Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Undercoverts of Birding 1: The Flying Childers.

Perhaps more than any other hobby (or compulsion?) birding takes us all over the country, possibly from one end to the other in a good twitching weekend.  Thus we discover hidden hamlets and unknown lanes, meet interesting characters and have unexpected experiences that our non-birding friends, loafing at home with their sedentary hobbies, never do. 
Such travels have associated tales worthy of telling that never get told, not strictly about birds they get no mention in the news-stand birding glossies.  So here they are given a home and a name, for which a birding reference is requisite.  Something to infer the background of birding activities, and so The Undercoverts of Birding is born. 
The first undercovert concerns a pub we all whistle past on the way to Frampton Marsh or Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.  It is The Flying Childers at Kirby Bellars, which looks like a spelling mistake.  Was it supposed to be Guilders, or Builders?  Or Chilblains or Cinders?  Unfortunately none of these things are known for flying around showing aeronautical prowess so it cannot be them.
A look in the dictionary tells us that ‘childers’ is an old fashioned name for children, but ‘flying children’ makes no sense either.  They are no more known for flying around than builders, or badgers.  In fact the childers-children thing is just a coincidental red herring.  There is a clue on the pub’s sign though, a racehorse in full gallop and indeed the pub is actually named after a horse, a very special horse.
The Flying Childers was a racehorse who was the first foal sired by the Darley Arabian, one of the three founding stallions of the Thoroughbred breed imported to Britain in the 17th Century.  With such illustrious genes it is hardly surprising that Flying Childers won every race he was ever entered in, by the proverbial country mile.  His owner, The Duke of Devonshire, had to turn down an offer to buy the horse for its weight in gold!  To be frank he would have left Frankel eating flying divots, but still the question remains, why ‘Childers’?  Why was that a name for a horse? 
It was simply his breeder’s name, one Colonel Leonard Childers.  Intrigued by the name I looked it up on and found that it hails from Norfolk, and a long gone village called Childerhouse.  This is the root of the name Childers, and comes from Old English ‘Cildra’ (child) and ‘Hus’ (house), as apparently there was a home and school for children there.  So the red herring is not so much of a red herring after all, more of a pink one really!
So the next time you are squashed into the back of a car on the way to Frampton to twitch an oriental pratincole, you can break the customary pre-tick tension with tales of Flying Childers and pink herrings as you scream through Kirby Bellars.  On the way back with the bird safely ticked and travelling at a more sedate and law-abiding pace you could even call in for a pint!
The Flying Childers - lots in a name!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Industrial Revolution Rabbits

The navvies that dug canals, hewed coal and generally powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution with elbow grease had an awesome reputation.  They each excavated an average of 20 tons of earth a day, just using picks and shovels.  Human endeavours are often mirrored in nature if we care to look, and one such smacks us in the face at Draycote Reservoir.
On the occasion of Nuneaton Birdclub’s Christmas walk there we were introduced to the amazing power of rabbits.  Rabbits can reputedly dig at a rate of up to two metres an hour, but at Draycote it is not the speed but the substrate that is impressive.  The bank at Draycote was clearly built of rubble topped with good stone hardcore, and finished with turf.  Presumably not the easiest place for rabbits to dig, but look at the pictures below.  Great mounds of stones lie like cairns around burrow entrances all along the bank.  It almost defies belief that two of those wee lucky charms some people have on their keyrings were all that were used in making these mounds.  The hole size, proximity of each, and the tell-tale piles of rabbit raisin droppings on each one reveal their makers identity though - Oryctolagus cuniculus, the humble rabbit. 
There is the adage about if a flea was the size of a human it could jump over a house.  Well looking at these rabbit cairns I wonder if a rabbit was the size of a human what could it do.  Shifting twenty tons of earth a day, without sissy picks and shovels, would be just the start of it.  I imagine a few human sized rabbits, fuelled with sufficient carrots, could have blasted out the Grand Union Canal in a couple of days – the hard part might have been getting them to stop!
Anyway, it continued to be a day of surprises with the birdwatching.  The first was that the ticket machine had broken down, so we were forced to keep our £2.50.  Our second surprise surfaced in front of us along the bank in the shape of a fine male smew.  Its black and white plumage made it look like a sort of water skunk as it dived repeatedly, smoothing all its feathers back.  I almost regretted year-ticking a redhead two weeks earlier as the male really is one of our most striking birds.
There was not a high species count but high counts of some species.  It was a coot-lovers paradise, and I counted 512 altogether.  There were also 278 tufted ducks, and a very pleasing 164 lapwings.  My favourite spot , and third surprise of the day though was a bird numbering only one.  On the boardwalk I heard a pig squealing, and then remembered that Draycote doesn’t have pigs roaming about, and so that this was surely a water rail.  Homing in on the noise I caught movement in the reeds but was disappointed to see a moorhen reveal itself.  Then it ran at another bird and I got a classic glimpse of a water rail, a thin bird with long blood-red bill darting between reeds and it was gone!  Bob Wale appeared and I whispered what I had seen.  We both looked for about 10 minutes and enjoyed some cracking views …of the moorhen!  Then moving around some scrub and looking back we were almost about to give up when it squealed again.  This time we both had a brief good view as it sprinted back into deep cover.
After circumnavigating the reservoir, a tidy walk of 5 miles, we sprinted into deep cover too, the lounge of the Bull Inn at Brinklow for a feed and a pint.  A fine end to the day, and out of respect for their impressive stone-shifting endeavours everyone resisted ordering the rabbit pie!  
Stone creations by Isambard Kingdom Bunny...

...and Thomas Thumper Telford
Rabbit raisins, and the odd sultana

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Birding In The Blue

Some envious birders I meet seem to think I have their dream job.  An Ecologist, specialising in bird surveys?  Aye’.  A professional ornithologist’ they emphasise,  in case I hadn’t realised.  Yes, I suppose so’.  So, you get paid….to watch birds!’ they persist, just to make sure I really haven’t missed their point.  I haven’t, but its not all milk and honey buzzards, there are the reports of course, and the B&Bs.

Last week I was in Lincolnshire doing a wintering bird survey.  I booked four nights B&B and the first two were brilliant, clean, warm, cosy, just the job.  For the last two I had booked at a hotel near the coast where I would be doing low tide counts.  I pulled up outside Santa’s Grotto, a myriad of pulsating blue fairy lights lit up the front and most of the town.  A sign declared ‘Cabaret Entertainment’, and another ‘Curry and Chips - £3.99’, (Phoenix Nights meets Las Vegas!).  Thunderous drum and bass belted out of the six feet square mega-woofers in the bar, just below my room.

The room itself had a novel take on the notion of ‘en suite’, with the toilet down the corridor and the bathroom down another corridor, round a corner and through some double doors.  In the room there was a sink though, but it was to this that I traced the hissing noise I first feared was a gas leak.  The cold tap leaked and would not turn off any further, the water dribbling out with a loud hiss. 

Back downstairs blue floodlights bathed the bar in a ghostly hue.  Shouting over the music I discerned from the eerily blue-faced barmaid that no they did not do evening meals, nor breakfast as it turned out, yet another interesting take on the concept of B&B!  Miles from anywhere else, having prepaid and with time ticking on I went out to see if there was anywhere else open.  The only place was an Italian restaurant and I became its only patron, eating pasta while waited on by three staff.  Afterwards they directed me to a general store that would ‘definitely sell maps and things’, named ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’s’.  I went partly just to see if it really was called that.  It was but it did not sell maps after all, just all the tat that Poundland would be embarrassed to have on its shelves.  A plastic frog on a stick?  How did I ever get by without one!  The bored women behind the counter asked what I wanted maps for, so I told them I was doing some survey work.  Ooh science stuff, well what do you think about this?” one asked, waving one of those hideous tabloids at me.  NASA plan trip to Mars, what use is messing about up there when there’s so much wrong down here?”  Slightly taken aback by this unexpected line of enquiry I could only reply, “I don’t know love, I just count birds”.  Going out of the door I heard her say to her colleague, “Well what use is that either?” a dispiriting comment to hear!
Back at the Blue Hotel the drum and bass boomed on until midnight, less than ideal with my alarm set for 5.30 a.m.  I was going to do a high tide count of waders and the Moon takes no account of birders when deciding what time to slam the tide in.  The corresponding evening high tide would be completely in the dark so the morning it had to be.  Needless to say I procured a refund for my second night’s stay, and moved to a different hotel in a different town! 

I am guessing those envious birders would not fancy swapping places on nights like that, but the days make up for it.  I had the beach to myself next morning, well not entirely, there was one other occupant photographed below.  Just me, him, and the sanderlings sprinting through the backwash, and the common scoters riding the waves, and the great black-backed gulls marauding past like stealth bombers.  Later that morning I was treated to a 250-strong flock of lapwings wheeling over the fields, emitting that evocative call like someone tuning in an old radio.  Yep, it is a great job and I’m definitely not for swapping!
'Morning Maddox', 'Hello seal'

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Sandpiper on a Tightrope

As I was back in Warwickshire for the weekend the white-rumped sandpiper at Drayton Basset Pits (nice to see the old name being used on Birdguides) proved too much to resisit.  Time was short, I had to drive back to Surrey later, so it was going to be a classic twitch – arrive, see bird, go home!  I can hear them booing now from the stalls but I don’t care.
I timed myself walking from the car park to Fisher’s Mill Bridge, 7 minutes, better than I thought and very pleasing because the bird of course was apparently on the North Pits.  Typical, not on Fisher’s Mill Pool, all nice and detoxified by the RSPB, no it was on the filthy old north pits, poking around in the dirty sludge.  Still, I got a bustle on and arrived at a gaggle of twitchers 8 minutes later.  A quarter of an hour from car park to north pits, surely a record!
My pleasure was short-lived when I learned that it had not been seen for an hour.  I had it on good authority too, John Harris told me “It was feeding just here, but I turned up an hour ago and its not been seen since”.  I reminded myself for the second time in a week that ‘correlation does not imply causality’, and thanked John for the info.  Some other birders were adamant it had gone out of sight behind some long mounds and would emerge ‘eventually’.  Mindful of my impending long drive I did not want to wait, and decided to somehow make my way round to the other side of those mounds.
Such a move is fraught with danger of course, a tightrope walk along the line between genius and idiot.  If you relocate the bird, and a place where people can view it from, you are the hero genius; startle the bird so it disappears into the sky and you are a blithering idiot and may be pushed in or burnt at the stake, depending on the level of rarity you just flushed.
Aware that I was being observed I put on a peerless display of fieldcraft, every tuft of grass was potential cover.  I dropped into the undergrowth and disappeared like a Ghurkha, emerging hundreds of yards further on.  I came up behind a willow, and after a brief scan found myself looking at only the third white-rumped sandpiper I had ever seen.  It was on its own and feeding busily away on goodness knows what in the murky water.  I enjoyed some good views, took a pointless mobile phone ‘record’  photo, then dropped back down among the phragmites to begin my return.  I came up again among the assembled twitchers and gave them the news.  I accepted the plaudits, gave them directions and watched them go off to see it too.
I was in good spirits walking back, which were raised further by the presence of a long-tailed duck on one of the pools, the first of the winter.  Back at the car I realised the whole episode had been executed in an hour and a half, a master-twitch!  :D
Quite possibly the worst photo of a white-rumped sandpiper ever!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Easy on the Ivy

There may be many evils in the universe, greed, sloth, Darth Vader, etc.  Now a letter in the Daily Telegraph would have us believe there is another far greater – ivy!  Read on:  “SirApart from the small number of property owners who have eradicated this plague, a look at the countryside reveals that trees are being strangled by ivy.  It is now spreading horizontally across verges, woodland, and wasteland.  Something must be done about it”.
Wow, but before we launch our slash and burn assault let us have a glance at the case for the defence.  Ivy does not cause trees to die.  It is a non-parasitic climber, taking no nutrients from any trees it uses as support.  If it needed to take nutrients from what supported it then clearly it could not grow up walls.  The adhesive hairs on its stems are for grip only, and while they may scour masonry they do not harm tree bark in any way.
Ivy has its own roots and leaves, photosynthesising food and taking up water itself.  Its roots are not deep and hardly compete with its host tree more than any other plants in the vicinity.  Its leaves are along branches and trunks, grabbing what sunlight passes through gaps in the tree’s crown, it certainly does not shade sunlight from the tree.  Indeed it is not in its interest to out-compete and ‘strangle’ its supporting tree to death, otherwise it would be brought down with it itself.
It may come as a shock to the letter’s writer but trees do die, and maybe the sight of living ivy still clinging to a dead tree may suggest a connection.  It is well to recall the adage ‘correlation does not imply causality’, for it is particularly poignant here. 
Ivy also has great ecological significance as one of nature's larders and dormitories.  It flowers and produces nectar late in the year when other sources are scarce, a blessing for many insects.  Its berries remain through to February and are a vital source of winter food for birds.  Being evergreen it is also a valuable year-round home and roost for a whole range of creatures from invertebrates to mammals. 
It may often look untidy, it may sometimes be ‘framed’ when its support tree dies, but far from ‘doing something about it’ it would be better if we left it alone and just enjoyed the wildlife that it sustains.
Ivy growing up a telegraph pole (which was once a Scot's Pine but definitely not killed by the ivy!)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Boris, Cliffe, and the Birds

I had the chance to visit Cliffe Pools this week, the reserve at the centre of the strange plan to build an airport in the Thames Estuary in the early ‘noughties’.  That plan was rejected in 2003 on the grounds of the “...significant impacts on wildlife…” that it would wreak.  Now of course a proposed Thames Estuary airport is in the news again, a little further along the north Kent coast at Grain, but as close as makes no difference to migrating and feeding birds.
The idea’s great champion, without whom the idea would surely wither on the vine, is Boris Johnson.  On March 13th of this year I wrote to Mr Johnson, pointing out a glaring inconsistency which I hoped he could explain:

Dear Mr Johnson,
I wonder if you could clarify a puzzling conundrum for me. This week you (reportedly) stated that a third runway at Heathrow, "would be an environmental disaster" and "It will not be built as long as I am Mayor of London.We can all appreciate the economic arguments for increasing airport capacity, but your solution is to build a Thames Hub airport in the Thames Estuary.  Now the previous idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary at Cliffe was rejected in 2003 due to the "significant impacts on wildlife".   In January of this year the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced the creation of 12 national 'Nature Improvement Areas'. These will create nature reserves, restore habitats, and bring extra protection for some of Britain's most important sites for wildlife. One of these 12 sites is the Thames Marshes, covering all of the land where the Thames Hub airport would go.  In the light of this could you please explain how this could be any less of an 'environmental disaster'.

I did get a standard response from a lackey saying that Boris was very busy but was considering his reply.  Well six months is long enough and I think I will prompt the Right Honourable Mayor to honour his promise of a reply!
Visiting Cliffe it was sobering to see what might have been lost, acres of lagoons, mudflats, scrapes, and scrubland, a huge larder for birds like their own giant Tesco!  Numbers of wintering shoveler were beginning to build up, and a couple of early goldeneye were also already residing on the pools.  A large mixed flock of lapwings and golden plover was a great sight to see, something I used to take for granted.  Then a swathe of black-tailed godwits processed around one of the lagoons, feeding in a relentless sweeping pattern, each seemingly concerned that the birds around it might be getting more worms than it was!  They followed and jostled each other in an endless circuit of feeding.
On the way back in a huge flock of passerines came in from the direction of the Thames.  It was about 4 o’clock and I hoped it was starlings and that I would be in for a treat as they swirled around the darkening sky.  They did not seem to be flying like starlings though, the jizz was all wrong!  Indeed as they streamed overhead I could see and hear that they were fieldfares, around 300 plus a quick count told me.  They invaded the shrubs and assaulted the berry bushes, presumably a tad puckish after their flight from Scandinavia.  I imagine they too were very glad that the bushes were still there and had not been concreted over for a runway.  If only Boris was a birdwatcher, we and the fieldfares could rest easy!
Cliffe Pools - lagoons, scrapes, bushes and the estuary in the background.  What a great place for an airport!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Skua, a Shearwater, and One Hell of a Kitchen!

Its October and the Autumnal rarity rush is in fill swing, with The Scillies currently just edging it against The Shetlands.  Easterlies were forecast so I roped in Nicknav, (he was recovering from pneumonia but I did not think that was a good enough excuse to not go birding!), and we headed for Spurn Head in Yorkshire.  I love Spurn as besides the regular scarce migrants and spectacular vagrants there are also incredible numbers of common migrants passing through too.  These provide a spectacle of their own as a side dish to the rarities, and something to focus on when the wind is in the wrong direction. 
Easterly winds are pretty much essential for rarities at Spurn, and clearly a lot of people had checked the weather reports - the Observatory was fully booked!  So was the Crown and Anchor, and so in fact was just about every B & B for miles around.  However, the easterlies would not arrive until Sunday so we had booked on the last RSPB 'Skua and Shearwater Cruise' of the season out of Bridlington.  Four hours up and down in the North Sea hurling chum (rotten bits of old fish) off the back to attract passing seabirds would, I assured Nicknav, do his ailment the world of good!  :D 
In the event it did and no one could accuse the RSPB of mis-naming their cruise, we did see 'A' skua, and 'A' shearwater, just one of each mind, you can have too much of a good thing!  A great skua and a manx shearwater (a Bonxie and a Manxie in the seawatcher's vernacular) were the only eponymous birds of the trip though a puffin I realised was a tick too.  I had not ventured to Bempton or Anglesey this summer so picked up a year tick there.  In any case even if nothing rare or unusual comes near the boat, it is great fun to simply point a camera at the cloud of gulls following the boat and so we spent a happy morning chugging up and down the sea.
Back on dry land we twitched the red-backed shrike at Flamborough, being among the last to see it before a sparrowhawk followed it into a bush and presumably devoured it as it was never reported again!  Shrikes to my mind seem fatally disposed to become sprawk prey, blithely dithering about on top of bushes in full view, their eyes on the ground for bugs.  Its a wonder we get to see any.
Back at Spurn we asked if we could check out the rumour of a new kitchen in the Cottage, and were delighted to find that it was true.  We think it should be named the 'Geoff Neal Memorial Kitchen' in honour of the legend and his equally legendary Full English breakfasts that he forged amid clouds of smoke and steam on the old cooker!
The forecast Easterlies never appeared, the winds swinging round to North Westerlies, about as unwanted at Spurn as bird flu.  There were a few things about though, a brambling being my first of the winter, and who could fail to enjoy the hordes of goldfinches passing through, 11,000 in a week.  We renewed our Friends of Spurn subscriptions and also joined the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, handy for two blokes who live near Leicester!  Still, if you're in one you can visit them all (with a yah-boo-sucks to Norfolk!) and only one of them has Spurn, the best birding spot on the globe! 

Nigel Medcalf lobs another sprat at his adoring followers

With the rarities on strike its time to practice with the camera!

The intriguing design of Spurn hides, with the people on the outside!

The old 1930s bird hides have stood the test of time.

The one by the Crown and Anchor is still manned by 87-year old Perceval Postlethwaite who, refusing to believe the Germans have given in, keeps a nightly vigil for incoming Heinkels.

The amazing Geoff Neal memorial Kitchen, a wonder to behold!  :)

Twitching - Not A Naughty Word!

Its October and I will as usual be off twitching in my favourite migration hotspot, Spurn Head.  This always gets a few tuts from a couple of acquaintances busy with the serious matter of BTO Surveys, and got me musing about why.
As young beginners much of our birding is of a casual nature, with haphazard notes, bits of lists, and a general lack of purpose.  We are aware that birdwatching is perceived by much of society as a bit pointless, seen as people just keeping lists like train or plane-spotters.  Of course nothing could be further from the truth, the general public have no concept of the science of ornithology.  The great advances in our understanding of avian biology and behaviour, painstakingly and brilliantly pieced together by ornithologists over the last 50 years, is unknown to non-birdwatchers.
Consequently most birders quickly progress to scientific, studious birdwatching, a reaction to being thought of as a bit odd.  Even if Joe Public remains ignorant the studious birdwatcher can feel aloof, safe in the knowledge that whatever anyone else may think, he or she is actually involved in important work, not just a quaint amusing hobby.

This is all very understandable but unfortunately carries its own downsides.  So engrossed in ‘proper’ birding do some become they forget to go birding for fun sometimes.  Twitching is dismissed as pointless and going out not doing some census work or other as a waste of good survey time.
I think every birder needs to let their hair down once in a while, to go out without a notebook and just have fun.  If you see a flock of ducks don’t count them!  If you find yourself mentally keeping lists of species stop it and have a word with yourself!   Just go out with your bins and enjoy seeing what you see, you see?
My work centres around ecological surveys so I am perfectly aware of the value of serious ornithology.  The danger is in trying (perhaps sub-conciously) to always make our birding important and purposeful that we get sidetracked by things that are frankly not really important at all.  Like trying to devise a standard list of English names for all Anglophone countries to adhere to, or arguing about the order birds should be in field guides.  If ever the term ‘pointless’ could be applied to birdwatching it is to these two great wastes of time!  So it is with head held high and pager strapped to head that I am off to Spurn for some heavyweight twitching, not a waste of time but a whale of a time, bring it on!

.......thought of as a bit odd for some reason.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sandpipers, Rain, and Reptiles

The weather played a prominent role this week.  On Sunday it was the Birdclub trip to Snettisham, the driver had caught a cold, and as my dormouse survey was cancelled so I found myself at the wheel.  I persuaded them that we ought to go to Frampton Marsh instead to either avoid the rain for longer or at least have less far to drive back in it if it did come hard!
We had a great day at Frampton, a couple of little stints were year ticks for many, and a bird I have decided is one of my favourites was also there, curlew sandpiper.  Five or six of these little darlings were dotted around in amongst the ubiquitous dunlins, and that is part of their appeal.  They are not so rare that they are hardly ever seen, but unusual enough to make their appearance anywhere a notable event.  After all there is no point having a favourite bird that you hardly ever see, nor one that you see every time you step out of the front door, making it wholly unremarkable.  So the curlew sandpiper fits nicely into those parameters, and also has more qualities that make it a great bird.
Firstly is that it requires a hearty bit of searching and identifying.  Whereas say a black-winged stilt is clearly a black-winged stilt from four miles away, through a pair of 1920s opera glasses, a curlew sandpiper needs to be picked out with attention to detail.  It will usually be in with a flock of dunlin, of which there may be several hundred of all ages, sizes and stages of moults from summer to winter plumage.  The curlew sandpiper is a shade larger than a dunlin, and a more elegant bird with slightly longer legs and a more evenly downcurved bill.  Its plumage is similar but more cleaner cut and usually carrying a dapple of buff on the breast.  It thus takes a bit of seeking out among the massed throngs of dunlin but once found the observer can delight in its subtle beauty.
The curlew sandpiper does have a glorious chestnut red breeding plumage which we sadly never see in Britain.  It breeds in the tundra of Arctic Siberia but at least it blesses us with its presence twice a year, being a double passage migrant.  It calls in during Spring and again in Autumn but the numbers are skewed heavily to the latter season.  Adults constituting the first wave between July and August, then the more buffy-coloured juveniles from August to September. The last stragglers will have passed through before Bonfire Night, leaving us to our dark northern winter.  In April the first returners will delight some local patcher with their churrip churrip call, a very enviable tick!
Besides the curlew sandpipers we also found a fine pair of scaup, counted up to five hundred black-tailed godwits, saw as many little egrets in one place as we probably had all year, and one of us even found a young guillemot in the marsh!  This seemed to be a young bird, exhausted and having a break from battling the elements.  It was a great day and I have never left Frampton feeling disappointed, it always delights in one way or another!
Back to work on Monday and the rain lashed down, not exactly perfect for reptile surveying.  A slight lull allowed a bit of progress but a young grass snake was the only discovery.  On Tuesday it was rain-free but also proved to be reptile-free too.  Much of the ground was sodden and any reptiles presumably moved to drier spots.  Passing Whitacre Heath on the way home we called in to see if the lakes that had dried out in the summer had got any water in them now.  The answer is that the entire reserve is almost now one giant lake!  The Main Pool had no water left in it at all by June, now it has but no waterfowl.  I wonder if this is because all the fish and aquatic invertebrates obviously died out when it dried out?  Maybe it will take time before the waterbirds come back, if it does not dry out again next summer of course......
A dead mole was lying by a path, presumably having drowned.  This led to some hilarity, placing it up a tree to amaze some passer by.   As I write the weather forecast says even more rain is coming tomorrow, how is that possible?  The heavens must be empty, its all down here!  I think the curlew sandpipers have got it right for this time of year, just pass on through, see you next Spring, what a fine idea!

The rare tree mole
Tree mole, very rare.

This raging stream used to be the path!
Under that stream is a path!

Seabird Surprise

Seawatching often produces a new bird, but how often does it produce a new bird observatory itself?  This wondrous event happened to me in Scotland recently.  I had spent most of the summer employed on breeding red and black-throated diver surveys in Argyll.  On a rare day off I drove down the Kintyre Coastal Route aiming to visit the Mull of Kintyre for a spot of seawatching, but I never got there.
Stopping for petrol I got chatting to the proprietor of Clachan filling station about birding (what else?).  I discovered that there was a bird observatory at Machrihanish that was ‘well worth a visit’.  I was immediately intrigued, a great admirer of our bird observatories I have visited most and carried out counts from many, including Portland Bill, Strumble Head, and my favourite at Spurn.  I tried to visualise a mental map of the observatories, but could place nothing on this side of Scotland, in fact I could only ‘see’ the Isle of May in Scotland at all, way over on the opposite east coast.
I just had to investigate and found my way west out of Campbeltown to the airport.  Following the given directions I was becoming a little skeptical, passing through Machrihanish Village and past the giant Old Hotel I was out onto a farm track.  This led naturally enough to a farm, beyond which I could already see there was nothing but the rolling Atlantic.  Thankfully I decided to proceed in search of a turning spot rather then attempt a several point turn, because on rounding the last farm shed I beheld a sight that made me brake and stop.
There was an L-shaped bird hide with the legend ‘Seabird Observatory’ emblazoned along its front and a flag proudly fluttering from its pole.  I entered with a sense of delight, wondering how had this place slipped under the radar?  A man rose to greet me as I walked in, and as we shook hands I thought he looked familiar.  This was a mutual feeling apparently as he asked me where he knew me from, and after a brief verbal tour of Britain we decided it must have been Spurn!
See?  A Seabird Observatory!

Eddie Maguire has been the warden at Machrihanish Seabird Observatory since 1993, leading a small group of dedicated volunteers.  There have been many notable recordings in that time including white-billed diver, red-necked grebe, and great, little, and Cory’s shearwaters.  Glaucous and Iceland gulls are seen regularly and the observatory has been responsible for the upgrade in status of several of the more uncommon seabirds.
It is open to the public and equal emphasis is placed on recording the commoner species and their migratory trends and patterns.  Over a thousand oystercatchers a day pass south overhead during August, returning from their Icelandic breeding grounds, along with huge numbers of knot, sanderling, godwits, greenshanks, whimbrel, stints, auks, and turnstones.  Perhaps due to its remote setting, and being largely unknown, this spectacle was enjoyed by myself, Eddie, and one other birder dining on tea and toast.  I could hear a paraphrased Churchill “Never before have so many  been enjoyed so much by so few”
Twites fed just yards away on the shingle outside, and bottlenose dolphins turned in the waves.  The whole of Kintyre is in fact an undiscovered birding gem.  Eddie himself wrote the seminal book ‘Birds in Kintyre’ a discursive site guide and records checklist.  A read through this spawned an adage in my mind; “No bird lands anywhere in Kintyre, that isn’t logged by Eddie Maguire!”   The observatory itself is a three hour drive from Glasgow - with a bit of good luck, fair weather and a following wind!  It is a little bit of birding heaven, and well worth seeking out.
A 'twittering' of twite fed outside the observatory

Eddie at his post!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Last Post from Scotland

A few more pictures from Scotland as this sojourn draws to a close.  The auld country is seeing us out in typical style.  While England basks in sunshine up here there is only rain.  True it sometimes slows to a mere downpour, but it soon becomes torrential again, with the roads more like rivers and aquaplaning a popular and unavoidable past-time!

Actually it does stop sometimes, that’s when the midges come out to play.  Only the size of a pinhead they are undetectable until they have been and gone, leaving a red spot on your arm that feels like a tarantula has bitten it.  Occassionally though it both forgets to rain and the midges go to sleep off their meals at the same time.  At such times as this Scotland is a beautiful place, with spectacular scenery and wonderful wildlife…..
Loch Fyne at 5 a.m.

The 'Paps of Jura', perhaps a less exciting photo than its name suggests!

A family of swans preen after a good Scottish downpour at Tarbert Harbour

Machrinash Bird Observatory, one of the best I have been to....

Microwave, kettle, fridge, laminate floor, and electric heating, are you listening Spurn!

And no sign of Paul McCartney or his marauding pipers!

Gannets on the move...

Marvelous birds!