Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Light at the end of the tunnel

As many of my regular readers will have noticed I have been offline for sometime. There is a large mitigating factor for this.

I sat down and thought the other day; this year I have had 5 different jobs..... 5! I have left jobs by choice and been made redundant as well and I cant say its been a vintage year. With all due respect it has been a bitch of a year.

80 hours of work a week has been needed to keep the wolf from the door so to speak and this has meant that I have had large chunks of time away from the family and other endeavours that I pursue.

My bird ringing has, on the whole been amazing this year, some cracking species like the PG Tips and good numbers for many of the regulars too indicating a good breeding season, however I went AWOL on multiple occasions for extended periods of time due to my work load.

My birding too has suffered, 220 species this year which is respectable, however my Scilly trip was cancelled due to pro rata holiday restrictions at new jobs meaning the trip would be a week unpaid.

I was asked to reflect on my favourite bird of 2014 that I had twitched and for me it has been the Short Toed Eagles tour of the South. I first went for the bird at Pig Bush in the New Forest but before I had even reached Southampton news reached me that it had moved, after a couple of attempts to catch up with the bird in Ashdown Forest, I eventually found it! Turns out I was in the wrong part of the forest (I had wondered why it was so devoid of other birders!!!). I spent a blissful hour watching the bird catching thermals and hunting until it drifted over a peak and out of view.

I am now, thankfully, settled in a job and am looking to be here for the long haul. I must apologise to my ringing trainers, Duncan Bell and Trevor Codlin for my extended absences this year and can assure you both that it is full steam ahead for me from now on!  

And to my beautiful wife Kayleigh and my gorgeous little boy Bradley, I love you both so so much and couldn't have made it through this year without you both!    

Friday, 19 September 2014

Shrikey Mate

Shrikes.... for me they have always been this mythological bird that once called the UK part of their breeding range, but by the time I was birding in the mid to late 90's the had all but vanished as a breeding bird from these shores. How I longed to see one of these birds, species really didn't matter, just one of these so called 'Butcher Birds'. They fascinated me, a songbird by all appearances, that was as predatory as any raptor.

I have recently posted about my ringing exploits and in that piece I alluded to my best ever year list. Residing, I am ecstatic to say, on that list for this year is not one.... but TWO species of Shrike!

The first of the Skrike species I encountered was the Great Grey, Lanius excubitor, on Thursley Common. Due to Shrikes frequenting a certain hillock on Thursley each winter, the area has now become known as Shrike Hill. Working as I did on the A3 corridor I would often stop at Thursley to have my lunch and a quick walk, having signed up to Rare Bird Alert recently and the Shrike featuring almost daily I decided it was high time to see it. I parked up the South end of Thursley and confidently walked onto the common. First mistake! Little did I know Shrike Hill is infact on the other side of the reserve. I scanned feverishly with my bins for around 45 mins and with my lunch break fading I admitted defeat.

Next day I decided to try again. Going to the same(wrong) carpark again and with the renewed enthusiasm and confidence a new day brings I headed onto the common. Strike(not Shrike) two, swing and a miss. Feeling pretty deflated from my first real foray into 'Twitching', I went about my days work but resolved to scour the internet for Shrike Hill, as it had dawned on me that I could be in the wrong place. I found some forums and to my delight detailed instructions on how to get to the right carpark, and further more directions with detailed descriptions on how to locate Shrike hill.

On my way home the next day armed with my new information, scope and bins I headed out again. After finding the hill and finding two more 'twitchers' we started scanning, a friendly lady joined me while the other chap decided his luck lay in the other direction. After nearly an hour of waiting and scanning we were about to give up, was this bird indeed a myth? Then out of no where my eye saw something twitch on a dead tree.... bins up sharp as a flash I had it. I barked 'GOT IT' to the lady with me and in a few seconds I had put her on the bird.

Great Grey Shrike, picture taken from an image library.
It darted right to left in front of us starting at our 3 o clock and settling 4 meters to our 12 o clock on a gorse bush. I put the scope on it even though you could see it with the naked eye and was rewarded with crippling views of this exquisite bird.

Over the moon I floated back to the car, and on home. I had finally found a Shrike in the UK!!!

With my love affair with Shrikes re-kindled I guess it was inevitable that when a Juvinile Red-backed Shrike was reported 8 miles from my house I was going to go for it. The day I did a Daurian Shrike and an Isabelline Shrike had been reported on Shetland(lucky bastards!) I finished work and headed down to try my luck. The reports all said it was showing well in the SE corner of Sandy Point NR Hayling Island. I wandered around the reserve on the beach(the reserve is authorised access only) and made my way to the SE corner. The wind was 25km/h Easterly and not much was showing, I stood and scanned for a while watching the tops of the vegetation for any medium sized brown bird. I watched a couple of Dartford Warblers, Yellow Wagtails, Whinchat, Stonechat and Wheatear and then put my on an odd patch of gorse... There it was, not on top of the gorse but hunkered down out of the wind. Being a juvenile it was no where near as showy as the Adult male birds but a stunning little bird all the same.

Juvenile Red Backed Shrike from image library

Adult Male Red Backed Shrike from image library

Happy as larry I headed off home once more wondering if the Great Grey will return this winter to Thursley and whether next year I will be able to find one of the showy Adult Male Red Backs or maybe even a Woodchat Shrike. Regardless of what or when I find it appears my love affair with Shrikes looks set to continue, and I wouldn't change a thing!!!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Happy Ringing Day

Having just celebrated my first wedding anniversary, it came to my mind that I must also(this coming weekend) be about to celebrate a year as a BTO ringing volunteer. What a corking year it has been as well, my best ever year list, bolstered I have to say by the ringing and the guidance of the trainers, 100's of birds ringed including some personal ambitions for me such as Kingfisher and Bearded Tit, and some friends made along the way.

Male Bearded Tit/Reedling/Parrotbill
Female Bearded Tit

There have been a few heart stopping moments like in the case of the very juvenile(just fledged) Cuckoo that proved to be the first ever ringed at Titchfield Haven, and recently in the case of a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. As if that species in the UK wasn't uncommon enough, it is the earliest known record in the UK and the second most southerly record, also to add to an impressive rap sheet a first for Hampshire.
Newly fledged Cuckoo
Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Titchfield Haven

Many of the species we have ringed have been lifers for me(never seen before in the hand or field) such as Yellow Wagtail, Garden Warbler, Cetti's Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler, so to be able to have had these birds not just in view down a scope or bins, but in my hand has been a true privilege.
Garden Warbler
Cettis Warbler

Yellow Wagtail

A few friends have been a little scornful at my involvement, calling it an old mans past time and laughing at my passion for all things avian but I tell you what, if this is an old mans past time then getting older seems fine to me. I would much rather be out, contributing to genuine scientific research in my spare time and have a fantastic time doing it, than be stuck in between 4 walls staring at the square eyed monster! I genuinely believe that if more people took an interest from a young age our country wouldn't be in the state it is in now!!!

So this weekend I raise a glass and light the candles... Happy Ringing Day! 

Postscript: My thanks for this year have to go to the people that have made it possible. First and foremost to Duncan Bell, my trainer, without whom I would not have even begun to ring. Next to Trevor Codlin and Barry Duffin, who have been generous and kind enough to allow me to join in their sessions as well. Please click on Trevors name to take you to his blog which will offer far more of an in depth analysis of the work the ringing teams do, than I can offer at present.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Way is Shut!

Whenever I hear or see the words 'Footpath Closed' I cant help but think of the line
“The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
I spend a lot of my spare time with my binoculars and telescope out in the countryside. With recent floods and adverse weather, as was the case after the 1987 storms and during the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2007, some footpaths are inevitably shut to public access.

The majority of people see an industrial style fence and 15 FOOTPATH CLOSED signs as a suggestion to perhaps find alternative walking pastures. Others as a challenge to their "rights"

I bird almost religiously, each evening on my way home from work, at a sight 6 miles from my home in a small town called Havant. The sight itself is a public slipway used by public vessels as well as frequent RSPB tours of the local reserve by boat. During the recent storms, much of the seawall was washed away or seriously damaged. At parts it is so badly undercut that a step in the wrong place could have you with a broken leg in Langstone Harbour with its famous rip currents. At every possible entrance/exit to the sea path that leads from the slipway to Hilsea 3 miles to the West, there are fences and signs explaining the problems. Each evening when i am stood surveying the waders and gulls, i see people squeezing themselves, dogs, children, you name it through tiny gaps in the fence or going to the extremes of walking down the slippery seawall and around the fence. Why??? It is clearly there for a reason.

I have on occasions questioned some peoples rationale(usually after being asked "what the f*@k are you looking at?"), I have had every answer from "I walk here every day" & "I pay for these paths with my taxes" as well as my favorite "its not that bad, its just health and safety gone mad". Why can these people not see that this is for their own safety for one, and that continued use of the paths when they are damaged, is going to further delay a renaissance of the clean, clear, safe path that they enjoyed before. No doubt these are the same people that leave gates open on a country walk and stroke the Rays at Blue Reef Aquarium despite the signs. Not to mention the real pet peeve people who ignore signs saying KEEP ALL DOGS ON LEADS...!!!!

Too many people are of the opinion that because it was once an accepted practice to do something that they can keep doing it now that perceptions have changed. Many of us have lived through massive changes in the accepted practice of many things; Racism, Feminism, Sexism I could go on. I am not suggesting for a moment that this form of trespassing is on a par with any of the a fore mentioned isms, I am suggesting that like the others it relies on a real ignorance from people who should know better.    

Having aired my frustration I have come to the conclusion that it is not these individuals who ignored the Footpath Closed signs but those who chose to ignore signs in general!    

Monday, 7 April 2014

The world is changing

My formative years involved a degree of birding but not anything like my interest today. As a youngster(6-13) I would go out on frequent occasions with my Godfather Merv onto Farlington Marshes in Portsmouth & with my £10 bins and Mervs expert guidance I would happily watch the waders and passerines that frequented the Salt-marsh and surrounding fields. If I am being honest, after an hour or so I was a little bored of looking at Redshanks and Ringed Plovers through Mervs scope and found myself scrabbling down the seawall onto the mud revealed by low tide! Here I found crabs(dead & alive) all manner of Molluscs as well as small brown birds happily darting around the tussocks of grass on the Salt-marsh. Could I have told you these were Rock Pipits as I now know they were? Of course not, but at that age I was just enjoying the wonder of everything nature had to show me. From time to time Merv would call me back up the seawall to see something in the scope. Bearded Tits as they were then known, before genetics revealed that they are infact not tits at all. Maybe a Marsh Harrier haunting the reedbeds in that way only a Marsh Harrier can. Or the creme de la creme of British birding which we now take for granted.... The Little Egret! All in all it was a wondrous time for me and I am privileged with having supportive parents and a highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic Godfather. Am I feeling nostalgic?.... Maybe, but what got me thinking about my upbringing surrounded by the natural world was my son. He is 6 months old in 2 days time and although he looks at me with that innocent and frankly adorable face I sit and wonder what his generations perception of the natural world will be. I am, at 27, one of the early members of a very sedentary and wasteful generation. My nephew, at 2 years old, uses iPhones and Tablets better than most teenagers and certainly better than me. A friends son at 4 years old has his own Tablet...... Why? What happened to digging a hole in the back garden, planting sunflowers with Mum and Dad and having a summer long contest as to whose grew the highest. I hope with what I feel is a great upbringing for me, I can pass on some of the passion for the natural world I have to my son! As a member of the BTO, RSPB, HWT and a trainee ringing volunteer, as a keen birder with twitching tendencies I hope that he is immersed enough to at least care what is around him, to care that the things he does and the choices he makes will have an impact. The thought of a silent spring is, in my books, unbearable, but with every passing year the reports of declines in our native wildlife gives this idea wings. It will be in my generation, if current trends continue, that we will witness the extinction of the Turtle Dove from our shores. A charismatic species that you could once upon a recent time see across the south of the UK, but is now limited to small pockets and even then rarely seen. So it is with a sepia toned nostalgic view that I encourage each and every person that has kindly taken the time to read this piece to take up the mantle, be it with your own offspring, a relative or even a friends children. Show them the wonder of nature, even if your knowledge is not complete your passion will inspire a generation. Your local Wildlife Trust will have a range of activities for the whole family, guided walks, pond dipping etc... The same goes for the BTO & RSPB check out the links below. I am not affiliated with these organisations just an avid supporter of their work.