Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Twitching. Again.

Yes, I went twitching again the other day. I went to see this beauty…

White-throated Robin - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland

White-throated Robin - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland

A 1st-summer female White-throated Robin (Irania gutturalis) at Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland. This is a mega rarity for the UK, and in fact for anywhere in Western Europe – its breeding range stretches from Turkey to Afghanistan, and it winters in eastern Africa. Yep, a mega rarity.

A lucky bird-ringer trapped and ringed the bird on the morning of Monday 6th June 2011, and after a initially thinking it was a Red-flanked Bluetail (a less-rare bird, but rare one nonetheless) he realised he was holding the birding equivalent of gold dust in his hand. There are only two previously accepted records in the British Isles – one on the Isle of Man (an area not covered by the ‘British List’) in 1983, and an untwitchable bird on Skokholm Island in 1990.

The news was released fast and the really (mad) keen twitchers were there by late morning, watching the bird as it fed on a municipal bowling green. Unfortunately, by the time most birders had finished work and got up to Hartlepool, the bird had retired to the garden of the local doctor’s house, no doubt for some peace and quiet. This particular garden was surrounded by a very high wall coated in anti-vandal paint. This wouldn’t stop you average hard-core twitcher though. Oh no. Here’s some footage of the scene from YouTube…

And here’s my favourite picture from the Birdforum thread about the bird. Being such a mad twitch, the press took quite an interest in the story. As usual, they didn’t get many of their facts right, but these articles in The Sun and The Daily Mail make for entertaining reading all the same.

With such a rare bird, and all that craziness going on, the decision for me to go and see it was no-brainer. And see it I did. By the time I arrived most of the fuss had died down, and the good doctor had generously opened his garden to allow viewing of the bird. I had a wonderful couple of hours sat on the flattest lawn ever, enjoying great views of this sprightly, long-tailed beauty. Here’s my own low-grade video of the robin:

Job done a super-rare tick, some banter with good-humoured twitchers and locals, and all with the minimum of fuss. But, why was I feeling so guilty?

The question, “Was it worth it?” was going round my head as I drive my passenger-less car back down the A1. “Of course it was worth it”, I thought – it was cracking bird. And it only stayed for five days and was gone before the weekend, so it was a good job I went when I did! But really, really, was it worth a total of four hours driving, using most of a tank of petrol (and the associated climate-changing effects of burning it), just to get that special tick on my list? Err… yes? Maybe? I don’t know. I did put £5 in the bucket at the doctor’s house, to aid the local bird group, but that hardly balances the £50 I spent on fuel.

If I’m honest - really honest - it’s not the harm I may be doing to the environment that makes me feel remorseful, although that’s bad enough. It’s those few stolen hours away from my family I feel the most guilt about. Just the other day my six-year-old daughter gave me a lovely Fathers’ Day card she’d made at school, complete with a generic poem urging dads everywhere to make the most of those early years, when their kids are young. “You’ll never get those years back” it said, “and you’ll feel really guilty if you spent any of that time twitching or watching football or jetting off to music festivals you selfish, heartless pig”. Okay, I made that last bit up, but you get my point. If the poem was intended to induce pangs of conscience in the dad reading it, it did its job. It reminded me of the time I spent twitching a Great Grey Shrike (a bird I’d seen before, and didn’t need for my list - I just wanted to show it to my friend) on the morning of my daughter’s 3rd birthday party. I got back in good time and everyone was happy, but thanks to that card a strong feeling of guilt has come back some three-and-half years later….

But, I’m not a complete rarity-obsessed monster. Honest. I’ve been doing plenty of non-twitching wildlife things recently, including things with my kids, which I hope redresses the balance in favour of responsible birding. In the past ten days alone I’ve helped with the monthly BTO WeBS count at Rodley Nature Reserve; done my own monthly WeBS survey on my section of the River Aire; written an article for my local bird group’s magazine; launched a new RSPB youth group for my local area; done my final site visit for this year’s Redshank Breeding Survey; taken my children to a local Springwatch event; and spent an evening in the rain listening to Nightjars at a traditional local site.

All that and I still feel guilty about the twitching.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Birding the Primavera Sound Festival 2011?

Primavera Sound, held each year at the Parc del Forum, Barcelona, is one of my favourite music festivals, and having missed last year’s event I was determined to go in 2011. Some great bands on this year, although thanks to various issues, I managed to miss many of the ones I wanted to see.

[Note: The Free Music Archive (FMA) have a Primavera Sound page streaming many of the highlights from 2011, so anyone can catch stuff they missed...]

Of course, visiting another country can provide some interesting birding opportunities. Unfortunately, my stay was for the three nights of the festival only. Anyone who’s been to an event like this in Spain will know that things start late and go on well into the morning – so you won’t see much daylight, or be sober enough to focus your bins if you do manage to get out. So, basically, I didn’t get any birding in; but did keep an eye out for ‘em while I was in the city.

The taxi ride from the airport to my friend’s flat, near La Sagrada Familia, took around 40 minutes, with me sitting in the front seat with my binoculars (raised eyebrows from the cabbie). En route to the city, there are some interesting habitats: the flat agricultural land near the airport, the tantalising Llobregat delta reserve, the cliffs of Montjüic near the docks… All for me to explore on my next trip, I hope.

The only birds I saw on the journey that I could ID with confidence were:
  • Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis Absolutely everywhere in the city, easily separable from ‘our’ Herring Gulls by their yellow legs and darker upper wings – not as dark as ‘our’ Lesser Black-backed Gulls though…);
  • White Wagtail (Motacilla alba The nominate sub-species M. a. alba, of which the British version is the Pied Wagtail M. a. yarrellii);
  • European Magpie (Pica pica A nice change to see these, having visited the Scottish Highlands last weekend and seen hardly any - thanks to land owners trapping them);
  • Feral Pigeon (Columba livia domestica);
  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus);
  • Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus A species originating from South America, but now with self-sustaining feral populations in many countries around the World – in fact, the population in the UK is currently under treat of a cull);
  • Common Swift (Apus Apus Over the rooftops in the city in summer);
  • Blackbird (Turdus merula Heard singing almost as soon as I stepped from the cab).
Hmmm, not a very impressive list, is it? I did catch sight of a slim falcon species over the cliffs across the road from the harbour, but it was too high for me to ID from a moving vehicle. Definitely not one of the reintroduced Peregrines - too slim and thin-winged. It was almost certainly a Kestrel from the large colony at Montjüic.

So, after a beer or two at my friend’s flat, it was straight to the festival. Having spent the last couple of years telling anyone who’d listen that this was one of the best-run fests you could visit, the organisers overstretched themselves this time, leading to total chaos. The innovation this year was a pre-pay system for your beer and food. In theory, you added money electronically to a special festival card  thus removing the need to come with anything other than the card and your T-10 Metro ticket. All well and good, if the server can take the weight of all the traffic when people are trying to register for it… So, after lots of queues and grumpiness, late on the first night we were all paying cash for our San Miguels, just like in the olden days.

 The solar panel - the most obvious landmark at the Parc del Forum, Barcelona

Grinderman were the first band I watched - on paper, a band I really should like, but as yet I’d not been drawn to listen to. Verdict: they made a great noise, and they looked great on stage, but where were the tunes? The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds never struggled for a tune, but I didn’t hear too many during this set. Oh, and their guitar solos were too short. I guess I should actually listen to one their CDs – I do keep seeing them lying around the house.

Now then, Suicide, bone fide electronic music pioneers - tonight they performed their first album, Suicide, in full. [Note, their second album is also called Suicide. Crazy guys…]. These chaps are old, but don’t think that lessens any of their impact. In fact, depending on who you believe, singer Alan Vega is anywhere between 62 and 108 years old, and his deliberately creepy demeanour still cuts through in his deadpan vocals.

 Martin Rev and Alan Vega - Suicide at Primavera, Barcelona, 26th May 2011

Meanwhile, Martin Rev produces simple, sweet Casio chord progressions punctured by atonal stabs of noise, all over a hissing, popping Roland rhythm. The whole vibe is sinister and menacing, yet also poignant and tragic. And slightly odd. Down the front of the amphitheatre, standing on the hot, litter-strewn concrete in front of the pumping speakers, I imagined the atmosphere was similar to their early No Wave gigs in the bankrupt New York of the late 70s. Bizarrely, it was probably my favourite moment of the festival.

After getting lost in the darkness, in a good way, I finally found my way to the main stage to watch The Flaming Lips. My interest in this band has waned (there’s a pun in there somewhere) over the years, after being blown away in the mid 90s by their albums Hit to Death in the Future Head, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, and Clouds Taste Metallic (all highly recommended). After the departure of guitarist Ronald Jones their sound became a little ‘straight’. But while they lost some sonic experimentalism, they developed a great stage show. I doubt few people could fail to enjoy their lightshow, banter, and antics, with singer Wayne Coyne dressed ridiculously throughout. Their earlier material was a bit thin on the ground tonight, but it was a fun show all the same.

Friday started with the most exciting bird sighting at the festival (well, pretty much the only bird sighting at the festival…), when a White Wagtail few over the bar near the solar panel, where I was stood deciding on the first band to see. Yes, how my priorities soon shift from birding and music, to booze…

I chose to start the night with a punt on The National, a band I’d hitherto ignored. And they were not bad at all, I have to say. They’re from the USA, but seem to be doing all they can to hide this fact. They sound like a grown-up Joy Division, but without all the cheesy conceit of Interpol, and tick all the right boxes by having a brass section and big, big guitar endings. No, not bad at all, although I suspect I’ll never buy one their records.

Then came the biggest fail of the festival, because I listened to my friends and not the little voice in my head. Somehow, inexcusably, I went and watched Belle and Sebastian. Quite why they were so high up the bill, and quite why so many people were watching them (and singing along! And dancing!), I have no idea. I’m guessing it’s the Mumford and Sons effect: It’s really popular, but I know of no one that likes it. I know enough of this band’s music to know it’s dull, flavourless, and weak – like a watery, headless, pint of bitter. Don’t get me wrong, I love bands like Stereolab, Pram, Cocteau Twins, so being twee (or Scottish) is fine by me; it’s being utterly shite that I can’t stand. It’s music that wouldn’t get used on a Lib-Dem party political broadcast. It’s music Radio 2 would reject on the grounds that it wasn’t risqué enough. God, it’s rubbish.

To improve my mood I resolved to go and see Shellac, who were playing at Primavera for the umpteen year running. While making my way to the ATP stage, I noticed Explosions in the Sky were on a nearby stage. I quickly popped over, as I was intrigued how they’d work on a big outdoor festival stage. I’d seen them a couple of times a few years back, and slowly lost interest in the crowded club on each occasion. Here, though, unleashed on a big stage with a massive PA, they sounded immense. I just wish I’d made the effort to get there earlier.

I listen to Shellac records frequently, and see them live occasionally, but here I’m reminded just why Shellac are such a gift to the World. They’re very professional, yet there's something unpredictable about them. They’re so tight and controlled, and maybe in the past have come across as po-faced, but they’re a fun-loving bunch who always throw in some theatrical japes into their shows (they did a cracking slow-motion sequence tonight). And they can write a mean tune. Most of the old faves were aired tonight, but there were plenty of new tracks to suggest a new album is on the way. A compulsory purchase.

I reckon Friday’s headliners Pulp are a good band. Not bad. Not brilliant either. I’ll leave it at that.

Saturday’s birding consisted on picking out a Chaffinch singing in Barcelona city centre, and then watching an endless procession of Yellow-legged Gulls glide lazily over opening act Damo Suzuki. It was a good call of my mate to suggest we get here early to see Damo. It was the perfect accompaniment to a warm, hangover afternoon. He usually uses a local band to back him, and the choice today was Barcelona’s Cuzo. They were okay; he was great. But then, he’s a bloody legend.

 Damo Suzuki and Cuzo at Primavera, Barcelona, 28th May 2011

Next, Warpaint were on at the large Llevant stage on the far side of the site. This was definitely the place to be, if you wanted to experience the best atmosphere of the weekend... Yes, the Champions League Final was being shown live on a big screen here after the band. I wanted to see  Warpaint anyway, as I love their debut album The Fool.

 Warpaint at Primavera, Barcelona, 28th May 2011

Warpaint sounded great, in an ace, lo-fi way – the rough edges of their playing coming through the massive PA loud and clear. There was a problem though… but it wasn’t that they didn’t play my two favourite songs: Set Your Arms Down and Shadows. The problem was the band’s stage persona – all giggles and in-jokes and clothes my wife wouldn’t decorate in (and she was a real, lo-fi pop star, nearly). It felt like we were watching a rehearsal. And this made the band come across as a bit smug. In their defence, I guess they were just happy to be playing such a great, relaxed festival, but it was slightly incongruous.

The band were then upstaged by FC Barcelona winning the CL Final against a poor Manchester United – but, then again, I am biased.

I caught some of PJ Harvey’s set, and wished I’d made an effort to see and hear more. Her voice sounds so lovely; she’s really developed it since those days of Sheila Na Gig and Dress. Ah, takes me back to the time I saw her at the Duchess of York in Leeds on her first tour in 1992…

Well, Swans were playing, and I couldn’t miss them, even if my friend was feeling ill and wanted to go home. Selfish, I know, but I'd come along way for this! They performed a cut down version of the set they did at Supersonic in Birmingham last year – basically tracks from their current album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. This time they were going though a bigger PA. I mean, what more do you want?

 Michael Gira - Swans at Primavera, Barcelona, 28th May 2011

So, that was Primavera for another year. Lots more good memories to take home. Talking of which... Traveling on the Barcelona Metro every night, I was confronted by an image I hope I'll live to forget. I took a photo, so you can enjoy it too.