Friday, 31 October 2014

The straws that broke this birder's back

This is the last of the Dungeness retrospectives, that's a promise! I haven't run out of subjects, but like all things, you reach a sell-by date. To end on a downer is not indicative of my times at Dungeness, but this particular episode saw a sea-change in how I approached the shingle kingdom.

Dungeness Nov 1992
A Richard’s Pipit has been found on the RSPB reserve. It’s Saturday, so there are plenty of observers around searching for it. The bird is very flighty and settles in a large grassy field. The field is off limits. Sightings of the bird are few and when I appear I do not connect with it. Little is seen until the late afternoon when it appears briefly for a chosen few. The following morning I return to the field early and walk along the footpath on its eastern edge, very slowly, scanning the field intently. When I’m only ten yards from the field’s end I turn back, assuming the bird has gone. At this point another birder joins me, we briefly chat, and he continues walking those extra ten yards. Minutes later he flushes the Richard’s Pipit, seeing and hearing it well. I’m out of view and miss it. I then spend the rest of the day standing by the field, staring into a tangle of dead vegetation, feeling cheated and irritable. I return home late afternoon to get a phone call telling me that the pipit came back again to the same field corner at dusk to roost. So what do I do? I do what I shouldn’t. This morning I arose at some ungodly hour, got back in the car and drove the ninety miles back to Dungeness to stand in that same godforsaken corner at first light. I should be at work. I didn’t want to come back but I had to. Why? To add another species to my Dungeness list? To exhibit to my peers my prowess as a hunter gatherer? To exorcise the realisation that if I’d have walked those ten extra yards on the Sunday morning I would have seen the bloody thing already? So here I am, staring into the same field that had bored me rigid only days before, repeating the same, sad process of missing a Richard’s Pipit. I am starting to finally accept the futility of my self-made situation.

A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is a major rarity in the Dungeness area and one has been found in the copse by Lydd roundabout. It’s as rare at Dungeness as a Red-eyed Vireo believe it or not. When I found out about its appearance the all too familiar reaction reared its ugly head – a feeling of dread that, even though I don’t want to, I really should go down to see it and add it my all powerful Dungeness list. But wait… isn’t this the same species that I’ve seen in my back garden and is relatively easy to find in the local woods? Why am I considering embarking on a 180-mile round trip to see a bird that I could almost stroll across the road to watch. Easy to answer that question – it’s that bloody Dungeness list again, pulling me towards acts of foolishness. So, like an idiot I have driven to Lydd roundabout, parked the car and wandered the copse joylessly, hardly bothering to look at the Firecrests that are present. After a couple of hours I finally hear the woodpecker calling. I don’t see it. I cannot be bothered to see it – a call will do for the purposes of the list. Have I ever been more dejected by a visit to Dungeness and the process of adding a species to my list? I get back in the car and realise that I can no longer carry on like this. It’s soulless and pointless. A list should be a bit of fun, something that acts as an attachment to your interest in ornithology, not an all-consuming reason for doing it. My Dungeness list had become a fetish – something to cling to but to also fear. Who am I competing with? I can’t possibly keep up with the regulars who not only live practically on site but don’t even have the inconvenience of a regular 9-to-5 job. Will anyone really think of me as a better human being because my Dungeness list is at 270 and not 269? I don’t think so. As I drive away I realise that things have changed. No more will Dungeness ‘make me’ visit when I don’t really want to. My visits will be on my terms....

And, largely, they have. It is fair to say that, although my early visits were full of awe and wonder, the past few years have seen my most personally fulfilling times spent at Dungeness - a mixture of contentment and, I suppose, maturity. The natural history is, in reality, no more important than the social aspect of a visit. To wander across the beach by the fishing boats, taking photographs of overturned fish boxes and abandoned netting is as relaxing and enjoyable as a Pallas's Warbler in the lighthouse garden - no, really.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Even the bad times were good

After all of the ornithological highs that I've bombarded you with regarding my time spent at Dungeness, time for a few lows... they did exist!

Dungeness Jan-Dec 1986
This year has been something of a non-event at Dungeness both ornithologically and socially. I’ve put the time in but little has been on offer – hardly any rarities (with the exception of a Collared Pratincole in June), few falls and it’s hard to look back with any satisfaction over the last 12 months. It’s had its moments – a January day when a teeming mass of gulls on the patch included two Glaucous and an immaculate Iceland; two spring male Ortolan Buntings; confiding autumnal Red-backed Shrike and Wryneck; and a vocal flyover Snow Bunting that somehow captured my imagination and elevated its status beyond its true worth on a sedate November morning, but…there has been a sense of doing things by numbers this year. For example, visiting the pits in January with a role-call of wintering species to ‘tick-off’ the year list (as I have done each year for the past God knows how many). Sea-watching in April and May at the same spot, over the same hours with the same people telling the same jokes, again as in previous years – and most probably watching the very same scoter fly eastwards yet again over the very same sea. Getting to the end of May to look back over the spring with a sense of disappointment, but with the belief that the autumn will be better. Likewise, getting to the end of October, looking back over the autumn with a sense of disappointment but with the belief that next spring will be better… can you see a pattern developing? We have conversed by numbers, drunk by numbers and been disillusioned by numbers. Is Dungeness’s number up? Like an addict I can’t give up, I need its fix.

Dungeness January 1987
It’s New Years day and the lessons of last year were not taken in. We are sheltering from the rain in a car parked alongside the road that bisects ARC and the RSPB staring southwards over the reserve. Our damp clothes are starting to steam as a combination of body heat and a virtually ineffective car heater finally starts to take effect. We stare through misted optics at the same species that I saw here barely hours ago. It’s another day of reliving what I did last week, even if last week was last year. The difference between the Smew that we are watching now and several days ago is that this one means that I’ve now seen one in 1987. The need to rush around today for the year list has so far been done with little humour, each new species being scrawled into a damp notebook to be consigned to the status of ‘Not needing to be seen again during the next 12 months’. Why do I continue to do this? We start the engine in our hide-on-wheels and drive around to Brett’s Marina. On the way, a covey of Grey Partridges huddle in the middle of a vast open field. We stop to take a look (another pointless year tick) and I cannot help but see myself in them – miserable in the rain, waiting for something better.

There, not pretty or inspiring, but an honest account of how I was feeling at the time. We are now reaching the period of my 'Dungeness days' when a blanket of disillusionment decided to wrap itself around me. I did escape from its enveloping attention, but it did take some time. More angst to come...

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).

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.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Woodchat and some geese

Dungeness June 1981
Dorrian Buffery is away for a week and I’m acting warden. It’s like being back in the summer of 1979 again as I survey my shingle kingdom before me. I might not own it but as far as the birding goes I’m in charge. Sean Clancy remains as assistant warden and together we have a laid-back and enjoyable time. Each morning we swap mist-nets for moth traps, lunchtime field work is replaced by quaffing of beer, but we still see plenty of interest: a summer-plumaged Black-throated Diver sitting off-shore behind the patch, a Hobby arriving in off the sea, a Melodious Warbler that we find and then trap in the station gorse. But the highlight is a Woodchat Shrike which graces the bushes of the Oppen Pits on my final Sunday morning. I arrive at the RSPB reserve to be taken to one side by the RSPB warden Peter Makepeace. He tells me of the shrike’s arrival and kindly gives me permission to go and look for it. There is a catch – he doesn’t want anyone else out there. I am soon watching it. A smart bird. I return to the observatory to be met by the Chantler family who are staying nearby and have been tirelessly searching the shingle for birds over the past couple of days. They are regular DBO visitors and friends of mine. The shrike is visible from a public footpath that Peter and his RSPB empire have no control over. I cannot possibly deny these people from seeing such a desirable bird and feel happy that my betrayal of confidence is not going to allow any disturbance of breeding species on the reserve. So, I suggest that if they wander over to the Oppen Pits via the public footpath and scan the bush tops they just might see a Woodchat Shrike. I ask them not to question me further but that if they take up my suggestion and see anybody from the RSPB there that they feign surprise at their luck of jamming in on such a good bird. Of course they go and of course Mr Makepeace is there, who demands to know who told them about the shrike. ‘What shrike?’ the Chantler’s plead, but he’s onto them and doesn’t believe the coincidence of their admittedly unusual choice of route. I later go back onto the RSPB reserve where an angry Peter Makepeace tells me that he’s annoyed that someone has told the Chantler’s about the shrike. “I’ve got my suspicions about who told them,” he tells me. “Just you wait until I see him again!” I hurry away before he puts two and two together.

We’ve noticed a family party of Canada Geese on the Water Tower Pits and have returned to try and capture the youngsters for ringing purposes. They cannot fly and we think it possible to round them up by encouraging them to make their way along a chicken-wire perimeter fence that funnels into a dead-end. Well, that’s the theory. It hasn’t helped our intentions that the geese are, at present, all sat out in the middle of the water. They usually loaf around the shoreline and forage on dry land. We stand at the waters edge trying to fathom out our next move. As if reading our minds they just stay still. We try to move them by clapping our hands, shouting and throwing stones wide of the geese. They won’t budge. After twenty minutes of cat and mouse (or should that be ringer and goose) I decide on drastic action. I strip down to my underwear and plunge into the cold water, much to the amusement of my companions. My intention is to coax the geese out of the water by my swimming toward them, slowly, so not to panic them. It isn’t a coincidence my choice of swimming ‘slowly’ as it is the only speed that I can swim at. At first the geese start to make for the waters edge, but then double-back leaving me between where I want them to go and the middle of the pit. I have been swimming on a regular basis but after a few minutes find my limbs are tiring.  After another aborted attempt to corral the geese I’m knackered, I’m slap bang in the middle of the water and have started to feel mildly alarmed that I might not have the stamina to get back to the waters edge. A small island is closer to me so I set off for it, gasping for breath. Hauling myself onto the stony, goose-shit splattered shore I lie flat out panting for precious air, listening to the hoots of derision coming from dry land. The geese, as if revelling in my situation, swim by only yards away, seemingly watching this strange pink shape that has shipwrecked on their island. My rest over I once again brave the cold, murky water and reach terra firma. I’ve ballsed-up again however and have to walk around to the other side of the pit to retrieve my clothing. Walking barefoot on shingle is painful. I now realise that I haven’t taken my watch off. It isn’t waterproof and it’s stopped working.