Monday, October 30, 2006

Halloween Heroes of the Birding Revolution - Richard Meinertzhagen

I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. Ripped on drink and drugs, and you certainly need to be. You shouldn't have gone into the woods. You shouldn't have lost the map. With extra spookiness, I present....

Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen DSO, CBE 1878-1967

Born under a blood red moon (probably) into a life of relative opulence at Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire. The family were so rich they didn’t even notice the servants embezzling £100s in selling poached game. Natural History formed a big part of their life, and with the family connections, combined with trips to Tring and a town house close to the recently opened Natural History Museum in Kensington, the wee Meinertzhagens got to meet pretty much all the movers and shakers of the time. Not that they sat back and let the bigwigs come to them. Dickie and his brother, for example, bought a dead Garganey in Leadenhall market (London), and pretended they didn’t know what it was as a pretext to go to the British Museum and get it ‘identified’ by Bowdler-Sharpe, who them took them on a tour of the bird collection. They also bumped into Gätke (see previous ‘Heroes’ ) on their travels, Seebohm (famous for Petchora slaughter and big bird book), and Dresser (famous for even bigger bird book). Thomas Huxley (evolution pioneer, genius) had a bit of a crush on Dickie’s mum and hung around the house more than was good. The Meinertzhagens called in on Huxley one day, and young Richard got to bounce up and down on Charles Darwin’s knee – he thought Darwin looked a kindly old gent, but smelt of wee. I made that last bit up. Richard also met George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde (not impressed), and Kaiser Wilhelm(!). With prescience that was to characterise his later life, Richard foresaw that war with Germany was in the pipeline.

But first, some very serious schooling.... at Aysgarth school in darkest God-forsaken Yorkshire, where the headmaster personally force-fed the students boiled beef and spotted dick (fnarr fnarr!) and made them run of miles in the freezing dawn rain until they either died or developed the physique and mentality of a public library. Richard at 6’ 5” tall and 4’ wide, opted for the latter. Then to Harrow (crumpets, fagging and thrashing), and finally Göttingen University. Richard wanted to enter a career in birdspotting, but his Dad told him to get a proper job, and in the best traditions of upper class nepotism made him take a position in the family firm. Richard didn’t like it, and ran away to join the army in 1899 (I presume the circus was full). What followed was one of the most incredible (for the intelleckuals, I use that word deliberately) military careers ever recorded. Until the Great War, he soldiered in India, Burma, Kenya, slaughtering restless natives with enthusiasm. No really, he was a nasty piece of work, as he was to admit in later life. He revelled in the savagery of Africa, cracked heads with enthusiasm… and famously finished his Christmas dinner before popping out to shoot a German diplomat. He developed a reputation for brilliance and astuteness.

In 1917, during the Great War, he was posted to the Middle East. Eventually, he got there – his ship, The Transylvania, was torpedoed and sunk. Dickie saw the dash for the lifeboats, decided it wasn’t for him, so purloined a couple of bottles of brandy, walked off the deck of the sinking ship into the Mediterranean, got kicked in the stomach by a horse floundering in the water, and was rescued by some Japanese sailors, smashed but alive, a few hours later. His military career in Egypt, Israel and Arabia was the stuff of legends. He used to hang out with Laurence of Arabia. Brilliant and ruthless, he spied, shot people, got death threats and collected birds. Caught on a plane once with a collapsed pilot, he got the airstrip personnel to spell out instructions for landing the plane in big strips of cloth on the ground. It would have been funnier if they’d spelt out “you’re f*cked”, but they didn’t and he wasn’t. His most famous exploit was inventing and carrying out a plan to pretend to ‘lose’ a haversack containing ‘secret’ military plans behind Turkish lines, convincing the Turks that we weren’t going to attack Beersheba, and then sneakily we did. Onwards to Jerusalem, and the campaign was won. Lloyd George himself got to hear about the brilliant young soldier. In 1918 he managed to be part of the apocryphal team that (allegedly), on the direct and illegal orders of King George, rescued one of the Russian princesses from the Tsar’s captive family in Ekaterinburg, flinging her onto a moving plane and bringing her back to a life on the run in Europe. Ironically, this action, if it ever happened, directly led to the slaughter of the entire remainder of the family. He officially retired from the army in 1925, but his espionage continued - 1929 saw him in Spain, murdering 19 Soviet agents at their hideout at Ronda, an action which got him a lungful of poison gas and the award of the Order of King Charles III. In 1934, he met Hitler. It would be unfair to call Dickie a sympathiser, and in time he came to regret not killing Hitler when he got the chance, but certainly he felt a great empathy with the German people (his stock) and respected the Nazis’ ability to get the trains running on time. No one told him the protocol, so he’s stood there and Hitler approaches and goes ‘Heil Hitler’, which Dickie thought was a bit weird, but he replied in kind ‘Heil Meinertzhagen’. You could have heard a pin drop. In 1940, (age 62) he was at the tiller of one of the fleet of boats ferrying escaping British soldiers from Dunkirk.

So what of the birds? Natural History had taken a back seat in his early army career, but after a series of high profile humiliations and other troubles, he turned back to birds as a kind of occupational therapy, somewhere around 1912/3. But it was when he got to Egypt and the Middle East in 1917 that his birding really took off. He spent the remainder of his life collecting birds, across Asia and Africa, and amassed one of the finest collections of bird skins (specimens), 25,000 in total, beautifully preserved and cared-for, jam-packed with unique and very important records. He genuinely loved it, the tangible result of his life’s work. And there was more than just birds, he did everything, including lice.

He once thought he saw a Monk Seal just off the beach in Egypt, so ran off for his gun and was going to shoot when he realised it wasn’t a Monk Seal, it was his Chief-of-Staff’s wife, a Mrs Waters-Taylor, skinny dipping.She would have looked good mounted, I bet.

The ‘Meinertzhagen Collection’ wasn’t the only love of his life, however – he had two wives, not at the same time. The first, Amorel, married 1911, he never slept with, which also was ironic because just about everyone else did! The second, Anne, was a fantastic ornithologist in her own right, until she accidentally shot herself in the head in 1928 with Richard’s revolver, while they were practising with targets. Not sure how she managed it, as she was very gun-savvy, but the position of the entry wound and the damage done are apparently more consistent with her being shot by someone else, a tall man, for example. Richard was the only other person there, but no inquest was ever held. Still he seemed pretty shaken up, especially when he inherited his wife’s vast estate, but he only got it on condition he never remarried. He spent the rest of his life with his gorgeous pouting 33-years-younger cousin, Theresa Clay, with a secret passage connecting their next-door houses. I bet he was up and down her passage all the time.

With Meinertzhagen’s travels and collecting came publications, and it was through these, there were plenty of them, that he became one of the elder statesmen of British Ornithology. He lacked a scientific education, but he was very clever, and cut through to the heart of many pressing ornithological issues by bringing that second sight that characterised his military career into the bird world. He was, for example, one of the few people who was never convinced by the Cambridgeshire Moustached Warbler records (see Secret Freezers passim). Not that all his work was great – there were problems with it. For example he published personally observed details about the life history and ecology of Razo Larks in spite of never having visited Razo to see them. His two major bird books were Nicoll’s Birds of Egypt (1930) and the magnificent Birds of Arabia (1954). He met Michael Nicoll, assistant director of the zoo at Gaza, during the Palestine campaign, and they struck up a friendship which lasted until Nicoll died in 1925. Actually, Dickie thought Nicoll, and his wife Norrie, were ignorant upper class twits, but they were friends all the same. Meinertzhagen was hardly on the bones of his arse himself, but even he got hacked off with the Nicoll’s opulence and their enormous baggage train and servants that they insisted on hauling around the remote corners of Egypt while out birding. When Michael died, leaving an enormous collection of bird records and illustrations for an unpublished book, Norrie asked Meinertzhagen to finish it off, which he did in some style. Keen Freezer-ites might remember that Michael Nicoll was also one of the suspects in the ‘Hastings Rarities’ scandal – hold that thought for a future edition of ‘Heroes’.

Birds of Arabia (1954) is universally acknowledged to be a great book. While serving in the Middle East, Dickie had come across, and stolen, an unpublished manuscript in the British Legation offices in Jidda, for a book of the same title by a man called Bates, who was fortuitously dead. Meinertzhagen built his own ‘Birds of Arabia’ around this manuscript, which he wrongly assumed to be the only copy (there was another one lurking in the Natural History Museum, which is how we found out what he had done). Meinertzhagen’s book was reviewed in Ibis by a French Canadian, Charles Vaurie, a republican who hated Meinertzhagen and everything he stood for politically. It was like asking George Galloway to review Prince Andrew’s helicopter expenses, and the result was a lukewarm assessment. Dickie blew his top and threatened to leave the BOU. Serious news(!).

So there were problems with his publications… but there were also problems with his collection of bird skins. The care and work he put into maintaining the high standards of his specimens was legendary, but strangely it was also known, during his life, that he could be extraordinarily careless about the labels he tied to them. ‘Quirky’ might be one way to describe it, but he made some crazy mistakes, and relabelled things for no apparent reason, gave birds wrong or misleading data, and hence began the process of devaluing his greatest achievements. And he stole things – birds from other peoples’ collections held in museums around Europe for safe-keeping were purloined for his private use. As early as 1919 he got a 12-month ban from the British Natural History Museum for trying to steal specimens. He got back in, but in 1935 the police were called after he was accused of stealing books from the museum library. Somehow he got away with it and charges were never pressed. In spite of that, he got a pass-key to the museum, where the staff knew what he was up to, but just kept an eye on him best they could. They had their eye on the inheritance… 25000 immaculate bird skins that would one day surely be passed onto the museum. They figured if he was stealing birds, they’d get them back after his death. Then disaster! He fell out with the British Museum after staff refused him permission to beat lice out of the skins (around the time they noticed an asian Greenfinch that Meinertzhagen had been looking at was missing). Meinertzhagen threatened to bequeath his collection to an American museum, where he said the skins would be better looked after. The NHM couldn’t stand the thought of that, and arranged transfer of nearly all his specimens to them in 1954, giving them a room to themselves where Dickie could come and go as he pleased and retained total control over the collection. So the Natural History Museum had got the stolen specimens back, maybe, but what they could not have guessed at the time was that Meinertzhagen had been relabelling and remaking them, giving them new locations and passing them off as his own work. Or maybe they should have guessed. Charles Vaurie had. Phillip Clancey, who had been travelling with Meinertzhagen and skinned stuff for him, also did, though it was not until after Dickie’s death that he voiced his complaints. He noticed that some African birds from the Meinertzhagen collection appeared to have been relabelled with misleading data. He also found that Meinertzhagen had taken one of Bowdler-Sharpe’s Redpolls, renamed it as his own and given it a new locality (in France). Alan Knox pioneered the detective work and with forensic analysis of Redpoll skins in particular was able to prove the point. A bit of harmless mischief perhaps? But real concern when Pamela Rasmussen and Robert Prys-Jones found that Meinertzhagen had stolen one of the few specimens of Forest Owlet from James Davidson’s collection, one of seven shot by Davidson in Maharastra in 1884. Meinertzhagen manipulated and re-fixed it in a new style, given it a new location and date (Mandvi, 300 miles away, 1914). This would have represented a significant range extension for what was then a presumed extinct species, and was a major prize in the Colonel’s collection. Rasmussen and Prys-Jones went on to show that all 14 of Dickie’s unique and most valuable east Indian specimens were stolen and fraudulently labelled, significantly messing up our understanding of the avifauna of the region. More and more frauds are coming to light all the time (most recently, in British Birds – a Meinertzhagen specimen of Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, supposed to have hit the lighthouse at Ouessant in 1933, was in fact shot by Owston in north-east China in June 1908, and resided at Tring until Dickie stole it). In fact, there’s quite a clear modus operandi here…. Meinertzhagen would find a series of specimens of a species that he liked the look of, take the best individual, maybe crack it about a bit, change its shape, do a bit of work on it so it wasn’t obvious where it had come from, then give it a new data tag with some interesting location, and pass it off as one of his own birds, in his own collection. The scale is incredible – it’s estimated that of the 25000 skins in his collection, maybe as many as 5000 are stolen fakes. It’s clear that Meinertzhagen claims to have collected loads birds in places he simply was not there at the time. It’s bit like some imaginary modern-day fraudulent twitcher claiming to see a rarity somewhere on the same day that he is independently seen to be 100s miles away.

So has Meinertzhagen pissed on his legacy to such an extent that his collection is now totally useless? Probably not. For a start, many of the stolen specimens can be recognised as missing from the original series or collection they came from, and can be ‘repatriated’. Second, there are immensely important skins in the Meinertzhagen collection that appear to be totally genuine – his Afghan Snowfinches (the types – there was nowhere to steal these from) and his Yemeni specimen of Northern Bald Ibis. To be handled with care… but the Meinertzhagen birds are beautifully prepared and it would be a criminal to burn the lot, as has been suggested. You cannot spend 40 years shooting everything that moves without building up an interesting collection; somewhere among the 20000 genuine birds are bound to be some important stuff.

Why did he do it? Prestige? It could be that, but he would have had that anyway. I put it down to arrogance, and to contempt. While Meinertzhagen was extraordinarily generous and kind to his friends, at the same time he didn’t seem to care about honesty in his professional relationships. He loved ruses – to be played out equally on enemies or friends – and was contemptuous of the opinions of others. He KNEW what he was trying to prove, about avifaunas, was true, so felt justified in stealing and relabelling the skins, or inventing data for publications, to prove it. And he let nothing stand in his way… maybe even his second wife.

Meinertzhagen died in 1967, but was virtually bedridden for some time after he bumped into a big dog and broke his hip. For a man who had thrived on the thrill of being alive, the joy of movement, of feeling things, and excitement, it must have been a wretched end. But he probably took some comfort in the trail of wreckage he left behind.

Richard Meinertzhagen DSO CBE. You were one of the elder statesmen of Palearctic birding. A pioneer who was perhaps the last scientific collector, hiding a gun in your walking stick, to mingle in the world of modern day birding. I would have paid good money to have seen Ken Williamson’s face when the Fair Isle birders were back at the Obs debating the identity of a ‘pipit’ in 1952, and you pulled the corpse of a Short-toed Lark out of your pocket – ‘Is that it?’. You were one of the most brilliant soldiers and ornithologists ever produced, not only a double life, but a triple, and quadruple. You were an imperialist enforcer, arrogant and inspired, generous, ruthless, a thief, a real spy, and a liar, occasional bigot, and always a whirlwind. At the moment we don’t know if you did more harm than good. History needs people like you, but I’m not sure why. I therefore decorate you… Halloween Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st class.

‘… For the future, I shall go my own way, disregarding conventionalities, with hardened morals, ignoring failure and thwarting disappointment, following my own inclinations, regarding the World as one huge plaything made for my amusement, doing good to others where and when I was able but refusing outside effort to make me happy, encouraging companionship but avoiding friendship and ignoring the advice of and, if necessary, even the existence of my family.’
Richard Meinertzhagen, 1917.

‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain....’
TE Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926.

‘Needless to say he [Meinertzhagen] never rose in the War above the rank of Colonel. I met him during the peace Conference and he struck me as being one of the ablest and most successful brains I had ever met in any army. That was quite sufficient to make him suspect and to hinder his promotion to the higher ranks of the profession.’
David Lloyd George (Memoirs).

‘Meinertzhagen will be remembered as an eminent and outspoken ornithologist of international fame and as one of the best and most colourful intelligence officers the Army ever had’
The Times, obituary, 1967. I actually think that Meinertzhagen wrote this himself. Before he died.

‘I can say upon my oath that Meinertzhagen’s collection contains skins stolen from the Leningrad Museum, the Paris Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and perhaps other museums but the three I mentioned were verified by me. He also removed labels, and replaced them by others to support his ideas and theories.’ Charles Vaurie, 1974.

Blindfold-Bunny-Baby has got her own blog.

1 day to go....

Lock up your skins... and your young cousins.

He's coming. 31 October. Dickie M.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sunday Morning

With Lizzie and Diane away for the rest of the weekend, it was just me and Peter. I shoved him in his buggy and we did a circuit of the patch, looking for birds. Who would have guessed that having a whingeing 2-year old would inhibit my birding. Well, I'm shocked to tell you, it did. Though we had a good long play at the swingpark by The Retreat, checking the sycamores for Pallas's Warblers etc. And once we'd called at the shop and I could feed him Milky Ways and Kinder Eggs, he was much better. Still not a whole lot about, but the good haul of Blackcaps continues, with one at the top of the track by St Ann's, 4 in the Mill garden, and one in the lone sycamore at the clifftop. A few Goldcrests, too, but that was about it. We went home and watched 'Boo'.

A very disappointing 100th post

I was out on Thursday morning round Newtonhill, in a terrific gale - saw bugger all.
Saturday morning, the wind had dropped, but the rain was coming down hard. A few Blackcaps and Goldcrests around the Mill and beach area, and a very few Redwings. And 1 Coal Tit.

Coming soon.... make sure you're not doing anything on October 31. Get ready. Halloween Heroes of the Birding Revolution, with extra spookiness. Lordy! He's coming! Run! It's....

Richard Meinertzhagen.
You read it... your phone rings, you die.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jockeys and Horses

My pal Lynne and her husband Robin were at Aviemore for the weekend, and they took this lovely scenic picture of Loch Morlich, which they knew would appeal to me. And it does... so beautifully composed, with the ripples and the hills and everything, and the shagging ducks.

Robin once invited me out for a dirty weekend to Barcelona, but I refused because I thought Lynne would find out and be cross. Then he claimed he meant to email Lynne (email bns239@) and not me (bns230@), but none of us really believe that.

I suppose I should tell you about the birding in Newtonhill on Sunday morning, but there's a bit of a repetitive theme going on. There had been a bit of movement overnight though - I kept bumping into small parties of Goldcrests that had not been here on Saturday evening, and also Coal Tits. I can go weeks without seeing a Coal Tit here, but on Sunday there were several newly around. 3 Blackcaps in the elders at the top of the St Ann's track, and another 6 in the Mill Garden - good score. A Common Chiffchaff in the sycamores before the railway bridge was a nice crisp one with a good super and was probably albietinus.

A hint of eastern promise from the allotments - a Lesser Whitethroat in the willows. Quite a typical dark one... not warm rufous or particularly pale or any of that rubbish. Egad! That my first of the autumn! Unfortunately it was a nice warm day (Red Admirals and Painted Ladies on the wing), so the gardeners were out and I was getting the evil eye, so moved on.

I had to get down to the Water Valley (Brambling over, but only 1 Redwing), but when I got there it was very disappointing. 1 Goldcrest - and then that flew away! All very relaxing I guess, and certainly birds on the move, but I'm starting to think my autumn peaked with YbW.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


First things first. I repeat I do not particularly want to see any bird harmed... but I have to admit I did find this the teeensiest bit funny. Even if not funny, it has to be the best Note ever printed in BB. I would have paid good money to see that. Brit. Birds 60, 304-5 (1967)

I went out on Thursday pm round Newtonhill, but it was a bit of a wash-out - I was soaked. for the sake of 2 Blackcaps at the top of the track, and a Dipper on the Elsick Burn. Got home and stuck my army coat in the hallway to moulder, and scope in the cupboard.

Today, Saturday, out playing with the kiddies in the back garden, listening for rocking Phylloscopi, when a skein of 35 Pink-footed Geese approach from the north, calling. Aha, thinks me, I'll nip in get my scratched bins and maybe an atmospheric recording of pinkies flying over via RememBird. Bins up, and bloody hell, the one at the front is a Canada Goose. Patch tick! That might sound stupid to pampered birders with crappy boating lake patches in Manchester or such-like, but they're a bit of a rarity here. Then I remember.... shit! We've split them! Oh, the irony! Now I'm going to lose my patch tick if I can't identify this goose, 800 m up, against a blue sky. Bollocks. Well, actually, it's noticably bigger than the pinkies. Not hugely bigger, but definitely bigger. That'll have to do. I'll call it a Greater Canada Goose...

I'm inspired to go out round the patch before tea. Ach! My coat is still wet, but I put it on anyway in the hope it'll dry. Ach! again! and argh!!!! moreover Aieeeeeee!!!! My scope has got water in. And not for the first time. I've warned it before, but this really is the last straw. You know the bit in Fawlty Towers where Basil loses patience with his car and goes off to find a big stick to hit it with? (Non-UK based bloggees might not know about this - it's really very funny). Well, that was me. I thrashed it and thrashed it. Scratched bins and a scope full of rainwater. Marvellous. I took my scope apart and left it on the radiator, and went out without it.

Fortunately (?) it wasn't needed. 3 perfidious Blackcaps and a single Goldcrest in the elders at the top of the track gave false hope of things being about, but the Mill Garden had only 1 more Blackcap, and some concerted pishing, clapping, booting and throwing stones only forced one Common Chiffchaff out of hiding. Ooooh, how much do I wish it had been a Radde's?? Still need that, and very jealous of this and this
It was downhill from there, if that were possible, but to my credit I did keep going til dusk, which is a bit of a rarity for me. Clear night tonight, so I hope some birds are on the move. Inwards, I mean. There's not a lot left to move out.

Evening. I've ordered a new scope. A waterproof one. :-)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Composition of my own...

... i call this 'Skiving from work in A-minor'. A sensitive and daring opus that I return to time and time again, constantly remoulding it for the emotion of the time. A rapid circuit of Newtonhill, turning up a Brambling in St Ann's, 5 Blackcaps and a Garden Warbler in the Mill Garden. It will have been the Same garden Warbler as Sunday's. In fact it was on the same branch. I suspect it's either extremenly full, or dead. Possibly both. Or drunk. Actually, when I came back later it had moved a bit, so not dead. But quite possibly drunk on elderberries. And who can blame it. A Common Chiffchaff in the gardens of the clifftop cottages.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Fancy smancy stuff

OK, just to be big and clever... this is what I did with that RememBird thingy I'm trying out. Got a recording of the Yellow-browed as it flitted away. Here it is... thanks to putfile... unedited version of martin trying to get his whole family onto a fast moving Yellow-browed. Listen for it squeaking between me saying "It's just tekken off tha' way", and "There!"

Click here to hear 'Yellow-browed-Warbler'

Then I made a sonagram of its squeak (thanks to Avisoft SASLabLite) and compared it to the sonagram in the new 'Sound Approach to Birding' (by Mark Constantine and the Sound Approach).

Not rocket science... but it shows the way things are going.

And here's a picture of it...

Sunday, October 15, 2006


We all come in from the cold
We come down from the wire
An everybody warms themselves
to a different fire
When sometimes we get burned
You'd think sometime we'd learn
The one you love is the one
That should take you higher
You ain't got no one
You better go back out and find 'em

Ah yes. The words of Axl Rose in the G n' R song Breakdown. You'd be surprised how often I think of those lyrics when out birding, or not out birding, or coming back from birding, or just going out. Not that they are particularly insightful, but after a few hours in the field seeing bugger all, you have to remind yourself that good birds don't fly in front of the telly in your living room, if you haven't seen one, you have to get back out and find one. Hold that thought while I ramble on about today.

Looked good first thing in Newtonhill after 2 days of southeasterlies. Not too windy to bird properly, unlike Wednesday. Flushed a few Redwings almost immediately, then a couple of Song Thrushes, and as I got down to the Elsick Burn there were about 15 Blackbirds in the elderberries and 3 Mistle Thrushes flying over. Errr... OK, I'll take thrushes then.

Walk down to the beach wasn't the highlight of my birding career. Plenty Robins, few Goldcrests. Raptors were busy, with 3 Buzzards hanging in the wind over Cran Hill, 2 Kestrels coming through calling, and a Peregrine making a few passes over. The Elders in the Mill garden held a male Blackcap (good) and a Garden Warbler (better - second patch record, although the first was long overdue when I got it this spring). Sorry, this photo is hand-held.

Poor photo of Garden Warbler in errr.... a garden

Four Ruddy Turnstones on the rocks off the beach, with 3 Bloody Rock Pipits and 1 Bollocking Pied Wagtail.

Holy Sylvias - to the bat-allotments, Robin. CAn ANYONE explain to me why this not heaving with interesting passerines? Mind, I saw some good sheds. Gor blimey, I need a good shed. Stick it in the back garden, fill it with old half empty tins of paint, and bottles of Brasso, and drill bits for drills that broke years ago, and retire there until the kids are leaving home. Or until I've drunk all thre Brasso

The Joy of Sheds

More Blackbirds, Goldcrests etc. down the Muchalls Track, and 6 Yellowhammers. Water Valley was a write-off again, so I braved Muchalls. I have to say that Muchalls really did look the donkey's today, with Sycamores thinning enough to get a proper look into them, and occasional loose groups of Goldcrests and Tits moving through - had high hopes of a Yellow-browed. Sadly not to be. Still haven't seen anything decent in Muchalls. Retraced my steps back to Newtonhill, adding Reed Bunting to the day list, but by this time the Muchalls Track had become a motorway of dog-walkers, joggers, retired couples out for a stroll, and other ne'er-do-wells. Someone even mistook my tripod for a rod and started singing 'Gone Fishing'!! ffs! As you know, I try to control my misanthropic tendencies, but I do wish people would just leave me the hell alone! :-0 ;-)

So, back home with only really a Garden Warbler to show for it, and the words of Axl Rose ringing in my ears about going back out and finding something, you'd expect me to be out birding in the afternoon too. Well, no. Rounded up the family and we went out to Maccie D's for food in a box and plastic toys, then a trip t
o the bookshop (I got 'A People's Tragedy' by Orlando Figes , about the Russian Revolution), and HMV (Wednesday 13 'Fang Bang'). Wasn't sure about Wednesday 13. Downloaded a song from the last album about walking with zombies... and it rocked! But i've got bitten by that sort of thing before. e.g. Taking Back Sunday - heard a good single by them on telly, and downloaded their cover of Cure's 'Just Like Heaven'. Wow, thought I, good band, so forked out for their latest album, and it was shite! Apart from that good single. I listened a couple of times and put it away for good. Except the other day I was watching Kerrang and their good single came back on, and I thought 'they are a good band, must give that album another chance', which I did, and it was still shite! Anyway, I'm listening to Wednesday 13 right now... and it rocks! Such an 80s sound. I digress.

SOooooo, we got home about 4 pm, and I thought I could maybe see what footie is on tv today.
But argh!! Noo.... Lizzie and Peter want to play outside, so I'm dragged out into the garden to draw pictures of 'Boo' in chalk on the patio, and push Pea-brain round on his scooter.
And as I'm engaging in these delights (!) suddenly I heard a volley of
whistles from the shelter belt at the back of the garden 'seeouuueee seeouuueee seeouuueee'. F*ck. 'Yellow-browed Warbler!' I shouted at Diane and ran into the house for bins. For all I know, Peter was on his side, crying in the the tangled wreckage of his scooter, (I'd let him go a bit suddenly) but he wasn't my immediate concern. By the time I got back outside, it had stopped calling, but I got onto it deep inside a bushy Elder - two big wingbars flashing at me. I moved round an had some brief views of the rest of it as it moved through the trees, fortunately at low level so Ii got the supercilium, uppers and unders etc. It headed down out of sight towards the road, so I ran out of the garden to head it off at the pass, at the bottom of the tree belt. When I got there, there was no sign, but there was a Common Chiffchaff, which just goes to show there must have been a bit of migration happening. I headed back to our garden, where about 20 min later the Y-b W turned up again, calling, and I got another brief look before dusk.

Apart from having that smug feeling that only the dedicated patch watcher can experience after finally turning up a half-decent bird after weeks of trawling the same circuit seeing nowt, I'm especially smug cos I always thought that belt of trees looked good for a Y-b W one calm October day, and it was! AND a patch tick, starting to redress the balance of those unusually common Pallas's I can't help finding.

Oh yes..... finally! I saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Are you watching this Cornell and Auburn... THIS is proof.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Save us, Oh Lord, from the fury of the Norsemen


So the kids woke up this morning, and they were hungry and wanted fed and all that, and I had to go out to the garage for some more milk. Open the back door and the garden explodes! Metaphorically. About 60 Redwings head off in all directions at speed, and there's a stream of them overhead, going inland. Looks like the Redwings are in, then. There was a stiff south-easterly blowing, so I changed my plans, took the day off... and went out birding. C'mon! :-)

So I guess Redwings were the dish of the day. I went down my usual circuit along to the beach, back into Newtonhill, then down to Muchalls. In the first few minutes after dawn there were hundreds of Redwings streaming over, but by about 9 am they had slowed to a trickle and by 10 I was mostly flushing singles from brambles etc. Reckon they must have kept going inland.

You'd hope that they'd be kept company by all sorts of other interesting things, but largely that wasn't the case. There was only 1 Goldcrest down the track to the beach, for example, and maybe a few more Blackbirds than normal, but not many more. As I ploughed through the bracken to the lone sycamores down the beach track, I flushed a Pheasant, for another heart attack. About 10 Robins (normal), few Wrens, etc. Won't bore you with what was going on at the beach (remember this is the bloody North Pole, in October, so it didn't involve nudey sunbathing), but a 30 min seawatch was OK. A Black-throated Diver (second patch record) was the star, going south with 2 Red-throated Divers. 4 Great Skuas north, and 2 Arctic Skuas. 40 Common Scoters (5 north, 35 south), and 8 Common Goldeneyes south. There were about 600 Gannets north per hour, smaller numbers of auks, a few Kittiwakes and 1 Fulmar.

Small flocks of Redwings were still coming in off the North Sea. Not kidding... one of them came in just over the waves and landed on the rocks below me for a rest. That is SUCH a cliché!! Obviously, I wouldn't wish any bird actual harm, but if ever a bird deserved to die of shame... well there you are.

Allotments - how can somewhere so that looks so good be so dead? Roe Deer in the gorse by the Muchalls Track - how can something so dead look so good? Down a the farmhouse garden along the Muchalls track, I saw my only Fieldfare of the day, and started to seriously flush some Song Thrushes. Normally I'd see maybe 2 Song Thrushes along this stretch... 4 on a good day if I found them all. Today, over 20, and very flighty. Male Blackcap and several Yellowhammers in the Water Valley, but devoid of Yellow-browed Warblers, which always seems an injustice. I pished till I fainted, but the willows would only spew out a couple of Goldcrests. So the day didn't really live up to its early promise, but it was better than a slap in the face with a cold fish. On the way back from Muchalls, a Common Snipe flew in and landed in the stubble by the railway line. Definite late autumn feel. I turned my phone on for the first time in a few days and got two messages from Harry to tell me about the Canada Warbler. Glad he wasn't trying to tell me it was at Cove. I'd have been crapping myself.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Birdspotting in Newtonhill

Jeepers etc. I had a really boring morning trawling round Newtonhill looking for birds. Saw plenty of Dunnocks, though. Actually, in the spirit of international communication, I'll give them their official IOC English name, which is of course, the Dull Prunella. I was mildly embarrassed to see 2 Collared Doves at it like knives on the track up from the Mill, especially when I noticed there was also a condom discarded by the side of the path, too. Blue one. I guess Collared Doves didn't blitzkrieg their way across the Middle East and Europe by practising safe sex. A Common Treecreeper around the clifftop cottages was only my second patch record, but although the Allotments were busy, they were busy with more Dull Prunellas, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Robins and Wrens. Tree Sparrows breed in Muchalls, but one on the wires above the Community Park was my first in Newtonhill - mind it went away fast enough. Plenty of Goldcrests in the gorse down the Muchalls track, but the trees in Water Valley were empty, so took the plunge into Muchalls itself. Argh! The twitching curtains... twitching, twitching, twitching. The smell of nicely upholstered Audis... the gardeners with wheelbarrows full of clippings. No birds. Not my greatest triumph. Hoping for better weather duringthe week.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker....

... is an 'enemy of Freedom', and hangs around with terrorists and murderers. I have proof...

Mind, at least that one is real. This is meant to be secret, but forensic analysis of this at has revealed that the IBWO in the videos below may be a fake. Make up your own mind.

Unlike the ones in Florida, which are real. But sound like baby deer. I already posted this on BirdForum, but in for a penny etc. Right, 'kent' sound from Florida, clear evidence of presence of IBWO. Left, 'bleat' call of a young White-tailed Deer. Superficially bloody identical.

Deer is from
Acoustics of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Larry W. Richardson; Harry A. Jacobson; Robert J. Muncy; Carroll J. Perkins
Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 64, No. 2. (May, 1983), pp. 245-252.
Stable URL:

'Kent' is from
Hill, G. E., D. J. Mennill, B. W. Rolek, T. L. Hicks, and K. A. Swiston. 2006. Evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) exist in Florida. Avian Conservation and Ecology - Écologie et conservation des oiseaux 1(3): 2. [online] URL:

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sammy the Shrew... dead but not forgotten

As you know, no one appreciates a dead shrew more than I. I'd forgotten about this, til just now. On Sunday, I was stood at the Mill in the rain, seeing no birds, and with a river of mud and water sloshing around my feet coming down the hill. I was in danger of getting bored, until I noticed a dead Common Shrew being washed down in the flood. In comedy fashion, rolling and tumbling. I laughed like a drain. A happy one. Later, up at the allotments, my wee heart leaped for joy when I saw another dead shrew, but on closer inspection, it turned out to be an onion skin. Is this what the internet is for, or what?

Lunchtime Tuesday - took a walk round Westburn and Victoria Parks, Aberdeen, listening for Yellow-browed Warblers. Not happening, but I did get crippling views of 2 Common Treecreepers, and a Great-spotted Woodpecker. A few Goldcrests too, which is always encouraging. One of the treecreeprs defied common dogma by walking vertically down the tree. I'm disturbed... how will I tell them from Nuthatches now?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Bird the weather

Bird the weather, they say. They presumably didn't say it in bloody Scotland in October. Rain battering against the windows this morning. And I mean TIPPING down. But this was my first chance to get out birding for a week, and quite possible my last for another week - I hate it when the students come back and we have to start doing some work. Not really... I love it! :-) So it was now or never - I birded the weather. I weathered the weather. I wore the weather. Yes, on the plus side, at least my army surplus coat got a long overdue rinse through. Not kidding tho, the water dripping out the bottom of it was grey/yellow like dirty dishwater. Mmmm... maybe I'll be able to let it in the house now.
Still, maybe there might be some migrants brought down? Maybe there were, but not easy to see. 1 Blackcap in the Mill garden, a few Barn Swallows, 1 Goldcrest. A stream of Gannets going north offshore, and plenty gulls, a couple of Sandwich Terns, 25 Red Knots flying past. Actually nothing very interesting, unless you actually were one of those birds. When I got home 4 hours later, I had to stand in the hall while my family laid blotting paper all round the floors and walls before I could come in. *Of course* as soon as I got in, it stopped raining and brightened up. I could have expected that.

And also came home to bad news from the Newtonhill Rare Birds Committee*.
'Dear Martin, the NRBC has examined your record of a Long-tailed Skua offshore on 17th September 2006. Although we sympathise with the difficult circumstances surrounding the observation, the digitally recorded description you submitted did not rule out the possibility of 'f***'! As such we cannot, on this occasion, accept your record. Please be assured that rejection does not imply that a mistake has been made, merely that insufficient details were submitted to confirm the identification. Yours sincerely, NRBC.'

Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

*Actually, I suspect the NRBC is in fact my evil twin brother, Marvin, who only comes out at night.