Thursday, 27 February 2020

Freeze frame

We inland birders, especially those that toil on dry sites, get very excited about a bit of water. Not for us the wide expanse of an estuary, or the horizon-filling sea, and not even an ugly grey reservoir - no, we deal in small streams, village ponds and...


...sheets of rain water!

Believe it or not, I started to salivate when I saw how much water had collected on the aptly named Bog Field at Canons Farm. When this field gets extra wet, it has history, with at least two Green Sandpipers having been falsely lured in. My frantic scanning for diving duck, phalaropes and waders produced... a bathing Carrion Crow. Well, the excitement lasted all of 30 seconds.

A quiet afternoon followed, save for the wintering finch flock, that seem to be keeping to Tart's, Ballard's and Bog Fields. Chaffinch numbers are keeping at a steady 150-200, but the Linnet flock is slowly building. On arrival I counted 275, but a couple of hours later this had increased to 400. I took a brief video of the flock (not all of it) and on my return home counted birds from frozen frames. There are at least 500 present. Here's a flavour of the action (the BBC Natural History Film Unit will not have sleepless nights if they view this). If you view full-frame you will get a better idea of numbers, and just before the closer birds fly in front of the tree you can see another sizeable flock behind them (and higher up).

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

The Holly and the Firecrest

What with the wind reducing to a manageable force 3-4, and the rain promising to keep away, I thought it was time to go and check the high ground between Dorking and Abinger. I say high ground, but those of you used to more northern latitudes it’s not very high at all - we are talking 734 feet (or 224m in new money) at the most.

I spent the majority of my time zig-zagging up and down across Ranmore Common. It was quiet. This time two years ago I was knee-deep in Hawfinches on these footpaths, and only last February it was easy to locate singing (breeding?) Crossbills. Today I had to make do with c10 Marsh Tits, none of them yet in song which was surprising given the clement weather. The lack of finches this winter is most noticeable, with just a handful of Goldfinch, Chaffinch and even fewer Siskin. A Redpoll or Brambling would be treated like a star prize at the moment.

After a while I came across some decent stands of mature Holly, just like this:


On this part of the downs, Holly understory like this means one thing to me - Firecrests! It only took a minute before one, then two, came into view, foraging in the canopy before dropping down to feed just above the dead bracken. They never let me down here.

I did venture a little further on to check on a known Goshawk site, and my visit was successful, a single bird being briefly seen and heard calling on a number of occasions.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Loss and legacy

Most generations will claim their time and legacy as something of a golden era, particularly when looking back on their formative years. This is particularly true of any group of enthusiasts, whose collective memory will be bathed in sunshine and a shared nostalgia that brings back incidents and events with an almost overbearing clarity - there is happiness in the reconnection but a sadness that it has long gone and cannot be relived.

The twitching fraternity of the late 1970s to early 1980s have a genuine claim to be a’golden generation’. The possibilities of what rarity could make it to our shores were being re-written with every passing year; the number of birders that chased rarities was increasing; more rarities were being found and the prowess in bird identification kept increasing. But maybe more relevant was the demographic of the twitching crowd - it was largely made up of young birders, mostly men, in their mid-teens to early thirties.

Society was quite different back then. Car ownership was lower, mobile phones did not exist, expendable income was at a premium, rarity information was largely through word-of-mouth (a network of birders joined by hard won telephone numbers) and, for the hard-core, the way to travel from rarity to rarity was often by the law of thumb - hitch-hiking. This ‘band of brothers’ had no spare money to use on accommodation if the need arose, so dossing in bus shelters and out-buildings was the given choice. Given the ‘Kerouac-flavoured’ feel to the scene, the ‘drop everything at once’ response to the news of a rare bird and the camaraderie that such life choices created, it is no wonder that a sub-culture was formed and that legends were forged. Birders who went for everything, undertook tortuous cross-country hitches, underwent epic fails, got covered in farmer’s slurry or drank 12 pints in an evening in the George became known, forming a part of the birding myth. Many had nicknames, and these were whispered with a certain reverence by us ‘bit-part players’ when their owners turned up at a bird, or in the pub.

A couple of days ago, one of this crew, this birding tribe, left the arena. His name was Keith Lyon and he owned one of the most recognisable nick-names of all - Dipper. I met him regularly during my twitching time, but couldn’t claim to have known him. I have been reading his friends tweets in response to his passing, and it has been touching to do so. He was obviously a popular person, a bit of a character and a touchstone for their shared time. Photographs have been posted of young lads larking about, draw-pull telescopes being waved around, faded colour memories of long hair, army surplus, flared jeans and a lost innocence. Even to an onlooker such as myself you can feel the warmth and sadness. As this generation ages there will be other losses, and with it comes reflection - reflection on what they/we had and what they’ve/we’ve lost. There will be many of Dipper’s friends looking back on those days right now, reliving a bird, a journey, an incident. His memory lives on, wrapped up in birding. What a charming legacy to leave.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

What is rarity?

To round up this mini-thread on rarity, it might be prudent to ask this simple question - what is rarity? To most birders it is a declaration that the bird in question is of national rarity, and in the majority of the words use, that is exactly what is trying to be conveyed. But it isn’t always the case...

There are three records of Audouin’s Gull from Dungeness, but only two records of Nuthatch. Therefore Nuthatch is genuinely rarer there than Audouin’s Gull. It is also no less rarer than Dark-eyed Junco and Red-eyed Vireo on the shingle. They can all - Nuthatch included - be regarded as rare.

If I am birding in Surrey and see a Gannet sail overhead, I will have found something rarer than a Red-flanked Bluetail on the east coast. These inland seabirds, as numerous as they are on our shores, are so unusual in my home county that I stand a better chance of finding a eastern vagrant on our countries eastern seaboard.

The numbers don’t lie. Rarity is relative. Rarity also changes. My early birding days in north Surrey included regular and unremarkable encounters with Willow Tits. They have now gone. To see one today would be big news, and treated as a rare bird. The flip side to this would be me finding a Little Egret at Beddington in 1975 (I didn't!) That would have caused a big twitch. Today? A birder wouldn’t bother to cross the road to see it.

Those of us who watch inland sites can get our rarity kick in a different way to those who bird the coast. Rarity really is relative. And as much as we don’t bird for rarities sake, it is always the cherry on the cake when we do. We just need to be realistic in our definition of what constitutes ‘rare’.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

A minute closer

The last post saw me expose myself as a serial underachiever at finding rare birds. No big deal, and as I am fond of saying, finding rarities does not define us - or do I protest too much?

So, if I don’t find them, who does? You may assume that the answer to that question is obvious. It must be the good birders who do, those that are highly knowledgable about identification. No, it’s not as simple as that. I will not name names, but I know of a number of excellent birders who are obsessional field workers but do not find many rarities. I know others who I do not rate as highly, who bird less, but find more. Some people just have it. What ‘it’ is is the magic ingredient - an indefinable ability to know where, and when, to look.

When I was a regular at Dungeness it became apparent that most rarities were not found by us regulars, but the casual day trippers. We would be up at dawn and have been burning up the habitat for hours. They would turn up late, amble away from their car, and stroll straight into a rarity. It was often the case that these birds were also found in random places, not necessarily the traditional hot spots. Were we trying to hard? Were we doing things ‘by number’? Did we need to change the way we approached things?

You do, of course, increase your chances of finding rarity if you bird a good spot where few birders tread. Spurn might be a hot spot, but good luck with competing with the several hundred birders present over who will find the rarity. What you need is a Scottish Island or a lonely headland where distance or inaccessibility puts others off from attending and your chances of being the one who will come across the rarity increases.

There are times when just being good does makes the difference. These are the people who turn up and announce that the Subalpine is, in fact, a Spectacled; that the Richard’s Pipit is really a Blyth’s; know when to invest the time to investigate an ‘interesting’ call or a half-seen shape; can read the weather conditions to increase the chance of finding that rare seabird. They do walk amongst us!

When all is said and done, if you systematically work a coastal patch, visit it almost daily and have done your identification homework, you will increase your chances of finding rarity many times over.

But whether or not we have that magic dust within us, we all have our moments. If you are undergoing a dry spell, just remember that every minute that you spend in the field is a minute closer to finding your next rarity. It will happen. Be patient and keep looking. But remember this: rare birds are just that - rare. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how well prepared you are, they will not be there to find.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Not finding

Dreadful record shot of the last rare bird I found - Bonaparte's Gull at Dungeness almost FIVE years ago.
I'll admit it. I'm pretty crap at finding rare birds. In my first flush of birding youth I went through a bit of a golden period, then it all dried up, with the odd success of recent years not being able to disguise the fact that the number of rare birds that I have found is not a true reflection of the amount of time that I have spent out in the field. You could be charitable and point out that wandering dry inland downland is never going to give me a leg-up in the rarity finding stakes, and I'd thank you for it - but there has been plenty of time spent on the coast, but maybe not enough.

People have been banging on about their 'UK self-found lists' for an age, but I have not sat down and worked mine out. Until now. 287. That is, species identified by me without knowing that the species was present. Some of them have to go down as joint finds, but all of them had input from myself in their identification. If I went and lived on a Shetland croft for a couple of years I could most probably bump this up by 50 species, so the total is relative. It is still a poor total. By admitting to it I have most probably black-balled myself from several birding gangs.

My rarer finds do, however, include: Ring-necked Duck, Surf Scoter, White Stork, Purple Heron, Glossy Ibis, Black Kite (2), Red-footed Falcon, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Bonaparte's Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Bee-eater (several), Red-throated Pipit, Siberian Stonechat, Aquatic Warbler, Booted Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Two-barred Crossbill and Rustic Bunting. Had I been desperate I could have added things like Richard's and Tawny Pipits, Bluethroat, Marsh, Barred, Melodious, Icterine and Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatchers, Serins and Ortolans  - dammit, I am desperate, so let's add them as well! Looking back at that list, it isn't too shabby, but doesn't include a real stonker and is scant reward for 46 years worth of birding. That lot would be a couple of year's worth of finds for some of the big boys.

Finding a rarity is not the 'be all and end all' but it gives you a great big thrill when you do so. Part of me wants to get those thrills again, on a regular basis. But to give myself a fighting chance of doing so will mean some changes in where I go and how I bird.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Blindfold and ear-muffs


After a rainy and blustery morning I'd had enough of the indoors, so, donning wet-weather gear, ventured forth and walked from home to Park Downs and back - 12,000+ steps apparently. I got soaked, with one particular downpour that may have only lasted for just ten minutes, but felt as if it had deposited a month's worth of rain in that time. And we've got Storm Dennis to look forward to! I, for one, cannot wait until Spring...

If I had been hoping for a bit of birding relief then I would have been most disappointed, but I knew it would be poor, and it was. Barely a bird stirred. No flocks, little calling, I would have seen just as much had I been blindfolded and wearing ear-muffs. Still, I knew of a patch of Stinking Hellebores, and paid homage to the 120+ plants present on the chalk downland.