Saturday, 31 December 2016

And finally...

This quick look back at December completes my series of posts reviewing 2016. Thanks for sticking with it - from the comments and texts urging me on recently, I got the impression that some of you didn't think I was going to make it. I could pretend it was all carefully planned to conclude as the sun sets for the last time on 2016, but that would be a lie. In fact, there was a point last week when I too thought I would never reach the end: it was, to borrow the sporting image of 2016, my Jonny Brownlee moment, and you, dear readers, were my Alistair, dragging me to the finishing line despite having much better things to do with your time.

2016 was of course a year of shock election results, famous folks' funerals and controversial rare birds. The evidence on climate change appeared stronger than ever but the peoples of the free world decided not to let the facts on this and several other matters of public debate get in the way of a good story, especially when it was being told by wealthy demagogues with their fingers crossed behind their backs. On those shock election results, I merely observe that just 27% of eligible Americans voted for Trump, and less than 38% of voting age Brits voted to leave the EU. Whatever you think of the results of both polls, this surely can't be taken as a sign that western democracy is in rude health. I recall fondly the ennobled billionaire tax-exile Lord Ashcroft tweeting after the US election and Brexit results that 'the elites' had lost touch with the people - how fortunate we are to have such down-to-earth meritocrats holding these damned elites to account.
Egrets: I've had a few - Dorset got in on the December Cattle Egret invasion, this bird being one of five with Little Egrets at Nottington
Corn Buntings were singing at Maiden Castle in the unseasonably warm weather of mid-December
 Corn Bunting, Maiden Castle
Much loved celebrities seemed to drop like flies in 2016 - or did they? My theory is that with a rising global population and the bar for celebrity being substantially lowered over time, there are just a larger number of them around to perish - so we'd better get used to more 'Sad death of tragic Brian off of Big Brother' type headlines in 2017. That said, there were some genuine mega-stars who left us during the year, and I had to smile at a recent suggestion on social media that Bowie had created a parallel universe and was in the process of populating it one by one with his own hand-picked choices. 
Marsh Harrier at Middlebere - from a visit early in the month

Little Egret, Middlebere: one of the few beneficiaries of our warming climate
Peregrine at Middlebere from the same visit
As for the controversial rarities, it started early in the year with the Dalmatian Pelican's tour of the south west, and ended with the Cotswolds Blue Rock Thrush. Establishing the provenance of a wide-ranging Lammergeier (not seen by me) and the wandering east coast Western Purple Swamphen (which I did see) was also potentially complicated by the influence of continental re-introduction schemes, even though neither were thought likely to be of captive stock.
A memorable December day saw me heading up to Derbyshire for a close encounter with a Dusky Thrush
Willow Tit at Carsington Water was a long overdue 'photo-tick' on the way back from the Dusky Thrush... was the bonus of an Eastern Black Redstart in Tewkesbury on the way home - the first I had seen of this form and therefore my bird of the month for December
A quick attempt, then, to dish out some meaningless titles for 'whatsit of the year', an exercise fraught with danger not just due to fickle memory, but to the risk of implying that anything not mentioned wasn't fun or special - that would be nonsense, of course, but I'm afraid it's not going to stop me:
  • Bird of the Year: it has to be the Siberian Accentor - the fact that it was part of a multiple occurrence of the species in Britain 'devalued' it for some, but for me it did the opposite, illustrating a genuine natural phenomenon and adding to its authenticity in a year which had more than its share of plastic controversy.
  • Dorset Bird of the Year: Portland's Great Spotted Cuckoo was everything a rarity should be: big, beautiful and photogenic - and a county tick for me.
  • Patch Bird of the Year: a very short shortlist due to a shameful lack of effort - but a self-found autumn Great White Egret claims the title, if stumbling across the birding equivalent of a Concorde in a haystack counts as 'self-found'.
  • Twitch of the Year: it has to be the day trip with my son to St Mary's for the Cliff Swallow - though the Hebridean adventure for the Black-billed Cuckoo, the campervan sleepover for the Great Knot, the smash and grab for the Siberian Accentor and the Dusky Thrush/Eastern Black Redstart bonus ball day ran it a close second, third, fourth and fifth respectively. Not that I''m obsessed with lists, you understand.
  • Photo of the Year: had to think about this one. But I love American waders, and I love photographing rare birds up close, so it's the second one from this series taken during an intimate encounter with the Hudsonian Whimbrel in Cornwall early in the year. 
  • Dip of the year: I learnt long ago not to go too early with 'review of the year' posts and this year is no exception. I was looking forward to reporting 'no long distance dips' to speak of, when last week's Pembrokeshire trip failed to turn up the hoped for Masked Wagtail!
  • The Donald Trump Award for services to climate chaos: having raised the spectre of climate change, I should reflect for a moment on my own carbon footprint: too much driving chasing all these birds around, obviously, but I managed more lift-sharing than usual in an A-rated car, and, apart from two short hops on crop sprayers to the Isles of Scilly, I never got on a proper plane or left the country by any other means in 2016. So not too bad relatively speaking, but certainly room for improvement. Mind you, given the state of sterling, not leaving the country may be less of a choice and more of a necessity in 2017!
The news in 2016 was full of talk of 'blue on blue' conflict, as leading Conservatives knocked lumps out of each other with their Polo hammers. This image of 'blue on blue' - the Blue Rock Thrush against the perfect sky of a cold December afternoon in Stow-on-the-Wold - presents, I feel, a more restful image, and one much less likely to have my Dad shouting at the telly. My photo of the month for December.
So, thanks to the various peregrinations chronicled in these pages in 2016, the number of birds I have seen in Britain according to the official list crept up from 452 at the start of the year to 458 by the end - not including the Swamphen, the Pelican and the Blue Rock Thrush, all suspended in listing purgatory pending consideration by the British Birds Rarities Committee. In statistical terms, therefore, whether or not 2016 can go down as a good or a very good year will in part depend on what these wise folk decide about the year's most controversial birds. The Swamphen should be fine, who knows with the other two. But in the final analysis, the numbers don't much matter: the birds, the butterflies and other interesting critters I saw this year took me to some inspiring places, in the company of some great people, and sometimes with just myself for company, in a search for natural beauty, solitude and fulfilment which undoubtedly kept me sane amid the madness of the modern world.

My thanks, then, to the wildlife, for still being there despite the best efforts of humanity to eradicate much of it; to my fellow travellers, for their companionship and for subjecting themselves to my incessant witterings en route; and to my family, for joining me when it was possible, and tolerating my absence without too much overt celebration when it wasn't. And finally thanks to all of you for reading. It appears that the review of the year by instalments idea was insufficient to avert one last mammoth post for the year, so my resolution for 2017 is a simple one: I'll knock that on the head next year. Assuming the fingers of President Trump's tiny hands haven't already punched in the nuclear codes by then of course. And on that cheerful note, may I wish you a Happy New Year!

From Dobby's grave to Hogwarts

Readers with long memories and nothing better to do may recall that I forsook a potential day's birding during the peak October rarity season to join the rest of the family on a trip to London for a Harry Potter film location walking tour. With more time off over the festive period, and the children still deep in their J K Rowling phase, I organised a wholly selfless itinerary to take-in a few more locations from the Potter movie franchise this week.

First up, a couple of days in Pembrokeshire, and a visit to Freshwater West beach. This is the scene of what Mark Kermode memorably described as 'the unfortunate elf-based incident' when trying not to give the plot away whilst reviewing The Deathly Hallows part I. We headed there the day after Boxing Day and relived the tragic moment when Dobby carks it and gets buried in the dunes by his young sorcerer pals.
Blue Rock Thrush - a bit of Christmas magic or throwaway plastic tat?
Blue Rock Thrush, Stow-on-the-Wold. I apparated from Gloucester Cathedral and was there in a flash.
Whilst in Pembrokeshire, it would have been rude not to check out Croft Villas in Camrose, where a Masked Wagtail, the first record for Britain of this form, had spent several weeks. Unfortunately it decided to pick the day before our arrival to succumb either to the migratory urge, the cold weather or one of the local cats. As if to rub salt in to the absence of the Wagtail, news broke of a Blue Rock Thrush in Gloucestershire soon after we had pawned our first born to fund the toll for the Severn Bridge crossing into Wales. I proposed tentatively that we turn around and head straight there but not for the first time this year I was forced to accept the will of the majority, and we pressed on.

I put the Blue Rock Thrush from my mind: we were going to Pembrokeshire and I was going to enjoy it. Choughs and a Black Redstart at the Green Bridge of Wales, and a Scaup in with Tufties at Bosherston Pools provide some birding interest, and quality time with the family had the usual tonic effect. By Thursday morning, however, the continued presence of the extreme rarity was eating away at me. The problem was, everyone else wanted to spend the morning in Pembrokeshire before heading back east. This would have limited the time available to see the Rock Thrush to the last hour or so of daylight, not a prospect I was keen on.

The difference of view over the options was in danger of becoming a full blown conflict, so I proposed a peace plan of such fiendish cunning that Voldemort himself would have been proud of it: as we have to go back over the Severn Bridge anyway, I suggested, why not nip up the road to Gloucester Cathedral, whose cloisters serve as the Hogwarts body double in several of the Potter films. Perhaps I could drop the family off there, pop along to Stow-on-the-Wold for the Blue Rock Thrush and be back to meet them in the town of my birth before dusk? Miraculously, the peace plan was accepted by all parties.

The forecast was for thick freezing fog all day in Stow-on-the-Wold, so I had visions of seeing the Thrush, which had been photographed in beautiful light the previous day, only as a silhouette in the gloom, if at all. I needn't have been concerned: the town was bathed in sunlight as I arrived to join the large crowd hanging around the Cotswold stone houses waiting for the Thrush to sit up on a rooftop somewhere. Disconcertingly, it hadn't been seen for an hour, so I headed for Fisher Close, scene of most of the previous sightings. After a few minutes chatting to Nick and Claire Oliver who arrived at about the same time, a shout went up and we got our first view of the bird. Over the next couple of hours it did several wide circuits of the area, often perching for extended periods on the rooftops and chimney pots.

I got some satisfactory photographs, but having to jockey for position to get them wasn't much fun, so I wandered towards the high street with food in mind. Walking down a narrow alley, a scuttling noise above me made me look up and there was the Blue Rock Thrush, much closer than any of my previous sightings. I had it to myself for a few seconds until I was joined by a family of muggles who were almost as pleased as I was to enjoy such a close encounter when I pointed it out. It hopped up to the ridgeline, posed for a few seconds longer and was gone. Thus sated with my views, I headed back to the Cathedral for a quick tour from the children who had by this point sussed out the most well-known locations from their favourite film scenes.

Debate about the origins of this bird has raged on site and on-line. While I was there, Lee Evans, the self-styled Albus Dumbledore of British twitching, had taken a break from mourning the loss of George Michael to apply his version of the Sorting Hat and pronounce it a definite cage bird. Other opinion was either more circumspect or more inclined to regard it as a wild bird. I can't add anything to this debate that hasn't been said already, though have tried to summarise the case for and against its acceptance to Category A of the British list in the following photos and captions.
Matted feathers on the lower breast were being mentioned by some as a bad sign yesterday - indicative of captive origin or just a sign of poor condition associated with an arduous migration?
A drooping left wing was being cited as another feature suggestive of captive origin - though we can all recall tired migrants which had suffered some kind of wing and/or feather damage.
Behaving more like a Blackbird not a Blue Rock Thrush was thought by some to be uncharacteristic of this normally wary species - not something I can comment on having never seen one abroad, but would a tired, hungry migrant spurn any easy pickings it came across?
The unexpected habitat is of some concern - but are the rooftops and gardens of a Cotswold town completely out of the question for a bird which is said to inhabit old buildings in human settlements in parts of its range? After all, it's a bird not an architecture critic.
Looking pretty tatty here in the flight feathers and the tail - but, again, does this make it cagebird material?
Cagebirds often show damaged or deformed feet - not looking too bad here though
While the garden feeder antics may have looked a bit odd, there was plenty of more natural feeding behaviour on display too - here despatching a bee of some description
No-one seems to have located anywhere in Britain where Blue Rock Thrush is kept in captivity, so unless from an illicit trade, that might support the case for wild origin. And's it's a well known fact that satellite dishes provide the perfect habitat for rare birds - ask the Adacian Flycatcher... 

The ridge lines of Stow-on-the-Wold could just about pass for rocky outcrops where you might expect to see this species
So, does this bird illustrate the old adage that anything can turn up anytime, anywhere - or is this species in this habitat at this time of year just too unlikely? A bird of southern European origin might seem less likely, but one of a more easterly origin appears more plausible. It's been present for a couple of weeks, which would overlap with the arrival of other rare thrushes from the east, and several Eastern Black Redstarts, including the one I saw not long ago at Tewkesbury Abbey - not far as the migrant flies...

Friday, 30 December 2016


This review of the year by instalments has become the blogging equivalent of Christmas turkey: I was sick of it after about the 5th portion, but I know it just has to be finished. So pour yourself another tot of Gaviscon, dear reader, and tuck in to my highlights for November - a rare month in that, for precious little effort invested, I saw some really good birds. Other than for work, I think I left the house on three occasions, which produced, in decreasing order of rarity:
A Forster's Tern in Essex, burying the decade-and-a-half old ghost of multiple dips on the same species in the same county - in those days I lived a lot closer in neighbouring Kent. An unexpected bonus tick late in the year and supporting evidence for my theory of the last few years that November is the new October. A straightforward choice for my bird of the month.
A waterlogged Desert Wheatear in neighbouring Devon - the first male of this species I have seen in Britain. Seen the day before twitching the Forster's Tern, so a good weekend in the year's litany of family neglect. 
And even closer to home a patch tick in the form of a flock of Barnacles at Swineham. Barely deserved in what I think was my only visit of the month.
Picking a photo of the month was a bit of a challenge for November, on account of the dearth of candidates and the complete absence of sunlight. So it'll have to be this Stonechat from Swineham.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016


October always brings a sense of anticipation, and October 2016, up next in my review of the year, was no exception. It brought its fair share of success, but also its fair share of frustration. First the successes, which featured a couple of American waders.
A Baird's Sandpiper at Davidstow airfield was worth an early morning visit. The closest I have seen one, photographed from the car window
This Lesser Yellowlegs was at Lytchett Bay - my second Dorset tick of 2016
October 2016 will be remembered for the Siberian Accentor invasion, and I managed to catch up with the second one to turn up - the long-staying Easington bird which drew a crowd from the middle of the second week of the month. Fortunately it stayed until the Sunday allowing myself and Chris Patrick to pitch up, tick it before breakfast and be back home just in time to avoid social services taking our abandoned families into care.
Siberian Accentor, Easington - a special bird, and my bird of the month for October

This Shorelark was just down the road from the Siberian Accentor
A good first half to the month then - but less so the second half. Portland lay at the centre of October's frustrations with a short-staying Red-flanked Bluetail and a Pine Bunting failing to settle having been ringed at the Observatory. Still, a few scarce migrant birds made several visits more bearable over the course of the fortnight.
Hen Harrier, Portland
Turtle Dove on Portland - a sad comment on its rarity now that it was quite a well-twitched bird, My photo of the month for October
Another island - St Mary's added to the frustration at the month's end, when a day trip with Steve Smith produced nothing more exciting than a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and a putative Eastern Yellow Wagtail. Still, it was good to be back on the island for the second time in two months, even though it wasn't as successful as the first.
Yellow-browed Warbler, St Mary's
Putative 'Eastern' Yellow Wagtail

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


Good things seemed to come in twos in September, the latest month to be given the drive-by review treatment in my look back at 2016. Starting with two tickets to the Isles of Scilly for my youngest son and I to twitch a Cliff Swallow, with a point blank Lesser Yellowlegs making up a high quality American double for the day.
Cliff Swallow, St Mary's. Incredibly another was found in Suffolk later in the year but this was the smarter of the two ;-). Suffolk would have been cheaper of course - but not nearly as much fun! Bird of the month for September
Lesser Yellowlegs, St Mary's - my photo of the month for September
Seeing one Shrike always means it's a red-letter day, but two rarer members of the family in the same month was something to celebrate - especially when both the Woodchat (at Pirate's Cove near Weymouth) and the Lesser Grey Shrike (at Mountbatten near Plymouth) were so confiding.
Woodchat Shrike, Pirate's Cove
Lesser Grey Shrike, Jennycliff Beach
September produced some fine weather as well as some fine birds, and I made a few journeys to Portland during the month to look for migrants - the island can usually be relied on for seasonal scarcities like Rose-coloured Starling and Wryneck.
Rose-coloured Starling, Portland

Wryneck, Portland
Even Swineham had something to offer in September - an overdue patch tick in the form of a Great White Egret, and an approachable Kingfisher - common enough along the River Frome, but only rarely do they perch long enough for a photograph.

Great White Egret, Swineham

Kingfisher, Swineham
The final duo from September was extra special - my own sons, each seemingly taking an interest in wildlife photography. Rowan joined me on the trip to Scilly while they both tooled up with long lenses for a visit to Brownsea. I'm sad to report the passion for photography hasn't really lasted with either, but it was fun while it did, and may have sown the seeds of some future interest in this most absorbing of pastimes.

Monday, 26 December 2016

July and August...

We're running out of time with this review of the year by instalments thingy, so to quicken the pace here's my equivalent of the Boxing Day sales: two for the price of one. Not sure what I was doing in July, but checking my hard drive it can't have been wildlife photography. Some big gaps between downloads as the birding doldrums set in no doubt. Those barrels which were scraped produced:
Kestrel at Kimmeridge: my photo of the month for July
House Martin in the Lake District - a flying visit to mark my brother's 50th
Collared Pratincole on the Somerset Levels - a short range twitch after work
The Arne cafĂ© Nightjar - bird of the month for July by virtue of the great views it afforded 
Brown Hairstreak at Alners Gorse - my first in Dorset
August was a bit more productive thanks to a holiday with the family on Dartmoor, a trip to Kent to catch up with my old pal Matt Jones over from New Zealand, a spot of mid-week twitching for a first for Britain and the start of autumn migration on the patch.
Three of us dashed off to Minsmere mid-week for this Western Purple Swamphen - the first record for Britain - which didn't stay until the weekend but later relocated to Lincolnshire. Bird of the month for August
A Silver-spotted Skipper on Fontmell Down was one of the highlights of August
Kingfisher at Grove Ferry in Kent - my photo of the month for August
Goosander on the idyllic River Dart in Devon
Male Redstart on Darmoor
Spotted Flycatcher on Dartmoor
We joined several hundred others at Arne for Hen Harrier Day in August - protesting at the illegal persecution of these rare and remarkable birds of prey
Sedge Warbler at Swineham