tempted to go seawatching? Bertram Bree has a passion for it, and offers his guide
eawatching. Sitting on coastal cliffs, often in gales and poor weather conditions, using high-powered binoculars and scopes, or even taking ‘pelagic’ boat trips out to see seabirds offshore. It can, believe it or not, become a highlight of any birder’s year. Some of the very best spots for it, in the UK, are along the south coast. At its widest,
Image by PCJones (Alamy)
22 Bird Watching 2012
the English Channel (La Manche, to our French readers, Mor Bretannek to the Cornish, and Mor Breizh to Bretons!) is just 150 miles across, and at its narrowest, in the Straits of Dover, a mere 21. At 350 miles long, though, there’s a lot of room for great birds to hide in. Whether at their nest sites, or on passage,
seabirds are among the most rewarding species to watch. As many are large, social birds, they can be relatively easy to study in large numbers, and there’s the added advantage that, as you watch them, you may get the chance to study other marine life – dolphins, porpoises and whales, plus Basking Sharks, Sunfish Turtles, and jellyfish, which abound
seawatching to getting started along the seabird superhighway that is the english channel
in autumn in the Channel. A word of warning, though. Seawatching is likely to become an obsessive pastime once you start, as I discovered. I’ve been seawatching worldwide for more than 40 years, treasuring every trip from California to the Mediterranean islands such as Majorca. I’ve had many memorable times, met many good birders,
becoming good friends for a lifetime, and have many photos to treasure. It’s a hobby within a hobby, providing a really challenging and educational offshoot of day-to-day, ‘normal’ birdwatching. Unlike with small birds, so flighty and so easily disturbed when birders arrive en masse, seawatching is more discreet.
Birds are often pushed close past your eyes in strong winds, when they become so trusting that the views can be amazing – breathtaking beauty, and often really brilliant colours, over the bejewelled seas of the UK’s south coast.
sites to visit this autumn Ü birdwatching.co.uk 23
Wryneck They’re not easy to see, so savour any sightings of these cryptic woodpeckers
t’s a September ritual. Picture yourself on the south or east coast, on a still day with a glint of sunshine. The thistles are exploding puffs of seeds, the rose-hips glow with autumn dew, and the leaves on the Hawthorn bushes are tipped red. In the scrubby patches close to the beach, a small procession of soberly clad individuals with optics troops in vague circles and figures of eight around the latticework of paths. Every so often they stop, peer around in somewhat forlorn fashion, and move on. When the birders meet there is a brief exchange, a shake of the head and then each goes his or her own way again, back on to the treadmill. The exchange is always the same. It goes: “Have you seen the reported Wryneck”. “No, have you?” “No.” It is the annual fruitless search for one of our regular, but most elusive autumn migrants.
44 Bird Watching 2012
Dickie Duckett (FLPA - Images of Nature)
can you spot it? This is why so few people see Wrynecks
gives the Wryneck a battery of devices aimed at evading detection. The coloration has primarily evolved to make sure that it isn’t seen; but if this fails, the peculiar movements act to bluff a predator into thinking it is something else. No clearly, when it comes to seeing Wrynecks, you just aren’t going to be looking for something like a woodpecker. In fact, one of the problems in locating Wrynecks is getting a handle on exactly what to look for. Many observers have stated that, with its small size and brown hues, the Wryneck can recall a large warbler more than anything else, especially one with a large tail. However, if you see a warbler disappearing into a bush, you can often follow its progress by the twitching vegetation as it hopes restlessly about feeding. Wrynecks just don’t do bush-rustling. Once they disappear into the vegetation, it can be a long wait for any other signs. One chink of light, however, is that Wrynecks do like sunshine, partly because ants, their chief food item, become more active in the heat. Observers (but not me) have often seen them sunning themselves or catching food on dry-stone walls or pavements, as well as the warm parts of lawns. Being patient and watching a suitable spot might work. Another tip (but it hasn’t worked for me) is
that Wrynecks are dawn birds, and are prone to moving on after their first landfall. Ringers sometimes comment that several may appear at first light, but not be seen again or trapped for the rest of the day – where they go then is a mystery. But an early start may bear fruit. However, it is hard not to jump to the conclusion that Wrynecks are difficult because they are cryptic, extremely secretive, and tend towards feeding on the ground, even if this is under vegetation. Researchers have, for example, watched Wrynecks simply standing under a bush, lapping up ants as they wandered past on a regular workers’ run. If they do this, it is easy to imagine that they might be happy doing much the same thing all day. Indeed, if you do find yourself circumnavigating the bushes one day this autumn, fruitlessly trying to spot the invisible, at least you can visit a Wryneck in your imagination. Under the cover of the hawthorns or rose-hips or thistles, feeding in the dappled shade, it is sitting still, contentedly lapping up the commuting ants, revelling in the warmth, utterly safe and cryptic and definitely not going anywhere. To be honest, it might be better for you and me to go off and search for something else, instead.
Poinsignon and Hackel (Nature Picture Library)
Perhaps you, reading this, are bemused by the above description. Wrynecks, you say to yourself, are no problem. Last year you saw one sunning itself on a path for twenty minutes, giving point-blank views. You ran into it straight away while looking for something else. You did, did you? Well, my friend, I can tell you that that happened to me, once. I was at Wells Wood, in Norfolk, and I luxuriated in the sight of a Wryneck on a sunny, close cropped edge of a path, no more than a couple of metres away. The bird was so relaxed and in the open that it might as well have been in a deck-chair. I thought I had nailed Wryneck-watching that day. But that was more than 20 years ago, and I have barely had a glimpse since. Nobody would ever tell you that a Wryneck was a ‘normal’ bird. Everything about it seems a little off-centre. For example, have you ever heard one calling? I’m not talking about the spring, when in continental Europe you can hear a loud, apparently disembodied ringing chant. I’m talking about bird to bird contact. Autumn bushes crackle with calls: Chiffchaffs going ‘hweet’, Blackcaps going ‘tack’. But the Wrynecks are strangely silent and still, making them more difficult for birders to find. We all know that the Wryneck is in the woodpecker family, too, but it’s not a normal woodpecker, and the association doesn’t help with locating it or identifying it in the slightest. It isn’t going to be in the tops of the trees, flying high from one canopy to the other. It isn’t going to be clinging to vertical trunks, not normally anyway. It won’t be making holes in the bark – it cannot – and it doesn’t even fly with the usual swooping conviction of a woodpecker. It does undulate, but it seems to flop rather than swoop, and quickly disappears without the usual theatrical showiness of a woodpecker flight and landing. And of course, it has none of the bold and bright colours that other woodpeckers have. And in case you’re wondering what on earth makes a Wryneck a woodpecker, you can take your pick between the tongue and the feet. As far as the tongue is concerned, it fits the unique woodpecker mould – it is long (said to be two-thirds the length of the bird) and the tip can be independently moved, making the Wryneck, in particular, look almost snake-like. This tool is used for probing into holes for ants, or sometimes simply for lapping them up at the Wryneck’s feet. The tongue is watered by large salivary glands and acts more or less as a glue-covered probe. As for the feet, two toes point forward and two back, as they do for other woodpeckers. One major difference, though, is that the tail is soft-feathered, rather than stiffened, so when a Wryneck perches it can tend towards the horizontal, in the style, say, of a Chaffinch on a large branch, or it can even sit across a perch in the ‘normal’ songbird way. However, it will also frequently cling semivertically, disappearing into the pattern of the tree trunks and branches. Of course, the Wryneck, if it wishes to, can melt into a woody background better than almost any other bird in the world. Its remarkable and intricate plumage pattern perfectly mimics bark, or leaf litter. This, combined with sluggish or calm movements, coupled with the odd trick of turning its neck in crazy angles to make it look odd and reptilian,
If you ever get a view of a Wryneck as good as this, you can count yourself verylucky
September Walk 01: Northumberland
site guiDe John Miles
Prime seawatching spot on Druridge Bay Common Scoter
and check the outflow for terns – there could be a lingering Roseate. Other waders include Sanderling, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Bar-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover, and Rock Pipit should be found. The trees can bring a fall of Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts in autumn, plus rarities like Barred and Yellow-browed Warbler, while winter brings in Little Auks and Long-tailed Ducks. John Miles
54 Bird Watching 2012
There are several parking bays along this minor road with views across the sea and coast. Directly from the road reaching the coast, you will see a pipe heading out to sea. Look through the terns and gulls for anything special. The newly planted woodland is not easy to cover, but if you are patient anything could turn up, even a Green Woodpecker. Looking north towards Hawkley you can often see large numbers of sea ducks and waders on and around the rocks.
V5 OS 1:50,000 Region 4 Northern England www.memory-map.co.uk 0870 743 0121
Newcastle 28m Þ
David Whitaker (Alamy)
his section of the Druridge Bay complex is often overlooked as bird hides and large sections of fresh and brackish water seem more of a pull, but I have had countless hours here, often eating lunch and sitting in deckchairs, watching the changing tides and the endless bird movements. Autumn often brings the best rewards, with a steady stream of gulls, skuas, terns, ducks and geese going south, but also north. You might start off with the local non-breeding Eider bobbing about on the surf, plus Guillemots, some with chicks from the nearby colonies. Puffins fly past from Coquet Island further up the coast, and there is a movement of Common Scoters along with the odd Velvet. Kittiwakes try to feed and a Great or Arctic Skua might try to steal the catch. Red-throated Divers can be scattered around the different coloured lobster pot flags. Manx and Sooty Shearwaters could fly by, and in really good (bad!) north-easterly weather, Sabine’s Gull, Leach’s Petrel and Long-tailed Skua are all possible. Gannets should fill the sky
Grid Ref: NU 280 000 Postcode: NE61 5BX How to get there: From the south you need to get onto the A1068 Ashington to Amble road. Drive up the A1, coming off on the B6345 heading for Acklington and Red Row, or cut off the A1 onto the A19 and onto the A189, which joins the A1068. The turn you need is after the turn to the country park on a bend to the left. Follow the minor road until it reaches the sea. Where to park: There is plenty of parking up the track, with some rough bays by the sea, but do not block any entrances. Distance and time: Give yourself two to three hours. From 0.5km to 3km is possible, depending how long you want to give it along the track. Terrain: The track is flat with tarmac. Shoes or trainers are fine. Accessibility: Year-round watch or walk. Facilities: Everything you might need in Amble. Public transport: Amble to Morpeth 518 bus runs past the reserve. Call Traveline on 0870 608 2608. Sites nearby: Go Birdings: Druridge Bay (February 2007), Hauxley NR (January 2010). Organisations: Northumberland Wildlife Trust, 0191 284 6884, www.nwt.org.uk Club contact: Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, Honorary Secretary Alan Tilmouth, 12 Stowe Gardens, Pegswood, Morpeth NE61 6TH, 01670 512013, firstname.lastname@example.org County recorder: Tim Dean, 2 Knocklaw Park, Rothbury, Northumberland NE65 7PW, 01669 621460, email@example.com Maps: OS Explorer 325, OS Landranger 81.
go birding September
Walk 02: Dumfries & Galloway
site guiDe John Miles
Freshwater haven for seabirds and more Great Spotted Woodpecker
birds and both Peregrine and Merlin use the area, especially in winter. In the woodland, large Beech trees can attract good numbers of Chaffinch and Brambling in winter, along with Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow and Garden Warbler in summer. If you are really lucky you may even find Wood Warbler using the area. John Miles
astle Kennedy is the jewel of the area around Stranraer where freshwater lochs are concerned. They are found around a well laid out 30 hectare garden and stately castle. The views as you walk around the lochs are well worth the effort, regardless of the birds to be seen, but by the small car park there are often bird feeders in use, so look out for Great, Blue and Coal Tits, Nuthatch and Great Spotted Woodpecker. You can scan Cults Loch from here, or walk back along the road to the entrance on your left, where a lane takes you closer to the loch. Several species of geese have been found here and Shelduck, Mallard and Teal are often joined by Wigeon. The two lochs here have breeding Mute Swan, Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck and a heronry on Black Loch. A number of birds have been blown into the area with Great Northern Diver, Ring-necked Duck, Smew, Scaup, Little Egret, and Black Tern recorded. Common Terns are often seen in summer and Ospreys can call in on their migration. Buzzards are local breeding
Postcode: DG9 8BX. Grid ref: NX 110 610. How to get there: The estate is just off the main Stranraer to Dumfries A75 around five miles from Stranraer itself. Where to park: You can park in the small car park at grid ref: NX 109 598 if you turn off the A75, or if you are visiting the gardens at grid ref: NX 113 607 and grid ref: NX 112 609. Distance and time: You only have to walk around 2-3km to view the site. Give yourself up to two hours to cover the area. Terrain: The walking is easy and flat with track and tarmac. Shoes or trainers fine. Accessibility: The woodland and lochs are open all year, but the gardens only from 1 April to 30 September. Facilities: In summer, the gardens have a tea room and toilets, but in winter it is best to use Stranraer. Public transport: Buses regular on the A75, such as the X75, 500 and 430. Use Traveline for information, 01387 260383. Sites nearby: Loch Magillie, Loch Soulseat, Luce Bay. Website: www.castlekennedygardens.co.uk Organisations: The SOC, The Scottish Birdwatching Resource Centre, Waterston House, Aberlady, East Lothian EH32 0PY. Club contact: SOC Stranraer Branch Secretary, Geoff Sheppard Roddens, Leswalt, Stranraer DG9 0QR, 01776 870 685, firstname.lastname@example.org, Galloway RSPB members group, Cynthia Douglas, 01644 420605, cynthia@cdouglas. plus.com County recorder: Paul Collin, email@example.com Maps: OS Explorer 309, OS Landranger 82.
It is best to park in the small car park in the woodland. Bird feeders are usually present here. You can scan from here over Cults Loch. Try searching the woodland edge as you walk to view White Loch. There will be a mixture of warblers and woodland birds. The loch itself is ideal for wildfowl and even terns in summer. A track takes you along Black Loch, where a heronry is found on the old crannog. You can visit the gardens of the castle to add several species missed elsewhere.
1 V5 OS 1:50,000 Region 5 Southern Scotland www.memory-map.co.uk 0870 743 0121
Stranraer 0.5m Ă›
Vanguard Spirit pLuS
Matt Merritt puts these sub-£200 binoculars through their paces anguard has a long-standing and fine reputation where tripods, camera equipment bags and other accessories are concerned, but perhaps because of that, its optics have sometimes slipped under the radar in the UK. That may well be set to change, though, as it has a growing range. The firm’s Spirit Plus binoculars come in at just less than £200, putting them well within reach of beginner birders, and as well as offering the familiar 10x42 and 8x42 sizes, there’s also a much more unusual 8x36. It’s a size that’s far too rarely seen, but on the odd occasion I’ve used one in the past (both Nikon and Hawke have certainly done them), I’ve found it a nice compromise as far as the old balance between big, light-gathering objective lenses, and lightweight, manageable build is concerned. So let’s start with their light-gathering qualities. I found them plenty bright enough, even in the murk and gloom of what has passed for much of the British summer. That’s pretty impressive, considering that I’d been using a high-end pairs of 32s in the preceding weeks. They reproduce a very good, natural colour, too, with perhaps just the slightest hint of a colder tint. Contrast is good, and they resolved well at all distances for the most part, with perhaps just a little falling off in quality at extreme ranges. The field of view, 122m@1,000m, is very respectable, and you get impressively good value for it, too, with a wide ‘sweet spot’. Rather than actual softness or milkiness right at the edge of the image, I thought there was a slight shadowy halo, but it was never distracting. Against strong sunlight, a little bit of colour-fringing was occasionally in evidence, but again never really enough to grab your attention and distract you from your. birdwatching They focus precisely and easily, with the ridged focus wheel (just a little over a finger’s width in size) turning relatively stiffly. It did loosen up slightly in extended use, but always travelled smoothly and consistently, taking around three-quarters of an anti-clockwise turn from close focus to infinity. And that close focus is really excellent – quoted as 2m, I was comfortably able to use them at 1.5m, making them a very viable option for bug-watching. Optically, then, they do a really solid and sometimes outstanding all-round job at a very reasonable price. In terms of ergonomics, they deliver the goods, too. Very compact, light (530g) and well balanced, they feel great in the hands, with chunky and easy to grip rubber armour and well-placed thumb indents. The eyecups were excellent, too, made of soft, comfortable rubber and twisting up to two positions – there’s a maximum of 17mm eye relief there if you need it. The dioptre is a twist-ring on the right barrel.
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It’s not click-stopped or calibrated, but it was easy to set and remained in position throughout several days in the field. One question I found myself asking was who they’re likely to appeal to. In longer-term use, I suspect I might find myself still wanting a pair of 8x42s for those occasions when you’re birding in really low light, so for me they’d be more of an alternative to a pair of 32s, giving you that extra bit of light-gathering ‘punch’ without weighing you down. I can imagine them getting a lot of use, especially if, like me, you do a lot of walking, or if you like to take a lot of cameras and other equipment on your birding expeditions. That close focus performance makes them good for the all-round wildlife-watcher, too. So, these are a definite contender if you’re looking for a solid all-round binocular without breaking the bank. If you’re just starting out, torn between 32s and 42s, and only able to buy one, then you definitely need to give them a look. They might just be the best-of-both worlds option that you’ve always been looking for.
The September issue of Bird Watching magazine