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!