Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Beached Bird Surveying

This is really a second-hand post. My brother, Fraser, who lives in the unspoilt wilderness of Dumfries and Galloway, indulges once a year in the rather arduous Beached Birds Survey for the RSPB. The general plan is that over 600 volunteers walk along more than 2,000 km of UK coastline during the last weekend in February, recording the number of dead and oiled seabirds. The level of oiling on the beach is also recorded.

Fraser has been at this for years and years, and has about a 10km stretch over some very inhospitable, rocky Wigtownshire coast. He's found all sorts over the years, and generally comes back with some entertaining tale. This year was to prove no exception. He found a whale!
It's enormous! Fraser tells me it's a Minke Whale, and that it must have washed up dead as there was no sign of it last year, and it wouldn't have rotted in that time. The skull as you see has teeny bits of stinky flesh still. The bottle next the vertebrae is a 2l water bottle to give you some idea of scale.
Fraser found very few dead birds this year, which is a good thing, but had an excess of cetacea. He also found this Harbour Porpoise - which I'm told was terribly smelly, but lacked the hoped-for accessory of an Ivory Gull. Sorry about the pics. Fraser in true Barclay form is generally only ever armed with a mobile-phone camera.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Sunday evening blues

So, I'm back in Acton. Compared to Holy Island, the most god-forsaken scrap of land in the universe. Infested with tramps, Ring-necked Parakeets, too many kebab shops and nail-bars and generally depressing. Even an outing to visit the scruffy-but-thriving Kensington Garden owlets couldn't lift my spirits today. I scoured my patch at first light and couldn't find as much as a Chiffchaff to add to my list. The frogspawn has run out of oxygen and is rotting in a bubbling and suppurating mass in the corner of the teeny Southfields pond.
A recap of our island visit then. For anyone who might be interested the moth list was in fact, Hebrew Character, Pale Brindled Beauty, Clouded Drab, two of the very variable Mottled Grey and Common Quaker. I leave it to you, dear reader, to assign the moths to the names. Our last night produced the best moths, with a new species for me: Red Chestnut. I submit a photo of trap-setting including our illustrious visitor for the evening, Alan Tilmouth.

We had, as ever, a wonderful time on the island. I won't subject you to my distant, digibinned Merlin pics. Andy Hirst and I spent a merry quarter of an hour watching an almost pure-white Ermine systematically working a drystane dyke (which I think Andy filmed - update to follow). We saw a vole, and several Small Tortoiseshells which gives me hope for the forthcoming butterfly season. But it was all-too-soon over, and I had to get several trains and a bus back south.
I leave you with a pic of us hunting owls at last light.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Opening The Trap

In early spring BirdGuides holds an offsite meeting to plan the year ahead. This year we are back on Holy Island and for the first time we have set a moth trap. This morning John Cromie and Fiona Barclay brought it in from the garden where it was glowing moth-tempting ultraviolet all night. They opened it in the conservatory... a cunning plan since escaping moths could then be photographed before they escaped beyond reach.

Our morning haul included six, er correction five, species. First person to email max@birdguides.com with the correct identifications wins a mystery prize.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Soggy Squares

Deadlinus imminentitis, by all accounts, is a not infrequent neurological condition to which those who blithely sign up for Bird Atlas squares are susceptible. The onset is swift and debilitating, invariably occurring a matter of days before the end of the count period. In my case, having goofed off to Spain for the better part of a week in February, I arrived back to discover that those crucial days of the 29th, 30th and 31st that I'd enjoyed at the end of the early winter count period in December had been cruelly lopped off February, leaving me with three whole tetrads to survey in twice as many days. 

Compounding my self-inflicted misery was the knowledge that all three squares nestle in the midst of the Blue Stack mountains, which happens to be one of the wettest places known to man in these soggy islands: rain guaranteed 4 days out of 7 (and usually mist and showers the rest of the time). [Source: Mean Annual Rainfall in Ireland 1961-90: that dark grey splodge in the centre of County Donegal is my patch.] To make matters worse, weather forecasting in this neglected extremity of what was once the proud Celtic Tiger (now a drowned kitten, but that's another story), remains an ongoing challenge to meteorological science and is best left to local postman, Michael Gallagher.

With each passing day more dull and mizzley than the previous, I entered the terminal stages, characterised by an obsession with thinking up ever-more-plausible excuses for the Regional Organiser. Friday the 27th finally came up trumps, with my (by now) delusional mind seeing in the merest glimpses of blue sky, the potential for one of those cloudless winter-in-Madrid days I'd heedlessly frittered away the week before. The occasional savage gust of wind that rocked the car should have brought me to my senses, but by that stage I had those tetrads in my sights: it was today or never.

A steady slog brought me gradually up into the heart of the mountains: it was at this point that I encountered an ethical dilemma in the form of a pile of poo - very fresh poo in fact: the Red Grouse from which it had recently emanated was, of course, nowhere to be seen. Half-an-hour into my square, with little to show for my efforts except for a pair of bemused Hoodies, the temptation to tick this putative grouse was almost overpowering. It was whilst pondering this quandary that my world abruptly diminished and became disturbingly whiter: the cloud that had been scudding overhead a minute ago had evidently fallen out of the sky and was spilling its wispy dampness all around me. With pathological desperation, I set a compass course to take me right across the tetrad to one of the mountain cairns, determined to lay eyes on that grouse - any grouse - in fact any bird would do. 

Nearing the cairn, with visibility now down to a few metres and fearsome gusts of wind threatening to send me and my atlasing career into oblivion over the adjoining cliff, I heard it: that faint, but unmistakable, plaintive call that could only be Golden Plover. With thousands of their conspecifics wintering in ideal habitat around the estuaries of Donegal, it has always been a mystery as to why a few hardy birds choose to spend the winter on such inhospitable mountain plateaux. And here, just as I'd hoped, they had turned up to be recorded. Listening for a while I reckoned on maybe three calling birds - it was hard to tell. I never did see them, or the grouse or any other birds in that gloomy wasteland.

Lunch was a dismal affair, the vengeful cloud contriving to punish this interloper with a steady, bone-chilling drizzle. Nevertheless, with the optimism born of a strong coffee jolt, I knew that tetrad K beckoned across the ridge with untold avian wonders waiting to be recorded for posterity. Two hours and much squelching later, the only avian wonder turned out to be a Wren that took one look at me before sensibly disappearing down a rocky hole in the ground - troglodytes indeed. Reaching the edge of the square and possibly the edge of sanity at around the same time, I glanced up to see two Ravens mocking me from the cliff-top beyond: with typical corvid cunning they had placed themselves just outside tetrad K.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Get thee to a Nunnery

On Tuesday I put the camera and the Urban Birder David Lindo in my car, and set off for the Nunnery, headquarters of the BTO. We had a mission to present Dean Eades with his prizes for winning our Photo of the Year 2008, and capture it all for posterity (or at least so that I could make one of my little films out of it).
After we finally wrestled our way out of the disgusting London traffic, and up the equally horrid M11, we were treated to a wonderful day with Dean and his significant other, Alicia. Graham Appleton and Paul Stanicliffe looked after us admirably, giving us a private tour of the Nunnery Lakes complex, treating us to lunch, and giving us an in-depth guided wander around the historic buildings.
So here I am filming Graham chatting with David about the Nunnery Lakes reserve. It's a great place, but filming kept being interrupted by extremely loud F-16s (I think) taking off from the nearby US airbase. We finally got down to business and here's a terrible (sorry Dean) iPhone photo of Dean being presented with his prize. A very worthy winner. I'm just editing the footage up now, and I hope there will be a short film for you to watch next week.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

British Birds have a vacancy...

As part of its ambition to be the most respected and widely read ornithological journal in the UK, British Birds is recruiting a Business Development Officer.

The focus of this salaried position will be to deliver marketing and promotional campaigns to attract new subscribers to the magazine. The part-time role will help establish partnerships that are beneficial for British Birds readers - and see the journal reach new audiences.

Over the last hundred years, British Birds has established itself as a highly regarded source of birding information. (That first century of material is available as a DVD-ROM - British Birds interactive - from BirdGuides.)

The next hundred years pose significant new challenges, and British Birds is developing its plans to meet them head on.

The successful applicant will bring enthusiasm to the post, and will be able to develop and implement a wide-ranging and innovative marketing strategy for the magazine. Experience in marketing and communications is desirable, and a passion for British Birds is essential!

British Birds is in good health, and we want to take that message to a larger audience than ever before. We've plenty of ideas about how we'll develop the magazine. We're now on the hunt for the people to help us develop these ideas, and make them a reality.

For more information, please contact BB editor Roger Riddington: editor@britishbirds.co.uk

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Further Frogs

Max Whitby here.  I'm on my way back to London after an enjoyable but arduous 10 days on Holy Island (nearly) finishing my PhD thesis.  A final heave should see the first draft complete.  Disconcerting to be approaching the end of my research project after almost 3.5 years.
Still plenty of owls on the Island.  I see them every time I go for a walk. Both Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls hunting by day.  The afternoons seem to be the best time to catch them.  Plenty of frogs up north too.  My garden pond is a writhing, croaking frogfest.  And one of the temporary ponds at the end of the Straight Lonnen (well known to visiting birders as THE place to be after a fall in migration season) is full of spawn in remarkable profusion.  There are at least 100 clumps (is that the right word?) like the ones pictured.  In past years I have also had newts in the same pool, but none spotted so far this season.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Frogs Porn

With apologies for nicking the post title from the always-entertaining Dusty Bins blog.

Nothing much to report from the patch for the past two days other than the ongoing pond orgy. If you squint really hard at my rubbish pic there's dozens of the little blighters at it and there's now more spawn than remaining pond. It's been a watery week. On Friday I got some time off for good behaviour, and sauntered down to Amberley on a mixed mission. The only success I had was filming some really fetching Water Vole. It was a lovely day, and I had my first butterfly of the year (a male Brimstone). I'll pop some Water Vole highlights up on YouTube later for your delectation.