Welcome to my world..............

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Birding a local patch - a reminisce


I moved to Somerset in the spring of 1974, as a very green spotty youth, lodging with an elderly lady  in Barrows Croft Road in Cheddar, or living with an 'older woman' as I liked to claim. Being too young to go to the pub and women still a bit of a mystery, I purchased a second-hand racing bike and a trusty pair of 8 X 30 Russian bins, and escaped from my landladies knitting and yappy dog by visiting Cheddar Reservoir.  I had done very little birdwatching before, and never to my knowledge met another real birdwatcher.  I stumbled across the log book which was kept in the cupboard in the toilet block at the Cheddar entrance, and was amazed at the birds which were reported there with such regularity, especially by one particular observer.  It was some months before I met another birdwatcher, and naturally we got talking.  I expressed with incredulity, that someone with the initials BR seemed to see lots of birds there, and I wondered whether he was making them up.  Brian Rabbitts introduced himself to me, and if my memory serves me correctly pointed out the Slav Grebe that had been there for ages, but I had never seen.  The next time I saw Brian was when he called me about a Temminck's Stint, which with the Sanderling were both new birds for me.

At last I began to see some of the birds that previous County Reports listed as turning up, and there followed a series of good autumns with numerous vagrants such as Whiskered Tern, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Wryneck and American Wigeon.  My meagre list started to mount up, and I started to travel further afield, but always returned to the reservoir for local watching and enjoyment.

Having got hooked on birdwatching, I went through periods when I visited the reservoir almost daily, especially at peak times, and sometimes as many as three times a day.  There were other times in periods of general malaise with the reservoir after far more exciting trips abroad, and it might be several months before I could drag myself to go there again.  It was amazing that each time I visited the reservoir after such periods of indifference my enthusiasm was immediately rekindled on my first visit by sightings such as a flock of Common Scoter, or a Black Redstart, and even a Glaucous Gull, which were like a 'welcome back' to the place.

The visits in the early years were often an adventure.  In those days it was access by permit only, and it was a challenge to make a successful visit without being accosted by the Bristol Waterworks caretaker on his bike.  I started riding my bike round too, so that if he arrived, I could see which way he was riding, and I could at least ride in the other direction.  My first couple of years of anarchistic lawbreaking, were replaced by a period of relative respectability by being the official BTO 'duck-counter', which meant a complementary permit, but was not half as much fun!

This was all to change as years went by as access was relaxed enough to let people in without challenging them, to the late 1980's when access became totally unrestricted, and it became a running track for health freaks, and a dog-walking arena, for the more sedate.  The new challenge for me was to manage a complete circuit of the reservoir without having to extract something rather unpleasant from my commando soles.  So incensed was I after one particular visit, I actually sat down and worked out how many tons of faeces were likely to be deposited at the reservoir in a particular year.  However, on reflection, this probably paled into insignificance compared with the tons of duck and coot droppings deposited into the drinking water......

It was always a pleasure to visit the reservoir without being disturbed by anyone else, something which was much more difficult to do in later years.  You could arrive at the reservoir knowing that you were likely to be the only one there that day, and the birds on it were your own.  As one breasted the parapet a quick scan would confirm you were the only one there, but increasingly other 'regulars' would appear.  Most became friends, while the occasional others were to be avoided at all costs.  

It is difficult to say which scenario gave me most pleasure: the pleasure gained sitting on the south side, with Green Woodpeckers and Little Owls calling away, and looking over the calm waters on a sunny evening, with the Mendip hills as a backdrop - very therapeutic.  In Autumn the excitement generated by the very distinctive smell of drying weed, meaning the water level had dropped and in a good year sandy islands, with the potential of finding good waders.  Spring was always welcome wit the first flush of migrants on a sunny Spring morning, contrasting the pain and frostbite endured scanning the winter gull flocks looking for rare gulls.

Although enjoying other people's birds at the reservoir, at last I started finding my own there, and nothing gave me more pleasure than me actually ringing the highly revered Rabbi with news of my finds.  I was lucky with a couple of Wilson's Phalaropes, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, American Golden Plover, Green-winged Teal and Ring-necked Duck, and scarce visitors like Little Auk, a couple of Little Egrets, several Ospreys, Red-necked Phalarope, three species of Skua, and other oddities.  I had White-headed duck among the numerous Ruddy Duck, other species including Marbled Duck, and various escapees such as Flamingo, which always added interest.
Red-necked Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope

Having amassed a reasonable Cheddar list over the years, I was always grateful for calls concerning 'new' birds, and need to thank James Packer for Firecrest and Iceland Gull, and the Rabbi for numerous others.  Of course, there were several records which did 'get away'.  I could kick myself for the Broad-billed Sandpiper sitting motionless on one of the islands, which after 20 minutes of inactivity suddenly disappeared as I briefly looked away.  Or the early May Short-toed Lark which flew only feet above my head calling, and flew out of sight towards Shute Shelve. I was confident in having spent many hours in close contact with the larks in Cyprus. I even rang my best mate in Cornwall to tell him, and guess what, he had seen one too on the Lizard, one of about five which made it to Britain in a five day period.  There was the Richard's Pipit which the Rabbi saw after leaving me sitting on one side of the reservoir, and I am sure I remember him waving, and being a friendly fellow I just waved back, before leaving. Doh!  

Gulls became one of my main interests, especially after finding Mediterranean Gulls fairly regularly.  Good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls, and darker races of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a very dark small slender Baltic type Lesser Black-backed, and a couple of Ring-billed Gulls, and several hybrid or oddly plumaged birds, including a Mediterranean X Black-headed Gull and leucistic Greater Black-backed Gull.

Cheddar always seemed colder than anywhere else, and after scanning the winter gull flocks, one often left bordering on hyperthermia.  I started using a foam mat to sit on, so as not to get a touch of 'Cheddar bottom', and although possibly open to ridicule, at least I was always the comfortable one with a warm and padded seat.  It fitted neatly in my Barbour inner pocket, and became to be considered as essential as the telescope and tripod.  The lack of cover sometimes meant getting caught out by heavy showers; you could see them coming across the Axe valley, and always seemed to move faster than I could.  The removal of two sheds on the Axbridge side, meant the loss of cover during westerly gales, making looking for windblown seabirds that much harder.   

There were always the times to curse the joggers who flushed the waders before you got to them, and the fishermen who left many yards of line and discarded hooks, and litter and dog faeces everywhere, and the yachtsmen and wind-surfers, well, the less said about them the better!  The hot-air balloon which scraped its basket along the main island as target practice, scaring off every bird on the reservoir, before drifting off into oblivion.  There was the time I walked round the reservoir, and for fun walked back round; on returning to my car I tried all my pockets several times, but could not find my keys anywhere.  I walked back round the reservoir for the third time scouring every inch looking for my keys, without any joy, and had to walk back to my house in Cheddar Village.  I put my hand in my pocket and pulled my keys out to open the front door; they were there all the time!  I walked back to the reservoir to pick up my car; what should have been a pleasant stroll turned into a major trek.

I also have many fond memories of the place.  Wading out thigh deep in the mud with Jeff Hazel to grill a strange looking 'peep', and discarding the wellies on the way back to make it easier to walk.  There was the time I stopped one of the joggers, and asked him to tell the birdwatcher on the other side of the reservoir that I was looking at a Little Egret in a creek, which he could not see, and the mounting excitement as the jogger got closer to the watcher, who when told started running faster than the jogger!  The time I watched a particularly unrestrained yachtsman leaning out so far from his boat, and getting so close to the buoy, that there was a resounding 'boing' as he made cranial contact with the aluminium beer-barrel masquerading as a buoy.  The numerous enjoyable birds were crowned by my best sighting of a juvenile Marsh Sandpiper which gave a fleeting visit before moving on up to Chew and Blagdon, and remains the only Somerset (the 'old' new Somerset?) record.  There were many hours of pleasant conversation with good friends, and pleasant scenery all around, which helped me unwind, and was fabulous therapy in stressful times.

In the 24 years of visiting the reservoir I saw well over 200 species there (c.85% of the full Cheddar list), and my best year there gave me 123 birds.  I always regret missing some of the visitors, like Hawfinch, Hoopoe, Long-tailed Skua, and could never understand how White-winged Black Terns always seemed to avoid the place during this period.  I moved from the area in August 1998, and have since moved to deepest darkest Dorset.  However, while attempting to do my regular Rook survey in ST45 in March of this year, I visited the reservoir for the first time in 18 months, in the hope of seeing an early Sand Martin.  I was rewarded with Somerset's second ever Franklin's Gull, and the irony of finding arguably my best bird there after not being there for so long was very apparent.  

There is a lot to be said for having a 'local patch', and I miss the reservoir and its birds dreadfully.  I do, however, having moved to pastures new a whole new arena in which to find my birds, and starting off from 'nought' again has many new challenges. The thought of wandering around locally, in the knowledge that I am most unlikely to meet any other birdwatchers, and that even commonish species are 'new'.  

Monday, 3 January 2022

My top ten birding moments

Having been birding seriously for over 45 years there have been many occasions when the effort of going out has been rewarded with those outstanding and wholly memorable moments.  Having been a patch watcher for most of that time those special rewards have been many if not particularly meaningful to others, with many hours spent watching Cheddar Reservoir, Brean Down and the Somerset Levels.  Those long gone years of chasing other people’s bird do not even get a mention in this list, indeed the only twitchy bird was the Wallcreeper but this was well before the news broke and invariably I was the only one present.  

There are many events and birds that stick in my mind but assembling this list of the top ten was surprisingly easy; they just all sprang to mind in an instant.  Self-found birds are always a thrill and there are many instances of the pleasure of finding species new for the site.  Overseas trips do offer the opportunity to find plenty of interesting birds, even common species which you don’t often see in the UK.  These days the modern birding scene in Britain is not at all enjoyable, and I long for overseas holidays to enjoy the local birds in the peace and quiet with always the possibility of something new.

My list of top ten birding moments follows, in no particular order, although those months of solitary viewing of the Wallcreeper must be near the top:

Wallcreeper at Cheddar

I had only heard a rumour the first winter the bird was present and chased over to Hastings in Spring 1978 to miss the bird there by a couple of hours.  Subsequently the news broke about it having been in a quarry at Cheddar, Somerset where I was living at the time: I could even see the quarry from my bedroom window.  The following Winter I was tipped the wink that the bird had returned but that the quarry owners would not entertain general public access.  Over the following months I saw the bird dozens of times, in at least three different locations, usually by myself or with my best mate.  Cheddar Gorge was the most difficult site and the bird was always distant, Chelms Combe Quarry was the main site and occasionally gave close views, and Shipham Gorge quarry gave the closest views on one occasion.  Once the news broke, Chelms Combe quarry and the tower-testing station became overwhelmed, but I cannot imagine how the whole area would grind to a halt if it was repeated now.  Towards the end of its stay the bird was moulting into breeding plumage developing a black throat and how can I ever forget it singing the plaintive notes while hopping in and out of a puddle on the rockface!

Christmas morning Oued Massa

Having already been to Morocco in the usual spring time several years earlier, I jumped at the chance of a Christmas trip there with three other guys from Somerset in December 1982.  There were lots of stunning birds which were new to the others and Lammergeyer was new to me.  However the bird of the trip was a White-tailed Plover I flushed from a flooded field at Oued Massa on the Atlantic coast.  The following morning after waking on the beach at Oued Massa, from my sleeping bag a flock of Bald Ibis flew north above the surf.  There were many Crested Coots, Marbled Teal among the thousands of wintering duck, Audouin’s Gulls on the beach, Moussier’s Redstarts and Black-capped Tchagra in the scrub, Plain Sand Martins overhead and further fabulous views of the Plover.  What a Christmas present!

Bald Ibis, on the beach, near Tamri, Morocco

White-tailed Plover, Oued Massa, Morocco

Monterey pelagic trip

This has always been a lifelong ambition to do and had a fantastic experience in August 2014, and this is covered in detail in my blog at that time.  If you ever get the chance just do it!

Black-footed Albatross, Monterey


I have been fortunate to spend a couple of long weekends in the UAE, once in Spring and again in the Autumn.  What a fantastic place to see lots of birds and some real cripplers in beautiful scenery and great light.  The estuaries offered up fantastic views of thousands of waders, breeding plumage Greater and Lesser Sandplover, Great Knot, Crab Plover, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover and Terek Sandpipers.  There were plenty of bewildering races of gulls, including summer-plumaged Great Black-headed Gulls, Crested, Lesser Crested and White-cheeked Terns.  An absolutely stunning country and one I would love to return to.

Fall of yank warblers Point Pelee

Early May 1979 at Canada’s premier migration hot-spot Point Pelee was a fantastic experience.  I think there were 12 of us in our rented house and the early morning walks around the point was a mind-blowing introduction to American birds, particularly the warblers. No matter where you looked the trees and bushes were crawling with birds and I spent many hours tracking down the species present. Having had all my kit stolen in America two months later I no longer have the photos or notebooks so recollections are a little hazy.  However I do know that it was possible to see over 30 species of warbler in a day in their stunning breeding plumage, and on one occasion nearby at Rondeau having a crippling male Prothonotary Warbler actually perched on my boot, far too close to photograph!  

Phassouri reed-beds Cyprus

In July/August 1982 I spent a fantastic couple of moths birding in Cyprus.  The hot summer months are not that well covered by visiting birders so there was plenty of scope for interesting records.  One of my favourite sites was Phassouri reed-beds on the Akrotiri peninsula.  From the very first visit it was obvious that there were birds there not usually recorded in Summer: these included Night Herons which were seen carrying food into the reeds, at least three Little Bitterns including a juvenile, up to six Baillon’s Crakes all but one were juveniles, Great Reed Warbler a pair feeding young, and Penduline Tits calling and seen frequently in the reeds.  All were either breeding or strongly suspected of breeding and the records were sent to Messrs Flint and Stewart who were preparing the updated Birds of Cyprus.  Thankfully most of the sightings just made it into the new book.  How can I forget sitting in a very hot and cramped canvas hide photographing some of these birds, with a Baillon’s Crake scratching at the canvas at my feet and a singing Great Reed Warbler sitting inches above my head on top of the hide.

Silver Jubilee

This long weekend falling in the first week of June 1977 proved an exciting few days for a couple of then low-listers.  A route was planned for Andy and I in his trusty MGB which would offer us some new birds.  Virginia Water for Mandarin Duck, Stodmarsh for Cetti’s and Savi’s Warblers and then up to the Brecks:  Golden Pheasant, self-found male Montagu’s Harrier, Golden Orioles and Stone Curlew.  Minsmere produced a fine adult Woodchat plus the usual wetland birds, Red-backed Shrike nearby and then the Ouse Washes to see an adult female Wilson’s Phalarope and a flyby Pratincole which only a handful of us saw.  Unfortunately I had to return a couple of days before Andy and he went on to summer plumaged White-winged Black Tern and Honey Buzzards in North Norfolk.  I think the following weekend I passed the 200 mark on my British list but as a weekend I do not think I have seen so many quality birds in such a relaxed atmosphere, good company and great weather.

Purple Heron Cornwall

I was spending a few days on the Lizard with Andy in May 1988.  Mid-afternoon following a moment for delirious premonition mixed with wishful thinking we announced we were off to Gunwalloe reedbed to see a Purple Heron which at that time was new to both of us.  Gunwalloe has always been one of my favourite Cornish sites and we arrived to walk up the reedbed and had great flight views of a Hoopoe and loads of newly arrived summer visitors.  I was amazed to see what was clearly and adult Purple Heron launch itself from the reedbed and fly up the valley before dropping down.  What a fantastic view of such a great bird in a fabulous place, but such wishful thinking on subsequent occasions has not proved so fruitful…..

Cream-coloured Courser in Spain

In the August of 2001 on a family holiday to southern Spain, based at Zahora, near Cape Trafalgar in a part of Spain the Spanish went on holiday and with very few English (with the exception of the villain Kenneth Noye who was hiding there).  An estuary nearby at Barbate was an attraction for the big flock of Stone Curlew but on one visit I was amazed to see two Cream-coloured Coursers, one of my favourite birds.  The habitat was stony sand with small clumps of low scrub and was very reminiscent of the places I had seen them in North Africa.  There were only a handful of Spanish records at that time but subsequently found out that a pair had bred elsewhere in southern Spain the same year.

Cream-coloured Courser, a Moroccan one rather than Spanish...


Morocco is one of my favourite places and had two fortnight trips there and a couple of long weekends.  On one of the weekend trips to Marrakech in March 2005, I had spent a day at Oued Massa and Oued Sous and then fought my way over the mountains and spent on of the coldest nights I can remember sleeping in the car at the Atlas mountain ski resort of Oukeimeden.  Always a pleasure to visit but how can I ever forget waking up to see Crimson-winged Finch on my wing-mirror, hundreds of Rock Sparrows on most buildings and Alpine Choughs flying over.  On driving down the mountain I at last caught up with the endemic Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker something I had missed on three previous visits.  It was calling and I rang my mate Andy hoping he could hear it….

I will try and add a few more photos as and when I find them again.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

2021 - a look back.

What a year 2021 was, who would have thought that everyone would have been so affected by the impact of COVID across the world.  With the recurrence of illness back in March I am just happy to have made 2022! To keep me going I look forward to having the opportunity to be able enjoy some summer sun and associated wildlife, keep setting goals, and achieving them. Having spent 45 years amassing a decent library of Natural History books, many for identification of numerous different family groups, it was with the sole intention of spending my retirement actually putting them to good use.  Too much focus on birds in the early years, moths in more recent years, at the expense of so many other species; a few notable finds of these other species included only the second British record of a harvestman Opilio canestrinii, and Himerta sepulchralis a new parasitic wasp for Yorkshire and rare nationally. So much more to see!

My initial recollection of 2021 was that it was a poor year, a very slow start due to the poor Spring weather, then very limited opportunity for trapping out at my usual local sites during the Summer and Autumn.  I was surprised to find that it was actually my fourth best year in Yorkshire with 379 species of moths, 19 of which were new for me in Yorkshire.  With a great family week away in Cornwall in August, fairly modest catches in a private garden in Gorran Haven contributed to my National total for the year which included 16 Lifer moths.  

The year is well documented on the blog so not wishing to duplicate I will just choose one highlight.  Of the new ones this year perhaps the most rewarding was a tortrix moth trapped at Brafferton, which I am sure I have trapped before but mis-identified, and on now being aware of its occurrence in the County I despatched it to Charlie the CMR who had dissected the only other three previous records.  It came back confirmed as Pammene ignorata, new for VC62. 

Pammene ignorata, 16 Jun 2021, Brafferton, VC62,

I expect to have the time to reminisce on the numerous highlights I have enjoyed over the years and will try and document them here.