from the Abbotsbury end. 
Both locations pretty quiet and off the beaten track, especially first thing in the morning. But, like almost anywhere else in the country, a very rare bird could suddenly make them rather too popular. I have already noticed some birders on Twitter stating that they are no longer going to be posting their bird sightings - presumably because they don't wish to encourage twitching - and their stance has made me consider my own position on this.

If a full lock-down is as imminent as it seems, this may be an academic issue anyway, but if I am fortunate enough to find a singing Sardinian Warbler, say, suppression is not my default position. It will be hard.

I realise this is the kind of post which is just begging for a comment loaded with well-meaning counsel and advice from folks with a different view to my own. If you feel the urge, please resist it. I am simply sharing the thoughts of an average middle-aged bloke in strange times which are evolving extremely rapidly. Tomorrow? The next day? Who knows what I'll think then?
Categories: Magazine

Context and Communication

Sat, 21/03/2020 - 22:00
A tweet from this afternoon...

I realise there are coastal locations where a passing Eider is no big deal, but the bowels of Lyme Bay is not one of them. Context is everything! Including today I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've seen passing drakes on a seawatch here. Exactly five. The most memorable occasion (21st April, 2007) involved a superb flock of 22 Eider, containing 9 adult males. So the reason for the tweet was more than a virtual air-punch, it was also a heads-up to any Dorset birding Twitter followers who might be in the field that a decent local bird was passing through. However, there was an unexpected response...

The best thing about Richard's message was the fact that the very reason I was out seawatching at all this afternoon was because of his own earlier WhatsApp report of a dozen Manxies past Charmouth, and now I was able to offer a little pay-back by confirming the ID of a bird which had almost slipped through his fingers. Cue warm, fuzzy glow...

I also began the day with a seawatch. I had no expectations really, which was just as well, because the hour or so from 06:30 at East Bexington was not brilliant. It was also flippin' cold. Passing birds were 2 Common Scoter, 83 Common Gulls, 2 Med Gulls, c20 Gannets, a rather distant wader which in mid-April I would definitely have called a Whimbrel, and not much else that I bothered counting or remembering. On the sea were another Scoter and a Red-throated Diver. The East Bex highlights were 2 newly-arrived Wheatears, 2 or 3 phylloscs which were presumably Chiffs, and 3 Blackcaps...

So fresh the paint is barely dry...Cannot have too many Wheatears.Male Blackcap catching some rays.
There is often a frenetic urgency to new arrivals on the coast. Those Wheatears were off and away up the fields and inland within minutes of hitting the beach, and the Chiffs too were zipping around madly in the strong wind.

On the drive back I stopped in a lay-by above West Bex for a quick scan, and immediately spotted a Red Kite just below me. It drifted away westwards, and I texted the Bex regulars. They'd already seen it over the village a few minutes earlier. Great.

Next stop: West Bay. I wanted to check out the wet field where I saw the Blackwit and Redshanks on Thursday. Today there was a Dunlin. Nice. While there is still potential I shall keep trying. Strolling back to the car I noticed a bit of gull panic going on and had a scan. Nothing. I walked on. Suddenly a Red Kite sailed over...

Not a great pic. I was a bit slow with the camera and botched my chance...
Naturally I assumed this was the Bex bird from earlier, and watched it continue westwards...and become two!

Such striking birds, and a real joy to watch.
Conscious that these beauties might hug the coast and therefore become available to my birding buddies further west, I sent both a tweet and a message on the Patch WhatsApp group. Much to my delight, these or others were seen by at least four or five birders between West Bay and Seaton. Once again, communication proves its worth.

And context? Well, a couple of weeks back I had to visit Aylesbury, the county town of Buckinghamshire. The place is crawling with Red Kites! I spent half my time there peering at the sky. At one point a flock of 15, plus a Buzzard, were circling above a small cluster of houses! I suppose you get used to Red Kites at roof-top level eventually, but for a birder who's lived in the southwest for 17 years it was simply amazing. Which is why news of  the West Bay birds was broadcast, and why its recipients kept an eager eye out. Down here, Red Kite is still a nice prize.

Which takes me back to the beginning, where Richard's WhatsApp message had got me out hoping to see my first Manxies of the year. In the end I didn't. But I did see bird-of-the-day drake Eider, plus 13 Common Scoters, 3 Shovelers, 2 definite Grey Plovers and 3 rather distant probables.

Today I was pretty jammy, bumping into the Red Kites like that, but I was able to share my jam with others. And because Richard generously alerted us all to a small afternoon movement of Manx Shearwaters, I also jammed a cracking drake Eider! Grey Plover is quite a decent local bird too.



Two factors with which to enhance your solo, socially-distanced birding exploits...
Categories: Magazine

West Bay

Thu, 19/03/2020 - 22:58
In the past I've said disparaging things about West Bay, and could never see myself doing much birding there. However, my view has changed a bit. In the few years we've lived nearby I've come to see the place with a less snobbish eye, and even the tackier aspects have somehow endeared themselves. Recently I've made an effort to investigate the birding potential too. Snagging a few Black Redstarts last autumn certainly did no harm, and this year I've been trying to suss the various habitats. This afternoon I had another go...

Because West Bay is a small harbour village rather than a remote beach, there are people. Sometimes lots of them. Strolling along it was evident that nobody else was toting bins and a camera, and I could tell from the earnest faces and solemn tones that people's thoughts and conversations were largely focused on expanding their currently woeful stock of bog rolls, and suchlike. Hand sanitiser was far from my mind (in my left coat pocket in fact) as I mooched about, initially seeing not much. Mind you, to be fair I had already seen a nice bird before I'd even got among the local populace at all. The other day I spied this wet area out in the middle of the valley, and thought it looked good for a Little Ringed Plover perhaps. The first thing I did this afternoon was scope it from afar. No LRPs, but there was a Black-tailed Godwit and 2 Redshanks. Smart. Later on I was able to get a bit closer and take photos, and courtesy of Twitter (and Mark Golley) I learned that it was a moulting islandica Blackwit...

I've no idea how scarce or otherwise is a Blackwit in West Bay, but I certainly enjoyed it.
With the chilly wind coming from a northerly quarter I recalled that 4 Black Redstarts had found the shelter of the West Cliffs to their liking in similar conditions last year, and went for a look. Seven Wheatears! Very nice. I spent ages with them, viewing from below initially, and then discovering that you can get alongside them via the cliff path. Some popped up on to the clifftop above too. Wheatears are such good value...

Viewed from below......and from the side...
This shot isn't pin-sharp, but I like the 'ghost' shadow Wheatear in the background....and even from above.On the clifftop
Finally I worked my way back down into the valley and out onto the wet fields beside the river. Initially there was nothing much to see, and then out of nowhere a Wheatear flew past me. A quick scan revealed five, presumably new arrivals. They were dead flighty, and seemed intent on moving quickly through, but then three alighted together on the bank of the river, and I got my favourite two photos of the day...

Pausing briefly...Sleek and flighty. This lovely Wheatear might be stationary, but clearly is not going to be hanging around.
So, 12 fabulous Wheatears and a smart Blackwit. Well chuffed. If you read this through with a heart full of unbounded joy and barely a thought of deadly viruses, then I am pleased. That's what NQS is for.
Categories: Magazine

And Still They Come...

Wed, 18/03/2020 - 22:10
March 2020 is theoretically my 61st opportunity to score an early spring Wheatear. Back in March 1960 (my first as an air-breathing creature) I was barely weaned, and not really in a position to enter the fray, but I'm sure there were still plenty of birders carefully scouring the West Dorset coast for their first Wheatear of the year. No doubt some are still active today. Perhaps one or two were out this afternoon, like me, as keen as ever for a glimpse of that handsome harbinger of spring.

I honestly could not tell you how many times I've eagerly anticipated my first Wheatear, but even allowing for the years of pre-birding, non-birding and phase, it is lots. I mention this for a reason. Because it is very easy to take such a simple little once-a-year ritual for granted, and yet many things I have taken for granted all my life are being turned on their head right now...

It is tempting to follow this line of thought down the dismal path it inevitably leads, but I'm not going to. I have just spent a weekend in the company of my granddaughter, who is slightly more than 60 years my junior, and such a rude reminder of my own mortality always makes me a bit introspective. However, I refuse to give in to it. What's the point? All that does is suck the joy from the frankly amazing spectacle of your first Wheatear of the year hitting the beach, and who wants to do that?

Just a Wheatear? Not really...
I finished work early today and went to East Bexington. It strikes me as a pretty Wheatear-friendly place, and it was a Wheatear I wanted. I know all about the other early spring possibilities, like Sand Martin, Swallow, White Wagtail and so on... but only Wheatears actually count. For me, none of the others really hits the spot. There is a magic little buzz about that first Wheatear which nothing else can produce...

13:46 on 18th March, 2020. First Wheatear photo of the year.
I ended up with a total of four birds; three together and a singleton. Very little else of note, but who cares? Naturally there were Stonechats, and as ever I could not resist pointing the camera at them, despite the gloomy, overcast weather...

The lone Wheatear was an absolutely pristine male, feeding at some distance in a field of sparse stubble...

Spring perfection.
So, while the world teeters on the edge of something quite unprecedented in all our lifetimes, NQS will continue to bring little nuggets of joyous, upbeat positivity.

While it still can...

Anyway, I'll close with this bunch of ruthlessly abused pixels, depicting two humans of approximately 60 years and two months difference in age. I like to think the older one still has a few first-Wheatears-of-the-year in him yet...

Categories: Magazine

Wheatear Invasion. Apparently.

Mon, 16/03/2020 - 22:26
A close inspection of the NQS Bird-o-meter reveals a sorry tale. Recent readings have been low. Depressingly low. There are reasons. Like the relentless march of one Atlantic weather system after another. Strewth! Surely the most tedious winter conditions ever? Another reason is my current inability to turn up anything decent. Take gulls, for example. My go-to taxa for regular doses of winter-time birdy buzz. But what's going on? The odd Med Gull here and there is all I can manage right now. Where are the Casps? The white-wingers? The Ross's and Laughing Gulls? Elsewhere is where.

I will confess to lower effort levels of late too. I think my enthusiasm must be a bit needy. If it isn't regularly nourished with good birds, the occasional nice find, a little tristis-type challenge, and so on...well, it shrivels up a bit. And recently it's not been getting much at all. Until today...

Today the Wheatears came. Wave upon wave of them, streaming across the Channel. Throughout the working day my Twitter feed was clogged with reports of the invasion, and mouth-watering photos of the little beauties. I couldn't wait till knocking-off time...

Rather than head for a location already covered by other birders I thought it would be a bit more enterprising to find my own Wheatear somewhere. West Bay seemed like a good shout, with maybe a quick look up on the golf course too. I had about an hour or so, from 5:15pm. Result: nil Wheatears. Absolute poxness.

NQS will be go down in history as the only S coast [mainly] birding blog which didn't feature a Wheatear on 16th March, 2020. Poor bloke. What a loser! Oh, wait a minute though... Wasn't it also the only S coast [mainly] birding blog which did feature two Red Kites together over Bridport at 13:54 on 16th March, 2020? That day when everyone else was being distracted by stupid Wheatears everywhere? Yes, I think so. Jammy beggar...

Admittedly this is just one Red Kite, but the pics with two in the frame are a bit blurry. Just trust me.
Interestingly these birds were high enough that they didn't set the local gulls off. I simply happened to be scanning the sky at the right moment. Yep, jammy.

Oh, okay then...

Full frame off the camera. Both birds. Just.
Categories: Magazine

Go Easy on the Optimism...

Sat, 07/03/2020 - 22:51
After work yesterday I popped to Cogden for the last hour of the day. The optimist in me was thinking 'Sand Martin, yes, I can easily imagine a late arrival hawking over the Burton mere reed bed as the light fades...' The trouble with optimism is its fellow traveller, disappointment, whom I met once again last night. Ah well...

The birdy highlight was a calling, but invisible, Chiffchaff in the car park scrub. In my mind's eye I could see its little pollen horn, clear evidence of a migrant. Because I'm an optimist. Thank goodness it remained hidden.

I spied another birder at Cogden, further along the beach. Not someone I recognised. He carefully avoided me on his return, detouring close to the water's edge. I smiled wryly. Just the sort of thing I probably would have done. What a miserable old so-and-so I've become.

And so to this morning...

Starting early, I walked the coast from Burton Bradstock to the West Bexington mere and back. Wheatears were conspicuous by their absence. Frequent scans of the sea revealed no passing birds at all, and absolutely nothing of interest bobbing about on it either. A few birds were in cheerful song. A Skylark, the odd Dunnock, and this chap...

A Reed Bunting giving it large. Massively underwhelming.
I can only imagine that female Reed Buntings are simple souls, choosing their mate on the basis of 'most boringly repetitive song', a clear indication of a steady, reliable provider. Mr and Mrs Dull.

Approaching the point where the West Bex mere lurks behind the beach I could see a modest gathering of gulls...

A distant, spray-shrouded hint of promise...
I managed to spook them in small doses, so couldn't even console myself with the possibility that I might have missed a goody. I saw them all, and none were goodies. So I climbed the beach to view the mere, inexplicably counted the Tufties (27), noted the dearth of other ducks, and began the long trudge back to Burton Bradstock. As I spent most of the return trip daydreaming, it was very therapeutic.

So, what can I say? A long walk. Few birds of interest, if any. But in all that time I passed just one dog-walker and a couple of anglers. And the scenery...
Categories: Magazine

Please Make it Stop!

Sat, 29/02/2020 - 21:07
Today marks the end of meteorological winter. What it doesn't mark is the end of this wet and windy weather. It feels like the rain has barely paused in four months, and the start of spring will see no let-up. Bo-o-o-o-o-oring! I am really tired of it. Instead of a nice beach walk this afternoon, the prospect of a chilly battering, heavy showers and clouds of spray encouraged me inland to Kilmington WTW on a Sibe Chiff quest. How were they doing since my last visit?

Conditions were poor. The strong wind mostly kept birds out of the boundary hedge and down on the filter beds, so viewing was quite distant. Bright sunshine made the Sibe Chiffs slightly less easy to separate from some collybita than normal, but there were certainly at least two still...

1. Sibe Chiff in typical dining area. 2. Pretty sure I've photographed this one before...This photo taken 15th Jan. I could be mistaken but I think it's the same as the bird in photo 2.
It was very difficult to assess exactly how many there were though. Two is the most I've seen previously, but it wouldn't be a shock to learn there were actually three or four birds. Today they were generally just too far away for the sort of photos which facilitate recognition of individuals. And they were flighty as anything. The revolving sprinkler arms ensured all the Chiffs were constantly buzzing about to avoid an impromptu dousing.

Midweek visits to the Axe at 'lunchtime' have been disappointing. Med Gulls appear to have resumed their pre-123 levels, with just two or three at a time, and Lesser Black-back passage was negligible. Up until a month ago I needed only to glance at a group of big gulls for a Casp to throw itself at me, but again we are back to normal. All very humdrum...

This blog has been quiet for a few days too. I think the relentless weather is dampening all sorts of enthusiasms just now. Mind you, I've no right to whine about it. At least we're not flooded out like some. That must be just so awful...
Categories: Magazine


Sun, 23/02/2020 - 21:42
There are lots of advantages to reaching 60 years of age. Free prescriptions is one. The many others are eluding me right now... But anyway, the disadvantages are very, very few. In fact I can only think of two or three hundred, but one of the worst - and easily on a par with 'vastly reduced amount of remaining life' - is the need for specs. If you are one of those fortunate enough to be old and yet specs-less, I envy you. But don't get complacent. There is still time...

I remember the carefree days of 20/20 vision. As a youngster, happily prancing around in a world of crisp, focused clarity, I had little appreciation of what my specs-wearing friends and relatives were having to put up with. And then one day I realised I could no longer read stuff. You develop little tricks. Holding things up to the light, or at arm's length, or squinting hard enough to compress your increasingly reluctant eyeballs into some kind of working shape. But there soon comes a time when all these dodges are futile, and you get your first reading specs. That was some time in my 40s. You start with +0.75 and speedily work your way through bigger and bigger numbers. It is crushing. When you first try reading specs it's amazing. Print is suddenly BIG and BOLD again. You think 'Wow! These'll do the trick!' but all too rapidly they don't, and it's time for

This was back in my digiscoping days. I could bird specs-free all day long, until I needed to use the camera, because without specs the screen was a blur. Was the bird in focus? Was it even in the shot?! Where did I put my specs? Strewth, I hated the things. Or rather, the need for them...

And then in my early 50s I began to sense that my distance vision was failing too. Where I used to be able to scan a hedgerow and with the naked eye immediately spot a bird sitting up, suddenly I needed bins to be sure. Flyovers became intriguing fuzzy blobs, high ones invisible. And so, in 2012, I joined the world of full-time specs wearers. And not any old specs. Vari-focals. Very clever lenses which combine your reading and distance needs into one window. They take some getting used to, but have transformed my birding. However, there are drawbacks. One of them is sea-spray...

Arriving at West Bexington this afternoon I peered along the beach at this view...

See that hazy stuff hanging in the air? Spray.
All very picturesque, but sea-spray sticks to specs like iron filings to a magnet. In no time at all you've got this...

Frosted glass
It's a right pain. And puts me off visiting Bex, Cogden etc, when there's a stiff onshore wind. Which is a shame, because I love a beach walk on a rough day; it's so invigorating. Even today, though the wind wasn't all that strong, the heavy breakers crashing on the shingle threw up a fine mist of spray. Soon enough you've got half the English Channel clinging to your specs. On really bad days it's been so annoying that I've resorted to taking them off and doing without. It wasn't quite that troublesome this afternoon, but I needn't have worried anyway because the birding was about as unspectacular as it can get. Apart from a handful of passing Lesser Black-backed and Common Gulls reminding me that at least some passage was happening, and a strange urge to count Tufties on the mere (46) it was basically just a Sunday afternoon walk. I didn't quite have the beach to myself, but close enough...

Portland in the distance. Just stunning...
Well, I've somehow managed to wangle a whole post out of almost no birds of note. Result.
Categories: Magazine


Sat, 22/02/2020 - 21:19
Like anyone else I am subject to the stresses and strains of everyday life, and it can certainly take a toll at times. I realise that people have a variety of coping mechanisms, but for me hobbies have always been a powerful antidote to life's downers, a means of therapy if you like. And this afternoon's prescription went like this...

I drove to the Axe Estuary, arriving shortly after 3pm. My visits to the Axe these days are usually squeezed around work, so there's always a slightly urgent note to them, a feeling that I ought to be scoffing down my sarnies double-quick and hurrying back to get on with some honest toil. Naturally I fight such unreasonable constraints, but the notion remains, along with little pangs of guilt. Today though, no such issues. I parked up at the bottom end of the river and then did something I haven't done for years. Normally I would be in a vehicle, viewing from a number of stopping points along the road, but this afternoon I climbed down on to the estuary shore and walked slowly upstream...

The view upriver, towards Coronation Corner
Gulls hang out on the opposite bank, and are very rarely troubled by anyone walking the eastern shoreline like this. Dog walkers do it all the time, and the only time I have known gulls to flush is right at the tail-end of the day when they're on the point of leaving anyway. They can get a bit jittery as dusk approaches and it's almost like they're looking for an excuse to take umbrage at any real or perceived disturbance so they can fly out into the bay to bag a prime spot in the roost.

So that's the story today. A quiet amble upriver, stopping at regular intervals to scope up the gull collection. And I did it properly. Not just the big fellas, where Caspian Gull is the prime quarry, but the little ones also. Although I was probably a bit late in the day for the best numbers, there were still many hundreds of BHGs and Common Gulls to sort through. For me it is a soothingly therapeutic undertaking. Scanning methodically through the assembly, you one by one identify and pass on. BHG...BHG...BHG...Common...LBBG...Ooh! Med Gull. Nice...BHG...BHG...etc... I didn't do much in the way of counting, though there were definitely 25+ Lesser Black-backs. I tried with Meds, but never got past 12 before they'd all lift and fly around a bit. Some would leave, the rest resettling. After a couple of times I gave up. At a guess, 30+ Med Gulls. No Ring-billed or Bonaparte's Gulls today, but if there had been I like to think my careful sifting would have nailed them...

Here's a nice little test for any budding gullers. How many Med Gulls in the following pic? In my London days this photo would have been unimaginable, and I guess it would be pretty amazing even now for many inland birders.

A typical scope-full...
Answer: there are three; two adults and a 2nd-winter. If you reckon you're not really into gulls but still spotted all three within 5 seconds, well, stop kidding yourself, just surrender to it. If you spotted four or more, go take a long hard look in the mirror, you stringer.

The next test is slightly trickier, but there is just the one Med Gull in the photo. So, how quickly can you find it? Ready...go!

Okay, if you spotted the Med Gull without clicking on the image first, well done. If you enlarged the pic first, then spotted it, well done. If you simply clicked on the photo to confirm your suspicion, again, well done. Yes, well done for any of the above, because just making the effort to find the Med Gull is a fine thing, and evidence of what a discriminating birder you are, with a commendable appreciation of avian quality. Med Gulls are without question 24-carat birds, but not all of us are blessed with the ability to detect that. You are fortunate indeed!

So, that was it this afternoon really. A very relaxing stroll up the estuary, carefully picking through the gulls. No time constraints... Very soothing. Nothing special in the way of scarce or rare stuff, nothing particularly notable at all in fact.


And back we go...downriver to the car, and home...
Categories: Magazine


Wed, 19/02/2020 - 21:57
Yesterday lunchtime I visited Colyton WTW for the first time in a while, and eventually found both Sibe Chiffs together in a really photo-friendly spot. Unfortunately that discovery coincided with a downpour, and before it stopped they had moved on and I didn't see them again. So no pics...

Quite good numbers of gulls on the river. I counted 65+ Med Gulls in the morning, and 50+ mid-afternoon. A really good movement of Common Gulls too, well into three figures, probably 2-300 at least. Lesser Black-backs were passing through as well, though I never saw more than 15-20 at a time; but no intermedius candidates yet.

I was in the Seaton area again first thing today, and had an early look at the gull collection. A surprising 55 Med Gulls amongst the otherwise modest gathering. Something quite profound has happened to the status of Med Gull on the Axe. And it's happened overnight. From barely any all winter, and an all-time max of 30-something, to...well, here we are in silly-numbers land since Jan 29th. Very weird.

By this time of the year birding me is usually bemoaning the direness of mid-February, how it's all a bit flat and monotonous. So I was just gearing myself up to write that sort of post. But Serin, a biffing great American Herring Gull, much personal Casp jam, Sibe Chiff joy and so on... You can see the problem. I have nothing to moan about. And yet...

As I made ready to leave the AHG last Friday, Phil jokingly called out: "Hopefully we'll have a proper bird for you soon!" or words to that effect. Phil meant something NOT a gull of course, but yes, no matter how good the birding, as winter drags on I cannot help wanting a change too. And not just in the weather. Spring is just around the corner, and the gull passage already underway is a beguiling reminder of spring's promise. It will bring birds. Lots and lots of birds. Hopefully - if I stay the course and keep my optics shiny - there will be that magic moment when you're traipsing along the beach early one morning, and...

Well, hello again...
Categories: Magazine

Something From Nothing

Mon, 17/02/2020 - 22:55
This post is simply a description of the Caspian Gull at West Bexington just over three weeks ago. I thought it might be useful as an example of what it is possible to extract from a rubbish video. Instead of fumbling around with a camera I could have spent another couple of minutes with the scope and then from memory tried to write a description in the field notebook which I don't carry these days, desperately trying to shelter the imaginary pages from the foul weather. But I didn't. I got some jumpy footage instead. I know which I prefer, and I can guess which is easier for a county records committee to assess...

2nd-winter Caspian Gull
Date: 26th January, 2020
Location: West Bexington, Dorset
Conditions: Very strong SW, steady rain, air full of fine spray. Dull and overcast.
Distance from bird: Probably 100-150m
Time: Shortly before 14:00. The bird was in view for several minutes, but probably less than ten.
Other observers: None.
Previous experience: As of 26th Jan 2020, 14 previous Caspian Gulls (11x1W, 1x1S/2W, 2x2W), all on the Axe Estuary, Seaton, Devon; all photographed. My first was a 2W in October 2007.

Initially picked up on the West Bex mere with bins (Zeiss Dialyt 10x40 BGAT) it was the clean white head and breast which caught my eye, belonging as they did to an obviously immature bird. I realised it was a candidate for 2w Caspian Gull, and scope views (Nikon ED82A 25-75x zoom) confirmed. After loafing on the mere with other gulls for several minutes, the bird lifted off and flew into the wind, over the beach and away.

Despite awful weather I really wanted some images, and recorded 1'50" of video on my Nikon Coolpix P900. The video is available here. The following stills are taken from that recording, and illustrate various ID features, as highlighted in annotations or text...

Photo 1
Photo 2Photo 2 shows complete, narrow black tailband, and clean white underparts.

Photo 3Photo 3 also shows dark secondaries. This, plus the complete, narrow tail band definitely rules out 3rd-winter Herring Gull. While I was watching the bird I couldn't remember exactly what HG of this age would look like, so it was a niggling worry at the time. However, 3W HG would have grey, adult-type secondaries with white trailing edge, and just traces of tail band.

Photo 4
Photo 5
Most 2W Caspian Gulls carry a small mirror in p10, and Photo 5 depicts it clearly. Through the scope it was surprisingly easy to see this feature on the open wing, mainly from below because p9 largely masks p10 from above.

The combination of features shown by this bird rules out Herring Gull. It cannot be HG in 3W plumage for reasons outlined above, and 2W HG would not look as clean white on head, breast, belly and underwing. Neither would it be this advanced in moult on the scapulars (usually few grey feathers, if any) and coverts (again, few grey ones) and its tail would have a wider, less sharply-defined terminal band. According to Gibbins et al (2010) a p10 mirror is shown by 1-5% of 2W HGs (particularly argentatus) so any 2W bird which has this feature is far more likely to be a Casp. In addition, there were no anomolous features which might suggest a hybrid origin.

Finally, it is helpful to compare the photos above with the bird in the following image. This 2W Casp was seen in Torbay in November 2015, and three days later on the Axe Estuary, Seaton. Note similar state of moult in scaps, coverts and tertials, the bill pattern, whiteness of head and underparts, and spotted 'shawl' on nape. It all matches the West Bex bird extremely well.

2W Caspian Gull, November 2015
Top: Torbay, Devon (photo: Mike Langman)
Bottom: Axe Estuary, Devon (photo: Ian McLean)

References: Gibbins et al (2010) - Identification of Caspian Gull Part 1 (BB 2010)

Here endeth the description. I realise this kind of post is a'specialist', and if you have reached this paragraph after wading through the rest of it I do hope the above was helpful. If I am jammy enough to find interesting birds in the future I might well do it again.
Categories: Magazine

The Twitching Thing

Mon, 17/02/2020 - 15:51
Back in the day  I never gave much thought to twitching, I just did it. I kept a British list, and vaguely remember breaking 200, then 300, and that it seemed important somehow. I suppose the first birds I ever 'twitched' were incidental goodies which happened to be on hand during visits to Norfolk and the like. You'd bump into birders and they'd ask if you knew about the so-and-so. A negative response inevitably led to them telling you where it was, and it seemed obvious to simply follow up the tip by going to see the bird. Was that twitching? Debatable I guess. But episodes like this gave Mrs NQS and me some memorable birds, like our first Dotterel, Black Guillemot, Spotted Crake and Buff-breasted Sandpiper back in 1981/82.

Soon came friendship with other birders, membership of the telephone 'grapevine', and a mutual desire to see new birds, especially rare ones. Almost every twitch I remember was in company, when the thrill of anticipation becomes infectious and stimulating. If our dawn raid to see some feathery little waif was successful it was dead easy to gee one another into zipping across country to the next tick...

Though I do remember one vintage jaunt which had a different vibe. A November day in 1983, and I was at Staines Res. A routine visit with routine fare. Alone on the causeway I pondered the fact that I was here, seeing 'nothing', while a Pied Wheatear was in North Norfolk. Also a bonus Richard's Pipit. Both potential ticks. So I abandoned Staines and drove straight to Weybourne, arriving some time in the afternoon. I did see both birds, but my lasting impression of that trip is one of anticlimax. It felt as if I'd gone simply out of boredom, and was probably the first time I wondered if twitching was really for me. Certainly it felt very different on my own as opposed to in company.

Subsequent years saw many more twitches, some absolutely bursting with stress and anxiety, some just blah... Then there was phasing, and dusty optics. And finally a move to East Devon in December 2002, which rekindled something...

Although there have been periods of deep phase in the last 18 years, mostly I have managed to be a birder. But a twitcher??

Well, sometimes.

In fact, if you count local patch birds, there's actually been a lot of twitching! Unless I was in the middle of a phasing spell I would always go to see good patch birds if I could. One or two were lifers, many were patch ticks, but lots were neither. Which raises the question, why twitch a bird you don't in some way 'need'? Hopefully that will become clear...

So, American Herring Gull. If you read the relevant NQS post it is impossible to miss the utterly frantic nature of the 38 minutes between my learning about the bird's presence and my seeing it. They were awful! But why? I don't give a monkey's about my British or any other list. I'm not a twitcher per se. So what on earth elicited such emotional havoc?

Was it the bird? Partially, yes. I twice tried for Matt Knott's Otter bird a decade ago. I really like gulls, and for years have wanted to see AHG in the flesh, if only to find out for myself how distinctive it is, or is not. But I can say this with virtual certainty: had it been in Weymouth I would not have gone. I've nothing against Weymouth, but the place doesn't mean anything to me.

So was it the location then? Partially, yes. The Axe patch unquestionably has a place in my throbby little birder's heart. I love that estuary. It has given me so many super moments, particularly through its gulls. When Steve was describing to me exactly where the bird was, I asked 'On the gravelly strip?' 'Yes,' came the reply. I could see it like I was there. Except I wasn't! Aaggh!

So, a combination of the bird and the location. Was that it? Was that the magic mix? Again, partially, yes. But there was one more ingredient...

In my years in Seaton I was always part of a team, and those individuals - those birding friends - are inextricably tied up with my fondness for the Axe patch. As clearly as I could picture the bird on that gravelly strip in front of the tram sheds, I could picture so much more. I could see Steve, in a state of mega-excitement and stress, desperately willing others to hurry up and get there, and the bird to not fly. I could see Ian, Phil, Kev and others rushing around for their optics and keys, also willing the bird to please, please stay put. And you know what? I wanted to be part of that. Solitary creature that I generally am, I nevertheless wanted to share in that excitement, to get stuck in and be involved in this momentous event on my old patch.

One occasionally sees twitchers getting knocked, and twitching itself dismissed as some kind of less worthy activity. I think this is very unfair. In my experience at least, twitching has rarely been about a number, but rather about a bird, a location, and good company. That is the magic mix, and it can truly be enormous fun. Why knock it? If there's one thing all of us need in this world, it's a bit of light relief...
Categories: Magazine

Always Look at Gulls

Sat, 15/02/2020 - 21:14
Badly misjudged the weather today. I can read a forecast like anyone else, but for some reason I thought we were getting just the odd shower until about 2pm. So I optimistically headed over to Seaton for extra helpings of American Herring Gull. Er...

Storm Dennis was going on. And a storm is a storm. The horizontal deluge, brim-full river and thin supply of gulls quickly persuaded me to make do with just the one massive helping I'd enjoyed yesterday, and go home. I spied a few birders huddled in their cars and silently wished them all the best as I slunk away.

There is no doubt that the Lyme Bay American Herring Gull has been a popular bird. A short video I stuck on Twitter has already been viewed in excess of 4,700 times, and yesterday's NQS post has had something like 6x the usual number of readers. And I'm sure some of that popularity is not simply because AHG is rare, but because it's a rare gull. There are a lot of gull fans out there. And yet...

Gulls are a bit Marmite, aren't they? My own interest in them goes right back to early days at Staines Res, and finding my first London Med Gull there in 1982. The species was actually quite rare in London back then, and a major prize. Fired up by this success I habitually scanned any group of gulls I came across, hoping for another. On 28th November that year I was picking through a distant flock on the drained north basin when a slightly odd bird caught my eye. It was smaller than a Herring Gull, very pale grey, and basically had no white tertial crescent. It was London's second Ring-billed Gull, a 2nd-winter bird. It was also only my third 'BB' rarity, and thus far the trickiest ID challenge I'd been faced with, full stop. Being quite 'new' to gulls I was aware of some features to look for on Ring-billed, but had no idea how much you needed in order to clinch the ID, so just noted everything I could see. Thankfully I got enough, but learned later that the description needed two circulations before it was accepted. A close call.

Thirty-eight years later my memory is a bit iffy, but I am fairly sure it was the virtual absence of a white tertial crescent which stopped me in my tracks and made me look again at that bird. But why would I notice such a thing? Because I had been making it a habit to look at gulls. And when you look at hundreds and hundreds of gulls on a regular basis it soon adds up to thousands and thousands. And that steady parade of familiar shapes, colours and patterns gradually becomes a sort of background noise, against which something different leaps out like a shout. That's my theory anyway, but I think it's true.

One of the local birders present yesterday admitted that he would most likely have looked straight through the American Herring Gull without seeing it. I am absolutely sure I would not have. Like Steve describes in his account of the find, it would have yelled at me from across the river. Why? Because over many years I have looked at countless gulls, and eventually you find that even the subtly different birds make you stop and look more carefully. I cannot always say exactly what it was that caught my eye - in fact I doubt that I consciously think about it - but something did. First-winter Caspian Gulls, I do know what it is. It's the white head. Not just white, but white!

A year or two after the Ring-billed Gull I still hadn't seen a London Iceland Gull, but old London Bird Reports told me they sometimes turned up in reservoir gull roosts. That was something I'd never tried, so began climbing in to Wraysbury Res late on a winter's afternoon and sneaking round to check out the roost. On only my first or second try I found a Glaucous Gull. Win! Just the encouragement I needed in order to persevere. Soon I had my Iceland Gull too. Brilliant! It had a dark mark beneath one wing, and turned out to be a bird which was spending its days many miles away in Berkshire, feeding on a tip. That winter I found one or two more Iceland Gulls in the Wraysbury roost, and other birders began to join me. We even had an adult Med Gull one evening. Bonus!

Back then, as now, I got a major buzz from finding a good bird, and looking at gulls was a great way to increase the potential for that happening. I realise that Caspian Gulls and the like are not as obvious as a white-winger, but the field characters are learnable, and with every manky young Herring Gull that you look at, analyse, identify and discard, you are one step closer to something a bit more special. And then one day a bird will stop you in your tracks, and you will realise you've got something different. Maybe a mild panic as you struggle to remember what features to look for. Then a growing realisation that this actually could be a Caspian Gull. And no 'expert' pointed it out. Not only did you find it yourself, but you can even say why it is one. That is a nice feeling.

However, I do realise that not everyone can be bothered with any of this...

I remember once going into the Tower Hide at Black Hole Marsh. Two or three birders were present, and lots of gulls on the estuary in front of the hide. Among them was a virtually white Iceland Gull. No one else had seen it; they basically didn't look at the gulls. When I pointed it out they did look, but it clearly made little impression. Fine. Each to their own I guess.

But boy, are they missing out! Apart from umpteen scarce and rare species to get excited about, there are other things. Like migration. Loads of gulls migrate, and noting the arrival, departure and passing-through of various species adds another facet of interest. And colour-rings. Many gulls are marked with plastic colour-rings which are designed to be read through binoculars or a scope. Recording and reporting them, and getting feedback on an individual bird's history, adds one more facet. And did I mention about the rare and scarce thing? Oh yes, I did. Well, it bears mentioning twice. Because if you don't bother with gulls, then this becomes a possibility:

You won't know what a Pallas's Gull is.

And if that's true, then this becomes a possibility:

Heart-attack material
One of the above could be sitting in the flock right there in front of you, and you would be totally oblivious. And if that's true, what is the point of living????

One day some poor soul is going to be hospitalised as a consequence of finding one of these in Britain. If I am the one destined to suffer this fate, so be it. I am ready.

And if you always look at gulls, you will be ready too.
Categories: Magazine


Fri, 14/02/2020 - 22:30
It's 14:17 and there I am, innocently toiling away in Bridport. My phone rings. It's Steve...

'Gav, I've got a candidate American Herring Gull...'

I don't recall much of the 3'16" conversation which ensues. A brief discussion of useful field characters, details of its exact location on the estuary, that kind of thing. It's hard to concentrate. I am a good half-hour drive away. Mercifully I am able to head over immediately.

The stress...oh my life! It is such a long time since I've endured a pukka drop-everything-and-go twitching experience, and I'd forgotten how bad it is. Steve very, very rarely makes a mistake; if he thought it was a very good candidate, it would definitely be one. Torturing me the whole way were memories of times past. Similar phonecalls, similar nail-biting drives, and calamitous dips. Gull-billed Tern...Laughing Gull...the Axe patch has not always been kind to me. And yet, it might might just stick. Oh ple-e-e-ase let it stick!

Pulling up by the handful of birders already present I was a wreck. Still there? Yes it was. Yes. Yes! YE-E-E-E-SSSSS!!!

Exactly 38 minutes after ringing off from Steve, I took this...

See the black thing in the middle? American Herring Gull!
It was gob-smackingly dark. And big. BIG. And aggressive. And utterly, utterly gorgeous. And here are lots of photos to prove it. First of all, in company with various regular argenteus Herring Gulls. Just cop that massive bulk in comparison! It's a beast! I was struck by how certain poses accentuate the 'collared' effect that separates the paler head from the darker nape and underparts in a similar fashion to Caspian Gull. Note the smooth dark belly and pale-based bill leaning towards Glaucous Gull pattern. It even has a different facial expression to our HGs...

And a few shots highlighting other useful ID features like the strongly barred rump and undertail, the almost wholly dark tail with just a few whitish notches on the outer web of the outer feathers. I didn't manage any decent open wing photos, but don't care...

Big, dark, plain centres to many of the scapulars.
Initially I suspected this was not the same bird which Ian McLean found on West Bexington beach back on 25th January. My memory of the photos told me the scaps were darker, plainer. I was wrong. Here is a comparison of the two birds in a vaguely similar pose...

Despite the almost three-week gap in time, and the differences in resolution, it is easy to pick out similarities in these shots. They are one and the same bird.
In some ways I was encouraged by that fact. If it is still in the general vicinity, it may well appear again, and perhaps establish enough of a routine that a lot more birders might connect with this absolute monster of a gull. I hope so.

Finally, here is a video compilation from this afternoon. Please forgive the occasional background vocalisations. Main commentary by Harry Waite...

Categories: Magazine