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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Redpoll remains!

Quick message from Ray Fellows tonight, he decided to brave the conditions and visit the sites and was rewarded with views of at least one Mealy Redpoll, today keeping company with the Goldfinch flock.

Looking forward to tonight's rain, hope it does away with most of the snow so we can get things back to normal.

Have a good Wednesday all - Chaz

News for any interested 'Heathens'

I'm actually thinking about coming out of hibernation tomorrow - getting a bit stir-crazy at the moment as I haven't left the house since Thursday.

Some of you are out and about though and I received an interesting e-mail from Stuart Greer, fellow birder and one of the regulars at High Heath.

Hi Chaz,
Long time, no birding.

I've just got home from work (midnight) to hear a pair of Tawny Owls calling from somewhere on the High Heath estate. First time I've heard them here.

As I said to Stuart, I think its that time of year. They have been calling around Clayhanger too. Not sure how many pairs we have locally although Jeff Hall who lives by the main road is hearing them along the old railway line and there has certainly been some activity around the recreation ground recently.

Its difficult to say just how many we have around the area but if we assume that there is regular breeding success and with few significant predators, we should be looking at a gradual increase in numbers providing there is enough woodland breeding territory.

Hopefully I can wish everyone a happier snow-free day soon and I will get the donkey in gear and do the Marsh - Chaz

Sunday, 10 December 2017

If you think...

...I'm going out in this! Sorry folks not going to happen. Just a few years ago I would have cheerfully pulled on my wellies and done a circuit (ask Gareth Clements - he once had to pull me out of a thigh deep snow drift) but these days I dare not risk it!

I suspect that there will not be much to report anyway, certainly small birds are keeping a low profile although the freezing of some smaller waters may have increased the variety and number of wildfowl on the Mere? I shall pay particular attention to the Wigeon as apparently there was a pair of American birds in the Trent Valley the other day.

So, update at some point next week - 'To be decided' - make what you will of a snowy Sunday and have a good week all - Chaz

Friday, 8 December 2017

Some days....

...its quite pleasing not to have any work on. This has been a really quiet year for me and there are certainly times when I have had 'Cabin-fever' and been crawling the walls. Waking up to a white-over with falling snow however makes me feel a little bit better about being stuck in the house.

I have too many memories of standing at bus stops with my feet in the snow waiting endlessly for the Arriva Bus to Walsall that fails to appear, followed by a journey of double the normal length into town.

You wont be surprised to know that the idle old git will not be doing his end-of-week patrol of the marsh today, he is claiming exemption on health and safety grounds (If I go 'Apex over Tangent' and there's nobody about with a fork-lift licence I may well be over there until the thaw)!

If I get any news from anyone daft enough (and braver than me) I will of course update. Until then I will be ramping up the heating and staying indoors.

Have a good weekend all - Chaz

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Happy Tuesday!

The only bar selling Scribbler's Beers
Why have there been no postings you ask? Well the idle wotsit has been away for the weekend with his W.K.B.A.* hat on.

Nottingham - what a town for Beer! It was something of a pilgrimage for me, taking in breweries and brewery taps that I had never seen and even throwing in an unexpected winter beer festival!

Pubs included two run by 'Lincoln Green' (the first of which had a tent and winter ales festival on), the main brewery pub for 'Blue Monkey', The only brew-pub run by 'Scribbler's Brewery' (the guy actually brews in a garage), The 'Magpie Brewery' main pub (The Crafty Crow), a lovely pub with bars dug into the caves, and also the Nottingham Brewhouse and Kitchen.

Inside the Blue Monkey Brewery
I even managed a drink in the famous 'Trent Bridge Inn' next to the cricket ground and a visit to the 'Blue Monkey Brewery' on an industrial estate (where I managed to wheedle my way inside and photograph the brewery plant.).

The only bird news was from Glen on Friday who had; 57 Cormorant, 5 Redpoll, 15 Goosander, a Snipe and a Raven.
And finally - some Wildlife for you!
Back to reality now though and counting ducks on the Marsh and Mere, far from any licensed premises  I'm afraid! Update soon - Chaz

Friday, 1 December 2017

British Abbey Beers - Additional #1

I do enjoy the results of this occasional blogging about beer, last week it was a bottle of Plum Porter arrived on my doorstep and this week my old mate Dave Glover brought me an exceptionally interesting beer following a posting I did a while ago about British Abbey Beers.

As you will remember me saying this is an unusual beer style in the U.K. although it is quite common on continental Europe. This beer though is a fascinating hybrid of two cultures, having the initial flavour and character of a Belgian Wheat Beer which then morphs into a bitter ale finish, very pleasant but a bit peculiar and unique in my experience.

The beer is brewed by the Marble Brewery for the  Monastery in Manchester (run by the St Francis and Gorton Trust) and has an ABV of 5.7 (which is quite low for an abbey style beer). It also appears to be a 21st anniversary brew which suggest that it wont be available for very long so if you see one, buy one!

Altogether a very pleasant experience but one that should be avoided by the wheat intolerant. A big thank you to Dave for being so thoughtful - busy this weekend (Christmassy stuff lined up) so unlikely to be an update from me until the beginning of next week.

Have a good weekend all - Chaz

Thursday, 30 November 2017

If this carries on, they will all have to stand up! (Updated)

I received a text from Anita today to snatch Glen's record - with style! Yesterday afternoon she watched a flock of Cormorant fly in to join those already on the water and counted FIFTY-TWO birds feeding!

Are they bothering to go anywhere else at all? - Chaz


Anita managed to hold onto the record for just less than a day. at 14.35 today I received a text from Ray Fellows to say that there were currently Sixty-two Cormorant on Ryders mere!

Even I don't have a reasonable explanation for this behaviour.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Smashed Again! (No, not me)

Welcome back Glen, after an enforced absence from the Mere (no he wasn't in the nick, they moved his base of operations to the other side of Walsall), and what a way to start, with a record count for one of our species.

After a slight decrease in Cormorant numbers (Ray Fellows had twenty-four yesterday), this lunchtime there was an amazing thirty five on the Mere, even accepting that my recent count of twenty-seven was conservative, I have to concede that there were not thirty-five there on my last visit so it is definitely a new record - but have numbers now peaked?

Also present today were nine Goosander (5F 4M) compared with fourteen seen by Ray yesterday, four Teal and two Wigeon.

You may not find Cormorant an exciting bird but in a Marsh context these numbers are extraordinary and the kind of counts that would even be good at much larger sites such as Chasewater. Glen texted me to ask "What is going on" and I suspect that there are two reasons for our current influx.

Firstly I am pretty sure that a quantity of fish have been illicitly introduced to the Mere and secondly, the famous raft at Chasewater seems to have disappeared. This long raft was the traditional gathering place for Cormorant to dry-out after feeding. If I am right it should really bring home how much even small changes to the environment can have consequences for visiting bird life.

By-the-by, I never got to watch what was allegedly Britain's most boring rare bird when it turned up in 1989. An American Double-Crested Cormorant that was discovered by some diligent birders in the north-east. So far there has never been another accessible specimen which seems daft to me as it is one of the more likely species to make its way across the pond.

Come on then, which one is it?
I suspect that its really a combination of idle birding and a lack of enthusiasm for what is (to be fair) a difficult and pretty uninspiring species.

I will try to get over before the weekend but looking at the weather prognosis I would be surprised if there is much change.

Enjoy the rest of your week - Chaz

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Gailey and Chasewater - very quiet for birding!

I had been looking forward to today as my old mate Dave Glover was coming down for one of his occasional visits and we were going to try and push his year list tally. Unfortunately, the bird life in the midlands decided to go on strike.

The only bird of any significance that either of us needed locally was an Egyptian Goose that was at Gailey yesterday. Unfortunately our card was marked as soon as we arrived as the Sunday sailors were out on the water and there was not a goose of any kind to be seen.  

Dave still needed to see Tawny Owl for the year too so I lead him down to the area where the Tawny usually shows at Gailey, only to find that a path had been cut through the area to allow access to a fishing platform - so no Tawny Owl either (and a scarce reliable site lost to birding).

Our plan had always been to return to Chasewater anyway and to be honest, for me it was a reassuring visit as they seem to be doing as poorly for waterfowl up there as we are on the Mere. The exception to this was Wigeon and Dave and I both independently counted them and both independently came to the same total - thirty-eight birds. Two Gadwall were found amongst the Tufted Duck on the main lake but no sign of any Goldeneye today! What has happened to Chasewaters flagship bird, there should be good numbers in by now?

The only other birds of note were two Cormorant and six Greylag Geese, the Greylag Goose flock consisted of one adult and five juveniles - interesting.

If you remember back in the summer a pair of Greylag bred at Ryders Mere for the first time, initially having six young, one of which disappeared (probably into the belly of one of the local Fox's I expect)? It would not be too unreasonable to suspect that this little group at Chasewater may well be our home grown party don't you think?

Anyway, you cant win them all and at least it was a nice bright Autumn morning to have a walk out (and its always a pleasure to see my old mate anyway, particularly as he is my local 'pusher' for Tunnock's Tea-Cakes - Dave's visits are the only way I can get a fix these days as nobody around here sells them)!

Dave was also generous enough to bring me another blog-inspired beer. It was prompted by the posting I did on British Abbey Beers (that I think is still on the system) - but more on that another time!

Hope you are all enjoying the last few days of Autumn, winter officially starts on Friday and there are only 28 days left until Santa turns up (these days I expect he would be classed as working in the 'Gig Economy' - I wonder if he gets national minimum wage and holiday pay)?

Enough nonsense, have a good week all - Chaz

Saturday, 25 November 2017

NEWS: A reprieve or sentencing postponed?

My observations yesterday on the forthcoming demise of Mealy Redpoll as an acceptable species elicited a prompt response from Dave Saunders which has caused me to spend an hour wading through scientific literature to find out what is going on?

Hi Chaz this might be of interest to you. IOC has changed its position and the split of Lesser and Mealy is retained come 1st January 2018 (per Phil Andrews) - Cheers Dave Saunders

What? An eleventh hour reprieve? Well, having been on the IOC website and read the decision three times to ensure that I understand it correctly (I hope), it appears so, although the door is still open for eventual lumping again as the separation of species does not appear to be based on genetic differences, but on the fact that they don't chose to interbreed in areas where they occasionally come together. 

This is referred to as assortative mating* - in other words the different birds recognise that they look different to each other and therefore don’t fancy each other when they get down to 'doing the necessary'.  You will see this referred to in the text described as phenotypic distinctiveness (they look different to each other).

This decision puzzles me though! When Hooded Crow was added to the British List the situation was very similar and Hooded Crow was designated a 'Semi-Species' (does this mean that Lesser Redpoll is also a 'Semi-species')? 

For those interested enough to bother, the crux of the article is below (copyright of IOC) although I have highlighted some relevant text and added English names for those who are not into taxonomic nomenclature:

Mason and Taylor (2015) included six samples of A. cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) in the ddRAD-Seq portion of their study and found no evidence of genetic differentiation. However, previous studies have presented evidence in favour of assortative mating*. Specifically, 

Lifjeld and Bjerke (1996) documented eleven nests with no mixed pairs between A. flammea (Common Redpoll) and A. cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) during an irruptive breeding season in southern Norway, leading many authorities to elevate and maintain A. cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) as a separate species (e.g., Knox 2001, current BOU list, Dickinson and Christidis 2014). Although Mason and Taylor (2015) found no evidence of genetic differentiation, we suggest that the NACC treat A. cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) as a distinct species due to the evidence of assortative mating* and apparent reproductive isolation in certain populations, and the phenotypic distinctiveness of A. cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) . We also note that the committee is generally reluctant to lump purely extralimital species when these are currently recognized by the local authorities
Based on the genetic and genomic data, the phenotypic data, and Salomonsen’s (1950) conclusions regarding flammea, rostrata and nominate hornemanni, we believe that the burden of proof has shifted to those who would treat flammea (Common Redpoll) and hornemanni (Arctic Redpoll) as separate species, and therefore recommend lumping A. flammea (Common Redpoll) and A. hornemanni (Arctic Redpoll) into a single species, A. flammea.

Despite the genetic and genomic data, however, we recommend treating A. Cabaret (Lesser Redpoll) as a separate species, pending future studies of assortative mating and any reconsideration of this species by local authorities

Verdict postponed rather than thrown out of court then ? On top of which Common and Hoary Redpoll have been lumped as well!

Is that a win? It should feel like it but somehow doesn't - Chaz

Friday, 24 November 2017

More good birds and a record smashed - again!

After my unexpected encounter this morning I thought I had used-up my quota of birding luck for the day but my afternoon visit to the Marsh and Mere confirmed what I have always said, it takes a bit of hard weather to shake things up. Duck numbers remain comparatively low but the current influx of Cormorant continues to smash records for the site, Today there were a minimum of 27 birds present (I suspect over 30 but the birds wheeling flight behaviour made accuracy difficult, 27 was the highest count I could confirm).
This is what a Mealy can look like. Not so much red on today's bird.
While counting the Cormorant from the edge of the copse opposite the breeding island, my attention was caught by two calling Redpoll which decided to perch in full view at the top of one of the young Alders, one obvious female and a chunky grey-toned male with a stonking silver-white supercillium, I was looking at a pair of Common (Mealy) Redpoll !

It was with some sadness that I realised that this would be the last time I could tick these birds on my year list as in just 37 days they will become the nominate form of the complex and our resident Lesser Redpolls will be relegated to sub-species status once again. I still find this quite hard to accept, as most Lessers show a much darker, sometimes almost a mahogany brown tone of plumage and a much slimmer structure which contrasts markedly with the type of birds I was looking at today - still, I suppose that you cant argue with D.N.A. (well not so far at least) although I suspect that this complex will merit further review before too long?

Clayhanger Marsh

Teal (13) - Wigeon (2) - Willow Tit (1)

Ryders Mere

Cormorant (27) -Wigeon (6) - Pochard (7) - Shoveler (2M) - Goosander (5) - Common Redpoll (2)

Lets see what else this cold snap brings in? I should be out and about for an hour on Sunday all being well so there may be an update then.

Have a good weekend all - Chaz

*** Scarce Species - Near Miss ***!

Many years ago, before the days of Ryders Mere there was a small flock of Bewick's Swans on Ryders Hayes Farm. I couldn't go for them so let it pass. I subsequently found out that they had lingered there for several days and if I had known I could have easily gone and seen them.

I still need to see a Bewicks Swan on the Marsh and Mere but today I came as close as I have been in a long time!
Photo: Steve Round
I finished my swim at Oak park and my friend Dennis was kind enough to give me a lift to the end of Maybrook Road. As I turned the corner to walk up the canal bridge a single small swan came flying in from the south-east. I didn't really need to see the colour of the bill, I knew instantly that it was a Bewick (sometimes you just do) however as it came closer the sun was shining on its curved yellow bill patch as it flew overhead confirming it conclusively.  I watched it until it disappeared north west, possibly toward Chasewater or perhaps the Trent Valley at 09.00.

As I type this its only 09.30 so a good opportunity to get up the pool and have a look if anyone is inclined?

It may not be a site tick for me, but its wonderful to see Arctic swans at any time and an unexpected encounter like this is just what birding should be all about.

Marsh and Mere to be done this afternoon - Chaz

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Some welcome fishermen for a change

I suspect its a record, but I received a text this morning (sorry I would credit but could not identify number) saying that there were twenty Cormorant on Ryders Mere. This afternoon Ray Fellows paid a visit and reports that sixteen are still present - eating up all the introduced fish I hope? - Chaz

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Well if this carries on I'm giving up on blogging wildlife!

My recent non-birding postings about beer have received some quite positive feedback from some like minded followers (a number of whom I have to confess, I know occasionally check the blog and share my interest in both subjects), but despite the flattering but silly suggestion that I should also do a beer blog  (which ain't gonna happen), there has been no real intention on my part to develop that side of things further than an occasional post.

Mind you, an event today could change all that. There was a knock on the door from my neighbour to say that something had been left for me while I was out. If you cast your mind back a month or so you may recall a recent visit to Middleton Hall wherein I sang the praises of a particular bottled beer that was on sale there? Well a couple of my regulars (who I wont name to save embarrassment) had been over there and totally unexpectedly brought me another bottle back - what a lovely thing to do!

Ten years of blogging Wildlife and not even a duck, three or four postings about beer and a lovely bottle of Fruit Porter to add to my Christmas cellar! I have really been going about this the wrong way I can tell, so next week I intend to start a series of postings about single Malt Whiskies from defunct Scottish distilleries if anyone is interested?

(If that works I may go on to express an interest in vintage Aston Martin Marques)!

Seriously though, to the two people involved a genuine thank you for your kind thought and generosity, really unexpected and genuinely appreciated.

Those who recall the previous posting may also remember a small element of criticism on my part about the fact that the shop concerned was apparently selling things that were out of date? Well if you have a look at the Photo (Below) you will be pleased to see that they have taken serious steps to address that particular issue!

Never mind, it is bottle conditioned and will probably still be drinkable for another two or three years (and improving all the time)!

Update when the wind drops! - Chaz

Saturday, 18 November 2017

'Well I'll be Jiggered'

Before anyone kicks-off, it's been weeks since I last wrote anything about beer, if you aren't interested you know what to do. Anyway this posting is in response to enquiries I have had from a couple of regulars asking what I thought of Brownhills first Micro pub (for some reason assuming I would have already been in on the first day of opening - which I wasn't)!

The 'Jiggers Whistle' is Brownhills first micro pub - if you don't count 'Chesters' for those of you old enough to remember the 1980s. It opened yesterday on the site of the old photography shop and thankfully they decided not to reference that history in their choice of name (although I bet it would have made the local Camra branch happy - ha! See what I did there?)

I apparently dodged a bullet not going yesterday as it appears to have been heaving with first day visitors, and being notoriously anti-social I held off until this lunchtime for a more relaxing first visit.

So, what do I think (as if it mattered)?

First impressions are very good, a really friendly welcome and some nice folk running the show, five minutes in and I was feeling at home which is always a good sign. The decor is nice, and the whole place is clean and open with lots of places for people to sit and have a chat and more importantly, four ales on tap.

The range of ales may not have been that exciting yet, but it's early days and everything I tried was in excellent condition. I avoided the Wye Valley 'Butty Bach' as I have drank so many pints of that over the years its hard to get up any enthusiasm for it, but it was really nice to see Brownhills own 'Backyard' Brewery represented. Today it was the lovely porter appropriately named 'Jigger'. However, for those who appreciate fine beer, the lovely Victorian recipe 4.9 dark mild is due to go on in the next day or two and I suspect that may lure me back up at some point as I love the stuff (Nice one Austin).

The two other beers were from Walsall newest brewery AJ's. which have been brewing for two or three years now. I am a Walsall lad and I would love to be able to sing the praises of AJ's beers - but with the best will in the world, I can't. I have never had a bad drink or even a badly kept drink of the stuff. It is good bog-standard beer that does what it says on the pull - but its just not exciting.

I met the brewer at Walsall Beer Festival and he comes across as genuinely passionate about his job but that never seems to translate into beers that you crave or desire (its as if something is holding him back from expressing his love of the art as he is obviously competent at what he does). If you think I'm being partisan, I'm not - my regular drinking crew  ('The Grumpy Old Men') feel exactly the same about it, if A.J.'s do something new we try it - usually just once and then say "OK, what else is on".

Just to prove I did have the AJ's !
Having said that, the special birthday edition of AJ's Gold which is on sale at the 'Jigger's Whistle' today is actually one of the nicest pints of it that I have had - and all credit to the cellerman, - in lovely form (not sure if the brewer has changed the malt as it was slightly sweeter than I remember)?

In summary, Nice Venue, Nice people, well-kept 'Pop' and something new in Brownhills that isn't a charity shop - could things finally be looking up? Bottom line is that I will probably be an occasional daytime visitor, particularly if the range of ales becomes more adventurous, I have already agreed to go in and do my best to drink as much 'Bad Santa' as I can if they get it on.

Note: Backyard Bad Santa - a genuine, traditional and proper Christmas beer, not (like too many these days) a bloody ordinary bitter with a picture of a Snowman on it !!!

Anyway all that is left to do is to say well done all and to give my very best wishes to the enterprise, I hope it gets the following it deserves and becomes a popular feature on Brownhills High Street

That's it for beer for now, those who aren't interested can start checking out the blog again. Next birdy update early next week all being well - enjoy the weekend all - Chaz

PS. Interesting note. I rarely go on the Chasewater web-site these days but for some reason I did so today and was very interested to see that on Monday the 13th there were apparently two Hawfinch seen in Pool Road. With the the group that passed through the Mere on the same day it seems as if there was an ongoing movement of the species, lets hope for more as winter progresses.

Friday, 17 November 2017

That Tina Turner! Shes never around when you need her.

Yep, I don't expect it will take you too long to work out what today's star bird was, always noteworthy on the Mere and my first for this winter, a beautifully marked female Goldeneye. Yes I know that, being a 'shallow birder' I will probably hardly glance at any more of them until January, but none the less a lovely addition to the days tally.

It started well, I bumped into a couple of lads from Chasewater and had five minutes nattering about the ups and downs of Chasewater birding and apart from the Goldeneye that was probably the highlight of the day, although I was pleased to see Ray Fellows's seven (or was it nine today?) Cormorant still stripping the Mere of any fish.

Clayhanger Marsh

Teal (20) - Goosander (1M) - Fieldfare (2) - Willow Tit (1)

Ryders Mere

Cormorant (7-9) - Shoveler (2) - Pochard (1) - Goldeneye (1F) - Goosander (2F) - Snipe (1)

As you can see, a pretty average late autumn variety.

Rain tomorrow I believe but have a nice weekend anyway - Chaz

Sunday, 8 October 2017

A beery bulletin from the W.K.B.A.*

As you will have read in the previous posting, today involved a visit to Middleton Lakes R.S.P.B. where, after a long and tiring walk around the site, we withdrew to the Middleton Hall Courtyard where there are a number of shops and a cafe that does a particularly good (if a bit pricey) cup of tea.

While in the Courtyard I could not help noticing a pleasant little shop called; "The Cheese and Ale Barn" and as someone who does not like Cheese in any form, I will leave it to you to guess where my attention was focused?

Inside there was an impressive array of unusual Bottled beers, many from local and regionally significant breweries and all at around the £3.00 per-bottle mark. Despite the fact that there were a number that I had not tried I decided to have a go at the one apparently unique offering on sale. This was an exclusive 'Fruity Porter' produced by Grendon House Farm in Warwickshire which any W.K.B.A. will tell you is the home of a very interesting small independent brewery called Merry Miner.

Now the bottle purchased was from batch 2305 with a best before date of June 2017 (Naughty) but as the beer was bottle conditioned I was not too concerned by this as the yeast would certainly be capable of sustaining fermentation beyond that date (its a bit like the well known mineral water that takes 4000 years to filter through the rocks of the Alps but which has a best before date of April)!

Chris and I both tried this beer this evening and I have to confess that I was impressed as there were certainly some familiar nuances that reminded me of the wonderful fruit beers produced by Belgian breweries such as Liefmans (for those who don't know much about Fruit Beers trust me, to make such a comparison is actually a significant compliment).

The first impression on removing the top was an acrid and slightly unpleasant over-fermented fruit aroma but in the mouth the beer became wonderfully complex with a very intense plum-fruitiness and an effervescent sherbet flavour that tingled across the tongue. The yeast in the bottle seemed to be quite firm and did not make pouring too difficult and so the beer was bright, reddish and very attractive (if you are into just looking at beer)?

In summary, a really interesting beer well worth trying if you find yourself birding at Middleton Lakes in the near future. It might even be worth checking the sell-by date as you may be able to negotiate a discount by bringing this to the attention of the shop holder? (wish I'd noticed, I would have brought-up all the stock at half-price).

If you strike a good deal as a result of this posting, I hope in the spirit of Davenports, you will remember to leave a bottle on my doorstep. - Chaz

*Well Known Beer Arse

Monday, 18 September 2017

One for fellow Beer Lovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Staffordshire's Biggest Blockers - An Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staffordshires Most Blocked?

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

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

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

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

So what are the Staffordshire Super-Blockers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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