Thursday, 20 October 2016


Today felt as if it were pregnant with expectation. The birth did not happen, and it is long overdue, so like expectant fathers we pace the waiting room, awaiting news. Grey skies and northerly winds made for a winter feel, which was matched by discrete groups of thrushes tumbling out of the sky to hurriedly find shelter in the nearest vegetation. They were mainly Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, but Fieldfares, Redwings and Ring Ouzels were also represented. A few early morning Redpolls were on the move and were joined by Chaffinches mid-morning. As the day faded, and the wind dropped, a dusk enclosed flock of 12 Song Thrushes fell into the moat, with little time to sort out a roost before dark. It left me wanting more. I have a feeling tomorrow might be quite good.

Oh, and another word to be banned from birding social media...

Plus one more...

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cracked birders

When the whole world and his wife are knee-deep in birds, be they Autumn migrants or eastern vagrants (with a few also coming from the west) it is easy for birders based in places that are not so blessed to get a little peeved. This is especially true if every effort has been made during daylight hours to cover your patch - and particularly if there are few birds to sift through anyway.

Such scenarios break birders' spirits and, after a prolonged bout of little return, can force them elsewhere. This has happened this very week to those gathered at Dungeness. Monday saw a car load leave Kent for that most blessed of bird observatories, Spurn. Maybe it really is in God's chosen county after all. They saw 'the bird', several other 'the birds' and hundreds of viewable migrants to boot. On return to the shingle it was as much as any of them could do to muster up any enthusiasm at all, having been gorging on the ornithological feast that East Yorkshire had dished up.

Today was my turn, as I fled to Cap Gris Nez on the cliff tops of northern France, lured by the promise of NW winds and plenty of bird action. There were four other shingle-crunchers present as well, the second incidence of a mass Dungeness bunking-off in three days. These are indeed desperate times. As it happened, the wind was WNW so delivered a fraction of what we hoped, although this did involve Arctic, Pom and Great Skuas, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters, several hundred Med and Little Gulls, plus 1600 Chaffinches and 100 Skylarks coasting, so hardly an epic fail. But as far as grounded birds went, it was similar to Dungeness, windswept copses, hedges and bushes with barely a crest or warbler to bother the optics.

So tomorrow sees the resumption of flogging the peninsula. I did catch up with a Yellow-browed Warbler yesterday (which also saw 800 Linnets and 160 Alba Wagtails heading NW) so it is not a total dark hole of despair down here. We carry on.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Harry's bench and big skies

I've posted about big skies before. I once read somewhere that big skies are hot-wired into our psyche as they allow us to clearly see what's coming - but now that sabre-toothed Tigers and Wooly Mammoths no longer roam Surrey and Kent, it's the weather that 21st century man can keep an eye on. Here at Dungeness, the open and frankly inspiring big skies are never bettered. There is nothing high to the south until you reach the coast of France, nothing east til the Urals (exaggeration) and to the west and north you've got to be talking about 10-15 miles before you meet an incline of any description. You can see rain several miles off and some of the most fantastic cloud formations regularly come along and say hello. These skies make you feel very small and insignificant indeed.

On a slow day like today, I will take myself off to Harry's bench. This wooden seat looks eastward from the outer bank of the moat, and is in memory of Harry Cawkell, who was the honorary secretary of the bird observatory committee for 47 years, a position he held until he passed away in 1999. From here you can, on a clear day, see France and the white cliffs of Dover. I've also seen a Bee-eater amongst other things... Apart from being a good place to bird from, it is a place of contemplation, made all the more restful by being under these ever-changing big skies. Rest awhile here and you can put your worries to rest. It can even soothe the pain of reading about the latest crop of rarities to be dumped on Spurn.

Come on Spurn! Give the rest of us a chance. Buddy, can you spare a Bluetail?

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Hard work

Blimey, some days you can bird your backside off and come away with very little indeed - today was one of those days. A blustery SE to SW wind, with scattered squalls made observations all the more difficult. I kept to the sheltered belts of sallow (very quiet) and then moved on to the open shingle and  worked my way through the low broom, blackthorn and gorse (even quieter). The day's nadir was yet to come, as an afternoon spent on the shingle between the road and the beach produced just a single Wren! I would normally expect a few crests, pipits and the odd chat to check at this time of year.

But of course there were some birds. A 40-minute spurt on the sea provided 3 Arctic Skua, 2 Pomarine Skua, a Bonxie and a Sooty Shearwater. And of the four remaining Ring Ouzels, a smart male spent all day in the moat, allowing close approach and profitable use of the bridge camera.

Tomorrow sees an evacuation of the Dungeness great and good to Spurn. They have cracked. Am I going? Of course not....boom my arse.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Prince (or Princess) Caspian

One of those days that limped along in between bursts of excitement. Almost the first birds that I saw as I walked out of the observatory back door were a skein of 10 White-fronted Geese, that appeared to head straight out to sea. With a handful of Ring Ouzels being the only thing that kept the morning from stagnating, a cup of tea with Mark H on the moat seemed to be the best option. This cued up the next burst of excitement. Between sips of tea, we observed two grey geese heading our way, which soon showed themselves to be Bean Geese (also seen by David W, Gill H and Owen L). Not a common bird over observatory airspace! A calling Greenshank shortly afterwards was just as unexpected. The next quiet interlude was burst when, walking through an area of low broom, I flushed three roosting Short-eared Owls from the open shingle. All quickly settled and were left in peace.

A phone call from Martin C alerted me to the fact that the gull boys, Mick S and Richard S, had lured a first-winter Caspian Gull to the beach through the medium of bread, popcorn and fish offal. This bird performed admirably, settling but yards away as we all acted like hungry paparazzi - my bridge camera modestly performing amongst the assembled big lenses. The results are more than acceptable! I'll post them when I return home. This individual sported a red plastic ring (911P) which, according to the gathered larid-strokers, originates from Poland. To see excellent frame-filling images of this gull, visit their web-sites and blogs.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Ouzels of fun

The first hour of daylight was quiet. But the ornithological Gods saw fit to turn on the bird tap at about 08.00hrs, when a steady and gentle stream of finches started to pass overhead, on a SE to E bearing. For the next three hours it was 'eyes to the skies' as we counted the flocks - mostly single species and low enough to identify, which was a great help as many did not call. There were thrushes involved as well, most notably Ring Ouzels. They were zipping about all over the place, including one flock of 11 birds that circled above the trapping area in the company of four Fieldfare, before all headed off high and eastwards. My own personal totals included 1200 Goldfinch, 500 Linnet, 150 Chaffinch, 50 Meadow Pipit, 30 Ring Ouzel, 25 Pied Wagtail, 20 Reed Bunting, 17 Swallow, 15 Tree Sparrow, 8 Fieldfare and 2 Siskin. My other highlights from around the shingle were an evening Sooty Shearwater, 11 Great Egrets and 4 Merlin.

I've seen the pictures of birders queueing at Spurn today. Not my idea of birding, but understandable in an attempt to control the mass bunking-off work of middle-aged men. Before anybody accuse me of being 'holier than thou', I have queued for a bird before - on St Agnes in October 1979. We thought we were entering the small garden to see a Blyth's Reed Warbler (before it became as common as Chiffchaffs), but it was later trapped and proven to be a Marsh.

More 'birding' words to be banned from social media, courtesy of some other miserable sods:



Feels rare



Hands down pants

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Get up, open the door, start again

Social media has got a lot to answer for. I could bore you senseless about what I feel on the subject (and it's not all negative!) One aspect where I think it is detrimental is that, from a comparative birding point of view, you know exactly what has turned up elsewhere. Immediately. It can make you feel ornithologically impotent - a kind of observational erection dysfunction. You've most probably seen the photo of the latest find. You know who found it. And every Tom, Dick and Harry who then saw it afterwards. And who is on their way. And who is thinking about going... on, and on, and on. And yes, I know I don't need to look thank you very much.

It can have a debilitating affect. Take the past few days here on the shingle. A group of us (not a crew, not a posse) have been out all day, every day, birding hard. It has been enjoyable, no arguments. But when put into the national perspective of what is being seen at the other notable hotspots, we are failing on the scarce migrant front, let alone with true rarities. Let's face it, one reason that we are all here NOW, is that this is the plum time to find and see those special birds. So when bleepers bleep and Twitter 'twitters' about the swathe of latest goodies that are turning up anywhere but here, we are reminded of our failures. No Siberian Accentor here. Nor a Bluetail. Our comparing of results is a painful process, especially when we have no sea watching, no falls and no viz-mig going on to mask our disappointments.

But we are at Dungeness because we choose to be here. We don't want to be elsewhere. We are not heading to Spurn tomorrow. We are not contemplating Shetland for next autumn. Tomorrow we get up, open the door, and start all over again with genuine hope.