Friday, 26 September 2014

This week in birding : 20 - 26th September

To see previous week's editions, visit
"2013 in Birding" A3 poster is available to buy here
-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, 23 September 2014

This week in birding: 13th - 19th Sept 2014

Drift migs, winter visitors and GGShrikes a precursor of things to come #spoilers

-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. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Vanguard Endeavour ED II 8x42 Binocular Review No2

Vanguard optics kindly donated 2 pairs of binoculars to NGB in return for 2 reviews. We decided that the best way to decide who gets one of the pair of Vanguard Endeavour ED II 8x42s is to ask our members to send in reasons why they were the best choice to be given the binoculars. Jonathan Scragg was the overall winner of this poll and reviewed his pair here. The second pair were given to Taylor J Bate who'd had his own binoculars stolen. Here he reviews the Vanguard Endeavor ED II 8x42s.
  • ED (Extra-low Dispersion) Glass Made in Japan 
  • BaK-4 Roof Prisms with Phase Coatings 
  • Fully Multi-Coated Optics 
  • Magnesium Fog & Waterproof Body 
  • FOV: 378ft @ 1000yds 
  • Close Focus: 6.6ft 
  • Eye-Relief: 19.5mm 
  • Weight: 770g (27.2oz) 
After having my binoculars stolen on a recent trip to the Highlands, I was kindly offered one of a pair of Vanguard Endeavor ED II binoculars that NGB were given due to their new partnership with the company. I had previously heard good things about the model of the Vanguard Endeavor ED range so was very grateful to be given them.
Just as a heads up, I don’t have any prior experience with reviewing optics and will not go heavily into the specifications as frankly I don’t really know what I’m talking about! That being said I know the basics and I am confident that I can recognize a good pair of binoculars when I've seen them and taken them out for a whirl. 

The day they arrived I was overcome by excitement as I signed for and eagerly accepted the box that the postman had brought me, after bringing the box into the living room I set to my task and within a few minutes had it open. Taking the binoculars out of the packaging I was pleased to find that they came with premium lifetime warranty, extremely handy if they were ever to be damaged in the field! The first thing I noticed about the Vanguard Endeavor ED II’s were that they were a tad heavier than my previous pair coming in at 770g, by no means uncomfortable and definitely not the heaviest on the market. The binoculars incorporate what is called an open bridge configuration in their design which makes them comfortable and easy to hold on to, there are also two thumb indents which help you to grip them in a correctly balanced way. Looking closer, the body is covered in a black rubbery surface which is quite hard and I imagine pretty good for reducing impact of blows say the bins are ever dropped when out and about. 

They also fully sealed and nitrogen purged, keeping any water from getting inside and preventing the lenses from misting up. I myself was caught out in the rain a couple of times while out testing the bins and there were no problems to note, although of course I didn’t go to extremes to get them wet - I would advise against doing that no matter how waterproof they are! Optically the binoculars are fantastic for the price range (a competitive 320 – 399 price range) and the retractable eye cups are solid but comfortable. At some point, I spent a little time just sat on a bench at my local patch watching some Wheatears do their thing and was astounded by the clarity and brightness of the image on such an overcast day. The sharpness was also very good and extends almost all the way to the edge of the image, with very little curvature of field that I could notice. The central focusing wheel is covered in a rubbery surface with small spikes attached whic feels great and increases your grip, it is very smooth to turn and it is easy to go from focusing on objects far away to very close in little to no time at all, I found this was very good for alternating between butterflies, moths and distant birds in an instant.

The Vanguard Endeavor ED II’s also has a dioptre adjustment ring built into the right ocular, a feature which I wasn’t aware of in my previous binoculars, this allows you to correctly calibrate the binoculars in case there is any difference in vision between your eyes. You are then able to lock the ring in place preventing it from moving out of place which differs from many other binoculars that are currently on the market. There is also the option to attach the binoculars to a tripod via a tripod adapter if you wanted to, the thread is located by unscrewing the vanguard logo between the two front lenses. The neck strap that comes with the binoculars is very comfortable and the carrying case that is also included is useful as it provides a bit of protection when travelling overseas as it fits perfectly into hand luggage.


I have now had the Vanguard Endeavor ED II binoculars for couple of weeks and can say I am extremely happy with them, I have had no problems and am still astounded by the quality of the image they produce, for the price range they are one of the best choices on the market and I’ve recommended them to several people already, a couple of who had a go with mine and were very impressed. They’ve also come with me to Spain where I’ve used them to watch Raptors and Storks migrating over Tarifa and the Straits of Gibraltar where they have continued to perform brilliantly in the hot and humid climate.

I can say the Endeavor ED II’s are without a doubt the best binoculars I’ve ever owned, from now I will be travelling a lot more from Spain back to the UK and to other countries on occasion and look forward to bringing this excellent pair of binoculars with me.

My Rating: 9/10

-Taylor J Bate
Taylor is a 19 year old tennis player, birder and budding photographer. He spends much of the year flitting between Spain and the UK and dreams of travelling the world.

Tracking the Fea's Petrel

On Sunday 21st September, while OPBs, RBFs & YBWs arrived in Britain, a Masked Shrike munched craneflies at Spurn and Ben MacDui's Snowy Owl sat atop a rock; birders on the North-East coast of Britain managed a huge feat of communication and observation. Andrew Kinghorn takes up the story:

My day started off with dropping my Dad off at the airport to fly back to Qatar (where he is currently working), it was only 5:00AM and I decided I had enough time to drive up to Holy Island and take in the joys it had to offer before heading back to the Durham coastline. I arrived on the island early, had a 30min rest in the car and then headed for “The Lough”, on arrive I was treated to brief, but satisfactory views of the Firecrest, I then located the Siberian Stonechat showing down to around 10m, and finally the Barred Warbler in some nettles by the hide. 

I had enjoyed the morning but found little else on the island, a smattering of Wheatear and a single Redstart were the highlights. As I walked down the Straight Lonnen with high hopes of a stress free morning I got the BirdGuides report through of a Fea’s Petrel flying north past Flamborough, about a minute later I got a report from fellow NGB James Shergold to say that I should go to the headland (Hartlepool, of course!). I rang Mark Newsome (Durham Bird Club recorder, and seabird guru) and asked “how long I had” if the bird was going to go past Whitburn, somewhere in the region of 5-6 hours was the answer, but Mark suggests to wait and see if it went past Long Nab first before getting overly excited. I was calm, but hurried back to the car. My logic was that if I started heading south and there was no further news I could abandon that plan and go elsewhere on the mainland to look for migrants. 
As I started going south the bird then went past Filey, I was not too surprised, its quite close after all...then it went past Long Nab. I was starting to get hopeful now!

Jamie Duffie announced on Twitter he was off to Cowbar to look for it, a good choice of location perhaps? I called in to see Beadnell Birder, a quick coffee and a phone call from Stef McElwee revealed that it was not just the Durham birders getting excited. As I got in the car and headed for Durham I had a decision once I got through the Tyne Tunnel, I was greeted with news the bird had just gone past Cowbar! 
I had a choice, I could either go to Hartlepool or Whitburn, Harry Murphy (fellow NGB) had already been on the phone to tell me not to bother with the Headland, he rightly reminded me that the previous three Fea’s that went past Whitburn all evaded the Headland. For once I was swift and decisive, I was going to Whitburn. 

I rocked up at 12:15 and the Obs was absolutely packed to the brim (with fellow NGB member Kieran Lawrence already inside)! I ran back to the car got my vantage point chair (use it for work) and set up outside the obs with fellow keen Durham lads to start the big sit out. One hour passed and still nothing…then two hours. I was still hopeful, then Stephen Howats phone rang, it was Paul Anderson (DBC chairman), turned out he was at Ryhope watching. He had picked the bird up! Panic stations. Not only was it coming north, but it was coming north fairly close in. 
About 15 minutes later and Mark Harper (world birder – see Twitter) who was sitting beside me shouted “I've got it!”, his directions were sufficient to get almost everyone on the bird pretty quickly, a quick call to Dave Foster who was just north of the obs was made and then the bird put on a superb show in front of Whitburn Observatory for about 20 minutes before flying off north to Tynemouth and St Mary’s Island. A quick call to Alan Curry and Stef McElwee to let them know it was on its way; they were both delighted with the news and connected within 1.5 hours. 

During all of this Dan Pointon and James Shergold were making their way up from Spurn, after it went past the Obs they headed for St Mary’s and missed it by minutes, but thankfully they were still in the car and myself and Dan McGibbon advised they go straight to Newbiggin and head it off there. They did and they were successful. The next stop for the bird was Snab Point in Cresswell village, then it was seen off Druridge Bay, and then Beadnell birder connected at Beadnell Bay (could have stayed for loads more coffee!), then David Steel on the Farnes had the bird go through Staple Sound, and then finally those on Holy Island had the bird flying north past the Crooked Lonnen. This site marked the end of the bird being tracked up the coast, however, during this period a second Fea’s Petrel went north past Whitburn Observatory! Found my Mark Harper, who initially picked up the first bird past Whitburn earlier in the day.

It was not all good news, the bird seemingly avoided going past Hartlepool Headland. This was a great shame, especially considering friends were there looking.

In order of reported sightings:

Flamborough Head


Long Nab





St Mary’s Island


Snab Point

Druridge Bay

Beadnell Bay

Farne Islands

Holy Island

An incredibly exciting experience and a one I won’t be forgetting for a long time, the only downside was that some friends looking and not looking (other commitments/not able to move in time) did not get the bird.

-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.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

'A Sparrowhawk’s Lament' book review by Zac Hinchcliffe

Birds of Prey are like the premiership footballers of the bird world. Whilst anyone who doesn't even like football knows who David Beckham is, non-birdwatchers know of and have some form of interest in birds of prey. I know of countless people who say, "I don’t really like birds, but I like owls". This could be because of their predatory persona being associated with the more exciting things in human existence, for example fighter jets and sports teams (granted both of these primarily feature in America). I do believe however it is because there is a certain awe-inspiring emotion a person is overtaken by when seeing a bird of prey, whether that be a hunting falcon or a soaring eagle.

A migrating Osprey for example is something I have witnessed many times during spring and unlike many other migrants, every single time I get that first confirming glimpse of the shallow ‘M’ wings and pied plumage, I get a surge of adrenaline and am overtaken with excitement. As a bird ringer, I have been lucky enough to handle several species of raptor, including Osprey, and witness their predatory adaptations and complex plumage up close. These birds are truly majestic and incredibly beautiful. Even when holding a seemingly placid chick, you can feel the power lurking within like a coiled snake. I believe this ‘va va voom’ surrounding birds of prey is why David Cobham has spent a lifetime filming and observing this group of birds.
When I was first made aware of ‘A Sparrowhawk’s Lament’, I both didn’t really know what that title meant and also assumed it was a fictional novel or a true story about Sparrowhawks. What I hadn’t realised is that the title was in fact borrowed. Cobham was made aware of a poem written in the fifteenth century of which this book shares its name. The poem’s premise was the thoughts running through a Sparrowhawk’s head and the fear of dying. Cobham was intrigued by the poem as it made him wonder how such an accomplished predator at the top of its food chain would need to fear death.
The book itself was not what I was expecting. Throughout Cobham’s years as an ornithologist and filmmaker saw him document all of the fifteen breeding species of Birds of Prey (not including owls) and in this book, allows a whole chapter for each species.

Two of Three juvenile Ospreys with their piercing orange eyes

The book begins with Sparrowhawk, but then explores the life history of the following fourteen: Osprey, Honey Buzzard, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Goshawk, Common Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Kestrel, Merlin, Hobby and Peregrine.
Each chapter goes into real depth about the history of the species beginning with Cobham’s first experience with the species, and then going back in time to the first occurrence of the species in literature. The name of each species if also explored and the meaning behind it including a few confusing names such as ‘Honey Buzzard’ which is the name of a species that isn’t a buzzard and doesn’t eat honey! Following this, the population status throughout the past centuries is explored and sadly, there is a hideous monotony of each species almost being persecuted to extinction in the early part of the 20th century. Of course, this negative is not a comment on Cobham, but the intolerance to birds of prey from our previous generations. Cobham is clearly a fan of literature as he regularly references past poets and writers such as William Shakespeare and his reference of falconry during the goshawk chapter.
With each species, Cobhams includes extracts from his own journals to describe the breeding ecology and life history of each bird of prey. The in depth notes which are taken throughout the time chicks spend in the nest is a fantastically intimate look at this very secretive part of a raptor’s life. Cobham’s descriptive writing ability is fantastic and really paints a picture of what he observes. After visiting a red kite nest myself this year, I was instantly transported back there when I read his description of a Sparrowhawk’s nest at the end of the season: ‘The empty nest with relics of kills. It’s like a battlefield, bones picked clean, bleaching in the sun.’

Juvenile Red Kite just prior to being placed back into the 'battlefield' on a nest

As with almost all of the 15 species, they have all suffered extensive population crashes, with persecution being the main cause. Several reintroduction schemes have been put into operation and Cobham shares a great deal of anecdotes about all of these which proves to be very educational. He interviewed a lot of people for this book and prolonged quotes, again, open up lots of insights into these extremely successful reintroductions.
There is a keen message throughout the book that birds of prey have always had a strong relationship with humans. The chapters featuring Golden Eagle and Goshawk take you through the experiences Cobham has had whilst training and working with falconers birds. Particularly with the Goshawk sections, the process of training shows a very detailed insight into this intriguing past time. Of course, prosecution is a major part of the history of the human-raptor relationship through game keepers attempting to look after their game. Given the recent increased press at the time of writing of 'Hen Harrier Day' marking the start of the 2014 grouse shooting season, it is quite refreshing to read an unbiased chapter on Hen Harriers and looking into the ecology of red grouse and the reasoning behind the illegal hen harrier persecution. Whilst I am completely pro-harrier, I did learn an awful lot about 'the other side' from this book.

Juvenile Kestrel just starting to get some proper feathers

After reading countless scientific papers and reference books, the style in which this book is written took me a long time to get used to as it was written very lovingly and passionately. That being said, there was a huge amount of information in the 272 pages and I learnt an awful lot from it.
The book is illustrated throughout by monochrome impressionistic artwork by Bruce Pearson. The style of these images is very free and really helps to bring the text, in which the illustrations are in reference to, alive.
It is a very well written book and really didn't take me very long to read at all as I was so eager to keep reading. I would certainly recommend this book as both a reference of information and also a book to read for enjoyment. Even if you are somewhat of an expert on certain species of birds of prey, you will almost certainly learn a lot from this book and if not, you will still enjoy it greatly.

-Zac Hinchcliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch, 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.

Celebrating Scotland

This is not a political post, simply a birding one. Any suggestions to political opinion are held by the writers and not by NGB as a whole.

With the #indyref dominating all news outlets (in Britain at least), I was a little surprised to see and hear it featuring in a lot of online/real-world birding chat. For a community where RBS is more likely to mean Red-backed Shrike than Royal Bank of Scotland, this particular political race has captured a lot of birders' minds. Perhaps it's the thought of re-jigging lists, the (unfounded) worry you'd have forgotten your passport as you approach the border or maybe the simple fact that the 'United Kingdom' would no longer be able to claim the Cairngorms, Abernethy, the Western Isles and other natural wonders as our own. 

Should a 'Yes' vote come through, the UK would have 'lost' its breeding Crested Tits, Slavonian Grebes, Red and Black-throated Divers, Snow Buntings, Dotterel, Capercaillies and all its breeding eagle and skua species overnight come March 2016. The UK's Osprey population would be down to under 10 pairs, its Hen Harrier to less than 70, with fewer than 5 of those pairs in England.

Osprey - Jack Morris

But birds don't see borders, and whichever way Thursday's outcome leans, Scotland's birdlife will be no less impressive. 
We asked NGB members what their best Scottish birding memories were. Their answers appear throughout this post in blue:

"Driving towards Iona and having a White-tailed Sea Eagle flying at bonnet level just ahead of us, filling the road with its wings (definitely lives up to "flying barn door" nickname!)"

"Yesterday just outside my halls of residence in Aberdeen, watching a Kingfisher chasing a Sparrowhawk with a seal fishing in the background."

"Going to see Capercaillie at Loch Garten, seeing them but being so tired that I went to sit in the car while my dad chatted to someone. My decision to sit in the car meant that I had Crested Tit feeding about 3 feet above me, even if it was through a car windscreen it was pretty amazing and is a bird that I didn't see again until 2013, about 15 years later!"

The group was also polled to find out some of their favourite birding sites in Scotland. Results had one thing in common - birding sights and experiences that would be hard to find in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. From hardy mountain species and seething seabird colonies to islands dripping in vagrants and moors of Hen Harriers.

"Laughing heartily as an American Coot waddled around like a chicken on a frosty winter's morning."

"Finding a female Dotterel at the summit of Cairn Gorm while watching Ptarmigan."

"Stood in Campbletown this year thinking to my self "I'll never have to think about American Herring Gull EVER again"."

"Trout fishing in Boat of Garten and seeing my first ever Osprey dive into the water about 30m in front of me, catch a fish and then get mobbed by a second Osprey!"

Inevitably, the questions about listing without Scotland as part of the UK began to arise. Another discussion on NGB saw the majority of those who commented stating that they would not exclude Scotland from their British List after March 2016, though one member raised a good point that he only kept two lists: his World life list and his Country life list. In the light of a 'Yes' vote, his country would no longer include Scotland so wouldn't count birds seen in Scotland on that list. 
Should Scottish independence come about, will the British List still contain birds that have only turned up in Scotland? Will Olive-tree Warbler stay? And does this mean when Grey's Grasshopper Warbler turns up in Shetland next autumn it won't appear on the British list? 

I have no idea of the answers, I've only been on 5 twitches this year, and 2 of them were by accident...

Best Scottish birding moment?: "This." -Joseph Nichols

"Finally seeing Crested Tits in Anagach woods - my grandparents live just down the road, and whereas I'd seen them before at Loch Garten and other places, this had a special 'local patch' feel (I'd looked for them in Anagach every year since I was about 7 or 8)."

"This summer at Lochindorb watching a pair of Black-throated Divers with an osprey flying over head with a Cuckoo calling in the background."

"Seeing the American Herring Gull and American Coot. Mourning Dove was good along with the Calandra Lark on Isle of May. Worst birding moment in Scotland? Dipping Belted Kingfisher.....(still hurts)."

Capercaillie - Jack Morris

"Marsh Sandpiper at Pool of Virkie! Possibly the best rare bird I've ever seen..."

"Regular visits to Aberlady Bay (we have family nearby), where I was able to get my annual fix of Slav and Red-necked Grebes, Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and other stuff that's pretty difficult in Sussex in winter."

"Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Kilminning Castle, Fife. Started by getting lost and all that, but things only got better. Arrived on site, which was surprisingly quiet and soon caught up with the bird, giving mega views. Then we were told that a Raddes' Warbler was showing about 150m away so we wandered over for a quick look, and the bird, which was mainly skulky, gave some great views at one point. All this with the back drop of masses of migrating finches, woodpeckers and thrushes, 4 Whooper Swans and a Red-breasted Flycatcher."

Golden Eagle - Jack Morris

"Seeing Snow Buntings and Ptarmigan at Glen Shee the first time I visited (also Crested Tits and Crossbills at Aviemore)"

"Hearing a flock of Waxwings from inside Abernethy forest and then seeing them flying across open moor and start feeding in the heather."

"Wandering around Bridge of Allan housing estates with a friend, with scopes, cameras and bins looking for Waxwings and ending up in a kids play park... the joys."

"Probably Short-eared Owl perched about 15 metres away on a post on Mull. We watched it for about half an hour and it just glared at us. Having Curlew everywhere is always nice too, their calls all the way along the coast."

White-tailed Eagle - Jack Morris

"Seeing and being attacked by a rogue Capercaillie."

"Juv. Masked Shrike Fife 2004. It was my first twitch - I remember my Dad putting me on his shoulders so that I could see the bird over the wall!"

"Ringing Storm Petrels at night on Fair Isle. A special experience whatever country it was/will be in."

"The Black Duck twitch at Strontian was by far the best though. Ended a week of brilliant wildlife out in the middle of nowhere, with a hybrid duck, eagles and the strangest thing to ever fly across the Atlantic."

Crested Tit - Jack Morris

"Seeing my first Golden Eagle on Islay! That and my first real encounter with Osprey and Hen Harrier too.. And Chough!"

"Seeing my first Skuas, Black Guillemots and thousands of seabirds off the North Coast."

"Seeing the Black-winged Pratincole at Loch Stiapabhat on the Isle of Lewis in the summer of 2014. Only the 4th for Scotland, and yet me and Ronan were two of only a dozen people to see it."

"Encountering a fresh-in flock of Waxwings in October 2010 at Musselburgh, picked up on their calls, they gave me a flyby, I briefly relocated them perched up and then they disappeared inland."

LBBG, Inchcolm Island - Jonnie Fisk

"Mine has to be seeing a Caper drop out of a pine and land at my feet. It then decided to fly into my dad, knocking him to the floor then started jumping on his back, will never forget that moment."

"Twitching Collared Flycather at St Abb's Head - fun for being a cross border twitch, and the challenge of doing it by public transport (the thrills in the chase right?)."

"One of my first Scottish birding memories was life ticking Corncrake at first light on a foggy morning on Iona. I was running a university society trip and the rest of the group were still asleep in their tents after seeing the weather. I was determined to get out anyway an wandered up towards the chapel with about 10m visibility. I heard my first corncrake calling, wandered towards the noise and found it perched on top of a stone wall no more than 12ft in front of me. It stayed there calling and preening for the best part of 20 minutes. I was the only person around and you could have heard a pin drop! Incredible!!"

So, Scotland, whichever way you vote, whether we're better together or proud to be apart, just know that birders have enjoyed endless years of Scottish birding, and no doubt will in the future.

-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.

-Joseph Nichols
Joseph is a 20 year old Scottish birder and avid patcher currently studying History at the University of Edinburgh. He lives in the capital city and often works his nearby patch at Cramond, where he hopes a Semipalmated Sandpiper will await him at the estuary mouth one autumn day. When not at uni he can usually be found trying to eke out local scarce at his other patch in Costessey, Norfolk. Joseph voted 'Aye' in the referendum.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Stephen Moss - My 'NGB years'

What was birding like when I was young, back in the 1970s? In a word, boring. And lonely. And occasionally exciting. Yes, I know that’s several words, but I’m sure you’ll make allowances for age. Not that I feel any older than when I started birdwatching (as it was called in those far-off days). In fact I enjoy birding – and watching a whole range of other wildlife – far more than I did then.

The biggest difference is that in those days I didn't know any other birders – well, just one, of which more in a moment. I met a few lost souls, trudging along the windswept causeway at Staines Reservoirs, which for a few years – hard to believe I know – was the most popular birding spot in Britain, perhaps the world.

We used to exchange a few muttered words – “Anything about?” “No, nothing much. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Scarlet Tanager on Scilly, though.” That was about as sociable as birding got in those days.

Then I met Daniel. First day at grammar school, September 1971, and by some quirk of fate (and our surnames beginning with an M and an O and there being no Ns in the class) we were placed next to one another. Somehow the conversation got around to hobbies, and we discovered, to our amazement, that we both liked birdwatching.

Now remember this wasn't something you freely admitted to, unless you wanted to be shunned by your peers. But a few weeks later we met up one Sunday to go birding (probably at Staines Reservoirs, where true to form we didn't see anything), and later in Bushy Park near Daniel’s home in Teddington (where I do remember seeing Tree Sparrows, now long gone).

In those days kids were allowed – indeed encouraged – to cycle all over the place. So it was that at the tender age of 14 we spent a week camping on our own in the New Forest. From there we cycled the fifty-mile round trip to Stanpit Marsh to see a Ross’s Gull that was spending its summer holidays there. (I nearly wrote ‘twitch’ – but in those days the word was not yet widely used…)

We had heard about this incredibly rare bird (the 11th for Britain, as I recall) purely by a chance encounter with a birder at Keyhaven: “Anything about?” “Not really; just the gull.” “What gull?” “The Ross’s at Stanpit…” and so on. This, of course, was long before the days or mobile phones, the Internet, pagers or even Birdline, when the news of most rare birds was communicated by postcard. Yes, really.

We saw some other good birds too: Icterine Warblers, Rough-legged Buzzards and Great Grey Shrikes at Dungeness; and Richard’s Pipit, Lapland Bunting and Grey Phalarope on our first trip to Cley. Later I managed to visit Scilly at the height of the autumn migration (missing two weeks of school! Thanks mum!), where I saw three Buff-breasteds, three Pectorals and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – which I still haven’t seen again in Britain almost 40 years later.

The highlight of our teenage birding years was in late May 1975, when we stumbled across a male Little Bittern at Stodmarsh – a truly stunning bird. But the bulk of our birding was done at – yes, you've guessed it – Staines Reservoirs and the local gravel pits. Apart from regular Black Terns and Little Gulls in spring, Black-necked Grebes in autumn and Smew in winter we saw very little – mainly because in those days we didn't even have scopes!

Rather like going to war, birding back then was a combination of 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror and excitement. Just like today, perhaps – except that now even when there are no birds to see I can enjoy the butterflies and dragonflies on my local patch, something I had no interest in at all when I was a youngster. I have discovered the joys of watching common birds and wildlife as well as chasing rarities; but above all the thing I enjoy most nowadays is the people I have got to know through birding.

After more than two decades knowing hardly any other birders, I now know hundreds. They range from my childhood heroes such as Ian Wallace, James Ferguson-Lees and of course Bill Oddie, through my contemporaries, to the new cohort from groups such as Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature.

Watching the crowds of you enjoying Birdfair makes me both happy and slightly envious. I’m happy that after what seemed to be a period when hardly any young people were taking up birding or wildlife watching, there are now loads of you – and doing such great things that we could only dream about, such as blogging and filmmaking.

Envious, because in many ways I wish I was starting over again: able to take advantage of the social media, Birdfair and the fantastic facilities available to anyone taking up birding today.

But most of all, I feel a mixture of pride, relief and delight. Pride when you come up to me and tell me that you got into birding when you watched Birding with Bill Oddie or read one of my books. Relief that a whole new generation is now sharing my lifelong passion, which I hope will give you as much joy and satisfaction as it has brought to me. And delight that in the coming decades you’ll be around to make the case for why birds and nature should be at the very centre of our lives, now and in the future.

And by the way, I still go birding with my old friend Daniel. A couple of years ago we twitched the Paddyfield Warbler at Pagham Harbour (by car, not bike), about three months after it first arrived. Some things never change.

-Stephen Moss (Aged 54¼)
A lifelong birder, Stephen Moss had the good fortune to turn his hobby into his job, making wildlife TV programmes with the likes of Bill Oddie and Chris Packham, and writing books and newspaper and magazine articles about the natural world. He has travelled to all the world’s seven continents to watch birds, but now mainly enjoys birding around his home on the Somerset Levels.

For more memories of birding in the distant past, check out Stephen Moss’s This Birding Life. Then you’ll realise how lucky you are! For a more detailed history of birding, try A Bird in the Bush: a social history of birdwatching

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Vanguard Endeavour ED II 8x42 Binocular Review

Vanguard optics kindly donated 2 pairs of binoculars to NGB in return for 2 reviews. We decided that the best way to decide who gets one of the pair of Vanguard Endeavour ED II 8x42s is to ask our members to send in reasons why they were the best choice to be given the binoculars. The responses to the giveaway can be found here. NGB members voted for who they thought deserved them most and Jonathan Scragg was the overall winner. Here he reviews the Vanguard Endeavor ED II 8x42s.

Ever since my battered Nikon Sprint 10x21 binoculars finally gave up the ghost in 2012 I have been without a working pair of my own, much to the annoyance of my dad as I resorted to regularly stealing his. Therefore when I heard that Next Generation Birders were donating a pair to one of their members I jumped at the chance and thankfully was selected via a vote to receive a pair of binoculars from our new partner, Vanguard.

The arrival of the binoculars coincided with a trip to Portland Bird Observatory, allowing me to give them a proper field test on a range of species in a variety of conditions and habitats. This is my first binocular review so if it is a little ropey, don’t blame me!

The open-bridge configuration of the main chassis gives an ideal frame to grip onto to and thumb indents on the underside provide a quick point of reference to ensure the binoculars are correctly balanced and positioned. The surrounding rubber makes the overall setup more comfortable and is slightly bumpy to prevent them sliding around whilst in use; this layer also means that they are slightly more cushioned against impact damage should they be dropped.

The main chassis is made of a magnesium alloy and tips the scales at a perfectly reasonable 770g. By no means are these the lightest 8x42 binoculars on the market, however they are still a comfortable weight and there is no strain involved even after a full day in the field.

In 9 days on Portland we didn’t see single drop of rain so at present I am unable to report on the waterproofing, however since the body has been nitrogen purged and sealed the lenses should be completely water and condensation proof.

Eyepieces and Focus Wheel
The metal focus wheel on the Vanguards is covered with a grippy surface making adjusting the focus easy and precise, the smoothness by which the wheel turns adding to this. The full range of focusing is completed in less than a full turn of the wheel meaning finding the correct focus only takes a split second which could be vital when that scarce passerine pops up onto the bush in front of you. It is positioned just behind the eye cups so is within easy reach of your fingers whilst in use.

More metal parts can be found up at the front of the binoculars including the eyecups and their surrounds. This should help to reduce the likelihood of either loss or damage to this area. The eyecups extend c15mm outwards and unlike most other binoculars they have two intermediate resting points which means they can be adjusted for almost any person’s vision, and work perfectly well with glasses too.

A lock-able diopter ring is a very helpful feature on these binoculars as it means that once you have adjusted the right eye to match your vision, you can lock the ring in place to prevent any accidental movement. When unlocked the ring moves easily between the range of +4 to -4.

Showing thumb indent and diopter ring

I am not an expert on the production of lenses so this is just a brief overview. The Vanguard Endeavour ED’s use low dispersion glass in their lenses, which works with the other components to help reduce how far the light waves disperse, concentrating them more on the correct spot resulting in a higher quality image and colour.

Several people tried out the binoculars whilst I was testing them and all immediately stated just how bright the image is, the specialised lenses ensure that they retain a lot of their brightness and that they work well even in low light, I was able to watch a Short-eared Owl just before dusk without any real strain on my eyes. The field of view, whilst narrower than some high end set ups, is still a very reasonable 378 ft (at 1000 yards) so you feel in no way limited whilst out and about.

The colours through these binoculars are as sharp and natural as you would expect from a high-end spec like this. A sharp contrast between colours means that the image is crisp with little colour blending, especially around the edges of the field of view where you can often find colour fringing. Testing against other leading 8x42 optics at the bird obs I could see little to no difference in the overall quality of image compared to these Vanguards, they are certainly up there with the best.  

One optical aspect that particularly impressed me was the close focus. I measured the near focus distance at around 1.8 metres - slightly shorter than the published distance of 2 metres. This makes them ideal for looking at other wildlife, particularly butterflies and day-flying moths, as you can view them close up without having to get so close that you flush your target.

Other Features
A small Vanguard logo at the front of the bridge unscrews to reveal where a tripod-adapter can be fitted, meaning that these binoculars can be fitted to a tripod with relative ease. Although I personally wouldn’t use such a feature, it provides the option if others would find that useful.

The carry case in which the binoculars reside is relatively simple with no external pockets for storing other items; however it is very well padded so provides an extra barrier in case of impact or against the elements whilst out in the field. The neck strap has buckles that can be connected to either the binoculars or to the carry case, allowing a quick change between the two when you aren’t using them. The padded section of the strap is extremely comfortable and easily carries the weight of the bins, luckily it also feels very well made so is unlikely to fall apart in the near future.

The binoculars come with Vanguards Premium Lifetime Warranty so you have peace of mind that if something ever does go wrong then you won’t be out of pocket.

I have now been testing these Vanguards for three weeks and I am struggling to find any real flaws with them. The only minor negative I have found are that the eyecups can easily be knocked out of place during use, but if that is the only issue then these Vanguards really are very special. The lenses provide a clarity of image that rivals the very best and the little features such as the lockable diopter ring sets them apart from other models. The price of these binoculars varies depending where you look however the range of £320-£399 is a very competitive price and in my opinion makes these one of the best value model on the market. I am looking forward to using them for years to come.

Overall rating - 85%

-Jonathan Scragg
Jonathan is a 19 year-old ecology student at Lancaster University. Founder of NGB, obsessive patcher and when not birding is beginning to dabble into the murky world of moths. He dreams of moving to Portland where rarities live in every bush.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

This week in birding - 6th - 12th Sept 2014

Back to the old format of a birder's weekly roundup of rares and notable bird 'events' - this time with a new look!

-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. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Wryneck weekend

Late August/Early September: loathed by (almost all) schoolchildren as the imminent start of the new school year. To a young birder, however, it's just the precursor to a juicy few weeks where start-of-term homework will be abandoned for staring at weather systems and refreshing bird news services. It's autumn migration, baby.

My most eagerly anticipated autumn 'event' is the annual sweep of Northern European Wryneck across Coastal Britain, when internet pages are stocked with fresh-off-the-SDcard close-ups of barred finery and ringers dream of netting a 'little twister'. 
This year's tide of torquilla (5th - 8th Sept) occurred a little later than last year's record bank holiday (23rd - 25th August) when an incredible 27 were in the Spurn area in one day (25th).

Spurn was the site this year for my first UK Wryneck, having only had experience with migrant birds on the French coast, where they decimate Lasius whilst Sacred Ibis stream overhead. I was not the only one to enjoy the Wryneck weekend, several NGBs connected, the map below showing where. 

Poor, poor inland birders.
Sites ranged from famous bird obs Portland, Spurn (at least 7 NGBs) & Bardsey to Shooters Bottom - E Sussex & Barton-on-Sea - Hants on the South Coast and Hadston Carrs - Northumbs, Seaton Carew - Co Durham & RSPB Frampton Marsh - Lincs on the East Coast. Marooned on Skomer, Liam Langley also saw one while over in Batumi - Georgia, Oliver Reville jammed one in the Chorochi Delta before going back to raptor watching and experiencing the atrocities of illegal hunting. 

Wrynecks, a history lesson:

  • Breeding used to occur in all English counties, except Northumberland and Cornwall (at least, there are no breeding records for these two counties), until 1830, when populations began to fall rapidly.
  • Between 1954 and 1966, the English population declined from 400 to 40-80 pairs. There was no reported breeding in 1974.
  • The last record of breeding in Essex -1950- coincides with the only (unsuccessful) British breeding attempt of Gull-billed Tern in the same county.
  • Conversely, from having no breeding records ever, Scotland began to host singing birds from 1950. In 1969 3 out of 5 pairs were successful in Inverness-shire. They have now bred in other highland locations. This sudden appearance is a result of Scandinavian migrants moving into suitable areas of Scotland. 
  • Nowadays, breeding in Scotland is confined to a very few pairs. 
  • Their decline is a Europe-wide (particularly Western) phenomenon over almost 180 years.
  • Wryneck chicks have been known to have been killed by Tits building a nest on top of them...

-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. 

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

NGB Patch Bird Race 2014

The August bank holiday weekend was penciled in NGB members' diaries as the Patch Bird Race, an idea born and organised by James Common, who takes up the story:

Well first things first, a huge thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s patch bird race aimed at getting folk out and about enjoying the wildlife on their local turf. Considering the short notice a good number of people took part with 153 species seen over the bank holiday period including a good number of scarcities and the vast majority of our more common but similarly endearing residents. Big congratulations to Daniel Branch who, with a species count of 85, wins the prize for most species recorded, taking home a NGB t-shirt for the effort. Second place goes to Tim Jones who likewise birded Spurn obtaining an equally impressive score of 75 whilst third place goes to yours truly with a score of 74. As for the “best find” category a host of finds were submitted for deliberation ranging from local scarcities such as Green Sandpiper and Hobby to patch firsts including Redstart, Yellow Wagtail and Little Egret. After a vote on the Facebook page it appears my patch first Hobby (a scarcity here in Northumberland) is the winner and I’ll be taking home a copy of The Jewel Hunter by Chris Goodie. Thanks guys!

David Branch
Tim Jones
James Common
Stobswood & Surrounds
Amy Robjohns
Titchfield Haven NNR
Jack Bucknall
St. Marys
Craig Reed
Blackstone, Worcs
Cathal Forkan
Galway, Ireland
Tim White

Matthew Bruce
Joe Stockwell
Portland Bill
Ashley Bairns
Star-Gate-Grannys Bay
Craig Reed
Upton Warren
Espen Quinto Ashman
Wellington Gravel Pitts
Matthew Bruce
"The Puddle"
Ben Porter
Michael Murphy

Jake Gearty
Sheepcote Valley
Liam Curson
Cuckmere Haven
Cain Scrimgeour
Logan Johnson

Among the 153 species recorded over the course of the weekend one bird stood out above all others when it comes to the rarity stakes. This is of course the pair of Ringed-Billed Gulls tracked down by Cathal Forkan on Galway patch. Not exactly unheard of in Ireland but still the most notable find of the competition with some splendid images obtained by Cathal during his patch based wanderings. 
A healthy number of local, regional and national scarcities were also recorded over the three days, demonstrating the sheer diversity among our local patches here at NGB. 

Cathal Forkan's Ring-billed Gull
What was clear from the results is that one man’s rarity is another man’s regular with lengthy debate on the Facebook page testament to this. Among some of the best finds include the weekend's only Curlew Sandpiper, found by Cain Scrimgeour on his Holywell patch, Great White Egret located by Tim White, Black Grouse and Hen Harrier by Sam Viles on his substitute patch and Spotted Redshank and Spoonbill by Amy Robjohns at Titchfield. A couple of members also came up trumps on the seawatching front with Spurn boasting Little, Mediterranean and Yellow-Legged Gulls and Joe Stockwell adding Balearic Shearwater to the mix from his Portland patch. Elsewhere both Arctic and Great Skua, Gannet, Shag, Guillemot, Fulmar and Manx Shearwater featured widely. It is clear that even relatively common species can also bring a smile to the face of the discerning patcher with a few examples of this including Espen Quito-Ashman’s first patch Ruff and Redstart, Craig Reed’s patch first Little Egret and Liam Langley’s Skomer Green Sandpiper whilst the surprise addition of Willow Tit to my Stobswood patch list delighted to no end.

A more in depth look at the results shows a healthy amount of summer migrants with 10 warbler species recorded including the weekends only Cetti’s Warbler courtesy of Amy Robjohns. Whilst other migrants including Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Tree Pipit, Common Tern, Cuckoo and Yellow Wagtail also featured. Combine these with all the hirundine species, Swifts galore and the weekend's only Osprey put forth by Tim White and the results represent perfectly the migratory nature of the season. Though the omission Pied Flycatcher came as somewhat of a surprise. Waders were perhaps the best represented of all groupings with 23 species recorded amongst NBG members; incorporating the vast majority of widespread species and some real long-legged gems such as Whimbrel, Grey Plover, Avocet and Knot. It would be impossible to mention all the species noted during the course of the race but a few honourable mentions go to Ben Porter with the competition's only Alba Wagtails, Logan Johnston with his Shetland Wren and the other members who turned up a host of goodies ranging from Chough and Hooded Crows to Red kites and Little Owls.

What is worth saying is that patch birding is a hobby clearly enjoyed by many people and that “patch gold” can come in many guises ranging from the common to the scarce to the downright odd, yes I am referring to your Fulvous Whistling Duck, Amy! For me patching offers an escape from day to day life where I can lose myself in the seasons and track the progress of species from egg to adult, arrival to departure in some cases life to death providing the basis for an avian soap opera not often observed when visiting far flung locations or chasing rarities. It’s clear from the number committed patchers out there that a lot of people agree. So again thank you for taking part and who knows, with a bit more planning this could turn into a much bigger event in the near future as clearly we all relish a spot of friendly competition. 

-James Common
James is a 20 year old birder/conservation nut and wannabe naturalist based along the North-East coast near the reserves of NWT East Chevington and Druridge Bay.  The last few years he has spent studying BHs Animal Conservation Science at the university of Cumbria from which he has now graduated.