Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Thrush Rush

Dungeness October 1982
I return to the coastguard lookout and shelter from the howling SW wind by leaning against the east facing wall. Huddling up to the brickwork I have a fairly good view over the turbulent sea, although the braking waves are hidden from my view by the shingle bank. Because of the reluctance of the wind to drop below force 6 or out of the westerly quadrant land-bird observation has been difficult and not an option that I have taken up these past few days. As some form of compensation I’ve been drawn to the sea. Not a great deal of bird movement is apparent but enough to keep my interest. But, even if the birds are absent, the seascapes are not. I find that after the initial discipline of counting the few species on view, my mind reaches a state of calm and I lose myself in the cold greys and greens of the spume-laden sea. Rollers rush in to collide with the shingle beach and although that moment of collision is hidden from me I can hear its climax and see the spray cresting the ridge. Banks of black cloud sitting menacingly offshore announce their intention and add drama to the panorama set out before me. Who needs birds when there is all this on offer? I’m lost in a sea-induced trance. Then a wing, whose feather patterning is formed of geometrically perfect triangles of black, buff and white, rises above the shingle bank and as quickly as it appears dips down out of sight. God, I know what that is! I break cover from my isle of calmness and run directly at the sea, exhilarated not so much by the bracing wind as by the juvenile Sabine’s Gull that I know will be down by the breakers. And there it is. Larid perfection. It hangs in the air facing into the wind, only yards offshore. I feel vindicated for spending all this time staring at the sea, privileged to be having this one-to-one with such a scarce bird and proud to have found it. My thought is of the birders back at the observatory and of wanting to share this moment with them. Jogging back to the observatory in Wellington boots, heavy coat and carrying a tripod with scope does not allow Olympic qualifying times but those gathered are soon on the beach, courtesy of Martin Male’s car and his extreme driving skills. Alas, his Formula One-esque driving doesn’t make up the time that was needed. The gull has gone.

I’m standing at the crest of the moat staring into a darkness that is filled with the calls of thrushes. It won’t be light for at least half an hour and yet these unseen birds appear to be pitching onto the open shingle abandoning the drizzle-laden air. There must be thousands of invisible migrants hidden from view. My excitement is palpable – you cannot buy days like these, you cannot ‘twitch’ them, they cannot be ordered for you to experience. It’s a case of being very lucky or indulging in a day-by-day vigil at a coastal hotspot and even then this sort of spectacle isn’t necessarily an annual event. The light is slowly building and shapes are slowly becoming discernable, the shadows morphing into identifiable forms. They are mainly Blackbirds but plenty of Song Thrushes and Redwings as well. Each clump of cover I approach explodes with birds, startled black and brown bundles of feathers scattering in all directions. They fly a short distance before pitching down into vegetation already populated by other thrushes, causing brief moments of confusion as they squabble for the right to stay in their chosen cover. An hour after dawn the thrushes are still pouring in but a new sound is increasing in intensity above us, that of Chaffinches. A steady trickle of these finches is making way in unhurried fashion above us, the trickle soon becoming a torrent as they move north-west. Like war-time bomber convoys they make unhurried and orderly passage overhead, this being far removed in character from the chaotic flocks of thrushes that are still punching their way through the more sedate finches. By 10.00hrs the Chaffinch stream is exhausted and the thrushes reclaim our attention. My estimates for the morning are Blackbird (5,500), Song Thrush (3,000), Redwing (2,000), and a staggering 10,000 Chaffinches. There has also been at least 40 Firecrests caught up in the movement. Nothing remotely rare but who needs rarity with a spectacle like this played out before you. (The two Pallas’s Warblers and the flock of 33 Cranes that I will see later in the month are events that will be remembered, but not with the intensity of this arrival).

Monday, 20 October 2014

The monastic life of a sea watcher

Dungeness May 1982
I always feel that you have a good chance of finding something special at the Airport Pits. It takes some effort to get to them. You have to park at Boulderwall, take the footpath heading due north for a good mile before then veering off westwards over the shingle towards Lydd Airport. The pit(s) are small, the water shallow and whenever I visit them (which isn’t very often) there are always plenty of exposed feeding areas for birds. The pits are prone to drying out in prolonged dry spells. Today is the classic type of day that I pick to venture out to check them - a quiet day at the observatory, clement weather so as not to risk a soaking on the exposed trudge and bags of enthusiasm and optimism. The walk out is a pleasure, full of anticipation and because of the irregularity of the visits it is somewhat a novelty. My imagination had initially been fired on the tale of when a Spotted Crake was caught in a walk-in trap placed on the Airport pits shoreline. This visit has turned up trumps – well, modest trumps.  A cracking pair of Garganey have tucked themselves into poolside vegetation. The drake briefly swims out on show, the duck hestitant to leave cover. If I hadn’t have come out here these birds wouldn’t have been seen at all. These pits are hardly ever visited. That’s part of the attraction. An added frisson of excitement is also due to the pits being out of bounds as they are on private land. Airport staff can become quite officious and any visit can precipitate the arrival of an angry man in a Land Rover. Many birders do not realise is that if you carry along the footpath northwards instead of turning west to towards the airport you eventually come to a collection of small waterbodies. They are well vegetated and look promising. I have only ever visited these ‘lost’ pits the once. Another aspect of a visit to the Airport Pits that I enjoy is the solitude. There must be weeks on end when nobody visits them for any purpose, let alone birding. It is a perfect place to bird whilst ruminating on life in general. Like the open shingle between the power station and the RSPB reserve you feel alone under vast skies here. The shingle is largely bereft of vegetation, the horizons are distant and you feel at the mercy of nature and the weather in a way that is difficult in our crowded part of Britain.

I’ve been here for a week and the sun hasn’t stopped shining. The wind has been predominantly a strong NE to SE and I have spent hour upon hour on the beach seawatching. I have been getting up at 04.30hrs and been standing on the shoreline by first light, shivering in the dawn chill. Each day the blood-orange ball of the sun has risen from the sea and gradually warmed the air to a point where my layers of clothing have been stripped off to the base t-shirt and shorts. Taking the form of weathered driftwood, my face, arms and legs are nut brown due to sun and wind exposure. I feel totally rested. The birds have been kind. This week  I have personally seen 68 Pomarine Skuas, mostly close inshore cracking adults, including flocks of 13, 11 and 10. Accompanying them have been a steady stream of waders, including mixed flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, many in summer plumage. Whimbrels however, have stolen the show, with two days of heavy passage, including a record breaking 600 on one afternoon and evening alone. Today I have forsaken the shore for the trapping area and have just found a male Golden Oriole flying low over the sallow bushes and head inland, an exotic flash of buttercup yellow and black. All week it has just been Sean McMinn, Dave Davenport and myself. Our lifestyle has been monastic – after such an early start followed by a whole day spent staring through optics into a heat haze out at sea, we retire to bed by 22.00hrs, eyes strained to excess, bodies burnt, minds tired, but wearily fulfilled.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Figure of Eight

This is a species that I don't get to see very often - Figure of Eight - this being only the second record from the garden in 27 years. It appears to be one of those species that is on the decrease, so catch one while you can!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Smaller still

I first became aware of the Raynox DCR-250 a couple of years ago, via Leicester City's very own mascot, Mark Skevington - you can read his initial thoughts here. It is basically a magnifying lens that is clipped onto an existing DSLR or bridge camera lens. Skev's results with this combination are, I think, spectacular. Because many inverts are so small, and, when you look at them close-up, beautiful, I've longed after the means of obtaining some worthy images. This week I took the plunge and purchased one - and at around £40 it is not silly money.

Time was a bit tight this morning, but I wanted to try it out. I clipped it onto the end of my 60mm Canon macro lens (itself attached to my now old Canon 400D). Everything was set up for autofocus, so I knew that the depth of field would be shallow. The result was very pleasing.

This is, I think, Pinalitus cervinus (and if you know better, please let me know). It is tiny and to my failing middle-aged eyes lacked any colour or markings at all. The Raynox lifted it out of obscurity! Tomorrow I will rescue any small creature from my MV haul and attempt to obtain Skev-quality shots with a combination of tripod, timer and patience.

Another subject I attempted was this Plutella xylostella. For a first time, ten minute session on auto focus I was well pleased with the results.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Do I really need a book about seaweed?

I cannot walk into a bookshop without heading straight to the 'natural history' department. This normally results in disappointment as the bookseller invariably stocks his/her shelves with a mixture of the banal  - 100 Penguins to see before you die - the twee - Lady Cattermole's Edwardian Ladies Country Diary - or the plain useless. Where have all the field guides gone? What about a few proper monographs? Atlas's? ANYTHING...

I happened to be in Torquay at the weekend and there is some sort of sea safari park along the promenade. You can access the shop attached to it without needing to pay to look at penguins, so, under the vain hope that THERE WOULD BE BOOKS, I went in. And there were!

I ended up buying the rather splendid Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland, a photographic guide that claims to be able to help you confidently identify over 200 species of them. As with most things, there are plenty that do need a microscope to clinch an identification, and I'll leave those well alone. I almost - almost - picked up The Sea Anemones and Corals of Britain and Ireland as well, but thought better of it. I wish I had now. Both are published by Wild Nature Press / Marine Conservation Society / Seasearch and will only cost you £16.95. Not bad for such a well produced book. My natural history book choices are getting more specialised and obscure by the day.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Woodchat and some geese

Dungeness June 1981
Dorrian Buffery is away for a week and I’m acting warden. It’s like being back in the summer of 1979 again as I survey my shingle kingdom before me. I might not own it but as far as the birding goes I’m in charge. Sean Clancy remains as assistant warden and together we have a laid-back and enjoyable time. Each morning we swap mist-nets for moth traps, lunchtime field work is replaced by quaffing of beer, but we still see plenty of interest: a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sitting off-shore behind the patch, a Hobby arriving in off the sea, a Melodious Warbler that we find and then trap in the station gorse. But the highlight is a Woodchat Shrike which graces the bushes of the Oppen Pits on my final Sunday morning. I arrive at the RSPB reserve to be taken to one side by the RSPB warden Peter Makepeace. He tells me of the shrike’s arrival and kindly gives me permission to go and look for it. There is a catch – he doesn’t want anyone else out there. I am soon watching it. A smart bird. I return to the observatory to be met by the Chantler family who are staying nearby and have been tirelessly searching the shingle for birds over the past couple of days. They are regular DBO visitors and friends of mine. The shrike is visible from a public footpath that Peter and his RSPB empire have no control over. I cannot possibly deny these people from seeing such a desirable bird and feel happy that my betrayal of confidence is not going to allow any disturbance of breeding species on the reserve. So, I suggest that if they wander over to the Oppen Pits via the public footpath and scan the bush tops they just might see a Woodchat Shrike. I ask them not to question me further but that if they take up my suggestion and see anybody from the RSPB there that they feign surprise at their luck of jamming in on such a good bird. Of course they go and of course Mr Makepeace is there, who demands to know who told them about the shrike. ‘What shrike?’ the Chantler’s plead, but he’s onto them and doesn’t believe the coincidence of their admittedly unusual choice of route. I later go back onto the RSPB reserve where an angry Peter Makepeace tells me that he’s annoyed that someone has told the Chantler’s about the shrike. “I’ve got my suspicions about who told them,” he tells me. “Just you wait until I see him again!” I hurry away before he puts two and two together.

We’ve noticed a family party of Canada Geese on the Water Tower Pits and have returned to try and capture the youngsters for ringing purposes. They cannot fly and we think it possible to round them up by encouraging them to make their way along a chicken-wire perimeter fence that funnels into a dead-end. Well, that’s the theory. It hasn’t helped our intentions that the geese are, at present, all sat out in the middle of the water. They usually loaf around the shoreline and forage on dry land. We stand at the waters edge trying to fathom out our next move. As if reading our minds they just stay still. We try to move them by clapping our hands, shouting and throwing stones wide of the geese. They won’t budge. After twenty minutes of cat and mouse (or should that be ringer and goose) I decide on drastic action. I strip down to my underwear and plunge into the cold water, much to the amusement of my companions. My intention is to coax the geese out of the water by my swimming toward them, slowly, so not to panic them. It isn’t a coincidence my choice of swimming ‘slowly’ as it is the only speed that I can swim at. At first the geese start to make for the waters edge, but then double-back leaving me between where I want them to go and the middle of the pit. I have been swimming on a regular basis but after a few minutes find my limbs are tiring.  After another aborted attempt to corral the geese I’m knackered, I’m slap bang in the middle of the water and have started to feel mildly alarmed that I might not have the stamina to get back to the waters edge. A small island is closer to me so I set off for it, gasping for breath. Hauling myself onto the stony, goose-shit splattered shore I lie flat out panting for precious air, listening to the hoots of derision coming from dry land. The geese, as if revelling in my situation, swim by only yards away, seemingly watching this strange pink shape that has shipwrecked on their island. My rest over I once again brave the cold, murky water and reach terra firma. I’ve ballsed-up again however and have to walk around to the other side of the pit to retrieve my clothing. Walking barefoot on shingle is painful. I now realise that I haven’t taken my watch off. It isn’t waterproof and it’s stopped working.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Vicarious birding

obtained or undergone at second hand through sympathetic participation in another's experiences

For the office-bound or 'otherwise-engaged' birder, the past two days have been purgatory. The east coast, south coast and selected inland sites have been awash with birds. From dawn until dusk, the twitter feeds, texts and web updates have alerted us to the unfolding ornithological dramas - from a giant wave of Yellow-browed Warblers; to a sprinkling of Radde's, Pallas's and Dusky Warblers; Great Grey Shrikes leaping over Red-breasted Flycatchers and an obscene number of Ring Ouzels at my favourite shingle beach. I could also mention an unprecedented arrival of Bonxies up the Thames estuary and onto the London reservoirs. I've seen absolutely none of it.

It's my fault. In this supposed year of 'semi-retirement' I took on an eight-week contract throughout the months of - you've guessed it - October and November. I was planning on being at Dungeness this week until the offer of work popped up. So I missed the spectacle of 500 Ring Ouzels, of 3-4 Yellow-broweds, a Cattle Egret and a three figure movement of Sooty Shearwaters. I could just count the money at the end of the contract and feel vindicated of my decision, but you cannot buy days like these - ho-hum...

I torture myself, checking the twitter feed every so often, feeling keenly (no, worse than that, personally) every update from Dungeness. And from Beddington (Brent Geese, Short-eared Owls, 1000+ Redwing over the past two days, and Little Gulls, I almost forgot them). Spurn has been on fire all autumn (but it always is, isn't it). Not content with a Masked Shrike it now boasts an Isabelline (no doubt fighting all of the Great Grey Shrikes present for a perch). Each update is like a little stab in the heart. But I am genuinely pleased for those souls who are out there, braving the rain and testing their field skills. The retired, the shift worker and the shirker, they have all engineered to be out and about at this special time. I share their birding experience through the wonders of 'social media'.

Best I can do at the moment is hope that a skein of Brent Geese fly over me as I walk from the car to the office, or a Yellow-browed Warbler does the decent thing and calls from a front garden sycamore. It has been known!