Lashings of larus

News today from south – Dumfries hosted the world’s first ever Naughty Seagull Conference. Attended by vote-hungry politicians, Sunday car-washers, people who don’t like seagulls honking from rooftops, and shopkeepers from Aberdeen (more of which anon). Yep, it seems that urban gulls have become a bit of a problem, like urban foxes but without the mange. They swoop from above to molest innocent passers-by, stealing their chips and making off with their babies. Or was that White-tailed Eagles? Anyway.

General consensus was that there’s a problem, and something needs to be done. Opinion seems rather more divided as to precisely what. On the one hand, there’s the not-wanting-to-hurt-gully-wully school of thought, that would prefer to see falconers scare the nasty gulls away to bother sometown else. On the other hand, there’s the cull-the-bloody-lot-of-them approach. Faced with this level of crime and disorder, you see where the latter are coming from. Today it’s nicking your cheesy Doritos, tomorrow you’ll come home and find it in bed with your wife:

Still, if the old adage “you are what you eat” is to be believed, this would be gull au gratin in sleepy Totnes in the south-west. There’s a town that knows what to do with surplus Herring Gulls. They eat them. And not just boring old roast gull or gull pie… the inventive folk of Totnes make chillied gull with ginger, and gull veronique. Yum.



You can tell there’s about as much chance of a final Spring rarity turning up here as Turkey’s likely to make it to the finals of Euro 2008. (err… that might yet happen…) Anyway, you can tell it’s pretty unlikely. It’s the little clues that give it away. The bitterly cold northerly wind. The lack of migrants. The way it’s almost July . And of course, the way this blog has stopped talking about birding.

From here on until the autumn it’s all about me, Songbird Survival, replica egg collectors, and of course Captain Calamity. Tonight… Bitter Bonxie cleans the house. Mrs Bonxie has been away south for the past month, and I may have let things slip a bit around the place. A little dust here. An overflowing bin there. A complete lack of interest in domestic chores in the face of hot and cold running Red-backed Shrikes and Marsh Warblers.

Tomorrow Mrs Bonxie returns, and the place better look spotless, or it’s no birding for me. Ever again. Obviously, I’m taking the situation seriously. Spent the evening drinking beer with JLI and watching the football, and am now working my way through some garlic bread and a glass of rum (an under-rated combination) and watching Fur TV. It’s great. And topical too.

Captain Calamity

A really snorty north-westerly tonight, the sort that sneaks up on you here in a Shetland summer, and catches you unawares and unprepared. Remember my pallets? The ones I spent a long Saturday ferrying here from Lerwick a few weeks ago, to be turned into windproof fencing? Yes, them. The ones that were still stacked on my drive…

…came home this evening to find them casually flipping off their stacks and blowing across the hardstanding. So I spent an uncomfortable hour in stinging rain getting them stacked again in the lee of a drystone wall, soaked to the skin and cursing the wind. Still, there’s nothing like knowing there’s somebody out there more uncomfortable than yourself to make you feel a little better. Someone daft enough to sit on a 2.5 acre island on the west side of Shetland in a gale. In a tent. Others numb their pain with alcohol – tonight, I have Captain Calamity.

He’s a local joke here. A bloke who sailed to Shetland from Essex in a metal rowing boat with a windsurfing sail attached to it with a home-made rig. Not that he was actually coming to stay in Shetland – he was trying to sail around the UK. He’d already had a slew of lifeboat call-outs and attempted helicopter rescues, not to mention a plain fuckwit passage through a naval firing range before he got into difficulties 50 miles from land, and had to be rescued by Oscar Charlie, our local coastguard helicopter. Once here, with allegedly just 30 pence to his name, dumped by his wife who’d left him to make a new life in France, he decided to stay.

He’s been a source of amusement and bemusement ever since. His foray into publishing a free glossy magazine full of leftfield and often frankly deranged opinions failed dismally. Nobody much cared for his publication’s intolerant views on homosexuality, conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies, and appalling attempts to write a children’s serial with a thinly veiled and torturous metaphor extolling his views that Shetland should be an independent nation state, or Danish.

Which brings us to why tonight he’s sitting on an island in the Atlantic all on his own, in a tent. He’s got a real thing about how Shetland should declare independence from the UK, and up to now he’s not got anyone to take him seriously. So now he’s landed on a tiny island off the troubled shores of Papa Stour, and declared his new island home an independent state. A crown dependency, no less. Apparently this will allow him to make himself a thorn in the side of the authorities, forcing them to take notice of his loopy theories. I suspect anyone in authority will summarily dismiss him as deluded, and ignore him.

I won’t though – whenever I’m working outside, cold and wet and exhausted, I can think of him spooning baked beans from the tin as his tent snaps and billows wetly in the wind. And feel relieved I’m not there.


Hooded Merganser

What took you so long?

Some well overdue news breaking… Hooded Merganser finally makes it onto the British list. Quite why this particular duck spent so long in limbo is hard to know, as if ever a Nearctic duck was going to be wild, one in the Western Isles in November, arriving at the same time as a host of other Neartic wildfowl was going to be it.

It’s always struck me as weird that other showy Nearctic ducks seem to get accepted pretty much at face value by the wider birding community. Bufflehead? Blue-winged Teal? Bring ’em on. Heaven knows, you can even buy Green-winged Teals for a few quid from duck fanciers here in the UK, so god knows how many of the ‘vagrant’ ducks we see are the real deal. Frankly, unless they’re sporting half a wing and a collection of rings on each leg, you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Am a little biased though, as this decision bodes well for the Unst bird of a few years ago. One of my more successful outings with the otherwise irritating Coolpix & Kowa combination…

 Hug a hoodie


Citril Finch

Phew. When I said that it felt so good and promising, I had no idea it would be quite this good or promising. Got home last night to check the internet and see to my horror that Fair Isle had done it again – the first latterday British record of Citril Finch. Ouch.

Then of course the usual panic. How the hell am I going to get on there? Even JLI was giving serious consideration to abandoning our home turf and heading south to Fair Isle. Fortunately for me, PE did me a serious favour, and found me a place on the first boat heading into the island this morning. So after a fairly sleepless night, I was up at 5.30 to feed the animals before heading to catch the first ferry off the isle.

The story of the bird’s finding will go into legend, and doubtless will be repeated ad infinitum in coming weeks and bird journals, but by way of a preview… Tommy, an American hat-maker and artist, moved to Fair Isle with his wife Liz a couple of years ago. He’s an observant guy, and when he found a strange bird in his garden, he knew he’d got something out of the ordinary. Rather than just call the Observatory and tell them he’d got an odd bird, Tommy went for his field guides… and then called the Obs to let them know he thought he had a Citril Finch in his garden! I can imagine the tolerant disbelief and low expectations of the Obs staff who went to check it out… and their horror, amazement, delight and joy to find Tommy had nailed the bird in one. What a star!

Our crossing was fast on a mercifully calm sea, and we arrived on Fair Isle to the news the bird was currently showing. All piled into the back of a transit van, and driven at breakneck speed down the isle. To the news the bird had flown a couple of minutes before our van rolled up. Woe.

It seemed the Citril Finch was favouring dandelion seeds rather than any seed scattered by humans, and associating with a trio of Twite. We settled down to wait for them to return. And waited. And waited…

Two hours later, PE spluttered through a sandwich that he’d got the bird. And sure enough, it had come out of nowhere back to it’s dandelions. A mad scramble to see it as it remained largely hidden behind vegetation. Crap views, and then… it flew.

Buggering off

Not far though, and so began 15 minutes of brilliant views as it perched out in the open on fences around the immediate area. I took a few photos, but frustrated by the shit lense, gave up and contented myself to study the bird through bins and drink in a fabulous lifer.


The bird was luminous – far different from how I remember them in Europe. Maybe something to do with the surroundings and island light? The rump in particular was glowing, and even the powder blue/grey nape seemed almost metallic – this was a bird in fabulous condition.

Nice rump

It was waryish with it’s Twite mates, and they soon took off, heading over the school hill and out of sight in the dirction of Tommy and Liz’s house. We left to get back on our charter, a happy band of birders. JLI and BM followed us in on a later charter – and coincided with the bird being trapped. The Whalsay team all skor! 

Beauty and the beast

Told you so

I said there’d be something good here today, and sure enough, there was. Not a BB rarity, but frankly they’re funky enough to be in the same league. Yes, BM was reacting to the weather conditions as a dedicated local birder should – by heading to the shop to buy some potting compost. Who said luck didn’t come into finding rare birds? Certainly not the Red-rumped Swallow he chanced upon.

Meanwhile, I was having a blinding day at work. Obviously would be completely unprofessional to be specific about what was so utterly great, but suffice to say it’s something I’m dead proud of, and will look back in 10, 20, 30 years time and think, “I did that”. That’s about all I can say.

Coming off the ferry to find JLI on the swallow for me was the icing on the cake – a really splendid and confiding bird, feeding low over fields in Symbister in great neutral light. Had never really noticed the different tone on the upperparts of Red-rumped Swallows (more brown than the blue of our conventional Swallow) before. Will go back tomorrow morning and try for some photos.

The cherry on the day’s cake was getting back home, and having a couple of hours to traipse around the patch. First migrant I laid eyes on in the rosa rugosa was a smart Icterine Warbler. Spent a while watching it popping in and out of the foliage, trying to decide if there were one or two birds involved. Two, or one incredibly fast and mobile individual.

Moved on to the loch hoping for hirundines. No joy, but took a dumb moment to realise what I could hear singing – a Sedge Warbler in a ditch. Hot migrant action indeed. On to the plantation, and an easy and showy Marsh Warbler. Will be birding like a man possessed this weekend. There’s such a good feeling in the air…

Perfect conditions

It’s just fabulous weather out there. Briskish south-easterlies during the day, easing off this evening, rain showers… something good this way comes, I can tell.

Two Red-backed Shrikes here this morning, male and female. Presumably JLI’s birds hanging around.

Gotta go – have work to do to prepare for tomorrow. It’s gonna be a big day at the office…

Got the blues(throat)

It’s looking promising here. Intriguingly, I hear the punkbirders are ‘doing’ Foula at the moment. No news from there, which means one of three things – either it’s a crock of shit and they’re seeing bugger all; or they’re seeing plenty, but can’t find any way of telling the outside world just how good it is; or else it’s great there, and they’re not even trying to tell us. Am guessing it’s the first option (crock of shit) as on past form they’re unlikely to do the suppressing thing (“Shetland – just find a patch of nettles and there’s your Yellow-browed Warbler”), and if they’d hit the mega jackpot, we’d know about it. Contrary to popular belief, Foula does have links with the rest of the world, and you can get a mobile signal there. I should know. I managed to tell the world I’d dipped Siberian Thrush there last autumn.

Anyhow, it’s looking promising. Wind’s coming out of the south-east, and there are some new birds in. Managed a new male Red-backed Shrike this evening on the patch (one of two JLI had found earlier, m + f), and thanks to BM coming to drag me away from digging foundations, my first Bluethroat of the year (another of JLI’s finds from earlier). A bit of an uninspiring female, but a Bluethroat nonetheless. A real trap-tease, the little minx flirted with going in the kale yard but lobbed out no sooner than it was in rather than go anywhere near the mouth of the heligoland. Bitch.

Looking forward to tomorrow. Spoke to PS earlier today, who advised I should expect nothing less than a Booted Warbler in the next couple of days. I live in hope…


Been and gone

As suddenly as it began, the fall’s over. Last 48 hours have had nothing new here, just the remanants and tatters of what was around on Friday circulating around the patch (apart from the Marsh Warbler, which remains st.ubbornly wedded and embedded to the same patch of rosa rugosa).

A couple of Swifts moved through in a blink-and-you-miss-them kind of way yesterday during one of my brief moments at home on the croft, but that was about it. Went around the patch in the evening with JLI, more in hope than any expectation. It was fine, still and clear, high scraps of cloud in an otherwise blue and sunny sky. Marsh Warbler as unobliging as ever, a couple of Whinchat and Spotted Flycatchers, and that was our lot. No sign of any exotica like Red-backed Shrike or Common Rosefinch. (The 3 male Red-backed Shrikes of Friday had shrunk to just one by yesterday morning, and that had buggered off by the end of the day too).

To be fair, I was tired beyond caring – had spent the whole day driving to and fro between here and Lerwick, collecting van-loads of pallets. They’re a quick and easy (if unattractive) way of making windproof and rabbitproof fencing, essential here if you want to grow trees or sheltered crops. And I want both…

First the windbreak, then the cover, and finally the Sibes...

Have over 100 pallets now waiting for me to get fenceposts and nail them up. Pleased to see today my tatties and brassicas are all starting to accelerate and grow. Am starting small this year, but will scale things up year on year to provide as much cover for migrants (and food for the family) as I can.