Sunday, April 29, 2007
Offshore - the usual auks, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars. 3 Red-throated Divers went north, and a trickle of Northern Gannets. There were maybe 50 Atlantic Puffins dotted around on the water - mostly just loafing, or fishing (it's the miracle of the loafs and the fishes), but one of them spent 20 minutes being ripped apart by a Great Black-backed Gull. As I was watching, a Great Skua flew in from the south, deviating neither to the right nor the left, went straight to the Gbb/Puffin love-in at low level and took over. The gull, obviously a bird of experience and discretion, knew it was beaten and flew off without a fight. Thinks it's hard? Didn't stand a chance. the Great Skua spent another 20 min enjoying the Puffin. I bet the Puffin's ghost was having a good cackle.
A Barn Swallow flew over the allotments (only one I saw today - v thin on the ground), and I met a couple from Muchalls who's neighbour had seen a Common Buzzard catching a pigeon on their lawn. Did I know her, Christine? The one with the new gate. Opposite the noticeboard? No I didn't, but I went to Muchalls anyway. And indeed saw the new gate - it's a corker. No interesting birds though. As the Puffin was too distant, i didn't get any photos of dead birds either, but I hope these rabbit entrails go some way to redress the balance.
And this picture looking south from Muchalls. Here be Eiders.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Recorded with Remembird. Sonagram from Syrinx. If Carlsberg made birdsong, it would probaby be the best birdsong inthe World.
Click here to listen to 'Winter-Wren-NE-Scotland-April-2007'
And does anyone want a shot at identifying this one?
Not a whole lot more migrants about, although as the morning warmed up the House Martins started hawking about over the railway viaduct. Apart from the outside chance of a good migrant, what I like most about these calm spring mornings is hearing the Common Eiders 'ooh'ing in the bay, and the sight of small numbers Atlantic Puffins dotted around the flat sea.
On the rocks off the cliffs, I spotted a couple of these yellow-billed Common Eiders - note how they're paired up. Also 4 spanking Ruddy Turnstones (but that's enough of their fetishes). A single Manx Shearwater went north in the few minutes I looked out, and 7 Northern Gannets.
Photos of yellow-billed Eiders. Phone cam sorry, hence not great. But you can see the yellow bits.
Btw who's original any more? Not me, apparently. Well worth a trip to the IBWO Skeptic blog where Tom kindly linked to yesterday's storytime, but check out the third comment down (especially) by anonymous. Also the summaryof David Sibley's talk, posted here. It's like we're reading from the same script.
Take a look at my patch - it's the only one I got.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Argh! Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.... you gotta love ’em. I suppose the fairytale ending to the recent Ivorybill saga is that one pops out on a branch in front of someone with a camera for a couple of minutes, or the robobirders get an image, or something. But at the moment it feels like it’s the only bird in the world that is impossible to get onto properly. They can be calling from both sides of you (apparently) you can hear them repeatedly, but you can’t see one. It’s in a club of 1 of species that can be that bad to see. So until the day when the question is resolved, I’m taking a tour of this club of 1, from a birding perspective. Here goes...
A parable... let’s suppose I have a friend. No! That’s tooooo far- fetched. Let’s assume someone else, maybe you, has a friend who is a keen birder. This friend knows his local area very well and is very familiar with the normal common birds that occur on his patch. There’s lots of Common Whitethroats there. He’s seen thousands over the years there. He can identify them expertly on jizz on very brief views, because he sees them all the time. Then one day in the middle of May migration he rings you up and says he’s been out looking for good birds and has seen a *very* rare bird, say a vagrant Spectacled Warbler (something very different from a Common Whitethroat, but possibly confusable on brief views) in a dense patch of scrub. Actually he only saw it in flight, but he’s adamant that it was too small to be a Common Whitethroat, and he saw the face pattern. The news is on BirdGuides so you and your pals all go round to see this Spectacled Warbler, and you take your cameras, and when you first arrive at the site you see a Common Whitethroat, but that’s OK cos you know there’s lots of Common Whitethroats around, you wander round trying to relocate the bird. More people arrive and time drags on. And then something funny happens... there are a number of claims of the bird being sighted. Unfortunately, it’s only ever seen in flight. It appears to be very elusive. And scared of people. Most Spectacled Warblers are a bit elusive, not always easy to see, but with a bit of patience very good views can normally be obtained. Like most Sylvia warblers, as it happens. But not this one. Lots of people getting excellent views and photos of Common Whitethroats. But all the views of the Spectacled Warbler are either millisecond-brief, and/or flying away. Whenever a bird comes out into the open to be grilled at close range by the masses, it turns out to be a Common Whitethroat. In fact the behaviour of this Spectacled Warbler is quite at odds with the reported behaviour of Spectacled Warblers. And another thing – most of the people looking for this bird see nothing. I mean, they see Common Whitethroats quite well, and they see Common Whitethroats quite poorly, but they don’t see anything they feel is the Spectacled Warbler. Meanwhile, your pal, and a couple of other people, who aren’t any better at birding than the other would-be observers, are claiming to have seen the Spectacled Warbler flying away several times. Multiple sightings by a small number of people, zero sightings by the majority.
Now, I’m kind-of being careful not to refer to any particular incident :-) but scenarios like this do happen, all over the birding scene. From a birding point of view, there are a lot of things here that don’t add up. The unusual behaviour of the bird, the unusual non-random spread of successful observers, the failure of anyone to see the bird on the deck, the non-normal distribution of length of sightings. Cos as birders, we ‘know’ that birds don’t behave that way. If the bird was still present, then anyone with sufficient patience and an average supply of luck would eventually get tickable views. The reason why this is not happening is that the bird (if it was ever present, of which more in a tick) has gone, or died. Whichever, it’s not there, and all reports after the initial claim are erroneous claims by a small number of observers.
Again, maybe the fairytale ending is that in the evening, after all the twitchers have gone away, your pal does actually get a decent photo of the Spectacled Warbler – it was present all along, and what we birders ‘know’ was wrong. A moral: not to listen to the naysayers and doom mongers, and a triumph for real field birding and to have the courage of your convictions. In fact, I can’t think of a situation where that has ever happened. What happened instead is that your pal got a video of what he thinks is the Spectacled Warbler in flight. He passes it round you all for a look, and in fact it could possibly be one. Actually, it could be a Whitethroat too, and some people point out features that favour Whitethroat, whereas others think it’s too small and has too much rufous in the wings to be a Whitethroat, and favour the possibility that it was a Spectacled Warbler. Whichever way people lean, they all accept there is some doubt, EXCEPT your pal, who against all reason, given the very poor quality of the images, is adamant that there is no possibility this was a Whitethroat, that it had to be a Spectacled Warbler. He submits it to the rarities committee, but the evidence is inconclusive. Your pal continues to search for the Spectacled Warbler, and for a few weeks he keeps getting frustratingly brief views of the bird in flight, or behind branches - enough to encourage him to keep looking, but not enough to clinch the identification. Of course you support your friend, you help him out as much as you can, but eventually, if you're a real friend, you point out that the bird has not been seen for some time now, and that for his own sake, it's time to LET GO!
So... how did he get to this stage? First, perhaps not fully relevant, but may be a factor, is that we see what we are looking for. Your pal was out looking for a rarity, and he saw a bird flitting across a gap between two bushes, and he was in a mindset where a rarity was possible, so he hadn't identified this bird and it looked small and looked like a Spectacled Warbler. So why wasn't it one? Well actually no reason. It could have been one, although given the balance of probabilities it was probably something commoner, so he's going to have to be sure. Frustratingly he didn't get a better view, although he explained what he saw to another birder passing by who also has a look round and this person also thought they had a brief view of 'the bird' moving off through some dense foliage, obscured. Now your pal had a problem. He had scribbled down his notes, honestly, about what he saw as soon as he could, and he reviews them after a couple of hours searching round for the bird, and he is convinced that he saw a Spectacled Warbler. He has described a diagnostic feature - the face pattern. But he needs help, so he makes the decision to release the news. Now an unconscious process starts; his description of the bird starts to develop feature 'creep'. As more people ask him about the bird, everything becomes a bit more definite. He doesn't even realise he's doing it. He's not lying, but in his own mind he is satisfied he saw a rare bird, and he wants it to be confirmed. After a bit of light questioning by the Bird News Services, the news is released as Spectacled Warbler. People arrive and start looking, and some people ‘see’ it, briefly, flying away, behind a branch etc. All very unsatisfying.
After a day or so of unsuccessful searching, the majority of the twitchers start to mumble among themselves that actually no one has seen this bird very well, that the video could be anything, even a Muscovy Duck, and start to wander off muttering the possibility of the ‘s’ word, i.e. string or, more charitably, the bird has gone. In fact, most people on the outside, who haven’t been to see the bird and in many cases are miles away in another country, are of the general opinion by now that a mistake has been made, and some say so quite rudely. Maybe they even set up a blog to slag your friend off. Your friend, however, has now invested so much of himself and his energy into this bird, that he cannot accept this – he needs it to be accepted, partly through saving face, partly because he’s having an internal crisis of confidence. He crosses a line from conviction to delusion, and keeps going back searching for a bird that is frankly, not there. Quite possibly there never was a Spectacled Warbler. The moral of the story, as rarities committees around the world will tell you, is that very brief sightings and honest field notes based on brief sightings of birds in flight are liable to be inaccurate because your brain ‘overlays’ the image on your retina with the ‘interpretation’ based on experience and expectation.
And there is a final twist to the story. When news was released of the Spectacled Warbler that your pal thinks he found, some birders a couple of hundred miles away realised that it was spring, and migration was happening, and they should be out birding, and maybe they could find their own Spectacled Warbler. So they headed to likely looking piece of habitat, some coastal scrub at a migration hotspot or something, and as they got out of the car the first bird they saw was a Spectacled Warbler! Or, at least they thought it was. It was flying off, only a millisecond view, but they saw it was small and saw a diagnostic feature, lets say the face pattern again, so they had a good look round and saw the bird in flight again a bit later – this time they saw the extent of rufous coloration in the wings, and release the news. Indeed, this report looked better than your pal’s sighting, because they have seen more of the bird and produce immediate honest field notes. Twitchers came, they searched, but no one saw it apart from the two pals and their uncle, who came along afterwards – always in flight, brief views. Everyone saw lots of Common Whitethroats– sometimes well, sometimes poorly, but whenever a potential Spectacled Warbler came out into the open, it was a Whitethroat. But it didn’t matter, because the original report had legs, it was a firm sighting backed up by a sighting of the same species elsewhere – an influx! Only later, when your friend’s original sighting on his patch a couple of hundred miles away had been widely disparaged, did rumbles start to mumble(!) about this second sighting too. ‘Another example where no one can get a clear view of the bird’ and damagingly ‘it’s too much of a coincidence that these last 2 birders would see the species they were looking for as soon as they arrived on site’ and ‘most damagingly ‘if the first record was bollocks, what are the chances of the second one being a mistake too’? In hindsight, it becomes obvious – without confirmation of presence of Spectacled Warbler at either site, it stretches credulity to think of the second report as anything other than a Disney-esque story. Of course, a group of birders keep searching for this second bird. Maybe they’re still there, working towards the Disney-esque ending when the princess wakes up and everyone cheers. Maybe they're right.
Now, this tale is MADE UP. FICTION! But it is based (without even mentioning Ivory-billed Woodpecker) on my 20 years experience of the birding scene, as a twitcher, patch-worker, occasionally ornithologist, of scenarios and behaviour that have been seen, in greater or lesser form, time and time again. Usually with no harm being done in the big game of birding. Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book covers some of these issues more succinctly and with more wit. But then, coming as an outsider to the whole Ivorybill episode (of which the video is only a small part), some of the same little cameos would appear to be being played out. All the alarm bells are ringing:
1) rarity behaving atypically,
2) rarity seen briefly soon after arrival at site, but very elusive afterwards,
3) all views of rarity are brief, or distant, or handicapped by lack of optics or photos,
4) birds seen well, for long periods and photographed, are of the common confusion species,
5) small number of observers with more than one sighting, majority with none.
In the apparent continued absence of confirmation of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the USA, it is possible to postulate a potential alternative scenario whereby the species is in fact not present, and that all the reported sightings fit a well rehearsed pattern of genuine error compounded by human psychology of reward behaviour. In fact there would be nothing at all unusual, on the basis of my experience, for these post-2004 Ivorybill records to all arise out of woodlands where there are no Ivorybills. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that Ivorybills don’t exist or that the observers are necessarily wrong.
Maybe Ivorybills don’t exist. Maybe they do persist at the edge of extinction in very small numbers in areas of good habitat and have mysteriously developed behaviour patterns that make them virtually impossible to see. What I’m getting at is that we could get the same pattern of sightings (or ‘sightings’ – your choice!) in either case. Until the killer photo, please.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
In the recent spirit of sexual deviancy and posting pictures of dead birds on one's blog, I offer this thing. Does anyone want a shot at identifying it? For scale, the tip of my DM is top right.
There's a hole in my DM. Which was strange, cos shortly after I realised that I looked to the sky, where an elephant's eye was looking at me from a bubble gum tree. But all that I knew was the hole in my shoe that was letting in water (letting in water... letting in water).
I guess this is always worth a re-run too.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Previously published in Birding World vol 15 page 386.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
On the way home, a Barn Swallow had arrived at the farm along the Muchalls track (wasn't there on the way out) and similarly a Willow Warbler had started singing in the Secret Garden.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
On the way back down the hill a crossbill sp. (actually, it had a small bill,I'm going to call it a Common Crossbill) female perched high in the spruces, but was chased off before I could get a call recorded. I did record this ?interesting sequence of 2 Coal Tits song-duelling across a path - one going a fast 'pitchoo pi-tchoo pi-tchoo' answered on the other side by a slower 'wee-woo wee-woo wee-woo'. The background talking is Peter looking for dinosaur poo in the woods. See what I have to contend with? Worse was, he found some! Between you and me, I think it's dog. But bless, he doesn't know, and he's so proud of it now, sat on his bookshelf.
On the way back, a Barn Swallow flew across the road - first for the year for me :-O
Up and about early, spotted what I thought would turn out to be 2 Eurasian Siskins in the alders up at the other side of the burn, top of the bank. Bins up and turns out not Siskins (three cheers for my sharp spotting skills), but a couple of Redpolls. Patch year tick! But bollocks! Some idiot has split them. Now I’m going to have to identify them properly. Of course they would be Lessers... OK, scope time, jeeezus. Actually, one of them was distinctly cold looking with a greyish base colour to the supercilium, nape and ‘shawl’, continuing onto the mantle, and big obvious white greater covert wing-bar. Potential flammea Common Redpoll. Getting complicated, cos I can’t think what the wear and fading should be like – probably Lessers should have pale/white wing bars by now? And I couldn’t see the rump. The other bird was a pink male, actually darker and buffier, with a brown rump, quite a typical cabaret. The first bird dropped out of sight, but I think they were +/- the same size. I can’t claim one of each. Well I can, but only for the purposes of year listing – no one would believe me. And rightly so. Bollocks again. Without the rump of bird 1, there’s nothing more I can do, and actually pretty certain they were both cabaret.
Cran Hill really should have had a Ring Ousel on it, but I was basically blundering about in the fog with not much chance of seeing things. Some Skylarks gamely tried to sing a bit, but they were backing a losing horse today. I pished a stonking male Eurasian Reed Bunting out of the gorse and even took a recording of its wonderful calls.
Reed Bunting, null points
I walked round to Backburn Farm to get my first Barn Swallows of the year. But they aren’t in yet. That’s it. Chips n’ hame.
Friday, April 13, 2007
Taking the car for its MOT and Service in Stonehaven, grrrr.... but brought my bins with me for a look at the beach. Could be an expensive birding trip. Could be a boring one too, from the first look at the sea, with about 50 Herring Gulls on the water, 30 Common Eiders. And a Mallard. Ooh, and 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. But that was it. In the distance, a Bottle-nosed Dolphin broke cover, but seeing it was in danger of getting me interested in something, it went away again. Toddle round to the harbour, a bigger flock of 200 Herring Gulls, with a few Black-legged Kittiwakes and Northern Fulmars feasting on raw sewage offshore. 50 Common Scoters flew south in a flock, and also a Red-breasted Merganser here. Then a bit of action as a House Martin flew over, going north along the coast. Traditionally, I get Sand Martin (Bank Swallow) and Barn Swallow before House Martin, but not this year. Still, I’m not proud and I have no dignity, so I’ll take this one. A Peregrine Falcon over the harbour too.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
So, my droogs, O my brothers, an early April Easter full of all sorts of ambivalence. But at least it was a nice day. A pair of Grey Wagtails on the Elsick burn, with the male in full song, and a White-throated Dipper here too. Everything was in full song today. I couldn't hear myself think again, but this time in a good way. Among the Robins, Dunnocks, Winter Wrens etc... a Bullfinch was a patch year tick.
Off the seacliffs, there were 60 Razorbills and 40 Common Guillemots. The Razorbills are more obviously paired up, swimming around in twos even within the flock, with lots of mutual preening and bills clicking against each other etc. The Guillemots on the other hand, are more singletons and mixed, but there is some sort of group display going on where several of them at one time will face towards the cliffs and point their bills more-or-less up to the breeding ledges at 30 degree angle. Bit of behavioural study there. Also 80 Black-legged Kittiwakes on the water. Offshore, a couple of European Shags on the water, and in 30 minutes, 5 Red-throated Divers went north, with one fishing on the water, so that passage has begun. Also 2 Common Scoters north, three Eurasian Teals north, a Little Gull south (good! this is pushing the patch year list on).
Back through Newtonhill, a Peregrine Falcon over...more of which in a minute, but also several Peacock butterflies onthe wing. Blah di blah greenfinches etc... then up to Cran Hill, where the Peregrine was stooping at the pigeons. Two people out in the garden at the big house, one of whom may have been the owner of the pigeons, was calling the Peregrine a bastard(!) and pointed to a bird heading off into the distance saying it was lost now. I was urging the Peregrine on... but looking up, eye was caught by another raptor heading through overhead at speed. High up but King Ell - NORTHERN GOSHAWK! This makes NO sense. Not a visibly migratory species... should be incubating by now. What is this one up to? My first patch tick of the year. Perplexing, but they all count.
Round Cran Hill, where you can tell it's spring because there are Common Linnets crawling out of the woodwork. Not sure where they've been hiding, but they're back - everywhere today, 40+. But mostly, Eurasian Skylarks. For those of you not fortunate to live within the breeding range of Skylarks, take a listen to this (below) from today. Bird in the stubble 10 m away, takes off, climbs to 50 m above my head, then comes back into the stubble. Nothing I can do about the wind (crappy RememBird microphone), but everything I can do about it being good to be alive.
Click here to watch 'Skylark-NE-Scotland-April-2007'
Amen and all that cal.
Friday, April 06, 2007
Later we spent a well-worth-it £23 to take the family up the Cairn Gorm funicular...
...and on the way back, pulled into the forest near Rothiemurchus to teach Peter how to pish up against a tree. Aware that we might bump into some crossbills at some point, I'd brought my RememBird thingy, thinking it would be pretty cool to get a sonagram and get Scottish Crossbill back on my list in proper fashion. But in a foolish act of sharing earlier in the day, I'd taken the RememBird off the nockies and put it in my bag so Lizzie could adjust the bins for a lookie. So imagine my distress when a pair of crossbill (sp) flew overhead and I reached for the bins and realised that the RememBird was still in the car boot. By the time I'd run back and got it, the crossbills were gone gone gone. We had a good time looking for them, though.
Note Lizzie's forest nature table, with 9 pine cones, a bit of twig with lichens, and a small model Stegosaurus skeleton
Got the Stegosaurus. Are you on it? It's just below the twig with the lichens
The great forest of Caledon. Home of Crested tits, unidentifiable crossbills and annoying large chickens
More family photos in Lizzie's Pink Plastic Warehouse.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
One heart one soul just one solution,
One flash of light yeah one god One Vision.
Well, I'm back in the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel and that blinking flip one-man swing band is on. And for no adequately explored reason, he's just started singing 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. Argh! Another dirty secret of mine is that without ever buying an album, I'm covertly a huge Queen fan(!). There', I said it. Actually, growing up in North Wales in the 80s, as I did, it was more or less de rigeur. Lots of things were de rigeur in my social circle in North Wales - tinkering with motorbikes, supporting an English 'fans' club like Everton or Man City, smoking pot, drinking Wrexham lager, and liking Queen. I guess not saying de rigeur was another one. I didn't do all those things, but I did like Queen. Sometimes when Diane isn't in the car I put on a 30th generation copy cassette of their greatest hits and rock along at volume 11. Funny coincidence, but i was actually thinking of that and my title for today's post at 3.30 am today, before this entertainer started singing. And what brought on this early morning reverie? I was getting up at 5 to go Capercaillie-watching at RSPB Loch Garton, and had used the old American Indian trick (learnt it from The Simpsons) of drinking pints of water before going to bed so you wake nice n early with a bursting bladder. Only it worked too well.
Funny, about 25 people there, including a family with 2 very young kids. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of taking kids along to these things, but there was a comic moment cos one of them was wearing trainers that light up as you walk along, which you hardly notice during the day, but in the pre-dawn gloom... the warden was telling us they were keeping the lights off in the hid cos the female Osprey had arrived back yesterday so they were being a bit discrete until she settled. As he was saying this, the hide was lighting up like a disco every time the kiddie moved. I'm sure the birds didn't give a toss, and the kids were by far NOT the noisiest thing in the hide, too. That's what really annoys me - is it really that hard for adults to shut up for a bit. I couldn't hear myself think. Actually, for the first hour and a bit, the capers were a no-show, and just before 7 I couldn't stand the bustle any longer (my problem, not other poeple's) , thought maybe a bit of solitude was in order, even if it meant dipping caper, and headed off into the forest to do a bit of birding before going back to the family hols. So I'll have to post archive footage of what I saw here in 2005. Sorry, it was done holding the Coolpix up to the scope by hand in the half light, so not too good, but all the same... phwoargh!
There's also a video that I fully intend to post
Yesterday we were at the delightfully overcrowded Landmark Centre, home of big water slides, and also a treetop nature trail. As we got to the place where they feed the Red Squirrels there's a sign telling you to be quiet. Seeing this, our Peter (age 2) starts shouting 'Quiet!' at the top of his voice, and the squirrels didn't give a damn either. So you see what I have to put up with. Has anyone else noticed how our Peter looks and walks like our postman?
Back to Loch Garton - the female Osprey flew in and perched on the nest for a while. Wander round was more impressive - Common Goldeneyes and Eurasian Wigeons on the loch. 4 species of titmouse, errr... some Fieldfares flying over. Common Treecreeper, Goldcrests... etc. Not bad for half an hour.
Too...tired... to...go.... on... will finish off this post when we get home. It'll be worth it - contains perhaps the World's most inept attempt ever to nail Scottish Crossbill with a sonagram.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Monday, April 02, 2007
Ill-met by moonlight, illegal combatants. Welcome to another instalment of your detention without trial. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e. here and now.
Down at the
Tomorrow, we’re off on holiday. If I can find some internet that isn’t too expensive, then you’ll get the gory details. A teaser... it had better bloody well involve the Scottish subspecies of Crested Tit.