Sunday 22 December 2013

Limbering up

Ten days to go till the 2014 Patchwork Challenge starts, so I thought I'd spend a few hours at Eyebrook this afternoon to get a bit of practice in. The drake Velvet Scoter was still off the dam, although I didn't bother walking down to see it as there were no less than nine cars parked by the gate. Hopefully it will stay till the start of the year to get on everyone's year list and then piss off, so I can have the place to myself again! Also, the female Ring-necked Duck put in a surprise re-appearance today, having been last seen on 10th November. It was in exactly the same place as before, just south-west of the island. Interestingly, the pale band on the bill looks more obvious now, lending weight to my theory that it was a juvenile/1st-winter when it first turned up in October.

Other bits and pieces included a Barn Owl flying across the reservoir towards Stoke Dry at 13:25 - I was initially puzzled as to why this was flying around at that time of day, until two cretins came into view, walking along the reservoir side of the hedge and flushing everything. I didn't shout at them, partly because the bloke looked a bit hard, but also because without them I wouldn't have seen the Barn Owl! Also of interest were an adult Caspian Gull (as far as I could tell - everything I could see on it looked good) and a female Mandarin off the island, and a Kingfisher and a Lesser Redpoll at the inflow.

I'm really looking forward to the challenge - I think Eyebrook will have a good year next year; there are certainly plenty of birds there at the moment, anyway.

The other notable sighting of the day was an out-of-range Wanstead birder and friends, on their way back from the Yorkshire Ivory Gull - hopefully they had decent views of the scoter, although it looked from a distance as if it might not have been quite as close to the dam today as it sometimes is.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Just Say No!

I think I was vaguely aware from a Facebook post a while back that there was a Washington Post article about British twitching in the offing, but had forgotten all about it until I was alerted to it on Twitter this morning. So I had a look.

The article gets off to a bad start, as far as I’m concerned, with the title: “In Britain, bird-watching gone wild”... obviously going for the sensationalist angle here. But let’s not judge an article by its title, eh?

OK, first paragraph – a classic piece of journalistic ornithological misunderstanding: “A shorelark... took a wrong turn somewhere over Norway...” Yes, here we go, it’s going to be one of those articles. Let’s see now, Garry Bagnell – check. Lee Evans – check. Adrian Webb – check. “Judge, jury and executioner” – check. Actually, do I need to read any more of the article? I’ve seen all of this tedious ‘churnalism’ about twitching many, many times before in the British media. It’s almost as if the big egos of British twitching have finally realised that they can’t get away with this sort of thing in the UK press any more, so have decided to foist all their nonsense on an unsuspecting American public instead.

And then there are the usual wild and self-aggrandising exaggerations from El Presidente: “Over the years, Evans has wracked up big legal bills defending himself against allegations of slander for allegedly undercounting the tallies of rivals and questioning whether they’ve actually seen all the birds they claim”. Really? Care to give some evidence for that? Because I’ll wager whatever you like that he’s never spent a single penny in any legal action, ever. And, while we’re about it, shouldn’t it be ‘racked’, rather than ‘wracked’?

Why does this wind me up so much? As I seem to say with monotonous regularity, I’m not a twitcher, so why should I care if twitchers are constantly portrayed in the media as egotistical nutjobs? The reason is very simple. Because ‘the general public’ (broad brush, but you know what I mean) does not differentiate between ‘twitchers’ and ‘birdwatchers’, and is easily led to believe that ALL birdwatchers are like this. You only have to look at the comments that always appear on this type of article to realise that (as previously satirised on this blog here).

And I worry that in turn this feeds back into general public apathy, or even antipathy towards birds, wildlife and conservation in general. So these sensationalist tabloid articles do us all (and ultimately the birds themselves) a huge disservice. I don’t really expect anyone to take any notice of anything I say, but to any twitchers – if a journalist asks you for an interview or comments for any article about twitching, please, for all our sakes, just say no!!

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Killed by the Internet?

My first reaction to the news yesterday that the next issue of Birding World would be the last was to feel slightly guilty that I stopped subscribing to it years ago. But since that was because I could no longer financially justify subscribing to any bird magazines, that didn’t last long. It was mainly a twitchers’ magazine, after all, and I’m not a twitcher, so there’s no real reason why I should buy it. If I could afford to, I would no doubt still subscribe – the rarity finders’ accounts were always interesting (although I’ve never found anything rare enough to write one, sadly!), as were the identification articles.

The announcement seemed to take everyone by surprise, but when you think about it, it’s perhaps not that surprising really. We’re constantly being told that the days of print media are numbered, and more and more publications are bringing out digital editions alongside their print versions. The obvious conclusion is that the availability of instant news and photos of rarities on the Internet, coupled with the recent long recession, has meant that not enough people are willing to pay for it, which in turn leads to a drop in advertising revenue. The costs involved in printing and distributing a monthly magazine must be huge, and presumably it’s just not viable any more.

In which case, why not switch to a digital version? That would do away with all the costs of printing and distribution, and most current subscribers would probably be prepared to pay almost as much for a digital edition. Surely they must have considered this though, so there might be other factors involved which we don’t know about. Someone suggested that perhaps they’d made enough money over the years from the various activities of the Bird Information Service to retire, but somehow I doubt it! However, they can’t really complain – they had a pretty good run, and with no real competition (as providers of bird news) for several years at the start.

Were there just too many bird magazines in the marketplace? Maybe. I’ve always thought that the ‘bird news’ element of the monthly bird magazines is greatly overplayed. With the exception of British Birds, who stopped trying to compete a long time ago, they all do it, it’s all the same, and these days most people have seen most of it already on the Internet anyway! The reason they do it is because it fills a few pages without too much effort, which is fair enough, but when you have several magazines doing exactly the same thing every month, eventually something has to give. And it has to be said that sometimes there didn’t seem to be much to some issues of Birding World apart from news and photos.

One final thought, which particularly saddens me – Birding World was the last UK bird magazine to feature the work of bird artists on its covers. Right from the start when it was called Twitching, it was art all the way. Yes, I’m totally biased, but I never understood why BB and the RSPB’s Birds magazine stopped using artwork on their covers – bird photos are everywhere, and more so than ever these days when every Tom, Dick and Harry has a digital camera. It would be great if one of the remaining bird magazines could give us a break from the constant diet of photos and use artwork on the cover instead. Please?

Thursday 5 December 2013

Patchwork Challenge 2014 – Eyebrook Res

This is my patch area for the 2014 Patchwork Challenge:

The 3km2 limit allows me to include all of the reservoir, plus about 100 yards into the fields beyond the perimeter road. Note the extension at the north-west corner to take in the ‘Little Owl tree’! A few photos of the reservoir:

Often thought of these days as the poor relation to nearby Rutland Water, Eyebrook was of course Leicestershire & Rutland’s premier birding site until the late 70s, and still has the potential to turn up good birds. This October I found a Gannet and a Ring-necked Duck there on consecutive days, and the same weekend there was a Yellow-browed Warbler in the plantation as well. Given a bit of luck I think somewhere around 150 species should be possible in a year.

A quick run through of some of the site’s past glories gives an idea of the potential: Blue-winged Teal, Squacco Heron, Black-winged Pratincole, Killdeer, Kentish Plover, American Golden Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Pomarine Skua, Whiskered Tern, Caspian Tern, Puffin (!), Shore Lark and Citrine Wagtail, as well as many ‘lesser’ county rarities.

It’s also relatively underwatched compared to its larger neighbour – there are often no other birders there when I go, so the chances of finding the good birds are high. It takes a bit of effort to cover Eyebrook properly, and I must admit I’m frequently guilty of giving it just a cursory look on the way to or from Rutland Water. On the plus side, though, you can watch the inflow end from the car if the weather’s really horrible!

Finally (for now), here’s a selection of particularly poor record shots of a few Eyebrook birds I’ve seen over the years:

Wednesday 16 October 2013


We live in an age of hyperbole and exaggerated responses to everything. A culture where a sandwich can be ‘awesome’ and where people exclaim ‘OMG’ at the most mundane of revelations. And birding is not immune to this kind of nonsense. Only the other day on Birdforum I saw at least two posts saying ‘well done!’ and ‘congratulations!’ to someone on ‘connecting’ with the Thick-billed Warbler on Shetland.

Yes, I’m sure he was delighted and relieved to have seen the bird, but ‘congratulations’? Really? I’d be embarrassed if someone said that to me if I’d found it, let alone just twitched it. ‘Nice find’ or a jokey ‘good skills’ perhaps, but even finding a rare bird is largely a matter of luck combined with being able to remember the relevant field characters correctly and comparing them with what you can see. A trained Chimpanzee could probably do it with a bit of practice.

Twitching requires even less skill than that, simply the ability to be able to read and follow directions on a pager, phone or website, sufficient money and time to get to the site before the bird buggers off, and then (in the case of the Thick-billed Warbler) the good fortune to be standing in the right place and looking in the right direction when it flies past on the 27th organised flush. All good fun, and I’ve done my fair share of it, but not in any way an ‘achievement’ of any kind, or worthy of congratulations. Unless you’re a Chimpanzee, of course.

If we’re going to start congratulating people on a successful twitch, the next logical step is sending cards. Maybe someone like might be interested in a few ideas (thanks to Mark Reeder for the Lancey photo)...

Wednesday 9 October 2013

A Mega Rare

We haven’t had a song for a while, so here’s something appropriate to the season. With apologies for abusing one of Simon & Garfunkel’s best songs...

Semi-P Plovers,
And harriers, or falcons, whatever,
I've got my credit card
Here in my hand.

So I read the latest Birding World,
And ate lasagne pies,
And drove off
To look for a mega rare.

"Frankly", I said,
As we boarded the Skybus at Land’s End,
“Sumburgh seems like a dream to me now.”
It took me four days
To ID a Sanderling
I thought that it was a mega rare.

Laughing on the bus,
Making claims, ticking races,
He said the man in the loafers and suit
Dipped at Cley.
I said, "Be careful,
He’s recently purchased a camera."

"Toss me that Duivendijk,
I think it’s there in my raincoat.
I saw this warbler an hour ago.”
“Have you looked at the scapulars?
They should be olive-green”,
Then the bird flew over an open field.

"Bugger, I've lost it", I said,
And I thought about cheating.
"I'm tempted to fake it, but
I don't know why."

Counting the dudes
Watching New Grimsby Turnstones
They've all come
To look for a mega rare,
All come to look for a mega rare,
All come to look for a mega rare.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Specially for Archie. I've tried to make this as simple as possible, but I think it covers everything? Again, click on it to see it bigger, unless you have some sort of weird insect eyes and are able to read it like this. (edit - actually Blogger doesn't show it at the original size even when you click on it, so apologies if it's still hard to read!)

P.S. I forgot to mention that this flowchart is for entertainment only, and you use it entirely at your own risk. Terms and conditions apply, your list may go down as well as up, etc, etc.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Much Sniping in the Marsh

Predictably, the Great Great Snipe Debate is now underway on BirdForum, Twitter, Facebook etc. And the positions being taken are all very predictable too. So to save a lot of hot air and time that could be better spent birding, here’s a simple flowchart to help you decide your response in cases like this (click to see it full size):

Wednesday 11 September 2013

My Theory

My theory, which belongs to me, is as follows.... This is how it goes.... The next thing I am going to say is my theory. Ready?

My theory, by L. Llama (Mr). This theory goes as follows and begins now:

There are a lot of skuas in the North Sea at the moment, and it's going to rain this afternoon, so there might be one at Rutland Water.

That is my theory that is mine and belongs to me and I own it and what it is, too. Unlike the rest of this post, which is entirely stolen from a Monty Python sketch:


After extensive observations at Rutland Water this afternoon, by myself and others, the number of skuas passing through per hour was conservatively estimated to be zero, thus proving the theory to be, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, a load of foetid dingo's kidneys. However, some consolation was provided by a juv Pec Sand on Lagoon 3 and later in South Arm 3, and a couple of Curlew Sands and Little Stints on the island.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Next Generation Birders

A frequent talking point amongst those of us of a certain age is the lack of young birders these days. When I was in my 20s there were loads of us; now I only know one proper birder under 30 in Leicestershire, and not many more under 40, although there are no doubt some I haven’t met.

So it was pleasing to learn recently that there is a group calling themselves Next Generation Birders. They have a Facebook group with 85 members and a blog, although that doesn’t seem to have been updated recently!

They describe themselves as “a group of young people aged 13-25 who have been brought together by a passion for all things nature, particularly birdwatching. Originally starting as a Facebook group we are now branching out in order to share our birdwatching experiences, and passing our knowledge (what little we have!).”

I’m not sure what happens when you get to 25 – maybe you get kicked out and take to moaning about how things aren’t as good as they were in your day?

Anyway, I was asked by the group recently if I could design a logo for them, which of course I was delighted to do. After coming up with a few different ideas, they unanimously chose this design as their new logo:

Monday 12 August 2013

Autumn Wishlist

This worked well last year when I posted a list of spring birds I’d like to see in Leicestershire, and several of them duly turned up, so let’s try it again for the autumn. In view of the fall of a few blockers recently, the emphasis is very much on birds that other people have seen and I haven’t!

Long-tailed Skua – Richard Fray and I missed the first of the two modern county records (Rutland Water north arm, September 1997) by a whisker, as we sat in the car and had a leisurely lunch before strolling down to see if the assembled birders there were actually watching anything. They weren’t – it had flown through a few minutes earlier.

Roseate Tern – only one semi-twitchable record, in August 2004, which I missed because it was Mrs Llama’s birthday. Not blaming her for that, just thinking that I should have accumulated some cosmic Brownie points by not buggering off to see it!

Richard’s Pipit – I was on Shetland when the only twitchable county record occurred, on Bardon Hill in October 2006. I’m not going to Shetland this year...

Lapland Bunting – everyone’s seen one of these apart from me, again, because I’m usually not here when they turn up.

And a few other miscellaneous things that are ’due’ in Leics & Rutland that would be county ticks for most people:

Pallid Harrier

Any pratincole

Least Sand and/or SemiP

Bonaparte’s Gull

A twitchable Shore Lark

A rare Phyllosc

And maybe we should now add Two-barred Crossbill to that list?

Monday 5 August 2013

Living in The Past

They say in sport that ‘records are there to be broken’, and it’s the same with birding blockers – they’re there to fall. It's amazing that it’s taken so long for another Night Heron to turn up in Leics, as it's not that rare a bird nationally, but incredibly it’s over 28 years since the last one. And, old fart that I am, I saw that bird, at Rutland Water on 17th February 1985.

The recent appearance of one at Thornton Res prompted me to dig out my ‘big notebook’ from that time, which is actually a ring binder in which I used to write up my field notes and add photos, drawings etc in true Bill Oddie style. I’ve long since stopped doing this, but it’s always amusing to look back at these relics and relive past birding days.
So, according to my notes from that day... “As we [Jeff Higgott and I] were walking back to the car, we heard news of a Night Heron that had been seen yesterday at Whitwell Creek, in the North Arm. We drove there and waited for about 2½ hours with a few other birders. The bird flew in at 2.51pm, by which time the crowd had grown to about 50 or 60. We watched the bird, an immature, for about 1½ hours.”

There then follows a lengthy description of the bird, which I won’t bore you with here, but suffice to say that it was a genuine field description, not made up later from photos, which would have been difficult anyway, since my best effort, with a film camera and a crappy old telephoto lens that cost about £15, was this:

Sadly, the bird was found dead the next day, presumably having starved in the freezing weather of that particularly cold winter. I don’t know where the stuffed specimen is now, but I seem to remember seeing it in the basement of the New Walk Museum in Leicester years ago.

Looking back at old notebooks like this inevitably gets you thinking about how much things have changed in the intervening time. 28 years may be a long time in birding, but it’s a gnat’s fart in terms of human history. It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1985 there were of course no mobile phones, no digital cameras, no Internet, and no home computers to speak of. And no information services other than your personal contacts, Nancy’s Cafe and Ceefax. If we hadn’t happened to bump into whoever told us about it that day (I have a feeling it was Chris Hubbard, but I could be wrong), we probably wouldn’t have heard about it until it was too late, and I would have been celebrating county-ticking the Thornton bird instead of lamenting the fall of a blocker.

There’s obviously only one piece of music that can go with this post:

Tuesday 23 July 2013

More Important Than The Royal Baby!

On the offchance that anyone still looks at this blog, I thought I might as well blow my own wotsit and ask everyone, if you can spare a few moments away from what most of the British media would have you believe is the most important event of the year, if not ever, to please vote for my Bald Eagle painting, which has made it to the shortlist for the Ken Bromley Art Supplies Cover Competition:

OK, it's not the Turner Prize or anything, but it's nice to be shortlisted all the same! It has to be said as well that it's a fairly long shortlist, but they had 'hundreds' of entries, so even getting in the top 90 has to be better than a slap in the face with a moist mackerel.

The original is still for sale here, and shown below in its frame (at a slight angle to avoid reflections off the varnish):

Thank you for your time - that's probably it for the next six months...

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Quiz Answers & Winners

Was this really that hard? Maybe it was, judging by the fact that only four people entered, one of whom described it as ‘fiendish’ and another ‘challenging! But then again, the very first entrant got nine out of ten, and all ten sets of wingbars were correctly identified by at least one person, so it was far from impossible.

The answers:
1. Little Bunting, Sumburgh Farm, 11th October 2009

2. Not, as all but one person thought, Citrine Wagtail, but Buff-bellied Pipit, Eshaness, 6th October 2010

3. House Sparrow, Virkie, 3rd October 2009

4. Common Rosefinch, Norwick, Unst, 6th October 2011

5. An easy one, which everyone got – (Hornemann’s) Arctic Redpoll, Aith, 7th October 2009

6. Taiga Flycatcher, Gloup, Yell, 12th October 2009

7. Another one everyone got – Lapland Bunting, Virkie, 7th October 2010

8. Pallas’s Warbler, Sumburgh Head, 14th October 2007

9. Goldcrest, Sumburgh Farm, 11th October 2010 – everyone got this one 

10. Olive-backed Pipit, Baltasound, Unst, 6th October 2011

The winners:

1st – Tim Jones with 9/10
2nd – Alison Allen with 7/10

Thanks also to Steve Smith and John Hague for bothering to enter, and to John for attempting to drum up some more interest on Facebook and his blog.

Next year I’ll do ten photos of Robins...