Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Just How Bad is June?

I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for someone decent bird action but of course, being June, there was precious little around. This got me wondering just how bad this month actually is compared to others. Now, messing around with numbers on computers is what I do for my day job so I thought that I could apply some of these skills to this important matter. In order to answer this question I started playing around with the Bird Guides database query functionality (yes I know I clearly have too much time on my hands). This is actually quite a cool tool in that you can search the entire Bird Guides database for sightings since they began in November 2000. I've come up with a simple yet effective way of measuring relative "performance" for various criteria such as counties or species which is to count all the first sightings within the database (to avoid multiple reports of the same bird) and there is a convenient tick box for this when doing the searches. This is slightly over-simplistic as it may count things like "no sign" or erroneous reports and if a bird moves location it will be counted as a separate record but on the whole it's going to give a rough idea of the relative counts. To illustrate what I mean and to answer my original question, below is a chart showing just how bad June is. This is a chart showing all "scarce or better" records for Oxfordshire by month since BG records began.

All scarce+ records for Oxon by month - click on image for larger view

From this I hope that you can make out that May and September are the best months for some hot scarce action but rather depressingly that July is even worse that June with only 9 scarce+ since 2001.

If you want to make some comparisons, then here are the June records for three counties. Oxon birders may want to look away now!

All Scarce+ Records in June since 2001
Oxon: 11
Cornwall: 111
Norfolk: 305

So Oxon basically gets about one scarce+ record a year in June though there hasn't been one yet this year at all. In answer to the question as to which county is better in June then you can say that Norfolk is nearly 30 times better than Oxon. That is depressing!

This tool is also good for determining the monthly distribution of various species. Now Oxon has sadly still not had a buff-breasted sandpiper so here's the monthly distribution which clearly shows that September is the month to look out for this dainty wader.

Buff-breasted sandpiper records by month across all counties

You can also determine the relative scarcity of different species in a given month. So for september for some Neartic sandpipers you get:

Total September sightings since 2001
buff-breasted sandpiper: 223
pectoral sandpiper: 659
Baird's sandpiper: 104
white-rumped sandpiper 58
semi-palmated sandpiper: 54

You can even use this tool to assign very rough probabilities for different species. Thus if you see a long-winged Nearctic sandpiper in September in the distance but you don't see it's rump then the chances are that it's a Baird's rather than a white-rumped by a ratio of a bit less than 2 to 1. However in October (though I've not shown the actual numbers) it's much more likely to be a white-rumped by a ratio of 4 to 1 as white-rumped's have their peak in that month rather than September.

In a similar vein, a phalarope species was seen very briefly on my patch at Port Meadow in April (whilst I was away down in Cornwall). The observer was pretty sure that it wasn't a grey and was tending towards Wilson's though it was distant and into the light so the view wasn't good.

Unfortunately April is not a good month for phalaropes and there are only seven different sightings since 2001 of which one was unidentified. The breakdown is as follows:

Grey: 3
Red-necked 2
Wilson's 1

Unfortunately there are too few records to be able to assign meaningful probabilities to this sighting. But the mere fact that phalaropes are so scarce in April shows that (stringing aside) it's an unusual record.

You can of course use this method to assess how good particular years were. I've had the belief that 2008 (when I did my county year listing challenge) was a particularly good year but do the statistics bear this out?

Well, as you can see from the graph, 2008 doesn't particularly stand out in recent years though there is a noticeable improvement from the first half of the decade. As you can see, for the last couple of years we've had 25 scarce+ events in the year. By way of comparison Norfolk had 545 in 2010. It makes you weep!

So where does this leave us? It confirms that June and July are tough months and that Norfolk is much much better than Oxon. Neither of these things are particularly great insights of course but one can assign actual numbers to these statements and it keeps me occupied as I wait for autumn. Next time I promise a post with some actual wildlife in!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Patch Spoonbill

Spoonbill used to be a county rarity. Two years ago (2009) I found one on my patch (Port Meadow) though it flew off almost as soon as I saw it and before I could even take one of my famously blurry digiscoped record shots. I put the word out and the various county birder all went into a bit of a frenzy of excitement as they all needed it for their county lists - apparently the last county spoonbill had been more than ten years ago. My bird wasn't seen again though in August of that year a twitchable juvenile turned up at Otmoor thus satisfying the needs of the county birding fraternity.

Last year the same thing happened: a bird turned up for a few hours on Port Meadow in May (though I was out of the county and got back ten minutes after the bird flew off) and later on one turned up in August on Otmoor for a few days. This year we've already had a May fly-over at Otmoor, and on June 7th three turned up at the Drayton floods and on the same evening I found one on Port Meadow whilst doing my evening rounds checking out the patch. Naturally this bird didn't generate the same degree of excitement as the first one and only a few people bothered to come and see it. It just shows how quickly the rarity status of certain species can change. It's the same with great white egret which was a real rarity until a few years ago and is now probably more or less annual within the county. Global warming is probably to blame with warmer, wetter weather attracting various continental herons etc. across more and more. In fact we've recently had breeding cattle egrets, little bitterns and purple herons in the country for the first time so I expect that we can look forward to a lot more of these exotic birds over the coming years. I for one very much look forward to catching up with things like night heron and squacco heron on Otmoor some time in the near future!

Anyway, whilst spoonbills aren't what they used to be, I was still pleased to find it and I spent some time taking some digiscoped photos in the golden evening light.

Some video footage of the Port Meadow spoonbill

Some digiscoped spoonbill photos

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Cornwall in the Summer Doldrums

It was time for me to head back down to Cornwall again, only a few weeks after my last visit but our first guests were going to be arriving and we had lots of things to do before they turned up. Admittedly these guests were my brother and his wife and so were going to be rather tolerant guests but all the same it gave us the motivation to get lots of little jobs finished off. As it was half term the whole family was coming down and that coupled with the fact that there was lots to do meant that there weren't going to be many birding opportunities. In fact it had all gone very very quiet in Cornwall anyway with hardly anything of interest reported since my last visit. To add to all this, a day or so into the visit we all came down with a cold that L our four year old had generously brought home from school so I was often too under the weather to go out birding even if I'd had the opportunity.

To get a measure of how quiet it was, I only got my scope out once for a single sea watching session down at Pendeen (well it would be rude not to since I was there). I had been hoping for a stormie or even a pom or two but the result was lots of manxies and a single balearic shearwater from 6am to 8:20am.

Whilst the gorse and the thrift are now past their
best the foxgloves are all out just now

One advantage of having the fledgling Cornish list to work on is that there is always something to go for even at this time of year and one sunny and calm evening local birder John Swann very kindly called up to ask if I fancied going to look for the nightjars at their usual location. Of course I jumped at the chance and we enjoyed really good views of three birds flying around often at quite close quarters though there was remarkably little churring going on. In addition I managed to convert grasshopper warbler from "heard only" to a full blown tick which was an added bonus.

Whenever I had a spare moment I would go for an amble just around the local area and it was fun to see how the local breeders were getting on with their families. It was all the usual stuff but very enjoyable to see nonetheless.

My photographic offerings are all rather crap this time and were
all taken on my point and shoot camera. Nevertheless this
dunnock allowed me to to approach close enough for me to get a
reasonable shot

As a mark of how quiet it was, the only call that I got of something good being around was on the day that were were due to leave when I got a text from Dave Parker saying that there were 13 red kites currently circling over Kenidjack valley. As we were packing the car I couldn't exactly rush off but a short while later John Swann called with the same news and he explained that in Cornwall there are one or two "red kite days" each year when hoards of them come in and today was such a day. Indeed he'd had one over just up the road at Trewellard. As I packed the car from then on I kept an eye to the skies all the time. When the family was all finally assembled in the car I asked them to keep an eye out for kites but we got to Penzance without a sighting. We were just heading on the A30 between the Long Rock roundabout and the Marazion one when I spotted a couple of interesting looking raptors in the sky circling over Long Rock itself. Despite complaints from the rest of the family I pulled over somewhere safe, got the bins out and walked a short distance where I could get a clearer view. Indeed they were a couple of red kites, a rather jammy end to my stay there. It turned out that Dave Parker had a number of groups of kites over Long Rock that morning so it was clearly a good kite spot.

During the week the wind died away and the
sea became flat calm in Mounts Bay

It had been a very quiet interlude down in Cornwall and with June only just starting it probably wasn't going to get any better any time soon though of course the sea watching season will be getting starting soon. Needless to say someone has to head back down there to finish off a few odd jobs and I'll selflessly volunteer once more to save the rest of the family that burden. If nothing else there are a number of common birds that I still need for my county list there so there's always plenty to do.