Leopards and Spots

You know the birding is slow when I do a post like this but hey, it’s my blog after all. Hopefully spring migration will start here (Nova Scotia) and I can fill the blog with nice photos.

Palm Warbler – coming to a woodlot near you – soon.

A Leopard can’t change its spots, an idiom of biblical origin meaning that you cannot change your character, very true, but you can change how you bird, I have.

In the old days, not quite when Dodos walked the earth but long ago, I birded, well bird watched and I wrote what I had seen and where. The when was just the date, the where a little more precise but the what was everything I saw, with counts. I also wrote notes when I saw something I’d not seen before; not necessarily a new species but something common doing something different. I transcribed my rough notes on scraps of waste paper onto foolscap pages and then placed them in folders, stored in date sequence with the odd feather pasted in. Then I got my first bound pocket notebook, it was about June 1981.

The folders had my stuff from about 1966 through 1972-74 when doing ‘Ornithology’ for a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE – the only grade 1 I got) and then all my casual bird watching until I met another birder and found twitching (1981). For several years after my birding became abbreviated, simply because my now treasured notebooks were not loose-leaf, when they were full I needed another, so I stopped counting, stopped recording all of the species, just made sure my notes covered the rarities, even did the odd painting.

After a few very active years my knowledge had increased exponentially to my experience. People who tell you chasing is a waste of time seem to miss the fact that, the more you see the more you learn. With greater knowledge and a wind-change to take up more restricted birding, mostly just in my county of Nottinghamshire, my notebooks took on a different air. I wrote down more, with counts, but only what was irregular or unusual for my local patch or sites I knew well. Over a short period of time I acquired a good knowledge of the county’s birds and so my minimalist style was applied further. I still twitched and when I did I still kept day lists and even did some counting, but nothing very deep as my focus was now Nottinghamshire.

In 2003 I (we) jumped the Atlantic and landed in Quebec. A whole new avifauna to learn, notebooks to fill, all with much greater detail while learning and then a steady slip back to abbreviation because I then knew what was worth noting, except that I didn’t know that one day I would NEED to put all of my notebooks into eBird.

I capitalise need because the same forces that drive me to bird, constantly (ask Sandra), drive me to want to clear up loose ends. My folders with all my stuff from the first scribbled entry about a House Martin Nest through to trips to the coast with school, then the birds seen around where I lived are all now compost, cleared out when my mum ‘got a mini-skip’ and I wasn’t there to save them. Some of the later notes I’d transcribed into a notebook, the rest are just memories, unreliable for dates and times but crystal clear on species seen. Lost they may be but I do have my notebooks and they have been sitting looking at me wanting their extra time in sun for years.

I came to eBird in 2009 and I am now a disciple, a person who follows the discipline. My early attempts at eBird entry were patchy, borne of the propensity of the male species for not reading the instructions. I put in my life list, my UK list (mostly) and my ABA list and then just added my day-to-everyday stuff. Had I listened to Richard I would have been using eBird earlier and I would not now be looking at my Quebec notebooks thinking there is still a lot to do. I have entered all of the rest of my stuff. I think probably I left out 10%, data of little use to anyone except me as a memory. It has taken my eBird checklists past 11,300, the three notebooks left to enter should see that breach the 12,000 mark if I put everything in. It is now a labour of love to enter everything but I have to finish it, and I will. Thankfully I can now use the ‘historical’ entry rather than sift through photos to pluck unrecorded visit times.

Pre-eBird I used to use one notebook for each year, each entry containing tight, verging on illegible scribble following a note on the day, location and often the weather if relevant. Now I use three or more (thicker) notebooks a year with counts, with times and full details.

For a while, in my allotted birding life, my spots did change, they became indistinct – diffused. Now they are back, thanks to eBird, back to better details for each birding trip – lighter on notes, thanks to digital cameras (another discussion, another time), but back. The more recent birders will not have the dilemma of whether to enter their notebooks into eBird. They will use the mobile app and their birding life will be there, retained electronically. I will continue with paper and pen until my last trip list, fully spotted. The part of me that has to enter all of my notebooks wishes eBird was around from the start, containing data lost – just like all my old detailed Notts patch files that went when a hard drive fried, but at least it is here now.

Taking this opportunity to show how awful my attempts at painting and field illustration were I present the following. The first piece relates to Hoary Redpolls, I could have included the pieces for each species, they are featured in Twitching Times, I think I used the Mallard thing before, apologies to any nationalities I may have insulted.

Arctic Redpoll Acanthis hornemanni

Norfolk Holkham Meals 18th-February to 10th-March 1985, Up to seven present.

True the bill may be a bit wee and those wings might not work properly but…

24th-February 1985: Arctic Redpoll was one of those species that I had to work at in 1985 and, to some extent, suffer for. At the time their full suite of plumage characteristics were not fully documented and the classic ‘snowball’ was just about the only version many birders felt confident in ticking. They seemed to be more regular in the northern isles, which made sense since they were northern birds, but I think that we didn’t fully understand the dynamics of redpoll movements as, in later years, Arctic Redpoll has become more frequently identified south of Hadrian’s Wall.

For my first assault on the species I went on a short adventure north. One had been seen with Common Redpolls in Birch woods around White Adder Reservoir in the Borders region of Scotland. The information was sketchy but that didn’t dim my enthusiasm so, with myself driving, and John Hopper, Steve Henson and possibly Steve Keller (but don’t quote me) also on-board, we set off in my mum’s tiny Mini to look for it!!!

If you have ever sat in Mini, you will know how Sardines feel as they put that easy peel lid on to the can, assuming their Sardine souls are into existentialism, that is. White Adder Reservoir is about five hours away from Nottingham; by Mini it seems a lot further. To cut a long story, and journey for that matter, short, we didn’t see it. My notebook says: Dipper 2, Brambling. My back will never be the same, nor will at least one of the Mini occupants’ trousers, after a bit of sideways skidding on snowy lanes and a damaged wing-mirror incident.

You bird, you dip and so, undaunted the following week we went to Spurn in Humberside looking for the same species. Not in the Mini, I should add, those privileges had been withdrawn as I had failed to mention in advance the nature of the trip to my Mother and we both agreed that I should not borrow her car ever again, fair enough.

After the sort of day only January at Spurn can produce and no Arctic Redpoll, we returned to Notts with enough light available to drop into Lound, hoping for a white-winged gull. Scanning a large slurry pit, a tank c50 feet high that used to hold the waste ash from the nearby power stations, we, or rather Bill Simpson, picked out a male Falcated Duck. It was a species not on the British list but suspected of being able to get to the UK unaided – possibly arriving with the many Mallards originating from Central Russia which are known to winter in the UK.

When I used to do my Colwick Park wildlife talks, I always included a shot of a Mallard and pointed out that some came from Europe and Russia to winter. I then teased the question ‘how do you know where they are from?’ out of them. Here is your easy guide.

British Mallards wait for their bit of bread politely.

French Mallards push to the front but will then only eat baguettes.

German Mallards leave a pile of feathers on the bank to save the place in the queue.

Dutch Mallards just don’t care, man!

Greek Mallards borrow to get the bread.

Swiss Mallards don’t want to get involved; besides, they already have lots of bread.

Italian Mallards prefer pizza crusts.

Spanish Mallards are usually asleep when the bread arrives.

Danish Mallards preferred their bread either side of bacon.

Russian Mallards formed long queues for every beak full.

The Falcated Duck was very handsome, its beauty and potential wildness not at all diminished by the adjacent wildfowl collection with high fences. Our bird was full winged and left the site after a few days, possibly beating it back to somewhere east of the Baltic after having heard from other visiting Mallards that it was now unfrozen, who knows.

It wasn’t until February 1985 that I was finally able to add Arctic Redpoll to my life list, courtesy of one of the elusive birds in Holkham Meals/Wells Wood, Norfolk. There, a large and flighty redpoll flock roamed the woods as numerous birders pursued them. I saw one, eventually, and I think that most of us chasing redpolls that day realised that there were several Arctic Redpolls in that flock but only one was that elusive ‘snowball’.

Holkham Meals and Wells Woods are prime Norfolk birding sites that get rarities and fall outs, it’s High Island, Texas without the mossies, although never quite so spectacular. In 1985, Parrot Crossbills, remnants from an irruption in 1983, stayed to breed in the pines and sip from the puddles of the car park. We saw three the same day that we saw the Arctic Redpoll; read this and weep, modern twitchers, three real Parrot Crossbills, easy.

My first ever Bonaparte’s Gull so inspired this.

A field sketch of a not-so-Oriental-Cuckoo, a twitch that turned out to a to be just a sunny afternoon seeing Common Cuckoos.

A Mediterranean Gull with poo.

Field sketch of the head of a Little Curlew (was whimbrel).

A Desert Wheatear in Cornwall, not terrible.

An Alpine Swift, terrible.

A Sociable Lapwing, can’t do feet, or bodies.

My last field illustration – Lesser Sandplover.

Soccer playing Spotted Nutcracker.

A Lesser Grey Shrike (basically a Loggerhead) that had swallowed a Banana.

Field sketch of one of my biggest ‘finds’ at the time, Black Kite at Spurn.

A Black-eared Wheatear at Portland, note the fine feather detail!


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