Sunday, 24 June 2012

Hollow victory

Northern Gannet at East Warwick Reservoir, Walthamstow - an extraordinary two-day London bird.
In 40 years of birding in London, I'd never before managed to catch up with a Northern Gannet - and nor did I think that when the time eventually came, it would be on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June away from the Thames. But that's exactly how I added this marine species to my London list - and what an utterly disappointing experience it was. A pathetic sight, the exhausted and possibly unwell bird appeared at Walthamstow Reservoirs the previous day (as has become fashionable, just after I'd left town with the family for Norfolk), but surprised everyone by lingering overnight and through until the following evening, by which time we were on our way home again. I don't ever recall there being a two-day bird in London previously. Dave Darrell-Lambert tipped me off as to which bit of the reservoir it was frequenting, and sure enough it was still there, resting on the embankment and providing an easy, walk-up-and-tick experience. Instead of being thrilled to finally nail this tough species in the capital, however, I was consumed by anti-climax - is this what birding has come to? It epitomised the hollow thrill of twitching at its worst, and instead of celebrating, I began contemplating the bird's fate - the sort of unhappy ending that faces many lost birds on their wayward journeys, while we effectively revel at their misfortune (if that doesn't sound overly dramatic, or morbid). As I left, the bird flew out onto the reservoir - possibly for the last time, as I don't think it was seen again by anyone else. Perhaps it flew off after all and eventually returned to the coast, in which case I shall somehow feel more positive about the experience. Will it put me off twitching? Of course not, but - despite being a beautiful bird to see at such close range - it underlined the huge gap between 'real' birding and doing something largely to increase a list total by one.

The bird appeared to be a third-calendar-year individual, being overall rather adult-like but for distinctive dark remnants of immature plumage on the upperparts and wings.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Memorial field trip

Gathering of the clan, from left to right: Neil, Leo, me, Dave, Pete, Roy and Andrew.
Yesterday had been a long time coming. A day out with mates - the kind of thing we used to do much more often without ever really having to plan it, but less so now we’ve all moved in different directions. These days, half of us are still in London, most of the other half have migrated to Norfolk, and one has overshot to Australia – a true vagrant. “We” are a group of birders who got to know each other in London, mainly through the local RSPB members’ group, back in the 1970s. And as of last month, we are tragically one less in number. Dave Slater, a founder-member of the original gang and when present the life and soul of our social gatherings, died suddenly of natural causes. Fit, seemingly healthy and young for his years, Dave should not have been the first to go. His death stunned us all, and at his funeral last month we resolved to make a better job of enjoying each other’s company.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Breaking the jinx

Female Little Bittern by the River Colne at Stocker's Lake, Rickmansworth, this morning.
Back in June 1995, in the half-light of dawn on Hampstead Heath early one Sunday morning, I fell victim to the curse of the Little Bittern. I had failed to get to the site the previous evening for a variety of reasons, chief among which was the fact that I was on crutches (after an unfortunate incident the previous week involving a Black Bear while I was on honeymoon in California - don't ask). But the thought of missing the bird kept me awake most of the night, so I got up in the small hours, drove to the site and hobbled through the woods to a small pond and found ... an early-rising crowd of disappointed birders. Clearly, the target vagrant had departed.

I didn't have to wait long for the next opportunity to dip - another turned up the following spring, but near Epsom way over on the other side of the city the evening before I had to drive up to Scotland. Foiled again, but only for another year, and then I got to Rye Meads soon after a two-day male in mid-May had vanished. And that was my lot for the next 15 years ...

Present intermittently for about a week now, the bird shows well at times, but can be very skulking on occasion.
Roll on 2012, and the jinx looked set to continue when news broke belatedly of a Little Bittern in London last week - when I was in Hungary. I flew out for a major optical product launch on Monday (more anon), only to hear within 24 hours that a Little Bittern had been photographed at the weekend and identified after the event; fortunately, it was refound on Wednesday by Steve Blake, and a number of friends also got to see it that day (albeit not very well from the sound of it). There was radio silence on Thursday and Friday, so having returned from Hungary just before midnight last night I thought the opportunity to see the bird had slipped away. Finally, though, after it was reported again this morning, I made it to Stocker's Lake in time to get brief but excellent views, the bird making several short sorties into more open riverbank vegetation from its hiding place deep within the reeds. So, finally, the personal jinx of the London Little Bittern is broken.

Having spotted something to eat in the river, the compact fisher king stalks through the reeds towards its prey.
Previous London records of Little Bittern:
1954 30 May – Nazeing GP; 20-24 August - Richmond Park; 27-29 August - Beddington SF
1956 18 June-14 July - two, Beddington SF*; 6-14 August - Beddington SF
1961 22 August – found dead, Weybridge
1976 17 October – Sevenoaks NR
1995 18 June – ad female, Hampstead Heath
1996 30 May-1 June – ad male, Epsom Common
1997 17-18 May – male, Rye Meads

* There was speculation that the series of records of this southern European vagrant from Beddington SF may have involved a breeding attempt (London Bird Report 56: 184-185), but this was not proved in Britain until 1984, when a pair raised three young at Potteric Carr, Yorkshire (British Birds 104: 495; Wilson and Slack 1996).

Sunday, 10 June 2012

In brief

One of four Hobbies hawking dragonflies together at Rainham Marshes in late May.

Spring in London eventually came good, with a liberal sprinkling of rarities and scarce migrants at times when passage was evident across the capital, but it ended very abruptly in the first week of June. Speaking purely selfishly, this was just as well as I've had little opportunity to get out in the field recently, meaning this blog hasn't been pulling its virtual weight. Between working on the July issue of Birdwatch and visits to Norfolk and Scotland (the latter for the Scottish Birdfair), I have at least managed to grab a few pics on the run, so here's a few shots from the field. Note the absence of a Marsh Warbler image from Rainham Marshes - despite hearing the singing male which lingered for a few days at the beginning of June, it failed to show at all during the cool, windy couple of hours I spent there last Saturday morning. I hope the birders who trampled the vegetation it was frequenting to try and get a view the following day also dipped :-)

Above: Yellow Wagtail at Torness, East Lothian, and Brown Hare at Kelling, Norfolk.

Meantime, upcoming commitments include a short overseas trip this week, so it may be a while before the next post - more soon I hope.

Below: Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannets and a frisky pair of Avocets, all at Kelling, Norfolk.


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