Monday, 12 September 2011

The Big Birdy Weekend!

Hayle Estuary (Copperhouse Pool)

I know, I know, it’s been a long time coming but finally the long, long wait is over! OK, so procrastination is the principal spur behind today’s blogging activities, nevertheless, I’m going to enjoy the moment whilst kidding myself that if I put off doing what has to be done for a sufficient length of time that somehow it will eventually do itself.

Right then, as it’s probably somewhat foolish to attempt to catch-up with six months’ worth of life in the oft-La La Land of the Narcoleptic Naturalist, I’ll see if I can come up with some selected highlights.

Nothing particularly new or interesting to write about on the Narcolepsy front – life has been ticking along pretty much as usual, with the customary good, not-so-good, bad and downright horrible days. Through the delights of social networking and casual remarks, more sleepy people continue to come into my life, which, give or take a few exceptions, is always good. And, significantly, given that this will be a first for me, I am hoping that it won’t be long before I finally get to meet some ‘in the flesh’!

So, six months in a single paragraph – could be interesting. Deep breath, here goes. In addition to my Cornish explorations, I’ve been to Shropshire, Sussex and um, seemingly nowhere else. Well, that’s a good start! I’ve visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan, WWT Arundel and RSPB Pulborough Brooks, been a pirate for the day, taken part in a 24-hour BioBlitz, discovered an aphid new to Cornwall (get me, I made the BBC website, no less!), been in the sea twice in one week, attempted body-boarding (once was enough), eaten far too much chocolate and ice cream (oops!), been to a performance at the Minack Theatre, seen some good birdies, pootered lots of psyllids, attended an Invasive Species conference, embraced my inner anorak, had a snooze on the Lizard, survived Wryneck country, discovered the delights of gluten-free pies, got up-close and personal with some highland cattle, been stuck in mud, organised and participated in a speed-birding event, been on a pig walk, become a Cornwall Wildlife Trust volunteer and subsequently surveyed lots of hedges, been to two lovely wedding celebrations, grown some courgettes and enjoyed the company of good friends.

Common Wasp Vespa vulgaris enjoying some Toasted Coconut icecream at Roskilly's Farm

And, just over a week ago, I experienced the delights of the inaugural Big Birdy Weekend.

‘The Big Birdy Weekend – what’s that?’ I hear you cry. What indeed! I might have mentioned previously my lovely little online Nerdy Birdy group (as it’s fondly become known), created as a safe place for the exchange of bird sightings, pictures and videos, ornithological chit chat, a little bit of friendly competitiveness and general birdy-nerdiness. Members currently only number sixteen, and with the exception of one or two outliers, reside mostly in the West Country or the Home Counties. At some point, the idea of a post-thesis, early September birding trip for the MSc-ers amongst the group began to be bounded about, whereupon I casually remarked that Cornwall was pretty good at that time of the year, with the early onset of autumn/winter migrants adding some excitement to the mix. So, Cornwall it turned out to be.

I’ll avoid the ins and outs of the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas, the logistics of how, when, where and who, and will move swiftly to the dawning of Day One of the Big Birdy Weekend (henceforth to be referred to as BBW). Imagine if you will, blue skies and blazing sunshine, not a cloud in sight, all made pleasant by a soft, cooling breeze… Well, that’s what it had been like for the two days previous, when Cornwall was doing us proud, and all was well in the world. Come the dawning of the BBW, the sky had morphed into a monotonous blanket of greyness, the temperature had dropped several degrees, the cooling breeze was by now threatening to blow a severe hoolie, and it was obvious that rain of the torrential variety was imminent. Still, undeterred by meteorological spanners being thrown into the works, collective excitement was still paramount.

First task of the day for my Lovely Other Half, the Small Person and yours truly was a quick dash to Land’s End to wave off a friend as he embarked on a Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle ride for charity. Not at all envious but very much in awe, we took the opportunity to peer into the gloom in the hope of seeing some interesting birds and/or cetaceans, before dutifully taking photos and huddling together against the wind as we proudly waved off our friend and his two companions on their long journey.

Meanwhile, due to a c***-up on the car-hire front, our well-laid BBW plans were already afoot, and the designated Cornwall-gang’s chauffeur was now making her way to Penzance by train, where, after some rather heated discussion with the car-hire company in question, she had managed to eventually secure a car for the weekend. On our arrival at the train station to meet the Chauffeur, it was all systems go. The Arrivals monitor showed the train as being on time and due to arrive at its designated platform any time now. Five minutes later and all mention of the train had vanished from the Arrivals monitor but there was no sign of the train, only a station full of confused people, waiting either for the missing arrival or the train that was due to depart in only a few minutes. With my Lovely Other Half now circling Penzance to avoid paying an extortionate amount of parking money, I awaited news from the Chauffeur as to the train’s whereabouts. ‘Stuck in Camborne with no [phone] signal’, at last beeped a text message. Half an hour overdue, it was with some relief when said train finally pulled into Penzance. And then it was onto our next mission – taking temporary possession of our weekend transport.

Car sorted and it was on to Carbis Bay to collect another party member. Meanwhile, the Home Counties lot had had a smooth and straightforward journey, and had long-arrived at Hayle, where they were already ogling birdies on the estuary from the RSPB hide and getting to see all manner of goodies. Texts were being exchanged all over the place but it really did seem as though we were soon going to be in the same place at the same time. And where better to mark such an occasion? At a pasty bakery, of course! In the rain though…

With greetings and hugs exchanged and tummies soon filled, the dilemma of where to go to find birdies was at the forefront of people’s minds. I should say at this point, that the aim of this weekend was not to hang out the beach, soaking up the sun or catching a wave or two but to see as many species as we could in the time available; i.e. we were being ‘proper’ twitchers, albeit with geographical restraints in place. At the forefront of the forefront of people’s minds were the first of this season’s Wrynecks to arrive in the county, one known to be hanging out somewhere in Nanquidno valley, and the other reported to be favouring the delights of Porthgwarra. We weren’t going to let a spot of rain stop us from finding our birdies, and with a mental map of how to get there by car engrained in my mind, Nanquidno it was (via a diversion to Penzance library in order to purchase a ‘Choughed about books’ bag, no less, though).

Despite a worried text along the lines of ‘we seem to be driving down to a dead end, are you sure this is the right place?’, the two carloads made it to Nanquidno, and Wryneck hunting commenced. Unfortunately, due to a prior engagement on the part of the Chauffeur, the Cornwall party were forced to abandon the mission soon after arrival, and it was left to the Home Counties team to carry the torch for the party, whilst agreeing to regroup in the evening for pub-based socialising.

Several hours and a vegetable curry (with popadams) later, the Chauffeur having returned from her prior engagement involving horses and a big beach, and despite extreme tiredness (thankfully mostly on my part), we headed into the foggy darkness of the West Penwith moors to honour our pub-going commitment. Being later than anticipated, a text was sent to the Home Counties party advising of our revised ETA, and we continued on our way. Upon our arrival, there was no sign of our comrades, and also, rather tellingly, no sign of a mobile phone signal. Feeling rather guilty at being slightly relieved at not having to attempt coherent conversation (all manner of gibberish had been emanating from my mouth for quite some time as it was, especially as rather ironically, my desperate attempt at getting some sleep before dinner had failed big time!). Showing willing, we staggered through the darkness to the village hostel (the visitors’ resting place for the night), only to find the door locked. So, a note through the hostel door and the same through the car door it was, and to bed we went. Not being able to see much further than a few metres ahead, coupled with intense darkness, made the drive to and from Zennor interesting, to say the least; however, our adventure was rewarded with all manner of exciting wildlife encounters: a fox, two frogs, a Barn Owl, a bat and a hedgehog, all put on a fine display.

Hopes were high for Day Two of the BBW, not only on the birdy front but on the organisational front! Things began well - the sun was shining, notes had been found, and off we were to Porthgwarra, in the hope of seeing lots of new (at least to to us) pelagic species and choughs for the visitors (the latter simply had to be done!). It turned out that whilst the Wryneck at Nanquidno was eventually deemed to be invisible, a very productive bush had been happened upon, from which burst all manner of delights, including a Garden Warbler and Spotted Flycatchers. So, all was not lost and spirits were still high.

Arriving at Porthgwarra to find once again that a mobile signal appeared only sporadically, there was no sign of our twitchy friends. So, after spending some time enjoying the spectacle of Shearwaters galore zooming along the coast, the wilds of Gwennap Head and the hope of bumping into some intrepid Wryneck-cum-Chough hunters soon beckoned. Ascending Gwennap Head was a feat in itself, given that one of the birding party was only five years old, one was carrying a heavy (and non-contained) telescope with a mind of its own, one was using a pair of crutches, and all four of us were fighting a continual battle against a very determined wind.

Having reached the National Coastwatch Institution Lookout station:, there was still no sign of our co-birders; however, there was the briefest of mobile signals, and a customary ‘Where are you?’ text was duly sent. ‘We’re back at the car park’ was the reply, followed by a message that they would come back up to meet us with news of their birding achievements – including yet another invisible Wryneck, lots of Meadow Pipits, a Wheatear, and yes, a pair of choughs. Unfortunately, the latter was seemingly not a ‘satisfactory’ twitch, and the craving for a better sighting had taken hold. But first, there was a small matter of a certain hitherto very elusive piciform.

So, back to Nanquidno it was. Having first deduced which of two ‘No Parking’ signs was the one described in the recent bird reports, we set about in visual pursuit of our birding quarry. One ‘scope and several pairs of binoculars later and sadly, we were still without our Wryneck twitch. For some of us, Wryneck ennui was rapidly setting in, even more so because the lovely sunshine of the morning had rudely been replaced by greyness, and it was with some relief that we decided to make a move.

First stop Marazion Marsh for lunch and a reported Wood Sandpiper. No luck on the latter but the former was most successful! Next stop, Lizard Point for a ‘better’ chough sighting and whatever else might happen to be there. In fact, it turned out that what did happen to be there was rain coming down in proverbial stair rods, wind that was howling like the proverbial banshee, and perhaps more significantly but not unsurprising given our run of luck thus far, a distinct lack of choughs. We did see some Grey Seals though!

As the Home Counties party had a long journey back Up Country ahead of them, the weather was showing no real sign of improvement, and spirits were by now showing distinct signs of deflation, it was decided that we would call it a day collectively. So we said our ‘goodbyes’ and agreed that despite a lack of new birds and appalling weather, a good time was had by all and there the event should definitely be repeated – we’re thinking the Arne Peninsula, or Norfolk, or the Scottish Highlands, or Rutland Water…

So, despite more time spent hurtling around the Cornish countryside than out and about looking at birdies, coupled with numerous hiccups along the way, between us, we managed to see an admirable ninety species of bird, including a couple of rarities – a fine effort, methinks!

Right, that’s enough procrastination for now. I’m off to dig out some pretty pics with which to furnish my ramblings.

Hayle Estuary

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Don't blame it on the sunshine, don't blame it on the moonlight...

The C17th windmill at Windmill Farm Nature Reserve
Hmm, sunshine…. Rather lovely and most welcome at this time of year but I hold it wholly responsible for yesterday’s action-packed Lizard adventures, involving five buses, a cuddly toy dog called ‘Black Ears’, Highland Cattle, mud, fungi, catkins, a historic windmill, copious amounts of chocolate and a very magical animal encounter. Mind you, perhaps I’m rather hasty in attributing all of the blame to the sunshine, as thinking about it, last night’s super perigee moon could easily have been at least an equal accomplice…

Rather ironically (and not a little annoyingly), despite a more-or-less cloudless sky for most of the day, come the evening, it was the exact opposite, and attempts to even locate the moon proved fruitless.  Still, I will look again tonight.

Anyway, less of this moon-talk – what did I get up to yesterday? Fuelled by a desire to venture further afield than my usual stomping ground, the previous night was spent identifying suitable places to visit and perusing bus timetables in order to create a shortlist. So, to the Lizard it was - to be precise, to Windmill Farm Nature Reserve it was – a 75+ha farm owned jointly by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Cornwall Birdwatching & Preservation Society:

Mr. Yappy-Pants 

Not entirely sure of where we were heading, we jumped off the bus about 2 miles from Lizard Village, took a while to find our bearings, then reassuringly embarked on the relatively short trek along a track with what definitely appeared to be the remains of a 17th-century windmill at its culmination. En route we passed a field of friendly horses, a vocally-fierce but doddery and old small terrier, daffodils galore and all manner of additional signs of Spring.

On arriving at the reserve, the decision was made to first head to the bird pools and hides, in the hope of seeing some interesting birdlife. After plodding along paths, stopping to view the Highland Cattle, passing through gate after gate, we finally arrived at one of the hides – a delightfully compact affair, which was just the right size for me and the Small Person to rest our already weary feet and have a few bites of our lunch. Unfortunately, there was a distinct lack of birdlife to be observed but the vista was most pleasing!

Highland Cattle

View from the hide

After retracing our steps, we then pootled off in the other direction, passing through a number of fields and a small area of woodland before reluctantly admitting that we had insufficient energy to complete the full circuit of the reserve, and so turned back.

Despite a rather disappointing turn-out on the wildlife front, with blue tits and chaffinches being the main avian representatives, and dandelions and daffodils doing their bit for flora, all-in-all, we had a lovely time at Windmill Farm, and are now very keen to return a little later in the year when there should be a far greater abundance and variety of wildlife with which to be entranced and captivated!
Inside the Information Centre @ Windmill Farm Nature Reserve

According to available information, the above-mentioned track to Windmill Farm is located approximately a mile from Lizard Village. With this in mind, and due to being unfamiliar with the local bus routes, we slowly began the walk from the reserve to Lizard Village, stopping en route to say, ‘Hello’ again to the horses, and stopping also to acknowledge the fervently yapping dog. The walk from the end of the track is along a main road (bearing in mind this is the Lizard…), with only an overgrown narrow grass verge on each side for walking purposes. After walking for about 15 minutes, our energy and will to even move rapidly waning, we passed a road sign, along to discover that it was still 1 mile to Lizard Village. With a heavy heart and no other option but to continue with our mission, we slowly plodded on, jumping up whenever a car passed, to squeeze together onto the verge. Singing helped somewhat to distract us from our weary ennui but still the road felt endless, and rather frustratingly, there routinely appeared to be no increase in the size of the Lizard houses on the horizon…

At long last, we passed the signs to Kynance Cove, and soon found that the above-mentioned houses weren’t actually figments of our imagination – an oasis in the desert of our collective exhaustion – and were now rapidly looming upon us. Then, unexpectedly, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something flying low across the small piece of rough grassland on our left. Instinctively I thought ‘Barn Owl’ but didn’t allow myself to fully trust my instincts until I’d had a better look. Carefully lifting up the Small Person so that she could also see over the wall, we watched in awe as the graceful bird soared silently across the grass, passing only a few feet from us, allowing us to take in its features sufficiently to identify it as a female bird due to its dark coloration and large size. After feeling so well and truly fed up, this was just what we needed to raise our spirits and provide us with the boost we needed to walk the remaining (relatively) short distance to the bus stop. On arrival at the bus stop, it was in some amazement that we discovered that the hourly bus was due immediately, and so it wasn’t long before we were enjoying the luxury of a warm and comfy seat, whilst being transported exactly along the route that we’d just walked… Typical, eh?! But we now know for next time, and of course, if we’d waited at the end of the track to the reserve, we’d never have experienced that breath-taking and enchanting encounter with a Barn Owl.

And, on a different note, I’ve just discovered that it’s World Sparrow Day:

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Time to wake up and smell the daffodils!

Anatomy of a Psyllid

Plagues of psyllids, small aquatic mustelids morphing (and multiplying) into friendly prehistoric reptiles, each called ‘Wolbachia’, going into university lacking undergarments and trousers, only to discover that the entire Biosciences department has been redeveloped, and now features both open-plan bathrooms and individually-attended compost toilets (reached by ladders that are too steep to climb), in-your-face colourful poster depictions of exciting departmental research, TV soap actors dressed as lawyers using the office computers, oh, and Mozzarella and tomato sandwiches made from battered waffles for breakfast…

Well, now that I’ve finally woken up, it’s time for a rest. In order to give my brain (and accompanying body) some time-out, I’ve decided to resist the enticingly-beckoning allure of my psylloidean-based research and instead opt for a day of adventures with my Lovely Other Half and the Small Person. The latter is in charge today, and prescribed missions thus far include a visit to the Merry Maidens stone circle, a picnic (subject to varying degrees of sun/wind presence), a game of football, a treasure hunt on the beach, and a little bit of bird observation (my special request).

Let’s hope some breakfast (fortunately not a battered waffle in sight) and a couple of painkillers will serve to restore some clarity to my poor over-worked brain, which is still feeling rather thick, woolly and generally nonsense-filled. I desperately need to attempt to reclaim a far less erratic sleep/wake schedule, as this past week or so, I’ve been all over the place – not necessarily something that I have that much control over when it comes to having a silly narcoleptic brain but I’ll do my best. So:

• no more staying up late to do work - even if I am enjoying it – from now on, I will be in bed by 11pm at the latest, and I will read not use the computer

• no more reclining on the settee whilst using the computer – I will remain in an upright position at all times (note to self: SIT UP NOW!)

• no more ‘relaxing’ by doing puzzles on the computer – you know what happens when you do that

OK, that’s enough for now!

I haven’t forgotten that I’m overdue a more ‘down to Earth’ entry – will be on to it in due course. For now, I think I’d better get on with breakfast-eating, showering and general adventure preparation, especially as the Small Person is busy gathering picnic supplies as I write…

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Hypothalamus transplant... Anyone? Anyone?? Anyone???

An area of the forebrain which lies beneath the thalamus. It secretes corticotropin releasing hormone, which helps to control the body's metabolism by exerting an influence on the pituitary gland, and vasopressin, which is involved in the regulation of the sleep and wake states.


As I’m writing this from the comfort of my duvet-covered settee, due to suffering the familiar effects of insufficient sleep the previous night, it seems appropriate that this particular blog entry be a sleepy one. However, those of you more interested in reading about my experiences and opinions with a more earthly slant then fear not, some wildlife-filled witterings will follow shortly - presuming of course, that the need to sleep hasn’t got the better of me before I manage to put fingers to keyboard, which is only a matter of time (minutes rather than hours, if experience is anything to go by!).

An oft-discussed subject amongst my beautiful sleepy friends is whether or not to tell people about having Narcolepsy, and then if appropriate, also the matter of how to go about telling people about having Narcolepsy. These days I’m all for sharing. For a start, the ‘classic’ depictions of Narcolepsy (you must know the ones) do not do the disease justice in any way whatsoever. Please don’t take this the wrong way but I simply do not have the energy to go into the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ but if you make the effort, it’s not hard to work these out for yourself.

Now, some of you have already been regaled by the following recollection of a particularly bad day I had recently, so for those to whom this applies, apologies for the repetition. However, I thought I’d share it here, in the hope that it might help to convey some of the really crappy effects of Narcolepsy – as opposed to the generally crappy effects…

So, for the past few years I seem to have taken to telling anyone and everyone about Narcolepsy! It’s not necessarily a conscious thing - it just tends to slip out. I don’t always go into the same levels of detail, and I do have a tendency to lighten some of my experiences with people with whom I’m not that familiar but on the whole ‘spreading the word’ has been a positive experience. Most of my friends have come up trumps and are genuinely interested in the subject, and knowing that they’re even a little bit aware of what I go through helps to alleviate some of the stress that accompanies ‘being different’. Mind you, saying that, I’ve given up on talking to my family (i.e. my immediate family outside of my lovely Other Half and the Small Person) about it, as they simply show no interest and seem only intent on sharing all their own problems with me but here isn’t the place to go into that, and I’ve accepted that that’s the way it’s going to be for us, so in many ways, it seems to work!

I also seem to be pretty adept at appearing relatively normal (not necessarily a good thing, as people tend to assume that everything’s OK), so I’m rarely in a situation where I have to attempt to explain my behaviour/symptoms to complete strangers. My cataplexy is rarely severe enough to cause total collapse, and I’ve learned coping mechanisms to help minimise the impact that it does have, such as locking my knees whilst walking/standing, clinging extra tightly to railings, avoiding standing for too long, etc. Also, as I’m more-or-less my own boss when it comes to when/how I work, I can normally avoid having to be out and about when I’m feeling extra-rough, and wherever possible, I do try to operate within my limitations, which includes avoiding known triggers, etc.

Saying that though, one day last week I did make the mistake of going into university after only five hours sleep plus an hour on the settee after breakfast. Boy, did I feel awful – numb brain, head spinning, sweaty and shaky, legs wobbling – in the end, I left the office early and forced myself to walk around (aka stagger about in a fog) the campus until my lovely Other Half arrived to take me home. I desperately tried to find something on which to focus (in this case, birds!), and also to keep moving, as every time I stopped, I could feel myself zoning out even further.

We only have the one mobile phone, so I was unable to get hold of my lovely Other Half to request an early pick-up; however, the one comfort was that I didn’t have to get the bus, as I really don’t think I could’ve coped with that, and goodness know where I’d have ended up! Fortunately my chauffeur was on time, and I collapsed into the car, whereupon I vehemently cursed having Narcolepsy before finally allowing my eyes to close. I was in bed by 9pm, and the next day was a far more enjoyable experience – I even survived 3 hours in a biology lab assisting undergraduates with population modelling on Excel (came away feeling brain-dead though…)!

Talking of assisting undergraduates, in a couple of weeks’ time, I have two lab sessions in one day (more Excel-based analysis): 9-12 and 3-6, which I am not looking forward to one little bit – think I might take in a blanket and find somewhere snug where I can curl up and snooze for a while, although napping tends to turn me into even more of a zombie… Oh well, here’s hoping I’ll come out of it relatively unscathed!

Update – I survived! I made it through the day in one piece. However, by the time I arrived home, I was majorly pooped, and promptly curled up on the settee for a spot of premature shut-eye.

So, where was I, or rather, where am I? Oh yes, prostrate on the settee, wrapped in a duvet (but still cold – silly hypothalamus), trying to remain suitably compos mentis to adequately function zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh well, such is (my) life, eh?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

To twitch ot not to twitch?


'Sally Luker, you are charged with the following offence: that during the month of January 2011, at a variety of locations and at a variety of times, you did partake in the activity known as ‘twitching’. How do you plead?'

'Not guilty, m’lud – I’m an ornithologist!'
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

OK, so these past few weeks, I seem to have inadvertently exchanged my entomologist’s hat for that of an ornithologist. In fact, if I’m honest, rather worryingly, in many people’s eyes, the hat in question is not really that dissimilar to that of a twitcher. Now, I’ve always vehemently refuted any accusation of ‘twitcher-ness’, preferring to consider myself above such frowned-upon activities.

'Twitcher (noun) A type of birder who seeks to add as many species as possible to their life list in as short a time as possible. Twitchers are willing to go to great lengths, including extensive travel and dedicated monitoring of local and regional birding hotlines, to see new bird species. A twitcher does not generally devote great lengths of time to bird observation, but rather is content to simply identify the bird species conclusively and add it to their life list.'

See, I’m not a twitcher. For a start I don’t ‘travel extensively’ (too poor and contrary to my ‘green’ ethos), plus I like to think that I do more than add species to my list… Oh no, I’ve just confessed to keeping a list. Damn, I’ve blown it now, haven’t I?! But then I keep lists of everything, I’m a self-confessed compulsive list-maker, in fact I’m the Queen of List-making - so making lists of birds is surely acceptable in my circumstances?

(Unsuccessfully) looking for Pacific and Great Northern Divers in Mount's Bay - so, so tough...

Saying that though, I am rather ashamed to admit to yesterday driving around (or rather being driven around) a neighbouring village looking for Golden Plovers and Ruffs, in a steamed-up car, in foggy weather and with only a vague idea of where to find said birds - oh, and with the binoculars currently residing on a shelf in our little cottage… Needless to say, we were out of luck. On a brighter note though, I have been invited to sit in a friend’s cold shed in order to meet a now-regular visitor to her garden – a Rose-coloured Starling. And very excited I am about the prospect too!

So, twitcher, birder, ornithologist - in all honestly, is it really simply merely a case of intellectual snobbery? Why does there seem to be a need to categorise, to label, and to put everything into an easily-definable little box? And why take offence - they’re only words after all. 

Marazion Marsh - currently home to a delightful Siege of Bitterns!

I did consider going into the whole ‘twitcher v. birder v. ornithologist’ debate but having done some research into the matter, see that it’s been done to death, and for that reason, feel that it is probably best (mostly) left alone!

In my opinion, whether twitcher, birder or ornithologist, what is really important is the subject – birds. Surely it would be better to expend our energy enthusing our passions to others, rather than wasting it on pointless semantic-based arguments, so that more and more people take up the cause – whether it’s by appreciating a bird’s beauty or its rarity, thriving on the adrenaline rush or revelling in the magic that accompanies a special sighting, or perhaps heading down the academic route of really getting to grips with avian ecology. It all makes a difference, and serves to raise awareness of the intrinsic value of birds.

Me, I will continue to make lists, to keep a check on the local sightings forums, to share my sightings with like-minded people and to revel in a touch of friendly rivalry, and I will continue to learn and also to educate. Why? Perhaps because first and foremost, I enjoy it.

Drift Reservoir - home to Mute Swans, Coots, Mallards, Canada Geese and for the time being a Greenland White-fronted Goose

Meanwhile, I’m unable to resist concluding with the following - some (tongue-in-cheek) Rules for Birdwatchers, as posted on BirdForum back in 2003:

Rules for birdwatchers (very tongue-in-cheek)

1. Any travelling involved to go birdwatching should be on foot or by bike. Cars, buses, trains, planes, etc. cannot be used. Only a twitcher would use up valuable fossil fuels just to go and see a bird.

2. No visits to any location where birds are known to be present, e.g. Avocets at Minsmere, Mallards at the local park. Any visits to somewhere you suspect there are any birds, is twitching.

3. No flushing of birds. If you are walking along and spot a bird, turn 180 degrees and walk away from the bird. Only a twitcher would deliberately approach a bird and risk disturbing it just to selfishly get a better look at it.

4. Spend as much time as possible looking at every bird you encounter, be it a Magpie, Canada Goose, etc. Make sure you note all aspects of plumage, behaviour etc. Only a twitcher would spend less than 10 minutes looking at a bird before moving on to look for another bird.

5. Try to see as few species of birds in a year as possible. Don’t make a list of the birds you have seen, not even mentally. Only twitchers make lists and try to see more birds.

6. If you must keep a list, make sure it's in the right order. The correct order for UK birdwatchers is Starling, House Sparrow, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Collared Dove, Great Tit, Woodpigeon, Robin, etc. Only a twitcher would see a Pectoral Sandpiper before a Hawfinch, or a Yellow-browed Warbler before a Chough. A full list can be found in the forthcoming book "Birds in the Right Order - How to get a Lifelist of 100 in less than 25 Years".

7. If you see a bird you don't recognise, make no effort whatsoever to identify it. Ignore it, walk away and erase it from your memory. Don't get Collins out of your pocket to check the ID. In all probability the bird will be rare one, and you will be instantly transported to a twitch of your own making, guaranteeing a place in the fires of Hell for eternity.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Christmas visiting and super-sized Starlings

Mouldon Hill Country Park, Swindon
I guess it would be only polite to commence today’s entry with a rather belated ‘Happy New Year’ to everybody out there in Internetland!
As usual, I’m stumped as to where do begin. So, let me see, last post was the end of November (eek, but I do have the excuse of the motherboard of my former laptop going caput with no warning – fortunately, courtesy of those lovely DSA people, I’m now in possession of brand new shiny laptop, so all is well once more), which means time for some hard-core brain-racking.

After a brief ‘warm’ spell, the snowy and icy weather returned to most of the country, with only our little tip of Cornwall being spared, and then it was only a short trip out of our village before we hit the cold, white stuff. Whilst I spotted some Redwings, the Waxwings and Bitterns being seen all over the country managed to evade us (well, me), and accordingly, my ‘Would love to see’ list has not been reduced… [sulk]
For the first time in three years, we spent Christmas away from home, and whilst it was good to see family and to not have to do the cooking, I found myself desperately missing Cornwall, with its open, wild spaces, quietly strong people, and unrelenting seas. Perhaps, most significantly, I experienced a keen longing to return to a community in which I didn’t have to continually justify my (apparently) unconventional lifestyle. And we were only away for nine days!
But, other than sharing some of my Christmas wildlife encounters, I won’t dwell on my time away any more than is necessary (phew!).

So, what did I do, where did I go, what did I see??? So many questions, let’s see if I can conjure up some answers… First stop was just outside Brighton, within a stone or two’s throw of the edge of the South Downs National Park. Icy cold weather and the lure of a warm house meant that other than an evening trip to the pub, we didn’t actually venture outside during our stay. However, courtesy of a conveniently-placed set of French doors, we were able to partake in a spot of armchair ornithology, during which we observed Starlings, Collared Doves, Woodpigeons, House Sparrows, Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Goldfinches galore, all merrily tucking into the continual supply of seed, nuts and fat provided for their delectation. Despite the cold temperatures and abundance of snow and ice, the blue tits in particular appeared to be intent on refurbishing their nesting box (actually, the sparrows’ nesting box) in preparation for some family time. All good stuff!

Interestingly, there was a notable size discrepancy amongst the garden’s regular visitors, most notably amongst the starlings, with some birds being considerably larger than their conspecifics, which made me wonder about the prevalence of clinal variation (aka the somewhat controversial ‘Bergmann’s rule’, which asserts that ‘within a species the body mass increases with latitude and colder climate, or that within closely related species that differ only in relation to size that one would expect the larger species to be found at the higher latitude’ (source: Wikipedia)) in birds generally, and perhaps in starlings specifically.

Once home, I was able to look into this, and to my satisfaction, discovered that starlings are known to exhibit clinal variation, and that a number of subspecies are recognised each demonstrating the relative differences. For example, both the Faroese Starling (Sturnus vulgaris faroensis) and Shetland Starling (Sturnus vulgaris zetlandicus) are larger in size than the UK’s regular starling, the nominate subspecies Sturnus vulgaris vulgaris, whereas the Azores Starling (Sturnus vulgaris granti) and the Sind Starling (Sturnus vulgaris minor) of Pakistan are both smaller (source: Thus, considering the severity of winter weather and the known extent of more easily-recognised winter avian visitors, it makes sense that the UK’s regular starling populations are being supplemented by their larger, more northerly counterparts.

OK, according to the BTO, from late September, local starlings are supplemented by millions from further east in Europe, where winters are harsher:  So, there you go!

On both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Eve Eve, we escaped the over-heated house in suburban Swindon that was our temporary home for the few days post-Christmas, and navigated our way around the multitude of roundabouts, traffic lights and dual carriageways to discover not one, not two but three country parks, where we forced to don wellies and/or walking boots, woolly hats and gloves, and brave the brisk, fresh air for an amble in the open.

Our first visit of the three was to Lydiard Park - nostalgia-inducing historic parkland surrounding a Palladian house, the nostalgia element stemming from the fact that during my childhood I had spent many a happy time there as a Girl Guide. This visit was only a flying one, and after checking out the old stables and historic church, we soon headed to the lake to see what waterfowl was about. Despite the persisting covering of ice, the lake’s residents seemed unperturbed by their restyled habitat, and Mute Swans, Canada Geese, Coots, Moorhens, Mallards and Black-headed Gulls were there in abundance. For info about Lydiard Park, see:

Lydiard Park, Swindon

The following day we first paid a visit to Mouldon Hill Country Park, a relatively new recreational area on the north/western outskirts of Swindon, centred on a large lake. The site also features restorations by the Wilts & Berks Canal: and is the focus of a considerable restoration project by the Swindon & Cricklade Railway:

Mouldon Hill Country Park, Swindon

It didn’t take long to perform a circuit of the lake, and being rather cold and in somewhat urgent need of some public conveniences, we decided not to hang around to explore the other areas. However, we were treated to some close contact with a pair of Mute Swans and a fleeting glimpse of what we decided was a Moorhen, rather than a Water Rail as momentarily pondered.

So, on to Coate Water Country Park it was (another place associated with my childhood), where first port of call was the toilets, and what unpleasant toilets they were too, but I guess they served their intended purpose! Mainly as a consequence of the increasingly low temperatures and the impending dusk, we didn’t get to see very much of the park, which, after further research, appears to be much more extensive than I can recall, and definitely worthy of further investigation (despite the off-putting toilets!).

Coate Water Country Park, Swindon

The Small Person had been given some bread for ‘duck-feeding’, and as it was only a couple of slices, I reluctantly bit my tongue and managed to withhold my protestations for the sake of family peace. So, once at the water’s edge, the bread was dutifully broken into small pieces and thrown to the multitude of feathered beings (Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Black-headed Gulls, Pochards, Canada Geese, Coots and Mallards) on the water, all of whom greedily gobbled it down with very little hesitation - and the Small Person did have fun! For info about Coate Water Country Park, see: and

The following day it was not only time to head home but also the first day of a year’s commitment to recording all species of bird seen, on a daily basis, and to sharing this information with a group of fellow birdy people. Well, I managed to remain sufficiently awake to record species from Swindon to Okehampton, after which my brain gave up and sleep took over. Still, Swindon to Okehampton’s not bad, eh?!

The records are going well, even if I’m trailing somewhat in number of species seen but that’s what you get when you spend your day sitting on the settee rather than getting out there with binoculars! But, I did spend a lovely afternoon yesterday, pottering around Mousehole with the Small Person, in our wellies, eyeing up the harbour residents, and was rewarded with a single Redshank pootling about amongst a gang of Turnstones and their larger (and noisier) Herring Gull mates. Also doing its stuff about was a solitary Rock Pipit. Still, next week I’m off to Paradise Park but unfortunately, only wild birds count!

Well, as I’m feeling rather worn out from all this brain-racking, I’m going to leave things there. Hopefully, now that I’m once more with laptop, I’ll be able to be back sooner rather than later.

Coate Water Country Park, Swindon