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19th February: Reflections: Under the weather!

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Long-billed Dowitcher at RSPB Lodmoor in Weymouth - January 2012 - the sort of vagrant from the USA that can arrive in Dorset in exceptional weather conditions
When I started ‘birding’ it did not take long to understand that the weather was an important factor in determining what one might see at each part of the year; some birds fly south for the winter whilst others come to us for the winter months from much further north. We call this ‘migration’! 
What took some time to work out is that things are more complicated and that the weather is a major influence on the lives of all birds, not just swallows and Brent geese. Looking back I find it ridiculous that it took time to find this out! After all, birds can fly and birds need to eat so birds will constantly move to find available food supplies if the weather makes feeding impossible where they are. When the going gets tough all birds get going, not just those we associate with long distance migration.
This is clearly evident if you spe…

30th January 2020: Reflections: Tick or Freak?

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The Canada goose - introduced in to parks in Britain so definitely 'plastic'? Reviewing tweets for nature sightings in Dorset each day to add to my Nature of Dorset database I detect that some birds are treated with a degree of disdain by experienced birders who consider them to be, amongst other printable adjectives, “plastic”. In other words, they are not real birds, they are not real ticks for a list.
I want to say at the outset that I have no problem with birders keeping lists; it is what birders do and is part of the excitement of bird watching and, whilst I have never been a lister myself, I can understand the motivation behind it. My reflections here are whether these “plastics” should be included in records, in particular, should I include them in the Nature of Dorset database.
I would suggest that there are three categories of “plastics”; releases, reintroductions and escapes. What qualifies a bird to be included in one of these categories is a moot point.
Releases are th…

Reflections: A Winter Warbler Land

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The presence of a blackcap feeding on fat balls in our garden today set me thinking about why there seem to be so many being recorded this winter. Along with chiffchaff rarely a day goes by without reports of these two warblers that in general you would expect to be in Africa by now.
When I first got interested in nature back in the 1970’s the issue of why most blackcap and chiffchaff migrated south for the winter while some chose to remain here was the subject of some speculation. I remember that one theory was that the rise in the popularity of feeding birds in gardens meant there was an increasingly adequate food supply for these species and there was no need for them to risk life and limb making the perilous journey south.
After a lot of research we seem to be far wiser now and have established that the birds we see here in winter are not the same ones that spend the summer here. Our summer birds do migrate south and are replaced by incoming birds from north-eastern Europe, especial…

Arctic Skua in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Arctic Skua in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Although named the Arctic skua because its main breeding grounds are within the Arctic circle this species also nests in the far north of Britain in northernmost Scotland and the northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland. However, once the breeding season is over they are quick to head south and spend much of their time at sea in warm coastal waters and some travel as far as the southern regions of Africa. During this time of migration they can often be seen off British shores and it is not unusual for them to be seen in small numbers off of the Dorset coast.  Sparsely reported on Twitter during the winter months Arctic skuas are more evident from about week 14 in early April as they start to return north to breed and there are frequent reports up until week 19 in mid May.  They start to lay eggs from early May and southerly migration starts in July with birds that have been unsuccessful in breeding followed in August and September by adult …

Grasshopper Warbler in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Grasshopper Warbler in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

The grasshopper warbler is associated with nesting in deep reed beds but although we have some superb reedbeds here in Dorset it seems they are not to their liking and it is rare that a grasshopper warbler actually breeds here. They are seen and heard as a passage migrant and can be encountered singing from within a red bed in spring but sadly that singing does not usually represent a male in a breeding territory. They do have a more diverse range of habitat than just reed bed and they can also be found in thick scrub and dense cover, often near freshwater fens and marshes. Their 'song' is a distinctive long warbling that sounds very much like a grasshopper stridulating hence its name. Its colloquial name amongst birders is 'gropper' which you will often see used in tweets. The spring arrivals start to happen in week 14 in April and seem to be at a peak in week 16 in late April/early May. There continues to be t…

Manx Shearwater in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Manx Shearwater in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

The manx shearwater is another one of those birds that do not come ashore in Dorset but can be included in the Dorset list as they can be frequently be seen by anyone with a foot in Dorset! Manx shearwater nest on various islands off of the west coast of Britain but spend much of their life as an ocean wanderer, usually in small flocks. They travel great distances and they are not an uncommon sight along the English Channel, often in spring as they start to return to their favoured nesting location.  There are reports of manx shearwater off of the Dorset coast for much of the spring, summer and autumn with reports starting in week 9 at the beginning of March and continuing through until week 36 at the end of October. After that they are seen just occasionally, often when bad weather encourages them closer to land to seek some shelter. April and May are the best times to see them and this coincides with their return to shore to nest…

Little Tern in Dorset; what your tweets tell us ...

Little Tern in Dorset; what your tweets tell us ...

The little tern is a summer visitor to Dorset but we have only one breeding colony here. The population level at this one nesting site on Chesil beach was declining but substantial efforts have been made involving extensive fence protection and volunteers manning a 24 hour a day watch over the site and this has meant the negative effects of predators and egg collectors have been minimised. These efforts have been rewarded by a gradual reversal of the downward trend and the population numbers are now healthier. Once breeding is finished the little tern flies south to avoid our winter. Unlike some migrating species they avoid crossing the Sahara and follow the western coasts of Europe and then Africa with some flying as far as South Africa.  First spring arrivals are seen in week 14 in April and numbers build over the following couple of weeks and many reports come in during May but once established and breeding starts from about week 20…