Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Fame at last!

The BBC News 24 team obviously saw my potential and singled me out of the crowd of c700 birders at the Eastern Crowned Warbler for this interview. I'm just waiting for the TV offers to come flooding in. Expect to see me on Springwatch next year...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

15 Oct 09 - Pied Wheatear, Horsey Gap, Norfolk

Dashed out for an extended lunch today for a quick twitch up to Horsey Gap to see the 1st-winter male Pied Wheatear sat on the pillbox just south of the NT car park. The bird called quite often, a soft "chit", similar to a Stonechat, but without the hard 'tacking' property. It often flew in the air and hovered a-la Eurasian Skylark and this enabled viewers to see the sooty underwing and characteristic tail pattern.

The bird was really co-operative and sat on the pillbox at close range for extended periods. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Paddyfield Warbler at Snettisham. After sitting on news of it for 6 hour, word finally got out but the bird had gone. Thanks guys - not!

13 Oct 09 - Raptors in Oxon

Whilst driving around Oxfordshire looking for gulls, there was a number of photo opps for raptors, particularly a nice perched-up Common Buzzard and numerous Red Kites.
Here's a selection....

13 Oct 09 - Azorean Yellow-legged Gull in Oxon

After seeing London's Brown Shrike I headed off to Didcot and spent the rest of the day searching for the Azorean Yellow-legged Gull that Ian Lewington found last week at the dump between Didcot and Appleford. After going back and forward between the fields and the dump pool for 5 hours, I finally decided enough was enough and decided to give the fields one last look, but before I could start sifting through all the gulls a Perigrine attacked them and all the gulls from all the fields flew up and headed to the dump, so I decided to give the pool one last look and sure enough, there it was swimming around with the LBBG's. Azorean Gull is a real beast as can be seen from the photos below.

13 Oct 09 - Brown Shrike in London

OK, I know most* people will say that Staines is in Surrey, or Middlesex or somewhere like that, but as far as I'm concerned, if it's inside the M25 - it's in London.


After not having time to go to Flanelborough last autumn and not bothering with Marcus Lawson's 'Red-backed Shrike' on Bryher those many moons ago, it was great to finally catch up with Brown Shrike. I've only seen adults in Asia, so it was nice to see a first-winter so well.
There are a number of features which identifies the bird as Brown. The black mask with flaring white supercillium, the very short primary projection, the round head and round body, giving it a rather rotund appearance, the quite long, but more importantly, thin tail with the outer-tail feathers being about 2/3 the length of the longest tail feathers, the plain looking tertials and the fairly unmarked flanks.

Friday, 25 September 2009

18 Sep 09 - Burnham Overy Dunes - A taste of autumn

Headed out to the north coast this morning for a dawn(ish) raid on Burnham Overy Dunes. Got there at about 7.30 and bird the dunes, into the west end of Holkham Pines until 14.30. I was pretty knackered by the end of it, having kicked and booted every likely looking bush from Gun Hill to Holkham. The highlights of the day was a fly-over Lapland Bunting and a nice Snow Bunting (perhaps my earliest Norfolk record ever?) on the boardwalk which decided to fly off just as I got my camera on it. There were quite a few migrants in the dunes, although nothing to get exited about: 8 Redstarts, 5 Lesser Whitethroats, 6 Northern Wheatears and 2 Pied Flycatchers (in the pines), as well as about 1000 Pink-footed Geese over Holkham freshmarsh. Still plenty of hirundines about, with roughly 200 Barn Swallows over the staithe on the high tide.

Northern Wheatear

Common Redstart (male)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

28 Aug - 4 Sep, Cornwall. A Seawatchers guide on how to arrive too late and leave to early

What have a good joke and seawatching got in common?
And my awful timing whilst on a family holiday in Cornwall last week means that the joke is well and truly on me. My first bit of bad timing is excusable, I suppose. We couldn't move into our self-catering cottage at Pendeen until 4pm on 28 Aug, so by the time I arrived at Pendeen Watch, I'd already missed a Little Shearwater, Wilson's Petrel, Yelkouan Shearwater, Cory's Shearwater, 6 Great Shearwaters and 5 Sabine's Gulls. Anyway, I did manage to see 2 Great Shearwaters, 5+ Grey Phalaropes, Red-necked Phalarope (a real mega in Cornwall), 2 adult Sabine's Gulls plus lots of Balearic and Sooty Shearwaters. I also managed to miss a Wilson's Petrel that when passed whilst I was there through a combination of having a rather narrow field of view in my 20-60 zoom eyepiece and pretty bad directions from the finder of the bird.
My next bit of bad timing came two days later at Porthgwarra. I'd been seawatching from dawn, but had to leave at about 10.00 to get back for breakfast. Anyway, at 11.27, one of THREE Fea's Petrels that I was unknowingly about to miss over the next 4 days, passed PG that morning. I can accept missing these birds as they were all fairly well in the middle of the day and being on a family holiday meant that I really was never going to be there long enough to witness any of these sightings.
The last bit of bad timing is really inexcusable though. The wind had been strong SW for 3 days and was due to turn NW on 3 Sep, classic conditions for a great Pendeen seawatch. Due to the inclement weather, Angela and Matthew said they didn't mind me spending the day at Pendeen, so I headed out at dawn to join the 30 or so other birders that had gathered, anticipating a good days seawatching. Although the Manx Shearwaters were passing at a rate of about 4000 per hour, the morning started badly for me, failing to get onto 2 different Wilson's Petrels, but after seawatching for 12 hours I'd notched up a decent list, having seen 1 Great Shearwater, 2 Cory's, Sabine's Gulls, 3 Grey Phalaropes, a few Storm Petrels, plus lots of Balearic and Sooty Shearwaters and Great and Arctic Skuas. Things had really tailed off by 6.30 pm, so at 6.50 I headed off back home to buy fish and chips for the family as a 'thank you' for not complaining about me spending nearly the whole day birding. But, 30 minutes later, I found myself gazing in wretched anguish at the message on my pager: "Cornwall MADEIRAN PETREL flew west past Pendeen at 7.08pm". The bird had taken a few minutes to go past and Mark Golley had tried to call me to let me know, but the phone reception was pretty week in the cottage and it had gone straight to voicemail.
Oh well! That's birding for you. If you don't stay until the end, or don't check that last bush, or wait for that small wader to turn around, you don't know what you're going to miss.

Anyway, I did see some good birds during the holiday other than the seabirds listed above. The juvenile Citrine Wagtail at Marazion Marsh RSPB was nice and provided some good video (see below) as was the Baird's Sand which showed well on the beach at Marazion.

This is a short video of the Citrine Wagtail

This is a longer video.

Baird's Sandpiper (juvenile), Marazion Beach.

Baird's Sandpiper (juvenile), Marazion Beach.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Great Spotted Cuckoo - Salthouse, 23 Jul 09

I couldn't get to the Great Spotted Cuckoo (a Norfolk tick for me) when it first turned up last night as I was off to watch The Dickies at The Waterfront in Norwich, so as soon as it turned up this morning, I was off! It was really distant, and I mean REALLY distant, when I first arrived (518 metres according to Google maps), but a bit of local knowledge meant that I could get much closer to the bird without disturbing it and got some really nice views, photographs and video. The bird sat in the same place for the 45 minutes or so that I watched it, often falling asleep for a while before waking up and preening. About 15 minutes after I left the bird flew off and was only seen briefly that evening before disappearing for good.
Here are a selection of photographs and a video of the bird.

Once started, click 'HQ' for high-quality video.

Pushing some Zzz's before pushing off

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Rare Bird Alert (RBA) X3 pager review

Rare Bird Alert (RBA) have recently released their custom designed and built pager, the RBA-X3, to their customers. I've had the new RBA X3 pager for just over a week now, so I thought I'd write an initial review from my first experiences.

Like its predecessor (the 21a), the X3 is compact, lightweight, has a clear display and fits snugly into the holster (which now sits vertically, not horizontally, onto your belt).

It comes with quick-start instructions and a much more thorough 23 page setup guide. Most of the set up is fairly straightforward, but reference to the guide is necessary for some of the more advanced features. Navigation around the pager has completely changed. The X3 has a 'folder menu view' as its main interface into the pager. This interface reminds me a lot of the Windows Explorer interface found on a PC. It shows all the news folders that the user has access to, the settings folder (similar to 'Control Panel' in windows), the clock folder and an 'About' folder. Physical navigation is now through 3 buttons, a green 'confirm' button, a red 'cancel' button and a 4-way up/down/left/right button (see photos below).

As a user of the old RBA 21a pager, the news services I had access to were 'Mega alert', National news, Earlybird, plus 3 pre-set Local News subscriptions. With the new pager, the user can instantly 'subscribe' to any local regions they desire, up to a limit of 4 (depending on their membership level). If they wish to swap one area for another (say the user lived in Norfolk and had Norfolk/Suffolk, Lincs, Yorks, and Wildlife as their 4 subscription local channels and they were going on holiday to Cornwall, they could simply unsubscribe to one of their local channels (say, York), and subscribe to the Devon/Cornwall channel. They would then get all the local news for Devon/Cornwall. When they returned from holiday they could then unsubscribe from Devon/Cornwall and re-subscribe to Yorks (on any other channel for that matter). This feature is free-of-charge and the amount of channel changes is unrestricted.

Another scenario where this could be helpful would be if the same person wanted to wait on news to twitch a Buff-breasted Sand in Cambs. Instead of putting their National channel to bleep and be notified about every rare/scarce bird in the country, they could subscribe to the Cambs channel and set that on alter, therefore only being alerted to birds seen in the Cambs region.

Other folders which the user has access to are National, Earlybird, Breaking Megas (with the actual message, rather than just triggering an alert as in the 21a), Rarities (has only 'upper-case' rarities) and Breaking Rarities (news of individual rarities that have been previously been unreported by RBA, very useful if you're a year-lister!). All the folders are individually customisable with respect to alert status and alert tone.

Another difference in the X3 is that each folder displays the amount of unread messages, so if you have a folder set to 'store', whereby the messages are immediately stored, rather than displayed, the user can keep a track of the amount of unread messages in that folder.

The X3 pager is also customisable, to suite user preferences. The default home page can be set to blank (save batteries), the clock, the folder view, or 'About' (where you can add your name and phone number in case you loose your pager). I have mine set to go blank and then start up in the 'About' view where I have my name and number in case someone finds my pager (see photos below), although beware when peronsalising your pager - the amount of characters it allows you to enter when personalising your pager is more than will physically display in the actual 'About' view! Amongst other preferences, the font size can be set to 3 different font sizes (plus bold/non-bold – see photos below), the contrast of the message lettering can be varied and the amount of time the backlight stays on for can be changed. On the subject of the backlight, the light on the X3 is excellent, being much brighter and clearer than the rather faint and unreliable 21a backlight.

So far, so good eh. But I do find a few things annoying with the X3. Firstly, it's a bit of a 'nanny' pager. As I mentioned above, the number of unread messages are displayed next to the folder name. But for a message to be read, the user must have read (or at least displayed to himself) the whole message. If I'm looking through my messages and there's a Spoonbill at Loch Einich in the Highlands, I'm not going to be overly interested and just want to flick on to the next message, and not have to page down through lines and lines of directions every time it's reported (and on the initial display of the message, the 'down' button only moves the message down by one line instead of the next page of unread message, so if the message runs 10 lines over the length of the first page then you have to tab down 10 times to get to the end of the message). The problem is though that if I just flick through to the next message the Spoonbill message will be flagged as 'unread' and marked as an unread message in the folder view (see photos below). The only way to remove it as an unread message is to go back to the folder, find the Spoonbill message, open it (as with the 21a the first line of text is displayed as a summary) and page down through the whole message (this time tabbing down takes you down a page at a time instead of a line at a time) until the end of the message is reached. Alternatively, one can open the folder and select 'mark all as read'. Whatever, it's a bit of a pain and I can see it become a totally useless feature, as users will quickly get fed up of tabbing through lines of long messages in which they have no interest and just start to ignore the 'unread messages' number. Perhaps if an 'X4' pager is released, then they might mark the messages as read once the first page of the message has been displayed.

Another gripe is the battery. On average, the battery in my old 21a pager lasted between 4-5 weeks. I've had my X3 pager for only 1 week so far and the (rather helpful) battery strength indicator says I've already used half of the battery. Perhaps it's because I had to read through all of those messages to get rid of that annoying unread messages indicator! Also, changing the battery is a bit of a nightmare (and is almost acknowledged as such in the instructions "Installing the battery requires a little practice, then it's easy!" is the claim. The advice is to use the holster to leaver off the battery cover, but both the battery cover and the holster seem a bit thin and brittle and feel like one of them will snap. I've practised taking the battery cover off about 4 times and some small chips have started to appear in the battery cover already.

As far as the reception of the the X3 goes, it's hard to say if it's better or worse than the 21a. Certainly, if you follow RBA advice and keep the pager vertical, the reception is much better than when laid on its side. Both my house and work place have trouble with reception (or perhaps interference) and the X3 has some trouble in these areas, as did the 21a. All in all, there's probably not much difference in reception quality between the two pagers. One thing that is different is that garbled parts of messages on the 21a usually appeared with lines through them, whereas the X3 apparently tries to 'guess' the correct word. This might be helpful on minor garbles, but doesn't work with longer stretches of garbles.

So, all in all the X3 is a really nice pager. I've only brushed over the main features in this review, but there are plenty of other things new to the X3. The feature which allows users to vary what local news channels they are subscribed to is a major plus and a great technological step forward - worth the £69 charge for the pager alone. The unread messages feature was a good idea, but having to read the full length of the message before it becomes a 'read' message will probably render this feature useless and redundant and this should be a major re-think on any software updates.

Holster and pager viewed from above

Holster and pager viewed from the side

The pager homepage (with owners name and contact number, in case the owner looses their pager)

The pager in folder view (note unread messages)

Pager with small bold font.

Pager with medium regular font.

Pager with large regular font.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Taking a bad tern

What a twat! Not since marrying Tina Newcombe at the age of 22 have I made such a bad decision. I'd spent Saturday in the Peak District, walking along Mam Tor with Angela and Matthew and then headed off to my mum's house in Stoke. As we were arriving in Stoke, the pager started bleeping, telling me about the Afrikaan Royal Tern in Land-dudno, Wales. I quickly dropped the family off at mum's and headed off to North Wales. Unfortunately, by the time I got to Chester the bird had flown off high and hadn't been seen for well over an hour. My mind turned to Co. Cork and Black Rock Sands, (where the bird had put in all to brief appearences before heading for the horizon never to be seen again - in the same place anyway) and then to my family waiting patiently at my mum's house. So, I filled up with fuel and stupidly started heading back. 15 minutes later, the pager was bleaping, informing me of the Royal Tern's reappearance. I quick handbrake-turn on the A51 and I was on my way back to North Wales. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived (6.30 pm) the bird really had disappeared. An all too brief return by the bird for 5 luck observers (of which I wasn't one) at 8pm was the only other time it might have been seen. The worst of it is, is that the bird flew off at 6pm, 20 minutes before I arrived. Had I not turned around and lost half-an-hour, I would have arrived on site at about 5.50 and seen the bird for about 10 minutes before if flew off.
Why did I turn round? Why!!!!!???

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Wet 'n Windy on the North Norfolk Coast - 7 Jun 09

Headed up to North Norfolk for what turned out to be a very wet day.
First stop was Cley NWT. Hardly any waders on Pat's/Simmonds scrapes, but North Scrape was much more productive. 2 imm Eurasian Spoonbills were on the scrape and actually woke up for a while and started feeding (see below). Also on the scrape were 2 Little Stints and 2 1st-summer Little Gulls.

Next it was along to Thornham to have another look at the Black-winged Pratincole. It was in the ploughed field by the reservoir, but the light wasn't too good and I only got one half-decent photo of it.

Then, finally to Titchwell. It hammered it down with rain after I got to Parrinder Hide, but other than about 500 Common Swift pushed down by the rain, not much else was on show. 5 Little Gulls and a Ruff were the only thing of note. A quick dash to the car between rain showers and that was the end of the day.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Farne Islands and Scotland - 26 - 31 May

A family holiday, culminating in Angela running the Edinburgh Marathon, was taken last week. The main birding spots were The Farne Islands and Fowlsheugh (an RSPB seabird reserve, just south of Stoneheaven, at Crawton). Nearly all the seabirds we saw either had eggs or were preparing nest sites.
The best of my photos are shown below.

Arctic Terns




Common Eider