Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Twitching. It always makes me feel a bit grubby. Driving to some random pond/field/gravel pit/back garden, to get a quick look at a bird found by someone else that you hope you will be able to recognise without someone else’s help, your heart sinking when you find there’s no one around when you arrive – Has the bird gone? Am I in the right place? Will I have to find it and identify it all by myself?

You then find yourself standing around with a load of older blokes – although, as time goes by, I’m finding that the other twitchers are more and more my age group. Funny that... You hope that there may be at least some friendly ones in this bunch; and, more importantly, you hope that none of them recognise you as one of the idiots who blurted out “There it is!” during a Brown Flycatcher twitch, while pointing at a Pied Flycatcher (yes, I’ll fess up – I was caught up in the excitement of it.).

Then there’s the guilt of leaving the family behind, as you drive off across bleak, anonymous fens, polluting the atmosphere as you go, while questioning the very reason for doing any of it in the first place. And all for a little tick in your book/spreadsheet/Bubo list. It's more like an mental exercise in managing your own expectations rather than bird watching, with some map reading thrown in.

But then again, I can’t not do it. Think of all the birds I’d miss! Having said that, think of all the birds I’ve missed (or dipped, in birding parlance) while twitching. The list is too long to recount. Anyway, for me time is so tight at the moment, that as soon as some free stuff comes along, I have to use it to its full birding potential. So a stroll down to the river looking at Goosanders, or a good bash around the nearest reserve hoping for a patch tick, or even a stalk in the woods hoping for the semi-mythical local Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, wonderful as all these things are, they just do not cut it when compared to the chance of getting a tick. Sad isn’t it?

Over Christmas I was hoping to get out birding (and twitching), between visits to and by various friends and relatives, only for me to get a stinking cold and the car to get impounded for three days to have new brakes fitted. But, I did manage one cheeky twitch. Somewhat sneakily, during a trip to the shops, I managed to drag the family on a detour to Sands Lane gravel pits in Mirfield, near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

While they all stayed in the car, eating into the inevitable chocolate mountain left over from Christmas, I got a good look at a Ring-billed Gull, a rare vagrant from North America, and a ‘first’ for me. The gull had been reported since late November, and was probably the same bird seen at the site the previous winter.

Ring-billed Gull, Sands Lane GP, Mirfield, December 2010

Younger Ring-billed Gulls can be hard to separate from Common Gulls, and I suspect adults aren’t so easy to pick out if you’re not expecting to see one. Of course, it was exactly what I was looking for, and I soon pick up the slightly bulkier, pale-winged bird at the back of a group of Black-headed and Common Gulls. The photo above gives a good account of the species, especially showing the pale iris (which is all dark in adult Common Gulls). And in an attempt to stick to my pledge to write better - or at least some - field notes, I scribbled down a description.

Ring-billed Gull, Sands Lane GP, Mirfield, December 2010

I even managed some video. The last four seconds or so of footage show both a Common Gull (on the left) and the Ring-billed Gull (on the right), allowing for a comparison; but you may want to pause this section for a better/longer view - the camera battery ran out during filming. To add to the lo-fi feel, the black blob that’s taken up residence somewhere inside my camera, has a staring role, centre screen…

Work has been busy in the first week of the New Year, but I did finally get to see the long-staying Rough-legged Buzzard at South Ferriby, North Lincolnshire (travelling over the Humber Bridge to get to it – a treat in itself).

Another first for me this past weekend was Mealy Redpoll, at Rainton Meadows Durham Wildlife Trust reserve. A large, fluctuating, flock of Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret) had been frequenting the reserve, with good numbers of Mealy Redpoll (C. flammea flammea), and a couple or more of the northerly Coues’ subspecies of Artic Redpoll (C. hornemanni exilipes) in there too. Some great photos on blogs and forums had whetted my appetite for some hardcore identification challenges. This was an excellent chance to study the subtle variations between these taxons.

The Bird Club had arranged for bird feeders, and access for visiting birders (those Artics are rare, and the Mealies aren’t common), allowing good views for all, and particularly for those lucky enough to be around when the Artics were present. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pick out any exilipes birds from the Mealies, and they were reported as ‘not present’ on BirdGuides the afternoon I was there, so I wasn’t able to connect. I wonder if one or two other birders convinced themselves they had, judging by things I overheard at the time and read later that day… Anyway, thanks are due to the staff at this nice reserve, and the birders of Durham Bird Club, for giving us all the opportunity. 

I’ve also managed to get out and about around a couple of my local patches, at Stockbridge NR and along the River Aire at Hirst Wood, near Saltaire. The year list is coming along nicely...

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