Friday 19 December 2008

New moth book

OK, this is an unusual post in that a) it’s nothing to do with birds, and b) it’s serious! Apologies if that disappoints anyone.

I received my copy of Chris Manley’s new book ‘British Moths and Butterflies’ today. This 350 page paperback, published by A&C Black, contains around 2400 photos of some 850 species of macro moth, 74 butterflies and an impressive 500 micro moths (about a third of the British total). There are also photos of larvae, pupae and eggs covering 314 species. All the images are of living insects photographed in their natural resting positions.

I wouldn’t normally plug a book that I’d had any involvement with, but my contribution to this one was so insignificant (just the two photos of the Concolorous on page 242) that I can honestly say I’m being completely unbiased in recommending it. If you have any interest at all in moths, this book is essential. And if you aren’t interested in moths, buy it to see what you’re missing! I think it’s officially out early next year.

A&C Black are to be congratulated for having the courage to produce a book on Lepidoptera which is mainly concerned with moths rather than the more popular butterflies. A few years ago I tried to interest Dorling Kindersley in something similar, only to be told ‘we don’t think there is a market for such a book.’ Well, DK were wrong, and I’m sure that ‘Manley’ will now become a classic to rank alongside ‘Townsend, Waring & Lewington’ and ‘Skinner’. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s possibly even more important than either of those two books because of the coverage it gives to the much neglected micros.

Tuesday 16 December 2008

How to get Merlins accepted

The following article is reproduced from Stringing magazine by kind permission of the Editor, Mike Hunt.

I often get letters from birders living in crap counties such as Leicestershire complaining that their local records committee insists on a description for Merlin. This is obviously very annoying for the keen county lister. Merlin is virtually impossible to twitch in a county like Leicestershire, so you’ve got to ‘find’ your own. But there’s a problem – it’s quite rare. Fortunately there is an easy solution – Sparrowhawks look a little bit like Merlins if you don’t see them very well, and they’re very common.

But how do you convince the records committee that your badly seen Sparrowhawk was actually a Merlin? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to guide you through the minefield of writing Merlin descriptions:

1. Unless you live out in the sticks somewhere, DON’T claim to have seen a Merlin in your garden. Descriptions along the lines of “a Merlin flew across my garden in the middle of Leicester and landed on the fence, where it remained for 10 minutes” will instantly go in the 'bollocks' pile.

2. DO make sure you at least attempt to age and sex it, even if it’s only the convincingly vague “female/immature.” An unsexed, silhouetted Merlin stands little chance of being accepted.

3. For fuck’s sake DON’T mention “barred underparts.” Yes, it has been known! No, really, it has.

4. DO keep it brief. A ‘textbook’ description including the claw and iris colour of a bird that you saw for 3 seconds as it flew over the road in front of your car is going to look well dodgy. Again, it has been known.

5. DON’T try and be funny by saying it had a pointy hat with stars and moons on it. Records committees are not generally noted for their sense of humour when assessing descriptions.

6. DO make sure you fully eliminate Sparrowhawk (see note 3). Even if it was actually a Sparrowhawk.

7. DON’T include a photocopied page of ‘field notes’ from your notebook. Records committees know damn well that no-one really writes notes in the field any more, and they ALWAYS look fake.

8. Finally, DON’T put the names K***h B*****y, R****t M***s or S***e G****r (sorry, I’ve had to asterisk these for legal reasons) at the top of the description, as that’s just asking for trouble.

As always, look at the text in a good field guide, and re-write it in your own words. Unless you use words like “long sticking out bit at the end” for “tail” or “pointy bits that make it fly” for “wings” of course. These will just make the records committee think you’re retarded (or taking the piss) and reject the record anyway. And if you must trace the pictures and try to pass them off as field sketches, at least make sure you’re tracing the right species.

Good luck, and happy stringing!

Next month – 'Three Species for the Price of One': how the humble Sparrowhawk can also double up as a Goshawk...

Thursday 11 December 2008

New magazine

I was intrigued by a magazine title I saw in WHSmith this morning. I didn’t have time to investigate it fully, so I searched the Internet when I got home and found their website:

Sounds interesting - this is the latest edition:

Tuesday 25 November 2008

We're not worthy

Last night, during my usual perusal of various birding websites, I discovered a terrible thing. In fact, to use one of John Shuttleworth’s favourite phrases, I was devastated. Why? Because the best, funniest and sweariest birding blogger has decided to call it a day. I’m talking of course about Tom McKinney’s ‘Skills-Bills’ website, which has entertained like-minded spotters for the last three years.

Maybe he simply wants to ‘quit while he’s ahead’ (which he certainly is, by a long way), but if it’s just a case of getting bored with it, then please, Tom, don’t be a cunt – at least give us an occasional update. Or maybe you just need to give it a rest for a few months while you recharge your swearing batteries, and then carry on? But if this really is the end, then all I can do is quote from the Master: Fuck. Tits. Bollocks.

Wednesday 12 November 2008


I’m not a big fan of ‘forums’ (yes, I know the correct plural is fora, but it's a very odd word to spring upon people without warning). They always seem to bring out the worst in people (unlike my posts on this site of course...). But despite my general antipathy towards them, I do occasionally look at the Surfbirds one if I see something interesting in the list of messages that appears on the photo gallery pages.

So, having read Mark Reeder’s admirable post on the poor behaviour of some birders at the Steppe Grey Shrike twitch, I thought this thread might be worth a look. It was. In particular I’d like to draw your attention to post #4, from none other than our dear old ‘President’.

Listen to the wise words of El Presidente. If he says that ‘mud-slinging’ is abhorrent, then it must be true, and we must never, never indulge in it. Because once it starts, there is ‘no stopping to it’! We must also follow the Presidential decree to ‘uphold the law that the bird's welfare must come first in all cases.’ And we must all be thankful that our universally respected and democratically elected leader will always play his part when it comes to self-policing at twitches.

Fortunately there’s a good reply further on in the thread to this ludicrous (but totally in character) attempt at claiming the twitching moral high ground. The story of L.A.R.G.Ego emerging from a reedbed with a big stick in his hand reminded me of an incident on St Agnes many years ago, when we witnessed three very eminent birders (at least one of whom was on the BBRC at the time) thrashing about in the reeds surrounding the Big Pool trying to flush an Aquatic Warbler, which could be seen perfectly well from the edge. They did at least have the grace to look sheepish when the error of their ways was gently pointed out to them. Actually I think it was more along the lines of “get out of those fucking reeds NOW!”

I could name and shame them, but I shan’t as that would be mud-slinging, and I’d never do that.

Friday 31 October 2008

Sound advice

I didn't watch this video on the Grauniad website, as it appears to be about the American presidential election, and therefore likely to be coma inducing, but the headline says it all really.

And if you choose not to follow the advice, you've only got yourself to blame if, like one recent hapless contributor to the Surfbirds Stop Press Rarity Photos Page, you find yourself paying £130 to see a Red-backed Shrike...

Just say no.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Official - celebrities to blame for cold snap

A perfect example of the ridiculous ‘blame culture’ in which we now live: on the BBC’s interactive TV news this morning was the headline ‘Cold snap blamed on Arctic air’. Really? And there was me thinking it was the fault of Jonathan Ross and Russell ‘No honestly, I’ve fucked every woman in the world even though I sound like Frank Spencer and look like Amy Winehouse with a beard’ Brand.

Obviously I was wrong. But is it really the fault of the Arctic air? Clearly not, but since the BBC is now officially the televisual wing of the Daily Mail, someone or something must be to blame! Who shall we blame for the recession? I know – Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand! Yeah – it was all their fault for earning too much and having silly hair. I say sack the fuckers!

Whatever the reason, it was certainly cold this morning, and cold weather often equals good birds. There’s probably an equation for it, but being completely useless at maths I have no idea what it might be. So I went to Rutland Water, hoping to find a diver or a seaduck or something. But the most exciting bird I saw was a Rock Pipit at the dam. Actually that is pretty exciting in Leicestershire. I wrote it down in my spotter’s book. Also at the dam were a pair of Scaup and a rather late Swallow. After that I saw nothing else apart from this friendly Stonechat at Eyebrook, and I was back home by early afternoon.

Oh dear. I seem to have got stuck in ‘tedious birding diary type wank’ mode. Don’t worry - it’ll probably wear off soon.

Saturday 25 October 2008

Glad I'm not on Shetland now

I had a text from Rob this afternoon saying that the wind had recently gusted to 93mph in Lerwick (that's pretty fucking windy), and that he was currently without electricity. However, it wasn't all doom and gloom, as he'd added Grey Phalarope and Leach's Petrel to his house list! Who needs power when you can see birds like that from your house? What did you have for tea, Rob - that Wryneck in between two pieces of dry bread? We had a lovely toad-in-the-hole, with roast potatoes, glazed carrots, peas and gravy, and for pudding... sorry, I turned into John Hague there for a moment... where was I? Oh yes, he also found a White-rumped Sand on the pool, but that wasn't new for the house.

By the way, if you haven't looked recently, the waster's finally got round to updating his blog with all his gripping tales from September... and some rather less gripping tales from October.

Another thing to be glad about is that (unlike some) I didn't go to South Wales today to look for a dodgy-sounding Little Blue Heron. No, I stayed in all day, looking out of my window in case the Merlin that 'Beast' saw at Stoughton Airfield yesterday decided to fly past. It didn't.

P.S. we had some wine as well.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Funny bird

Well it obviously wasn't a Blackburnian Warbler or a Mugimaki Flycatcher, but I'm still not sure what my auntie saw in her garden the other day. Further 'pumping' has elicited the following additional information (bear in mind that she originally said the nearest thing in the book was Pied Wagtail): it was perched on top of a hedge, then flew down into next door's garden; it was about the size of a Blackbird or slightly larger, with quite a long tail; its plumage was 'more striped than a Magpie', and the orange was 'underneath'.

If you took that description at face value, you would have to conclude that it wasn't anything on the British List, and possibly not even anything known to science. Now, the chances of my auntie finding something new to Britain in her garden are remote, and the chance of it being new to science is zero. So, unless it was an escaped cagebird, it was probably something common.

But what? Bill Oddie said in his Little Black Bird Book that "99 per cent of laymen's funny birds refer to Jays." That's always a possibility, but the Pied Wagtail bit makes me think it was more black and white than that, and I think I'm coming round to the view that Great Spotted Woodpecker is the most likely candidate.

All of which only goes to show just how hard bird identification really is, and how much most of us take it for granted that we can quickly and easily identify most of what we see.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Is it spring yet?

No, thought not, but as I'm awake now I might as well post some drivel here.

Apparently my auntie had a funny bird in her garden the other day. Nothing unusual in that, you might say; most birders' relatives have had funny birds in their gardens at one time or another. My granny reckoned she had an American Robin in her garden in Rugby once! However, this particular auntie lives in Paignton, south Devon, so it might possibly have been something out of the ordinary.

"The nearest bird in the book was a Pied Wagtail, [so presumably it was basically black and white] but it had a flash of bright orange on it when it flew off."

I know that's a very brief description (and pretty typical for a non-birder) but what the fuck was that?!!

Answers on a postcard please, or if you're not still living in the 19th century, via comments in the usual way.

And anyone who lives near Paignton might want to go and have a nose around Swincombe Drive just in case it was a Blackburnian Warbler. Or a Mugimaki Flycatcher.

Wednesday 15 October 2008


Had Rob been at home this morning, he would have had a third house tick found by me, but as he wasn't, he didn't. Does that make sense? It's been a long day. Anyway, there was a Great Grey Shrike in the Virkie Willows first thing this morning, but it had flown off towards Scatness by the time Rob got there. The reason for his delay was that he'd relocated yesterday's Coal Tit in Toab, and was helping the assembled masses to look for it.

However, he did have one house tick today - there was a Goosander on the Pool just after I left. I looked for it out of the plane window when we took off, but I couldn't see it.

When I got in to Birmingham airport this evening I switched my phone on to find a message from Rob saying that he'd caught up with the Long-tailed Tit at Sumburgh Hotel today as well - photos on the Shetland website.

I'm going to hibernate now - next post will probably be in the spring...

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Two tit dip day

With one or two obvious exceptions (which I won't go into), tits are rare in Shetland, so it was a surprise to hear of a Long-tailed Tit at the lighthouse this morning. It was only about the 5th Shetland record, so despite the fact that I see them in my garden every day we went to have look for it. Unfortunately it was only seen by the finder, and then promptly disappeared.

Amazingly, Rob found a Coal Tit later in the day, probably only the 5th record for Mainland Shetland, although there have been a few on other islands (about 15 records in total). As you'll have guessed from the title of today's post, I didn't manage to see that either.

However, before all this, almost the first bird I saw when I left the house this morning was this Long-eared Owl in the Virkie Willows. It was very approachable, but difficult to photograph as there were so many branches in the way. Mark (visible at the bottom left of the second image) got some better ones.

Definitely drinking in the Last Chance Saloon, Mark and I went to Levenwick this afternoon, where this stunning adult male Red-breasted Flycatcher jumped out in front of us. Only 'scarce' maybe, but a cracking little bird, and only the second one I've ever seen that actually had a red breast.

The rest of the day was spent not seeing tits and generally farting around in the south, but we didn't see anything else of note.

So that's it for another year - we saw a few common migrants, a handful of scarce and not a single BB rarity. Unless I see anything else tomorrow morning, my holiday list finished on 96, 12 down on last year. All that's left to do now is pack and get on the plane tomorrow morning, leaving Rob to a Shetland winter of alcoholism, Long-tailed Ducks and vitamin deficiency now that Mark won't be here to cook for him.

Monday 13 October 2008

Still here...

...but looking forward to going home! Weather still shit westerlies and heavy showers; migrant birds still almost non-existent. We can't even see other people's birds now - there was a Richard's Pipit in the fields beind the Toab shop this morning, but it had disappeared by the time we got there (the pipit that is. The shop was still there last time I looked, although it could well have blown away by now).

A trip to Sandwick in search of some pie action resulted in yet another disappointing dip, and seemed to confirm Mark's theories on the mysterious relationship between pie availability and rare bird occurrences. Nearby Hoswick wasn't much better, with just a Pied Flycatcher and a Lesser Whitethroat. The latter was the first of the trip, which shows just how quiet it's been.

Tomorrow is our last full day, so we'll be giving it as high a percentage as we can muster (perhaps about 87%?) in the hope of finding something rare before we go home on Wednesday. There must be something in South Mainland - Unst had a Blyth's Reed Warbler yesterday, and there was a White's Thrush at Kergord today, so at least some eastern vagrants are battling through against the wind.

Sunday 12 October 2008

The Inglorious Twelfth

Today we had a plan: sack off the south, and head north to Esha Ness, a big, virtually unwatched headland in the north-west of Mainland. Here we would almost certainly find an American wader on the tundra-like areas of grass and pools, or a rare passerine, either in the geos or in various plantations and gardens on the way.

Here is the list of places we tried: Voe, the Busta House Hotel gardens at Brae, Sullom Plantation, Esha Ness (where we walked about 4 miles in total), Collafirth, Gluss,Voxter Plantation and Loch of Tingwall.

Here is the list of vaguely noteworthy birds we saw: 1 Red Grouse somewhere near Tingwall (a Shetland tick for me); 3 Snow Buntings at Tangwick, Esha Ness; 1 Pied Flycatcher at Gluss, and the regular drake Ring-necked Duck & 1 Slavonian Grebe on Loch of Tingwall. Rob also gripped me and Mark off with a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Lesser Whitethroat at Collafirth, but it was raining by then, and we couldn't be arsed to walk to where he'd seen them.

Conclusion: there are very few migrant birds in Shetland at the moment.

Some photos:
Mark reads all about the history of Esha Ness lighthouse

A small part of the birdless expanse of Esha Ness

A birdless geo

Another birdless geo

P.S. How could I forget the highlights of the day - tea and chocolate cake at the Braewick Cafe, and a hearty fry-up cooked for us by Mark this evening.

P.P.S. apparently there were a few birds around today, including a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Voe. So an alternative conclusion would be that we're just incompetent.

Saturday 11 October 2008

Still windy. Still not many birds

So, what can I say about today? Very windy and wet in the morning. 5 Pale-bellied Brent Geese on the Pool provided a brief diversion on our way to clean Rob's other house after the No-hopers left in a hurry the other day. Fortunately John had taken his 'special interest' magazines away (dirty boy!), and there weren't too many nasty stains on the sheets.

In the afternoon we went to the windiest place we could find (some godforsaken bit of moorland called Yaafield, on the west side of the Maywick valley) just in case there were any American waders on the pools. There weren't.

At Boddam we saw yet another Brent Goose, and I had a valuable Shetland tick in the form of a pair of Pintail.

This evening, the Little Bunting was still in the same place behind the Toab shop, and that was about it for the day. Tomorrow we hit the north. I have to go and prepare a detailed itinerary now...

Friday 10 October 2008

Pished off

If nothing else, I'll be a bit fitter by the end of this holiday. Yet again, we walked miles today, but failed to find anything new. I think all the birders who've visited Shetland in the last couple of autumns have been somewhat spoilt by the weather - this year it's constant strong southerlies or south-westerlies with frequent heavy rain, and consequently much more difficult to find anything.

But at least we're trying. This morning we thought we ought to have a look for yesterday's possible Lancy at Toab. We didn't really expect it to be there, so we were surprised when Mark flushed a Locustella from the ditch at the side of the road, just up the hill from where it was seen yesterday. Unfortunately it was an absolute bastard to get anywhere near; it flew four or five times (always long before we got to where it had gone down), and we eventually lost it in gardens at Hestingott.

Identifying Locustellas is tricky enough even with good views, but in flight the only relevant characters you can see are size, tail length and general coloration. I have to say that with the views I had of it, I would probably go for Grasshopper rather than Lanceolated - it didn't strike me as being particularly small or short-tailed, and looked rather olive-toned. Probably best left at that really, given that we didn't get anywhere near seeing it on the ground!

Next we went to Garths Ness, which was a silly idea on the face of it, as it was very exposed there, but the plan was to walk up Burn of Garth. It proved to be sheltered but birdless. Mark and I carried on over the hill and walked all the way to Quendale Mill, while Rob went back to the car and met us at the mill. Quendale Burn was also sheltered, but mostly devoid of birds, apart from 5 or 6 Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff.

Finally, this evening a couple came into the shop at Toab and told us they'd seen a Little Bunting just round the corner, so we went and had a look at that. Comparing photos of this bird with the one at the lighthouse, it looks like a different bird, as the flank streaks are blacker and more sharply defined.

The weather forecast for the next couple of days at least is for more of the same. I shall need a change of scenery soon - last year Andy L and I had a day out in West Mainland, which is massively underwatched. We didn't see anything, but 'a change is as good as a rest' as it used to say on the Durex adverts. Never did understand what that was supposed to mean!

Oh how we laughed

Laugh? We nearly shat.
We had not laughed so much since Grandma died
Or Auntie Mabel caught her left tit in the mangle.

Pager message this morning: No sign of the Alder Flycatcher at Nanjizal.

Right, that's the first part of the very predictable script played out. Now, where's that mega here...

Thursday 9 October 2008


I mentioned in a comment recently that there were very few records of Nearctic landbirds in Shetland. Being the sad bastards that we are (and also bored), Rob & I have just been through the Birds of Shetland book and the website archives since 2004 to see just how many there have been. And the answer is... (yes?) IS..... (YES?):


Very appropriate.

Furthermore, we have established that exactly half of them have been on Fair Isle or Foula, and the majority (24) have been in September. In fact, there has only ever been one Nearctic landbird in South Mainland in October, and that was a Blackpoll Warbler in the Sumburgh Hotel garden on 6th October 1990.

So, despite the fact that it's raging south-westerly at the moment, and Ireland and the South-west are drowning in Yanks, it's highly unlikely that we'll get one here. On the other hand, you could say that South Mainland is overdue another one in October...

We've seen plenty of common and a few scarce, but no rare

Mark and I won the race to be first to the lighthouse this morning, but it didn't do us any good - all we saw was a Reed Bunting. Heading down to the Sumburgh Hotel garden was a much better idea, as there was a Great Grey Shrike in it! It was very flighty and difficult to get close to (as many birds seem to be here when they first arrive), but I managed to get this record shot:

Also in the hotel garden a possible Blyth's Reed Warbler got pulses racing until we got closer and noticed the diagnostic Fyffes sticker on it:

After a veritable pie drought at the Toab shop recently, we weren't optimistic, but today's visit brought the welcome sight of no less than SIX Lasagne Pies on the shelf! This number was rapidly reduced to two, making Mark in particular very happy. Also in the Toab area was a Yellow-browed Warbler; always nice to see, even if they don't even rate as scarce these days.

The rest of the day was spent flogging South Mainland as usual - a Jack Snipe at Sumburgh Farm was new for the holiday list, and this Red-breasted Flycatcher kept up my run of seeing this species at the lighthouse every time I've been to Shetland in the autumn:

Mid-afternoon we heard the surprising news that the Nordagerdi crew had all decided to go home today - Andy Lawson to twitch the Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall (will it be there tomorrow?...), and John and Dave because they'd decided the weather looked shit for the next few days. Almost immediately it looked as if they might regret this decision, as a Lanceolated Warbler was reported at Toab, but predictably we couldn't find it when we went to look for it.

Personally, I don't think the weather looks at all shit, and I fully expect to see a rare before I go home next Wednesday. There was a positive side to this strange decision though - on hearing the news Mark and I immediately raided their kitchen, and carried off a fine selection of provisions, including chicken breasts, several bottles of beer and the ingredients for an apple crumble (plus a tin of custard). Thanks guys - we shan't have to do any more shopping for a few days!

Mark is currently in the kitchen making a chilli, and singing 'Ring of Fire', which hopefully isn't a prediction for tomorrow!!

Wednesday 8 October 2008

A 'Little' Better

Various forms of substance abuse last night not surprisingly led to a sore head this morning. However, even in my still semi inebriated state, and before I'd put my contact lenses in, I managed to find a Yellow-browed Warbler in Rob's front garden. Amazingly, given that it's usually the commonest warbler here in October, this was a house tick for him.

This seemed a good sign, so after a hearty bird-finding breakfast we headed down south. There seemed to be more birds around today, but we didn't see anything of note until about midday. As we were driving up to the lighthouse this Little Bunting appeared on the road in front of us. Rob managed not to run it over, and we got some photos before it flew off down the road and disappeared over the cliff (it was seen again later).

Fucking typical - you walk miles all over South Mainland seeing nothing, and then a good bird appears in the road in front of you! Perhaps the way forward is not all this Punkbirder-style route marching, but just staying in the car?

News of a White's Thrush on Fair Isle encouraged us to keep going, but despite thrashing the whole of the Sumburgh area we couldn't find anything else (the Nordagerdi crew found a Siberian Stonechat after we'd left, which showed that new birds were still arriving in the afternoon). Geosetter was dead, and another Yellow-browed at Channerwick was the only other vaguely interesting bird we saw.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Comfort food for a cold wet day

Chicken stew. Showing well near Pool of Virkie this evening. Prints available on request.

Check out those dumplings!

Tedious birding diary

Strong south-easterlies again today, which ought in theory to be good. However, it's been pissing it down all day, which has made birding almost impossible. A walk around Toab produced very little apart from a couple of Bramblings, a Fieldfare and a Greenland Redpoll, and the 'Ditch of Delights' was once more completely devoid of birds. I've walked through it five times now, and have yet to see a single bird in it.

We then spent half an hour or so trying to see a very skulking Acro in Sumburgh Quarry before eventually deciding that it was just a Reed Warbler. While we were trying to identify it, a Ring Ouzel flew over, and there was also a Blackcap in the quarry.

Burn of Geosetter is usually worth a look, and today it held a Yellow-browed Warbler, a Chiffchaff, a Goldcrest and a couple of Robins.

After that the rain really set in, so we retired to the house for tea and toast. I suspect we shan't get out again today unless the forecast is very wrong. Tomorrow looks calmer and drier, so that may be the day to get out and find whatever's come in on these south-easterlies.

Monday 6 October 2008

A propos of nothing in particular

Except that this song has been going round in my head all day and I've now had quite a lot to drink/smoke:

Smells Like Teen Stringing

Gen up on gulls and bring your bins
It's fun to string and to pretend
It's over there, I think I've scored
Oh no, I saw a dodgy bird

Hello, hello, hello, new low?
Hello, hello, hello, new low?
Hello, hello, hello, new low?

At the lighthouse it's less dangerous
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Parula on the pager
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Wilsonia
An albino
My Pipilo

I'm sure that was a Double-crest
And for this tick I feel blessed
A Little Blue is what I need
And always will until the end

Hello etc

And I forget just why I twitched
Oh yeah, I guess I needed it
I found a lark, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind

Hello etc

At the lighthouse it's less dangerous
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
I've seen Hoopoe, and Falcated
Here we are now - where's the Saker?
A Wilsonia
An albino
My Pipilo
A denial
A denial
A denial (etc)

My legs hurt

Spurred on by light south-easterly winds and an apparently new Barred Warbler in the Nordagerdi garden first thing, Mark & I put ourselves through a punishing Punkbirder-style dawn-dusk marathon in the field today. We walked miles around Toab, Scatness, Exnaboe and Sumburgh, but saw pretty much nothing apart from a Snow Bunting at Toab and a Brent Goose at Scatness.

Sunrise over Pool of Virkie - just to prove I really was out of bed

By mid afternoon, things were so bad that we were reduced to twitching this newly-arrived migrant Hedgehog at Sumburgh Farm, as it was a Shetland tick.

Not only could we not find anything ourselves, we couldn't even see birds found by the Nordagerdi crew, including their Barred Warbler and a Yellow-browed Warbler at Sumburgh Farm.

Highlight of the day was undoubtedly another tasty curry for tea (beef Madras this time), followed by several beers, including this fine specimen - the only Punk spotted on Shetland this year!

Incidentally, rumours of South Mainland Shetland being overrun by hordes of birders this autumn seem to be completely unfounded. Apart from the Nordagerdi lot, we only saw two other visiting birders today. Presumably the crowd at the Red-throated Pipit was due to it being a Saturday, with most of them just passing through on their way somewhere else.

Fans of Sparky the dog will be pleased to know that he's still going strong; pictured here with his good friend Ginger Cat, hogging the sofa as usual:

The forecast for tomorrow is more of the same, but with added rain. I can't wait.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Slight improvement

Still very windy today. Mark and I had a kick around Toab & Virkie in the morning, including walking down the 'Ditch of Delights' behind Rob's house where Marcus Lawson found a Paddyfield Warbler and a Thrush Nightingale a couple of weeks ago, but for little reward. OK, no reward.

Then in the afternoon we got a message about a Red-throated Pipit down the 'Valley of Plenty' (otherwise known as Clevigarth, just north of Exnaboe). I wouldn't normally bother twitching something like this, having seen several before, but as the alternative was probably seeing fuck-all we went to have a look.

Some entertainment was provided by a halfwit thinking that a perfectly normal Meadow Pipit was the bird ("it's a very bright one!"), but we had to make do with hearing the real bird call a few times and seeing it in flight. There was further egregious stringing when several people claimed to have seen it on the ground, but all we could see was a well-marked Meadow Pipit. Eventually we gave up (although Rob still hadn't even seen the bird in flight) and went to the shop to get some food for this evening.

Thinking that it might be easier to find the bird once the crowds had gone (yes - crowds - on Shetland!!), Mark, Rob & I returned late afternoon, and immediately located it in the same general area. Without the presence of large numbers of cretins it was much easier to get close to it, and we had excellent views of it on the ground. Not the best-marked Red-throat I've seen, but still very distinctive.

The real highlight of the day, however, was the splendid four bean curry (that's four types of bean, not four individual beans) cooked for us by Mark this evening - who needs Andy Lawson?...

Finally for now, an illustration of the sort of undesirables who are coming to Shetland these days - we heard an account of some absolute cock twitching 2 Song Thrushes at Brae (fucking miles away in the north, up near Sullom Voe) because he needed it for his 'trip list'. Even funnier - he dipped!!

P.S. photos of the Red-throated Pipit on Surfbirds and the Shetland website - as you can see, it was a bit of a scrubber!

Saturday 4 October 2008

Rain and snow. No birds.

After an agreeable evening spent in the company of Mr Daniels, Mr Whyte and Mr Mackay, we woke this morning to the sound of absolutely pissing rain.

As usual there was no food in Rob's house, so for breakfast we had to make do with the only thing we could find in the freezer:

Actually that's a slight lie - there was a Meadow Pipit in the freezer as well, along with a bag of prawns that I'm sure was there last year!

Around midday the rain turned to sleet, snow and hail. This finally stopped, and we thrashed Quendale and Channerwick. The 'highlight' was a Robin at the latter.

Terrible news - Andy (pictured above - you can tell he's a 3 Michelin-star chef from his assured frying pan technique) has defected to the Nordagerdi No-hopers, so we'll have to do our own cooking this year. I can see a lot of fry-ups being consumed...

Friday 3 October 2008

Cold. No birds.

Arrived at Sumburgh after a predictably tedious day mostly spent hanging around various airports. Fuck me - it's cold here! I can't remember it ever being as cold as this in Shetland in October. The wind is currently strong north-westerly, which accounts for the coldness, and also for the general lack of birds (apparently there's not a lot about). Not that I've done any birding yet other than standing outside Rob's house for half an hour or so.

Rob's prediction for the next few days - "we've got a good chance of finding an Arctic Redpoll or a Walrus."

The forecast is more promising for the next few days, although it looks like it's going to stay windy for a bit longer yet.

Andy Lawson has kindly brought a bottle of whisky with my name on it (literally), so that's this evening sorted. I may or may not get out tomorrow...

Thursday 25 September 2008


Wow! Just look at that pressure chart! It doesn’t matter which one, as they all seem to agree at the moment – there’s a MASSIVE high pressure centred over Scandinavia, with the vectors (that's wind to you and me) coming all the way from eastern Siberia, and possibly even further east. Hence the appearance yesterday of Brown Shrike and Brown Flycatcher, along with plenty of other less rare stuff. The last time the charts looked as good as this, Fair Isle had Rufous-tailed Whistling Veery-Robin and Chestnut-arsed Bunting, so anything could turn up!

Now that the Punks have stopped doing their rare-ometer (boo!), I feel it’s my duty to carry on their tradition of over-the-top and wildly inaccurate predictions. So, over the next few days expect anything with ‘Brown’ in its name: Brown Dipper, Brown-streaked Flycatcher, Brown-throated Treecreeper, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Brown Prinia, Brown Bear, Brown Bread, Gordon Brown – the list of possibilities is literally endless!

Newly arrived migrants in Rob's garden

Friday 19 September 2008

Two weeks to go

Another prediction for you – it will be mostly dry on Shetland this October. How do I know that? Easy – I’ve just spent a ridiculous amount of money on a new coat!

As usual at this time of year most birders get obsessed with the weather. I have a whole Firefox folder full of bookmarked weather sites, and I know that I will look at every one of them several times a day from now until I walk out of the front door to leave in two weeks’ time. A couple of sites do a 14 day forecast, and predictably they totally disagree at the moment as to what it’s going to be doing over the next two weeks. is showing it being almost constantly between north-east and south-east; Metcheck, on the other hand, reckons it will be mostly westerly or southerly, then going northerly at the beginning of October and westerly again by the 3rd!

I don’t know why they bother doing the 14 day forecast to be honest – it is completely impossible to predict the weather that far ahead. For instance, for the 3rd of October, Metcheck is currently saying it will be 18mph westerly on Shetland, whilst netweather says 5mph easterly. I know which one I’d rather believe...

Monday 8 September 2008


We humans do like trying to predict things, and most of our predictions are bollocks. The fact that there is a multi-million pound industry based on complete and utter bullshit (it’s called astrology) is ample proof of that. We like to try and predict things because it makes us feel we’re in control of the universe, when of course nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the things we try and predict (e.g. the weather, Nutcracker invasions or whether we’re going to meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger) are beyond our understanding, let alone our control.

Anthony McGeehan once wrote an article in which he said that a ‘psychic’ friend of his claimed to have divined the presence of a Pallas’s Warbler on some island off the east coast of Ireland by using a pendulum held over a map. He was unable to verify the truth of this claim though, and I’m not even sure whether the article was meant to be serious or not.

However, when predicting rare bird occurrences, using a pendulum, or a crystal ball, or consulting the entrails of a weasel is probably just as likely to be successful as the average birder's pseudo-scientific method of ‘looking at the weather forecast and seeing what breeds or might be migrating where the wind’s coming from’. This approach is especially flawed because a) it assumes that vagrancy is largely dependent on the weather, and b) it relies on something which is itself notoriously unreliable – the weather forecast. OK, meteorologists are usually right when it comes to the next 24 hours, but beyond that it’s almost not worth taking any notice of.

But we still do it (predicting rare birds), mainly because it’s something to talk about, but also because we know that every now and then we will be right, and then we can feel either slightly smug or dangerously omniscient, depending on our particular personality disorders. Most of the time, though, our rare bird predictions are hopelessly wrong; it’s only because we make so many of them that any are right at all. To take it to the extreme, if you only make one prediction in your life, and that is that you’re going to go out and find a specific first for Britain in Leicestershire on a specific day, you will be wrong (and everyone will think you're a prick). But if you constantly fire off predictions of what might turn up in the next week based on the weather forecast and time of year, you will probably get one or two of them right.

Now, before the Punks start thinking I’m having a go at them again, I’m not – I enjoy the ‘rare-ometer’ and all the banter that goes on in the chatbox, and I’m sure it gets people enthusiastic for getting out there and finding stuff. But it does highlight just how hard it is to predict what might turn up, which as far as I’m concerned is a good thing. After all, birding would be completely pointless and exceptionally dull if we knew exactly what we were going to see every time we went out. A bit like having a pager in fact.

Right, now for my predictions (fuck, that’s a bastard word to type – I keep typing predicitions) for Shetland next month:

The wind will mostly vary between south-west and south-east, but some of the time it might come from other directions. Most of the birds we’ll see will be common, with a few scarce ones every now and then. The commonest warbler will be Yellow-browed. On the 5th of October at 10.37 I will find a Lanceolated Warbler at Quendale. Or it might be a different species. Or it might be somewhere else. On a different day. Or I might find nothing at all this year. There, I think that’s most options covered – we’ll see if I was right in a few weeks’ time...

Thursday 28 August 2008

Great British Eccentrics

Reading Tom McKinney's recent post I met this bloke the other day... prompted me to reminisce about some of the nutters we used to enjoy observing on Scilly every October. I wish I had photos of these people to illustrate them, but I haven't, and it would be unfair to identify them anyway. You may recognise some of these characters, or even have had different names for them. Or you may be a normal person who just gets on quietly with their birding and doesn't feel the need to deflect attention away from their own inadequacies by mocking the afflicted...

The Oven-ready Wanker. So named (by Stephen Dean) as he had several Pheasant tail feathers sticking out of his hat, which was a deerstalker type thing, so pretty silly to start with.

Sid the Sexless. The daughter (we think) of the Oven-ready Wanker. Actually this is already getting a bit dodgy, as I think she may have had some sort of syndrome. Perhaps I'd better stop now before I get more complaints. No, fuck it I'll carry on.

Running Man. Stephen Dean memorably described him as a 'scene leech'. This guy didn't appear to know anything at all about birds, or even own a pair of binoculars, but apparently went to Scilly every year simply to enjoy being part of the scene. He always wore a camouflage jacket and trousers, and used to run everywhere, usually carrying a shopping bag.

Crawford Crayon. Crawford is (now) quite a well-known birder, who lives in Suffolk, but in the early 90s he was the original 'Creeb' ('place names explained': a jumped up little twat who follows L.G.R. Sole around on Scilly in the vain hope of gaining some cred). The name came from his striking similarity to a one-off character in Viz.

Ronnie Corbett. Oh dear - another one who probably had a syndrome. Probably best not to say too much more about him, except that Rob, Richard and I once saw him on Shetland, appearing out of the mist coming down the road from Sumburgh Head. When we realised who it was ("is that... it can't be... fuck, it is!!!), we collapsed in helpless laughter as he went past. He must have thought we were strange.

The Man from Del Monte. No idea why we called him that. Perhaps he said yes a lot.

The Walking Cock originally had bright purple hair, hence the name. I think he was the same kid lister who later became 'Lap Dog' as he used to follow those two blonde girls around all the time with his tongue hanging out. Remember them? One of them was called Victoria, I think; their parents had a labrador. Not 'had' as in 'gave birth to', obviously. I presume they just acquired it in the normal way.

Mr Porridge. Again, I can't remember why he was called that, but I seem to recall he had a very lumpy face.

Desperate Deborah aka Handjob. Another quite well-known birder. We called her Desperate Deborah as she always seemed to be in a blind panic whenever anything turned up. Dave Hall christened her 'Handjob' from the distinctive 'wanking' motion she made with her right hand while walking at high speed to the next good bird.

I'm sure there were more than that, but that's all I can remember at the moment. Ah - I miss Scilly sometimes.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Happy Little Whimbrel Day!

As has been previously noted on this blog, I've never been much of a twitcher. Consequently, I don't have many real blockers on my list. By far the longest-standing one (and the only one I have from the 80s) is the Norfolk Little Whimbrel, and it was 23 years ago today that I saw it. Not a particularly noteworthy anniversary (like 25 years would be, or 50), but I can't think of anything else to write about at the moment.

As I remember, Jeff Higgott and I heard about it the day before from someone at Swithland Reservoir, who in turn had heard something about it on the radio, but couldn't remember whether they'd said Little Whimbrel or Eskimo Curlew! The former seemed more likely, and this was confirmed when Jeff rang Nancy's Cafe from the phone box in Swithland village. The birder who answered the phone at Nancy's said something like, "I think it's still here, but I've no idea where it is now, and we're all too pissed to care!"

Although this was a bit vague, we decided to go anyway and early the following morning we arrived at Cley, not having any idea exactly where the bird was. This was a common occurrence in the days before instant bird news, and you just had to use a bit of initiative. The obvious place to start was the Coastguards car park, where there would at least be some birders around to ask. There were, but not surprisingly at 4 o'clock in the morning they were all asleep in the 'beach hotel'. Unfortunately the one I chose to wake up turned out to be Belgian, but using a combination of broken English and sign language (my Flemish not being too good) we gathered that it had last been seen at Salthouse, so that was where we went.

Luckily the bird was still there, in the fields near the duck pond, although I can't say I can really remember it as such. My notebook tells me that we watched it for about an hour, but my mental image is of Dave Cottridge's photo, a copy of which I still have in an old album somewhere.

Two in three years in the 80s, and none since. Will there ever be another one?

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Know-nothing Twat

There's a certain kind of birder I really hate. It's not the 'noveau twitcher' or the young, slang-spouting upstart who's a much better rarity finder than me. No, the type who gets me really seething, hopping, spitting, swearing mad is the sort of supercilious, dismissive, know-all-but-know-nothing old git I had the misfortune to encounter at Rutland Water yesterday. As it happens I've met this particular moron on several previous occasions, which is probably why I snapped and had a go at him this time when he 'dissed' one of my records.

Anyway, to start at the beginning...

There were three Black Terns in the South Arm yesterday morning. Not an earth-shattering record by any means, but there haven't been many yet this autumn, and it was certainly worth putting the record in the sightings book at Egleton, which, being a helpful sort of person, I did. There were a couple of other birders at the counter, and I casually mentioned the Black Terns to the younger of the two.

I then went upstairs to the viewing gallery, and after a few minutes the two of them also came upstairs and sat down next to me. The older guy (who has an irritatingly posh, arrogant sort of voice) kicked off with: "Oh, there's a plover - not sure if it's Ringed or Little Ringed." This was followed by some fatuous remark about how Rutland Water doesn't get large numbers of Pintails any more (it does, but not in early August!).

Now, I should make it clear at this point that I'm not having a go at him simply because he can't identify birds, or because he doesn't know what he's talking about. Not being able to identify birds is not a crime, even when you've been birding for a very long time, as I know this bloke has. Some people just don't have the mental capacity to be good birders, and that's not their fault. What is a heinous, unforgiveable, cardinal sin in my book is knowing jack-shit-nothing about birds, but thinking that you're some sort of fucking expert (which he does) and (and this is the important bit) never believing anything that anyone else tells you they've seen!!

So, after a few more minutes, fuckwit leans over to his mate (knowing full well that I'm sitting next to him) and says in a loud 'stage whisper': "So, what do you think of those Black Terns then - wishful thinking?"

What I should have said at this point (whilst remaining completely calm) was something along the lines of: "No, they weren't 'wishful thinking', they were moulting adult Black Terns. Black Tern is a fairly common autumn migrant at Rutland Water, and a perfectly straightforward species to identify. Don't assume that everyone is as incompetent as you are, and if I knew as little about birds as you clearly do, I'd keep my mouth shut."

Unfortunately I'm completely unable to keep calm in these situations; I go straight into quivering with incoherent rage mode and lose it completely. I can't remember exactly what I said to him, but it ended with me calling him a silly old twat and storming out of the Visitor Centre.

If anyone recognises my description of this turd and has similar encounters with him, please don't let him get away with it. He needs to be told, repeatedly if necessary, that he can't just go round disbelieving other people's birds all the time, and that not everyone knows as little as he does. The problem with people like him is that it makes good birders less likely to speak to other people and tell them what they've seen. I may come across on this blog as an misanthropic cunt, but in reality I do try to be friendly and helpful to others, and to let them know what I've seen. But when you get a reaction like that it makes you wonder whether it's worth speaking to anyone unless you know them. If I ever see this cretin again, I will tell him NOTHING. Even if I've just found a first for Britain, he can fuck off as far as I'm concerned because he and his ilk don't deserve to be told what's about.

And now it's back to topless darts at Roehampton...

Thursday 7 August 2008


I looked at the Surfbirds photo pages today for the first time in a while, and was immediately reminded why I don't often look at them. On the confusingly named 'Britain & Ireland Scarce Birds Rarity Photos Page' were the following not-in-any-sense-scarce-or-rare birds: Common Sandpiper, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit (FOUR photos!), Garganey and Green Sandpiper. OK, Garganey's perhaps marginal, but the rest are quite definitely common birds. The remaining places on the first page were taken by two nice shots of a Balearic Shearwater, and a record shot of a Cory's. Fair enough - both are scarce birds in Britain.

Of course, not everyone clutters up the scarce birds page with piss-common stuff; most people use the Britain & Europe Common Birds Gallery, and there are some excellent photos on it. However, you have to wonder about the guy who put the comment "really, really, really, really good patch find" next to a shot of a Common Sandpiper. Was he just being very, very, very, very sarcastic, or does he desperately need to find a new patch?

Friday 25 July 2008

Modern Birding Terms Explained

Despite being (quite rightly) rebuked for previous posts on this and related subjects (see here), like a hungry Turnstone returning to a bloated tideline corpse, I just can't help having another go at it...

Do you find yourself baffled by some of the more obscure 'hip' birding slang being bandied about by the 'in-crowd' at twitches these days? Are you tired of being sniggered at as you gamely try to join in their conversations by talking about dudes, cripplers and cosmic mind-fuckers? In short, are you past it? Then fear not, my fellow old-timers; the Leicester Llama has helpfully scoured the Internet on your behalf to bring you the very latest, coolest and hippest slang terms around:

Common: 99.9% of the birds that you see on your annual birding holiday to Shetland/Scilly/wherever. Or at any other time of the year. Also known as trash, dross, jack shit etc. If you can't handle the fact that most birds are common, look at it this way: if we keep on screwing the planet, today's common is going to be tomorrow's rare (or worse). Keep twitching long enough, and one day you'll be able to impress kid-listers by telling them you've got House Sparrow on your list!

Credit crunch: the sound made by your old scope as it 'accidentally' hits the rocks below Sumburgh/Flamborough/Beachy Head, as claiming on the insurance is the only way you can afford the deposit on a new one.

Digi-waste: to fill up Surfbirds Stop Press Rarity Photos pages with images of common and/or obviously escaped birds, e.g. Rose-coloured Starling, Red-backed Shrike, Hooded Merganser. Alternatively to post yet another shot of a long-staying rarity that has already been posted a million times (with a comment apologising for doing so, of course).

Digi-whinge: accompanying comment to piss-poor photo on Surfbirds, making excuses about poor light, distance from bird, or jokey self-deprecating references to the incompetence of the photographer.

Fuel poverty: the state of most twitchers' finances these days. Ironically, this may ultimately be the saving of many of the species twitchers would most like to see. Let's hear it for market forces!

Pager: expensive electronic device alerting you to rare birds that you can no longer afford to go and see (see previous entry). Inexplicably kept by many ex twitchers, possibly for sentimental reasons.

Rare: the sole reason for going birding. Best found by going to Shetland, waiting for a good day, and then putting on a hat. Or maybe two hats (fucking hell, don't start that again).

Recession: regularly recurring period during which local patch birding undergoes a massive increase in popularity. Also responsible for huge decline in profits of the various information services.

Sack off (alternatively sack it off): to stop birding when it becomes obvious that there's nothing other than common around, and go and drink tea/watch TV/have a wank instead. Possibly all at the same time, if it's an interesting enough programme and there's no-one else around.

Scarce: species such as Richard's Pipit, Pallas's Warbler or Rose-coloured Starling, that we quaintly used to call 'beebeerarities' when I was a lad. Due to rampant 'rarity inflation' these are now barely worth a look, unless there really is fuck-all else around.

Scopac: a (usually middle-aged) birdwatcher who carries their spotting scope/tripod in a 'Scopac', the reason being that they never use it and don't know what they're looking at anyway, so don't mind that it takes ten minutes to set it up from this position. The use of the Scopac also keeps the hands free for important things such as using mobile phones, consulting field guides, eating sandwiches, taking binoculars out of their case and gesticulating wildly at Marsh Harriers thus scaring off the rarity in the reedbed that others are trying to watch. (and don't whinge at me if you use one - it's a joke, OK?)

Self-found (often abbreviated to sf): a bird which you, or one of your friends, or someone you've never met but happened to be on the same island as, has seen and identified before anyone else. Or after someone else. A bird that you've seen, anyway. (See here for some proper, if a little complicated, self-found list rules).

Skor: actually I genuinely have no idea what this means. Is it somewhere on Unst? Perhaps someone will enlighten me.

Vizmig: hip modern spelling of the old bird observatory abbreviation vis. mig. - stuff flying over that you can call whatever you like as no-one else is going to see it. Another useful way of inflating your self-found list (q.v.).

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Wankers - an apology

I've been asked to tone this down, so it may have changed from the version you read earlier:

The observer whose Pallid Harrier was rejected by BBRC (see Things that wankers (still) say, below) has informed me that his description was actually 16 pages long, not eight as I mistakenly wrote. I apologise unreservedly for underestimating by 100% (or should that be 50%? Fuck knows - maths was never my strong point) his ability to bore the arse off overworked BBRC members by writing about 10 times as much as was really necessary to describe the bird.

He goes on to suggest a worthy addition to the list of things that wankers say:

'It is perhaps inevitable that birders will submit records to BBRC members who have less knowledge and experience of that species than the people submitting the records'.


Having been privileged to see a copy of his thesis, sorry, description, I suggest that he ought at least to be awarded a PhD in "creative writing", even if BBRC felt unable to accept the record. However, he'll probably have to make do with a Llama Certificate, if I ever get round to doing it.

Is that better Andy?

Tuesday 15 July 2008

You have to ask yourself... this a dignified way for the President of the British Birding Association to conduct himself in public? I'm shocked and disappointed quite frankly. The birding public expects better from its leaders who, it must be remembered, are also important role models for up-and-coming young ornithologists. Shame on you, Mr President.

Thanks to several people for sending me this photo, and to the anonymous birding paparazzo who took it. You know who you are...

Monday 14 July 2008

Things that wankers (still) say

Another old favourite updated:

What do you mean you didn't go for the AHG at Chew?!

BBRC are all cunts - they rejected my Pallid Harrier even though my description was eight pages long!

I've just digi-wasted a Sprosser.

AHG on my fucking list!

We've seen plenty of common and a few scarce, but no rare.

Distant record shot in poor light. More on my blog!

Prints available - £3.50

I'd really love to meet Simon King.

The UK400 Club have reviewed the Citril Finch and put it in Category A, so I'm ticking it.

Hi, I'm the President of the British Birding Association.

And while we're on the subject, I stumbled upon this while searching for inspiration. You really couldn't make it up.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Tonight's TV

An old Llamas favourite updated:

Teal or no Teal
5.30pm, ITV1
Noel Edmonds challenges contestants to guess which box contains a dead duck.

Don't Forget the Larus
6pm, Sky 1
A bearded Scandinavian gull expert drones on for five minutes about morphological characters and species limits in the Herring Gull complex. When he stops, the contestant has to finish his sentence before the audience falls asleep.

Doctor Hoot

6.45pm, BBC1
The time-travelling Tawny Owl investigates classic mysteries from the past. Just what was that reported Dendroica warbler at Kergord last year?

What Not to Wear
7.30pm, ITV1
Trinny and Susannah give a well-known twitcher a much-needed makeover...

8pm, BBC2
Bill and Kate present more hilarious cock-ups from Norfolk.

Big Plover
10pm, Channel 4
Ten birders with serious personality disorders are locked in the Rutland Water Visitor Centre and watched 24 hours a day by a giant Lapwing. Who will crack first?

Wednesday 9 July 2008

The Good Old Days

I don't know about it being autumn already (see previous post), but today feels more like winter! It's pissing with rain and bloody freezing, so I thought I'd indulge in some warming nostalgia...

1999 was an exceptional year for rarities in Britain, and two birds in particular stand out for me. In April, Steve Lister found Britain's fifth (and first twitchable) Crag Martin at Swithland Reservoir. This was so unexpected that when it came on the pager (yes, I had a pager in those days) my first reaction was to assume it was some sort of cock-up. Fortunately sense prevailed, and I got to the reservoir in record time to become only the ninth person to see a Crag Martin in Britain (which then became totally un-noteworthy as thousands of people saw it). This bird surely ranks alongside the Rutland Water Bridled Tern as proof that anything can turn up even in a 'crap' county like Leicestershire.

The only other ticks I had in the first half of the year were the Iberian Chiffchaff at Portland (yawn) and the Baillon's Crake at Stodmarsh, but it was the then annual visit to Scilly in October that made 1999 really outstanding. Just before we arrived for our two weeks on Tresco, both Siberian Thrush and White's Thrush had been found on St Agnes, and the Short-toed Eagle was still hanging around the Eastern Isles. The Siberian Thrush had disappeared by the time we got there, and we spent the first two days of our holiday not seeing the White's Thrush (Rob & Richard saw it briefly). On the 11th we finally got round to having a proper look for the Short-toed Eagle from the southern end of Tresco, and were very fortunate to have it fly right over our heads as it buggered off for good!

And so to the 'Glorious Twelfth'. Not being a huge fan of standing around in a crowd seeing nothing, I decided not to go back to St Agnes, reasoning that I'd see a White's Thrush one day (I was right, although it took me another eight years). I spent a pleasant day wandering around Tresco on my own, but saw nothing of any consequence and ended up back at the Borough Farm chalet at about 16.30. A cup of tea and a 'herbal' cigarette ensued, and that could so easily have been the end of my birding for the day, but for some reason I staggered back out and headed down to the Great Pool.

At about 17.45 I came across a load of small birds mobbing something in the bushes. This struck me as odd, as there aren't any resident owls on Scilly, so I thought it was worth investigating. Finding a convenient gap in the bushes I raised my bins and immediately saw a yellow eye ring and yellowish beak straight ahead of me. In the space of a couple of seconds I thought 'that female Blackbird's doing a good impression of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo' and then 'fucking hell - it is one!!!" as it moved slightly and I saw the whole bird.

Fuck, shit, panic! No digital camera in those days of course, but mobile phones had been invented (just), so I was able to get the news out. RBA pissed me off by putting it on the pager as 'reported' but that was soon corrected once other people arrived and saw it. The boatload that arrived from St Mary's famously included a very pissed John Hague and Mark Skevington, who had somehow managed to get from the Bishop all the way to Tresco, a journey almost as remarkable as the cuckoo itself had made from America.

The remainder of 1999 added three more birds to my list: Blue Rock Thrush on St Mary's on 14th October, Chimney Swift again on St Mary's on the 22nd, and a Red-flanked Bluetail at Rame Head on the way home, which meant that we missed Mark's wedding reception. Sorry Mark.

Friday 27 June 2008


I always get told off by my girlfriend for saying things like 'the nights are drawing in now' at the end of June, but the fact is that if you're a birder, 'summer' doesn't really exist. The first returning passage waders are already starting to appear, which means that from now until the beginning of November it's officially autumn. My favourite season. Hurrah. And it's only 14 weeks until I go to Shetland. I've just booked my flights - Friday 3rd October till Wednesday 15th October in case you're interested. Trust me - this is the year of the Siberian Accentor at Grutness. This is what it will look like... I've already written my description and pencilled it in on my found list:

Saturday 14 June 2008

Coming to a gull roost near you

Birders who 'don't do gulls' would be well advised to stay away from Folkestone at the moment. As part of a 'public art' event in the town, American artist Mark Dion has created a "mobile gull appreciation unit." A giant gull on wheels, it will be "driven round Folkestone complete with its onboard gull expert and gull library."

(Photo nicked from the Guardian in flagrant breach of copyright laws)

I've peered very closely at the photo, but I don't think either of the two people inside the gull is Klaus Malling Olsen, because he (rather worryingly) looks like this.

After the Folkestone event is over, the unit will undertake a tour of well-known gull roosts around Britain in an attempt to get more birders to take an interest in pointless crap like how to separate 1st-winter barabensis from eastern cacchinans.

Actually I made that last bit up - Tracey Emin's going to live in it for a year, fill it with hairbrushes and used condoms and then exhibit it at Tate Modern. OK, I made that up too - it will probably just end up as a novelty ice cream kiosk in Folkestone.