9th August. Birding Frontiers Challenge Series Autumn




It’s not often that I buy books unless it’s something that grabs my eye, something that is a little different from the norm and Martin Garner’s new challenge series of books is exactly that. There is little in the way of identification guides these days, though recently the old birder’s (I think I probably fall into that category) favourite the Macmillan Guide was given a rebirth and just a few years back the unique Advanced Bird ID Guide by Nills Van Duivenduk describing every species within the Western Palearctic, was published. In his first guide Martin covers some of the rarer species or races that we may come across in the Autumn, and also a few that some of us (including me) had no idea actually existed let alone might turn up on our shores.   
Martin appears to have taken some of the best bits from the aforementioned guides; the descriptive style of Duivenduk’s book coupled with the Macmillan style miniature sketches detailing key areas to look for along with a good selection of comparison photos. With the aid of a smartphone or tablet pc even more content - additional photos, video and audio - is available via QR codes at the start of each chapter.









Broken down into eighteen chapters this guide deals with some of the trickiest and in some cases the most contentious of bird ID subjects e.g. South Polar Skua. Martin’s mantra is “always discovering” and the first six chapters certainly give you a feel of what’s constantly going around in his head - how many of us have ever considered the possibility of Sharp-shinned Hawk or even Japanese Sparrowhawk after a fleeting glimpse of a small accipiter at an East or West coast birding hotspot? Those early chapters will certainly open your eyes, but for those of us who like the safety of their chosen comfort zone the remainder of the book will further educate and have you wishing you’d booked that Shetland trip.


Ray Scally’s artwork should not go unmentioned, it is excellent, educational and has a feel of Lars Johnsson, not at all two dimensional like some of the images that grace many field guides. Whilst some illustrations show the species in full, others break it down into parts. I found this method a better aid to ID, drawing your attention to the salient points rather than lots of arrows pointing in all directions.




Presumably Martin intends this series to cover the four seasons and presumably four books? Though given the huge spectrum of possible Autumn species, the Leaf Warblers and some of those tricky eastern buntings for starters, it could run and run until we’ve had enough. However, judging how Mr Garner’s enthusiasm rubs off onto others that could make for a very long series indeed.


The first tantalising glimpse of the Challenge Series had this frugal Yorkshireman reaching to the dark (rarely ventured) depths of his pockets and having now been privileged to have a review copy I can honestly say it was money well spent. This will certainly be part of my baggage allowance on my trip north this autumn.

31st July Best of the rest from Spain

In a shameless attempt to boost the blog ratings further I've dug out the remaining photos from our recent trip to Extremadura. Enjoy or just click the little cross in the top right corner.
Blue Rock Thrush Castillo de Monfrague
Woodchat Shrike. One of the very common roadside birds. 
Evenings on the Santa Marta Plains were better for Great Bustards with up to 15 on one evening. 
A visit to Trujillo's old bull ring is always a highlight for the Lesser Kestrels
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Little Owls are very common around farm buildings
Two pairs of Black Stork viewable from the Pina Falcon viewpoint
Short-toed Eagles seemed far more numerous than on previous visits.

25th July. No Oven No Pie

After a week of seemingly endless DIY and very little birding Jo and I decided on a rare afternoon/evening trip into town.

After a spot of shopping we started on our minor pub crawl. First pub was situated in the Old Water Works in the heart of the City. A pub where you can remarkably purchase a pint for less than two quid!! Though tempted to stay in for the rest of the day, or at least until I'd had enough - which for those that know me isn't very many - we started to make our way towards Kelham Island.


The Kelham Island area hosts several small pubs the type of which were traditionally frequented by men (and sometimes women) with beards and a generally low standard of personal hygiene. Whilst the old guard still sit in the corners of these pubs muttering about volume, body and general shit about beer that I couldn't possibly begin to understand and don't want to - these pubs have become a revolution for those that want a good night out with decent locally produced beer from the micro breweries that are popping up in Sheffield - non of that mass produced chemical crap here. Shit. Did I really just say that? Am I turning into a beer bore?

The Kelham Island Tavern has the added attraction of serving big pork pies and it would have been rude not to. Not just any old pork pie but a fine Wateralls pie and washed down with a pint of Barnsley's Acorn brewery Old Moor Porter. Presumably named after Old Moor (or Wath Ings as we knew it) is this the only birding hotspot to have a beer named after it? Beer bore info HERE

The real purpose of this night out (pronounced nee'tart) was to see the Everly Pregnant Brothers.  Anyone outside of South Yorkshire is unlikely to have heard of this curious ukulele sextet whose parodies of modern Indie songs are injected with subtle Sheffield dialect, humour, nostalgia and a general loathing of Leeds.

Coming on stage at 7.30pm the non paying audience (who says "Tha dunt get owt f nowt?") of several thousand were treated to such classics as Ham In, Common People ("If tha called thi fath-er e cud stop         it'all"), Hendos (a homage to Sheffield's beloved sauce), Pork Pie and the classic No Oven No Pie among a non-stop two and a quarter hour set. A set that made this middle-aged man from Rovrum (shhh) glow with nostalgia of his Sheffield roots, proud that I know what neets and afters are, that a snap tin isn't something you trap your hand in, that spice are sweet and what the oyl int ruwad was. Even Jo with her West Yorks upbringing enjoyed it, even laughing when the crowd chanted back F*ck Leeds.  Over the last few years i've seen a fair few live bands and for entertainment value alone the Everly Pregnant Brothers are up there with some of the best - no exaggeration they really were that good.  All in all a reet good neet.





5th June. Not For The Squeamish

We spent the morning/early afternoon walking the trail from the Castillo de Monfrague car park. The trees providing vital shade and plenty of birds, Subalpine Warblers and Short-toed Treecreeper being the highlights. As we headed back towards Trujillo in the mid-afternoon sun I noticed a large cloud of vultures circling over a farm just beyond Torrejon el Rubio. As we stopped to look by the roadside we noticed many birds (a couple of hundred) on the ground and the large body of a freshly dead cow. We spent the next hour watching these prehistoric garbage collectors reducing this large bovine by entering it's body via the soft spots i.e. mouth, backside and presumably as this was a cow..... Quite horrific but fascinating and without doubt the highlight of the trip.



Video best viewed in HD

4th June. Sierra de Gredos

We spent the remainder of our trip mostly covering old ground but on the 4th decided to head north to the Sierra de Gredos mountains if nothing else we would at least escape the increasing heat the day.

The optimistic two hours predicted by the stupid woman in the Sat Nav turned into about three and half and with hindsight it would make more sense to do this area for a couple of days either en-route to or from Trujillo.  

Calling at the Parador de Gredos we spent a good couple of hours trying to see Citril Finches with just a few very fleeting glimpses - though a Rock Sparrow singing around the tennis courts was unexpected and the numerous Bonelli's Warblers enjoyed.

Arriving at the Plataforma car park much later than intended and consequently too late in the day for any kind of serious walking. However we did manage to go up a kilometre or so. 

The change of habitat made for a pleasant change with scenery no unlike the higher parts of Speyside. Walking alongside the mountain stream with patches of snow still in abundance we picked up Rock and Ortolan Buntings, Blue Rock Thrush and a stunning male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Jo picking it up the second time by proclaiming, "I've got one of those orange and blue things!" A nice Water Pipit by the stream and numerous Dunnocks - who imitated their larger cousins that no doubt we would have seen further up the track. The Wheatears here are a funny looking bunch, much slighter than our wheatears and structurally more like Black-eared Wheatear  and lacking any peachy tones. 

A couple of tame Ortolans fed around the car park

1st-2nd June Monfrague continued

Having been struck down by blog writers block for the last 12 months, where you have all these great blogging ideas but as soon as you sit at a computer they all vanish or worse still you write complete shit and I am fully aware that has certainly been the case at times - okay most of the time.

Anyway before I go all Jack Nicholson in the Shining here's my latest offering.

I love the Spanish but their habit of congregating (quite rightly so it's their country after all) in large groups coincidentally at the best birding spots means you're best avoiding the popular areas at weekends.
With this in mind we made a the decision to tour the plains between Trujillo and Caceres. We set off shortly after breakfast, the temperature already coasting into the high twenties and as a consequence most of today's birding would be done from the car.

Following the Gosney Guide  tip we drove along the road from Santa Marta de Magasca towards Caceres (site 16 page 5) where no less than eight Rollers were found along the telegraph poles.


Little Bustards in June are particularly difficult, not because of the lack of birds but because of the height of the vegetation, so a female at the side of the track to La Encinilla Farmhouse was an unexpected bonus.





The site by the bridge over the Rio Almonte on the EX-390 again failed to produce any Black Wheatears but we did have great views of Alpine Swift and a close Black Kite. Despite the abundance of the latter species I never seem to get decent photos, so I was reasonably pleased with this one.


2nd June

Today was Jo's birthday and her choice of birthday treat wasn't a nice meal in the square but to see the Eagle Owls in Monfrague. Given that we'd heard that many people had missed the owls the meal option would have perhaps been easier to fulfill.  However later afternoon we headed out to Monfrague calling at a couple of sites en-route to Portilla del Tietar.  Our visit to the Castillo was brief due to an incredible plague of flying earwigs that even I couldn't stand.  

Picnicking at La Tajadilla we were joined by a mangy looking fox that seemed happy to take the prawn heads that we threw for him depriving the Azure-winged Magpies of their supper. The fox is mentioned on page 8 of the Gosney Guide as being present in January 2013 - so clearly makes a good living from picnickers!

We arrived at the Portilla del Tietar around 8pm and were immediately greeted by one of the adult Spanish Imperial Eagles overhead and one of the young Eagle Owls.  Over the next two hours the two young owls and a single adult performed in full view completely fulfilling Jo's birthday wish.



I also compiled a bit of shaky video with excited commentary from a German tourist.




31st May. Day 2 Monfrague

After yesterdays stress today would be a much more relaxed affair. A pre-breakfast jaunt to the Belen Plains produced the first Great Bustards of the trip, but they as always here were too far off for photos. A rather showy Bee-eater along the fence and an obliging Thekla Lark made up for an otherwise quiet visit.



A quick - though substantial - breakfast back at the hotel and we were on our way to spend the rest of the day in Monfrague. Here was the first and only disappointment of the holiday. A fair chunk of money has been spent of the Castillo - including a safety barrier on top of the Moorish keep. Personally I found the old barrier, a painted red line coupled with a pretty nasty drop enough to keep me away from the edge. The steps up to the castle have been improved and an additional viewing platform provided all adding to the attractiveness of the location for visitors, making it a bit crowded for birding.  That said we still enjoyed the view and the very easy White-rumped Swifts overhead.



The Pena Falcon, below the Castillo, was typically busy with birders and visitors alike and a dog Otter on the opposite bank increased the popularity, though for me it was as ever the Vultures that made the visit. Also some very showy Crag Martins feeding young on the cliff face.






After spending several hours in this area we moved further along the river. Pulling in just beyond the viaduct I immediately picked up two Bonellis Eagles over the road. Probably the best views I've had in four visits to the area.



Calling at the small village of Villa Real de San Carlos for refreshments we studied the bewildering array of Ice Cream on offer only to be met with a resounding 'no' at every selection. It turned out that only two types were available!

At Portilla del Tietar we were a little too early in the day for the Eagle Owls, but had spectacular views of Spanish Imperial Eagle the photo does it no justice at all.


Happy with our lot we headed back to Trujillo.

30th May. El Viaje

Way back at the end of last year Jo and I started to make plans for a holiday location for her forthcoming 40th (cough) birthday. I left the decision to her, after all it was her birthday. To my delight she chose a week in Extremadura staying in our favourite town of Trujillo.

So on the 30th May I bid farewell to the patch - to be honest after almost 3 months of consistently early mornings I was glad to see the back of it - and headed for the warmth of Spain.

An early morning flight would ensure that we'd be in our hotel just after lunch. After a combination of lost boarding passes and Jo's lack of basic physics  i.e. what constitutes a liquid in your hand luggage, that saw us become those twats that get their names called out just before the flight leaves. Despite this the flight went okay. The car hire cost us just £58 for eight days (plus £40 insurance) so I wasn't too upset at having to queue for over an hour to collect it. Leaving the airport at midday we were still on course to arrive by 2.30pm, still plenty of time for birding.

On the drive to Luton Airport Jo started that thing that all women do. The thing where they start going through a list of things that you might have forgotten. First on the list was "did you pack the guide book?" My response "er no!" This then fired up the part of my brain that remembers such things. "We've also forgotten the map and notebook" Note at this point the 'we'. Fortunately we had the sat nav and map of Spain loaded on the tablet pc. Yes the sat nav that got us f**king lost for over an hour and insisted on taking us into the centre of Madrid. After stopping to calm down, answer a work related text from a colleague (bastard!) and convince Jo* that we should look at the map on the tablet rather rely on the stupid cow inside the machine to direct us, we finally started to head in the right direction.

*that might not be exactly how it happened

Arriving in Trujillo just after 4pm I pulled out at a crossroads straight into the path of an oncoming van. By nothing short of lucky it stopped less than a foot from our car and after a few gesticulations from the occupants and words of encouragement from Jo I pulled myself together and made it safely to the hotel.
Despite Jo's insistence** that we should get straight out birding I suggested that we should call it a day, as far as driving was concerned, and stay within the safety of the hotel.

**a complete lie

On our previous trips here we've generally stayed in budget (though always pleasant) accommodation. On this trip we opted for the relative luxury of the Palacio de Santa Marta just off the main square. This proved to be an excellent choice a great hotel with stunning views over Trujillo and eye-level views of Lesser Kestrels, Pallid Swifts (probably about 20% of the swifts in the square), Crag Martins, plus Storks, Black Kite, Black Redstart, Serin and Blue Rock Thrush all from the balcony. After a dip in the pool, several cold beers and a great meal we turned in eager to greet the following morning.






26th May. I'm Still Here


If there's anyone still out there, and after a four month absence why would there be, then hello I'm still here.

Blogging hasn't come easily this year, and eight hours a day sat in front of a computer kinda makes you start to hate the thing by the end of the day.  Combined with the early (pre-work) starts on the patch I really am too knackered by the evening and like most zombies of the 21st Century I watch shit TV and look at videos of cats on the Internet.

Anyhow:

After a very quiet start to the year with only a couple of noteworthy birds namely
two Iceland Gulls, one of which was probably something rarer, but I have to let that one go..

The mantle and upperwing really were this dark!

Other than a Sanderling no other winter highlights spring to mind. I managed to miss most of the Whooper Swans, just scraping a couple at the end of March, but wildfowl numbers on the whole were very low and for the first time in five years the patch never froze..

Despite the promise of an early Spring, with the first Wheatear on the 20th March things soon went belly up with migration almost grinding to a halt until the third week of April.

Almost daily Whimbrel.

A better than average Spring for Arctic Terns

Then came May..

May always arrives with great anticipation, but more often than not it ends with a great deal of frustration.
The 3rd was one of those typically frustrating days, warm sunshine light south-west wind and very little movement. After a lap of the two lakes I decided that a circuit of the site, taking in the hawthorn hedgerows and young trees would prove more fruitful. A couple of Lesser Whitethroats singing in the southwest corner were a good addition - and at the time of writing still the only ones this year - and a Cuckoo (the first since 2012) almost deserved a little dance. Other than the aforementioned it was generally very quiet though.
Trawling through my Twitter notifications I scowled enviously at a report of a Glossy Ibis at Carr Vale and carried on round the perimeter stopping to scan over the seemingly birdless lakes. A quick look at Twitter again revealed that the Ibis had flown north from Carr Vale. Hmm. I stood on the causeway between the two lakes scanning the skyline all around me. I could see distant Swifts and Skylarks and mused to myself that even I could pick up a distant Ibis - though in all likelihood it would be miles up by now. As I turned from looking over the near woods at Treeton I was immediately faced with the site of a Glossy Ibis slowly dropping out of the sky towards the largest lake.
For a second or two I was stunned, then grabbed the camera and rattled off a few shots before it disappeared briefly. As I picked it up again it headed towards me and to my amazement dropped at the waters edge just in front of where I was stood. Okay Glossy Ibis aren't the best lookers in the world, but this was the first Sheffield area record (though strictly speaking Messrs Beevers and Gould can claim that honour as it headed north from Carr Vale) and one that had avoided our area for too long. Despite the good weather there wasn't and hadn't been a single dog walker onsite all morning and as the Ibis fed at the edge there was no danger that it would be flushed. After making a couple of panicking phone calls whilst firing off the camera like a three year old with a machine gun (the photos were all shit) the Ibis realised that it wouldn't get a decent meal disturbance or not and promptly left for the Old Moor area where three weeks 
on it still resides...
Disappointingly only two Whinchat so far.
Hobby can be tricky some years.
The first Spring record of Black Tern

My run of good luck through May continued adding Little Egret, Hobby, Grey Plover, Whimbrel (almost daily in the early part of the month), Little Stint (4 in total including a very tricky grey looking bird that had me completely screwed at the time), Black Tern and a fine drake Garganey on the 24th.



The Patchwork Challenge has totally taken all my birding time so far this year and to say that I'm addicted would be an understatement. As I write I've amassed a total of 120 species and 142 points, slightly ahead of last year but on course for a record year. Again August will be the make or break month and there's still lots of waders to aim for....


Easy when you've got a comparison species.







Only the second record of Garganey and the first drake
For once a peaceful  year (so far) for the many Hares

25th January 2014. The Pie To End All Pies

As a child the highlight of my Saturday would be a quarter share of a freshly baked pork pie - bought from the local shop and more often than not still warm. Unfortunately the baker, Coopers of Rotherham, went into liquidation sometime in the mid-1980s, but my love for pork pie was born.

Sadly good pork pies are a rare thing these days. Supermarkets stock things that are labelled as 'Pork Pie' but they are vile mass produced mechanically recovered grey mush surrounded by an over thick lardy pastry, guaranteed to have you reaching for the Rennies.

Fortunately South Yorkshire is blessed with several excellent purveyors of pork pie, among them  are; Elmhurst of Goldthorpe, Percy Turner of Jump and Waterall Bros in Sheffield Market. There may be others but these are my personal favourites.

I discovered Waterall Bros' several years back. One of my colleagues would occasionally take pity on me and on return from her weekly market trip present me with a small (ish) pork pie and a piece of black pudding. It was love at first bite - the light crisp golden pastry surrounding the delicious pink (proper) meaty filling with just the right amount of jelly to seperate them. A pie so good that any accompanying condiment would be deemed sacrilegious - even Henderson's! Followed by the most delicious black pudding it was a true northern delicacy, even if it was a little calorific.

Shortly before Christmas, via Twitter, I suggested to Steven Waterall (pork products supremo) that he could create a combination of his pork pie and black pudding. This wasn't exactly a eureka moment as I had tasted a similar creation from Elmhurst of Goldthorpe some years back.  To my delight a few days ago Steven 'tweeted' that his prototype pork and black pudding pie would be available for sampling this weekend. Steven kindly reserved me a 'review pie' and here it is in all it's delicious glory.

On the outside there's nothing to tell it apart from it's pork only sibling. But, once under the knife it becomes obvious. Rather than mix the two ingredients together (which I had expected) he has opted to lay about a half-inch of black pudding on top of the pork.  The real test is of course in the eating. First bite in and I was in pie heaven (and already regretting sharing it between the three of us) this was, to quote once funny comedian Peter Kay "a taste sensation" the pork complementing the pudding and vice versa. It was better than I could have imagined, no pie in my forty odd years of consuming savoury pastries has attacked my sensory organs in quite the same way, pure pie alchemy. Seeing the empty plate, now in front of me, left me feeling just as sad as the last day of the school holiday. Unanimous verdict in our pie loving household was that this simply was the best pie that any of us have ever eaten. One hour on and I'm still drooling - hopefully these will feature regularly on top of the Waterall Bros' counter.




Waterall's can be found in the new Sheffield Market situated at the bottom of The Moor - just look for the stall with the longest queue.