Friday, 20 January 2017

Some you win, some you lose

All you bird listers out there! Feeling lucky today? Well some of you will be, especially if you maintain your list using the British Ornithologists Union's criteria as your guideline, and you have seen any of the following: Isabelline (Daurian) and Red-tailed (Turkestan) Shrike, Taiga and Tundra Bean Goose, Thayer's Gull, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Least Tern, Two-barred Greenish Warbler and Stejneger's Stonechat. They will now be considered as full species, no longer just closely-related or sub-species. As many of you will know, there are several bodies that maintain global bird lists and each differs slightly as to what is considered a full-species or not. You can read about the rationale behind the BBRC and the BOU's decision to adopt the IOC version by clicking here.

But where there are winners, there will be losers, so, get your rubbers and Tippex out if you have seen both Lesser and Common Redpoll and Whimbrel and Hudsonian Whimbrel, as each pairing are once again lumped. Oh, and by the way, don't ammend anything right now, as these changes do not come into force until January 1st 2018. And will then be reviewed again after five years... you could be unravelling, or bundling up your list again.

I have a simple rule with all this listing malarkey. If you get involved in it then it needs to be understood that it is just a game. If you do so competitively, then you have to accept the laying down of some ground rules to ensure a level playing field. But even if we do not list, these announcements do have relevance to each and every one of us. Such changes are important for all who send ornithological data into county recorders or enter data into BirdTrack. We should take all steps necessary to ensure that we leave behind an accurate account of our bird life for future generations to refer to, whatever the birding gurus of the time decree that our bird life does, in fact, consist of.

Today's sub-species may be tomorrow's species, and vice-versa. They are still all equally worthy of our attention.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Priest Hill social

One of 'my' Reed Buntings
A slow circuit of the Priest Hill meadows was made this morning, in a glorious, blinding sunlight. As anyone who has visited this blog over the past few weeks knows, I am ridiculously paternal towards the wintering Reed Buntings here. I rather pompously think of them as 'mine' and have taken on the role of their guardian. Needless to say, the locating of two flocks (8 and 5) had me happy all over... it doesn't take much for some people, does it...

And talking of people, it was my pleasure to bump into Belmont-based birder John Sewell. We had quite a natter about the local birding scene and he also had some kind words to say about this blog. Thanks John! I also spoke to one of the Surrey Wildlife Trust employees, who I cheekily asked about the proposed redundancies. Apparently the 14 rangers are having to apply for one of 10 restructured jobs - these being more specialised than their current 'jack-of-all-trades' roles. Hopefully those who want to stay will be able to find employment within the Trust, but these situations are never pleasant. The Trust has apparently suffered withering cuts in its funding.

Highlights from the visit included 2 Little Owl (heard calling from the line of fir trees between NESCOT farm and playing fields), 6 Meadow Pipit, 5 Fieldfare, 5 Redwing, 2 Stonechat, 5 Greenfinch and a minimum of 13 Reed Buntings. The thrush and finch numbers are still very low, but, in lieu of proper cold weather, I'd expect things to pick up next month when passage gets underway.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Kent Pond Heron and Flycatcher shock!!!!

In light of the recent Stonechat DNA debacle - that is being referred to as 'Shitchat' in some circles - retesting has been carried out on a number of 'contentious' species. Listers, particularly in Kent, are going to be affected...

Case 1: The Hythe Pond Heron
There was a virtual national holiday declared by twitchers in 2014 when the white-coated lab-boys pronounced this bird as a pukka Chinese Pond Heron. However, a retest that was carried out earlier this week has found that the bird was, in fact, an Aylesbury Duck. Contamination of the source material (body feathers) was the cause, most probably from a foil dish that contained a take-away Crispy Duck and Hoisin sauce. Rumours that the other Stejneger's Stonechats from last autumn were mistakenly called as such because of a segment of Terry's Chocolate Orange that had been left on the laboratory table, is being investigated.

Case 2: The Dungeness Acadian Flycatcher
September 2015 was a good time to be a Dungeness gull-fondler, as Martin Casemore found out. His discovery of an Empidonax flycatcher by the fishing boats lead to a two-hour search for the American bird's droppings, that were finally tracked down resting on top of a fisherman's friend. The original findings of the DNA testing revealed the bird to be an Acadian Flycatcher, but this weeks retest has blown this pronouncement out of the water. DBO warden, Dave Walker, told ND&B: "I'm speechless - the new analysis has found that the bird was indeed an Acadian Flycatcher - but it is also an Alder, Yellow-bellied, Willow and Least! That's four additional species for the obs, and Martin becomes the first birder to add four species to the British list with a single look through a pair of bins! I'm going out to buy a chemistry set - the DBO list will be on 700 before the end of the year!"

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Birds 0 Plants 1

The grey, wet murk of the past few days had finally sodded off and ND&B-land found itself basking in a low, blinding sun. Out came the bins, on went the ruck-sack and I hot-footed it up to Epsom and Walton Downs for a mornings aimless wander. I needn't have taken the bins as the birding was dire. However, as befitting a winter's morning playing at being spring, I sought out a patch of Green Hellebore that is present in a small wood on the lower slopes of Walton Downs. Only a couple of flowers were open (above) with most of the small population a little way off from flowering (below).

The Woodland Trust seem to have upped the ante in the creation of their Millennium Woodland on parts of the downland farm fields (click here to find out more about this project). Piles of posts and plastic tubing were lying in strategic positions, but the dead give-away were a number of posters along the public footpaths, inviting volunteers to come along for tree-planting sessions later in the month. The fields that hold the rare arable plants are going to need a helping hand if they are going to survive. When the land was farmed, a shooting syndicate had permission to shoot over the area - this meant that the farmer left wide margins around the field edges, didn't overdose on chemicals and planted strips of sacrificial crop (to produce seed for the Pheasants, Red-legged Partridges and Wood Pigeons to feed on). The by-products of this were that the rare arable plants thrived - as grasses could not get a toe-hold to compete - and in winter flocks of finches fed on the readily accessible seed. No longer. And the 1-3 pairs of Lapwing that used to breed here failed to appear in 2016. I fear that this gem of an area is going to lose more than a few notable species.

Monday, 16 January 2017

What happens to your list when you die?

Chris Janman posed this question when commenting on a recent post. It got me thinking...

I have long advocated the setting up of a system where we can barter our spare species, such as me being able to put up my second Wallcreeper for bids from interested birders. I'd reckon on being offered a right old fistful of rarities in a straight swap for that one, (maybe a Thick-billed Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo, White-throated Needletail and a whole load of spare Fair Isle semi-rare dross). But what happens to our hard-earned lists when we die? Do they have to stay in a notebook or spread-sheet, hidden from view and gathering dust (real or virtual). Why can't we pass on the value of our lists to those that we have left behind?

In my case I reckon my wife and daughters could encourage avid listers to pay at least £1000 for each Wallcreeper. Maybe someone would buy up both of them to stop another lister from getting them, or use the spare to swap at a later date? And how much is my Varied Thrush worth? Maybe more. Golden-winged Warbler? Got to be at least £750. Maybe a bidding war could be started. And they could be stored, like stocks and shares, to grow in value. This sounds like fun!

And national rarity would not be the end of cashing in on my life list. Surrey listers who have just got into the game in the last 25-30 years would pay top dollar for my (many) Surrey-seen Cirl Buntings and Willow Tits. The Beddington boys would be sniffing around my Beddington-seen Grey Partridges. And my Dungeness list might raise a few bob, especially the two Wilson's Phalaropes that are the only record and were seen by just three observers.

Sounds daft? No dafter than driving 300 miles to look at a grey Common Stonechat :-)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The pros and cons of birding

Birdwatching. Birding. Looking at birds. Call it what you will. That such a simple task can spawn a hundred and one ways in which to do it is no mean feat. That, I suppose, is a typical human construct, for as much as we are free thinkers, we are wedded to the herd - so it is expected that we will gravitate towards a grouping of mindsets. These are but a few that can be found in our little world:

The patch worker
This grouping (of which I am one) walk around with an air of superiority about them. They don't travel far from home (because they cannot be bothered), they find their own birds (because there's nobody else looking) and contribute to the understanding of population levels, migration routes and bird behaviour (because they can make up sightings and numbers as there's nobody else counting). Some times a patch is heavily subscribed with other patch birders, in which case they can gather together and glare at the non-regulars whilst urinating up fenceposts to mark their territory. Pros: rewarding and terribly worthy. Cons: you might not actually see much.

The birding tourist
This grouping will not know where they are going to go birding until the night before. They are not twitchers per se, but will be guided by what 'good' birds are on offer within striking distance of their homes. Dungeness is full of them, and at the moment they can be seen going from Long-eared Owl, to Ring-necked Duck, to Caspian Gull, to... you get the picture. If a flock of Waxwings turn up in Hythe (as they did) they will be there shortly afterwards. This grouping are hedging their bets and ensuring that the birding year will be full of birds. They will also see the same faces at each and every bird.  Pros: easy good birding. Cons: constantly with the crowds and liable to be rounded up by a shepherd with his dog.

The twitcher
They will not know where they are going to go 'birding' until the last second, but the stakes are high as are the costs involved and the distances travelled. As much as this form of birding is poison to me now, I did once partake, and through doing so have seen some amazing birds and visited a number of stunning places that I wouldn't have otherwise. However, the birding time can be broken down to 75% travel, 20% waiting and 5% birding. I would argue that this form of birding is neither restful nor productive and as we, the birder, are supposed to be 'green' members of society, it is not very good for a healthy carbon footprint. Pros: big life list. Cons: stress and more stress. Your children will not recognise you. You will most probably be near pensionable age, so mind the stress (see start of list).

The extreme lister
You can start small, with a gentle 24-hour blitz to see how many species you can record in a day. If you enjoyed that, why not up the ante and try for an impressive UK year list. Or you could kick the walls down and go mad: why not partake in the American Big Year (John Weigel smashed the record in 2016 with 780 species) or even crazier, attempt a World year list, but you'll have to go far to beat Dutch-birder Arjan Dwarshuis's record total of 6,834 species which was amassed last year. Another group of extreme-birders are undertaking a big Western-Palearctic year list for 2017. Mad? Dangerous? Free spirits? Yeah, just mad. Pros: memories to last a lifetime. Cons: stress, loss of money, partner, wild hair, personal hygiene shot, mad eyes.

You might be wondering what relevance the photograph of the Woodpigeon has with this post. None at all. I took it the other day when the snow fell, and I don't think I've ever seen a bird look so dejected...

Saturday, 14 January 2017

A bit of this, a bit of that

A bit of a 'mash-up' this post - that's youth-speak for 'mish-mash', or I could liken it to the contents of a jamboree bag, being a bit of an old duffer. And if you are unaware of what a jamboree bag is, then ask your parents, or if they are still too young to know, ask Google (there are other search engines available).

Item one - the Dungeness Stonechat (you know, the grey, odd, putative Stejneger's) has been retested owing to too many birder's saying that they just didn't believe it was a rare one. The results are in, and it is... a COMMON Stonechat! I did have a little chuckle about that. Apparently the poo sample got muddled up with some from a Spurn Stejneger's. Simple mistake. Maybe, in this age of the blame culture, Dr Collinson will now receive compensation claims from angry birder's for fuel costs, stress, food, etc. Glad I didn't go.

Item two - the Surrey Wildlife Trust is apparently making all of its rangers redundant. Cost cutting due to austerity and Brexit are being blamed. I reckon that they will adopt the National Trust model, that successfully removed most of their Rangers and filled the void with volunteers. My eyes were opened when I saw the size of the NT work parties for Box Hill and Headley - 50+ turned up, all overseen by - wait for it - unpaid interns, in turn overseen by the one full time member of local Ranger staff (there had been four I believe). Whether this will work for the SWT, if that's what they intend to do, I do not know. Will our wildlife benefit from such actions - well, what do you think...

Item three - now that Waxwings are starting to filter inland to berry-bearing bushes in London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex, I walked the streets of Banstead checking likely trees and shrubs. Highlight was a male Blackcap. More lurking in suburbia will follow.