Friday, 31 October 2008

Review of the Week: 23rd-29th October 2008 by Mark Golley

Hello Bloggers - a quick word from Fiona: I've decided to reproduce the weekly review (text only version) here so that somewhere on the interweb you'll be able to look back at the rarities from previous weeks. Good idea huh? Do enjoy!

An illustrated version of this article is available on our website to webzine subscribers, at:

The week at a glance

- LITTLE BLUE HERON reported in Carmarthenshire
- WILSON'S SNIPE on Scilly
- SNOWY OWL on Scilly
- ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK still in County Clare

The final full week of October 2008 passes by, presenting a trio of outstanding rarities as it goes. Often the pace of rarities can ease off as the month winds down, but the quality can often take an upturn and there have been any number of Grade A megas in November. For this year that's still to come of course, but for now there was the small matter of a potential British first to deal with.

The wide open spaces of the tidal grazing marshes at Banc y Lord near Kidwelly (Carmarthenshire) fell sharply into focus on 24th when news of a juvenile LITTLE BLUE HERON hit the headlines. The bird had been seen on a couple of occasions (over the course of the previous two weeks) prior to definitive views but was too far away for a conclusive identification. This two-week period alone would exclude the Irish Little Blue Heron from the mix (that bird was last seen in County Galway on 22nd). The expectant crowd that gathered from dawn on Saturday had plenty to look at as the wait began; but the wait went on and on, and nothing came. Well, nothing until the morning of 24th, when the original observer reported the bird in the very same spot. The game of cat and mouse seems to have begun all over again, but may not be helped by discussions regarding the identity of the bird in question.

No such problems for birders heading to Kent to enjoy the county's first (and the country's sixth) GREEN HERON, found along the Royal Military Canal at West Hythe on 25th. The rather showy first-winter bird had possibly been present since 22nd but, whatever the arrival date, it was yet another superb Nearctic arrival in this remarkable autumn. The bird remained to 30th at least. Down on Scilly, it was still pretty lively this week and the drama began on 26th when a bird initially called as a Red-backed Shrike was re-identified as a BROWN SHRIKE, which would have been the second record for the islands, following the bird on Bryher in September 2001. However, questions were asked throughout the day on 27th and, with the aid of a few cracking photos, the bird returned to being a Red-backed by dark and was still present on 28th. Still on St. Mary's, a WILSON'S SNIPE was identified on 24th at-where else?-Lower Moors (having first been seen there on 23rd). Quite how common Wilson's Snipe will prove to be is anyone's guess, but it seems highly likely that the small pools at Lowers Moors will be the place to search for this shiny new species in the years to come. St. Mary's hosted a GREY-CHEEKED THRUSH at the end of Porth Mellon beach on 26th, where it remained throughout the rest of the day and on to 29th. It could have been the bird first seen on St. Agnes, but in an autumn such as this, a second bird is equally as likely. The island completed a neat hat-trick when the Scilly's second RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL of the month popped up on 28th. The wonder of Scilly 2008 was well and truly cemented on 29th with the amazing arrival of a SNOWY OWL, firstly on Gugh and then heading across to St. Mary's (and lately on St. Martin's). Though not a "mega" in the listing sense of the word, the bird certainly merits a mention in the headlines: this was the first Scilly Snowy Owl since one spent much of March and April 1972 around the islands. A female or first-winter HOODED MERGANSER at Tayport (Fife) on 26th is definitely worthy of more than just a passing reference, given the mass of transatlantic quality that has been dumped on these shores this autumn. Could this bird make it on to the official record books? As ever, time will tell, and if it is seen again, and it has no obvious signs of captivity, then it could easily make the grade. In Argyll, off Uisead Point, a BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS flew north during the morning of 27th. If it heads north, loops around the top of the UK, it could well be thrust into the North Sea, and with those strong northerly winds predicted, who knows where it could end up? In County Clare, the first-winter ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK remained at Kilbaha to 23rd. The autumn could have become even better still if the reported SIBERIAN THRUSH (at Nantmel in Powys) and NORTHERN FLICKER (in Hampshire, at New Milton) had come to pass, but it wasn't to be.

The adult WHITE-BILLED DIVER remained around South Ronaldsay, Orkney this week, seen again on 27th, while an adult flew south off Long Nab, Burniston (North Yorkshire) on 29th and another was seen from Kirkabister (Shetland) on the afternoon of the same date. A PACIFIC DIVER was reported on Stronsay (Orkney) on 29th but had not been confirmed at the time of writing. Up to 55 BALEARIC SHEARWATERS were seen during the week, with double-figure totals of 11 off Seaton, 12 past Berry Head (both Devon) and 16 from Portland Bill (Dorset), all on 23rd, the highest counts noted. SOOTY SHEARWATERS barely reached double figures, with birds noted from Scilly to East Yorkshire. The amazing autumn for GREY PHALAROPES continued this week, with over 400 birds reported. More than 110 birds were recorded around Orkney on 27th, with 41 near the Churchill Barrier No. 2 (with 53 there on 29th), 33 off Carness, and 26 at the Hunda causeway the highest counts reported. Elsewhere, 52 birds were seen at Gedintailor, Skye (Highland) on 27th-28th, 26 were seen by birders on board the Scillonian III crossing from Scilly to Penzance on the evening of 24th, with further counts of 24 from Land's End (Cornwall) on 27th and 21 from Porthgwarra (Cornwall) on 23rd. The Outer Hebrides fared well again, with as many as 48 birds recorded over the past seven days, including 13 from Griminish Point, North Uist on 24th and 10 off the Butt of Lewis, Lewis on 26th the largest counts. Prior to 27th, around 30 birds had been seen around Orkney, including 12 off the golf course at Stromness on 26th, while at least 40 were noted around Shetland. Some 20 LEACH'S STORM-PETRELS were seen this week, only in ones and twos, save for seven seen off Peninerine, South Uist (Outer Hebrides) on 26th, while three LONG-TAILED SKUAS were also noted: off Donna Nook (Lincolnshire) on 25th, and on 26th at Sandwich Bay (Kent) and Formby Point (Lancashire). Before the northerly blast that trundled down the east coast late in the week, just 12 POMARINE SKUAS were reported, while at least seven SABINE'S GULLS sadly included a dead bird picked up at Loch Slapin, Skye (Highland) on 25th (a Grey Phalarope was found in a garden near the loch on the same day, but it too died later). Hale and hearty Sabine's Gulls were seen at Portland Bill (Dorset) on 25th, and from Malin Head (Co. Donegal) and Kilcummin Head (Co. Mayo) on 26th (with another off the former site the following day) and two flew past Land's End on 27th. Three single LITTLE AUKS were seen this week, off Strumble Head (Pembrokeshire) on 24th, Turnberry Point (Ayrshire) on 26th and Aranmore Island (Co. Donegal) on 27th, while eight flew past Girdle Ness (Aberdeenshire) on 29th.

In East Sussex, four CATTLE EGRETS remained at Rye Harbour (East Sussex) to 23rd. In Dorset, one was again seen at Studland Heath (Dorset) on 23rd and 27th-28th, with another Dorset bird at Lytchett Bay on 25th. On 23rd and 28th a Cattle Egret was seen at Inchydoney Bay (Co. Cork) and the bird at Sandy Haven (Pembrokeshire) was still present on 24th, when two were noted flying over the M5 motorway at Yatton (Somerset). On 25th a Cattle Egret was seen at near Llanelli (Carmarthenshire) and the 26th saw single birds noted at Drift Reservoir (Cornwall) and White's Marsh (Co. Cork). Four GREAT WHITE EGRETS were seen this week, with the familiar bird at Blashford Lakes (Hampshire) seen on 25th-27th, and at Minsmere (Suffolk) the French colour-ringed bird remained to 26th at least. On 24th, single Great White Egrets were at Saddington (Leicestershire) and what may have been the same bird flew over Atherstone (Warwickshire) with another over the M60, near Salford (Greater Manchester). This latter bird must have accounted for the bird that was at Astley Green on 26th-29th. Numbers of SPOONBILLS dropped a little this week, with around 30 birds seen. Six were still on Isley Marsh (Devon) on 24th-29th and the week's high count was of some 15 birds in Arne Bay (Dorset) on 28th. The adult GLOSSY IBIS was again seen at Swillington Ings (West Yorkshire) on 26th and 28th, while 34 COMMON CRANES were seen at the Stubb Mill roost, Hickling (Norfolk), also on 26th. Three Cranes flew over Minsmere (Suffolk) on 27th and a WHITE STORK was seen at Desford (Leicestershire) on 28th.

Canada Goose enthusiasts would have been kept busy week with four different vagrant forms recorded. At Caerlaverock (Dumfries & Galloway) the CACKLING CANADA GOOSE (form minima) was still present to 28th and the TAVERNER'S CANADA GOOSE (form taverneri) was seen again there on 26th-28th. A second Taverner's was at Loch Gorm, Islay (Argyll) on 26th, along with a RICHARDSON'S CANADA GOOSE (form hutchinsii) and a TODD'S CANADA GOOSE (form interior), while also on Islay, a Richardson's Canada Goose was at Loch Gruinart on the evening of 26th. By close of play on 29th, at least four Richardson's Canada Geese were found around the island, including two at Loch Gruinart. Rather less complicated is ROSS'S GOOSE and one remained at various sites in Lancashire between 26th and 28th at least, while a SNOW GOOSE was in Aberdeenshire, near Slains Pool and then Meikle Loch on 26th. A second white Snow Goose appeared at Windwick, South Ronaldsay (Orkney) on 29th. On 25th, single BLACK BRANTS were seen at Butterstreet Cove (Dorset) and Pagham Harbour (West Sussex), the Dorset bird still present around The Fleet to 28th at least.

The two adult drake LESSER SCAUP remained at Hogganfield Loch (Clyde) to 28th and a drake was found at Holme Pierrepoint (Nottinghamshire) on 27th-29th (the first county record for a decade). Five RING-NECKED DUCKS were reported this week;, the drake remained at Foxcote Reservoir (Buckinghamshire) to 26th at least and an eclipse drake was still on Inish Mor (Co. Galway) to 28th. Two Ring-necked Ducks were at Carrowmore Lake (Co. Mayo) on 27th and the same date saw the drake still present on Loch of Clickimin (Shetland). Drake FERRUGINOUS DUCKS continued to be seen at Calvert Lake (Buckinghamshire) from 23rd-28th, Weston-super-Mare (Somerset) to 24th and Amwell Gravel Pits (Hertfordshire) to 28th at least. A new drake was found at Thornton Reservoir (Leicestershire) on 25th. The drake BLACK DUCK remained at Blanket Nook, Lough Swilly (Co. Donegal) to 23rd at least and another drake was seen again at Ventry Harbour (Co. Kerry) on 27th. In Northumberland, a drake AMERICAN WIGEON remained at Fenham Flats until 25th, while a drake at Broad Lough (Co. Wicklow) on 28th seemed to have brought his hybrid chums with him-four drake American x Eurasian Wigeon were present there too! There was a slight upturn in numbers of drake GREEN-WINGED TEAL this week, with at least six birds recorded. The Farlington Marshes (Hampshire) individual was still present to 26th and at Belfast Lough the bird seen first on 18th was still present on 28th. New birds were seen at Caerlaverock on 24th-25th and Capringstone Flash (Ayrshire) and Inner Marsh Farm (Cheshire), both on 26th, with another at Carrowmore Lake (Co. Mayo) on 27th. Also on 27th, a Green-winged Teal returned to Marshside (Lancashire). The KING EIDER remained at Appledore (Devon) to 29th, while an eclipse drake was found in Spey Bay (Moray), at Tugnet, on 23rd and a drake was in Mousa Sound (Shetland) on 29th. The drake SURF SCOTER in Lunan Bay (Angus) was still present from 24th-26th and a new drake was seen at Waterville (Co. Kerry) on 26th. A female Surf Scoter was seen off Dawlish Warren (Devon) on 27th and a juvenile was in Gerrans Bay (Cornwall) on 28th. The drake HOODED MERGANSER remained at Radipole Lake (Dorset) to 28th at least.

The only raptors of note this week were single HONEY BUZZARDS over Gibraltar Point (Lincolnshire) on 27th and near Brighton (East Sussex) on 29th, while ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARDS were seen at Eoropie, Lewis (Outer Hebrides) on 23rd and over D'Engayne Woods (Cambridgeshire) on 25th.

Waders also had something of a quiet week this week. An AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER was on St. Mary's (Scilly) on the afternoon of 26th, with a WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER also on St. Mary's on 24th and 27th-29th, another on Tresco on 23rd-25th and one on St. Agnes on the afternoons of 27th and 28th (but which was seen heading to St. Mary's on the latter date). Further White-rumped Sandpipers were at Baile Gharbhaidh, South Uist (Outer Hebrides) on 23rd-28th, Leam Lough (Co. Mayo) on 24th, Pool of Virkie (Shetland) on 25th and Newport Wetlands (Gwent) on 26th, where the only PECTORAL SANDPIPER of the week was also seen, remaining to 27th. In County Louth, the LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER was seen again at Soldier's Point, Dundalk on 28th. New arrivals included a BAIRD'S SANDPIPER at Black Rock Strand (Co. Kerry) on 27th and American Golden Plovers at Ballymacoda (Co. Cork) on 27th, near East Harling (Norfolk) on 28th-29th (with a DOTTEREL there too on the latter date), and at Needingworth (Cambridgeshire) on 29th.

The dark, rather menacing-looking, second-winter probable AZOREAN YELLOW-LEGGED GULL was still being seen around Sennen (Cornwall) to 24th at least. Some 15 CASPIAN GULLS were recorded this week, including four birds at Long Drove, Cottenham (Cambridgeshire) on 25th, with three there on 26th. An adult KUMLIEN'S GULL was found at Lerwick (Shetland) on 28th. Eleven ICELAND GULLS included two at Scalloway (Shetland) on 26th, two birds in Ayrshire and on Orkney between 26th and 27th, singles at Liscannor (Co. Clare) on 23rd-25th, Coate Water Park (Wiltshire) and Draycote Water (Warwickshire) on 24th, Sligo Harbour on 26th and Whitehead, Belfast on 27th. The juvenile GLAUCOUS GULL continued to be seen at Ditchford Gravel Pits (Northamptonshire) this week (between 24th and 26th) while others were at Wood Wick (Orkney), Peninerine, South Uist (Outer Hebrides) and Liscannor (Co. Clare) all on 26th, at Dosthill (Warwickshire) on 29th, and on Fair Isle, where while two were seen on 29th. It was Ireland 5 England 1 in terms of this week's RING-BILLED GULLS: two birds were seen in Derry on 23rd, with an adult at Lough Foyle and a 2nd-winter at Limavady, and further adults at Cork City Lough (Co. Cork) on 25th, Black Rock Strand (Co. Kerry) on 26th and Nimmo's Pier (Co. Galway) on 27th. In Hampshire, the adult remained at Gosport to 25th at least.

In Norfolk, a RED-RUMPED SWALLOW flew east along Warham Greens on 23rd, while in Cornwall a delightfully showy BLUETHROAT performed to all comers at Land's End on 25th-29th. A couple of HOOPOES were reported on 24th; one (heard only) was on St. Mary's (Scilly) with the other near Basingstoke (Hampshire). The OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT remained on St. Agnes (Scilly) until 23rd while one of seven RICHARD'S PIPITS this week was also seen on St. Agnes on 25th-26th. The other birds were at Brew Pool, Sennen (Cornwall) on 24th, at Cardross (Clyde) on 26th, on Cape Clear Island (Co. Cork) on 27th and, on 28th, at Barton on Sea (Hampshire), Wilstone Reservoir (Hertfordshire) and Kilnsea (East Yorkshire). The young RED-BACKED SHRIKE was still at Wouldham (Kent) on 23rd-29th while GREAT GREY SHRIKES included two birds in Norfolk, two birds in the New Forest (Hampshire) and two birds in Dorset, while singles were seen in Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Somerset. As cool conditions drifted quickly down from the north on 28th, WAXWINGS began to arrive, with around a dozen birds noted, including three at Filey (North Yorkshire). On 29th, at least 25 birds were seen at Holme (Norfolk)-hopefully the first of many this winter.

A late warbler surprise came this week in the shape of a PADDYFIELD WARBLER on Lundy (Devon) on 29th, representing the first record for the county. A BLYTH'S REED WARBLER remained on St. Agnes (Scilly) this week, still present from 23rd-29th. There has been some debate as to whether this bird, complete with a newly acquired ring as mentioned last week (but ringed as a Reed Warbler), is the same bird that was seen from 12th-18th and it is pretty tricky to tell from photographs taken. The first PALLAS'S WARBLER of the autumn was found at Ovingdean (East Sussex) on 24th while just under 40 YELLOW-BROWED WARBLERS included up to 26 in the far southwest: 12 in Cornwall and at least 14 on Scilly. Three BARRED WARBLERS this week included two birds on Scilly, both on 24th, with one on St. Mary's and the other on St. Agnes. The third bird was at Berry Head (Devon) on 27th. Scilly also laid claim to two of the week's three RED-BREASTED FLYCATCHERS, and again it was St. Mary's and St. Agnes that held the birds, while the third was seen at Dungeness Bird Observatory on 26th-27th.

And continuing the trend, Scilly hosted one of the two COMMON ROSEFINCHES seen this week, one on St. Agnes from 24th-26th, with the other appearing on Lundy (Devon) on 24th. At Rainham Marshes (London) a single SERIN was present on 24th, with last week's three birds topped by four on 26th, with three still present there to 29th. Another Serin flew over Barton on Sea (Hampshire) on 25th. The adult ROSE-COLOURED STARLING was still at Bowmore, Islay (Argyll) this week (after arriving in the middle of August). This week's review ends with news of a male PINE BUNTING in a private garden in Essex on 24th-this would be the second county record if accepted, following on from the popular bird at Dagenham Chase in February and March 1992.

If you are fortunate enough to encounter anything of interest, or if you have travelled to see one of the birds mentioned on our Bird News Extra page, please:

- use the web page
- call us on our freephone number 0800 043 1003
- email us at
- text BIRDS RPT (followed by the details) to 07786 200505

We would love to hear from you with information on what you have found, or an update on what you've been to see.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Since I started tweeting, I've bumped into lots of great birding blogs - especially American ones. Today I stumbled over the marvellous The Birders Report. Larry features a great story on bird strikes on skyscrapers. Now I know we're not terribly overcome with skyscrapers in the UK - but the youtube clip is very interesting viewing.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

DVD authoring finally finished!

Hurrah! Double Hurrah! I've finally finished authoring the enormous 270 species DVD. Phew! I may be allowed back out into the sunlight. I'll try and attach one of the videos here.


The DVDs are unbelievably full. Disc 2 (Crakes through to Auks) I had to fiddle with to get everything shoehorned in. Disc 1 was pretty full too, but I had a slightly easier time with discs 3 and 4. Now I just need to re-author the 130 species edition and the horrible pre-Christmas rush tasks will be almost done.

I hope you all enjoy the SpotCrake. One of my favourite birds from the 270.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

OGRBB updated

OGRBB is our rather clumsy acronym for the Online Guide to Rarer British Birds, and it's one of the unsung highlights of our Bird News Extra service. It's a database containing all accepted reports of past rarities in Britain and Ireland, since the year dot. It complements our other bird news services in that it contains only accepted records, and is compiled retrospectively when the dust has settled and the "ten rare men" (and their Irish equivalents) have made their deliberations. Anyway I've spent much of this week updating OGRBB to include the records from the latest British Birds Rarity Report so we're up to date to the end of 2007, for the UK at least.

I have to say this isn't my favourite job, for lots of reasons. Firstly, it's one of those tricky jobs that you only do once or twice a year, so it's a case of remembering/relearning how to do it every time. Secondly, it's horribly complicated. To save me having to reinvent the wheel, I did write myself a set of instructions a couple of iterations ago - which now runs to over 100 steps, some of them individually quite time-consuming. But something always seems to change each year to throw a new spanner in the works, so it's never an entirely smooth or familiar process. This is one reason why I haven't done it for two years, so we had got a bit behind.

Our collaborator Keith Naylor has made it his life's work to compile and maintain the underlying database of reports, spending hours poring over BB reports, checking references and consulting obscure journals for details of long-lost rarities. However, Keith works (for lots of very good reasons) in Microsoft Access offline, whereas our online database uses SQL Server. Both are Microsoft database products, so you'd think it would be pretty easy to transfer data between them, wouldn't you? Sadly not. For example, Access stores dates differently from SQL Server, and the latter can't cope with dates (at least in the data type we use) that are earlier than January 1st 1753 - and a few of the records in the database are older than that, so there's a bit of fiddling about to do there. The earliest record in the database, by the way, concerns a pair of White Storks that nested on Edinburgh Cathedral in 1416. So it's a bit of a chore to get the new data successfully into SQL Server, even before I start working on it. And then I have a list of integrity checks to make sure the species codes Keith uses match ours - and they never do - and so on. "Splits" are a particular nuisance here, and there have been quite a few in the last couple of years, as well as a bunch of tweaks to scientific names: fuscata becoming fuscatus and the like.

The service provides online lists of records, but also maps and graphs them. So the next chore is to produce all the necessary graphics. (Fiona said gaily yesterday "oh, I thought those were compiled on the fly" - I wish, Fi.) For the maps, we use a 3rd-party mapping program called DMAP, which is a handly little program written specifically for mapping wildlife data and saves me a lot of messing about with grid references and base maps - but its user interface is a little, shall we say, "individual", so it's not exactly a pleasure to use.

The other graphs and charts, showing records by year, month, sex and age for each species, are then produced using our own little application, written by John a few years ago in Visual Basic. Unfortunately, it uses a 3rd-party graphing API which, it seems, can only churn out 32 graphics at a time - and I've got to produce four different graphs for each of 290+ species we cover. So that takes a while, as I have to run the program 30 or 40 times. Oh, and it produces BMP (bitmap) files, which are too big for web use, so they have to be converted to more web-friendly GIFs. For that I use IrfanView, a handy bit of shareware, but which also has its quirks.

And then I have to upload all the maps and charts to the web server - 19MB of data at the last count, update a few introductory pages, and lastly transfer the new data from the local SQL Server database to the live one (at which point I cross my fingers and hope it all works).

Anyway - the job has had me tearing my hair out more than once, but it's done now...except I seemed to have cocked up the colours on the maps, so I'm going to have to compile, process and upload those again. Oh, and we're expecting a new database with 2005 and 2006's Irish reports in a few weeks, so I'll have to do it all again.

So...I hope you enjoy it and I hope this insight into the work required to compile it is interesting. We've made Arctic Warbler available as a demonstration: see

Monday, 13 October 2008

It's a bug's life

On Saturday I am trying out a new experiment. I'm taking a box of goodies and a cash-box along to the AES annual exhibition. That's the Amateur Entemological Society - a fine body of (mostly) men. So if anyone is anywhere near Kempton Park Racecourse on Saturday do come and say hello. Hopefully I might sell a few things.

I'm VERY intrigued as some of the other exhibitors have rather exotic names, and I seem to be uncomfortably close to the British Tarantula Society booth and Stephen King (surely not *that* Stephen King). I'll be selling our Butterflies DVD-ROM and some of our more standard bird things. I'm very proud of the butterflies product. Amongst many other things it has possibly the only footage of Irish RĂ©al's Wood White in existence. I'm going to try and embed some video here:


I'm told that the show is "an experience" so I'm rather looking forward to it. I'm going to leave my purse at home - I can see the assorted mothing paraphernalia and lovely Lewington artwork being just too tempting. Hope to see some of you there.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

How to make a DVD 101

For those of you who are worried about my (abnormal) radio silence, don't fret. It's simply that I'm making a new DVD. The new Video Guide to British Birds (270 species edition) to be exact. And that's amongst preparing the 2009 catalogue, doing articles and generally making sure everything's running smoothly at BirdGuides. (Pass me a broom someone...)

DVD authoring is terribly involved. I liken it to 3D knitting. I've currently got one computer (with only slightly less processing power than a Kray) beavering away compressing video files. DVDs take about 5GB (or 9GB if dual-layer) of data. Video is terribly data-heavy stuff - so it needs to be carefully squashed before I can usefully play with it. The most tedious part of this is (i) it takes *ages* and (ii) between every video I need to press enter twice. Which means having to babysit the whole process rather than leaving the computer to it. I'd rather be out filming frankly.

I won't bore you with the details of the next part, but I have to take these 270 videos and insert them onto 4 dual-layer DVDs with enough menus, buttons, icons, chapters, tracks and scripts to make it all work. Horrid. I know it will all be worth it though. I've been sneakily watching the videos between times and the footage is totally stunning.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Stick to the Day Job

Being an equal opportunities company, every so often the techies at BirdGuides are released from their digital shackles, handed a video camera (very expensive), a tripod (very heavy), and a BIG lens (very expensive and very heavy) and encouraged to go film some birds. Such has been my lot this week: yanked still dripping square brackets from my happy wallowing in Objective-C, and thrust out into the cold.

One of my occasional indulgences is a spot of seawatching, so when the forecast promised north-west gales, the time had come to bring my freshly polished cameraman skills to bear on all those shearwaters, skuas and petrels that were bound to be teeming past. Opening the car door at dawn on the very westerly tip of Donegal was nearly enough to send me scurrying back to my curly brackets, as the howling wind screamed like a banshee. But I persevered, assembled all my (heavy and very expensive) kit and, head bowed, strode off into the wind for the 2km yomp to that seawatching hermitage, Rocky Point.

Perched on the very edge of the cliff, a tiny stone-built seawatching cell has been not-so-carefully constructed by generations of bored birders, leaving nothing but ocean between you and Newfoundland. Deep-ocean waves slink in soundlessly and then pound their kinetic energy to oblivion at the foot of the cliff, sending worrying shock waves up through ornithologist bums. Forget talking, or even shouting - no-one can hear you; even breathing is optional as undiluted north-westerly gale is shoveled relentlessly down into your lungs. And with that 21st century hermit's lifeline, the mobile signal, having faded away completely, you are truly alone in a sort of elemental sensate bubble: bliss.

But, I hadn't dragged myself prematurely from a warm bed just to enjoy a spot of solitary therapy. There was the serious matter of those birds that should be teeming past below me, and the even more serious matter of unpacking the camera kit without losing any of those myriad bits and pieces like converter lenses (£700) over the cliff. The odd furtive glance through the bins, while maneuvering long lens onto camera body (akin to docking with space station) confirmed my suspicion that this could be a day to feature in BirdGuides filming lore: three dark-phase skuas and a Leach's Petrel beating their way past; supremely confident adult gannets surfing the wave troughs effortlessly, their dark offspring skimming gamely behind with just an occasional surreptitious wing-beat or two to keep them on course; a Red-throated Diver hurtling past on its no-nonsense trajectory.

With the tripod carefully positioned and levelled (always level the tripod: even if you miss the bird, the horizon will be right), and with the camera pointing in the right direction (lens seaward), I was all set. A couple of dry-run pans established that I'd be able to capture all those long sweeping shots without falling off my ergonomically positioned pile of stones, or demolishing a wall with the lens. With a distant skua heading my way, it was time for action. A practised twist of the dial flicked the camera to ON: nothing. Off again, on again - still nothing, no wee green light, no comforting expensive camera noises, no nothing at all. The skua came and went and, with it, my hopes for the day. Closing my eyes, I could see clearly, right beside the muesli packet - the fully-charged battery that should have been in the camera - on the kitchen table at home some 50 miles away.

Friday, 3 October 2008

The Missing Email Mystery

So why are emails from struggling to get past the spam defences of the likes of Hotmail and (spit!) BTInternet? You really don't want to know. Trust me.

Still here? OK, you asked for it. Prepare to be eye-glazingly bored.

It's all your fault, actually. You people out there, registering willy-nilly, and then changing ISPs without telling us, and registering again under your new addresses. You see once you've registered an address on our website and told us you want to receive our weekly newsletters, we keep sending them, week after week. Even when you register again under a new address, the old one's still in our database, and we're still sending emails to it. (This is why, if you change your address, we ask you to edit your existing registration to replace your old address with the new, rather than just re-registering afresh, which leaves your old redundant registration still in place. But when did you people ever read the instructions? I'm teasing...well, mostly.)

And that's why some ISPs think we're spamming. They notice that they're receiving a bunch of emails from to obsolete addresses on their domain and they think "boys, we've bagged us a spammer" - because why would a legitimate person keep emailing the same duff addresses week after week? A real person would give up, or find a new address. They must be spammers, right? So we get listed on various spam blacklists. You're thinking, why don't we just switch off accounts when emails to that address start bouncing? Well, we should do; we used to, and we still do sometimes. But then we were too busy for a couple of weeks, and the number built up, and now the task's become just too big and horrible to do by hand (plus there are other complexities - it's not always immediately obvious whether a "bouncing" email address is permanently dead or just a bit under the weather temporarily - a full mailbox, for example).

So, what we plan to do is institute a rolling programme whereby every once in a while (and it won't be often) we'll send you an automated email asking you to re-confirm that your email is still working. All you'll have to do is click a link - job done. But if you don't respond, we'll assume that that registered email is dead, and we'll stop sending messages to it. But don't worry, we won't completely delete you - if you come back later, all you need to do is log in on the website; if we've switched off your account in the meantime we'll just send you an automatic email to allow you to prove that address is still alive.

Oh, a special plea for AOL users. If you decide you don't want our weekly emails any more, PLEASE (pretty please) use the link at the bottom of the weekly email (it's there, every week, your very own customised opt-out link). Please DON'T add to your list of "blocked senders" or whatever AOL choose to call it. Yes, it'll stop you receiving any more emails from us - but it also leads AOL to think we're dubious characters and may stop our emails getting through to your fellow AOLers. And the same probably applies to other ISPs - some of them even share their lists of "suspects".

There's more to it than that, but I think you've suffered enough already...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Leach's Storm-petrels

You might be led to believe that filming birds is a glamorous sort of vocation. Let me remove the scales from your eyes. Tuesday looked terribly promising for Leach's Storm-petrel. So I got up at silly o'clock, packed all of the gear in the car and schlepped 200 miles to a god-forsaken spit of coastline battered by force 8 gales. It was cold, and wet, and uncomfortable and most of all devoid of any petrels. Hours passed, and I battled the 200 miles of horrible sticky traffic back to London, despondent to say the least.

Wednesday dawned rather brightly, but still "blowing a hoolie" (as my mother would say) from the Atlantic. I was rather restless at my desk, fiddling with articles and news when a text arrived - the Irish Sea was allegedly seething with Leach's. Hmmmph. I pondered for about 90 seconds, threw everything back in the car and raced back to the Wirral. I pitched up at Leasowe to find several top bird-photographers already in residence. We waited, and waited in the teeth of the gale. After several hours a distant dark speck meandered past sending us racing from the relative shelter of the sea-wall down to the exposed, spume-blown beach.

After a few more distant specks wandered past we realised that the birds were being blown in a less-than-ideal trajectory, and we were going to have to move. The gun-sight at Wirral Country Park was deemed to be a likely spot, so off we popped in a little convoy. No sooner had we made a move towards the beach than we saw Leach's really close in. The sea-wall at this point is glacially slippery and I made it to the bottom rather more quickly than I had planned (thanks Steve Round for the gentlemanly rescue). The lads all shot off towards the surf with their DSLRs, while I, snail-like, gave chase with huge and heavy camera bag and enormous tripod.

The petrels began to perform however, zig-zagging towards the Irish Sea. We stood out in the surf for a while until we realised birds were beginning to pass on the sand bank behind us, pattering their feet in characteristic fashion as they picked at small invertebrates inches from our legs. Bliss. Cold, windy, exhausted bliss. The camera and tripod were a nightmare, sinking in the muddy sand, being unwieldy and acting like a sail in the gale so the footage is wobbly and salt-spattered, but terribly "authentic".

I rolled in at 9 o'clock last night completely knackered, hungry and scarecrow-like but a very happy bunny. Lovely things Leach's.