Saturday, 23 August 2014

Black-winged Pratincole on Tour

I never like to start a blog post with a negative tone, but for the story to have any effect then I am going to have to. For a few years now I have grumbled on about the fact I had never seen a Pratincole. I’d open Collins to that faithful page with Collared and Black-winged Pratincole and drool over it. Roll back to late April and I finally saw my first species of Pratincole, a cracking Collared showing very well both on deck and in flight in Devon. Then came late June, I was in Dumfries and Galloway and half way through a survey, I got a call from a mate to say that the Pratincole sp at Hauxley that had just been found looks like it may well be a Black-winged. Dread came over me, I looked at the clock and noted I had three hours survey left, plus a thirty minute break, plus two hours drive there on the way home. It wasn’t looking good! The bird quickly departed after being found; surely it would turn up somewhere else along the coast?

Dawn on Friday 13th June and I was down in Lincolnshire with work, a dawn BBS, it was a short one and I was finished early morning. I’d finished my work week and thought it best to start making my way back north in case the Pratincole turned up again in Northumberland. I thought the best plan would be to drive to Teesside and check Back Saltholme before going for some lunch (potentially), I’d be pretty well placed if the Pratincole turned up either north or south then, which I had high hopes for. It got to around 10AM and there was no news at all, I was extremely tired and pulled over at a service station on the A19 in North Yorkshire, a mere 20 minutes or so from Back Saltholme. I was sleeping lightly when my phone started going crazy, it was “Whats App”, the Black-winged Pratincole was back. I checked BirdGuides to see where it was….Saltholme RSPB on Back Saltholme. The time was 10:50AM, I was due to be in the lay-by scanning Back Saltholme at 10:45AM according to my sat nav before I stopped. As you can imagine the car was soon back on the road heading north. I arrived at Saltholme about three or four minutes too late. It had gone. I could have had it and it would have been in Durham! A place I predicted would get Cleveland and Durham’s first Black-winged Pratincole only just last year (as did some others).

I was fairly hopeful it would be in either Lincs or East Anglia soon enough for me to see at the weekend. After about five or six days I was pretty sure it had gone. Then twenty-two days later at 08:50 (something about this bird and “50 minutes”) on a Saturday morning I got a call from Chris Bell to say he had a Pratincole sp with Lapwings but he had not seen it fly yet, “it looks like the Black-winged”. I leaped up and left the house pretty much immediately. About 30 minutes later I was watching the bird flying about with Lapwings at Hurworth Burn Reservoir, the bird showed very well both on the deck and in flight on several occasions. Simply superb. I still could not (and still cannot) believe I had another chance of the bird in Durham. During its Durham stay many NGBs managed to connect, but those who were not as fortunate enough to have the transportation means or time on the 5th and morning of the 6th to get to Durham never saw it. But the story doesn't end there!

On the 7th the bird was seen briefly at Holywell Pond, it had gone back to Northumberland. The trail then went cold until the bird turned up on Monday gone in Lincolnshire briefly before flying out over the wash. The bird then turned up again yesterday at Cley Marshes NWT for just about long enough for many to connect with this extremely exciting wader. The bird turned up the following day at Stiffkey Fen in Norfolk, a stones throw (if you've a really good throw) from Cley Marshes NWT. However, typically, the bird went missing once again before turning up at Ouse Washes RSPB where it stayed for a good few weeks performing well before it final sighting on the 9th August.

Did it, however, during its long stay visit Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex? On the 27th July the Black-winged Pratincole was last seen on the evening at Pymoor, a short distance away from Ouse Washes RSPB, but the bird had clearly moved slightly. The bird was not there the following day, then on the 30th of July a Black-winged Pratincole as flushed from the river bank and flew off west. Interestingly on the 2nd of August the Black-winged Pratincole was back at Ouse Washes RSPB in Cambridgeshire, had the bird gone for a wander only to return? That is up to the rarities committee to decide. 

Below is a crude depiction of the flight paths that the Pratincole would have absolutely had to have taken (roughly) as a minimum, they do, of course, not match what the bird will have done.

(The very Black-winged Pratincole over the airspace of Hurworth Burn Reservoir in County Durham on its first properly twitchable day on its UK tour, photo taken by David Aitken)

-Andrew Kinghorn
Andrew is 22 years of age, and has been a birder for about 8 years. He is an ornithological surveyor living in County Durham. He has a vested interest in all things birding, however twitching is a passion of his and he loves to see new birds.

Monday, 18 August 2014

All's Fair in Birds and War(blers)

There's a woman with Wallcreeper earrings, a 6ft Hen Harrier made of insulation board and the tannoy is announcing a Death's-head Hawkmoth at the RSPB stand. It can only be BirdFair!

From Thursday night, Armely Lodge Farm became a hub of NGB tents as members arrived from over 15 counties. Two particularly exciting arrivals were 'Bardsey Ben' Porter (who turned 18 on the Sunday of BirdFair!) who spends most of his time taking amazing photographs of the wildlife of Bardsey Island, as well as jamming a few juicy self-finds (most recently Citrine Wagtail) and James O'Neill, a Northern Ireland resident who brought along the now-famous Death's-head, which posed and squeaked perfectly. Both these NGB members were 'ticks' for all of us and it was great to be part of a real camaraderie on camp as stories were swapped, information was shared and bins passed around quickly whenever the Osprey decided to do a flyover. 

Promoting our favourite Hobby with the RSPB

We were at BirdFair in such numbers thanks mainly to both British Birds magazine and the RSPB, both of whom generously offered to form a partnership with us for the weekend. The RSPB had a NGB section of their stand, where existing NGB members met (often for the first time) and young birders from across the country -and beyond- came to sign up. Our membership increased from 376 on Thursday to 392 on Monday morning. Over at the British Birds stand, purple-clad NGB members sold 36 subscriptions of Britain's premier birding journal over the weekend, as well as chatting to a huge number of the birding public. 

Just a few of the NGBs who made it along to the Richard Crossley-led bird walk

The sheer number and variety of stands and marquees boggled my tiny birding brain. It was a cocktail of emotions in those tents, which was accentuated by the high humidity and whiff of grass. I felt assured after speaking to the WWT who are shining a light at the end of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper's tunnel; I felt hopelessness at the Birdlife Malta stall as I was told that shooting a Honey Buzzard is "a right of passage"; and I felt a little starstruck meeting some of my favourite bird artists: Greg Poole, Carry Akroyd and Darren Woodhead. Books were poured over, magazine subscriptions pondered, shiny new scopes peered through while Migrant Hawkers buzzed overhead. I wandered around the crowds, through the "Gone pishing" tshirts and Scopacs, catching bits of conversation on Lincolnshire's Glossy Ibis, IOW's Bee-eaters, England's Hen Harriers (or lack of) and even Norfolk's spiders.

The Saturday of BirdFair will go down in the annuls of NGB history as a simply brilliant day from start to finish. James O'Neill and his Death's-head were the talk of the tents and small queues built up where he lingered. 

Mural for the 26th BirdFair. The theme: Save our seas

At 2pm, a 30-strong gaggle of young birders were accumulating around the ringing tent. The reason? An organised bird walk 'n talk with Richard Crossley, the brain behind the Crossley ID Guides. We piled into the Dunlin Hide, lead by Toby Carter, overlooking the Osprey nesting platform (which bizarrely contained an Egyptian Goose). Chat ranged from the variability of bird plumage and Sand Martins to female Green-winged Teals and "what's that wader on the far bank?". London-based Oscar Dewhurst picked out a Common Sandpiper amongst the Dunlin and Ringed Plover. It was so encouraging to be out with a load of young birders serious about their hobby, with age ranges from 12 to mid 20s.

The always-cool Richard Crossley
I hugely enjoyed the traditional BirdFair Bird Brain of Britain which was well attended and with a recurring theme of Passenger Pigeons (I wonder why) plus a lot of very interesting answers (did you know that Stone Curlew last bred in The Netherlands in 1957? Or that the Madagascar Serpent Eagle actually mainly eats Leaf-tailed Geckos?).

Announcing the winner: Nick Acheson from OSME

Come 6pm the stalls may have shut but the day was far from over as the RSPB and 
The Sound Approach had combined forces for a superlecture! NGB piled in and took up 3 rows of seating. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman sounds like the start of a joke, but it was a reality on stage as Lush Cosmetic's managing director Mark Constantine, Irish bird artist (and Liam Neeson impersonator) Killian Mullarney and bird sound recorder Magnus Robb took us through their 'Listening for Life' talk. Our ears were treated to recordings of birds as unusual as the Andalusian Hemipode, Zino's Petrel and the recently discovered Omani Owl, which the audience were privy to stunning field sketches and photographs of. 
But for me, it was the warmth that the three exuded to their fellow birders that made me feel like I was in the best club on earth. 
Something that left us beaming was RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke who gave NGB a bit of a surprise shout-out as he winded down the evening with a speech. We owe the RSPB a lot! 

(From left) Killian Mullarney, Mark Constantine and Magnus Robb AKA The Sound Approach

For someone who'd been living off ice-creams and snickers bars over the weekend, the free food and drinks reception at the end of the lecture was very welcome. We were also very pleased to get to have a chat to Norwegian NGB Jørgen whose bird ID training and field study trips website can be found here. That evening in the events marquee, all traces of teenage embarrassment disappeared as the barn dance got underway and NGB and AFON members alike were Do-si-do-ing and high-kicking while others looked on and laughed. After that and a few car shuttles later, the over 18 members of both orgs were enjoying a night at Oakham's Wetherspoons where visiting birders appeared to outnumber the drinking locals.  

Meeting Hookpod was very exciting. These guys are the solution to seabird bycatch. 

That's the glorious thing about the BirdFair, the Knot-on-The-Wash like density of birders and stalls means that you can't help but rub shoulders with ornithological big-shots and birding fame alike. First thing you know you're taking part in a harmless barn dance and before long you're in a troupe with 1 Indian bird guide, 2 American world-listers, a wildlife artist and Tim Appleton! Or take Sunday afternoon for example; a few NGBs working on the RSPB stand were approached by Jonathan Scott who asked about hand puppets! For a kid whose mid-week evenings in the early 2000s revolved around making pancakes and watching Big Cat Diary, this was really special.
Any presumptions that come with being a young birder go out the window here as everyone is in the same boat (probably looking for petrels). Simple pleasures came with seeing teenage guys and girls walking about in Bird Obs tshirts, bins bouncing off their BTO sticker-covered chests, no fear of any prejudice they may receive from non-birding peers. 

NGB team working on the British Birds stand hear how many subscriptions they sold. Liam C was top salesman.

So a huge thanks goes out to the RSPB and British Birds, without whom our BirdFair experience would have been all the less interesting. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and told us to keep going, your words of encouragement are really valuable. Thank you to any young birders who have joined NGB since seeing us and thank you to all existing NGB members who helped out, came for a chat or who have motivated us to make the group what it is today.

Best thing about being a birder? You don't have to sit about waiting until next year's BirdFair - we're infatuated with a hobby that changes from year-to-year, season-to-season and day-to-day. See you at Rutland Water in 2015; a year where Glossy Ibis will breed in Britain, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will be much higher in population and The Sound Approach will probably have found some more owl species in weird locations...

-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig, the music of Hall & Oates and being distracted by bugs. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

An Ecuadorian adventure -by Oliver Simms

One of the main advantages of being a university student is the long summers and the resulting great opportunity to travel. Unfortunately, my time at university has come to an end and the world of work with its short holiday looms. Having worked the majority of last year’s summer break, this year I was particularly determined to do something exciting. After sorting out a job that starts in September, I set about e-mailing bird lodges around the world and asking them if they needed a volunteer. I received many offers but only two were willing to offer free board and accommodation in return for work; Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica and Cabanas San Isidro in Ecuador. Having been to Costa Rica but not Ecuador, it was an easy decision for me and I gave the Costa Rica place to fellow NGB member Liam Curson (blog post to follow from him I’m sure!).

Rufescent Tiger Heron

I was told that I would be needed for 16 days to cover the administrator’s holiday but I could stay for longer if I wanted. I was also asked to try to learn a little Spanish. I booked my flights, bought my field guide, took a couple of online Spanish lessons and on the 4th July, two days after my graduation ceremony, I set off on my Ecuadorian adventure.

Crimson-mantled Woodpecker

After a smooth and on-time flight, I was picked up for the two hour drive to Cabanas San Isidro, a beautiful lodge set in a beautiful cloud forest reserve on the east slope of the Andes at an altitude of 2,000m. Despite the fading light, the drive produced 3 species, 2 of which (Great Thrush and Eared Dove) were my first lifers of the trip. I was welcomed by the administrator, Alejandro, who advised me to take it easy because of the altitude but spend the first few days familiarising myself with the birds and the trails.

Carunculated Caracara (best name ever! -Jonnie)

I was up at first light and spent an hour on the balcony enjoying 10 new species, including Andean Motmot, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager and the ubiquitous Inca Jay. During the rest of the day, I walked around the garden and the forest trails seeing a total of 40 species. The hummingbirds on the feeeders were a particular highlight with the stunning Long-tailed Sylph and the boisterous Chestnut-breasted Coronet my favourites. For the next week, apart from assisting a bit with the washing up and the cleaning of the rooms, I spent most of my time birdwatching around the lodge. Most of the time I was bird watching on my own but on two occasions I was able to accompany groups with guides. Within a week, I had recorded 95 species, the vast majority of which were new for me. Particular highlights were a Tayra (a South American mustelid species) in a tree by the road, very tame Masked Trogons, two species of Antpitta coming to worms, the brilliantly named but drab Oleaginous Hemispingus and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, a bird that had always been high on my bucket list. I also found a Bat Falcon on my third afternoon, a bird I later found was the first at San Isidro for a number of years.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

White-bellied Antpitta

The 12th July saw my first experience of guiding, a German general interest group that had specifically requested a bird guide and were after seeing Cock-of-the-Rocks. Unfortunately, the target bird did not play ball but I was able to show them Golden-headed Quetzal, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and my first Smoky-brown Woodpecker and Orange-eared Tanager. The day after was my last free day before I started to act as temporary administrator of the lodge so I decided to head out by bus to San Isidro’s sister lodge at Guango at 2700m elevation. It is particularly renowned for hummingbirds and they did not disappoint with the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird the undoubted highlight. Other great birds included Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan, Andean Guan and White-capped Dipper. That evening also saw my first encounter with the mysterious San Isidro Owl, almost certainly a new species for science.

Masked Trogon (female)

The following morning saw me start my stint as the hotel administrator. This role involved me, as the only English speaking member of “staff”, welcoming the guests on arrival and being present at meal times to translate requests to the kitchen staff and to translate information about the meals to the guests. I also did a fair bit of guiding of guests and met some amazing people. I did not find the role easy given my limited Spanish and limited knowledge of the birds of the area but got by and all the guests seemed to enjoy their stay. The role did give me plenty of time to continue to explore the trails and I continued to see new species including Plushcap, Rufous-banded Owl (thanks Mitch!), Black-and-Chestnut Eagle and a flock of White-capped Tanagers that one of the guests I was supposed to be guiding got me on to! It was particularly enjoyable to bird watch with Tom, Richard, Bob and Steve from Northumberland.

San Isidro Owl

I had two days off in the 16 day stint and used these to visit different areas. The first was a bus trip to the Loreto Road in the Andean foothills, which produced such cracking birds as Torrent Duck, Red-headed Barbet, Blue-rumped Manakin and a 9 species strong Tanager flock. On my second, I hired a guide, Mauricio, to take me up to the highlands of Antisana and Papallacta. The three main targets of the day were Andean Condor, Black-faced Ibis and Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, which were all seen well. The latter was particular fortunate as the fog had rolled in but it ran just in front of my path. In total, I saw 44 new species for the trip, 40 of which were lifers.

Torrent Duck

As soon as I got to San Isidro, I realised I had 5 days at the end free and I decided to use them to visit a new area. Various ideas were considered including Mindo and Wild Sumaco but in the end I managed to secure a half price deal at Sani Lodge in the Amazon for three nights. I am particularly grateful to Simon Mitchell and Helena Craig for all the help and advice they gave me on the NGB Supporters Group.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

So on the 31st July, with 227 species on my trip list, I set out for the unappealing town of Coca, where I would stay the night. After an unpleasant 24 hours, which produced few new birds, I was picked up for the two hour boat ride, 15 minute walk and half an hour canoe to Sani Lodge. The canoe ride indicated that this was going to be a pretty special experience with new species like American Pygmy Kingfisher and Slate-coloured Hawk showing at close range. On arrival at the lodge, Hoatzins were in the Varzea scrub by the entrance and Grey-winged Trumpeters were scurrying along the deck. It was clear that Sani was a very special place.

Grey-winged Trumpeter

That afternoon, I went in a canoe round the lagoon with a guide named Domingo and this produced over 20 new species for the trip including Capped Heron and Red-bellied Macaw. For the next two days, despite being told I would have to join a general interest group, I was allocated an excellent bird guide named Pablo for the first full day with one other guest, for the second completely to myself. On both days, we birded pretty constantly, visiting the canopy tower, travelling around by canoe and trekking in the Yasuni National Park for almost 4 hours despite the heat. The birding was spectacular with 10 species of heron, 9 of raptor, 9 of parrot, 8 of woodcreeper and 3 of owl. Particular highlights were Salvin’s Curassow, Blue-and-Yellow Macaw, Great Potoo, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, White-throated Toucan, Barred Forest-Falcon and Black-bellied Cuckoo. I also found a winter plumaged Red Knot on one of the islands in the Napo river, which appears to be a first for the province. As well as birds, I saw 5 species of monkey, Electric Eel, Boa Constrictor and Black Caiman. It was with sadness that I had to leave for my long journey home early on my 3rd morning at this wonderful place. In only two full days, an afternoon and one hour on the last morning, I saw over 180 species and had brought my trip list to a total of 383, far beyond my expectations.

Capped Heron

I had a wonderful time and it was exactly the excitement I was looking for in my final free summer. I would like to thank Carmen, the owner of San Isidro, for providing such a wonderful opportunity and all the staff there for making my stay so enjoyable. I would also like to thank Pablo and Mauricio for being excellent guides and Yanelys at Sani Lodge for offering me the generous discount.

Golden-headed Quetzal

PS: I would highly recommend both Cabanas San Isidro and Sani Lodge as places to stay if visiting Ecuador as both are great lodges with superb bird watching. 

-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics graduate from Durham university. When he is not working at Neotropical bird lodges, he likes to spend his time birding and hill walking. He is currently Project Co-ordinator of Next Generation Birders

My uni birding experience

As September fast approaches, there are several NGBs soon to be starting their three or more year experience at University. Similarly, there are also many members at an age where university ends with a question mark and whether it is right for you.
I thought, as I am very close to finishing my research masters after a 4 year stint at university, I would give some of you an idea of what to expect from university as a serious birdwatcher through my own personal experiences.
So, way back in September 2010, I started at Bangor University in North Wales. I said goodbye to my parents for pretty much the first time in my life, sat down in my new room for the first time and said to myself ‘right…this is me for the next year!’, and so began my freshers week.

Being a birder, I really didn’t exactly have the stereotypical start to freshers, as on my first full day, I got a text from Chris Bridge saying ‘Grey Phal. Conwy RSPB’. Now unfortunately, I was getting a tour of the uni’s botanic gardens at the time, so I wasn't exactly free, and I ignored it…for as long as I could.
Chris proved to play a huge role in my first year of uni and how much I developed my passion as a birder. Chris was a 2nd year at the time and was attempting to reach 300 for the year mainly done by public transport. That is no mean feat, so as you can imagine, he was a bit of a mad twitcher and went for almost anything that had a train station reasonably close by (with certain exceptions of the Frampton Marsh RSPB Oriental Pratincole).

I hadn't previously met Chris, but a few local birders from Lancs told me about him being at Bangor, so I added him on Facebook. It didn't take long for us to get out birding and I managed to get the Conwy Grey Phalarope in the end after seeing my first Lapland Buntings on the Great Orme down to 10 feet. Magic!
Next up to the table was my first long-distance twitch. I went round to Chris’s the night before to look into how exactly we’d get to the bowling green at Hartlepool Headland to see a long-staying juvenile Woodchat Shrike. Unfortunately, Chris’s Rare Bird Alert account threw a spanner in the works as we were scrolling down the news page when we came across bright red capital letters and double stars reading ‘**GREEN HERON**’. Our hearts stopped as this was a bird both of us wanted and was in fact the No2 on Chris’s bucket list (after Northern Parula…a fair No1). Reading it was in Cornwall, we shrugged it off as best we could and carried on planning Hartlepool. I don’t know what it was, but maybe the fact I’d already seen Woodchat Shrike and Hartlepool from North Wales seemed like a long way for yeartick, but I jokingly said "That Green Heron…..I’m up for it…". Well I’m not entirely sure what happened next as before I knew it, we were on a dark Bangor train station buying a ticket to St. Austell in Cornwall. Madness! After an overnight kip on Crewe station and 5 trains, a taxi and a walk that seemed to never end, we arrived at a group of birders overlooking a darkened pool in the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Before too long, we got superb views of the heron as it walked right out into the open some 30 feet away. Pure magic! A bus journey to St. Austell and 4 trains back home saw us arrive back to Bangor at 2am the following evening and I was up, bright and ready for my Friday 9am Chemistry lecture! I think I even took notes!

Green Heron!!
Anyway, I didn’t go to uni to spend all my money and time on train tickets to get some ticks on my list. I went to get a degree! I studied Zoology with Animal Behaviour which was quite vague in first year to get everyone on the course up to a similar level on everything, which was interesting in certain modules such as Organismal Diversity which covered the biology of pretty much everything from bacteria, to plants, to fungus to animals. At the time, I was really mainly interested in birds, so I guess I didn’t take full advantage of the module. I would probably have enjoyed it so much more now, with my wider interests.

As university life went on and the work load increased, I would ask to go birding with Chris and he’d regularly have to turn me down as he’d be going out bird ringing. This was something I’d previously tried once, but it never really grabbed me. After spending far too long looking out my window, I found a flock of Waxwings, during their wondering influx of Winter 2010/11. Before too long, I got an invite off Chris to come and try and catch some with him and a few mates. As Waxwings are one of my favourite species, I agreed, so to my amazement upon arrival, I was shown a Waxwing in the hand just like that…what a statement! Chris could see from there that I was hooked, I just didn't know it yet.

Waxwing - There are few things in this world better in my opinion

He kept pestering me to try and come out with him and his trainer. Finally, at the end of January, I went out with Steve Dodd to a local farm and experienced my first proper ringing session.  With an introduction to mist netting, and later several introductions to cannon-netting with the local wader ringing group SCAN, I was registered as an official trainee.

Now I’m not telling you to go to uni and become a ringer in your spare time. It is a massive commitment and incredibly time consuming if you've got other things important to you. I am mainly promoting getting into volunteer surveys, whether that be Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS), Breeding Birds Survey (BBS) or Nest Recording Scheme (NRS). I chose to do ringing because I felt this would give me an edge to my birding knowledge as you learn so much about bird biology and the complexities of the finer details in bird ID e.g. Marsh Warbler and Reed Warbler separation. Learning a lot of my previous bird knowledge through local patching Brockholes Quarry (now Brockholes NR LWT) in Preston, I developed a fascination for migration and through ringing, you get to have your hand in the hopeful discoveries of new and exciting information and knowledge about migration in the birds you handle. A super example of this is hand catching a Black-headed Gull in Cumbria, ringing it with a BTO metal ring and colour-ring and then 17 days later, it was seen in Oslo…how incredible is that!?

I used this extracurricular activity within my course too as I did my undergraduate research project on Blue Tits and Great Tits in a woodland in Greater Manchester investigating how territoriality of male tits affected the nest building of females. I did a colour-ringing project on the Blue Tits with thanks to Kane Brides in order to identify the sexes of the almost non-sexually dimorphic Blue Tits. I achieved a first class mark in this project.

In first year, I had basically given up local patching because I really missed my local patch back home and Bangor just didn't really appear to have the habitat that I wanted. I guess student life in 1st year didn't exactly favour too many dawn raids on the windy front of Bangor Harbour though. In 2nd and 3rd year, I basically gave up twitching somewhat because it’s so expensive without a car and also, the workload was getting a bit more time consuming. I did find however that the work became easier to do as the course progressed for the simple reason that it became so much more interesting as it was more focussed and in depth. Twitching was out the window, so I had to fill the void somehow, so I decided I would focus on local patching a bit more. Matthew Bruce became my patching buddy as he was very keen to get better as a birder after having an interest for several years but not much of a drive to get out there having few birding peers.  We mainly checked Bangor Harbour and Bangor Mountain at first, but when the phenomenon of Footit was introduced to us, we turned up the heat of competition and ventured far and wide. The furthest we walked in a day was Bangor-Malltraeth Marsh and multiple walks along the coast from Bangor-Llanfairfechan. These two locations both caused serious mileage totalling 18 mile round trips each! Blisters and not all that much sleep seemed to be my main memory of January 2013! Into 2013, Ros Green joined the party. She was another different perspective of birding to add to the pot as she’d only really shown an interest in birds the previous summer, so unlike Matthew who had some decent knowledge but previously lacked enthusiasm, Ros had little knowledge, but lots of enthusiasm and it was soon clear she’d be a fast learner.  

Doing what I do best: Birdtracking.
Of course, there can surely be no single blog post, about being a birder at university, written by me. that does not mention Birdtrack! A Focus On Nature introduced the University Birdwatching Challenge to the table during late 2013 and I took it massively under my wing. Bangor University campus happens to be located next to some decent habitat and 2850+ records of 109 species later; I well and truly took full advantage of the competition. It’s not just UBC though as my patch covers a much larger area, so I have inputted over 12,000 records on patch to date in 2014 and  have learnt so much about the local birds as a result.

So, if I can give three main pieces of advice to people starting uni or thinking about it, they are:

  • Make birdy friends. NGB was built up to what it is now, by friends from universities networking with other young birders. Your passion will rub off on others and vice versa so you will get better as a result.
  • Make sure you don’t pigeonhole yourself on your course and get involved with volunteer surveys with BTO, RSPB etc. I strongly believe my experiences outside of uni, throughout my time at uni will help me get a job more than the course itself.
  • Go birding! It’s easy to have a lie in, check Facebook, look in books, read up on birds etc, but you’ll never be a good birder if you don’t go birding! Birdtrack has massively opened my eyes and hopefully if you take it on board too, it will change yours.
I really enjoyed my time as an undergraduate and decided to stay on studying the Welsh Twite population in a Research Masters. I am very nearly at the end of this and close to starting out in the real world with lots of experience and seriously improved knowledge to help me land my dream job!

How will your decision to attend or opt out of uni affect you?

-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, 10 August 2014

A BirdFair message from Richard Crossley

Only 5 days to go!
Really looking forward to meeting a lot of the NGB crew on Saturday at 2pm. Get your ID questions ready - we have plenty to talk about!

-Richard Crossley
Richard Crossley is an internationally acclaimed birder, photographer and award winning author of ‘The Crossley ID Guide’ series. Richard is also co-founder of the global birding initiative Pledge to Fledge (, Race4Birds ( and The Cape May Young Birders Club. Richard is on the board of directors at the famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. He firmly believes that the time is right to popularize 
birding around the world.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Vanguard Binocular Reviewer

We are all very excited here at NGB as we have formed our first partnership with an optics company. Vanguard optics have very kindly donated 2 pairs of binoculars to us in return for us reviewing them, and we decided that the best way to decide who gets the pair of Vanguard Endeavour ED 10X42's is to ask our members to send in reasons why they are the best choice to be given the binoculars. Below are the responses to the giveaway, NGB members are invited to vote for who they think deserves them most by sending their vote to committee member Liam Curson on Facebook. Voting will close at midnight on Tuesday 12th August. Once a winner has been selected, they will be sent the binoculars and will write a detailed review of the product for our blog.

Oliver Reville
I believe I should receive the Vanguard binoculars partly due to need but mostly due to my suitability to write an unbiased and in depth review of them.
Through my work with one stop nature I have had to test and review hundreds of pairs of binoculars over the last 2 1/2 years and my independent reviews have been highly praised for accuracy and detail.
Aside from this I do not currently own a pair of binoculars of my own and with a highly important trip to Georgia coming up I feel a pair of my own as necessary, but funds do not allow this to happen in the near future.

James Common
Birding has always been a big part of my personal life but lately has become to main focus of my professional one too. As you all know I’ve spent the last few months as the assistant ranger at St. Abbs Head where the majority of my time has been spent researching auks and pointing out a host of other goodies to visitors, whether they be distant passage seabirds or a Minke.  The only thing that has made the job difficult is my lack of “decent bins” having be forced to use a pair of knackered old RSPB ones I was gifted some years ago (my sturdy old Bushnell’s broke a few years ago whilst Chough counting on Islay). As many of you may know good bins are must whilst seawatching, even more so when you’re seawatching with a purpose. Whether that be counts, surveys or indeed just to point out a distant Manxie to a passing visitor. With my current bins even the most obvious of birds (gannets and such) appear little more than a dull blur past 200m making it difficult to fulfil any many of the basic tasks I’ve been trusted to carry out. Add to that the fact they’re pretty much useless at dawn and dusk or in dreary weather and you see why I’d take the time to write this!

After leaving St. Abbs in a month or so I hope to carry on my seabird work by applying to paid positions on the Farnes, May or a similar setting and as such seawatching is bound to become a much greater part of my life though with my current knaff bins (no offense to the RSPB) I’d struggle picking out a large gull, never mind a Corys or Sooty Shearwater. I wouldn’t normally apply for free stuff as I’m sure there are much more deserving folk among the members of NGB but given my need for new bins and my inability to afford them due to the costs of long term volunteering and student debt I thought I’d give it a go!

Alexander Mackintosh
I really need these binoculars! My pair I use now are 6 years old and are crumbling as we speak! I have asked my Dad for a new pair of binoculars but he says that they are to expensive...
If you could give me a pair of vanguard binoculars I would be exceedingly happy and it would change everything! I believe my case is bigger than anyone else due to my rubbish pair I have at the moment I couldn't thank you any more! I am on the verge of slowing down my birding attitude if i can't get a new one!
Also my review would be of good quality due to me having a blog already. Please can I have a new pair I'd do anything for a new one

Iain Challis
I’m currently studying a degree in Wildlife Media at Cumbria university, to follow my dreams and pursue a career in the wildlife film-making industry.
I spend every spare second of my life watching wildlife in the countryside, and I can’t imagine anything better in the near future, than a new pair of binoculars… that actually work.

A good review need to be relevant. It needs to tell people what they NEED to hear, not what they WANT to hear.
The Vanguard Endeavour features would be tested in the real world, if tested by myself.

So these binoculars feature waterproofing?
That’s a nice selling point but how would it standup to torrential downpours in the Lake District?

 Lightweight and easy to hold?
Well how about I tell after a long weekend backpacking through the Scottish forests?

Strong durable design?
Well i’ll certainly be testing that in the wilderness!

If I reviewed these binoculars, I would test them properly; Letting people know how they perform in situations that are familiar to wildlife watchers alike. Situations that can be related to.
But as a wildlife photographer + film-maker, my passion is the wildlife.
Getting the shots is a nice touch, but the real achievement is just being able to see the wonders of nature, one species at a time;
These binoculars would be a much welcomed partner for my adventures, and my adventures would be enthusiastically shared with everyone.

Jonathan Scragg
As any student can attest to you don’t have a whole lot of free cash throughout the year, it is more a case of struggling to keep your bank balance in positive figures. Due to this I haven’t owned a pair of binoculars for over a year now when my old pair of Nikons finally gave up the ghost and disassembled themselves. Obviously these Vanguards would be invaluable to me in my Ecology course at university but it would be in my day to day birding that they would really aid me. From birding on patch each morning to doing survey work these binoculars would improve my birding and hopefully one day their gaze might one day fall onto a self-found mega.

 As part of my work as founder and vice-chairman of NGB I have wrote plenty of articles, documents and blog posts meaning I have a well-developed writing style in a professional manor. I have yet to write a proper optics review so I would revel in the challenge and ensure I use the binoculars every day to get to know every aspect and feature of them to deliver a full and detailed review.

Danni Gilroy
Great news about the two pairs of free binoculars from Vanguard! I thought I may as well get over the shyness and put myself forward for the 10x42 pair you're advertising. Reasons why I need them? Well I've been birding for two years now, and don't actually own my own pair of bins. It's an expensive hobby! Fortunately, I work with birds for my PhD so I have access to some good Opticrons, however my PhD (and wage!) comes to an end in two months this would help me massively in continuing the hobby I have so very much fallen in love with.

Why would I be the best person to review them? Because I'm brand new and shiny to getting my hands on Vanguard optics. At work we have access to opticron and swarvo's, but I've never heard of this brand so would be keen to try them out (and subsequently, recommend them to my department of ornithologists and their field teams...) Also, I've only ever used x8 not x10, so this would also be pretty neat to try out to see which is the better size to use. I'd additionally like to do a sort of 'getting into birding- tips for newbies' blog for the NGB page if given a chance…

AJ Perry
I feel I would benefit from these binoculars as I am new to bird watching and do not have the necessary means to invest in a quality pair of my own. My only pair of binoculars are a pair from the second world war owned by my granddad, and as my interest develops, I feel a newer and more up to date pair would benefit me encourage my interest in the hobby greatly.

I would be a good person to give a neutral and unbiased review of these binoculars as I have no previous conceptions of which brands are regarded as the best. Because of this I would be able to assess the binoculars qualities on functionality alone, without preconceptions of brand popularity.

Conor John
This year, being given the huge responsibility of heading UBC I hope to bring lots of other people into birding, in the same way birding got me out of halls and with new friends in first year!

I do have a pair of binoculars, but one pair between a large group of UBC members (many who don't own a pair of binoculars and are new to birding) is going to be a struggle. So to have a spare pair that I can lend out to other UBC birders would be a huge advantage and would help bring more members in and improve their skills. The bins would be used by new and existing members from last year who don't have bins, meaning more people can get out together and enjoy birding that little bit more!

Thérèse O'Hagan-Smyth
Regularly getting blinded by my binoculars from the jagged perished rubber eyecups and being laughed at in hides for the state of my bins was amusing to begin with but is starting to wear a little thin. I love my decades old binoculars but I have come to accept recently that they're really no longer suitable as anything other than a heritage piece. A new pair of binoculars would give me the chance to encounter less eye injuries, less mocking and hopefully more fantastic birds.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Trip report: Thérèse O'Hagan-Smyth in Tobago

A week after arriving in Trinidad, it was back to the airport to do the short flight across to Tobago. The flight is only 17 minutes, which was a bit of a novelty. The second week of the trip was to be spent here, with a view to it being a slightly calmer week with more time for touristy/relaxing things.

We met with our guide for the week, Peter Cox, to have a quick chat about the week and map out a basic plan. A quick wander around Crown Point and a paddle in the sea, then it was to bed to wake up early the next morning and meet Peter.

The next morning we met the others and headed up into the forest. We had heard the Trinidad Motmot was easier to see in Tobago, but we were still surprised to see one just sitting at the edge of the road and took the opportunity to get a great look and some photos. Our first stop was in the small village of Moriah, where we saw a Ruby Topaz and also a nest with a baby Black-throated Mango. Amazing! We also had our first encounter with the other kind of Grassquit that lives on Tobago, the Black-faced Grassquit.

On to Castara, where we stopped at the edge of a river to see our first Green Heron. As we were watching it, a pair of Red-crowned Woodpecker flew in and landed on a tree nearby, giving us a great view.

The bulk of the day was spent on the Main Ridge in the rainforest. Red-legged Honeycreeper are a lot more prolific in Tobago and we were seeing lots of them around. Within 5 minutes of being in the rainforest we had come across the infmaous White-tailed Sabrewing and we were to have many more encounters with them throughout the week, an especially good one being a pair fighting a mere foot over Stuart's head. Another Tobago species is the Blue-backed Manakin and we had a few glimpses of these lovely coloured birds. We also were lucky enough to quickly add the Olivaceous Woodcreeper to our list, a species not present on Trinidad. Heading out of the rainforest we had two more new species, a Great Black Hawk and a Venezuelan Flycatcher.

That evening Stuart and I did a little birding by ourselves in the Bon Accord area. We added some species to our list here including Common Gallinule, White-cheeked Pintail, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Tricoloured Heron. We spotted a couple of birds we didn't know and discovered from the book that they were both Fuscous Flycatcher and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Stuart was disappointed as he was hoping to turn one of them into the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo, a bird that had been allocated at least half a day to find! As we drove out of the area, I asked to stop to have a quick look at a bird I had spotted across the grassy area. Upon looking through the binoculars I realised it had a long stripey tail and was suspiciously cuckoo like. I yelled at Stuart to come over and look but the bird took off. Luckily, it flew straight at us, then landed in the tree behind and it was indeed a very sweet Mangrove Cuckoo! We also first noticed here that the Spectacled Thrush seemed to have larger eye rings than on Trinidad but I can't find any literature about it on the internet. If anyone has any information, please let me know.

The Magdalena Grand was our first stop the next day, the old Hilton Hotel site. This has many pools and is great for all sorts of herons and supposedly waders, although we didn't see any here! Plenty of Green and Tricoloured Heron were always here, with the occasional Great White Egret and Little Blue Heron. We also saw our only Black-crowned Night Heron here, a juvenile unexpectedly sitting on the side of a pool. Behind the same pool I spotted a few large black birds I didn't think we'd seen before and upon further inspection, these turned out to be Giant Cowbird, a species we'd missed in Trinidad. Another surprise was a large heron flying in, a Great Blue Heron.

Further round there were some overgrown pools where the Masked Duck had been seen. Unfortunately they weren't here when we arrived and didn't show their masked faces at any part of the afternoon. However, there were baby Cattle Egret chicks and Little Blue Heron chicks, so that made up for it. We saw a small flock of Least Grebe and incredible views of a Ruby Topaz, with it coming down to 2 foot away. We followed the call of a White-fringed Antwren for a good half an hour before it decided to give us a fleeting glimpse and then we were off to Buccoo Marsh.

Upon arriving at Buccoo Marsh, we promptly got lost and wandered in circles in very sticky mud for quite a while. Eventually we got onto the right path and had great views of the very same bird we'd stalked for ages earlier, the White-fringed Antwren. There was also another new bird for us, a Scrub Greenlet. Although we had seen the Yellow-breasted Flycatcher on Trinidad, there were three in the Marsh playing around and taking absolutely no notice of us and they were an absolute delight to stop and watch. Tiny little bright yellow things.

We headed across to the island of Little Tobago on the Sunday, to try and get a few more species that were local to there. On the boat across we saw Brown Boobyand once landed, a Broad-winged Hawk. On the way up to the viewpoint, we stopped off at an abandoned house and the boatman told us to go up and have a look in one of the rooms. I did and there was an incredible number of bats roosting in there, which made me very happy! One flew out just past my face and I nearly hyperventilated from excitement. I think I may love bats a little too much. From the viewpoint, we saw the incredible Red-billed Tropicbird almost straight away. There were also Red-footed Booby, Sooty Tern and Bridled Ternand I watched a Scaly-naped Pigeon fly along the cliff. On the way back to the boat I spotted a bird I didn't recognise and the boatman had no idea what it was and got quite excited. Once we got back to the mainland, it was IDed from the photos I had taken as a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, not particularly rare as they do come to the islands but it was very early apparently.

A short trip to the Main Ridge again the next day gave us Plain Antvireo and the one we thought we would miss, the small White-throated Spadebill. We had some more good looks at the Blue-backed Manakin and were lucky enough to see another Olivaceous Woodcreeper. A quick pop in to Magdalena (as we had been doing every afternoon!) finally proved fruitful as one of the Masked Duck must have known it would be our last visit and was kindly out on one of the pools.

We also had a quick drop in at Bon Accord, where we found a Little Egret.

That night we joined Peter on a patrol of Stonehaven Beach to see if there were any turtles coming in to lay eggs. We had heard that they had only seen one or two over the past few nights, mainly after midnight, so we didn't expect to see anything. However, within half an hour of starting the patrol, we came across little movements in the sand and then we realised there were loads of them - leatherback hatchlings! Unfortunately they were nearly all headed towards the street lights and the road, in the opposite direction to the sea. We quickly started gathering them and taking them back to the sea. We must have gathered about 60 in the end, with one even being found having made its way right up the embankment, across the road and down into a drainage channel! It was an incredible experience and something I'd like to go back and help with again. It was added to about twenty minutes later when we spotted a fully grown pregnant female lumbering up the beach, finding her spot, digging out the nest and then laying eggs. An amazing night.

Trinidad and Tobago was an excellent introduction to world birding and with such a high concentration of birds, somewhere I'd definitely recommend.

Thérèse O'Hagan-Smyth

Thérèse is 25 and currently lives in Central London, where she's seen a grand total of 10 species from her flat in the last 4 years. She has only recently got into birding, but is obsessed with any bird that has long legs.