Saturday, 29 March 2014

This week in birding: 29th March - 4th April

Dodgy ducks, confused cuckoos and relative rares (plus, spot The Beautiful South reference...)

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk

Saturday, 22 March 2014

This week in birding: 22nd - 28th March

New arrivals, new love and news from Scandinavia.

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

NGB February overview

A belated look back at NGB activity over February 2014, a month where water levels rose, storms rocked the south and heads pointed skywards to an aurora borealis spectacular.
Birdtrack competition

Yearlist competition

*Note: the rankings show the totals of NGB members who have signed up to these competitions.*

NGB combined 2014 yearlist
All NGB members from around the world have clubbed together to record every species to make up a 2014 WORLD YEARLIST!
As for February, NGB members had spent time in no less than 15 countries in 5 continents; from Iceland to Italy, Malta to Malaysia, Namibia to the Netherlands, and have enjoyed seeing every one of the 1114 species recorded on our joint world yearlist. The collection includes some extreme gems such as the Indigo Flycatcher, Crimson Sunbird, Bornean Banded Pitta, Checker-throated Woodpecker, Wrinkled Hornbill, Ural Owl, Cream-coloured Courser and Black Harrier

One bird on this list which deserves a special mention is the White-winged Flufftail, a bird seen by South African young birder John Kinghorn this month during an organised flush for this species, of which minimal information is known. The flush, organised by Birdlife South Africa, aimed to catch, ring and extract DNA of these birds, a tall order, but one which came good when only the 2nd ever White-winged Flufftail was caught and processed in SA history. These little birds are critically endangered and thought to migrate between Ethiopia and SA, though almost nothing of its habits is certain. 

Psychic Jack's predictions ANALYSED
Mystic Bucknall predicted for February: February is a difficult month to focus on, but I do see some sort of rare goose or diver, it looks like a Pacific Diver may be claimed but dismissed immediately, my advice is to not dismiss it so quickly, give it a second look… 
A mini influx of Bean Geese is also ‘on the cards’, get watching those flocks. 

A short, but not entirely false, foretelling. January's Pacific Diver stuck around on its lough in Northern Ireland for another month, and there were murmurs that it had been present much longer before it had been confidently identified... 
A Bean Goose influx was not as noticeable, though small flocks were well spread. 

NGB news
The month got off to a start with a group of NGBs enjoying the delights of Scottish birding, even jamming in on the limelight-loving American Coot during their travels, though many proclaimed that Capercaillie was their highlight.

Not even Mystic Jack could have predicted the first wintering Red-flanked Bluetail for Britain, and several NGBs journeyed to see it flash its tail and even engage in some singing. Durham's Myrtle Warbler was similarly twitched.

The power of twitter proved itself when NGB-er Samuel Perfect posted a picture to our Facebook group, sent by a friend, of an odd Chaffinch, with orange plumage, including Brambling-like wingbars and a curious ginger rump. We speculated on a Chaff/Bling hybrid until we posted the photo onto twitter, only to be told it was a Chaffinch, but a Erythristic one. This word, new to most of us, means that the bird experiences an absence of some pigments and/or an excessive production of others, in this case the pigment for red plumage. 

Remember 2013? Surely a year that will go down in the annuls of birding history in terms of rarities and something of a blessing for us younger birders, who have listened with slightly envious wonderment at the stories told by older birders of the rarity-padded years of the '70s and '80s. For those who want to keep a momento of this Annus mirabilis, Jonnie Fisk (of "This week in birding") has produced a poster which is available online and in store at The One Stop nature Shop, Norfolk; who have developed a very appreciated partnership with NGB. 

Scandinavian influxes are rarely unwelcome, case in point: Waxwings, Nutcrackers, Ace of Base, ABBA...but NGB were particularly pleased with a sudden surge in members from Sweden later on in the month, thanks in part to some the encouragement of 'established' members who have spent time/are currently studying in Sweden.

Extremely exciting news came when 2 NGB members: Zac Hinchcliffe and Jonnie Fisk were invited by the supremely hospitable and always-cool Birding Architect and creator of Biotope, Tormod Amundsen, to attend Gullfest 2014 - the Arctic's premier birding festival. They will do some talks on NGB alongside some extremely impressive birding figures from across the world, as well as enjoying the frozen delights of early spring Arctic birding. 

Not strictly birding related, but towards the dying days of the month, the Northern Lights graced much of the UK to perform a swan song for February. Many NGBs witnessed this ethereal glow on coastlines and elevated sites; maybe a once in a lifetime event for some places. I wonder how many birds were seen/heard during those enchanted moments of shimmering light? How many ears barely picked up the murmuring of estuary geese, the whines of Lapwings settling down, the seeping of some overhead passerine, over the visual feast evolving above them?

Other NGB Facebook Group discussion this month included the upcoming film A Birder's Guide to Everything, bird rings we have read and submitted (Med Gulls from Serbia and Belgium and BHGulls from Sweden and Poland), this fantastic photo, Team Tringa or Team Calidris?, Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and Common Eiders in all their forms!

Did you see?
- 5th: The world's second albatross translocation was undertaken, with Chatham Island Albatrosses (the first was with Short-tailed Albatrosses in Japan). The Chatham Island Taiko Trust transported chicks from the The Pyramid -a rocky outcrop on Pitt Island, and the albatross' only breeding colony- to a site on the mainland in order to create another breeding colony - Why? 'The Pyramid' is thought to be at full capacity. The chicks will be hand-fed and plastic adult albatross decoys have been set to lure in others.
- In other Albatross news, Laysan Albatross Wisdom, aka: the oldest known bird in the world hatched another chick, her 35th on Midway Atoll. The atoll's first Short-tailed Albatross pair also raised their 3rd chick. 
8th: Hot on the heels of last year's crackers Corncrake who made it to an island off the coast of Brazil, a Spotted Crake was photographed enjoying a February sabbatical in the sun-kissed undergrowth of Guadeloupe, Caribbean!  
- The birding/taxonomy/seaduck lover community was tested in its tolerance for unusual theories when a story arose suggesting the extinct Labrador Duck was actually a Steller's Edier X Common Eider hybrid. 
- An unlucky bird smashed through the windscreen of an equally unlucky pilot's plane in Florida, thankfully causing little damage to the pilot who landed himself safely:

...and finally, my NGB Facebook post of the month goes to Samuel Jones, on the topic of his first Sunbittern sighting: how eloquently put!

Good birding to all for March!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Obscure bird of the week: Sao Paulo Antwren

One thing that makes surveying, studying and watching birds so exciting is that new things are always being discovered. Recent discoveries have included the startling find that Yellow Bitterns were breeding in Egypt and the extraordinary migration of the Red-necked Phalarope to the Pacific coast off South America

Nothing though can be more exciting than discovering a species unknown to science and this happens with surprising regularity. One of these discoveries occurred in Brazil in 2005 when ecological surveyors cataloguing the area before the proposed construction of a canal chanced upon the Sao Paulo Antwren. This species, which was formally given its scientific name this month, is this week’s “Obscure Bird of the Week”.

The discovery of this attractive marshland dweller follows the discovery of the very similar Parana (or Marsh) Antwren in 1995 in marshes around 400 miles south east of the known sites of the Sao Paulo Antwren. The Sao Paulo Antwren was initially treated as a disconnected race of the Parana Antwren but subtle differences can be observed. The male bird has a much darker black breast and throat and a much lighter crown than its relative. The females are also distinguishable in the field as they have brown upperparts as opposed to the dark greyish tones of the Parana Antwren.

Little is known about the bird’s behaviour and its taxonomy is not entirely satisfactory, with debate as to whether it belongs to the genus Formicivora or Stymphalornis. More crucially, exact population figures are unclear, though clearly small as it is only known from 15 sites. This new species faces many threats including the construction of new dams. The original site of its discovery was flooded for the construction of a reservoir but the birds were saved by a remarkable programme of catching them and releasing them at similar nearby sites. Its precious and limited marshland home is also under serious threat throughout the region due to housing developments and sand extraction.

I observed two males and a female of this species at Biritiba Mirim near Sao Paulo back in 2011 when I was shown it by Rick and Elis Simpson, the people behind Wader Quest (a great cause, check it out here:, on the first day of my volunteering at the now defunct Ubatuba Birdwatching Centre. I am privileged to have seen this bird but it saddens me to think that many others may never get the chance. With the grave threats it faces, it is possible that this species may be extinct in under a generation since it was discovered.

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics student in his final year at Durham university. When he is not studying or indeed "birding without birding" on family holidays, he likes to spend his time birding (without pretending he isn't) and hill walking. He is currently secretary of the Durham University Hill Walking Society and Project Co-ordinator of Next Generation Birders


Buzzetti, Belmonte-Lopes, Reinert, Silveira & Bornschein, “A new species of Formicivora Swainson, 1824 (Thamnophilidae) from the state of São Paulo, Brazil”, Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia 21 (2013), 269-291

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The secret birding sites of Andalusia: Number 1 - Llanos de Libar

Southern Spain is not unknown to British birders, in fact its one of the most popular destinations in Europe for them. But hidden within striking distance of the world famous Donana is a series of sites that many in the UK may have never heard of. Here are my top 5 sites that may have escaped your attention when looking at a birding trip in Spain.

Llanos de Libar – Mountain birding at its best 

Llanos de Libar is your typical mountain valley. A flat, rocky floor with steep sides leading to high peaks that cast huge shadows over the surrounding area. Located just 20km from the town of Ronda and 75km from the coast makes Llanos de Libar very accessible.
Llanos de Libar also covers a wide range of habitats which give it a varied list of bird species.
Starting at the entrance to the valley, at its Northern end, is orchards and rocky small holdings. Steep cliffs line the south side close to the track and the fields spread away to steep mountain slopes to the west and north. This area is home to a pair of Bonelli’s Eagle (Aquila fasciata) and they can often be seen to the North of the track. Birds of prey are evident throughout the valley but from this spot in spring it is possible to see Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Short-Toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus),Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Booted Eagle (Aquila pennata), Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus), Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni), Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) and Little Owl (Athene noctua), while in Autumn and winter Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus) has been seen here. Smaller birds are present to and Serin (Serinus serinus), Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris),Alpine Swift (Tachymarptis melba), Sardinian Warbler (Sylvia melanocephala) and winter visitors such as Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus) and Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) can be found here.
After 500 metres or so the valley opens up on both sides of the track and it begins to climb up along one side of the valley. Here large rock laden grass fields stretch out to the north and rocky crags dominate the south side of the track. It is worth visiting this area after a cold or foggy night, especially in spring, where many birds will have been pushed down to these lower levels from the mountain tops. During these conditions in April 2012 the following were observed in one small field:
  • Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis) (2 pairs)
  • Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) (2 males and 5 females)
  • Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) (Numerous)
  • Black-Eared Wheatear (Oenanthe hispanica) (4 birds)
  • Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura) (4 birds)
  • Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (2 birds)
  • Rock Bunting (Emberiza cia) (at least a dozen)
  • Rock Sparrow (Petronia petronia) (Group of 5)
  • Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) (Single bird)
  • Woodchat Shrike (Lanius senator) (Multiple birds)
The track winds its way on through this rocky terrain, gaining in altitude once again., this area has held Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris) and looks ideal for Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo). The next landmark is a noticeable kink in the track and the presence of a large tree on the corner. This area features woodland, rocky outcrops, grass pastures and trackside bushes and foliage that provide excellent habitats for birds. During the spring months this area holds at least one pair of Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis), which can be incredibly confiding with patience, and holds similar species to lower down in the valley. Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) are also a constant feature here as are Bee-Eater (Merops apiaster), Melodious Warbler (Hippolais polyglotta) and Cirl Bunting (Emberiza cirlus) in Spring. 
The track continues and drops down gradually as the valley opens out into a large area of agricultural farmland. It is very surprisingly to suddenly find yourself in the middle of such a large area but once again the birdlife is varied and numerous, groups of 100-120 Rock Sparrow can be seen here as late as mid April in some years. Corn Bunting (Emberiza calandra) are also numerous here.
The final surprise is found a little further down the track. A stone wall with gates seperates the agricultural land with a large area of deciduous woodland. This area starts off flat and is the perfect home for WoodLark (Lullula arborea), Cirl BuntingMistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus) and Woodchat Shrike but soon starts to climb up and become an area of mountain forest. Here species such as Subalpine Warbler (Sylvia cantillans), Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), Short-Toed Treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) and Iberian Green Woodpecker (Picus sharpei) are abundant and in some areas Western Bonelli’s Warblers (Phylloscopus bonelli) seem to be in every tree.
The valley continues through this woodland until a small path climbs up the mountain side resulting in the end of the Llanos de Libar valley.
Regardless of the time of year Llanos de Libar offers some fantastic birding by either walking or driving along its valley floor. With reports of Alpine Accentor and even Wallcreeper(Tichodroma muraria) in cold winters this is a site that holds many surprises that are still yet to be uncovered.
The red line on the map below shows the route through the Llanos de Libar valley. The blue line is the nearest access road.

-Oliver Reville
Oliver is a 25 year old birder and photographer from North Norfolk. His passion is the wildlife of Spain and in particular its birds of prey. Oliver's other wildlife interests are Sylvia warblers, Wheatears, Reptiles and British orchids. His photographic inspiration is Markus Varesvuo and his book "Birds: Magic moments" first triggered his own interest in photography.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

This week in birding: 8th - 14th March

Migrant movement and awesome overshoots, plus the EU makes a bad decision.

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The case for mistakes - an ultimate birding badge of honour

Let me begin this post with a story, if I may indulge my whimsy. It was October 2012, and I was wandering around my patch on a gorgeous autumnal day. The kind where flocks 
of finches fill the sky, there’s a Chiffchaff in every bush, and Skylarks dance out from 
beneath your feet as you walk along the grassy verges. The best kind of days in my 
opinion. If Keats were a birder he would surely approve, it’s as romantic as the hobby ever gets. However, this day was blackened for me for some time, and I still shudder to think of the one that got away.

A flock of five hirundines nonchalantly swooped across one of the grazing fields on Seaford Head, and, seeing as it was a day that had that ‘rarity feel’ in the air, I duly raised my binoculars. I was treated to something clearly out-of-the-ordinary. A pale rump, but long streamers like a Swallow, and a certain type of clipped wingbeat, which I was very familiar with, having seen 100s of them only a month previously in Bulgaria. I was sure this had to be a Red-rumped Swallow!

However, being an arse and a panicker, I let that peculiar drunkenness of finding a rarity swoop over me before I could see other details on this bird. The panic was so instantaneous, the self-conscious realisation of the gravity of the find (it would have been my joint rarest alongside a Cattle Egret from a few years back), meant that my brain froze. If my eyes were seeing any other features, they certainly weren't processing them back into my Cerebral Cortex! Such is the pure elation of finding a rarity, but in this case it was a poisoned chalice. I failed to see a single other feature of the bird in question, not the pale collar on the nape, nor the black vent. The early morning sunlight was so strong that I hadn't even determined if the rump was orange, or just the trick of a panicked imagination.

Still, I wasn't sure what else it could have been, I knew I hadn't seen a Swallow or a House Martin, so I put news around. I was congratulated by many for my sighting, and once things had calmed down again, I got into the business of writing a description. And here was where my hopes for the record fell flat on their head. What I had, in terms of a description, were;
  • hirundine with pale rump, strong back-lighting meant it was difficult to really tell if it was orange or not
  • had very long outer tail feathers, a la Swallow
  • clipped wingbeats, strongly reminiscent of a Red-rumped Swallow…

You don't have to be on a committee to know that's not going to cut the mustard.

On the balance of probability, I still think that bird was a red-rumper. Seven had been seen on Guernsey only a week before, a record-breaking flock for October. But the fact is, it never showed its underparts, it was in poor light, and the poor old fool looking at it was too busy, palpitating like a hummingbird on cocaine, to really focus on what he was seeing. I knew from experience that Records Committees are, quite rightly, rather hard to impress. This would not stand up to their scrutiny. So with my tail between my legs, I scuttled on to the SOS sightings board and formally posted a retraction, attempting to explain the reasoning behind my doubting a sighting of what is, to be honest, a rather straightforward ID in most circumstances.

I actually got some credit for admitting my mistake, which was rather heartening. But I still felt a knot in my stomach every time I remembered that Swallow. It haunted me for months. This is probably an extreme example of a monumental cock-up, but now, hopefully most of you young, up-and-coming birders of the new day will have your own mistakes put into perspective! And make no mistake, we all make mistakes in this game.

But that's not a bad thing, it's a brilliant thing. All the best birders have got to where they are by trial and error, by making countless cock-ups, before stumbling into something approaching knowledge of their subject.If you never made mistakes, you'd never learn. Ipso facto, the more mistakes you make, the more of an expert you become (though some of us will always remain the exception to the rule!).

If you're reading this, and you're a young birder, you probably know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. I sympathise with all my heart, as it's much harder to cope with when you're young, unproven and eager to impress. Once you leave your pimples behind, and adolescent angst starts to ease, it's easier to pass it off with a shrug of the shoulders. You start to realise all the best birders make them. But I remember how anxious I could get when I was 15 or 16, and the possibility I'd got an identification wrong would raise its ugly head.

But, my advice (whether you want to take the advice of someone who's never seen a Willow Tit is your call), is to embrace your mistakes whole-heartedly. Some birders class another's ability by the birds they've found, the size of their list, the number of Birdforum threads they've commented on... All admirable pursuits I'm sure, but for me, the ultimate judge of knowledge, and most importantly, character, is the number of times you've been wrong, and admitted it. Once you've made that high-profile howler once, you'll never make it again. I can now honestly say that I'm pretty well-versed in Red-rumped Swallow ID! Mistakes should be worn like badges of honour or battle scars, a symbol that you're wiser now than you once were.

Always put news out, if you're in a position where it's feasible to do so. Don’t worry if you initially got it wrong, other birders would far prefer to chase to after the occasional red herring than to hear news of a genuine mega that eluded their grasp. And while you might feel a bit of humiliation if you've gone wrong, it’s far better than the guilt of seeing something genuinely exciting, and lacking the confidence to phone it out. And what should you do if another birder, presumably forgetting their own unholy omissions as they cut their teeth, should berate you for an honest mistake?

Simply remind them that Garner, Shirihai, Grant, Hunt, Sibley, Kaufmann, Pyle, Snetsinger and every other notable, well-loved figure all started out as exactly what you are now. An eager, enthusiastic young birder.

After you've kicked the offensive offender as hard as you can in the Bushnells, of course.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Obscure bird of the week: White-necked Picathartes

Before I begin, let me just quickly warn you that this blog post is going to be sickeningly lovey dovey (no pun intended) towards this week's obscure bird. The reason for this is because it's a White-necked Picathartes Picathartes gymnocephalus and to me, this is just about the 'Greatest Bird in the World!'

When Clarkson says it, you know it's true!

I am completely enchanted by the White-necked Picathartes of sub-Sarahan Africa. Its population covers an area of 389,000km2 in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Now I can talk a big game, but can I prove that this is the greatest bird in the world? Well I guess that's a very difficult question to answer accurately as one person's great is another person's half bald pheasant! I think it is a stunningly beautiful bird. It has a shape and facial pattern that is almost prehistoric as though it would be at home on John Hammond's Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park for the dinosaurly-impaired!). With the almost smooth feather pattern to the dark tail and wings, it almost looks computer animated.

Following on further from the Jurassic Park theme, the way these birds behave reminds me very much of the Compsognathus as seen at the start of The Lost World....sorry, If you thought Picathartes was hard enough to say/remember, Compsognathus isn't exactly a walk in the park!

So, it looks pretty amazing and behaves strangely, but what's the 'xfactor' about this bird? What makes it any better than the many many many other pretty amazing looking and strangely behaving birds of the world? Well, as with most birds, it is made much more desirable due to its rarity status. They are a hard bird to see in the wild, so a population estimate is very difficult, so the current estimate is between 2500-9999 mature adults and with a decreasing population, they're currently listed as Vulnerable.

They frequent areas of secondary forest with a forest clearing near to a flowing stream or river which allows them to collect mud to build their nest. The nest in question is similar to that of a swallow on the side of a cave wall where there is protection from an overhanging roof...that's right...imagine the site of a computer-generated dinosaur pheasant sitting in a big Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica nest! What a fantastic species this is!

It looks so wrong, but so right!

The even lesser-known Grey-necked Picathartes

White-necked Picathartes aren't alone, don't worry. They share their genus with the Grey-necked Picathartes Picathartes oreas of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Congo and just about Central African Republic. Now this species is about as rare as its cousin, it covers the same sized area, it behaves similarly, looks equally as odd and if anything is even more colourful. For some reason though, they seem to sit in the shadow of it's more clean-throated cousin.

Generally speaking, they nest next to rivers with muddy edges to build a nest, but this is also where they collect their invertebrate diet, but every so often, they eat what they can e.g. amphibians!

So there we have it. Hopefully, if you've never heard of a Picathartes before, you are sufficiently enchanted by this bewitching species. If you have heard of one but they're not your favourite bird, then hopefully I've changed your mind! If you already regard them as the greatest bird in the world, then I am glad I just made your day!

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Andy Mackay - My 'NGB Years'

You will probably be familiar with the work of Andy Mackay even if you did not know it, since it was Andy who generously breathed life into NGB's image with our terrific Little Egret logo which now adorns many a tshirt, hoodie and even a bear mascot! Here he describes his blossom into birding at a young age and gives some tips to other young birders:

Had NGB existed 'when I were a lad' I'm sure I would have been an active and enthusiastic member. But it didn't of course, because for me, the 'NGB years' would have spanned 1978 to 1990, and the Internet had barely been invented then. Even by the time I was 25, very few people had computers.
At the age of 13, although I had been interested in birds for as long as I could remember, I knew no other birders and rarely did any birding outside of my garden, other than on family holidays and outings. I did have a decent pair of binoculars though, and had been a member of the Young Ornithologists' Club since the age of nine. But over the next 12 years my birding was to undergo huge changes...

YOC 'Bird Life' magazines + Kestrel badge
In 1983 the Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland was published, and I bought a copy soon after it came out. See 'The Book That Inspired a Generation' on my blog for more on this. Another book I came across around this time was Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book. If you've never read this, I strongly suggest that you get hold of a copy and do so. Although it's mostly about birding/twitching in the 1970s, a lot of it is still highly relevant. Plus it's very funny. Like the Shell Guide, BOLBBB was a revelation for me. Strange as it seems now, I had never considered the idea that I might somehow find out about rarities and go and see them myself. I assumed that rare birds were only seen purely by luck, and always by other people!

The Shell Guide & Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book
The following year saw me taking further steps to becoming a 'proper' birder. In late August 1984 I made my first visit to north Norfolk. This was supposed to be a voluntary wardening fortnight at Snettisham, but thanks to the influence of a more experienced 'vol' who was there at the same time as me, it turned into what was effectively a birding/twitching trip at the RSPB's expense, much to the annoyance of the warden! In those two eye-opening weeks I had 16 lifers, including a Marsh Sandpiper at Cley. Not long after this, back in Leicestershire I met Jeff Higgott whilst birding at Cropston Reservoir, and he introduced me to both the local ornithological society and ringing, which I took up enthusiastically. I also started subscribing to British Birds around this time.

I now had not only a regular birding companion, but also that all important 'grapevine' contact. Prior to this I had never heard about anything interesting turning up in the county, with the exception of the Bridled Tern at Rutland Water, which I read about on the front page of the Leicester Mercury after it had gone! As well as local birding, we went twitching whenever transport was available. The highlight of this period was undoubtedly the Little Whimbrel at Salthouse in August 1985, still my longest standing British 'blocker', and the only one I have left from the 1980s.

Pen & ink drawing of the 1985 Little Whimbrel from my 'big notebook' of  the time
In 1986/87 I spent a year working as an assistant warden at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory in Kent. This was another quantum leap in my birding, packing what would be several years' worth of experience for most people into just 12 months. And I could hardly believe that I was being paid to watch, count and ring birds every day. It wasn't all fun, of course; I've never been much of a morning person, so I never enjoyed getting up before dawn every day during migration periods, and you might not believe it, but even birding can sometimes become a chore when it's your job! But on the whole it was a great experience, and I would say to any young birder, if you get a chance to stay at an observatory, let alone work at one, make the most of it.

Stilt Sandpiper twitch, Cliffe, 1987. My Dad's Mk II Cavalier, Jeff's Hertel & Reuss scope, and my dodgy 80s hairstyle, glasses and moustache!

In 1990 I visited Scilly for the first time, and my British list, already over 300, shot up by 11 new species in a fortnight, including Black-billed Cuckoo, Upland Sandpiper, Swainson's and Grey-cheeked Thrushes and Isabelline Wheatear. All birds I had barely heard of 12 years earlier in pre Shell Guide days, let alone thought I'd ever see.

Grey-cheeked Thrush twitch, St Mary's, October 1990
And somewhere along the way I had become a full time bird artist and illustrator, mostly by accident it has to be said, having decided that doing a 'proper job' wasn't for me. But that's another story in itself.

Bluethroat cover of BB, April 1990
Throughout all this time technology was moving on, although we were still another ten years away from mass ownership of computers, mobile phones and digital cameras. But I think it's important to remember that, great as all this technology is, birding is essentially no different now to what it was 25, 50 or even 100 years ago. At its most basic, going out to watch birds with a pair of binoculars round your neck and a notebook and pencil in your pocket doesn't change, and that's what it's really all about.

-Andy Mackay
Andy is a freelance artist and writer, and the creator of the NGB Little Egret logo. Interested in birds since early childhood, he no longer twitches, but prefers to find his own birds on his local patch (Eyebrook Reservoir, on the Leicestershire/Rutland boundary) or further afield. If not watching, painting or writing about birds he is most likely either mothing, listening to Test Match Special or doing the Guardian crossword.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

This week in birding: 1st - 7th March

Stepping into spring, blending in with the crowd and going out with the gulls...

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-Jonnie Fisk

This week in birding: 22nd - 28th February

Signs of spring, bulrush bouncers and Arctic sky graffiti. 

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here

-Jonnie Fisk