Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hello Icterines, Goodbye Elvis

Dungeness August 1977
It’s been predominately cloudy and wet. My two-week stay has coincided with a period of easterly winds and this combination has lead to some of the largest falls of migrants that I have witnessed at Dungeness. I have spent many hours slogging around the nets when they are up, a task shared with at least six others currently residing at DBO who are also ringers. The maximum number of nets available have been erected and the total catch has increased proportionately. Fortunately there are plenty of birds to be shared around. Day after day the sallow bushes have been alive with birds, mostly warblers, predominantly Willows, with Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts to add spice to the proceedings. 7 different Icterine Warblers have been trapped and we all get to ring one, a most unusual state of affairs. We would normally be looking on enviously at the lucky individual who gets given such a rare bird to ring, but even those of us at the bottom of the pecking order are joining in the fun. Quality continues with Barred Warbler, a very early Fieldfare, a Wryneck and a Red-backed Shrike (the latter two species seen in the field only). We are at it from dawn till dusk on many days, processing 200-300 birds regularly. On one particular day an arrival of 600 Willow Warblers is recorded and we trap no fewer than 250 of them. Birds are also streaming overhead, with hirundines, Yellow Wagtails and Tree Pipits being a daily accompaniment to our shingle crunching beneath.

My ambition bird is a Hoopoe. I have coveted this exotic species since I first clapped eyes onto its illustration in my first field guide. I have been on a net round and return to the observatory to be greeted by jubilant birders who have seen a Hoopoe by the old lighthouse. I at once break out into a sweat. My dream bird. Only 400 yards away.  As soon as I can relieve myself of ringing responsibilities I rush out towards the old lighthouse. My searching, however, is in vain. It’s gone. I’m not just disappointed, I’m thoroughly depressed. More than that, I'm crushed. I carry on sweeping through the low gorse as far as the area beyond the railway station, but as every minute passes my optimism of seeing the bird drains away. For the first time at Dungeness I feel the hurt of a dip. Get used to it mate, there’s plenty more of those to come…

A few of the birders staying are getting restless – there are two Little Bitterns at Rye Harbour, not very far away at all. Nobody with a car wants to go so half a dozen of them decide to walk/hitch. A group of six aren’t going to all get a lift unless an empty coach happens to be heading along the twisting Lydd to Camber road. Walking to Rye will take a lot longer than they think. The road corkscrews all over the place and walking cross country is out of the question as you would need to traverse active firing ranges and swim across an estuary.  I think about joining them but elect to stay. Not long after they leave we trap an Icterine Warbler that I ring.

For a change of scene one evening Nick Riddiford takes us over onto the RSPB reserve where we set up a clap-net. This trap is basically a mist net that is stretched out flat on the ground and held taut by large elastic bands. By some sort of ingenious mechanism (that I have clean forgotten the workings of), a trip wire is set up so as the net can be launched in an arc to cover the neighbouring ground, thus trapping nearby birds. You need to have a person close enough to the net to trigger the mechanism and it needs that person to also be hidden from view. I somehow get the job.

After erecting the clap-net on a sandy spit jutting out into Burrowes pit, my fellow ringers retire to the relative comfort of a wooden hide overlooking the action about to unfold. I meanwhile crawl into a tiny canvas tent, only large enough to crouch in, resulting in bouts of cramp and the need to show patience. We have timed our visit to coincide with the high tide in the hope that waders driven off of Lade Sands will use our chosen spit to roost on. However, for all of the calling waders wheeling around the general area none settle where we want them to. But then a couple of Black Terns land. Encouraged by this a few Common Terns join them and very soon a flock of twenty terns have assembled. They are restless but I can’t pull the trip wire and activate the net for fear of catching a bird in flight and thus injuring it. The light is fading fast but I have to wait. One by one the birds start to leave and in the end I activate the trap with only a couple of terns left on the spit. We don’t trap either of them. On our return to the observatory we learn that Elvis Presley has died. So when I am asked "Where were you when you heard that Elvis had died?" I can quite confidently state that I was in the common room at Dungeness Bird Observatory.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mug shot

Quite literally...

That merry band of Canons Farm and Banstead Woods patchworkers have a low-key competitive edge going on. The league table of 'species recorded' is one that generates a bit of good natured banter. To reach 100 species is no mean feat for this land-locked and dry site - in fact only five people have reached such dizzy heights.

I currently stand on 102, (Raven being added today) some way behind the boy wonder David Campbell, who betrays the amount of time and effort that he has put into the site with a list of 125! Anyhow, he has had a number of commemorative mugs made to be presented to those birders lucky enough (foolish enough?) to become CFBW centurions. I was awarded mine at a simple and touching ceremony outside Canons Farmhouse this lunchtime (at the same time as two Hobbys were conducting aerial manoeuvres overhead). The catchline in red that you cannot quite read from the photograph says 'patch birding in the fast lane'. I might be tempted to add 'with stabilisers'...

Apart from three Ravens, the two Hobbys and a female Peregrine, this mornings session was enlivened by a steady overhead passage of Meadow Pipits and Jays, plus an ever expanding flock of Skylarks. A Wheatear and a Stonechat added a bit of migrant flavour.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Of nets and rings

Dungeness Spring 1977
When bird observatories were being established around the coasts of Britain the main reason for their founding was to study bird migration. Collection of this information could have been carried out purely by observing which species, and in what numbers, were passing through an area at any given time. This was fine to a point, but to be able to identify exactly where these birds had come from and where they were going necessitated a different method of recording. These questions were to be answered, in the main, by the science of bird ringing.

Simply put, bird ringing is carried out by trapping a bird and placing a metal ring on one of its legs. These rings have a unique serial number stamped on them, together with an address of where to send the ring if found. The trapping of the bird needs to be done carefully (to minimise stress) and the ring placed on the leg has to be light (as not to hinder flight and normal behaviour). To be able to participate in this study it is necessary to undergo a lengthy training programme. This is essential, as the handling of birds requires sensitivity, responsibility and a thorough knowledge of the topography of a bird.

At DBO ringing is regarded as the most important function of the observatory and as such a great amount of time and effort is spent on it. The nerve centre of the ringing operation is based in the downstairs front room where all the equipment is stored and the birds taken and ringed. (You can always tell a non-ringer quite simply by the term ‘ringed’. They almost always refer to birds as being ‘rung’).

The ringing room reminds me of a cross between a provincial museum and the Steptoe’s front parlour. It is an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac. There is no visible wall space. This is hidden behind cupboards crammed full with equipment, cases of stuffed birds (Shelduck, Pintail, Long-tailed Duck), cabinets of bird skins, cardboard-boxes overflowing with paperwork, chaotic piles of books, ancient scientific instruments, fading posters and old black-and-white framed prints. An old pram gets in the way but is tolerated as it transports a large heavy-duty box in which the binocular telescope is housed. At the far end of the room, in front of the windows, is a wooden shelf. Above this is a line of cord strung between the walls, on which are placed a series of hooks. Laid out on the shelf are the tools of the ringer’s trade – different sized rings (for different sized birds), pliers (for enclosing the rings around the bird’s legs), rulers (for measuring a bird’s wing length), pesola’s (for recording a bird’s weight), callipers (for taking other measurements such as bill and tarsus length) and the obligatory copy of ‘Svennson’s’, the Holy Bible of how to identify, age and sex species. A wooden chest is hidden underneath the shelf and this is stuffed to overflowing with bird bags. These are hand-made bags (fashioned from any old material) with a string-pull opening into which the trapped birds are placed. This is done for the ease of transporting the bird from trap to ringing room, but also because it calms the birds down. These bags, when with bird, are then hung onto the hooks above the shelf. We then start to process the catch. All information gathered is written into a log book and the bird then released back into the wild, through a small opening in the window. The hope is that this bird will be subsequently recovered and such information as its movement and longevity will be learnt. The room at the end of a busy day is full of loose feathers (a body feather or two from the odd bird, no harm done) and a pile of bird bags that now need a good wash – after all, when a bird needs to go… worst of all are the thrushes when they have been gorging on blackberries. Purple bird shit may look whacky, but it stains everything it comes into contact with.

The commonest way to trap the birds is by mist net. These fine-meshed nets are strung out between poles and in the right conditions can appear almost invisible. A bird will fly into the net, drop into a pocket and then become entangled. I consider the most delicate and skilful part of the ringing process is the extraction of birds from these nets. The nets used to be made in Bridport, Dorset but along came the Japanese and produced cheaper, if inferior versions. England 0 Japan 1. Before the invention of the mist net most birds were caught in Heligoland traps. The observatory has several of these and work on the principle of walls of wire-mesh which run along and above a line of bushes, narrowing as they proceed, thus funnelling birds into a dead end where a simple catching box is housed.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Pure birding

There are times when the birding is just so easy, just so pure, that rarity and place are but irrelevances. This afternoon was such a time.

I was at Canons Farm, the light overcast sky and modest NW breeze giving a decidedly autumnal feel to proceedings. I scanned the sky to the south and east and could see a few hirundines wheeling up high. A closer look revealed that there were more behind them - and above them - and as I carried on scanning more and more came into view. My first full sweep revealed at least 500 birds (mostly House Martins) and I followed this scattered flock as they circled above me, gradually heading SW. But as fast as birds left the area others were appearing. At one time there were over 1,000 hirundines on show, all lazily making their way across my field of view. I stood transfixed. I've seen larger numbers (a frankly incredulous 90,000 at Dungeness one September day) and I've seen birds zap through as if time was against them. But to watch a sky full of dots, in no hurry, and in complete silence, added a spectral edge to the event. After a couple of hours they had largely departed. I reckoned on 1900 House Martins and 150 Swallows having been present.

Underneath them the hedgerows were alive (by Canons standards) with Stonechats. Eight to be precise. Sentinels guarding the rapidly maturing season. Leaf fall and earth smell. You can't buy such times...

Ring-billed Gulls (and Kate Bush) in Hammersmith

Yesterday evening, only yards away from the Hammersmith Flyover, I was able to build up a tidy list of birds - some to be expected - such as Starling, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Carrion Crow and Feral Rock Dove - with others a little more surprising - Nuthatch and Swallow - while some were down right unexpected - particularly the Whooper Swans, Great Egrets and Ring-billed Gulls. No, I wasn't stringing, but present at the Hammersmith Apollo to pray before the altar of Kate Bush on her 'Before the Dawn' tour. I won't give a full blown review here, suffice to say that it was a superb evening that will never be forgotten.

She performed the second half of the album 'Aerial' in its entirety (with an additional track), known as 'A Sky of Honey'. This deals with the passing of an English summer's day, focusing on the song and flight of birds, the weather changes and the passage of light and time - all done in an affecting way as only Ms Bush can. Slow-mo footage of various bird species were used to great effect on a gigantic backdrop - but here comes the only criticism of the night... you need to source your gulls more carefully Kate. They were Ring-billed Gulls, not redolent of an English summers day at all (even if that avian thug the Herring Gull has become so in recent years)!

But seeing the rest of the show was such a thing of wonder, us birders in the audience will let you off...

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

HG Alexander plus the birding 'underclass'

Dungeness April 1976
When I began birding in 1974 I borrowed a copy of ’Seventy Years of Bird-watching’ by H G Alexander from the library. It became my birding template. He enthralled me with details of local patch watching, tales of the sudden excitement when rarities appear and above all the absorbing account of his many visits to a place called Dungeness that spanned seven decades. Now I’m here. I can look around me and actually visit the place where he found his Cream-coloured Courser in 1916 and where Jack Tart discovered a dead Bridled Tern during the 30’s. His Kentish Plovers and Stone Curlews may have gone but in my vivid imagination he is still here, wandering over the shingle, just out of view. The ghosts of previous birdwatchers (and their birds) haunt this shingle in a happy, benevolent way. Every gorse clump whispers of long-departed rare warblers, each fence post resonates with the spirit of the thousands of chats that have alighted upon it over the years. You can smell the history, feel the ornithological aura.

I have discovered a birding ‘underclass’ at Dungeness. They are all long-haired men who do not conform in any way, shape or form to the notion that birdwatchers are either vicars, nerds or women in tweed. This band of desperadoes swear, drink, take drugs, tell filthy jokes AND are bloody good birders. They look bohemian and have been to distant, exotic locations in the quest for birds. Dungeness is their patch. I really do want to be a part of them. Membership, I learn, has to be slowly earned. I watch them as they casually bird – more interested in a girl’s breasts than the Black Redstart in the moat. Just as likely to be discussing the latest Kevin Ayers album as to the difference between Icterine and Melodious Warblers.  From a distance they could be a bike gang. Close up they still look like they could be a bike gang. Tony Soper they are not. They seems to be genuinely interested in what us youngsters have to say.  I decide to adopt them as my role model even though I am nothing like them, but aspire to be so.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Southern Oak Bush Cricket

It was not until 2001 that this virtually wingless cricket was discovered in Britain (Thames Ditton, Surrey). Today it has expanded its range across parts of south-east England (including my own humble garden). This individual was found on the living room wall and capture was made all the easier as the little so-and-so couldn't fly away!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Learning the ropes

More personal history waffle. There's a room-full of notes to mine for this stuff...

Dungeness April 1976
We are being given a thorough grounding in observatory life and a whistle-stop tour of the varied habitat to be found in the vicinity of the peninsula. I am being left with a feeling of utter wonderment with what I am experiencing. Vivid images from the past few days are replaying in my mind: looking towards the lit power station at night as we go wader ringing at Lade Pits; watching a Long-eared Owl drifting silently past on a perfectly still, golden evening at the Oppen Pits; walking out to the far-flung Airport Pits, leaping ditches and flushing Grey Partridges.

The daily routine of the observatory is seeping its way into me and the idea of what a ‘proper’ observatory day entails: getting out of bed before dawn; helping erect mist nets in the half-light; alternating between drinking tea, chatting and birding until lunch; sea-watching for a couple of hours; checking the recording area for migrants; going back down to the sea until early evening; having a last look around the moat before dark; and finally sitting in the common room and partaking in the calling of the log. This last act is one that I am thoroughly enjoying, an amalgamation of everybody’s observations in the DBO recording area during the day. It gives meaning to the counts that I amass in my notebook.  It takes on the feeling of a religious act, from the handling of the leather-bound log sheets to the incantation of each species name, read out by the warden in scientific order.

Let me take you on a tour of the building. We enter through a small, fortified porch, which has the front door placed on the eastern wall. This leads to a narrow hallway, with stairs on the left. From a line of pegs along the hall wall hang a collection of assorted jackets, mostly weatherproofed and in various stages of disrepair. These do not appear to belong to anybody in particular, seemingly abandoned. A cupboard under the stairs houses the electricity meter (50 pence pieces please) and an ageing selection of household cleaning agents, whose price tags hint at days gone by. Pre-decimalised days to be precise. To the right is the ringing room (for a detailed description of this delight see later). Straight ahead is the common room, the heartbeat of the observatory. This room is dominated by a large table around which are hard wooden chairs. Comfort is but an afterthought. A radiogram (and I mean a radiogram) sits on the window-sill and still works perfectly well. Cupboard space is in plentiful supply. Across one wall is a notice board festooned with information leaflets and notices, mostly produced in Nick’s spidery handwriting. From here we gain access to the small, but well equipped kitchen. A back door leads into a tiny yard where a dilapidated coal shed slumps, its contents a medley of wire, off-cuts of wood and coal. There is also an outside toilet, which only the brave or foolhardy actually use.

Moving up the steep, narrow stairs, we reach the first floor (not before negotiating a wickedly tight turn and a sign that reads ‘No muddy boots’). To the left is a bathroom with two small basins, an ancient washing machine and a toilet cubicle that has been added as an afterthought. The next door along is the warden’s room (which very soon he will vacate for the larger bedroom opposite). This said bedroom opposite is the most airy and boasts a panoramic view of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. We continue up the final flight of stairs and into the top floor bedroom, which has five beds. In the far corner of the room is a door, which leads to a smaller bedroom affectionately referred to as ‘The Firetrap’ due to the lack of exits provided should flames sweep the building.  Health and Safety would surely close the observatory down if it ever inspected the premises. All the bedrooms are stocked with old, uncomfortable beds, fit for a convention of masochists. The mattresses are thin and obviously once belonged to a home for the incontinent before DBO gratefully inherited them. The pillows are lumpy and dirty. Piles of damp, grubby blankets are free to be used. The Hilton this isn’t. There is no central heating. If it’s cold a couple of electric fires will be plugged in and the two heating bars will make little difference to the room temperature while eating up all of the 50 pence pieces in the meter. The original sash windows, while charming, are draughty and rattle like buggery in the wind. For some reason I find all of this acceptable and will come back time and again to use these facilities and what’s more actually pay for the privilege.

A feature that appeals to me is that each window has a checklist of birds taped to it. We are invited to add to the tally of species seen from them. I am surprised to note that every window has had Rough-legged Buzzard ticked off of the list. Enquiries reveal that the 1974 Rough-leg invasion sent a couple to wander the peninsular for several weeks.