Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wanted to get some (Winter) Wrens' songs today. Bum! Battery flat in RememBird thingy. And it's raining. Haven't I suffered enough?! Apparently not, cos there's no birds in Newtonhill either. Had a good look round though. A Skylark singing while in flight over the bay. Fantastic territory, the sea - wide horizons with good visibility for spotting predators coming, but crap nest-site opportunities. A Peregrine round the muddy quagmire that is Cran Hill, giving the Herring Gulls and Feral Rock Doves a bit of exercise and something to think about. 2 Mallards flying round and round in wide circles over N/hill for the best part of 2 hours. it doesn't get any better than this. I was counting Chaffinches at the Retreat (11 - didn't take long) when my mood was improved by a text from Harry saying he found a Caspian Gull. It was in Cork, so I didn't go for it. But I did try and find one of my own, but the 50 Herring Gulls feeding by the railway line didn't produce the goods.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Sooooo.... take a look at this. I'm the LAST person to suggest that we try to impose our judaeo-christian values on other countries and cultures who might have different values, and there are large parts of the World where people would laugh at the inherent sentimentality in the video. But at the same time there have to be better ways of doing this. Preferably that involve not doing it.

And if you want to, there's a petition here

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Watching - a televisual hero of the birding revolution, probably.

For those of you who don't watch enough telly, at least in the UK, Watching was a late 80s/early 90s sitcom about (wait for it) an ugly socially inept birdwatcher getting a girlfriend. hee hee. Yes, a minor miracle, but it has been known. I liked it at first - gormless birder 'Malcolm' (Paul Bown) meets over-the-top polka-dotted hair-ribboned, ear-ringed, brash scouse 80s stereotype, reasonably pretty 'Brenda' (Emma Wray) in the pub, and they somehow hit it off, much to the annoyance of Malcolm's posh mum (Patsy Byrne). Not only an undertone of good old fashioned sexual discovery, but an overtone (eh?) of class war as well, AND, bearing in mind I was 18 at the time, Malcolm was kind-of living the dream. In a comedy tradition that could only have come straight from 1972, Malcolm had a clapped out old motorbike that needed constant tinkering, AND a sidecar, for putting Brenda in.

As I recall, in the early episodes there was actually some birding in it, but in later series (that I saw less of) birds had pretty much tailed off. Jeessus Malcolm was wet. He was of the 'Well, if a rare bird jumped up in front of me I'd be happy, but I'm not going to twitch one' l
evel. I need someone to confirm this... but I'm pretty certain that the ahem, beautiful symmetry of the programme derived from a weak early plotline that Brenda and her sister were 'people watchers' in some way... I might have dreamed that bit, so let me know. But most of all... I have to salute Watching for awakening a generation of teenage men to the murky waters of secretly fancying Liza Tarbuck (Brenda's sister). Don't you agree? Well, maybe that was just me then.

I'd like to think there's a little bit of Malcolm and Brenda in all of us. Ugh, actually, no, I'd like not to think that... but now the image won't go away.

Emma Wray - comedy genius

Watching - we salute you

Sunday, February 18, 2007

It's *not* very common, it *doesn't* happen to every man and it *is* a big deal. Or something

Thanks to Tom for reminding me of this one.... October 1980 - a great month in the history of British birding journalism. This paper has gone down in birding lore. Moss, R. 1980; British Birds 73: 440-447.

Why are (Western) Capercaillie cocks so big?

All the more amusing for puerile people like me is that the answer is that the females prefer bigger cocks. In fact the bigger cocks also drive the other males away, thus showing that not only does size matter, but what they do counts too.

Today was a fantastic sunny day to be out birding. Nice and calm too in Newtonhill. Plenty of birds being busy. An abnormal number of Sky Larks going through as well (50+) - mostly heading inland. Dunno if they were using the nice weather to head off whence they had came during the icy blast.

27 Common Eiders offshore, of which 15 were male, 2 with the traditional green-grey bill, 13 with the enterprising largely yellow offering, and 1 on these with obvious scapular 'sails'. Make of that what you will.

Ker-ching! The hedge bordering the Mill garden has been 'cut' (read 'flailed') by one of those nasty drive-by chain-thrashing thingies that farmers use. It's destroyed - bad for the hedge, but good for me as it will be much easier to get a good look into the garden this spring. Don't know why people would do that to their garden, but in this case... bravo!

Monday, February 12, 2007

To the person...

... who got into the Secret Freezer doing a Google for 'see three lady in freezer' - Shame On You!

Othe popular Google searches that get people here include:

'I must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky'
'Momma told me there'd be days like this'
'How to get smell out of freezer'

and occasionally

'freezer making noise like cow' (we've all been there).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Day After Tomorrow

So the observant ones will have noticed that today wasn't an ideal day to be out birding. At least not in North Scotland. I don't know about the rest of the World, cos we've lost all contact with it. In fact this post was hand-written on the back of a Be-bop Deluxe album sleeve and posted by pigeon to an internet cafe in Tangier for uploading. Looked out of the window this morning and saw how wet it was, and actually the prospect of watching several episodes of Birding with Bill Oddie on UKTV Gardens was quite appealing. MMmmmmm... Bill Oddie, put your hands all over my body. But after half an hour of that I decided it was time to tool up and get out. It was one of those days when even the old army coat wasn't going to keep me dry, so I got my 'proper' waterproof. I hardly ever use it - bought it about 10 years ago.... in the shop it looked like a darker version of a subdued airforce blue/grey colour. When I got it outside in the daylight (£105 later) it turned out it was fluorescent blue!! Fantastic for being spotted by mountain rescue when only your arms are sticking out of the snow; crap for creeping up on birds unobserved. Does the job though, if 'the job' is keeping dry and not enjoying leisurely views of relaxed passerines. Still, today it didn't matter becasue the only things I was going to see were the ones I flushed, so maybe it was a benefit.

Eventually out, and as I sheltered behind the Cypress hedge at the Mill gar
den, a male Goosander (Common Merganser) flew over, going inland. Could be quite a valuable patch year list tick that one. In five years I've seen three here, including that one, so it wasn't guaranteed. Just goes to show it's always worth going out. Flushed a few Chaffinches on my way down the track, and stopped in the bay to admire huge waves crashing into the shore and someone with a 'See you jimmy' hat, complete with red hair, pottering about on the pebbles.

This is a see-you jimmy hat, for those going 'wtf?'. Bit of Scottish culture for you.

Difficult to see what was going on offshore, so I climbed up to the big green box for the pump at the Wastewater Pumping station, in the teeth of the weather (cold and wet and windy). I managed to wedge myself into the gap between the box and the wall (with some difficulty, it's about 30 cm wide), and by twisting round could get a look out to sea without getting sprayed by water. It was err... well worth it. About 40 Herring Gulls hovering in the wind in a line along the edge of the white water of the surf, swooping down to get food items. I don't care where you're from, that looks like hard work. With nothing else on view, I went back home through the village, calling in at all the gardens with bird feeders. SO I saw lots of House Sparrows, Starlings, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, a few European Goldfinches and a couple of mad dog walkers.

Bad weather continued in the afternoon to the extent that I got so bored and desperate that I cleaned the kitchen. I found a dead moth and an earwig under the George Forman Lean Mean Fatbusting Grilling Machine. I scrubbed the sink, cleaned down the side of the fridge and even swept the floor. It's not like me at all. Mind, I wore my leather jeans to maintain the rock n' roll image. Figured I'd get my midlife crisis in nice and early. Hope things improve tomorrow.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A competition

... and I am actually offering a prize. let's see what I've got lying around here..... OK, there is a CD-ROM of 12 FUN Disney girl game demos and a 100 ml tub of Body Shop Hemp Foot Protector (wtf??) for the clever person, probably UK-based, who can tell me what this has got to do with birding.
Have I fallen in his spell?
Does he drown me in Chanel?
Is he vibrant? Is he hell!
So what do I see in him?

Am I dazzled by his style?
Has he made my life worthwhile?
Does he melt me with his smile?
Don't make me laugh.

Every inch of him is limp.
He's a 14-carat wimp.
I would rather have a chimp
As my other half.

But then I'm not blessed with charm.
I bring chaos where there was calm.

So the question should be
What does he see in me?

Now *that's* marketing!

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.... it is May 1919 and popular birdspotting magazine British Birds (the original and best) springs a nasty surprise on its war-weary readership. A 50% (fifty!) increase in price.

Mind... that extra money did pay for a complete redesign of the magazine. Look here - it's barely recognisable. The grouse is facing a different way, and The Zoologist is consigned to the rubbish bin of history. And E. J. Peele has stopped signing her copies in disgust.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Killer Thriller

OoooKay. My first twitch of the year. What could possibly have drawn Martin out of his Newtonhill hermit cave? A time-managing visit to my Dad with Black Scoter thrown in? A choice of Pacific Divers? A year-tick Barrow's Goldeneye or and American Robin? Black-eared Kite? An outside bet on a quick cross-ocean dash for Black-throated Thrush? Ha! Nothing so obvious! (But jeeez what a fantastic choice for February). Nope... down to the Forth for Killer Whales. I get the feeling it's not very PC, but I'm going to call them Killer Whales. None of that Orca nonsense - I know what they're up to. Actually, doesn't 'Orca' mean 'demon' or devil' or something. Either way, I bet mummy seals tell stories about them to warn their babies to be good.
Ian B offered me a lift and the lure was too strong. Tigers and Killer Whales are the two predators you have to see before you die. Even if it's just before you die! A tart's tick, but when they're on a plate...

...except they weren't on a plate. We got to South Queensferry (home of smugglers and press-gangs) at 8.30, but didn't see a Killer Whale until nearly 11 o' clock, under the Fo
rth rail bridge. By that time we'd been along at Hound Point looking at Common Eiders, Bar-tailed Godwits, a Red-breasted Merganser and Shags, from where I sent Diane a text to tell her I was freezing my swonnicles off. She sent a text back saying the kids had been up since 7 and she had a rotten hangover caused by drinking too much iced tea and rosewater at her friend's house last night.

And it was 1 o' clock before we finally got views of the white bits, turning UTVs into UTBs. (eh?). By that time we'd gone back over the river to North Queensferry and shimmied round the side of someone's house to get a magnificent panorama of the firth with 2 Killer Whales swimming about, harassed by a couple of yachts but apparently feeding well. I say 2 - they never showed at the same time, but there were two fin shapes on display - both female-type but one taller one with a bit of a kink, and one rounder one. They/it would come up 3-4 times in succession, then disappear for 4-5 min
utes. Underwater. Magnificent beasts, looked powerful. Do you know they take adult Polar Bears? Not in North Queensferry, normally, but it was something to think about as we perched on the slippery stone pier at NQ with a fresh wind pushing us sideways. Actually, before the first sighting at 11 ish, I was at the point of stripping naked and swimming round in the river making baby seal noises. Glad it didn't come to that.

There's a BBC report on them, with a link to a bit of video HERE.

Belatedly, here's a rubbish picture of those Grey Partridges that turned up in our neighbour's garden across the road in September (posted here). They were driven out of their favourite field by some heinous muckspreading. Sorry I didn't have the digital camera at hand, so it was done with Diane's old fashioned film camera on max zoom, but no light, hand held. Hence it's shit.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

More faux-borealis Common Eiders

See Norman van Swelm's delightfully quirky 'Radioactive Robins'

He posted on ID Frontiers to point out these 'borealis' Common Eiders
on the Dutch coast, and to ask if any others had turned up recently.

Norman and I have a long history of good-natured and light-hearted
antagonism, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time but probably
involved a disagreement over gulls.

So I was hoping someone else would take this up and educate me too,
but no one did, so I posted...

If no one else is taking this up, I'll start, cos
it's been bugging me all month. There have been
a few borealis reported around the place in recent
weeks (quite impressive for a bird with only one
accepted british record), so I started checking
our local birds (NE Scotland) more carefully.
Certainly birds with yellow-orange bills are
remarkably common around me and I have seen one or
two with extended scapular sails, and one or two
orange-billed ones that appear to show no sails,
and a reddish female. You can read the semi-literate
'lite' version of what's been going on in George
Bristow's Secret Freezer (
28th and 21st jan entries, with photos).
Have to say, based on my personal prejudices,
which I know you always agree with norman, that
given the known tendency of european Eiders to
shown yellow/mustard tones in the bill, I'm
inclined to think there's a good chance that
they are local breeders. Especially the ones
without good sails like on your site :-) If you
can go back to June entries on the blog there's
a photo of one of the local males with a yellow
bill (but no sails). Blogger seems a bit
screwed up just now, so let me know if you want
any files mailed.

Norman got back with a typically informative reply:

My dear Martin, believe me I am not responsible for Canadian
Eiders breeding in Scotland! May be the same people who were
responsible for the introduction of American Ruddy Ducks in
England are, ask Malcolm Ogilvie. Or 'climate change'? Seen
any icebergs lately? If so, Polar Bears may follow soon!

How do you know your June bird is a local breeder? High Arctic
birds leave Europe from late May onwards and some stay f.i.
because the weather is unfavourable at the time of departure.
I have seen large numbers of seaducks along the Atlantic
coast of Ireland in summer.

The 'sails', if visible, may indicate an arctic origin but are
of no value in determining the bird's subspecies. The
impression is that these 'sails' are being kept down most of
the time so if you maintain Garner's criterion that 'sails'
must be seen than I am not surprised there's only one accepted
British record!
Have a glass of wine with Mrs.Collinson my lad.


Angus Wilson was confused too, but had a good reference:
Can anyone point me to recent literature or good web sites
that summarize the identification criteria for subspecific
ID of Common Eiders?

I'm familiar with some of the classic accounts (e.g. Parkes'
descriptions in Palmer's "Handbook of North American birds"
(1976) and Knapton's 1997 article "Identification of female
Common Eider subspecies in Canada." Birders J. 6: 134–136)
but wondered if there is anything more recent or from a
European perspective.

In light of recent discussions, it seems worth keeping in mind
the following list in the Birds of North America bibliography:

Baker, A. J., A. Grapputo, K. Dickson, S. Wendt, K. Scribner.

Mitochondrial DNA control region sequence variation in Common
Eiders reveals extensive mixing of subspecies. Abstract.
First North American Duck Symposium and Workshop, Baton Rouge,

Cheers, Angus Wilson
New York City, USA

Then Martin Scott provided the killer info on the local provenance of these Eiders.
I didn't know about the ringed bird.

There has been a lot of discussion about this among some of the
Scottish birders of late (as I am sure Martin is aware)

One, of four, "sailed" birds on the Ythan Estuary north of
Aberdeen bears a ring which has been traced to it being ringed
at the same locality as a nestling c.20 years ago. Thereby
either "boreal" Eiders have been breeding in Scotland since at
least then, and have gone undetected or they aint Boreals........

We have also had sailed birds in the Outer Hebrides. Some of thes
have also different in lobe shape (eastern Scottish birds seem
to have pointed lobes, western ones rounded) and in structure.
Perhaps here in the Hebrides we are getting birds of a NW/ Nearctic
origin. Is bill colour so important?

Overall I dont think Boreal Eider is as 'easy' as has been suggested.
Perhaps not every bird with a sail is a Boreal.

Work in progress is the label for this one!

I think I'm happy that borealis is not an easy one to clinch in the field, that
diagnosability is not fully figured out, and that these 'borealis-ish' ones we
see are local breeders.