Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Watching Swans

Swans. Birmingham 2010. Me watching.

I see the preliminary line up for Primavera Sound 2011 in Barcelona has been published. Looks like there’s plenty to look forward to, with Animal Collective, Broadcast, Suicide and the sublime Swans catching my eye. I may even have the pleasure of wilfully ignoring those unadventurous dullards Belle and Sebastian.

Primavera is a strangely well-behaved festival, held in the balmy evenings of late Mediterranean Spring in what seems like the world’s biggest skate park. The 2009 event had so many of favourite acts (MBV, Jesus Lizard, Neil Young, Sunn 0))), Shellac, Jesu…) that it would be hard to surpass, but the 2011 mix looks intriguing already. Primavera has a knack of getting bands to reform, play outdoors, or perform whole albums, who otherwise wouldn’t anywhere else. It’s also a great opportunity to meet up with some old friends, so I’ll be there.

A few days in Catalonia in spring should also give me a chance to do some birding. Previously, my birding in Barcelona has been reduced to listening to the squawks of Monk Parakeets in the park, and being shat on by a Little Egret at the heronry at the Zoo. In truth, it was my daughter Rowan who bore the brunt of the egret droppings. We learnt that egret caca doesn’t wash out, so Rowan had another year of being wheeled around in a poo-stained buggy, before passing it on to her younger brother…

Unsurprisingly, Barca is a good place to get your eye in with Yellow-legged Gull identification. They’re easy enough when you’re in Spain, but far less so when you are trying to pick them out of Lesser Black-back flock in the winter twilight back in the UK, so any chance to practice should be taken. Perhaps surprisingly, Barcelona it’s not the place to see Mediterranean Gull – at least, I’ve never seen one there. If you want to see one, I’d try throwing some bread around at the car park at Holbeck, Scarborough in winter. Never fails.

The nearest nature reserve to central Barcelona is the Delta del Llobregat, just southwest of the airport. I hear it’s good, but I’ve not yet managed to get there myself due to the road being closed the only time I tried. My friend, a Barcelona resident, once told me of his attempt to get to the reserve by bus to take photographs, only to get off the bus a few stops too early. He tells a good tale, but his story, set against a backdrop of dusty gas stations and boozed-up truckers, and littered with used condoms and handlebar moustaches, has not prompted me to consider a second attempt.

I did once make the trip to nearby Montserrat, the impressive serrated mountain to the west of Barca, as much as a hangover cure than anything else, and it was well worth the effort. Hair of the dog, lungs full of fresh air, Ravens and Crag Martins swooping past at eye level. Then back to town for a few beers… I felt so much better after that.

I doubt I’ll get any bird watching done at Primavera 2011, but I might at least get to see the mighty Swans again. I recently saw them live at Supersonic 2010 in Birmingham, and while there was disappointment amongst my companions that they didn’t have the unrelenting, hammer-to-the-face ferocity of their 80s heyday, I found their display of repressed power truly masterful. You won’t see a more gracefully brutal band – they’re worthy of their name. The work of percussionist Thor Harris on the night was a revelation, playing the tubular bells solo for 20 minutes before the rest of the band came on stage, then using vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, and all kinds of found instruments throughout the show. Incidentally, he also plays with that famously ornithological band, Shearwater.

The Supersonic festival is the complete opposite of Primavera, staged as it is in an old warehouse complex in the industrial quarter of Birmingham, over the last weekend in October. It’s dark, cold and isolated – perfect for the rather wintry music that’s on offer. Amongst the many highlights of this year’s festival were the return of Godflesh, for only their second show since they split in 2002, some excellent dubstep from Dead Fader, an old favourite of mine Zeni Geva, and the wonderful surprise that was Nisennenmondai.

Unfortunately, Birmingham isn’t the place to go to get the best of late-October bird migration, especially if you are only awake during the hours of darkness. So the bird “highlights” were the sombre Jackdaws and Feral Pigeons adding to the downbeat atmosphere of the festival, and massive flock of three Starlings on the church St. Martin in the Bull Ring - hardly enough to get even Kate Humble excited.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Taking notes

I’m sorry to have to report an unfortunate footnote to the story of the Morpeth Squacco Heron I twitched last Saturday. Sadly it died during the night of Tuesday 16 November, apparently from starvation (the varying water level and temperature of the River Wansbeck driving its prey – small fish – deeper, and so out if reach of this relatively small heron).

The carcass was found, and retained, by a visiting twitcher (LGRE, no less) the following morning. This news (the retaining of the carcass, rather than the death itself) has caused much debate among birders and ornithologists about the value to science of the bodies of dead birds, as opposed to good photographic images and field notes. I didn’t get involved, mainly because I don’t know enough about it to contribute constructively, but also because last time I looked that particular forum thread was getting perilously close to proving the infamous Godwin’s Law.

Anyway, this got me thinking about my own rather sorry looking field notes. A quick glance at my drawing of the aforementioned Squacco Heron tells you my notes are unlikely to be requested by the Natural History Museum at Tring any day soon, to be stored in perpetuity for the benefit of future ornithologists…

In my defence, it was very cold that morning, and I’d forgotten my gloves, and I was trying to use as little paper as possible for environmental reasons. Most of my field sketches aren’t this bad – honest; but even so, I’m making a resolution right now to improve my note-taking and field sketches, although I accept they’ll never be as good as these superb drawings. The good news is my ever-resourceful daughter Rowan has made me a new notebook in which to start taking field notes with renewed zeal. So you might well see me tomorrow, out in the field, furiously drawing and writing in this beautiful work of art:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Getting started

Is there some kind of convention on what you should put in your first blog post? No? Okay, here goes. Let’s start with a big one…

Somehow I’ve managed to have an excellent week’s birding since Wednesday 10th November, and that despite being at work all week and only having limited free time at the weekend. Twitching, lunchtime birding, garden-listing, more twitching, and bird-surveying…

I got the news of a Pied-billed Grebe, near Rochdale, last Tuesday 9th Nov while at work, and in the middle of a free lunch (yes, I know) with a supplier. This would be the first mainland PBG for over a decade, and a new species for me. Turns out the supplier lives near Littleborough and could give me a lift there that very afternoon. That tidy plan came to nowt when I realised I had to be back in time for a parents’ evening at my daughter’s school… So, I was up early the following morning, and arrived at Hollingworth Lake CP with plenty of time to get a really good look at the PBG and be at work for 10:30. Excellent, excellent stuff, though my digi-scoped photos were pretty cruddy (I must remember to clean my scope lenses…).

Some birders have complained about the rather drab and forlorn look of the PBG, but it was perfectly at home on the lake. I thought it was a beauty – especially as it meant I’ve now seen each of the grebe species ever recorded in Britain… The forum threads were buzzing with this one, although, typically, some of the comments were from Daily-Mailers whingeing about the parking tickets they’d got while twitching the it. All because they ignored the visitor centre parking and went to park on double-yellows right next to the bird. And, yes, parking attendants were referred to as “little Hitlers”… Sigh.

Friday 12th Nov, and a lunchtime walk around the newly-refurbed Roberts Park in Saltaire. At least 25 Redwing being chased around the park by some irate Mistle Thrush. By Tuesday 16th, the Redwing numbers were well in excess of 50, with the Blackbird numbers possibly half that. The trees were full of football-rattle calls from the MTs, plus a noisy supporting cast of Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Coal, Blue, and Great Tit, Robin, Wren, Rook, Jackdaw, BHG… Perhaps I should get off my backside more often at lunchtime, instead of sitting around reading blogs…

So, the weekend and more twitching, this time to Morpeth for a Squacco Heron early Saturday morning with a friend. Despite being bloody difficult to pick out against the riverside grass, even when right in front of you, I did manage some decent shots (btw, photography is not generally my game). Surprisingly small, and with a jaundiced look about it – like a small night-heron in stone-curlew fancy dress.

WeBS count at Rodley NR, Leeds on Sunday morning. The thick fog meant we saw bugger all for the first hour, but it gave me the opportunity to compose some atmospheric pictures.

Great views of Kingfishers (a most reliable place for them), and I added some birds to my Rodley patch list (now a whopping 77), with Little Owl, Song Thrush, Redwing, and Tree Sparrow (none of them WeBS birds). It’s a cracking reserve, particularly if you have small children (much better than, say, Fairburn Ings). Don’t you just hate those grumpy gets who seem to think kids should be kept off reserves?

Oh yeah, Redwings on the garden list on Sunday! Well, on the in-next-door’s-garden list, but seen from the house. An impressive total of 27 now. Impressive because I live in a terraced house in the middle of cat city...

So, it's lunchtime, and I'm off for another trudge around Shipley. Am I the only birder in West Yorkshire not to have seen a Waxwing yet this year..?