Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Birding the Newcastle AV Festival?

Another interesting weekend, although like last weekend, it was very bird-lite. Practically bird-free. But, at least I can write about some music this time – something else this blog is meant to be about.

Elena Marina at City Park, Bradford, West Yorkshire - Saturday 24th March 2012

I can’t start without mentioning the new City Park which was officially opened in Bradford on Saturday. Brilliant. Totally ace event. Go see the mirror pool if you great the chance.

Well, the clocks went forward on Sunday, and this is my excuse for not getting up early enough and go to look for the local Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I had other excuses too, but that's the best one. It was a glorious day, more like June than March, so I did some maintenance on the bird feeders in the garden. Is everyone else getting mad numbers of Goldfinches at the moment? 

My wife (let's call her Mrs indiebirder – I'm sure she'll love that!) and I went to Newcastle’s AV Festival on Sunday evening. This year’s festival has a theme of As Slow As Possible, which suits me fine (extremely slow and extremely fast music do it for me). We went to see Attila Csihar: A Scrying: First and Second Action (NCL). If that doesn't sound pretentious enough, it was performed inside one of the towers of the Tyne Bridge; it was cold, dark, and had a whiff of pigeon shit. Mrs indiebirder had the task of reviewing it for the Arts Council, and she asked me to along to provide some “drone-metal contextualisation”.

While waiting outside, we could hear the Kittiwakes making their unmistakeable calls. They nest in Newcastle, and there were a few on the side of our venue.

Kittiwake nests, Tyne Bridge, Newcastle - Sunday 25th March 2012

Inside, we ascended the dank steps to sit on tree stumps around a black pond, upon which were projected suitably shadowy images. Attila did his low, guttural drones from behind a candle-covered table, clothed in robe with cowl. He looped his voice and treated it with some harmoniser effects, creating some excellent hypnotic groves, moving at the pace of tectonic plates. He then would sustain his voice at a higher pitch, using circular breathing, adding his own natural modulation.

Occasionally, Attila would come out from behind his alter to toss some dust into the pool, and raise his hands towards the girders in the atrium above. It was like Coptic chanting meets Aleister Crowley, with some serious sub-bass. At times there were beautiful ambient passages, with natural harmonics being teased out from simple quiet drones: part- part-Moomin, part- plainsong. I loved it. The music was good enough to shine through all the pomposity, perhaps even good enough to justify it.

Flow Mill, River Tyne, Newcastle - Sunday 25th March 2012

A quick mention of Flow Mill moored half a mile downstream of Tyne Bridge. We only had five minutes on here, but well worth a visit. A water-powered instrument ensemble, all glass and wood. You could get some crazy sounds out of it. An adult Cormorant flying low downstream, plus the expected Feral Pigeons and Herring Gulls were the only birds that caught my eye from here.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge, Newcastle - Sunday 25th March 2012

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Dog bites birder

An interesting few days in the life of the indie birder…

Sightings: 2 Red Kite, 2 Common Buzzard, 2 Oystercatcher, 4 Mallard, 4 Canada Goose, 4 Coot, 2+ House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Wren, Robin.

Saturday I was near Sicklinghall, North Yorkshire, where my wife was running an outdoor training course. I spent the afternoon in the woods building a makeshift shelter with some kids. Not many birds around with all the noise going on, but I did get a nice view of a Red Kite nest. No Red Kite nesting there this year, but the farmer informed us they nested last year.

Red Kite nest, North Yorkshire - Sunday 18th March 2012

Sightings: 1 Old Lady, 1 Dog, 2 Oystercatcher.

Sunday was spent digging out a couple of trees from our garden, to make way for a pond. I volunteered to take the branches and roots to the tip, so I could do a quick recce of a nearby Little Ringed Plover site. They’ve turned up in late March for the past few years, but haven’t successfully bred, to my knowledge, despite trying.

Anyway, before I managed the 100-metre walk from the car to view the site, a Boxer dog attacked me. I was left with bruises and teeth-holes along my right arm, and the poor old lady trying to control the dog ended up in a rocky ditch. I kept calm, which probably helped, and I felt bad I couldn’t go and help the old woman. Thank f*ck I didn’t bring my kids along with me.

She got the dog in her car eventually, and we had a chat. I felt sorry for her, she admitted she can't control the dog. Anyway, I then went to look for the Little Ringed Plovers; but only saw a pair of Oystercatcher before I realised I couldn’t hold my bins properly because my arm was so messed up.

You know, I’m good with dogs generally, and I have a healthy respect after being bitten badly as a child - but overall I like ‘em. But, I had to go to the cops – this dog could do a child some real damage. Without going into all the details, the upshot is the dog will have to wear a muzzle in public, or risk being put down. The cops due to make another visit to the owner next week…

Sightings: 12+ Mallard, Moorhen, Goosander, Wren, Robin, Blackbird.

Monday, after a trip to the local Police Station to give a statement, I went for a wander along the River Aire from Shipley to Baildon. I found what appeared to be the place where all the local smack-heads hang out, although I was actually looking for a reported Black-bellied Dipper (Cinclus cinclus cinclus). This is the northern European race of White-throated Dipper, and I hadn't seen one before. The UK race (C. c. gularis), which is pretty common around here, has a lovely chestnut-coloured breast.

In keeping with my luck with birds recently, I didn’t see it, or much else  - a female Goosander at the weir in Shipley being the highlight. This was despite being joined by Paul Marfell, who has seen it regularly, including just the day before. I’ll give it another go later in the week.

Dipper (Cinclus cinclus gularis) 
River Aire, Baildon, West Yorkshire (Paul Marfell)   
Black-bellied Dipper (Cinclus cinclus cinclus) 
River Aire, Baildon, West Yorkshire (Paul Marfell) 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

March WeBS count

I did the BTO WeBS count of my bit of the River Aire today. A few days after the core count date (Sunday 11th March), but that isn’t a problem. I won’t waffle on. Here’s the list:

84 Mallard (56 male/28 female)
7 Goosander (3 male/4 female)
2 Grey Wagtail
12 Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Greylag Goose
Canada Goose
2 Mute Swan
2 Moorhen

The non-WeBS species I picked before or during the water bird count were arguably more interesting:

2 Goldcrest
Great Spotted Woodpecker
3 Jay
Carrion Crow
3 Mistle Thrush
7 Blackbird
8 Robin
3 Wren
12 Blue Tit
2 Coal Tit
4 Long-tailed Tit
34 Wood Pigeon
Stock Dove
…and - and - a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calling in the area. More about this on another post that I’ll write another day.

Probably the most interesting thing was the dead stuff I found...

 Mallard, Shipley, West Yorkshire - Wednesday 14th March 2012 
Common Carp, Hirst Lock, Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Shipley, West Yorkshire
- Wednesday 14th March 2012


First egg of the year

My daughter has been feeding empty birds' egg again. Each summer she points out loads of them to me, which I would have just walked past. I guess that’s kids for you.

Her first one this year is pretty early: on 13th March she found an empty Wood Pigeon egg a couple of streets from our house.

Wood Pigeon egg, Shipley, West Yorkshire - Tuesday 13th March 2012 

Looked good for a Wood Pigeon egg, but I checked the books to be certain.

Wood Pigeon egg, Shipley, West Yorkshire - Tuesday 13th March 2012

Neatly opened around the middle. Looks like the chick hatched successfully and the parent carried the shell away.

Spring is here – now bring on those migrants!

Sunday, 11 March 2012


It was lovely sunny spring day today, and I was lucky enough to spend most of outside doing two of the things I love most – bird watching and helping others watch birds.

I met up with the rest of the Rodley Nature Reseve WeBS survey team at 07:00. It was cold, but still and clear and the sun soon warmed us up. March is the month when the resident birds are pairing up and getting ready to build nests, getting a head start on the summer migrants. No migrants are on the reserve yet, so the focus was on the birds about to breed here, or about to leave.

The Linnet flock, which had reached at least 250 birds over winter, was today more like 60. The gull flock was eight Black-headed Gulls and one Common Gull – about 20% of the usual winter flock. But there were loads Jays around, well into double figures, and more Bullfinches than usual too. The Willow Tits, meanwhile, have gone into hiding. Two Kingfishers were chasing one another along the river, and three Goosander. Seven Goldeneye on the lagoon, and lots of paired-up Gadwall and Teal.

I spent the afternoon leading the Airedale Otters Wildlife Explorers around Deep Cliffe Wood in Harden, Bingley. We were checking the nest boxes the kids made in January, and doing a survey of the birds. Lots of fun - it’s a private wood and quite unkempt, and there are none of the usual rules and restrictions of council-owned woods or nature reserves.

Common Toad, Harden, Bingley, West Yorkshire - Sunday 11th March 2012

The highlights were the random toad found at the start of the event, and the yaffling Green Woodpecker, which eventually flew into view, and a Common Buzzard flying over as we walked back to our cars. The kids and parents found all these things, including these really interesting scratches on the several branches of a Holly tree that had been cut down. I assumed this was the work of a Grey Squirrel - we'd seen these around the wood - but after consulting my trusty copy of Tracks and Signs by Bang and Dahlstrom, I'm not so sure. Any ideas?

The work of a Grey Squirrel?

The kids seemed to enjoy it, and so did the leaders and parents. Don’t believe all that crap you hear about children failing and standards falling: these kids know their stuff, they're eager to learn, and they ask far better questions than adults ever do.

So, basically, I had great day: enjoyable, worthwhile, life-affirming.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A twitch too far?

Next Sunday I will be leading a group of Bradford youngsters on a bird and nestbox survey, for the benefit of their education and the wider environment.

There, I feel better now. Knowing that I will be doing something positive next Sunday somehow assuages the guilt I feel for being a rabid tick-hungry twitcher, going on a monstrous journey to (attempt to) glimpse some rare birds last Saturday.

I went to see the first-winter male Common Yellowthroat at Rhiwderin, Gwent, South Wales. For the UK, this is a rare bird – very rare – with only nine previous records. I wasn’t going to miss this. Work, family, daughter’s birthday, and other commitments had slowed me down, but finally I got the opportunity to go – and also got a lovely, unsolicited note from my daughter.

Up at 3am, on site at 7am, great views by 9am. Get in! Only four birders present when we got our first brief views in the rain; but gradually, as more birders arrived and the skies cleared, the bird revealed itself. And what a peach it was.

It was a beautiful bright yellow on the breast, flashing as it flicked around the branches at different angels. The yellow was noticeable on the undertail coverts too, as it flitted along the hedge, sometimes at eye-level but mostly nearer the ground. Despite the bright colour, it was easily able to disappear in the undergrowth for long periods. It had a dark, almost black, mask with a grey supercilium, and dull green upperparts. Occasionally it fed near a Blue Tit and Robin, giving a good indication of its size.

Then it was on to Pagham, West Susseex, for an overwintering Paddyfield Warbler. Another long journey, and this time in vain. The bird didn’t show all day, on account of the wind I suspect, as it was nice and sunny while I was there. I didn’t hang around, many people looked like they’d given up and weren’t looking any more, and I felt a bit of a mug patrolling the path looking into all the reeds on my own for 45 minutes. Stonechat, Curlews and a Spoonbill flying over low were all nice, but not what I’d invested my time away from the family (and all that petrol money) on.

As luck would have it, a Rose-coloured Starling – another lifer for me – was reported at Hordle in nearby Hampshire. So off I went, with the intention of coming back to Pagham if there was some news. I arrived at the cul-de-sac in Hordle to hear the bird had just left the hedge I was stood next to. Sigh. So I spent an hour looking for the bird around the streets, roofs, tress, gardens (respectfully, of course), while most of the other ten or so birders stood next to the same hedge.

I shouldn’t have bothered. I re-joined everyone, and almost immediately the bird flew into the hedge, nearly hitting me on the head as it did. Bizarrely, most of the waiting birders still missed it as it arrived. Anyhow, we all got good views of the scruffy thing as it sang from within the hawthorn. I’d left my scope in the car but a couple of generous chaps (thanks fellas) allowed me to take a couple of photos with my creaky, first-generation iPhone (the one with the rubbish camera).

Rose-coloured Starling - Hordle, Hampshire, 3rd March 2012

 Rose-coloured Starling - Hordle, Hampshire, 3rd March 2012

No news on the Paddyfield Warbler, so I headed home. Via Kent. Bit out of the way, I admit, but there was (still is?) a female Hooded Merganser at Whedsted gravel pits near Tonbridge. This is a species I’d seen twice before in the UK – a perfectly good looking (and acting) female at Saltholme in Cleveland in 2009, and the long-staying showy male at Radipole in Dorset, which I saw on my trip that way in January.

Neither of these in were accepted as being wild by the birding powers-that-be, i.e. the British Bird Rarities Committee (BBRC). So here was another good candidate – worth another punt, I guess.

After getting lost (in the car, then on foot), I stumbled across a friendly local birder who was heading the same way. The bird was on a medium sized lake, diving frequently at the far side. It was a fetching chocolate-brown female with a lovely ginger crest showing nicely in the warm glow of the setting sun. Really glad I made the detour – regardless of whether it was a genuine vagrant or not.

Extremely boring journey home; but at least I got my two ticks, maybe three once the BBRC have done their stuff. Looking forward to next Sunday: WeBS count at Rodley Nature Reserve, followed by the Airedale Otters. All good stuff.