Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Good, The Book, and The Chingy!

In the same week that Richard Briers passed away recently it was announced that the Reader’s Digest was going into administration.  For me it was as if the 1970s had had two more kicks into touch, receding a little further into history.  The Good Life was a back to nature revelation to my formative young mind that has stayed with me ever since, while the Reader’s Digest produced the most iconic coffee table book ever (imho!), the Book Of British Birds.  In the 70s every household seemed to have a copy of this, even if it was the only natural history book they possessed.  On family visits to any relatives I could get the great tome down and discover yet more exciting facts about birds. With only three channels on the TV and computers yet to be invented there was then plenty of time to go out and see these things for myself!
The book had been envisaged as having thorough information on the birds of Britain, but with the style and drama to appeal to those who had never picked up a field guide in their lives.  The publishers had given up hope of ever finding an artist to fit the bill when Raymond Harris-Ching fell out of the blue, fresh off a boat from New Zealand.  The kiwi’s unique style of detailed drybrush watercolours on mesonite panels was a sensation.  With six years in mind the Reader’s Digest were stunned by Ching’s promise to have all 230 plates completed within a year.  He did but ended up exhausted, quite ill, and (with no advance agreed) penniless!  Today though his pictures fetch six-figure sums so I guess he feels better now!
Naturally, along with just about every other bird book ever published, I have a copy on my shelves and got it down, blew the dust off it and opened it for the first time in years.  There is no doubting the uniqueness of the works, though perhaps their best purpose is in inspiring further study.  On their own some are more work of art than plain field reference.  Take the divers on pages 206 and 207.  The black-throated looks like its slipped through a mangle, while the red-throated appears to be floating in space.  It’s a space-diver this, traversing inter-galactic highways in search of space-sprats!  Ching’s plates demand attention though, you find yourself admiring them for far longer than a ‘normal’ illustration. 
The artwork is surely a major reason why the book is the best-selling bird book of all time, but it was all the other chapters of the book that seared it in my affections too.  Here was information on migration, avian physiology, ecology, and relationships with humans.  All of which made me first realise there is more to this birdwatching lark than meets the eye-Ching.  On which terrible pun I think I will stop!  
Black-throated mangle-diver

Inter-stellar space-diver

Monday, February 4, 2013

Doings On Dartmoor

Dartmoor in January, not quite the height of peak season but here I am for a month on a botanical survey, part of crack team of botaneers from Guildford HQ.  We’re doing a condition assessment on the north and south SSSIs of the moor, and hopefully in between identifying moss and stumbling over Molinia I might add a few birds on to my year list. 
Like most birders as it is only the end of January my year list is up to date.  Some will maintain it like that all year (perhaps inspired by that marvellous article by that Neil Glenn bloke in January’s Bird Watching!) while others, maybe after a really quiet July, let it wither on the vine.  Mine, I decided, was going to get sprinkled with new sightings from Dartmoor, but it was me that got sprinkled, with rain from every direction!  Downwards, upwards, in your face, and my outdoor gear was not up to the job.  It was clear after two bone-soaking days that Mr Regatta has never been to Dartmoor, and is thus labouring under an erroneous notion of the term ‘waterproof’.  A visit to Cotswold Outdoors in Exeter, the purchase of a £240 North Face Triclimate coat (for a sale bargain of £160!), and we were ready to take on Dartmoor again. 
If its not raining at this time of year it seems to be blowing a gale instead, and of course most of the birdlife has done an altitudinal migration down the valleys.  Left behind are a few crows, some starlings, and two snipe flushed from underfoot.  In one of our search areas was a stone circle, Scorhill, and some dry stone stockades of a few thousand years vintage.  The joints of these reminded me of the Inca buildings I saw in Peru, did the Incas come from Devon?  One for Time Team to take on.
The botanical surveys yielded no surprises other than that we were able to identify quite so much at this time of year.  Bristle bent, Calluna heather, Erica tetralix, Bilberry, gorse, all in that mix of English and Latin in your field notes that results from whatever you remember it as on the spot. 
Come the weekend and the overwintering lesser yellowlegs was still showing at Plymouth, and was right where it was supposed to be - by the footbridge at Ernesettle.  So used to walkers and people now it ignores disturbance and carries on feeding.  Armed only with a pocket compact I could not take advantage of this showy bird.  I had even less chance with the flighty little cirl buntings at Labrador Bay the following day, but that’s two great ticks on the year list.  They will probably be a great couple of buffers on a lot of people for a while too*.
Sadly from Labrador Bay the slick of vegetable oil that has been in the news, with hundreds of guillemots washed up and filling the RSPCA’s hospitals was all too evident.  A ghostly hue soured the sea, demarked by a line of scum, a costly clean up for the council.  Bizarrely its origin supposedly remains a mystery, as if a few thousand tonnes of vegetable oil could have slipped out of anybody’s lunchbox.
My favourite bird sighting of the trip so far though is of one of the commonest species, pied wagtail.  Walking up Newton Abbot high street about quarter to five in the evening I was regaled by the sound of scores of wagtail roosting calls.  Looking up there were two trees into which pied wagtails fell from the sky like snow.  I stopped and leant against the wall, out of the way of oblivious shoppers barging along with their bags of tat.  The wagtails were reciting a haunting, touching melody of roosting calls, and as I listened the shoppers in front of me faded into blobs in a Lowry painting, indistinct and unimportant.  My reverie was only marred somewhat by the busker slumped in a doorway across the street, slaughtering House of the Rising Sun.  (He will never know how close he came to needing his guitar retrieving by a proctologist.)  I counted 200+ birds in each tree, a total of 400-500, a memorable sight and sound for a birder, as was the impressive guano artwork they had created below.  One bench was only for sitting on if armed with a black bin liner, and there was one of those poncey street cafes in the firing line too.  Its patrons at risk of a wagtail having a crap while they were having a crepe!  I so wanted to see that and hung around until the cafĂ© closed but had no such joy, still there’s several weeks to go yet!

"This is as far as the Landie goes, your survey area is over that brow." 
"I'm not stepping over there, it looks like the edge of the world!"
The new all-weather burkha was a must!
Scorhill stone circle.  At the far edge can be seen the ghosts of three ancient Britons,
debating whether this is H4 or H8 grassland
Unlikely to win bird photo of the year, the lesser yellowlegs at Plymouth  :D

The mystery veg oil slick
Wagtails falling like snow
Nice sit down anyone?
A crap on a crepe?

*Buffer:  “Similar to a ‘blocker’ on somebody’s life list, being simply a good bird on their year list that will take some equalling”.  (Copyright – M. Maddox and R. Dawkins!)