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).

Monday, 20 October 2014

The monastic life of a sea watcher

Dungeness May 1982
I always feel that you have a good chance of finding something special at the Airport Pits. It takes some effort to get to them. You have to park at Boulderwall, take the footpath heading due north for a good mile before then veering off westwards over the shingle towards Lydd Airport. The pit(s) are small, the water shallow and whenever I visit them (which isn’t very often) there are always plenty of exposed feeding areas for birds. The pits are prone to drying out in prolonged dry spells. Today is the classic type of day that I pick to venture out to check them - a quiet day at the observatory, clement weather so as not to risk a soaking on the exposed trudge and bags of enthusiasm and optimism. The walk out is a pleasure, full of anticipation and because of the irregularity of the visits it is somewhat a novelty. My imagination had initially been fired on the tale of when a Spotted Crake was caught in a walk-in trap placed on the Airport pits shoreline. This visit has turned up trumps – well, modest trumps.  A cracking pair of Garganey have tucked themselves into poolside vegetation. The drake briefly swims out on show, the duck hestitant to leave cover. If I hadn’t have come out here these birds wouldn’t have been seen at all. These pits are hardly ever visited. That’s part of the attraction. An added frisson of excitement is also due to the pits being out of bounds as they are on private land. Airport staff can become quite officious and any visit can precipitate the arrival of an angry man in a Land Rover. Many birders do not realise is that if you carry along the footpath northwards instead of turning west to towards the airport you eventually come to a collection of small waterbodies. They are well vegetated and look promising. I have only ever visited these ‘lost’ pits the once. Another aspect of a visit to the Airport Pits that I enjoy is the solitude. There must be weeks on end when nobody visits them for any purpose, let alone birding. It is a perfect place to bird whilst ruminating on life in general. Like the open shingle between the power station and the RSPB reserve you feel alone under vast skies here. The shingle is largely bereft of vegetation, the horizons are distant and you feel at the mercy of nature and the weather in a way that is difficult in our crowded part of Britain.

I’ve been here for a week and the sun hasn’t stopped shining. The wind has been predominantly a strong NE to SE and I have spent hour upon hour on the beach seawatching. I have been getting up at 04.30hrs and been standing on the shoreline by first light, shivering in the dawn chill. Each day the blood-orange ball of the sun has risen from the sea and gradually warmed the air to a point where my layers of clothing have been stripped off to the base t-shirt and shorts. Taking the form of weathered driftwood, my face, arms and legs are nut brown due to sun and wind exposure. I feel totally rested. The birds have been kind. This week  I have personally seen 68 Pomarine Skuas, mostly close inshore cracking adults, including flocks of 13, 11 and 10. Accompanying them have been a steady stream of waders, including mixed flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit, many in summer plumage. Whimbrels however, have stolen the show, with two days of heavy passage, including a record breaking 600 on one afternoon and evening alone. Today I have forsaken the shore for the trapping area and have just found a male Golden Oriole flying low over the sallow bushes and head inland, an exotic flash of buttercup yellow and black. All week it has just been Sean McMinn, Dave Davenport and myself. Our lifestyle has been monastic – after such an early start followed by a whole day spent staring through optics into a heat haze out at sea, we retire to bed by 22.00hrs, eyes strained to excess, bodies burnt, minds tired, but wearily fulfilled.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Figure of Eight

This is a species that I don't get to see very often - Figure of Eight - this being only the second record from the garden in 27 years. It appears to be one of those species that is on the decrease, so catch one while you can!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Smaller still

I first became aware of the Raynox DCR-250 a couple of years ago, via Leicester City's very own mascot, Mark Skevington - you can read his initial thoughts here. It is basically a magnifying lens that is clipped onto an existing DSLR or bridge camera lens. Skev's results with this combination are, I think, spectacular. Because many inverts are so small, and, when you look at them close-up, beautiful, I've longed after the means of obtaining some worthy images. This week I took the plunge and purchased one - and at around £40 it is not silly money.

Time was a bit tight this morning, but I wanted to try it out. I clipped it onto the end of my 60mm Canon macro lens (itself attached to my now old Canon 400D). Everything was set up for autofocus, so I knew that the depth of field would be shallow. The result was very pleasing.

This is, I think, Pinalitus cervinus (and if you know better, please let me know). It is tiny and to my failing middle-aged eyes lacked any colour or markings at all. The Raynox lifted it out of obscurity! Tomorrow I will rescue any small creature from my MV haul and attempt to obtain Skev-quality shots with a combination of tripod, timer and patience.

Another subject I attempted was this Plutella xylostella. For a first time, ten minute session on auto focus I was well pleased with the results.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Do I really need a book about seaweed?

I cannot walk into a bookshop without heading straight to the 'natural history' department. This normally results in disappointment as the bookseller invariably stocks his/her shelves with a mixture of the banal  - 100 Penguins to see before you die - the twee - Lady Cattermole's Edwardian Ladies Country Diary - or the plain useless. Where have all the field guides gone? What about a few proper monographs? Atlas's? ANYTHING...

I happened to be in Torquay at the weekend and there is some sort of sea safari park along the promenade. You can access the shop attached to it without needing to pay to look at penguins, so, under the vain hope that THERE WOULD BE BOOKS, I went in. And there were!

I ended up buying the rather splendid Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland, a photographic guide that claims to be able to help you confidently identify over 200 species of them. As with most things, there are plenty that do need a microscope to clinch an identification, and I'll leave those well alone. I almost - almost - picked up The Sea Anemones and Corals of Britain and Ireland as well, but thought better of it. I wish I had now. Both are published by Wild Nature Press / Marine Conservation Society / Seasearch and will only cost you £16.95. Not bad for such a well produced book. My natural history book choices are getting more specialised and obscure by the day.