Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Starlings that just can't be bothered...

Now and again I am told something that makes me sit up and pay attention. It happened last night when I caught a bit of Autumnwatch on the TV.  If I heard correctly, there is concern over the amount of antidepressant molecules getting into our water (via the agency of people prescribed Prozac having to void bladder and bowels). Studies have shown that this can (or is?) having a direct effect on the health of birds. A study on Starlings (click here for a summary) has shown that when they were fed on sewage farm-gathered earthworms, because of the levels of antidepressant in the worms, this led to a suppression of appetite and a lowering of sex-drive in the birds. This double whammy could be one of the causes of the slump seen in Starlings since the 1960s. If they are not eating enough during the cold winter nights they are doomed - and if those that survive cannot then be bothered to breed, the population will not be replenished!! My early birding memories (admittedly not going back quite as far as that decade) does hold dear the dazzling spectacle of flocks of this species wheeling over my south London and north Surrey haunts. In fact, I rather took them for granted at the time. I get quite excited if I see a three figure flock now.

What with oestrogen (via birth control pills) causing fish to change sex, the chemical coatings on farmer's pesticides killing our bees - let alone plain habitat destruction - us humans have an awful lot to answer for.  I'm convinced that in years to come they will look back on 'us lot' in the late 20th/early 21st century and ask...

"...did they really not know what they were doing to themselves and the environment?"

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Full circle

Walton Downs - I've seen Peregrine, Golden Plover and Whinchat from this spot - what chance a shrike in 2015?

I started my birding journey in 1974 by walking out of my front door and birding the local green spaces, and it looks as though things are going to come full circle. My plans for 2015 revolve around a concerted effort on my closest sites: Canons Farm; Banstead Woods, Downs and Heath; Park Down and Chipstead Bottom; Walton Downs and Heath; Epsom Downs; and the Ewell complex of Howell Hill, Priest Hill and the river and ponds at Bourne Hall. Although birding will take up a greater part of my time I will not ignore the plants and butterflies - this is a superb area for both. Then, of course, the garden MV will see its 29th consecutive season of operation - there are still moth surprises to be had. I know that the birding will be slow, with the odd burst of excitement, but that will do nicely. My aims and appreciation of such things are different now.

Over the next few weeks I'll introduce you to some of these sites, if only to give you a break from the incessant Dungeness nostalgia. By the way, I'll still find the time to nip down to the hallowed shingle...

Monday, 27 October 2014

Surfs up

Dungeness April 1984
A walk out to the Brooks takes a concerted effort. In the first instance you need to drive several miles, via Lydd, and then along a series of pot-holed tracks. Once parked off-road on a steep grassy bank you then have a good mile walk along a raised earth track, 100yards from the sea and running parallel to it. This is wild country. Either side of you is a Ministry of Defence firing range, the army frequently raising red flags to warn you not to even think about wandering out here. The area is obviously uninhabited and seldom visited. The spent shell cases and concrete bunkers are reminders of the regular khaki war games. What makes this place worth the visit is the presence of several water bodies cut off from the sea by a thin shingle bank. They are known as the Brooks.

Historical records show that they were once highly attractive to waders, together with the Midrips and Wicks that lie further west. This whole area was well watched after World War Two and has claim to a number of extreme rarities. They are no longer birded to such an extent. I’ve always thought it a wonderful place to come – you can escape the crowds, take in the moonscape and stand a good chance of some noteworthy observations. This afternoon has confirmed these convictions...

The late afternoon’s stroll had not thrown much up in the way of birds, but when Tim Toohig and I had reached the Brooks our scanning of the sea westward had revealed a sizeable flock of scoter resting on its surface. A few Eider were also present so we took the decision to carry along the beach to scan through them. We could so easily have turned back and not bothered. Five minutes later we were scooping the flock - Common Scoter and Eider as we had deduced earlier. A bird from the back of the pack broke ranks and swam out clearly into view. I was watching a spanking drake Surf Scoter, a new species not only for Dungeness but also Kent. Tim quickly got onto the bird and for the next ten minutes we animatedly took notes and revelled in our luck. I stayed to keep an eye on the scoter whilst Tim returned to the observatory to alert those present about its presence. 

At least forty minutes past before a gaggle of birders appeared on the horizon, running along the shingle, laden down by scopes and tripods, faintly reminiscent of the Dad’s Army cast in the closing credits. The bird had stayed put, coming in much closer during my solo observations, but had now drifted out somewhat. All present were the usual suspects of observatory regulars and local birders and were more than pleased to be watching this most unexpected duck.

Chance is a major component of birding. It was lucky that this particular scoter flock had decided to rest up offshore from this particular beach on the very afternoon that we decided to make our first visit of the year to the Brooks. Typically this makes me all the more aware of what we actually miss…

Sunday, 26 October 2014

A summer swarm and a salty banquet

Dungeness July 1983
I’ve seen this sort of thing happen at Dungeness before, but not in these numbers. I’m standing on top of the moat looking northwards over the trapping area at a mass of birds circling over the sallow bushes, some 100-200 feet high. Through binoculars we realise that the birds are actively feeding on flying insects and that the flock not only extends further towards the Long Pits than we thought but also considerably higher. The calm, muggy air has created a heat haze and also ensured that although these birds are several hundred yards away we can clearly hear them calling – the odd individual utterance in a mostly silent gathering. Time and space is condensed. There must be 3,000 Black-headed Gulls along with maybe 300 Common Gulls. There are also terns and hirundines to be picked out amongst this larid feeding frenzy. A menacing dark shape has joined them – an Arctic Skua. It benignly snaps for insects along with the gulls that it would so freely hassle over the sea if things were different and adds a certain flourish to this spectacular aerial display.

September 1983
A severe WSW wind has battered Dungeness over the past two days. We have been seawatching from the fishing boats, sheltered from the wind by their hulls. The action has not been out at sea however. Where the waves have been crashing onto the beach a veritable tideline of dead marine life has been cast before us. I cannot identify what they are. Someone suggests evocative names such as Sea Mice, Sea Urchins, Sea Anemones… whatever they might be they appear as an exotic and disturbing seafood banquet. There are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of these organisms before us. They all appear dead. Not a wriggle or squirm between them.

October 1983
It’s mid-week, the day-tripping birders are non-existent and I’ve got the place practically to myself. For late October it’s incredibly mild. A weak sunshine gives enough warmth to entice a few Red Admirals and Small Coppers to flit fitfully in the moat and for me to not need a jacket, gloves or hat. I’ve taken a chair from the common room, placed it at the crest of the moat looking eastwards and have sat down with my scope on a tripod ready to scan for visible migrants, knowing that the process will be slow but ultimately rewarding. For the past couple of days I’ve done this and have felt totally at rest, counting the odd flock of migrant Starlings or Wood Pigeons, but also delighted in the appearance of Hen Harriers off the sea.  OK, my use of the plural only denotes two birds yesterday and one the day before, but they were bona fide migrants arriving in off the sea and heading purposefully westwards, low across the shingle. All ring-tails. If I see another this afternoon it will be a bonus. What really chuffs me about these harriers is that they are all mine, no-one else is here to see them or record them and I feel a certain priviledge in doing so. Birding rarely feels so personal.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Rendered speechless by a Black Kite

Dungeness May 1983
Today I was literally rendered speechless. You hear about people claiming to have been left speechless but they really don’t mean it, it’s just a turn of phrase. But, as I’ve already said, it has actually happened to me. What caused this? A vision of God? Someone handing me a cheque made out in my name for the sum of a million pounds? No. It was a Black Kite. Admittedly rare, but hardly an apparition to equal an American warbler or colourful Mediterranean overshoot. I’d better explain. 

A certain tense build up to me seeing the bird and the fact that I am in the grip of a particularly strong bout of ‘Dungeness Fever’ led to an outpouring of relief and wonder. After all, large raptors are powerful, stunning birds at the best of times. Black Kites are never twitched, they just pick a chosen few and fly by onto selected life lists. We’d arrived at the observatory mid-morning and stared into a grey, cool sky. A Hoopoe was knocking about but little else seemed to be on offer. Not much hope for the day then…

The observatory telephone rang and some kind-hearted soul plodded off to answer it. The normal chain of events would now comprise the caller asking “What’s about” and the reply being along the lines of “Bugger all”. However, this time the person who answered the phone was not doing any talking and had affected a highly agitated state. Once he had slammed the receiver back down onto the body of the phone he bolted into the common room to announce that birders had just been watching a Black Kite in Dymchurch and that it was headed purposefully southwards – towards us! As a whole we sprinted on top of the moat and set up our telescopes to be trained along the coast northwards. Far too early for the bird to have arrived, but…Mathematicians among us plotted the expected arrival time of a large raptor based on distance, wind direction and speed of flight. Predictions varied between fifteen minutes (impossible!) to two hours (yes, if it went via Calais!!) We were all highly expectant and as each minute past more nervous. When half and hour elapsed and the bird hadn’t appeared we started to doubt that it ever would. After all, who said that it would follow the coast and not decide to veer inland. I was deflated. A Black Kite is a hard species to come by in Britain. A lot of the big twitchers still needed it. Someone suggested we go to the RSPB reserve and continue skywatching. And so we did.

In recent years a fair number of raptors had passed through the reserve air-space and totally missed the observatory altogether. We decamped to the first hide overlooking Burrowes Pit and settled down for a lengthy wait. After a while I became preoccupied by a growing group of birders standing on the ARC road looking over towards us. When I mentioned this I was told not to be so paranoid. They must be a coach outing. But everyone started to check on this gaggle of birders – and they were continually being joined by others. They must have got something. We decided to abort the Black Kite watch and see what else had presumably been found. We arrived at the gathering that now numbered thirty birders, all scopes trained onto the distant bushes flanking the Oppen Pits. It was now that we found out that our quarry had indeed arrived – the Black Kite had alighted in those same bushes (no doubt as we had driven along the shingle track onto the reserve) and all these birders had been awaiting the moment when the kite would be airborne and visible once more. My emotions soared again, as we must see it now, it had to take off at some point and it WOULD be seen! 

Expectant birders shuffled about, nervously chatting, spirits high, hopefully not too presumptuous but there again…”THERE IT IS!” You couldn’t miss it. I’d seen several hundred in the south of France only weeks before and was fully familiar with the species. It tried to climb higher above the shingle but a pair of Carrion Crows kept dive-bombing it, forcing the bird low. The kite kept coming towards us with the corvids attention keeping it only feet from the ground. Christ, we’re going to get crippling views of this bird, it’s coming in a dead straight line towards us! It suddenly shook the crows off, gained height and escaped from their nagging attention. Its languid leisurely flight took it above us and slowly north-westward. We watched it disappear towards Lydd Airport. The low mutters of approval that accompanied its passage now morphed into wilder celebrations. I was looking around with a stupid grin on my face and tried to converse but couldn’t – a little squeak was all that I could utter as I suppressed what I suspect was a need to cry. I was that happy. I have never - never - been so emotionally tied up in a bird.

Thursday, 23 October 2014


As birders, we all go through similar stages of development - from absolute beginner; to keen novice; a committed patch watcher; an ardent wanderer; and possibly manic world birder. This will take a good few years to come to pass, and in that time we will gather a number of skills - those of field identification, habitat knowledge, an understanding of how weather conditions will affect movements, effective fieldcraft, where and when to look to maximise the birding potential.

Whether you can tell a Booted from a Syke's Warbler, or are just happy with counting Coots on a local lake, we are all from the same extended family - that of the ornithologist, or birder if you prefer. But once we have reached the rarified air of the 'experienced birder', what then? What to do with these life skills so hard won? It would be a shame to sit on them and not share some of the magic with others, who are still on that long journey from absolute beginner...

There is joy to be had from sharing the 'birding experience'. I have been most taken by the attitude of a good friend of mine, a birder of 50 plus years, who has travelled the world in pursuit of birds, and who has honed mightily fine field skills through thousands of hours of being 'out there'. He now finds immense pleasure in sharing his knowledge with others. I saw him in action at Dungeness this May, helping a string of beginners get to grips with warbler song, explaining to them how he was able to confidently identify overflying shapes and what they should do to maximise their chances of seeing a Bittern. This week he spent a marvellous day sea watching at Cap Gris Nez in France. In a subsequent phone conversation I had with him, it was not the magnificent skua and shearwater observations that he was most pleased about, so much as his helping of a couple of novice Belgian birders to get to grips with the identification of the passing birds offshore. He had got a great big kick out of it, and I'm sure that he won't mind me observing that he most probably wouldn't have had the inclination to do such things 30 years ago. The Belgians were ecstatic, very grateful and left full of the wonder of what they had seen and how they could actually put names to these birds that, earlier in the day, were beyond them.

We are not all blessed with great field skills, but that needn't matter. An infectious enthusiasm will inspire others. An intimate knowledge of a local area can make a place far more rewarding for birders who don't know it. You can stimulate a whole raft of people just by sharing. It costs nothing. And I'm sure that we can all think back to our formative birding years and identify those who helped us along the way.

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).