Monday, 22 September 2014

Burying a ghost

Autumn has got off to a bit off a slow start bird wise - a blessed relief really as I haven't had much time to get out lately. Such is my relationship with rare bird news at the moment that when the pager wailed a mega alert on Saturday morning I was actually relieved to find it was a Masked Shrike, the first record for Britain of which I saw in Fife in 2004. I continued my otherwise uneventful walk around Swineham and thought nothing more of it.
1st winter Masked Shrike, Spurn - only the 3rd record for Britain
When the bird was reported as still present on Sunday morning, however, and Claire agreed to attend the Sunday morning kid's football match in my stead, the offer of a lift from Steve Smith and the chance of a daft day trip suddenly didn't seem like such a bad idea. Besides, as this was one of less than 10 birds that I have seen in Britain that Steve hasn't, I thought I had better tag along just to make sure he actually saw it, rather than spending his day at Rownhams Services on the M27 stuffing his face with vegetable samosas and stringing it when he got back.
A peachy wash could be seen on the Shrike's right flank, but not on the left
My only real reservation about joining Steve was that the bird was at Spurn. If Bridled Tern was my nemesis bird in 2013, Spurn was my nemesis rarity hotpost, leaving me empty handed after two long distance twitches, for a Rock Thrush in spring and a Great Snipe in the autumn. The tension mounted as we passed the bright lights and mysterious odours of Hull, and increased as we wound our way down the funnel of the East Yorkshire peninsula to the Kilnsea Road.
Barred Warbler
My fears were misplaced as, within minutes of arriving, Spurn had given up the Shrike, followed by a Barred Warbler and a Red-breasted Flycatcher in quick succession and all within a few hundred yards. It was so easy that we couldn't even be bothered to join the queue of birders looking in an empty ditch for an Olive-backed Pipit as it seemed too much like hard work.
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Spurn certainly seemed to be having one of those days, and a few common migrants were also mixed in with the rarities - Redstarts, Willow Warblers and a Lesser Whitethroat all keeping the Shrike company in the same hedgerow, such that by the end of the day the ghost of Gallinago media had been well and truly buried. I might even go back for another one day.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The big question

Some time ago, I speculated about the implications of a 'Yes' vote in the Scottish independence referendum for British listers, a theme which has been picked up since by several bloggers. But with the wall to wall news coverage today, I had to try explaining the issues raised by the campaign to a 7 year old. If you have to do this yourself, I wish you luck:

Rowan: 'What's a referendum?'
Me: 'It's like a vote for all the people in Scotland to say whether they want to leave the United Kingdom or not'
Rowan (aghast): 'So what will happen to Uncle Alan and Auntie Heather and our cousins [residents of Stirling]?'
Me: 'Don't worry, they'll still be there'
Rowan: 'So what would Scotland be called if it left the United Kingdom?'
Me: 'Scotland'
Rowan: 'And where will it go?'
Me: 'Well it won't go anywhere, it will stay in the same place'
Rowan (exasperated): 'SO WHAT'S THE POINT OF THAT THEN?'
'So will I be needing a passport then?' Snow Bunting, Cairngorm, 2011
Fortunately, 11-year olds have a more sophisticated grasp of the issues:

George: 'So why do they want to leave the UK then?'
Me: 'Well they don't like decisions about Scotland being made in England, I guess'
George: 'Like what?'
Me: 'Well about money and things'
George: 'So will they have their own money then?'
Me: 'No, they want to keep the pound'
George: 'They can't do that, they can't keep our stuff!'

Tomorrow I attempt to explain the West Lothian question to the Guinea Pigs...
'Don't patronise us. While the establishment of the Scottish Parliament undoubtedly gave a new urgency to answering the West Lothian question, in the event of a 'yes' vote then, self-evidently, it becomes academic. Now go and stock up on that Irn Bru before it's subject to import tax, it gives our coats their special sheen'.

Sunday, 14 September 2014


A definite sense of migration in swing at Swineham today - a quick visit this morning produced a couple of Ruff on passage and a Whinchat. Warblers moving through in reasonable numbers included Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers while an equally brief evening visit produced more Chiffs, plus a few Reed Warblers, a Sedge Warbler and a couple of flyover Yellow Wagtails. To underline the change of season the first Pintail of the autumn flew over the Point, and the first Wigeon arrived on the gravel pits. 2 Greenshank were keeping company out on the mud while 3 Avocet almost constituted a flock - well, a crowd at least. Nothing spectacular, then, but it left me with a strong sense of that quality which makes this time of year so special: promise.
Whinchat - a scarce migrant at Swineham
Whitethroat - also surprisingly scarce here
Ruff - we don't get many of these either
Pintail - a sure sign on winter approaching


Monday, 8 September 2014


'Patchline is a new, confidential, freephone service for patches which are being systematically neglected by their guardians. Ordinary members of the public can also phone Patchline if they suspect birders of neglecting their patch'.
Juvenile Bearded Tits at Swineham
If such a thing really existed, Swineham would surely have been on the blower complaining of its recent treatment at my hands. It's been weeks, possibly months, since I paid a visit, more down to lack of opportunity than lack of interest, though interest has, in truth, been hard to summon up over the summer.
5 of 6 birds present
Anyway, I tried to mend fences with a brief visit yesterday morning, the main reward for which was an encounter with a party of Bearded Tits. Fatherly duties then intervened in the form of Wareham Rangers U-12s first game of the 2014-15 season against local rivals Winfrith. In my mind, I had been dreading the onset of the football season, with its Saturday training sessions and Sunday matches threatening to extinguish the tiny flame of hope that I might ever get any birding done again, what with work being all busy and that.
Cobwebs at Swineham: a metaphor for my recent relationship with it
As if to compound this fear, no sooner had we parked up at the ground than the phone rang with news from Steve Smith that he had discovered a Great White Egret at Middlebere. Embarrassingly, this would be a Dorset tick for me. Completely unconnected to this fact, I decided that 11 was a sufficiently mature age for a kid to play a game of football without needing his Dad to provide moral support from the touchline. Half an hour later I was jogging up to the Harrier Hide to add the Great White Egret to my county list.
Great White Egret at Middlebere - surprisingly difficult to catch up with in Dorset given that there have been semi-resident birds in Hampshire and breeding birds in Somerset. And they rarely stick around here.
I speculated in a previous post about what would happen should news of a local rarity break mid-match now that Jol Mitchell, Wareham Rangers U-12 team secretary, and his son Joe, Wareham Rangers U-12 star player, and me are all trying to build our Dorset lists. Would the Dads ditch the boys? Would the boys ditch the team? Well now we know: I would ditch everyone else. 
Reed Warbler, Swineham
It wasn't all about me though: I had my youngest son in tow, and he made me feel better by saying that a smash and grab twitch with Dad was slightly less boring than watching George play football,  both being preferable to helping Mum at the allotment in his triangulated list of least worst ways for a 7 year old to spend the day. This provided some post hoc justification for the excursion.
Migrant Hawkers, Swineham

Anyway, as it was just down the road we were back for the second half in time to watch Winfrith's playmaker lash two blinding volleys past Wareham's defence. There was a happy ending after the match though as both Mitchells connected with the Egret, thus reducing the risk of any smouldering resentment at my earlier antics.
Tree Pipit, Swineham
So, perhaps the football season shouldn't hold so much fear after all, and maybe, just maybe, I can still carve out enough time to dissuade Swineham from making that call. Maybe.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Not all at sea

A recent visit to the Isles of Scilly was mainly for pelagic trips - but it wasn't all rolling about on the high seas - some of the time was spent on dry land, wandering around the wader hotspots of St Mary's in the hope of turning up a rare one - no joy on that score but some good photo opportunities in any case with more common species. 
Greenshank, Porth Hellick pool
One of 15 Greenshank present
An obliging bird in front of the Stephen Sussex hide

A rare opportunity to get this close...
...sometimes even closer

Part of the flock which remained mostly sedentary during my several visits
Green Sandpiper on the small pool at Lower Moors.
I've seen Solitary Sandpiper on this same bit of mud, so good to get the species pair on the pool list
A lone Dunlin was also at Lower Moors... was a single Common Snipe
Away from the water, this Northern Wheatear was on Peninnis Head
Northern Wheatear
A different Northern Wheatear on the photogenic heath around St Mary's airfield
Migrants were few and far between but this Willow Warbler was at  Porth Hellick

Meadow Pipit, Peninnis: one of not many passerine on St Mary's during the first half of last week
Friends have noted the decrease in wordage relative to pictures on this blog recently. Sorry about that, since returning from the above holiday I have been pretty focused on getting to grips with a new role at work, which has left me a bit bereft of time and energy (in a good way) to compose anything more than the sort of 'today I did this and saw that' kind of posts which I generally try to avoid. Fortunately, my new job is providing a rich vein of potential comic material. Unfortunately, were I to publish it, it might not be 'my new job' for much longer. So you'll just have to wait for the diaries...

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


The weekend before last saw me on the Isles of Scilly for 3 pelagics out of St Mary's on MV Sapphire. Sunday's forecast was for a breezy day and showers, raising high hopes for some eventful seabirding. Quality rather than quantity was the order of the day in the end, with small numbers of good birds appearing at regular intervals to keep us on our toes throughout the six hour trip.

In the hazy, happy memories of some similar trips last summer, I had forgotten just how difficult it is to photograph fast moving seabirds from the deck of a rolling vessel whilst trying to keep down lunch. Throw in poor light and some extra chop and the challenge was magnified. In the circumstances, I came away reasonably content with the following highlights.
This adult Sabine's Gull was probably the bird of the day
It pattered on the surface like a Storm Petrel but turned occasionally for a few close passes
I thought the juvenile of this species I saw at Cogden late last year was pretty special but the experience of seeing this matched it for beauty, if not comfort
Yellow tip to the bill visible even at some distance
And a distinctive upperwing pattern
This 2nd summer Arctic Skua powered alongside the boat
It caught us up with ease
A pale phase Arctic Skua also buzzed us at one point
An elegant and powerful bird
It proceeded to (unsuccessfully) chase a Storm Petrel which was feeding in our chum slick
Dark phase Arctic Skua
A familiar sight over the course of the weekend - European Storm Petrel dancing in the chum slick
This shot shows the characteristic kinked tail and diagnostic pale bar on the underwing
Almost impossible to photograph in the conditions!
But a few shots were just about presentable
This probably my favourite
Sunday's pelagic had some success with Shearwaters following the boat - this one a Manx
Manx Shearwater
And here a Sooty Shearwater
Note the silvery underwing
Sooty Shearwater
Sunday's pelagic allowed for more prolonged views of Great Shearwater compared to Saturday's brief flypast

This bird repeatedly landed behind the boat and followed in the wake
Note the dark belly patch on this individual
Shearing with wingtip on the water
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater