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Monday, 25 September 2017

Just filling a gap

Not been too well over the weekend so I intended to do the Marsh and Mere today - but as you are doubtless aware, we are currently suffering under a bit of low pressure and I suspect that all I would see on a very wet visit would be the same ducks as last time so I am hoping to visit tomorrow instead.

Just to fill a gap and ease my conscience I am doing just one more posting about beer. My last one received a very positive response from a couple of you (thanks Chris and Geoff) so if the rest of you don't find the subject interesting I will say cheerio and welcome you back for a wildlife focused update next time.

Abbey Beer in Britain

As someone who enthuses about beer you would expect me to have a favourite style and you would be right. Since I first tried it in 1981 I have been passionate about Trappist Beers (the beers produced in various monasteries, usually high in strength and character, although some working Monasteries also produce beers for the monks at a much lower strength, Petite Orval and Chimay Doree are two such examples).

There are only ten genuine Trappist Beers available in the world although there are dozens of Trappist style (or Abbaye) beers which are produced to similar recipes and strengths, some of which stand up very well against the authentic item. In Britain Abbey Beers are rarely produced and when they are, they are often one-off novelty beers that never go into sustained production.

However there are two regularly brewed and genuine British Abbey beers which you can obtain with a little effort.

The first of these appeared in 2012 and was produced for Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire. The beer is described as a Benedictine-style beer and is attributed to a seventeenth century recipe. After the reformation, the monks from this abbey were forced to take refuge in Catholic France and
they apparently took the original recipe for their ale with them.

The Abbey assert that this was in fact the first 'English-Style' Ale to be brewed in France .

Some of you who may have attended the Cannock Beer Festival last weekend will have had the opportunity to try this beer for yourself at £3.00 per bottle (not at all bad for a Bottle Conditioned 7% Beer). I brought one home and gave it a couple of days to settle before trying it. It is as malty as is described in the Abbeys publicity but I found the mouth-character a little bit thin for an Abbey Beer (which actually makes it a more dangerous drink as its strength is deceptively underplayed). It is actually brewed by the Little Valley Brewery at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and can be obtained from the Abbey shop or if you prefer, by the case over the internet.

The second regularly produced Abbey Beer is brewed by Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight for Quarr Abbey near Ryde. The Abbey was founded in 1132 by the Benedictine order and although there is no evidence that I am aware of for a history of on-site brewing, I suspect that it must have happened as beer was a staple in the diet of anyone in the middle ages.

This beer was originally (2014) only available from the Abbey Farm Shop but more recently has started to appear in more outlets around the island (try the shop next to the Newport Ale House in the islands capital for example). Although the Abbey has no actual involvement in the brewing
of the beer, there is a connection in as much as the herbs used to fortify it
(Coriander and Sweet Gale) are produced in the Abbey Gardens.

Of the two, this is the one I prefer. It is fractionally weaker at 6.5% but is a more authentic example of the style as it somehow captures the richer texture associated with this type of beer. For those who like me are afraid of ingesting anything green or healthy, you will be pleased to know that the herbal content of the Ale is not easily apparent in the flavour although I suspect that it contributes to the spiciness of the flavour at some level?

If this posting has made any of you want to explore Trappist and Abbey Beers further I recommend that you pay a visit to either 'BeerBhom' in Lichfield (which has the best range of Abbey and Trappist beers anywhere in the local area) or alternatively, my favourite pub the 'Black Country Arms' which has the best range anywhere in the Walsall area including at least four of the ten genuine Trappist beers as well as several examples of Abbey Styles (just tell Kim that Chaz sent you).

Anyway, for those of you who thought I was just being too idle to go to the Marsh, I hope that this brief sharing of my passion has provided some entertainment?

Hopefully Update tomorrow - Chaz

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Winter coming in early? (UPDATED)

Big surprise record today - three Fieldfare seen by Ray Fellows at the Concrete Bridge this afternoon. Not a totally unlikely event but quite an early record, particularly as Fieldfare are normally preceded by Redwing, and I haven’t heard any of those yet.

Perhaps the berry crop up north has not been too good this year? If that’s the case, we might be able to expect another southerly foray by Waxwings later in the winter perhaps? - Chaz

PS. Following this posting, Dave Saunders at Sandwell Valley got in touch to let me know that they had  Redwing on site on the 19th Thanks to both for their records. The season has turned quite quickly it seems?

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Loocal extinction averted - for now!

Day 263 of the year and against all hope, a calling Willow Tit seen on the Mineral Line this afternoon. This is the longest I have ever gone into a year without seeing a specimen and I have to be honest, I had given up hope that it was going to survive at Clayhanger. Even the specimens being reported at Chasewater had eluded me so you can imagine that I was very happy to have this as the first species of the day.
Still hanging on then? But by a thread!
I stood for a while with Tony Stackhouse and together we were able to put another bird on the day list with the arrival of the first Wigeon of the winter. Tony also tells me that a couple of weeks ago, he also heard a Curlew going through although he couldn't give me a precise date.

Ryders Mere

The only birds of note were three Shoveler. Noticeable by their absence were any hirundine today.

Clayhanger Marsh

Teal (6) - Gadwall (6) - Wigeon (1M) and the Little Grebe still present. Along the mineral line there was also a calling juvenile Willow Warbler (the only summer species noted today).

This may be my last update until the weekend. Tomorrow looks as if we might suffer some precipitation and I have a social engagement on Friday (the detectives amongst you will no doubt have worked out what that is from previous postings)?

Anyway, enjoy Thursday and Friday and update at the weekend - Chaz

Monday, 18 September 2017

One for fellow Beer Lovers

As some of you know, the legendary blogger 'Brownhills Bob' has a tendency to refer to me as 'That well known Beer Arse' so I thought I would put my 'Beer-Arse' hat on (whatever the heck that would look like?) for a change, to share some information with the more enlightened amongst you who see decent beer as one of the few genuine pleasures in life.

My recent trip to southern Europe provided a couple of surprises that impressed me greatly. We all drink soapy southern lagers when in that part of the world as the climate compliments it (I myself am quite partial for a Mahou grandee in a pre-chilled glass when the temperature is c35 degrees) and lets face it, there is rarely any choice - But that may be changing!

Our nearest supplier of Bottled Water was a mini-market with a chiller at the back for tinned and bottled beer and it was in this that I found two real treasures and a sign that hopefully Spain will soon cease to be a desert for those who appreciate a quality beer?

The first is a 5.7% BOTTLE CONDITIONED (yes, you read correctly but I will still repeat - Bottle Conditioned) lager from Dorada Brewery called Dorad Especial: Seleccion De Trigo.

Now for those not familiar with the complexities of proper beer, Bottle Conditioned means that a beer is properly brewed, NOT pasteurised and then is bottled with a small amount of yeast which allows it to continue to convert any sugars in suspension into alcohol - effectively the beer will increase in strength and develops interesting and sometimes complex flavours. The problem in Spain however is that these bottles will almost certainly be stored in chillers which prevent the activity from taking place (although given the climate, a couple of days standing out of the chiller may quickly reactivate the yeast). This was a rich fruity flavoured lager which I would happily have brought home by the case-load if I could.

The second bottle is from a more obscure Spanish Brewery which has apparently only been brewing since 1906 (and I don't mean nearly ten past seven)! To my shame, I have to confess that Huos de Reveira is a brewery that had previously escaped my attentions but having tried this lager, brewed to a Barley Wine strength of 6.5% I will now be far more aware of their products.

The 1906 Reserva Especial is pasteurised but still has an astonishingly rich palate for a southern European beer, providing real Barley-Wine characteristics but with an unmistakable Lager flavour. If some U.K. Brewers could manage something of this quality we might get a few of the sad and often overcharged British Lager Drinkers on board to enjoy proper beer!

Prior to this discovery the only Beer from the region that commanded any respect from me was the Cerveza Branca produced by the Beer House on Madeira, but hopefully enough people will value these valiant efforts from the Spanish Brewers to signal a change of attitude and hopefully a lot more happy holidays for beer enthusiasts visiting that part of the world?

Finally - don't forget, this weekend is the annual Cannock Beer Festival at the Prince of Wales Theatre. I believe that this is the fourth (I have attended them all but am getting on a bit) and if it is anywhere near as good as the previous three it is certainly something to put in your diaries.

Any road-up, that's Chaz's Beery-Bulletin for this week, so I will take my 'Beer Arse' hat off and you purist Birders can start paying attention again if you want? - Chaz

Sunday, 17 September 2017

A lot of people moan about them but.... (UPDATED)

Every time I put up a posting about the Ring-Necked Parakeets I get more feedback than almost anything else (unless its one of those weeks when I have ranted and got someones back-up) So far its been four e-mails this time!

Firstly, Dave Saunders at Sandwell Valley got in touch with some interesting (and impressive) information:

Hi Chaz
We had a party of 60 birds going to roost in August but up to 75 birds have been reported.

I asked Dave if anyone has ever gone through them to see if any of the birds were showing characteristics of Alexandrine Parakeet as I believe that there are some around Manchester and I am certain that some of the stock that these birds are descended from must have included a few escaped Alexandrine birds?

Secondly Derek Lees has been in touch and with his usual generosity, has let me have some copies of photographs he has taken of the Park Lime Pits birds. I expect that you will find them more pleasing to the eye than my efforts?

Anyway, enjoy! - Chaz

P.S. Dave got back to me to say that an Alexandrine Parakeet was reported in May this year, so if you find a Parakeet, have a good look at it (if it was about in May it probably wont have gone far). 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

News from somewhere else (Updated)

Ray Fellows obviously couldn't sleep this morning as at 07.00 he was watching FIFTEEN Ring-Necked Parakeets at Sandwell Valley today - that must be some kind of local record but a long way from the three thousand that reportedly used to roost at a Rugby Club at Sunbury on Thames.

Still, its a noble effort, perhaps we should plant a few Palm Trees around the Mere, Pelsall could do with a bit more exotica don't you think?

Since my initial posting I have received a couple of update, the first from Richard Collins is as follows:

Hi Chaz

Hope that your well, just thought you might be interested to know there’s a pair of Ring-necked Parakeets that have taken up residence at Darlaston, they are seen most days in the trees opposite the Police Station, got to say better than seeing just Pigeons. I’m sure they will make it to the Mere at some point as I believe that there’s a healthy group of them at the Park Lime Pits?

And finally, I received some criticism from one blog follower (who shall be nameless)  who thought that as an ex-Train Driver, I should be more enthusiastic about the fact that (while Bird watching) they saw a certain railway locomotive this morning (my response was - "OK") - So this is just for you, enjoy!

As for the rest of you, enjoy your Sunday all - Chaz

Friday, 15 September 2017

A Wakl around the Pool - but not Barefood, I promise!

For anyone who didn't believe - a flock of Stone Curlew! (Zoom In to see)
Three days ago I was in shorts and a vest hiding from 35 degree+ temperatures. Today I went around the Marsh and Mere - in North Face Boots, a tee shirt, fleece, body-warmer and waterproof coat! Talk about culture shock!

It was worth the effort though as for once an outsider came in for me. I did the Mere first in the unlikely hope that Tony Stackhouse's juvenile Arctic Tern might hang-in for a third day and you know what? It did. Sometimes you have to be careful with juvenile terns but the broad white forehead, all dark bill and absence of any significant grey on the forewing all seemed to point conclusively toward this being a juvenile Arctic Tern.

Not much else on the Mere although still good numbers of House Martin and Swallow feeding over the water.

The Marsh was a different matter. I had the pleasure of Ray Fellows company and together we managed to put Teal, immature male Gadwall and two Shoveler on the list for the day, a sure sign that things are now progressing toward winter birding.

More of a surprise though was a fly-over from a Little Egret, probably one of the Chasewater birds given the direction from which it originated?

And finally, as we stood talking we were serenaded by a juvenile Willow Warbler as it called from the bushes along the mineral line. I was telling Ray that while I was away I chased a beautiful bright canary yellow warbler around a quarry, convinced it was going to be something exotic and sure enough, it was a Willow Warbler (but to be fair, an unusually bright and yellow one).

You don't want to know what the bloke at the bottom is prohibited from doing!
Anyway, stuff to see but you must promise to be careful and if you do decide to wakl around the pool, DON'T DO IT BAREFOOD!

Have a nice weekend all - Chaz

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A Tern up for the books

Just letting you know. Yesterdays Arctic Tern was actually found by Tony Stackhouse and is still present today as it was seen this afternoon by Ray Fellows - Chaz

Did you work out what it was then?

Lovely, but not a welcome sight I'm afraid!
Well I feel a bit guilty as I have to confess to a thrill of excitement when I found these birds (see previous posting) as they were something I had never seen before, but for the island of Fuerteventura they are sadly not good news. This is the notorious Red-Vented Bulbul, an Indian species that is literally on the 'Most Unwanted' list of one hundred most invasive species in the world. I first heard their raucous call when we were walking back to our room one morning as six birds flew in to feed on the ornamental areas around the pools at the Matas Blancas Hotel, Costa Calma. These probably originated from cage bird escapes but the  presence of six suggests to me either a very sloppy aviculturist or (more likely) breeding in the wild?

So, what about proper birds then? Mrs Chaz and I had been pondering a visit to Fuerteventura for some time but in the end it was something of a last minute decision. I went with ambitions of seeing three island specialities but only managed one (and that was more luck than judgement). However the last few hours were to provide me with a life-bird that I would have given blood to catch-up with in my twitching days (more of that later).

One of 120+ - Honest!
There were two themes for the visit, regular island endemics and northern European passage migrants.

Regular Canary Island species/sub-species included: Yellow-Legged Gull, Spanish Sparrow, Spectacled Warbler (everywhere!), Berthelots Pipit, Plain Swift, Buzzard, Raven, Hoopoe, Southern Grey Shrike, Kestrel, Linnet, Egyptian Vulture (3), African Blue Tit, Corys Shearwater (6 of Faro De Jandia) AND Stone Curlew.

The later was something that really blew me away as the first time we explored the desert near our accommodation I found a flock of more than twenty birds. Last Sunday I walked into the desert for an hour and on the way back, accidentally flushed a flock of more than 120 Stone Curlew (yes you read that right)!

As four were the most I had ever seen together at one time before you can imagine how unbelievable this was. I went back and tried to get photographs but only managed to capture one of the birds with my little pocket camera as they were very flighty and unapproachable.

Despite touring the North and South of the island by Landrover and tourist bus, and checking dozens of mountain Baranco's I was totally unsuccessful at finding the unique Fuerteventura Chat (think Stonechat with attitude) and was equally unsuccessful with the local Houbara Bustards although I had been advised by an island expert that at this time of year they were most likely to be in the mountains and very difficult to find.

A visit to a Goat Farm (yes I managed to get Mrs Chaz out safely despite the protestations of farmers who thought she belonged to them) above Tiscamanita provided a blessed relief when three stunning Black Bellied Sandgrouse were flushed from the roadside verge by our tourist bus, my first proper 'tick' of the holiday and even more stunning to see than I had expected.

European passage birds were the other theme and during the course of our stay I connected with Common Chiffchaff (1) - Willow Warbler (1) - Spotted Flycatcher (4) - Pied Flycatcher (2) - White Wagtail (1) and another big surprise in the form of three Red-Rumped Swallow that were hawking insects over one of the main roads in Costa Calma. Even Mrs Chaz was able to pick out the black undertail and pinkish rump patch, and that was without optics (I was hogging those as it is always one of my favourite species). There appeared to be two adults with long tail streamers and one presumed juvenile with shorter and thicker based tail streamers. Sadly we were mostly looking at them from below so neither of us were able to get a glimpse of the nape patch.

So what was the biggy that I have been holding until last? Lets say that on a list of birds I would have expected to find for myself on the Canary Islands, it would not have been in the first fifty.

Over the road from our hotel was a disused quarry which was surprisingly well vegetated and being so close, became a regular focus for my attention without having to get too hot and bothered. This was a site where most of my European passage migrants were found.

We were due to depart from our hotel room at 12.00 and that left us with more than three hours of waiting around for our connection to the airport. Having secured our bags, we both decided to check out the quarry with the intention of checking the migrant situation and believe it or not,
photographing some wild Tomatoes that were growing there (See photo - sad eh?).

Out of the corner of my eye I suddenly became aware of a drab looking warbler flying along the far side of the quarry. At first I expected it to be a phylosc (there had been a Chiffchaff the previous evening) but as I viewed it at distance it was obviously something unusual and more importantly, not familiar!

The most striking first impression was the length of the bird when it was perched, followed by the size and slope of its head and the thickness of its bill base. This looked like a Hippolais Warbler. Now I have only ever seen three species of 'Hippo' - a number of Icterine Warblers and singles of Melodious and Booted Warbler. This was obviously not any of those so if it proved to be a 'Hippo' it was a potential lifer!

We carefully made our way to the end of the quarry where the bird was actively flying from its perch to the ground to take insects and fortunately there was a break in the quarry wall where we were eventually able to get to within twenty or thirty feet of it. The closer views transformed the impressions that we had got at distance.  The darker toned upper parts resolved into a quite attractive shade of grey, the apparent dark eye stripe that had showed at distance now appeared to be a shadow-effect and the dirty looking underparts were now a not unattractive off-white with buffy edges just below the closed wing. The bird had also appeared to show a slight pale wing bar but these closer views revealed this to be some pail fringes at the tertials.  The bird continued to flick out from the branch to take insects from the ground and occasionally from the air, always returning to the branch with a very gentle 'Tick' call. This struck a chord somewhere in the back of my mind and I was already pretty sure of what I was seeing and actually told Mrs Chaz what I thought we were looking at. I tried to approach a little closer to use my camera and obtain at least a record shot of the bird but that proved too much and it flew to the opposite end of the quarry and out of sight.

A swift return to the hotel and the retrieval of my Collins from our stored baggage and with very little effort all other possibilities were eliminated! I had found myself an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler! One of those dream species that I had longed to experience in my years of active twitching.  I parked the wife in the Hotel and returned with the camera but unfortunately was unable to relocate the bird (having to satisfy myself with two species of Flycatcher, two Hoopoes, a Spectacled Warbler and a Southern Grey Shrike).

I had expected a dreary wait for our transfer home to commence but I was on a high for the whole journey. Chasing rare birds is great fun but there is nothing as satisfying as finding one for yourself and it had been quite a while since I had discovered anything of this magnitude.

The bush where it was! But sadly, no bird
A brilliant way to end a grand week on a lovely island. I am getting a bit too old to deal with the heat these days so I don't know if I will ever do it again but all of the Canaries are beautiful and exciting birding venues which I would recommend to anyone.

Anyway, back to earth with a bump and looking forward (!) to counting the usual suspects on the Marsh and Mere this weekend.

Stay safe all and enjoy your Friday - Chaz

YES - OK! I have sneaked off again

Don't you hate it when something pops up that you can't immediately identify?
But I'm Back now! However it is currently approaching 02.00 on Thursday Morning and I returned from the Canary Islands just over an hour ago.

I will do an update tomorrow (when I can see the screen properly) and bore you all to death with the birds that I managed to encounter including the one above (as a certain - now disgraced- personality said: "can you tell what it is yet?"). I know what it is and suspect that I may have discovered a previously unknown breeding colony of this unusual species at the place we were staying? But more of that when I wake up.

Sleep tight - Chaz

PS. either yesterday or today (I have had my phone off most of the time) I received a message to say that there was a juvenile Arctic Tern on the Mere. Not sure who sent it but thank you for letting me know - C

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

This Week at Tesco!

Not Fish Fingers again?
Well at Tesco Brownhills at least. I received a text from Ray Fellows today to say that he had seen a Kingfisher on the canal there today.  This is not an isolated occurrence either as I had a juvenile Kingfisher flying from by the Canal Bridge toward Anglesey Junction last Friday and on the same day heard a Kingfisher on the pool by the 'Black Track' on Clayhanger Common. The Pool feeds into the Ford Brook and is the source of many of the sightings that occur on the Marsh so keep your eyes open if you are over there. - Chaz

Monday, 4 September 2017

Welcome to Autumn

Just touching base in case you thought I was going through and idle or dispirited phase?

Not much to report for the beginning of Autumn. Ray Fellows found four Common Snipe around the Mere at the end of August and I have been too busy to pay a visit over the weekend (someone who shall be nameless had a significant Birthday) and today I had every intention of doing 'the duty' but have had to go for some emergency dental treatment instead (trust me, I would rather have been over the Marsh looking for wildlife)!

Weather permitting I will do my best to pay a visit tomorrow - Chaz

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Two days left of summer - but first signs of winter arrive

Had a grand day out again, Dave Glover came down for the afternoon and we did a bit of local birding culminating with half a circuit of the Marsh. What a change a few days can make, everywhere was astonishingly quiet and although we eventually managed to connect with a few phyloscopus warblers (mostly Chiffchaff and several juvenile Willow Warbler), the last few days of fine weather appears to have cleared out many of our lingering summer visitors.

A good show of House Martin were feeding above the site and several Swallows provided a welcome accompaniment to them, but I suppose the star birds would have to be our first returning waterfowl in the form of two female/juvenile Common Teal on the Marsh. Also noted was a Grey Wagtail patrolling the edge of the Mere, again something more evident locally in the winter than during the breeding season (when they confine themselves to the Ford Brook).

A big thank you is appropriate to my old mate John Holian who provided information that really produced results for us. John was generous enough to share some sites where he had obtained good views of Hobby at the weekend and we were rewarded with some excellent views, we also managed to use John's information to locate a party of Spotted Flycatcher at a site in the Black Country although these birds were quite elusive and credit for finding them firmly belongs to the sharp eyes of Dave rather than to me. 
Spot Fly used to be a reasonably easy species to connect with and back in the nineties I used to see them every summer as I walked to work through St James's Church yard in Brownhills, but like many other once common species, Flycatchers have gone through a catastrophic decline in the last twenty years and it is not unusual for me to go a whole year without seeing one so even the brief views I had this afternoon were very welcome.

Anyway, a big thank you to Dave and to John for contributing to a splendid afternoon of local birding! A busy weekend ahead for me but I will attempt to update when I can.

Enjoy the rest of your short week all - Chaz

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Nice day for people, rubbish for watching wildlife

Out for a pleasant afternoon walk with low expectations of anything interesting and as usual - I wasn't disappointed.

High pressure always allows migrants to fly straight through without needing to drop in to feed so who can blame them for taking advantage of it? For those of us looking for something interesting to report its another matter though.

Not even a star bird today! Warblers included a few Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler calling and at least one Goldcrest on the mineral line. A few House Martin still in the area and a good showing of late summer butterflies including Gatekeeper and Small Copper. Most noticeable though were the Dragonflies with both Brown Hawker and a few Common Darters on the wing.

Highlight of the day for me was being mistaken for a sexual predator by two nice ladies from Pelsall who had somehow lost there way (what with my back)? Nice that someone thinks I still have that much energy!

On a more serious note, I have been asked to mention the escaped Macaw that has been lost in Pelsall. I had seen the posters but suspect that it has gone in a  different direction to our sites (I am pretty sure that a Macaw would attract enough attention for someone to let me know).

I understand that the owners have posted a significant reward for anyone who can bring it safely home but unfortunately I have been told that the owner is being forced to take down the posters for fear of prosecution. If anyone has seen the bird let me know and I will do my best to see that the owners get to hear about it.

Anyway, that will be it for me until the weekend I expect (although when I start doing regular visits, someone else usually goes over for the first time in ten years and finds a mega-rarity so you never know)?

Enjoy your Friday - Chaz

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Just a Swift one!

As some of you know, as a teenager I frequented that well known academic institution (renowned for turning out rocket scientists and their ilk) W.R. Wheway School, in Leamore. There were plenty of things during that period of my life that I was not very good at but pre-eminent amongst them was Maths. To this day I have to take my socks off to count above ten and my upper limit for counting is still twenty-one!

I was so enamoured with the subject that one day I became so distracted watching a Spider constructing its web on the window sill that I hadn't noticed how quiet the room at gone. I turned around to find the Maths teacher and everyone in the class watching me, watch the spider.

It would have not have been unusual for me to get 'The strap' for such an offence but on this occasion the teacher stood there, his head sadly moving from side to side as he said; "Little things and little minds Mason" - a succinct analysis that I was to occasionally be reminded of by my peers over the next few years.

Well it won't surprise you to know that very little has changed in the ensuing fifty years, so I am going to share an incident that has given me disproportionate pleasure today. At exactly 17.10 I was randomly going through a flock of House Martin over the village when at high speed, a Common Swift briefly joined them before flying off south-west.

I love Swifts and every one I see now is potentially the last until next April, so I hope you will excuse the (perhaps undiserved) level of pleasure that the sight of it gave me?

Goes to show though, it ain't over till the fat lady sings, migration continues - Chaz

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

And todays fall of migrants is:

Willow Warblers! Yep, a couple of Chiffchaff as well but first thing this morning there were Willow Warblers everywhere, some trying out their singing voice but most making that unusual 'Su-eeet' call that they tend to favour at this time of the year. There are still a good number of Common Whitethroat about too, scolding me from almost every bush along the mineral line. This must have been one of the best breeding seasons for that species in recent memory?

I couldn't sleep after a restless night so found myself on the Marsh by 06.45 despite the early morning mist that reduced visibility significantly. I also re-learnt a rule that I had forgotten, if you don't like Spiders, don't be the first person over the Marsh! I must have walked through fifty webs by the time I got to the tin bridge.

Can you see the Water Rail? - No, me neither!
Still no returning waterfowl but a Water Rail was once again calling from the edge of the main swag proving impossible to see as usual.

I came back across Clayhanger Common in the vain hope of encountering a Willow Tit but almost nine months into the year and still no sign of the species on the Spot or on the marsh. Locally extinct perhaps? I will have to have another go at finding the Chasewater birds, although two previous attempts have also proven fruitless.

Anyway - every day seems a bit different at the moment and it seems inevitable that one lucky observer will eventually connect with something out of the ordinary, I don't expect it to be me but I will keep trying anyway.- Chaz

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Marsh loses a 'Tick'

Celebrating its promotion perhaps - a Common Redpoll
It may not be scheduled to happen until January but one of the most important information sites for birdwatchers has already adopted the new version of the British List that brings the United Kingdom into line with some of its European partners. This means that Lesser Redpoll (the Redpoll that occurs most frequently on the Marsh and Mere - and in Britain as a whole) has now been relegated to sub-species status with the scarce and occasional Common (Mealy) Redpoll becoming the nominate species.

The changes don't seem to affect my list particularly as the removal of Lesser Redpoll is balanced by the acceptance of Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese as separate species but as neither of those has ever been recorded on our sites it does mean that the site list drops to (by my calculation) 191 recorded species.

For other list keeping anoraks like me, it is quite frustrating that the order of species has also changed once again with Geese now taking precedence over Swans at the top of the list. 'Gordon Bennet'! I wish they would make their minds up once and for all. It is a pain in the fundament having to revise species lists every six months.

One thing that caught my attention on the new list, Red Fox Sparrow? When did one of those turn up in Britain then? It passed under my radar - Chaz

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Staffordshire's Biggest Blockers - An Introduction

Staffordshires last twitchable Night Heron - Photo Chaz Mason (Honest)!
Warning: This one is an epic and is something for more serious birders, so be prepared to 'give up the will to live' if you are only casually interested in birds and birdwatching.

If you are still with me - lets begin...

As I am 'getting-on' a bit these days I am tending to lose the plot with a lot of things. Once upon a time if I heard a bird call or song I would pretty much know what it was immediately (and if I didn't know what it was, I knew that too - which was a lot more exciting). These days the information is still downloaded, it just takes a few more seconds for the software to access it than it used to. Which is very frustrating!

I find that I am also getting a lot more nostalgic about things that I was once quite pragmatic about and that includes birding. There are some things about the hobby that I miss and one of them is the special language that birders used to use which has gone out of fashion these days. I must have been doing the blog for about ten years now (?) and over that period I have introduced you to a fair few of those terms, so you should all know about; twitching, gripping-off, stringing (Don't do it!), padders, and dudes. Even this week I have exposed you to a 'Crippler' but I cant remember if we have ever talked about 'Blockers'?

A blocker is a bird that is difficult to put on a particular list, whether its a life-list, local patch list, garden list, county list etc (if you don't know by now, being an anally retentive lister is a prerequisite of serious bird watching). It is usually a bird which for some reason is rare or infrequent in occurrence or in a worst case an out and out unexpected rarity (A good example of this would be the Belted Kingfisher at Shugborough - a species so unlikely to occur in Staffordshire that it could easily be a hundred or even two or three hundred years before there is another). It must be noted that birds that have never previously occurred in a particular area are not blockers. If that were not the case then you could say that flightless Steamer Duck would be a Blocker in Staffs. No, the bird has to have occurred in a particular area at least once for it to be deemed a blocker (literally something you have been blocked from putting on your list by it failure to occur with any frequency).

These days my most important lists are my Staffordshire List and my Chasewater List. I was born in Staffordshire, in Walsall! Yes younger readers, Walsall used to be in Staffordshire! Until 1974 in fact when we were all forcibly deported into an artificial administrative area called the West Midlands County. Some people deported into 'new' counties such as Humberside and Avon have been allowed to go home but it is now doubtful that Walsall and its citizens will be allowed back (after nearly fifty years I suspect such a decision would be as divisive as brexit these days). At first sight this may not seem to be a relevant issue but it has caused a dichotomy of opinion about what constitutes Staffordshire for some birders.

When the county boundaries were changed, the body responsible for recording the counties birdlife (The West Midland Bird Club) had to make a decision. Do we opt for using the new counties or do we stick to the old vice-counties that had traditionally been used to define where wildlife occurred. They made a decision (wrong in my opinion) to go with the new counties which meant that records of species from some parts of historic Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire suddenly found themselves transferred to a county that previously didn't exist and all subsequent species records for those transferred areas were now attributed to the West Midlands.

I try to be a good lad and still use the WMBC guidelines as a yardstick to run my list by so my Staffordshire list only features birds that have been accepted as having occurred in a wild state in the county as defined in 1974. This even means that there are a number of birds that I have seen in Staffordshire which are not on my official county list because the administrative body does not accept that they were genuinely wild.

I believe that if you decide to have a framework for doing something then you work within that structure and not pick the bits you like and ignore the bits that aren't comfortable (some religions should look at that approach perhaps)? However, some renegade birders refuse to accept this level of control and run their list on their own opinions and on the basis of the pre 1974 boundary so what is a blocker for one Staffs birder is not necessarily a blocker for another.

The photo at the top of the posting was a juvenile Night Heron at Rollaston on Dove, just within the Staffordshire County boundary (31/03/2000) and (as far as I know) the last twitchable Staffordshire Bird according to the WMBC. If I were an 'Old Staffs' lister, I would now have seen at least three of these in the county because I once saw an adult at Hayhead Wood (16/04/1990) and another juvenile at Sheepwash Urban Park (08/08/2004), both places previously having been in Staffordshire (Good grief -birders seem to do everything in as complicated a way as possible don't they - what next, standing up in a hammock)?

Anyway - you should now have a good idea of what a birder means when he says that something is a blocker. When a bird that has previously been a blocker finally turns up it is deemed to have been unblocked - at last something straightforward and logical. 

Staffordshires Most Blocked?

So what are Staffordshires biggest blockers. On a personal level for me it is Honey Buzzard, the commonest species that I need for the county but this is actually a regular passage bird through the county and one that could turn up in a couple of weeks for someone fortunate enough to be there at the right time. So its not a Blocker in the true sense of the term.

No - what are the REAL blockers that effect all Staffordshire listers and not just me?

My opinion is there are just thirteen super-Blockers (originally twelve but Gareth Clements made a good case for Nutcracker to be included) most of which are unlikely to ever occur again and another four which may remain Blockers for some time but which could conceivably be pulled back. These latter birds are Marsh Sandpiper (last recorded in the county in 1974), Kentish Plover (last accepted county record 1995), Guillemot (last recorded in the county in 1920) and Two Barred Crossbill (a species that wintered on Cannock Chase in 1979/80 but which has been claimed in the county as recently as 2014).

There is no real reason why Marsh Sandpiper has not occurred in recent years, it is still a more or less annual vagrant to the U.K. and statistically it is only a matter of time before one turns up again. Kentish Plover has declined in occurrence nationally and is now more uncommon at inland counties throughout Britain than it previously was. As to the potential for Guillemot, that's a different matter. Despite pelagic birds occasionally finding their way to inland counties, the most common auk species Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin are always single figure occurrences on the lists for those counties as they depend on specific and unusual weather conditions at the right time of year in order to be significantly displaced, and those two factors only seem to come together one or twice a century.

So what are the Staffordshire Super-Blockers?

These are the species that in my opinion, you as an individual reading this today will be damn lucky to put onto your county list should you be that way inclined. I have listed the species that I deem to be the 'Super Blockers' in alphabetical order rather than to try and justify which is more or less likely to occur than another (such an approach would be subjective and very open to disagreement so why bother)?

Belted Kingfisher 2005
This was always my dream bird for Britain and when a Belted Kingfisher turned up in my favoured county on April First I took some persuading to go for it. It is still (I believe) a single figure species on the British List so the chances of a second bird finding its way to such an inland county has to be very small. Not impossible but then very little in birding ever is! However, I suspect that you would get very good odds from Ladbrookes on there being another one in our lifetimes?

Belted Kingfisher - Photo Copyright: Audobon
Cirl Bunting 1951
I don't think that this was ever an established species in Staffordshire? I know they reportedly bred on Hartlebury Common (Worcestershire) within recent history (1960/1970s ?) but I am not sure if the Staffordshire record relates to a genuine extra-limital occurrence by a British specimen or possibly a vagrant bird from Europe? Either way the decline of this species has resulted in a successful reintroduction scheme in Cornwall and I suspect that it would require an extension of such a scheme into more northern counties for this species to get on to any contemporary Staffordshire birders list?

Cory's Shearwater 1971
Chasewaters rarest ever bird? This rates alongside Auks as unlikely to occur at an inland site and again would seem to require a very infrequent set of circumstances in order to penetrate so far inland. The bird in question was picked up exhausted and nursed back to health before sadly being killed on release. Not impossible but put it this way, I have seen probably approaching a thousand Cory's Shearwaters abroad but still need to see one for my British list, and that's in coastal waters. So statistically what would you rate the chances of another one occurring on a lake or reservoir in Staffordshire?

Golden Eagle N/K
No longer breeding anywhere in England and suffering continuing persecution in Scotland. I don't know anything about this record. It is certainly not impossible for a vagrant bird from Scotland or even Europe to occur but it is still highly unlikely. Having said that this is one that could eventually unblock for some lucky birder.

Great Snipe 1954
To the delight of 'Old Staffs' listers this one is on their lists thanks to a highly unlikely but well watched bird at Sandwell Valley a few years ago (22/08/1995). This one could get onto the Staffordshire lists if more birders were prepared to learn the species and apply what they have learned to the large numbers of wintering Snipe that occur in Britain. I suspect that Great Snipe is a much under-recorded vagrant but how many of you reading this would be prepared to put their reputations on the block and claim one if you believed you have found one. That's the destructive effect of competitive birding for you!

Gyr Falcon 1844
HA! I wish! Unless you are affluent enough to go to the Scottish Islands or are in a position to twitch the odd coastal vagrant that sometimes occurs, this is a very difficult bird to get on your list. Any legitimate bird occurring in Staffordshire these days would have to run the gauntlet of the rarities committees to decide if it was genuine or a falconers escape or even a hybrid? Good luck with getting this one on your staffs list.

Little Bittern 1906
Please, please, please!  This is my personal Bogey Bird, if you have one of these anywhere come and get me - I genuinely am coming to believe that I will never see one of these, I have even missed seeing them at sites abroad (the little buggers keep dodging me)! From a county point of view though, this does have some potential for breaking the block. Little Bittern may not have occurred for over a hundred years in the county but in recent years there have been a number of breeding records in Britain. If this trend continues there has to be hope of a Little Bittern eventually crossing into Staffordshire airspace (if one does, COME AND GET ME - PLEASE)!

Little Bustard 1891
Never going to happen. Despite being highly migratory, this species has undergone such a dramatic decline in its favoured breeding areas the potential for vagrancy to such an inland county in the UK has to be very small verging on impossible in my opinion. When the next one turns up on the south coast go and chase it, I suspect that's the closest that this species will ever get to Staffordshire again!

A Little Bustard. Never again? photo copyright: Animalia
Nutcracker 1991
A species that historicaly has undergone eruptive movements from Siberia into western Europe - but not recently. The only Staffordshire Record was a very popular specimen at Cocknage Woods that was ridiculously obliging and which remained in the area for several weeks. Since this bird was recorded though, there have been only a handful of specimens claimed nationally so it is currently not just a tough bird to get on your Staffs list but also onto your U.K. list. This could all change with any future winter movements, but at present it does look unlikely to happen and until it does, I suspect that this species is worthy of 'Super-Blocker' status.

Pallas's Sandgrouse 1908
For what is now such a rare species, it is hardly possible to believe that it was once a regular irruptive migrant with huge falls of birds being recorded in the 19th century. These days such things must be consigned to history and even if this bird were to occur, it is far more likely to be on a distant Scottish island rather than anywhere in Staffordshire. This is one of the few species on my 'dream list' so I would like to hope, but I don't really think its ever likely to happen again, do you?

Sooty Tern 1852
Its not very often that a legend is totally true but the story of the Staffordshire Sooty Tern is! The bird was seen on the River Trent near Burton and a local landowner paid a local boy with a catapult to bring the bird down - which he did with one shot! The bird was subsequently collected, stuffed and then put on Display (Does Yoxall Hall sound right?) where its existence was a matter of record for many years. Unfortunately at some point the specimen was lost but there is no doubt of its existence and the story is recounted in a very rare book called; "The Birds of Staffordshire" (McAldowie 1893).

Fortunately if you are interested in knowing more, a copy of this fascinating book is in possession of the Local Studies Room at Essex Street in Walsall. Not sure how accessible it is these days but I once sat and read it cover to cover one afternoon.

White Tailed Eagle 1905
What do I need to say about this species. The successful return of this magnificent birds to British Skies is a matter of common knowledge. Surely at some point one of these reintroduced birds or even perhaps a genuine vagrant from Norway must one day grace the sky over Staffordshire. However this would probably have been much more likely had the proposal to reintroduce White Tailed Eagle to East Anglia been allowed to go ahead. Sadly not to be though, so its a case of wait, hope and twitch!

Photo copyright: Alan Saunders
White throated Needletail 1991
A much envied bird from within my lifetime, and a totally unexpected vagrant to the UK let alone Staffordshire! The possibility of one of these occurring anywhere must be quite small and I suspect it is a bird that the current and future generations of Staffordshire listers will have to continue to envy those lucky enough to have found it? - Likelihood of another? In my opinion astronomical!

There you are then - something for you to ponder on. It is now three hours since I started to write this and I haven't had my breakfast yet. Sorry for those who may have found it boring but sometimes I want to write stuff that interests me and which I hope will be of interest to like-minded birders.

I am sure that not everyone will agree with my analysis and that's fine, I have told you before opinion's are like Ar**holes (everybody has one) but as I do this blog and presumably you choose to read it, you have to put up with mine. If anyone wants to give any relevant feedback or alternative opinions I will be happy to report them. Its much easier to make up your mind about something if you have more than one viewpoint to consider, so if your views differ to mine let me know - it would be interesting!

If you made it this far - thanks for persevering, I hope you found it worthwhile - Chaz