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Friday, 20 October 2017

Another quiet day - but with a bonus!

After seeing a party of wintering Redwing flying over Shire Oak on Wednesday I was not too surprised to find seven birds happily feeding in the trees along the mineral line today. I have to confess that I expected that to be the Star Species of the day and I was almost right.

Aside from those Scandinavian visitors the only other bird of note on the Marsh was a Goldcrest although there were briefly two Shoveler which decamped to the Mere as soon as I put my glasses up.

The Mere held another three Shoveler (that's five in total - just so nobody has to take a sock off) and five Wigeon slouched at various points around the shoreline. I expected that to be that, another  typical slow autumn day!

However as I headed back along the edge of the buffer zone my attention was caught by a piercing and clear single note call. This was followed by another and to my surprise a very dark-looking Rock Pipit came flying in from the north before dropping into cover near the east end of the Mere.

A Rock Pipit - gorgeous eh? (!)
To be blunt, Rock Pipit are a sod to claim on the Marsh and Mere due to possible confusion with Water Pipit and also, because the steep sides of the Mere prevent birds being stalked (as soon as you pop your head over to identify a pipit they are off at high speed). However on this occasion I am quite comfortable with the I.D. as the bird was obviously more heavily structured than a Meadow Pipit and was also quite drab below (Water Pipit tend to have quite bright underparts). Despite which I have seen so many of them over the years that sometimes, you sort-of just know!

Not a mega-rarity in the big scheme of things and one that probably occurs more often than records would suggest, but it made my visit worth while today. In all probability it will be a bird of the  Scandinavian subspecies as they are a regular winter visitor to Britain, in particular any birds found at inland sites are more likely to be Scandinavian rather than the resident sub-species.

Anyway, a busy weekend ahead for me, despite which the anticipated strong winds and rain make the idea of another visit more than a little unattractive. Still, I hope you all have a good weekend. If you get fed-up with the rain, don't forget that you can get wet on the inside too as the Black Country Arms is holding its annual beer festival until Sunday.

Stay safe you lot! - Chaz

Monday, 16 October 2017

Time to look for locusts, Ostriches and Vultures?

Forget what I said about pelagic birds, perhaps we should be looking for desert species instead?

Have you noticed the sickly yellow skies and pinkish sun attempting to break through today? Well apparently its literally a side-effect of our close miss with Hurricane Ophelia which has apparently carried a huge amount of Saharan sand with it! The fires in Spain have also pushed huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere as well which has added to the weird sky effects. I have tried to capture a photograph from the garden but I'm afraid it comes across as more pink-toned than yellowish.

Sadly it probably wont mean any unexpected species really (just teasing) but I suspect that some of you might need to wash your cars tomorrow? - Chaz

Friday, 13 October 2017

What do I mean by quiet?

While swimming yesterday my friend Nick asked what was happening on the Mere? "Its pretty quiet at the moment" I replied. "What do you mean by quiet" was the response?

If Nick had been with me today he would have understood without the need for an explanation. Today was really quiet. I did explain that at this time of year all but a handful of summer migrants have gone and that the regular winter species had yet to arrive in any numbers and that this created an interregnum between the seasons from a birdwatchers point of view. I suspect that most birders would agree that there is a similar period in March/April when the winter visitors fly off to nest in northern and eastern Europe and our summer birds are still on migration toward Britain.

Today was 'creepy quiet'. I was actually pleased to see a few Teal as I am seriously concerned that numbers are so low (there are normally thirty or forty about at this time of year). No sign of the Common Sandpipers today although they can be elusive when they are present and star bird was once again the juvenile Stonechat that saved the day for me by popping up on the gorse between the buffer zone and the Mere.

Clayhanger Marsh

Teal (3) - Goldcrest (2) - Stonechat (1 Juv.)

Ryders Mere

Teal (2) - Shoveler (7)

There you go Nick! That constitutes a quiet day in my opinion. Had it not been for the Stonechat it would probably not been worth doing a posting.

Anyway - hope everyone has a nice weekend, tie everything down for Monday if you can, it looks like we might be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the great storm in some style if current predictions are correct? - Chaz

Interesting days ahead?

Well we can look forward to a close pass by Tropical Storm Ophelia on Monday, so on alert for the first Grey Phalarope for the Mere perhaps (or at least a Kittewake, Gannet, Sabines Gull etc.)?

The only interest at the moment is a couple of lingering Common Sandpiper that were observed by Ray Fellows on Tuesday and Thursday. These may be the same two birds that I have seen over the last couple of weeks or they may be two totally different birds. They may even be a pair of American Spotted Sandpiper as nobody has checked them out as far as I can tell. My views were very brief on the shore and otherwise just birds in flight, a situation which does not really support good identification. (They are obviously going to be Common Sandpiper, I am just making the point that if you never look you never find).

My Usual Warning!

'Oh Deer'! Yep the annual Red Deer rut is in full swing at the moment (although I don't think any of the Deer are 'swingers') and I am being regaled with tales of bellowing Males being heard and lots of activity on the farm land and adjacent areas.

I know that most of the Dog Walkers have common sense (apart from the blithering imbeciles who hang bags of dog pooh on bushes) but over the last ten years there have been a number of incidents of dogs being injured because their owners allow them to approach the Red Deer at this time of year. The males would normally run away but at this time of year they are so charged with testosterone that they will stand their ground (if they are brave enough to charge another large stag they are not going to be intimidated by your dog are they?).

Even the females are dangerous and a few years ago we apparently had an incident where a Doe kicked someones dog into the air instead of running away.

Walk your dogs by all means but if you see a deer or are in an area where deer are likely to be, PLEASE put your dog on a lead. You need to be doing this from mid September until the end of November every year to be safe.

If you do see the Deer keep an eye open for the one wearing jewellery.  Apparently one of the Stags is looking very dapper with a life-ring hooked over his antlers, don't know where he got that from but at least if he falls in the canal he has a good chance of surviving!

Have a good weekend all - Chaz

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Some Notes from a Word Botchers Diary

If a single Swallow does not a summer make, does a single Redwing make a winter? If it does, winter has come in early this year as I had my first Redwing of the season this morning, flying from a tree in Maybrook Road Brownhills. I am aware that there have already been a few through other sites but it is always worth noting when you see the first one of the winter.

Winter birds are certainly on the move and it is never easy to predict what will be arriving next. Obviously as October progresses we can expect an increase in species such as gulls and wildfowl always with the possibility of some movements of incoming Geese and Arctic Swans but what noteworthy birds is it worth looking out for?

I have had a quick glance through my records for previous Octobers and here are a few memorable encounters that might give you some ideas.

15/10/2004 Two Ruddy Shelduck were found on the Mere, initially flying around but eventually settling on one of the islands in Ryders Mere.

23/10/2008 A Gannet which had roosted at Chasewater the previous evening spent several hours on Ryders Mere. Despite leaving Norton Pool at around 08.00 unfortunatly its presence was not reported until after 10.30 by which time it had flown out so it was only enjoyed by one observer.

20/10/2012 A Greater Scaup was reported on the Mere. This bird has been accepted by the W.M.B.C. but only the finder observed it, which is a shame as it would have constituted an important first site record.

This has made the accepted record a little controversial as there was a very convincing hybrid female-type Scaup-Tufted hybrid in the area at the time (it nearly fooled Ray, Tony and me and it was only through diligent scope work that we were able to pick up enough aberrant factors to prevent us from claiming it). Still, stormy weather in October can always bring in some interesting pelagics so there will be another chance for a lucky birder to find one.

13/10/2014 Three Whooper Swan were seen on the Mere for a few hours by two observers. October is a good month for picking up this species as birds fly in from Iceland and an impressive flock of sixteen birds was again found on the 20/10/2016 being enjoyed by a number of observers.

12/10/2015 A Rough Legged Buzzard was seen well by two observers as it soared over the site, a genuinely scarce winter visitor and it will probably be a long time before another turns up so close to home!

19/10/2016 The sites first Cetti’s Warbler appeared, remaining in the area for several months but always frustratingly elusive. With this species now being recorded in tens-of pairs at Middleton Lakes I suspect that we can expect some range expansion over the next few years and hopefully we will benefit from increased encounters with this charismatic warbler?

There we are then, something to whet your appetite and get you out birding perhaps? Why not see if you can find something to add to this roll of honour? - 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

Busy Birding weekend

Well folks, I'm cream-crackered! Been a much busier than normal weekend for me, two days birding and lots of good birds.

Saturday was booked with Martyn and Joseph for our annual excursion to Spurn. Despite the underwhelming conditions and a week of off-shore winds we didn't have a bad day. Aside from stretching out last dates for Swallow and House Martin there were a range of other migrants including Chiffchaff and Wheatear as well as incoming species such as Slavonian Grebe and even a single Lapland Bunting.

Sea watching was quiet but interesting with strong movements of Gannet, Red Throated Diver and Velvet Scoter and even two or three Great Northern Divers for good measure.
Star birds though were definitely the juvenile Red-Backed Shrike and 'fawn yawn' at Easington (Juvenile Rosey Starling for the uninitiated). The starling showed particularly well despite protests from the grumpy residents of the Bungalow who's garden it was frequenting. Some people are proud and excited to have there gardens the centre of birding attention but occasionally you get people like that I'm afraid. Perhaps the nicest part of the day for me though was touching base with some old friends from the Scillies who I had not seen for too long.

Today though was for introducing Susan and Chris to the Middleton Lakes RSPB Reserve. A good show of species including; Great White Egrets (2), Little Egrets (2), and a supporting cast of  Ducks, Geese and other interesting things such as Kingfisher and Water Rail (seen for the year at last - hooray!). There was also a bit of exotica present in the form of an 'over the wall' Bar-Headed Goose but we were unable to locate the site's first male Mandarin or the eight Egyptian Geese that had been reported. Late in the day we also became aware of reports of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that had apparently been favouring the large tree in the farm yard earlier. It would have been nice to connect with that but not today I'm afraid!

Anyway, thanks to all involved for an excellent weekend of birding, back to reality and duck counting the Marsh again next I suppose?

Hope you all have a good week - Chaz

Friday, 6 October 2017

A good range of activity.

Had it not been for some low-cloud on the horizon it would have been easy to convince yourself it was still summer with warm sunshine and butterfly and dragonfly species still on the wing. The birds though told a different story.

Summer visitors are proving hard to find now although there are still two Chiffchaff moving with the Long Tailed Tit flock that might be summer visitors but which could well be abietinus birds from the north. Biggest surprise though was an obliging Common Sandpiper on the Mere. Could this be last weekends bird lingering or another late specimen? I was not able to get an age on the bird but the flight call was subtly different to last weeks bird so I am going to chance my arm and say that I think its a different specimen (go on, prove me wrong then)!

Similar to today's bird (which was a little paler)
Coming from the other direction, Skylark are still the most frequent calling bird flying in but while I was sitting by the Mere for half an hour I also had the first Siskin of the winter flying in. Star bird though was actually a year tick for me (which shows what a quiet birding year I have had) in the form of a first-winter male Stonechat between the buffer zone and the Mere and favouring the small outcrops of Gorse in that area.

Other birds included eight Shoveler, a single Wigeon and two Cormorant on the Mere and a single male Gadwall on the Marsh (where the heck are all the Teal? There should be dozens by now)!

Anyroad-up, its worth a visit if you are at a lose end. I might go a bit further afield tomorrow for  a change of scene but we shall see what happens.

Enjoy your weekend all - Chaz

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Its a bit Random but...

84 Years ago today, Walsall Corporation Transport came into existence. For anyone much younger than me that wont mean a lot as W.C.T. ceased to exist in 1969 when it became a component in the new West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (affectionately known as Wumpty). But for old gits like me, there are many fond memories of riding on the bright blue Walsall buses.

This week will also see the 47th anniversary of the last Trollybus service in Walsall (the last but one operator in Britain) and those were the buses that I used to go to school on (three ha-pence half fair, Hospital Street to Leamore Depot) so there is a bit of a stronger link for me there!

Walsall Tramcar 12 at Walsall Wood
"Why does he bother to know this stuff" you may ask? (Although I wouldn't bother). partly its because I have a head like a dustbin, full of this sort of rubbish, but to be honest I have always had an interest in the old Tramways (none of which I am old enough to remember - thank you) and have an awareness that Walsall's last Trams ran on the 30th of September 1933. The following day, Walsall Corporation Tramways became Walsall Corporation Transport. Sadly this happened without any fanfare or commemoration, the trams just disappeared and the petrol buses were just there instead. As far as I know they were all destroyed within a very short period of time and so that species of Tram is now extinct (so to speak).

Anyway, I would like to get down to discussing stuff that most of you log on for - but I cant. Today's miserable weather has kept most people indoors I suspect and there is sadly nothing to report. It is a shame as there is every possibility that the current conditions could bring in something interesting and the prediction for a change in the wind to the north-west later in the week will be at a perfect time of year for pelagic species such as Sabines Gull, Kittewake and Leaches Petrel to get blown to inland sites.

Still, no criticism intended, I haven't left the house either. Tomorrow is going to be a bit Winnie the Pooh to all accounts (a blustery day) but if the gusts are not too strong I may get tempted to have a quick look at the Mere - just in case?

Anyroad-up have a good week all - Chaz

Saturday, 30 September 2017

A last gasp from summer?

I was going to do the Marsh early today but an unanticipated (and unpredicted) belt of rain put things back until early afternoon.

On arrival I stopped to talk to one of the local dog walkers and saw not one, but two rarities within seconds of each other, two (yes TWO) Ryanair Jets coming in to land at Birmingham. I thought that this would be the rarest thing to be seen today but I'm pleased to say I was wrong.

Summer birds have dropped-off significantly in the last few days with the only warbler representation coming from two Chiffchaff, the first calling from the hedges along the mineral line and the second a singing bird heard somewhere near the low pit-mounds (or the Black Hills if you are under ten)! No hirundine and only one other summer migrant seen, but that was something of a surprise.

Common Sandpiper, although not a juvenile like today's bird
Apart from four Shoveler and two Cormorant, the only other bird of note on Ryders Mere was a juvenile Common Sandpiper. Not a frequent species anymore and never seen in anything like the numbers that they used to pass through. In flight, today's bird had heavily marked upper wing coverts which (when combined with the lateness of the record) strongly indicated that it was a juvenile (not an age that I can remember seeing on the Mere for a long time). The bird was favouring the north shore of the Mere and seemed quite settled, occasionally taking flight and calling, only to drop back on the shore further along and showing the familiar tail-bobbing associated with the species.

The only other birds of note today were a single Grey Wagtail which flew from the Marsh to the Mere, the Willow Tit still present and a steady but slower influx of Skylark and Meadow Pipit.

Unless tomorrows predicted hurricane remnant brings in a Magnificent Frigatebird from the Gulf of Mexico that will be it for the weekend although these fronts could produce some interesting waifs and strays from North America to remoter sites as well as the possibility of one or two pelagic species moving in from the coast to shelter, but we will have to wait and see.

Have a nice weekend all - Chaz

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Changing the Guard

Glad I didn't go yesterday, once the fog had lifted I had one of the most exciting and active hours local birdwatching for a long time. It would be a great day for visible migration if my experience is anything to go by, with falls of various species going on throughout. I first noted this at swimming this morning with an obvious increase in the numbers of Pied Wagtails flying over and on the ground but similar movements appear to be going on over the Marsh and Mere.

Goods In.
The main soundtrack for my visit was  a continuous southward movement of incoming Skylark, accompanied by occasional party's of Meadow Pipit and Pied Wagtails. At least four Goldcrest were seen/heard at different points around the site again suggesting a fall of northern birds moving south for the winter.

Aside from this, 'Usual Suspects' included a calling Water Rail, two Teal and a Shoveler on the Marsh and three Gadwall and a noteworthy FIVE Cormorants on the Mere. Also seen today were two Grey Wagtail.

Not today's Autumn bird - a spring Wheatear, just for illustrative purposes
Goods Out

Biggest surprise and the first bird of the day, a male Northern Wheatear in autumn plumage, posing on the thick posts near to the tin bridge before flying along the eastern side of the Mineral line towards the village.

The Buffer Zone was alive with warblers. Positively identified birds including at least five Chiffchaff (three singing) and at least three Willow Warbler, the latter all picked up on call but confirmed visually. For me this is quite a striking event as I normally struggle for Willow Warbler this late into Autumn. Could the presence of these birds suggest a good season with perhaps some second brooding going on? I would like to think that this could account for such an unexpected encounter.

No hirundine today although I did hear a couple of House Martin over the village during this mornings fog.

Also showing well today were a number of butterfly and dragonfly species, the former including Speckled Wood, Small Copper, White Sp. and of course the abundant recent emergence of Red Admiral (surprisingly no Small Tortoiseshells though).

Excellent conditions for some good birding! I certainly didn't clock everything over there and there must be something interesting amongst such an abundant passage movement, so why are you still reading this? Get over there and sort it all out! - Chaz

Monday, 25 September 2017

Just filling a gap

Not been too well over the weekend so I intended to do the Marsh and Mere today - but as you are doubtless aware, we are currently suffering under a bit of low pressure and I suspect that all I would see on a very wet visit would be the same ducks as last time so I am hoping to visit tomorrow instead.

Just to fill a gap and ease my conscience I am doing just one more posting about beer. My last one received a very positive response from a couple of you (thanks Chris and Geoff) so if the rest of you don't find the subject interesting I will say cheerio and welcome you back for a wildlife focused update next time.

Abbey Beer in Britain

As someone who enthuses about beer you would expect me to have a favourite style and you would be right. Since I first tried it in 1981 I have been passionate about Trappist Beers (the beers produced in various monasteries, usually high in strength and character, although some working Monasteries also produce beers for the monks at a much lower strength, Petite Orval and Chimay Doree are two such examples).

There are only ten genuine Trappist Beers available in the world although there are dozens of Trappist style (or Abbaye) beers which are produced to similar recipes and strengths, some of which stand up very well against the authentic item. In Britain Abbey Beers are rarely produced and when they are, they are often one-off novelty beers that never go into sustained production.

However there are two regularly brewed and genuine British Abbey beers which you can obtain with a little effort.

The first of these appeared in 2012 and was produced for Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire. The beer is described as a Benedictine-style beer and is attributed to a seventeenth century recipe. After the reformation, the monks from this abbey were forced to take refuge in Catholic France and
they apparently took the original recipe for their ale with them.

The Abbey assert that this was in fact the first 'English-Style' Ale to be brewed in France .

Some of you who may have attended the Cannock Beer Festival last weekend will have had the opportunity to try this beer for yourself at £3.00 per bottle (not at all bad for a Bottle Conditioned 7% Beer). I brought one home and gave it a couple of days to settle before trying it. It is as malty as is described in the Abbeys publicity but I found the mouth-character a little bit thin for an Abbey Beer (which actually makes it a more dangerous drink as its strength is deceptively underplayed). It is actually brewed by the Little Valley Brewery at Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and can be obtained from the Abbey shop or if you prefer, by the case over the internet.

The second regularly produced Abbey Beer is brewed by Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight for Quarr Abbey near Ryde. The Abbey was founded in 1132 by the Benedictine order and although there is no evidence that I am aware of for a history of on-site brewing, I suspect that it must have happened as beer was a staple in the diet of anyone in the middle ages.

This beer was originally (2014) only available from the Abbey Farm Shop but more recently has started to appear in more outlets around the island (try the shop next to the Newport Ale House in the islands capital for example). Although the Abbey has no actual involvement in the brewing
of the beer, there is a connection in as much as the herbs used to fortify it
(Coriander and Sweet Gale) are produced in the Abbey Gardens.

Of the two, this is the one I prefer. It is fractionally weaker at 6.5% but is a more authentic example of the style as it somehow captures the richer texture associated with this type of beer. For those who like me are afraid of ingesting anything green or healthy, you will be pleased to know that the herbal content of the Ale is not easily apparent in the flavour although I suspect that it contributes to the spiciness of the flavour at some level?

If this posting has made any of you want to explore Trappist and Abbey Beers further I recommend that you pay a visit to either 'BeerBhom' in Lichfield (which has the best range of Abbey and Trappist beers anywhere in the local area) or alternatively, my favourite pub the 'Black Country Arms' which has the best range anywhere in the Walsall area including at least four of the ten genuine Trappist beers as well as several examples of Abbey Styles (just tell Kim that Chaz sent you).

Anyway, for those of you who thought I was just being too idle to go to the Marsh, I hope that this brief sharing of my passion has provided some entertainment?

Hopefully Update tomorrow - Chaz

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Winter coming in early? (UPDATED)

Big surprise record today - three Fieldfare seen by Ray Fellows at the Concrete Bridge this afternoon. Not a totally unlikely event but quite an early record, particularly as Fieldfare are normally preceded by Redwing, and I haven’t heard any of those yet.

Perhaps the berry crop up north has not been too good this year? If that’s the case, we might be able to expect another southerly foray by Waxwings later in the winter perhaps? - Chaz

PS. Following this posting, Dave Saunders at Sandwell Valley got in touch to let me know that they had  Redwing on site on the 19th Thanks to both for their records. The season has turned quite quickly it seems?

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Loocal extinction averted - for now!

Day 263 of the year and against all hope, a calling Willow Tit seen on the Mineral Line this afternoon. This is the longest I have ever gone into a year without seeing a specimen and I have to be honest, I had given up hope that it was going to survive at Clayhanger. Even the specimens being reported at Chasewater had eluded me so you can imagine that I was very happy to have this as the first species of the day.
Still hanging on then? But by a thread!
I stood for a while with Tony Stackhouse and together we were able to put another bird on the day list with the arrival of the first Wigeon of the winter. Tony also tells me that a couple of weeks ago, he also heard a Curlew going through although he couldn't give me a precise date.

Ryders Mere

The only birds of note were three Shoveler. Noticeable by their absence were any hirundine today.

Clayhanger Marsh

Teal (6) - Gadwall (6) - Wigeon (1M) and the Little Grebe still present. Along the mineral line there was also a calling juvenile Willow Warbler (the only summer species noted today).

This may be my last update until the weekend. Tomorrow looks as if we might suffer some precipitation and I have a social engagement on Friday (the detectives amongst you will no doubt have worked out what that is from previous postings)?

Anyway, enjoy Thursday and Friday and update at the weekend - Chaz

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