Monday, 31 December 2012

2012: rain and all that

It's the last day of 2012 and, fittingly, it's peeing down. By the end of March, when drought was forecast, and we had already spent a couple of weeks walking around in T-shirts, you could have been forgiven for anticipating a long hot summer. The birding also boded well as by Easter I had already seen three of what turned out to be six new birds for me over the course of the year: a Sparrow from Spain (or thereabouts), a Yellowthroat from over the Atlantic and a Warbler from a Paddyfield. With hindsight, however, all three were probably good birds from 2011 which managed to survive the winter rather than new arrivals in 2012.

Paddyfield Warbler in Sussex - the 400th species I have photographed in the UK (Feb 2012)
I found myself posting about torrential rain in April, then again in July, and on and off right up to Christmas. The sun did occasionally put his hat on, most memorably when I caught up with my other three ticks of 2012: a Greater Yellowlegs on a long weekend in Scotland (May), a Roller in East Yorkshire (June - my longest day trip of 2012), and, closer to home, Britain's second Short-billed Dowitcher in Weymouth (September).

Lodmoor's long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher - one of 6 new birds for me in 2012
My Dorset list passed the minor landmark of 250 during the course of the year - almost respectable after 5 years of residency - with Black-winged Stilt, Purple Heron, Great Reed Warbler, White-rumped Sandpiper, Siberian Stonechat (the stejnegeri sub-species) and Daurian Shrike joining the Dowitcher on the county list. The Shrike was a good bird to bring up the 250. Similarly, the Paddyfield Warbler was a good bird with which to reach another landmark of 400 species I have now photographed in Britain.

Daurian Shrike - one of a run of rarities on Portland in October 2012
There are a number of contenders for best birding day of 2012: a February morning when I saw and photographed three major rarities (Paddyfield Warbler, Spanish Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco) in full sunlight and within the space of a few hours; a bright December day which started with the sun rising on a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll in Suffolk and ended with it setting on a Buff-bellied Pipit in Berkshire; or a perfect day on Skomer with the family which made up for the disappointment of not getting onto the island a few days before. Bird of the Year for me though was either the Dowitcher or the Yellowthroat. The former took seven visits to get a shot I was happy with; and the latter took a while to pin down on my first visit but gave brief but superb views on my second - long enough to get the picture below at least.

Common Yellowthroat in Gwent - my favourite rarity photo of 2012
Locally, time spent on the patch with the camera paid dividends with close views of Short-eared Owl and Marsh Harrier among the highlights, and a fine selection of waders taking advantage of the unseasonal availability of all-year round puddles. All sorts of ducks also made themselves available at Swineham - it was, after all, nice weather for them.

Short-eared Owl at Swineham - patch-tastic
Happily there were no spectacular dips in 2012, a function of (i) being picky about what to go for (ii) spending a bit more time birding locally and (iii) continuing restrictions on the opportunities to get out among other responsibilities. Most enjoyable among the latter is my officially-most-important-role-in-life as father to George and Rowan and husband to Claire, and I really should put on record my thanks to them for being so tolerant of my peregrinations, and of me implying via the pages of this blog that they will stop at nought to prevent me going birdwatching. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and there are times when, for reasons I can only guess at, they seem almost glad to see me go. By way of a thank you, as well as reaffirming my now annual resolution to be less tolerant of dog-walkers, I resolve to get out birding even more often in 2013. Purely out of gratitude to them, you understand.

My ever-patient family sometimes follow me to Swineham to make sure that I do actually go there when I say that's where I'm going. And no, the dog isn't ours.

Monday, 24 December 2012

'Twas the night before Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas
And a certain Black Duck
Caused twitchers to mutter
'Oh damn,' and the like

Not me though - don't need it -
So don't have to go
I can sit on my butt
And think 'yo-ho-ho'

It's just as well really
We all know, of course,
That Anas rubripes
Isn't worth a divorce.

A lone Spoonbill was close in at Swineham Point this afternoon

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on the other hand...only joking. Don't need that either. Meanwhile, at Swineham, the paths are almost impassable, even with wellies, after yet more rain. The Frome Valley is more of a Delta and the River Piddle is to be prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act.

I have seen Spoonbill here before but never this close

Fortunately, this is good news for waterbirds which, unlike half-witted motorists, have waterproof legs and are unlikely to break down in the middle of large puddles into which they wilfully venture. Now where did I put that sherry...

The causeway between Wareham and Stoborough - flooded for the 3rd time since July.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Buffy meets Reservoir Dogs?

After success yesterday morning with the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll in Suffolk, it would have been rude not to call in to see the American Buff-bellied Pipit at the Queen Mother Reservoir in Berkshire on the way back to Dorset. In my experience, this species' preferred habitat in Britain is the mossy margins of dirty great man-made water bodies (the first I saw was at Farmoor in Oxfordshire). It was a very worthwhile detour as for the second time in a day I had a stunning views of a rare bird in front of me which was too close for the lens to focus. The light wasn't as kind as the Suffolk sunrise I enjoyed earlier, and many blurry shots of this very active bird were confined to the recycle bin before I found these. I could have stayed longer but with the brownie point jar having been not just raided but positively smashed on the floor for twitchers' widows and their orphans to slash their little feet on, I beat a retreat just as lumps of rain started fallen from the leaden skies around Heathrow.

Bowled over

I like a bit of Test Match Special but with the current one being played in India, listening to it involves getting up at 04:00 AM. I thought I would give it a go yesterday morning, and, as it's on the radio, I reasoned I could do something else at the same time. Like drive to Suffolk to see a small white bird. In the end I was up long before that with a bout of dip-somnia (the sleep disorder induced by fear of travelling a long way for a rare bird but not seeing it).

Wickets had fallen fast on Friday so I thought listening to the cricket might help keep me awake on the long trip east but not a single wicket fell in the entire four-and-a-half hour journey. Even when I returned to the car after filling my boots with extremely close views of the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, the same two batsmen were still at the crease. It's a good job the bird was still there, as, having gone all that way, I would have felt a bit like the Indian captain must have felt when he eventually got run out for 99.

The hornemanni, a sub-species of Arctic Redpoll, was a new one for me, and while they are reasonably regular on Shetland in autumn, as I have never managed that trip an approachable one in southern England seemed worth the effort. Many photos of this bird have been posted on-line, but a lot are partially obscured by the grasses in which the bird fed. While I experienced the same difficulty at first, later the bird made its way into the open on the shingle, at one point inconveniently coming too close to focus. As my friend Steve said, 'you snappers always find something to moan about'.

Speaking of moaning, there was a bit going on between photographers and non-photographers today - not the usual problem of photographers lacking fieldcraft and flushing the bird this time, but birders who didn't understand the importance of good light standing between the bird and the low early morning sunshine and casting shadows over it. With views like this though, no one could complain too loudly.

I almost never made the journey at all after a last minute domestic misunderstanding about whether the car was needed at home to collect our son from a sleepover. The saintly Nick and Jo, at whose house he was staying, sensed my desperation ('Aldeburgh? In East Anglia? In a day? For a bird? Will it even be there?') and volunteered to drop him off, preventing said misunderstanding escalating into a full-scale sulk on my part. I shall be forever in their debt.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

This is becoming a habit

Out birding twice in one weekend - I could get used to this. But I really have the in-laws to thank for it: when my wife's sister and nephews turn up, my own family are so pleased to see them that I might as well not be there. Which is just as well...

Goosander at Swineham

Their visit this Sunday morning presented the opportunity to nip out early and get reacquainted with Swineham. While scanning the gravel pits, a sleek pale shape flashed close past my bins - on taking them down I realised it was a redhead Goosander, which banked and flew close overhead for a few shots. In a frantic five minutes a Water Rail then flushed from the path just ahead of me, and a Cetti's surprised me by revealing itself, just as a Bearded Tit was giving close-up views at the side of the path.

Buzzard at Swineham

Speaking of family, I was reminded this weekend that my wife is a distant cousin of the briefly notorious nurse-come-celebrity-and-actress, Abi Titmuss, 36. (Why do tabloids always do that thing with the age?). The very mention of her name should increase the hits this blog gets from search engines, especially as I've used the words 'revealing', 'close-up' and 'shots' in the same post. Not to mention 'Bearded'. And in an even more tenuous celebrity connection, it also emerged that my nephew's girlfriend's cousin's boyfriend's auntie is that Flavia Cacace, 33, out of 'Strictly Come Dancing'. I know, I was impressed too.

Dartford Warbler, Coombe Heath

Anyway, just to prove I'm not a complete anti-social cuss when it comes to kinsfolk, there was just time for a trip to Arne before they left for home on Sunday night. They went to the beach while I headed in the opposite direction out over Coombe Heath, where not even a Great Grey Shrike failing to show could spoil a pretty good weekend.

Bearded Tit, Swineham. No-one told him 'Mo-vember' was over.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Back in the game...

After some blasphemous bleating about not getting out much lately in my last post, He moved in mysterious ways this weekend by having a word with my spouse and blessing me with a day's birding yesterday. Black Guillemot is one of my favourite birds, and just mentioning it I'm transported to special places where I have seen them in the past: the famous Broch on Mousa, the Harbour wall in Oban, and the rusty pier at Corran Ferry. So reports of one in Portland Harbour had me packing the scope in the hope of adding Tystie to my Dorset list.

A flotilla of Black-necked Grebes in Portland Harbour
Fog was forecast first thing so an early start wasn't necessary (that's my excuse anyway), and by the time I reached Weymouth the light and the sea conditions were pretty good for finding distant, diminutive auks. I grilled the harbour over several hours and from several vantage points: Sandsfoot Castle, the Sailing Academy and the Verne.

This Red-necked Grebe was close in under the ruin of Sandsfoot Castle
Red-necked and Black-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Great Northern Diver, Common Guillemot and Razorbill were all present, but I could not find the Tystie. No-one else reported it yesterday but it was apparently seen again today in an area I thought I had searched thoroughly. That must have been one hell of a long dive.

Dark-bellied Brent Goose on the harbour shore near the Sailing Academy

Despite this slight frustration, the day still turned up a county tick when a White-rumped Sandpiper seen the day before was relocated at Longham Lakes. The light was harsh and the bird a bit distant by the time I arrived, and so out of practice was I that I had made the schoolboy error of forgetting my digiscoping camera. Hence the shocking sub-record shot.

White-rumped Sandpiper at Longham Lakes
The bird showed quite a strong pectoral band, not unlike the related Baird's, but every now and again it dropped its wings to reveal the diagnostic white rump. Last winter Longham hosted a Blue-winged Teal, meaning it has now brought in more Yanks than nearby Bournemouth Airport. The latest American visitor was keeping company with a single Snipe. I say Snipe, I wonder if anyone checked to see if it was a Wilson's...