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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Getting ready

Weekend 25-26 February

The weekend was spent mainly in preparation for the start of my research season, the active period March 1st to August 31st, namely the breeding season of my study species, the Marsh Tit. Sunday morning was spent at Roudsea Wood with friend Ken Hindmarch choosing sites for the bird feeders which attract the birds so they can be caught and ringed. Having now worked out how to get my Kelly Kettle going with only one match, we were frustrated to find that I had bought everything needed except water with which to make the tea. However, the brown peat-tainted water from the stream give an exotic flavour to the tea!

There was time to visit Walney Bird Observatory and also the Duddon Mosses Reserve where a Woodcock was an attractive addition to my year list.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Kelly Kettle

My latest acquisition, after the palmtop computer (+ accessories), digital voice recorder, Ryanair credit card, and so on, is a Kelly Kettle. This is described fully on the website of the Kelly Kettle Company in Ireland. According to their literature, the kettle was originally made by Irish travellers and it is said to be the Irish ghillies who made it popular and was their favourite method of 'brewing up' for visiting fishermen who preferred freshly brewed tea rather than stewed tea from a Thermos flask. It is claimed to be completely reliable in the worst of weathers and can safely be used on any outdoor site as the fire is contained in the kettle's base.

It is also known as the Volcano kettle. This is presumably because the heat of the fire rises through a central chimney, heating the water contained in the surrounding double-skin container. It is supposed that flames and sparks emanate from the chimney as if from a volcano. So it was with considerable excitement that I went to try mine out. Hmmmm. No sparks or flames. A puff of smoke reluctantly rose to the top of the chimney, had a look round and then sank back inside. I soon ran out of matches. There was clearly a technique to be mastered. I wondered if firelighters might be the answer?

Kelly Kettle: erupting volcano or damp squib?

Next time out, I took my kettle to St Bees Head - armed with firelighters and a full box of matches. I also took an egg and some bread and butter and, as a back-up, made a Thermos flask of coffee. On arriving at the car park I discovered I had forgotten to pack the flask, so it was to be the kettle or nothing. Finding a sheltered bay, with unlimited drift wood ranging from match sticks to tree trunks, I felt confident. Within a minute or two (and only two matches and a couple of slivers of firelighter) sparks and flames were indeed rising through the chimney and a pint of water boiled in a couple of minutes. Hot tea anyway.

Now for the egg. I had brought the non-stick frying pan section of my trangia kit and placed it over the smouldering embers of the base of the kettle and broke the egg into it. Indeed, the clear egg-white started to turn white, and cooking was under way. But I had fogotten to bring a spatula to turn it over, so I fashioned one out of a bit of drift wood. The egg cooked through and shoved between two slices of bread and butter, I had a hot lunch!

The verdict: Takes some getting used to. For a day out it will never replace a Thermos flask (except for fun). But on a camping trip it could really come into its own, especially as you don't have to take fuel with you - that's on site and free!

Monday, February 13, 2006


Thursday 9 February

Arrived at Alun and Trudy's cottage at Hambledon during the afternoon and after a fish and chip tea went to the cinema to see "Walk the Line", a film about the life of Johnny Cash.

Friday 10 February

Early start for ringing in the garden but it soon became obvious that a neighbour’s garden was swamped with feeders leaving little incentive for birds to approach ours. With the sun rising behind the hill and only a dozen birds caught we decided to cut our losses and head off into the countryside. First call was Iping Common Nature Reserve where the churring calls of Dartford Warblers from the gorse bushes enabled us to locate and obtain good views of this elusive species. Other species added to my year list were Siskin, Stock Dove, and Redwing. The Hamilton Arms at Stedham offered the prospect of a pub lunch but, while the beer was fine, the ham sandwiches were a disgrace.

Jim and Alun looking for Siskins at Iping Common

With the bright winter sun still high in the sky, we set off for Farlington Marsh reserve where skeins of Brent Geese afforded excellent views, together with Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon, Teal, Red-breasted Merganser and waders such as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Curlew, and a Little Egret hunting for prawns in the rock pools. After a fine meal in the local pub, the Vine, the evening was passed watching fishing programmes on Sky TV.

Saturday 11 February

A frosty morning and with the mist net coated with hoar frost, ringing was impossible. We decided to do the walk down the Meon Valley from Titchfield to Titchfield Basin. Soon we were watching Black-tailed Godwits at close range, and had sustained clear views of a Kingfisher as it plunged into the stream for minnows. We passed another birder who mentioned he had seen a Firecrest in the area, and later we found it hunting for insects in ivy, the white eye-stripe clearly visible. This is only the second I have seen in the U.K.

Alun and Trudy negotiate the raging Meon River

Arriving at the beach was time for smoked salmon sandwiches and fresh tea brewed in Alun’s new Kelly Kettle – I must get one! A walk along the sea front, and peering into the reserve from the road, added a few more species to the weekend list, but alas no Cetti’s Warbler, which had been the target for the day. However there was some compensation on the trail back as Alun was first to spot and identify a Water Rail as it walk across the track ahead of us. This brought the species list total for the weekend to 80.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Compulsive list-building

Friday 3rd February

Readers of this Blog may have noticed the importance of lists. Birders are inveterate - even compulsive - list builders. Lists may comprise birds seen in one's life; in one's country; in one's county, district, garden, local patch; during a day, a holiday, or even walking to work. They don't even have to be written down: a "Birds seen on the train to London" list might contain only 2 or 3 species (e.g. swan and crow). I have a Millennium List that I started on 1 January 2000 and is still going. I once had a "Birds Seen while Having a Pee List", started when a group of Whooper Swans flew past as I was paying my respects to the River Dyfi and it seemed a good species to start off a new list with. But I gave it up when it began playing hell with my Bladder Evacuation Reflex (BER).

At the extreme, list-builders can become obsessive and aggressive, when miles can be travelled over a weekend to add another "tick" to overtake a rival birder's tally. There is a 100% authenticated case of a birder wrenching himself from the comfort of his new bride's arms and the warmth of the nuptial bed in order to respond to his pager for just this purpose ("You'll be here tomorrow, dear, the Terek Sandpiper might not be"). These compulsive list-builders are the "twitchers" - so called because of the neurotic twitching spasms that may be induced by the prospect of missing a tick ("dipping out").

Do lists have ornithological value? Well, yes, they can. At the very least they are documentation that something was present at a certain place at a certain time. Include the number seen, do it at regular intervals at the same site and it can become a valuable historical record of avian biodiversity. But of course there is more to it than that. There is no doubt a sublimation of the "collection instinct": if it's OK to collect stamps or train numbers, then why not lists of birds identified? So there is an undeniable recreational angle and, if not too obsessive, it's a harmless hobby and great fun.

I believe there is even more to it than that, however. It keeps one alert and aware. You never stop looking out of train windows, you notice more going on around you and it gives a point to every holiday. Moreover, list building engenders discipline by making you look at everything, searching through a flock with a telescope, bird by bird, in case something unusual is amongst them (that's how I found my "lifer" today). And that "boring little brown thing" in a bush could turn a list of 99 into 100!

For most British birders, the most important lists are the UK Life List, the County List and the Current Year List. I wasn't bothering with a "Year List" this year. Until Pam told me she was on a ton. So out of curiosity I tallied up mine and it came to 96. This was outrageous. The brain kicked the male competitive spirit into gear and plans were made to at least rectify the deficit. The location selected for this task was Walney Island as I could think of a couple of certainties and, sure enough, despite being slightly foggy and the tide miles out, Greenshank and Eider were snapped up in a few minutes. Then a whirr of wings through the fog: Red-legged Partridge, admittedly of dubious provenance, but if it goes in the Observatory log book, then it's good enough for me. Then a splendid female Scaup on the oyster-farm pools brought a hundred up: job done!

Back at the Observatory, ringing friend Ken had arrived, and told me that a male American Wigeon had turned up across the Bay near Cavendish Dock, consorting with European Wigeon and had been showing well at high tides during the week. Wow! That would be a LIFER! So it was back across the bridge to the mainland in pursuit of the said duck. Now, might this be described as "twitching"? Not necessarily. I was out birding anyway, the location was on my routine local birding circuit and only a small deviation from my route home anyway. So, acceptable birding - definitely 'fair game'.

I found the Wigeon flock in question, and started going through the birds one by one, moving along the coastal path, group by group as they fed along the tide line. Patience was rewarded and I obtained splendid views of this American cousin! Now to up-date my lists - it goes on at least four!

Sunday 5th February - back at Silecroft

There's only one word that can describe Silecroft this afternoon - bleak. A light but steady cold moisture-laden wind was blowing off the Irish Sea, generating moderate surf. At least there was one advantage - a lack of people. Most of those who had ventured out stayed in the comfort of their cars, and those who did get out kept walking. But three hours of fishing (two rods, four hooks) produced not a single bite. Ho hum. Come the Revolution and I'll not even be able to count on flounder cakes.

Back home I made an apple pie. Then I remembered I had a bowl of Chinese butter lurking in the fridge. Two puddings - yippee!