I still go birding... sometimes

My nan asked me while I was home over Christmas, “are you still as keen on birds?” I think the slightly veiled meaning of the question was to ask if I’d moved on to something a bit more “normal”, like cars or football or drinking. Had she been a bit more savvy she could have asked, “do you actually go birding anymore?”

As it happens, I went birding twice over Christmas/New Year – more on that below – but it’s taken some five weeks before I've managed to get out birding again. Fiona, David Howdon and I headed out west to Thursley Common yesterday. It was blowing a gale but that probably helped with locating the Great Grey Shrike. It showed well, if briefly, in a (relatively) sheltered area around the base of one of the hills. The white is rather limited, so there's no fun to be had trying to make it anything other than ‘melanopterus’; and it appeared to be an adult, supporting the theory that it’s a returning bird.

We took a walk around most of the rest of the site although the wind was clearly keeping avian activity to a minimum: some Coal Tits and a charming pair of Stonechats were the best of the six other species seen.

Great Grey Shrike

Great Grey Shrike

European Stonechat, male

European Stonechat, male

On the way back to west London we called in at Staines Reservoirs. It was still blowing a gale… and the causeway at Staines Reservoirs is hardly the most sheltered place. Two Black-necked Grebes were showing well in the (relatively) calm water behind the tower on the south basin.

 
Black-necked Grebes

Black-necked Grebes

 

The north basin was stuffed full of ducks: Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, a drake Northern Pintail and a drake, er, plain old Gadwall. Pochard numbered at least 500, close to 80% of which were male. I’ve submitted my results to the Duck Specialist Group Common Pochard sex ratio assessment.

One of the pochard stood out as being remarkably dark and my first thought was that it might have been a Common Pochard x Ferruginous Duck hybrid. On closer inspection, I wasn't so convinced. And by "closer" I mean squinting down my scope for a little longer trying to keep all three of the tripod legs on the ground. Viewing was...

 
 

...choppy.

Apart from the dark body, the rest of the bird looked fine for a male Common Pochard, including the bill pattern, and I wonder if this individual is melanistic or something.

 
 

Talking of aberrants, and going back to my Christmas birding, these, I believe, are the feet of a Polish Whooper Swan:

 
 

It's from Iceland; but I mean Polish in the sense of “Polish Mute Swan”, or leucistic. Or semi-leucistic. Or something. Maybe, given the dark mottling on the legs, this is only semi-Polish. The more I learn about plumage aberrations the less I feel I know…

I saw the bird just after Christmas, feeding in front of the swanky new hide with a bunch of other Whooper Swans. Although there’s some variation amongst juveniles, this one stood out as being considerably paler. Compare it with the bird that’s peaking into view on the left here (which, as with all of the others I looked at, had black legs/feet):

 
 

I remember seeing an adult Whooper Swan many years ago that had yellow legs. I wonder if this individual will grow up to have the same.

Martin Mere is always good value for a winter's day's birding. In addition to the swans, there were some Ruff around, a Barn Owl, and nice close-up views of assorted wildfowl, including this Ross's Goose “of unknown origin” hanging out with the shelduck.

 
Ross's Goose

Ross's Goose

 

And as if that wasn't enough plastic for one afternoon, here's an East Asian superstar line-up: two Black Brants, a pair of Falcated Ducks, and a Baer's Pochard.

 
 

Martin Garner passed away just over a week ago. At the start of last week, my Facebook news feed consisted almost entirely of posts dedicated to his memory; a good modern-day measure of how much he meant to a lot of people. His Birding Frontiers ethos had (indeed, has) become an established and much-celebrated part of birding.  Even this blog post has some Garner influence to it: his Challenge series: winter is where I checked that what I was saying about the Great Grey Shrike wasn't utter tosh. 

I met Martin for the first time many years ago at Spurn. I was in the hide trying to work out the age, sex and race of a Snow Bunting, directing my out-loud thoughts to a friend who was sat next to me. I was aware of someone sitting on the other side of me who had started listening in to the conversation. We spoke and I introduced myself. “You know who I am,” he said to me. Then, with a cheeky smile, he said “You didn't like my book!” I blushed a little. He was right, I didn't like his first book (in contrast to his most recent two, which are great). I needn't have worried though. He held no bad feeling whatsoever and we joked about the matter. I held a lot respect for Martin after that first meeting.

Friends of mine will tell you that I often found Martin's approach a bit gung-ho – but that was very much the character of Martin's work. I respected Martin a lot for his willingness to try things before anyone else, to suggest identification features that may have been nothing more than a hunch, and to get new thought-provoking ideas “out there”. There's absolutely no doubt that Martin's enthusiasm and drive has made the current European birding scene a richer and better place, and he'll be sorely missed. The seed he planted in so many birders – the drive towards “always discovering” – is a fitting legacy.