Monthly Archives: February 2017

Smash and grab birding

Sometimes birding can be an almost spiritual experience: alone in the wild; seeking; observing; experiencing. And sometimes it is… err… not.

I had little time for the patch this weekend, with other commitments. But when our resident larid enthusiast, Tony, found a Mediterranean Gull on Alexandra pond (the first since the likely demise of our annually-appearing old timer, Valentino), or rather when I woke up to see that Jonathan had just seen it on the Western Flats (barely a skip and hop from my front door), I thought I had better check it out.

I found a large flock of Black-headed Gull and Common Gull all facing into the strong wind on the football pitches, and immediately began a thorough scan. I adjusted my position several times to get better views of some of the obscured gulls and scanned again, and again. Despite Jono having seen the Med Gull just half an hour or so before I arrived (and posting photographic proof), I could not find it.

My best find in the large flock was a colour ringed BH Gull. There is something exciting about ringed gulls – to get a sense of the age and provenance of a bird. Was it ringed in Norway, or Germany, or even further afield? When I finally managed to get enough of a view of the markings, I was very quickly a little disappointed. This particular gull, let’s call him ‘2LBA’ now, has already been recorded at least twice on the patch before (once in March of last year, and then again just a few months ago in December), and from Tony’s list, I could see that it was ringed in the exotic location of Fishers Green… just a few miles up the road in June 2015.

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Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) ringed ‘2LBA’

Tony advised me via a certain restricted character social networking platform to ‘try Alex’. I was hungover, I had a meeting I needed to get to on the other side of London, it was very windy. I questioned how much I wanted a Med Gull on my patch year list. But I went. Right across the whole flipping patch in search for this gull. When I got to Alex, my heart sank, most of the gulls seemed to be circling high in the wind and the rest were spread all over the donut-shaped water and the muddy beaches. It would take a lot of time to scan everything, and I did not have time. To cut this rather lengthy story much shorter… I failed. Gave up. Walked back in the wind, and raced off to my meeting.

Rather like the great Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, I woke up this morning to more alerts on my phone telling me that the Med Gull was still out there. On the Western Flats again, where it had last been seen, and where I felt sure I had thoroughly checked the day before. I had even less time than yesterday to find it, but I shot out once again, with a buddhist chant on my determined lips – more as a superstitious good luck charm than any profound spiritual incantation. By the time I arrived, today’s ‘finder’, Bob, had already left. Yet again, there was a – slightly smaller this time – flock of grounded gulls. But this time, after a matter of seconds of scanning, I saw it: Initially its smudgy mid-moult head was turned back and its distinctive bill was hidden in its plumage in roost. But its clean, pure white wing-tips were unmistakeable. Before long the big red bill was out and we exchanged glances, I rattled off a couple of distant pics and I let the gulls be.

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Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)

If that was ‘tick and run’ birding, then an hour or two later I descended into a ‘smash and grab’ exercise. Jono – looking for the Med Gull again – stumbled across a friendly female Red-crested Pochard on Jubilee pond. With my wife and mother waiting in the car, I quickly dashed out around the pond to grab a couple of pics. I was struck by the difference in behaviour between this female – without any fear of humans and clearly looking to be fed – and the male I found last year on Heronry pond that stayed well away from everyone. Perhaps they were both feral. Perhaps this female was, and the male was a true vagrant visitor. I doubt we will ever know. What I do know, is that my slow-moving year-lists increased by ‘two’ today.

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Red-crested Pochard (Netta rufina)

 

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Face to face: notes from Rutland

I dropped in at Rutland Water today on the drive back from Nottingham. The newish wetland reserve on the western shore is impressive, but I was woefully under-equipped: I tottered around the mud in my brogues and strained my eyes across the vast expanses of water with my bins cursing my lack of spotting-scope. But it turns out that the piece of kit I was to miss most was my camera.

I spent a fair whack of time studying ‘Lagoon 4’ from the three hides. A guy with a scope helpfully pointed out a red head Smew on the far side following a raft of Wigeon. With my binoculars I could just about make out the shape and colouration of the distant speck. In turn I pointed out a Peregrine perched on the man-made Osprey nest in the middle of the water – he hadn’t bothered to study the Osprey nest for obvious reasons (I believe the likely nest occupier is currently in Senegal). As we both watched the Peregrine, it decided to perform.

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Lagoon 4, Rutland Water

The falcon swooped down to a post poking up out of the water and perched right in front of pair of Egyptian Goose. I have never seen anything quite like it: a face-off between the ultimate feathered killing machine – all eyes and razor-sharp bill, but still and unfazed, and an absolutely furious goose spitting and hissing with its face level with the raptor.

I walked around to the other side of the lagoon to see if I could get a better view of the Smew from another hide. I opened the wooden window flap and almost put it straight back down again in disbelief. There, directly in front of me, was the stunning adult drake, pristine in white and only 20-30 feet away from me. A little further away was his entourage of three red heads. If I had my camera and 400mm lens, I could have posted some amazing shots. Instead, I simply had my iPhone…

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Drake Smew (Mergellus albellus)

The fuzzy pixelated image betrays the sharp, clean, contrasted colours and lines of this gorgeous duck, but seeing one up so close was a wonderful experience.

Later, I drove down to the Southern shore of the 12.6 square kilometres of water and counted tens of gorgeous Goldeneye, a pair of Goosander, and distant view of a Great White Egret absolutely still on the shoreline – all three were new birds for my UK year list complementing the Smew, Oystercatcher, Ringed PloverChiffchaff, and a passing flock of Siskin earlier on the reserve. Without a scope, I didn’t really have a chance of finding the Great Northern Diver that has been seen, and I suspected that an interesting grebe or two would have been found somewhere out on the water. But, even poorly prepared and shod, I still had a great visit.

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South Arm, Rutland Water

The tragedy of Colchis

All good classicists know the ancient stories of Colchis. The land where Jason and his argonauts went in search for a certain fleece. It was also the kingdom with a tragic princess, Medea, who – of course – famously avenged Jason’s betrayal by murdering her children (as you do).

Colchis was an ancient kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea where we find present day Georgia. One of the ancient towns was Phasis. It was around here where Western Europeans first came across a bird that they named after the location: Phasianus colchicus, or Common Pheasant. One of the most hunted birds in history. Millions are bred, over-fed, and shot every year in the UK. Some escape the gun, the cars, and the predators and eke out a feral existence across the country.

In the past decade only three or four have made it to the patch. In the past few days another bird made it here and has been patrolling the new paddock in the Old Sewage Works. It became the 112th bird I have seen on the patch:

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Common Pheasant (Phasianus cochicus)

It is the most exciting thing I have seen on the patch so far this year (as in: I haven’t seen much exciting; not, that this is the best of the best). A bird that is undoubtedly handsome, but that … honestly… I simply wish did not exist on these isles at all. One day I would love to see them where they belong, in Asia, and maybe on their westernmost territories, the land of an ancient tragic woman.

Since I have little else to say about my patch birding recently, I will jabber on for a few more lines about another tragic woman of history.

One day I stepped outside the patch boundaries and explored the smaller of our two local giant urban graveyards, Manor Park cemetery. To be honest, I didn’t much enjoy it. It is mostly filled with densely packed, and rather gaudy, gravestones and not a lot else. My mood was raised by a small flock of Redwing, but the highlight was a small corner that is not mown to within an inch of its life and appears to have been allowed to rewild.

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The best bit of Manor Park Cemetery

The gravestones are embraced by bramble, holly, and ivy whilst hundreds of saplings have shot up out of the ground (my guess all in the last decade or two) in that race for light that trees-of-the-clearing are designed for.

Somewhere beneath the ground lie the remains of Annie Chapman – a tragic woman in many respects: A poor, alcoholic, TB-ridden prostitute who became the second known victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ in the East-end slums of Whitechapel. Her family, quite respectable despite the impoverishment that had befallen their daughter, raced her horrifically mutilated body out of East London to a small cemetery in an Essex village. Little did they know that East London would swell and grow and claim Annie back again for itself over time.