Champions of the Flyway!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Good Year for the Rosies: January & February

Part one of the year-list challenge to raise money for Coquet Island's Roseate Terns (see here for details)

"Year-listing, eh? Hahahaha"
Firstly, a disclaimer. As anyone good enough to read my ramblings here and elsewhere may have noticed, I prefer to accentuate the positives of patch birding, and rarely (if ever) dwell on the negatives; we all have a unique catalogue of hard-luck stories unavoidably accumulated over time, but I'm a great believer in that karmic cliche of it all balancing out in the long run, and of letting the less welcome memories fade away undocumented.

This time round, however, rather than keeping on the sunny side, I'm breaking the habit; failures as well as successes, frustration as well as satisfaction, all in the name of a good story – a first-hand, un-airbrushed perspective on the trials that this year-listing thing involves, and with it the opportunity for readers to sigh empathetically or snigger mockingly as fortunes ebb and flow. Consider it a kind of emotional blackmail – turning pity into pounds, I'm open for donations 24/7....

Mute Swans returning to the Dams
Thus, writing up the year as it unfolds from the cold, hard, arbitrary angle of the year-list will at least be a novel exercise, especially during periods where the gods appear committed to a targeted malevolence – just the case, as it happens, during much of the year so far. It's been a somewhat inauspicious beginning, shall we say, with plenty of effort reaping scant rewards and a series of frustrating near-misses rubbing in the salt for good measure (feel free to reach for the cheque book at any point, by the way).

With the key migration seasons still a long way away and most of our winter bird populations well settled, the first two months of the year were always going to be about the bonus birds – those hard-to-get long-shots that, if you're lucky, put in special appearances after severe weather, or just happen to materialise by chance.

"Birds? You should've done mammals, mate. Here, have a toke on this"
Geese, gulls and grebes were naturally the main targets, with the rarer possibilities of each most often occurring in the winter months. In many early winter seasons – particularly quiet, mild ones – few such oddities show up on the radar, but that's just how it goes sometimes; a whole host of them have appeared this year, however, and against the odds, almost all have somehow so far conspired to avoid the year-list. (flat donations or a chosen rate per species - I'm easy either way...)

First up were a group of five Tundra Bean Geese (less than annual, every few years at best) that my bird race team had in the Top Fields on 4th Jan. I say my bird race team – I'd have been there if not sat on a train near Doncaster on the way back from a trip, so no complaints there. Not the case a week later though, when, in the spirit of being in it to win it, instead of staying indoors on a distinctly unpromising morning I headed for the Brigg; and instead of heading for the Brigg end, I noticed Fulmars were moving, and so decided to dutifully tally them from within the (mobile signal-proof) hide.

Curlew against the Coble Landing
Finally stepping out of the hide several hours later, a barrage of calls and texts describing how (presumably the same) five had drifted along the edge of the bay, over the town and then the Brigg before finally heading north agonisingly revealed that if I'd have stayed home, I could have walked out of the door and leisurely twitched them from the road outside my house; alternatively, if I'd walked to end of the Brigg first (as I usually do), I'd have seen them easily and received all the messages in time. The only place I could possibly miss them would be in the hide, with the doors closed, counting bloody Fulmars. (How many Beans make five? None).

Oystercatchers in the bay
Next up, news of a group of seven White-fronted Geese (again less than annual) feeding by the sports club off Scarborough Road, tantalisingly just obscured from my field of view from where I sat patiently awaiting a sign of life at the Dams. It was almost dusk, but only a five to ten minute ride at most should get me there comfortably - redemption time, surely. This, however, was the only day in the last year or more the bike was out of action, and a half-hour walk would be pushing it, so I called comrade Nick on the off chance of a ride; an affirmative, and it was game on. Despite best efforts, however, the intervening minutes ticked by like hours, and by the time we got there, we'd somehow missed them by a hair's breadth.

Knot in the bay corner
At the end of January I got word of a Waxwing on the local council estate, not five minutes away; unless there's an influx later in the year, likely my best chance. Inevitably it appeared on the one weekend we'd arranged to be out of town, but still there was hope – it'd returned the next morning and I was due back that afternoon. Four unsuccessful attempts later, and loitering suspiciously around the entrance to the local Primary School finally began to seem like the terrible idea it clearly was in the first place.

Diving Shag off the Brigg - colour-ringed on the Isle of May, Scotland as a chick last summer
The losing streak continued in earnest with a further succession of near-misses, many of which were at sea (despite putting in more hours sea-watching that I care to remember). Think four days on the trot with nothing and then a morning off in order to narrowly miss a Black Guillemot (less than annual and unlikely to occur again this year), and then five essentially blank mornings the next week with Glaucous Gulls waiting to plod by on the other two (a tricky one to pull back, as illustrated by my success rate of one in three years). On mornings when I opted for more unproductive Dams stake-outs, meanwhile, Red-necked (should still get) and Slavonian (lucky to get another chance) Grebes cunningly sneaked by. Safe to say, a certain theme seemed to have developed by this point.

Wren on the Brigg
All of which is, at least, inspiring an increasingly philosophical approach. At the beginning of the year my time was my own and I was going hell for leather either trying (and failing) to increase my chances of finding the long shots, or chasing others that ultimately got away; now, however, I'm in the midst of studying, which means I'll be operating at a much-reduced capacity from here onwards. So like it or not, a far more measured attitude is needed, and the roll-call of near-misses described above has at least proved a timely shot across the bows for future trials and tribulations.

Scaup (fourth from left) - a minor victory....
And there were year-list victories too, of course. Many an almost birdless vigil at the Dams did eventually produce a result in the shape of a particularly shy, scruffy-looking Scaup just before dusk on a freezing January evening (very hard to catch up with locally), particularly vindicating given what hard work it was; a cracking drake Surf Scoter (a great find by local birder Colin W) off the Brigg, meanwhile, had the good grace to hang around long enough to make it onto the list (and for several days afterwards). So, small mercies, and while the majority of those valuable cold-season bonus balls have somehow slipped through the net, a good hand is overdue, and it can only get better from here......

Hits: Scaup, Surf Scoter
Misses: Nurse, the screens
Total species (up to end of Feb): 98
Target: 180

For details of how to pledge your support, please go here

"Jesus, cheer up - there's ten months to go yet"