Monday, 31 October 2016

A Scary Variety of Pumpkins and Winter Squashes

The clocks have gone back and the winter grumpiness is setting in. I'll get over it in a few months, probably after the winter solstice when the days start getting longer again.

I don't know what the Halloween equivalent of Bah Humbug is, so I'll call it Boo Vambug!
When I were a lad, Halloween was a quaint little event which came just before Fireworks Night. A little innocent trick or treat, without threat.
But now the kids I teach know absolutely nothing about 5th November, except for the Fireworks displays, and Penny For The Guy is a complete mystery to them.
But the Halloween disco! Now that's quite something else.

Unfortunately Halloween has gone the same way as Christmas. That's all I'm saying.

I won't mention the shameful waste of pumpkins. Well there you go, I've mentioned it.

The onset of Halloween did remind me last week to harvest in my own pumpkins and squashes. They've done okay this year, without producing anything spectacular. But at least the September and October weather has been fine so the pumpkins have hardened off well. The mice had found a few of them, but there are plenty enough left to last us through the winter.

So I have harvested them all. They will be stored in the utility room, where they won't get too cold and hopefully not too warm either. There's not too much direct sunlight in there either. They need circulation all around to prevent them turning into a gloopy mess.

Anyway, here's my harvest. I'm not sure what variety the giant green ones are. I'd guess Naples Long, but they've gone a bit crazy.
The Crown Prince have come out especially well.

I'll just finish with one last big BOO VAMBUG!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

A Plucky Little Eastern Black Redstart.

I was having a lazy morning , telling myself that the clocks would go back tonight so still being in bed at 9.40 was okay. I rolled over and looked at my phone only to see a message from Neil, timed at 8:05, asking if I wanted a lift up north to see the Eastern Black Redstart.
This bird is not a separate species to the Black Redstart we regularly see here, but it has come from a long way East along with many of the other Eastern vagrants we have had this autumn and it is a very handsome little bird. I have never seen one before.

I immediately rang Neil to find that he was already passing just north of me. I asked him to detour while I got dressed and grabbed a coffee.

A few hours later we were in Cleveland, driving down a small valley into a little place called Skinningrove, parking up and walking along to a stunning beach. It was good to meet some of the birders I know from the north-east.

The Eastern Black Redstart was drawing a steady stream of admirers, but was playing hide and seek under the piles of boulders which protected the jetty from North Sea storms.
Eventually, though, it hopped up onto the top and as the afternoon warmed up it put on a fine display right below us, snapping up numerous flies. It looked very at home in amongst the boulders and you could just imagine it hopping about amongst the rocks by some river far to the east of here.

I even managed to grab a few half decent shots by phonescoping.

I was back at home just after dark, just in time to get the news that there had been a Pied Wheatear about 10 miles up the road, only reported and identified from photos after dark. That's the third time recently I've seen a bird a day too early and missed other goodies.
Maybe I should start delaying my journeys by a day.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

A Perfect Day - Burnham Overy beach meets Boris and Arthur

Last Saturday had me heading for one of my favourite birding locations on the North Norfolk coast, Burnham Overy dunes.
A birder I know had found an Isabelline Wheatear hopping about in the sand dunes, the first in Norfolk for over 40 years. I have only seen one Isabelline Wheatear in this country since I've been birding and that was over ten years ago, so the prospect of seeing one so close to home was irresistible. Besides, I had made it to the half term holiday so my time was relatively free.

It is about a mile and a half walk out to the dunes, which is part of the reason for their appeal. This cuts down the number of people. But the weather this late October is more like that of late August so there was still a constant stream of dog walkers and families heading out along the seawall, today with a larger than usual contingent of birders too. Just about everybody who keeps a Norfolk list was there.

The wheatear showed well, alongside a Northern Wheatear, the common wheatear in this country. In the bushes nearby an elusive Pallas's Warbler, the seven-striped sprite, occasionally showed itself.
Two Waxwings, those harbingers of winter, flew in off the sea and landed atop the bushes in front of us. And further along in the dunes a lone young shorelark shuffled around almost completely oblivious to its constant stream of admirers.

It was a good day's birding. I spent quite some time exploring the dunes away from most of the other birders. Doubtless there were more scarce and rare birds hidden in the dunes, but nobody found them today. Just about everybody was hoping to find Norfolk's first ever Siberian Accentor following this species' remarkable influx into the country in the past two weeks, but it didn't happen.

What was on the beach and was attracting a constant stream of inquisitive onlookers, was the corpse of a Fin Whale which had washed up a couple of days previously. A post mortem had already been undertaken, so big chinks of it had been cut away, but it was still a mighty impressive beast, if more than a little smelly if you were unlucky enough to find yourself downwind of it.

On the way home I thought to myself that if all those other dogs could manage the walk out to the beach, then maybe Boris and Arthur might enjoy it too. But would Boris behave? Would we be able to let him off the lead (which he would be pulling on without let up)? Would Arthur bravely bark at every other dog he saw? Would his little legs carry him that far?

Is the Desert Wheatear in this picture somewhere?
Next morning I was just a little peeved to see there had been a Desert Wheatear on the other side of the dune to the Isabelline. It had only been identified from a photograph late on in the day. I had birded that area. I sat and rested there for ten minutes or so. Whether or not it was there while I was I shall never know.

Come Tuesday morning the Desert Wheatear was still there, so I headed back, along with Sue, Arthur and Boris.
It was a 'family' day out which left me extremely proud of my two dogs. Initially we kept them on the lead, but Boris was pulling and Arthur just wanted to be next to him. Arthur gave a few little barks the first time he saw other dogs, but got bored of this after a while and realised he didn't need to bother. All other dogs were trotting along unleashed. After ten minutes or so we decided to take the plunge. Boris just trotted ahead, but returned every time I said his name. Arthur kept with us.
The pair of them probably met more dogs than they have ever met in their whole lives. Everything went very, very smoothly. They even made friends with a couple of spaniels along the way.

But it was when we climbed the final dune and descended the other side, with miles of open sand stretching out before us, that Boris really came into his element. I missed his initial joy as I was chatting to another birder, but when faced with wet sand Boris cannot help himself. He just rolls around in it, trying to become at one with the beach. He runs at full pelt back and forth, splashing through the puddles and diving into the sand. He certainly provided entertainment for those sitting on the beach. Nobody else's dogs did this.

I left Sue with the dogs for a while as I nipped off to see the Desert Wheatear. There was a bonus too as the Isabelline Wheatear was found just before I arrived. I took the chance to study it once more with just one other birder as it picked amongst the tideline debris.

Arthur's little legs carried him all the way back. Boris was still full of energy.

There was time for early afternoon fish and chips in Hunstanton on the way home. Boris and Arthur snuggled together on the back seat and when we got home the day started to catch up with them. They were the quietest they have ever been!
Even come Wednesday morning the two boys had a lay in.

Left to right: Boris, Angel, Gerry, Sue, Arthur

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Back to Smallholding

So here we are. The blog I was going to post over three weeks ago!

Charlie, complete with new trendy hair style.
Sue's best friend, another Sue, brought Charlie, Boris's best friend, up to the farm for the weekend. It was the weekend of the Smallholders Annual Produce Show, so on Sunday morning we were out in the garden choosing the biggest Mangel Wurzel. We had a prize to defend.
I stayed on the farm for there was much work to catch up with, so it was a text message which informed me that we had beaten off the nearest competition by about a kilo. VICTORY!!!

Not only that, but Sue had scooped the prize for Best Recycled Object with her turkey feather lampshade.
That evening we had been invited over to a barbecue at our new neighbours. It was a lovely evening. Iain and Carol Ann were too busy for us to get to know them much better but it was a good chance to have a nose at what they've done to the place as well as to chat to our other neighbours.

25th September 2016
A rare sighting of a Muntjac deer today. It nonchalantly crossed the next field along.

I spent the morning fixing up the sheep electric fence. One of the posts had rotted at the base and needed replacing and I needed to put in a proper link to the circuit round Rambo's enclosure, as just tying the electric wire was causing it to arc and burning through the wire.
It was a good opportunity to spend some time in close proximity to the sheep. Some of them are having eye problems at the moment. I've consulted with the interweb and decided for the moment to just wait and see what happens. The two fawn ewes both have crusty, closed over eyes, but it seems to come and go. More worryingly, one of the hogget lambs has both its eyes very cloudy. This is the one which had crossed the fence into the next paddock. When I put it back with the others, they were giving it a fair bit of stick.

(ed. When I returned from Shetland, the sheep's eyes had improved greatly. Now, another week on, they are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed again).

There was still time to put the roof on the chicken house I've been renovating and to move it down to the chicken pen. The Ixworth chicks have outgrown their accommodation up here so it was great to be able to move them to a pen within the larger chicken enclosure.

As it was chicken moving day, I let the broody and her two chicks out of the stable to explore.

26th September 2016
For the second year in a row, blight has eventually reached the tomatoes in the polytunnel. We have had a very good crop, so I took all the plants out today.

The unseasonal warm southerly wind continues and all day House Martins were heading south. We don't get them breeding on the farm and I only see them rarely on migration.

27th September 2016

The warm wind strengthened today. Four Swallows battled south and there was a late Hobby, presumably following the swallows and martins. I guess they will provide it with occasional tasty snacks all the way back to Africa.

I had a very rare trip to a shopping centre. I hate the places. I was surprised by the proliferation in mobility scooters.

The purpose of the trip was to stock up on warm clothes for Shetland.
I got it over and done with as quickly as possible.

And that's where we're up to. I've since been to the Outer Hebs, Shetland and back, Shetland and back again.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Another trip to Shetland and another Siberian Accentor

Almost three weeks ago I sat composing a blog post about what had been going on here on the smallholding. I wanted to get it published before I headed off to Shetland. I was just about to put the finishing touches to it when hot bird news had me heading North unexpectedly early, not to Shetland but to the Outer Hebrides. From there it was straight onto Shetland for my annual 9 days of rarity hunting (covered in my last post). Then the long drive back to the farm. Within a minute of arriving back there was news of another bird on Shetland.
I spent three days back on the farm before the lure of that Black-faced Bunting had me driving back up to Aberdeen airport, back on the plane and onto the ferry to the Isle of Bressay.

I never quite got round to finishing that smallholding blog post.

Back on Shetland

Unlike the previous week, the weather on Shetland was more in keeping with what might be expected, cold and windy. This made the bunting, a ridiculously flighty bird at the best of times, extremely difficult to locate. Eventually, after two hours, we got a sighting as it flew away and alighted on the bottom of a gate about 100m away. Brief scope views were had by all before the bird disappeared again and we were back to square one of the search.
Over the next three hours the bird led us a right merry dance, giving just fleeting glimpses in flight, usually heading away low over the fields. There were just four of us searching a large area. Eventually we pinned it down in a ditch and I managed a good view through the telescope for all of about two seconds.
No. It's not in this picture.
At this point, after 5 hours, we decided to call it a day and head back over to Shetland Mainland.
A curry and a bed in a birder's house finished the day off nicely. The list is now on 516.

Next day it was out into the field again, for our ferry was not until the evening. Every time we told the locals we were off on the ferry tonight, they chuckled and wished us good luck! For we would be heading through a south-easterly gale which would probably dump a load more rare birds onto Shetland and have us heading back up in a few days.

Highlight of the day was Dan finding a Red-flanked Bluetail in Kergord plantation. A decade ago this would have been MEGA, but we now get double figures every year. Still a good bird to find, but not one which has anybody jumping onto aeroplanes.
Come the evening we bade farewell to Dan and boarded the ferry for our 12 hour crossing. We were issued a weather warning card and given the choice whether we wanted to take the crossing or not. We had little choice and I just prayed I wouldn't feel ill.

Just 20 minutes after we set sail and people were already being sick! The boat was lifting and falling, leaving you feeling weightless one minute before crashing down through the waves. We opted not to eat but to get our heads down and sleep it out.

My sleep was a very interrupted one, but I was just pleased not to be feeling any ill effects. In fact it was quite fun, like a rollercoaster crossed with the log flume.
At some point I fell into a deeper sleep and was awoken by the captain announcing that the restaurant was open for breakfast and that we would be arriving on time. We were now within the calm waters of Aberdeen harbour.

We just had the 450 mile drive home to do now, so we opted to take the East coast route down the A1 to put us in prime position for any new rare birds arriving. A stop at Torness power station gave us a Yellow-browed Warbler, Pallas's Warbler and a Great Grey Shrike as well as bushes full of commoner migrants. I met an elderly gentleman who had last seen a Yellow-browed Warbler in 1948 on Fair Isle. He must have been one of the original pioneers. Further south and we decided to head for Sunderland docks where a Siberian Accentor had been found the previous day.
Exactly a week ago one of these gorgeous birds had us abandoning our flight off Shetland. That was the first one ever to reach Britain.
How things have changed! As I write, we have now had FIVE and it looks as though we will get a few more yet. This bird is undergoing an unprecedented migration event. Never has such a mega rare bird become quite so common in such a short period of time.

The Sunderland Siberian Accentor was trickier to see than the one on Shetland, for it had bushes and trees to hide in, but we still saw it well. Unfortunately a Chiffchaff kept chasing it away. If you'd told me a week ago that I would have seen two of these and driven past another, I'd have laughed at you.

As for that post about what's been happening on the smallholding, I'll get onto it right now. I just need to get safely through to the end of the week and it's half term. I'll have 11 days to zoom around the country chasing birds. Odds are it'll be quiet. At least if it is I'll be able to catch up with all the work that needs doing on the farm.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Eastern Kingbird and Siberian Accentor. Two handy firsts in 10 days.

A birdy post this, for at this time of year my smallholding tends to take a back seat to my twitching addiction. In fact, everything does! Plans regularly get thrown right out of the window, so I try not to make them.

Me and a group of birding mates had flights booked to Shetland for Saturday 1st October, where we would be rarity hunting for 9 days. As Britain's northernmost outpost, the Shetland Isles attract more than their fair share of outrageously rare birds. Getting up there at short notice is fraught with stress and no little expense, so at this time of year it makes sense to just be there anyway.
It's exciting times. Every bush, every wall, every patch of nettles could be harbouring a scarce or rare bird.

I'm not going to list every bird we saw or every place we went. I'll just give a few of the highlights.
My last Fenland sunset for quite a while

Carlisle Tesco
- I know I'm going somewhere good when I'm here in the middle of the night
The Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides
Ok. It's not Shetland.
As I said, plans change.
On 28th September a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found by a friend of mine who had put himself on the Isle of Lewis for a week on account of this weather system, which was always likely to bring yanks across the Atlantic.

Having already dipped two of these, one on Orkney and one in Cornwall, I was very keen to go for it. It didn't make sense to come back South afterwards, so I hastily packed for my Shetland trip and headed north towards Inverness airport.
Airport lounge, early morning.

Back of camera shot sent to me by Dan
The closest I ever got to seeing the bird
29th September. 8am in a garden in north Lewis. It is becoming apparent that the cuckoo is gone, or dead. I'm not too depressed. I'll just have to go for the next one.
We spend the rest of the day checking out gardens in the area, not finding very much. Then, late afternoon, Dan gets a message. EASTERN KINGBIRD on Barra.
This is MEGA. There have only been two ever, both in Ireland, both dipped by me. Barra is only two islands south of Lewis in the same island chain.
We began wrestling with ferry timetables, only to quickly realise that we were stuck on Lewis for the rest of the day.
We'd rather this had been sunset on Barra instead of Lewis

Just whiling away the time taking in the scenery

At last, boat ahoy!
Come on, hurry up!

One ferry crossing, a drive across the Uists and
now another interminable wait for another boat.
If only we could work out how to drive this boat...
Or find the owner of this one.
So it was that at 1pm on Friday 30th September we found ourselves boarding our second ferry of the day onto Barra. By now, the keenest birders from the mainland had caught up with us.
We rolled off the ferry, packing four friends into the back of the car, and burned the narrow lanes the couple of miles to where the bird was being watched. Since news broke, we had covered 140 miles in 21 hours!!! On this occasion, surely the slowest twitchers in Britain!

Thankfully it was still there, though very distant and mobile, perching on fence posts and making sallies to feed on insects. We gradually got closer views until the bird eventually gave itself up, feeding right in front of us.

That was until it flew up into the air and headed into the sky, further and further and further away, above the clouds, over the hills and far away. Gone!
We had got there with 50 minutes to spare.

A very exclusive bird for the seventy or so birders who had managed to see it. Let's spare a thought for the two twitchers who missed it by a minute or so.
More scenery on Barra
Double rainbow (just) at Loch Eynort in South Uist
Thanks to the flexibility of Calmac, who run the Hebrides ferries, we were just about able to get back onto mainland Scotland that night and huzz it across to pick up my car at Inverness airport in the early hours before heading over to Aberdeen airport in time for a couple of hours car sleep before meeting up with the rest of the team for our Shetland flight.

Saturday 1st October - finally onto Shetland
We had been carefully watching the wind forecasts for a couple of weeks and they had steadily got better and better for our time on Shetland, with a constant stream of Easterlies almost guaranteed to bring a host of Siberian waifs to the islands.
Flying over Fair Isle
Here are the highlights. A lot of hunting. A few scarce finds for the group. A couple of close misses. A very nice surprise at the end.

Interspersed between the highlights were:
Hundreds of Yellow-browed Warblers, a few Siberian (that word will crop up again!) Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps in every garden, Thrushes and Bramblings coming in, flocks of Twite, a few Lesser Whitethroats (including a very pale eastern type - aka Siberian!).

Finds for the group were a Bluethroat and a Barred Warbler, a brief Olive-backed Pipit, a Hawfinch, a smart male Red-backed Shrike, a very stripy Pallas's Warbler and a tecking Dusky Warbler. There was also a Garden Warbler out in the open at point blank range which James announced as another Barred Warbler - a plethora of Barred puns followed, not that we would want to remind him of his mistake!

Birds we twitched were a showy Blyth's Reed Warbler, five Little Buntings in one day, a WHITE'S THRUSH which mega'd just down the road from where we were (only my third ever), a Red-breasted Flycatcher, an American Golden Plover, an amazing LANCEOLATED WARBLER (my second ever) and four KILLER WHALES - ok, I know they are not birds, but they certainly competed with the Lancey as 'bird of the day'.

Birds we dipped were:
A SIBERIAN THRUSH. Had news broke an hour earlier we might have made it onto Unst, but as it was the drive and two island ferries was just too much. Needless to say it wasn't there in the morning. The whole team needed that one.
A BLACK-THROATED THRUSH, despite being about 3 miles away when it was found. We did see a chakking thrush with a large Sparrowhawk in hot pursuit!! Oo er!
An ORPHEAN WARBLER. Again we were close but not close enough. News of this bird broke just before the Siberian Thrush mega, so not a great afternoon.

We could have seen a  few more very rare birds, but decided to spend most of our time hunting out our own rarities away from other birders. This tactic can misfire, as when birders pour into an area to see a rare bird it is not uncommon for something else good to be found.

Anyway, that's enough of bird names. Here are a few photos to sum up the trip. Please don't ask me to explain what's going on in them all.

We named this sheep Dan.

There's a Lanceolated Warbler in there somewhere.
Ah! There it is!

These pigs, we later found out,
belong to Mad Mackay who told us to
"fook off doon the sooth mooth and geet an the fookin boot".
Or something like that!
We named one of these seals Dan.

Scene of the White's Thrush twitch.
It's on the path just beyond the gate to the right.
It never moved while we were there!

I found this on top of a stone wall at Eswick.
In fact, I put my hand straight in it!

Just don't ask. The rest of us were looking for the Orphean Warbler.
And so the holiday came to an end. Mack had to leave earlier than the rest and James chose to get the ferry off on Saturday night.
We spent what we had of Sunday hunting in vain for rarities before it was reluctantly time to head back to the airport.
But this is Shetland! Ruiner of plans.

Just shy of checking in for our flights, the pager mega went off. More often than not it's something we've seen. But this message had me reading each sentence in an increasingly high pitched voice as it just got better and better.


(A first for Britain and a good looker at that)

(But which island?)

(That's where we are)

(just down the road)

So do we catch our flights or do we go and see a stunning first for Britain just down the road?
Well of course, if it was up to me I would have got on the plane since I would be leaving Sue slightly in the lurch with the plasterer due tomorrow. But I had no choice. The van was no longer going to the airport. Sorry Sue! I will buy you a proper Shetland jumper one day. I promise.
Ten minutes later we were here.

Watching this...

Back of the camera!
The boat back took a bit longer than the flight, but we were in good spirits. Josh got to work editing his images on his laptop.

Monday 10th October
Finally back in Aberdeen, just a day late.
Dan headed North for a Two-barred Greenish Warbler. I would have liked to, but it would have been pushing things back home.
So instead I just got in my car and began the 450 mile drive back south.

2 miles from my house, news of this filtered through.

I need that.

Guess where!

Stop Press.
I've just had this on the garage roof.

The first Grey Wagtail for the farm.
But I'd still rather be back in Shetland.

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