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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