Book Review - Britain's Birds (WILDGuides)

Friday, September 23, 2016 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

Like many other birders I seem to be acquiring an increasingly vast array of books on the subject of bird identification, bird behaviour and birds in general (in case this blog wasn't evidence enough, I quite like our feathered friends). It is a collection spawned from my very earliest days in the hobby and one that is likely to continue growing until I leave. However, since the release of Collins' seminal publication my purchases have been restricted to older, out of print works which have been offering a fascinating insight into how our wildlife and the people who watch it has changed over the years. After all, when perfection already exists why look for anything else?

It was exactly that line of thinking which very nearly had me discounting Britain's Birds with barely a second glance. Not helped by the slightly fuzzy cover image of a Robin (a poor choice in my honest opinion both in terms of species and quality) I was further put off upon hearing that it was to be a photographic guide. Let me elaborate on that last point a little. Bird guides typically fall into two categories, illustrations a la Collins or photos. I've always found the latter to be very hit or miss, a few good images here and there amidst a mess of blurry, poorly composed dross. Combine that with inconsistent lighting, angles and conditions and you have a guide which, particularly for unfamiliar or difficult to separate species, is virtually useless. Thank god I spotted this book in the flesh then and had a quick flick through otherwise I would have missed out on an absolute classic.

Forget all your preconceptions about photographic identification guides as Britain's Birds has thrown them, the bathwater and the baby straight out of the hide. What we are left with is a thing of beauty consisting of over two thousand, yes two thousand superb photos covering every British bird species ever recorded here. Almost without exception each and every one is crisp, sharp and well lit covering all of the key poses you'd expect along with some useful habitat to set the scene. The real masterstroke though has been to combine several images allowing direct comparisons to be made between similar species or plumage variations. This only proves possible thanks to carefully controlled lighting and weather conditions meaning that you really are comparing like for like, a remarkable feat requiring many species to be re-photographed specifically for this publication. The end result is a triumph with natural looking pages that are not only highly browsable but should prove invaluable in the field. My recent Little Stint identification for instance? All thanks to this book. Then there are the more specialist pages on Gull moulting patterns and raptors in flight, both of which I'm hoping will prove invaluable in taking my skills to the next level.

When (if?) you can drag yourself away from the images there are the usual distribution maps and descriptions to be found, all beautifully presented and well organised though not without a couple of niggles. Firstly the descriptions are brief, necessarily so in order to fit in all that fantastic photography, but personally that doesn't really concern as what is there proves useful and if in doubt there are plenty of other sources available these days if clutch sizes and average weights are your thing. The inaccuracy of the maps is however a bigger failing as this can often prove invaluable when debating the likelihood of your latest Honey Buzzard sighting or for beginners just getting into the hobby. I looked up a couple of species I know well and was surprised to find that apparently there are no Great White Egrets on Gower (they have been an almost constant presence in recent years) nor Redstarts on the Isle of Mull. Such omissions are a surprise but can be easily fixed in a second edition and in no way detract from the overall quality of the publication.

In summary then Britain's Birds must now rank right up there with Collins as a must have for any birder be that beginner, amateur or professional. A hefty tome, excellent organisation and layout, very well priced and with some of the best bird photography you're likely to see this year or the next. In short a must buy. Trust me, I've got two.

Disclaimer: all views are my own based on a personal purchase, of my own volition, that I think others may enjoy.


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#pwc2016 Autumn Migration and Canada Geese

Sunday, September 18, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

When I look back on 2016 in a few months from now one thing will become abundantly clear – I was way too ambitious in what I planned to take on. There simply hasn’t been the time or quantity of free weekends available, particularly over the summer, to do everything I wanted to. Of those aspirations to have fallen by the wayside none hurts quite so much as the Patchwork Challenge. I’ve been an ardent supporter of this local patch birding initiative since its inception yet to my shame have not submitted a single score since early spring. I’d like to say that doesn’t mean I haven’t been out in the field racking up my tally but that would be a lie. Recent visits to my Cefn Drum patch can be counted on the fingers of one hand and as for the newly added Upper Loughor patch? The fact that I just had to refer back to old posts to see what it was called speaks volumes.

Still, all is not lost and with autumn migration picking up there is still chance for a late surge into year’s end. Indeed with that in mind I’ve decided to drop the Upper Loughor and concentrate instead on my home turf of Cefn Drum. To that end this week has already seen two after work trips, both revealing quite how rapidly day length is decreasing. Given this restriction there hasn’t yet been chance for a detailed picture to emerge but I’m happy to report that several scarce residents such as Bullfinch and Jay have both been recorded. Linnet numbers are also pretty healthy at present with a flock of at least twenty recorded last night on Bryn-bach-Common where we also found a newly arrived Wheatear. With the sun low any colours had taken on a lovely warm hue which when combined with a shallow depth of field resulted in a very pleasing image indeed.

P1050031_2 - Wheatear


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Kidwelly Quay - Waders, Crabs and Linnets

Thursday, September 15, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

P1040975 - Linnet, Kidwelly Quay
I had a real yearning for some ‘proper’ birding weekend before last. Not a walk with some birds thrown in for good measure but a full on, telescope out, find as much as we possibly can expedition. Ideally that would have involved a trip to my favourite reserve on the planet, Titchwell, but given that Norfolk and Wales are about as far apart as you can get without travelling abroad there simply wasn’t the time available. Instead we headed over county lines to Kidwelly Quay where a falling tide meant raised hopes for a decent wader or two. Even a few drops of rain couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm as we clapped eyes on our first birds of the day, a flock of 33 Greenshank in their seemingly favourite haunt just beyond the railway bridge. That seemed to open the floodgates with a good couple of hundred Redshank noisily scurrying over the rapidly expanding mud, up to 40 Dunlin and another lone Ruff (they must prefer their own company) quickly in the bag. Dotted throughout was the occasional Curlew whose calls brought a comforting air of familiarity to proceedings before we spotted the first of at least three Whimbrel creeping through the marsh, another sure sign of autumn being almost upon us. Scanning further out over the estuary added Oystercatcher and a small roost of 9 Little Egrets before good fortune found me focussed on a distant channel just as a streak of blue shot through the scene. There was barely time to shout Kingfisher before the bird was gone, not to be seen again. Further wader action came in the shape of two Common Snipe flying high above the car park, possibly disturbed by the local Sparrowhawk which we’d spotted upon arrival. Rather surprisingly there wasn’t a single duck to be found, no Shelduck, Teal or even a Mallard. There were however a couple of skeins of Geese flying overhead, the first consisting of twenty Brent Geese and the second eighteen Canada Geese. The first was definitely best.

P1040966 - Kidwelly Quay


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#FindYourEpic Rhossili Edition

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

P1040946 - Gower
We joined the annual mass pilgrimage to Rhossili on August bank holiday along with what seemed like the entire population of south Wales. And who can blame them really. In a complete break from centuries of bank holiday tradition conditions were simply glorious with sunshine, blue sky and just enough breeze to stop this Brit from wilting. We’re just not used to such hot weather! In fact I initially thought things were getting the better of me when off in the distance I spotted what appeared to be four giant letters sited along the cliff edge. Spelling out the word EPIC four meters high I couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment, though what on earth was going on.

P1040926 - #findyourepic

Turns out the sign forms part of an innovative campaign by Visit Wales to encourage people to visit and share their favourite ‘epic’ locations from around the country. It certainly seemed to be having the desired effect as there were hoards of people taking selfies, all of them getting in the way of the clear shot I was after. After waiting for a good twenty minutes the steady stream of visitors showed no signs of abating so I instead walked on towards Kitchen Corner for a panorama that is unlikely to be repeatable any time soon.


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Curlew Sandpiper Half Dozen at Llanelli WWT

Saturday, September 10, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

Well I had planned to finish blogging August's fun and games today but it seems that autumn has arrived instead and boy did mother nature want us to sit up and take note. In terms of weather you'd be forgiven from thinking that it was still mid summer but down at Llanelli WWT this afternoon the birds begged to differ. Although there were still a few Swallows darting about plus the odd Willow Warbler here and there out on the saline lagoons was a flock of at least fifty Wigeon. These are my first returning birds and are a sure sign that things are in motion once more as we wave goodbye to our spring migrants and welcome back the waders and waterfowl which overwinter on the Burry.

Talking of waders there was a sizeable gathering outside the British Steel Hide which included no less than 24 Greenshank, 60 Lapwing, at least 170 Black-tailed Godwits, 6 Dunlin and well over 200 Redshank. A sizeable haul for sure but there was much, much better to come. Picking through the birds carefully revealed first a lone Ruff, then 70 Knot before, best of all, a group of 6 Curlew Sandpipers wandered into view! Yes, six! I've spent the last couple of weeks searching for just one and have agonised over a couple of Dunlin here and there but when you see the real deal there can be no mistake. That long, drooping bill and pale white eye stripe are highly distinctive in the field and this little gathering represented not only my highest one day count for the species but also my best ever views. The various wader species even had the good grace to pose next to each other periodically allowing some excellent comparison views and notes to be taken. I was pretty made up to be honest but alas didn't quite have the reach to record this remarkable moment for posterity. Instead we'll have to make do with a somewhat chromatic overview of the entire scene which includes the Curlew Sandpipers back and centre.

P1050001 - Waders, Llanelli WWT

That little lot had already made this one of my most memorable trips to the reserve so when a juvenile Marsh Harrier glided into view it was both unexpected and unsurprising in equal measure. I presume this to be the same bird which has been recorded on both sides of the Burry in recent weeks but this was the first time I've managed to catch up with it and also the first individual I've recorded from Penclacwydd. With the sun breaking through we had almost perfect conditions in which to watch, the birds golden brown plumage shining beautifully and changing colour with each swoop and bend of wings. Given its unusual status here I was happy to help others in the hide get onto the Harrier, not as easy a feat as it may at first sound given the birds insistence on staying about as far away as possible whilst still remaining in view. My job wasn't helped any by a Buzzard also doing the rounds, the pair of them upsetting Lapwings and Curlew alike. They weren't the only raptors about either with a stunning Sparrowhawk perched up on a fence out on the marsh before darting off in pursuit.

Further signs of autumn were to be found on the NRA scrapes where seven Pochard had dropped in, my largest count here for quite some time. Keeping them company was a Little Grebe and several Teal. Over at the Boardwalk Hide we found yet more Teal but also a trio of female Shoveller though we had to wait until the Millennium Wetlands to finally record our first Gadwall of the day. In all we saw forty eight species in just a couple of hours, a fine total for this time of year.

P1050011 - Southern Hawker, Llanelli WWT

I should also mention the number of butterflies and dragonflies on the wing which today included a Southern Hawker (seen above), tens if not hundreds of Common Darters as well as Comma, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood. In terms of the dragonfly I'm also happy to report that my recent purchase of a new field guide (Britain's Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash) proved its worth immediately, allowing me to confirm my identification within a matter of seconds. Now if only I'd picked it up before the dragonfly season was nearly over. Hindsight's a wonderful thing.


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Cefn Sidan Waderfest

Thursday, September 08, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

Bank holiday Sunday dawned wet and wild, justification if any were needed for ending our camping trip when we had. If there's one thing I could do without ever having to experience again it's taking down a tent in the rain. We took the opportunity for a leisurely start and when conditions looked to be improving by early afternoon headed over to Cefn Sidan. On the way we encountered a storm of biblical proportions that came, dumped its load and went within the space of just a few minutes. The roads were awash yet we arrived to almost full sunshine with only the crashing waves left as any sign of what had just occurred.

P1040870 - Cefn Sidan


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Porthgain Quarry - Little Owl, Wheatear and Painted Ladies

Tuesday, September 06, 2016 Adam Tilt 2 Comments

Despite our small tent being a little worse for wear thanks to many years of use we enjoyed two well rested nights under a spectacular Pembrokeshire sky. Being so far from light pollution meant that the Milky Way shone brilliantly and we were also treated to a couple of shooting stars and the passage of at least one satellite. Can't beat experiences like that for showing just how small and insignificant we really are. Once tucked up in our sleeping bags the screeches of a nearby Tawny Owl replaced the more usual sounds of human habitation back home while moths and other creepy crawlies could be heard fluttering against the canvas. Yes there may have been a few more midges than I'd ideally have liked but is it any wonder that I woke feeling more refreshed than I had for many months.

If Friday hadn't been quite so active then I'd probably have leapt from my sleeping bag the following morning but in the end had to make do with a more gentle emergence. Unzipping the front of the tent revealed another glorious day and after packing up it was time to hit the road and head north to Abereiddy. Home to the British leg of Red Bull's cliff diving championship this old quarry has clearly been rising in popularity as we arrived to find the car park absolutely rammed. With people parking in ever more unlikely positions we chose the safer option and moved on to Porthgain instead. The plan had always been to walk a section of coast path between the two anyway so where we started from was rather mute. Secretly I was keener to get to Porthgain as the quarry there has been home to a Little Owl family for at least the last four years. We saw one there in 2013 and I was eager to get reacquainted. With so many handy holes to hide in it's very much a case of scanning the cliffs with fingers crossed until you get lucky. This time around it was Emma who hit the jackpot with a single bird sat out in the open enjoying some sun. Creeping along the top I got as close as I dared, conscious throughout that the owl was watching my every move.

P1040855 - Little Owl, Porthgain


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Camping and Kayaking in Pembrokeshire

Sunday, September 04, 2016 Adam Tilt 0 Comments

Back at work Tuesday before last then on the road again just two days later. Bags still unpacked but simply restocked with clean underwear and loaded into the car. Tent? Check. More importantly perhaps, tent poles? Check (never going to make that mistake again!). And then something new compared to any other trip we've ever taken before. Kayaks, paddles and floatation vests? Check. This was going to be a good one.

Continuing this summer's frankly insane schedule no sooner had we bid my family farewell in Kent than we were welcoming Emma's parents down here in South Wales. Plans for the weekend were loose but with August bank holiday fast approaching we were looking forward to five days of relaxation. No work, no office and best of all, barely any mobile phone signal either. We kicked off with an amble along the Burry from Machynys on Thursday morning coinciding nicely with a high tide and warming sunshine. A couple of Wheatear's were good early finds amongst the breakwaters before we got to enjoy an Oystercatcher roost numbering several hundred in size. At peak dog walking times i.e. morning and evening, they wouldn't have stood a chance but with footfall light appeared well settled. Keeping them company was a small flock of Ringed Plovers, a smattering of Mediterranean Gulls and at least two Common Gulls, their equally chilled persona's conflicting somewhat with my own. Ahead of us lay two days under canvas at what is fast becoming a regular haunt of ours just outside Solva and I was eager to hit the road. Don't get me wrong I had no desire to cut short our time locally but there was an inescapable sense of trepidation building at what lay ahead, largely thanks to our recent purchase of two sit-on-top sea going Kayaks. Technically that should really be a sense of trepidation at securing said kayaks to car roof as thus far things in that area had gone far from smoothly.

On our first practice trip to Oxwich all went well but on the second both kayaks attempted a break for freedom. Thankfully they didn't succeed but that experience certainly served as a wake up call to us both. With this trip being much further and on faster roads we spent far longer ensuring everything was secured as we'd been instructed and set off with confidence high. That lasted all of five minutes as after pulling onto the M4 we got a text from Emma's parents (who were following behind) telling us to slow down and pull over. It soon became clear why. Despite our best efforts as soon as we'd hit cruising speed both kayaks had attempted to split from their respective restraints and were now dangerously close to working themselves free. Not good. A couple of minutes head scratching later and we had a new plan of attack with a tying approach that filled me with much greater confidence compared to what we'd been previously using. The acid test was still to come though and after spending an hour at national speed limits I can happily report that we and the boats arrived in one piece. Success! I also realise that I've just spent far too long wittering on about something which probably interests literally no-one so here's a moody photo of Newgale beach instead.

P1040711 - Newgale

P1040712 - Newgale

Hard to believe this was taken just a few hours after leaving sunny Swansea but the further West we headed the more the clouds built until we were pitching tents in a light drizzle. At least it wasn't cold as my family saying goes. There was a degree of brightness on the horizon out towards St Davids though so we headed down to the beach to stretch our legs and scope the area out as a potential launch point for the following mornings activities. It quickly became apparent that with the tides as they were that was going to involve a very long walk so back at base-camp it was out with the OS maps for a rethink. Initially Solva itself looked promising with a very interesting inlet and coastline to explore but similar issues of tide meant that water, or lack thereof, would probably be a major hindrance. I briefly considered Whitesands but thought that likely to be rammed with holidaymakers before finally settling on Porthclais. With a deep, natural harbour it was the ideal location to stretch our limits a little, starting sheltered but with easy access out to open water and with a rugged coastline to explore. Oh yeah, it looks pretty stunning as well.

P1040782 - Pothclais

Paddling out between moored yachts before breaking into the slight swell of St Bride's Bay I was reminded of what set us down this path in the first place. From an outsiders perspective our sudden divergence into water sport's may seem a little unexpected but it's been on the cards for a long while now and is very much focussed on gaining new insights into areas of the country which, from land at least, we already know like the backs of our hands. Fingers crossed there'll also be the chance to get up close and personal with some of our marine wildlife and if this voyage was anything to go by we can look forward to great things ahead. Right from the off we were joined by a couple of Gannets soaring off to our left but as we approached the island of Carreg Fran a juvenile Guillemot popped up ahead. Anyone who's been on a boar trip will know that you can only usually approach so far before the birds either dive or take off but as we drifted closer this individual showed no such concerns. After eyeing us up we were clearly marked as no threat, just another sea voyager passing through. In the end we came within a couple of meters and had grandstand seats as the Guillemot continually dipped its head underwater looking for prey before diving down to give chase. Simply magical. Our second wildlife encounter was on an entirely different scale as a By-the-Wind Sailor drifted through. Now I have never seen one of these outside of Scotland and even there never alive so this was absolutely fantastic and made my whole weekend.

Of course it would have been even better to have been able to include a couple of photos or maybe some video footage at this point but, as I'm sure you can appreciate, cameras and salt water rarely mix. Instead I'd been mulling over picking up a GoPro prior to this weekend and these encounters plus the stunning scenery have convinced me that it's definitely the way to go. Next time we're out on the water I should have one with me but for now here are a couple of shots from shore showing us in action.

P1040753 - Kayaking from Porthclais

P1040760 - Kayaking from Porthclais

From Porthclais it was on to Newgale where, with the sea state considerably rougher and tide higher than it had been yesterday evening, we took to the waves for a spot of kayak surfing. This proved to be much harder than it looked but was great fun if a little exhausting. Punching out through the waves was easy enough but running back in proved distinctly trickier. The trouble with a sit-on-top is that as soon as the waves break over the top of one you're on a hiding to nothing. Combine that with paddles which are in hindsight a little undersized and there were plenty of rolls to be had. I'll do a separate post at some point soon covering exactly the kit we're currently running with and I hope to be sharing plenty more from our coast before the year is out.


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Dungeness - Birding the Wild West

Friday, September 02, 2016 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

P1040693 - Dungeness
It was back to the birds for our final day in Kent. With Dungeness just down the road it would have been rude not to really and after hearing of the various successes my sister has had there over the years I was expecting great things. Her parting advice before we went our separate ways was to look carefully just inside the entrance gates as Tree Sparrows are often present, easily photographed from the car without causing a disturbance. Duly noted it was all eyes peeled as we pulled in yet there was not a single Sparrow to be seen. The reason soon became clear. Sat on a nearby fence post was this stunning Kestrel, seemingly happy to split its time equally between eyeing up potential prey and soaking up some glorious mid-morning sunshine. Using the car as a mobile hide we were able to creep as close as I dared giving fantastic views. What an encounter.

P1040624 - Kestrel, Dungeness


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