Sunday, 25 September 2011

25 Yanks, 7 lifers...6 days (part 1)

Myself and Josh Jones had planned on heading back to Ireland in September, well pretty much since we left there this time last year. As the departure date got closer, excitement and expectation levels increased, as low after low came across the Atlantic depositing a very healthy number of nearctic waders across the western extremities of the British Isles. The ferry was booked, all that needed to happen was for us to leave. Then, whilst walking round Flamborough, Black-and-White Warbler broke, the day before departue. A few calls later, the ferry had been pushed back a night, and changed to Fishguard-Rosslare. I met Josh mid-afternoon on Sunday to make a leisurely way down to Cornwall, stopping off in Lydney, Glos to have a look for the Spotted sand. Unfortunately we got there a bit late, no-one was around, the directions weren't entirely clear, and there was a huge amount of riverbank to search, so we missed it. It didn't really dampen our spirits, and we pulled in at Drift reservoir for a few hours kip, nervous and expectant at the thought of an excellent few hours on Scilly (and in my case, with a degree of nervousness about getting seasick on the Scillonian). The weather was pretty crap at dawn, but we still headed off down to the end of Drift at first light in the fog and drizzle to get a glimpse of our first Yank of the trip, the juv Lesser Yellowlegs doing what Yellowlegs do and mooching round the edge of the reservoir, looking pretty tame. We didn't have much time to hang about tho, as we needed to buy tickets for the crossing. By midday, we found ourselves in St.Mary's harbour, after a blissfully sickness free trip, picking up a Leach's petrel on the way across as a yeartick. Garry Bagnell kindly offered us a couple of spaces on the taxi he had booked, and we agrees that we should go to Newford duckpond for the briefest of looks for the Solitary Sand, before heading off to Lower Moors for the warbler. When we arrived, the taxi promptly departed for another fare, and with the Solitary Sand absent we were left to watch the Blue-winged Teal Ash Howe had found at the weekend squirm around in the mud, feeding constantly, only a few feet away. A very different experience to the one at Wheldrake. After about 10 minutes, another taxi appeared and we jumped in and headed off to Lower Moors. We had a wade through the mud on the side of the path, and headed in to a swamp filled with 30+ birders looking for the warbler and the waterthrush. It had become apparent that the waterthrush was far from pinned down, and that I could easily spend all of the 4 precious hours I had on the island waiting for it to show without success, so I decided to concentrate my efforts on the other birds on the island that would be lifers for me. After about 10 minutes of running, pishing and stalking through the Lower Moors rainforest, the Black and White warbler gave itself up, a truly stunning little bird. Pictures really don't do the bird justice, like the parula last year, it really seemed to glow in the dark and damp of the woodland. After getting good views of our main target, myself and Josh walked on to the Garrison and Lower Broome platform, which was only populated by only 3 other birders, a pleasant change to the slightly cramped Lower Moors. I picked up the Red-eyed Vireo, and it showed fantastically well, sitting out in the open for prolonged periods before crashing off to pick up more shield bugs to eat, then popping out again. We then shared a taxi with Will Soar and Stu Piner, and headed back up to Newford duck pond. By this stage, the Sandpiper had come on the pagers as showing at project pool, so we had the briefest of looks for the Bee-eater (fail), whilst Will and Stu enjoyed the teal, then headed back to Dump Clump. At the pool, the Solitary sand was showing incredibly well, showing down to just a few metres (unfortunately my camera was on the wrong setting, hence the blue appearance). We then returned to Lower Moors for a second crack at the warbler, this time getting even better, more prolonged views. With all the species we expected to see in the bag, with crippling views to boot, we chilled out, chatted a bit, and wandered down to the ISBG hide to check out the Pec. On my way to catch up with Josh, who had gone on ahead, I realised that somehow it was already 4pm! We needed to check in at the harbour in ten minutes at the latest, and it was at least a 20 minute walk. I dashed in to the hide to get Josh, glanced at the head and breast of a Pec sand buried in vegetation, and sprinted up to the road. A local was driving, thumbs out, and miraculously the car stopped and gave us a lift all the way to the quay! We boarded with time to spare, and I enjoyed a few decent seabirds on the crossing back (60+ Stormies, 3 Balearics, 3 Sooties and 15+Common Dolphins) while Josh kipped in preparation for the dash round to Fishguard in time for the 02:45 ferry. Day 1: 6 Yanks, 3 lifers to be continued....

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A cracking day

...followed by a weekend of dross.

But still, Friday was a very good day. I had a six hour dawn survey, beginning at 6am, at a site in north(ish) North Yorkshire. Normally these surveys drag a bit, with hours passing without seeing a recordable bird, or getting excited about a single feral Greylag at a miles range that can be recorder. Not this time however, with wader action coming thick and fast, lots of autumnal flocks of the commonest waders, plus a migratory Dunlin, a White Wag on the deck, and a fair few passerines on the move overhead, with hundreds of hirundines hawking around. All of this would have been enough to make the morning pass fast enough, and lead to a good day, but to top the survey off, after returning from an enforced hours break, an Osprey was circling over site, before heading off at about 10:30ish.

During the break, I had recieved a call from Tim Jones about the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper that had been found in Gretham Creek. We made plans to meet up in Northallerton at the end of my survey, and sure enough, despite Tim hitting some rough traffic on the way up, we were under way by 14:30. I wasn't particularly optimistic, with the bird having gone missing once already, and it apparently being very flighty. It was with great surprise and relief then that we rocked up in Cleveland to people walking away from site, looking pretty happy and reporting the bird as still there. Five minutes later, we were watching a stonker of a summer-plumages ST Sand at about 70m range, showing off a fantastic array of plumage features. I will at some stage try and upload my field notes, which completely fail to do it justice, but they are full of outrageous comparisons, from Stilt Sand through Ruff to Pec. An all brown wader never looked so good. Sadly, its absence on Saturday came as no surprise, with it being very flighty and not particularly happy associating with the Dunlin flock. There were a few Curlew Sands and Ruff around, allowing for further comparison to a few common species.

We carried on to Whitburn, in the hope of getting Tim another multiple tick day, but sadly neither the AGP or Bonapartes Gull felt like co-operating, the highlight being an interesting small gull, that I think is a Med Gull x BH Gull hybrid, and Tim thought was a slightly abherrent Med Gull (although he may have returned to sitting on the fence by now).

After such a good day, the weekend had a lot to live up to, which it spectacularly failed to do. Saturday I headed over to Flamborough, a bit late on in the morning admittedly, and had a wander round Old Fall and the Gorse field. This produced a dozen odd phylloscs and a Spot Fly. Then spent 30 minutes looking for a slightly suppressed RB Fly, before giving up and having a look round Holmes Gut. After not seeing another bird, I gave up in disgust and went home.

Sunday wasn't much better, but at least involved less petrol. A trip to Wheldrake resulted in little more than a new found appreciation of Wheldrake when there is actually water there. In fact, I got so bored, I started to learn stuff about common birds, disgusting. If you're interested, the amount of orange on Teal's beaks is quite important in ageing and sexing them. There was a 2y male and a juv Marsh Harrier buzzing about as well. I then headed on to North Duff, again no water, and again another juv Marsh Harrier and not a lot else. A wandering route home meant that I (independently) bumped in to the same gull flock Russ had, this time with just the one YL Gull in it, near East Cottingwith, as a mild bit of interest to round off a niceish weekend.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Early Autumn update

Haven't posted in a while, partly because with the new job I haven't had as much time to write rubbish blogposts, and partly because I haven't had as much time to be a rubbish birder.

Anyway, in terms of actually finding stuff for myself, the summer has been pretty uneventful. I added Quail to my self-found list (as has everyone in the country I think), and found some breeding Nightjar near Harrogate, and a pair of HB's at a new location in the New Forest(for myself at least, I'm fairly sure the locals know about them). Twitching was also fairly uneventful, with new birds in the form of a long overdue WR Sand at Saltholme, and a hugely distant and hazy Stilt sand at Lodmoor RSPB. A return trip to Salthome a bit later gave nice comparisons of the back and tail of a Semi-P with a Temminck's Stint(the Semi-P was being thoroughly crap and not coming out from behind the causewy at all). I probably saw more stuff, but I was presumably so un-enamoured with it that I can't remember them.

But now Autumn has started, the blood is up again, and the first trip in anger was had, down to Cornwall for a spot of seawatching on August bank holiday weekend. In hindsight, I clearly chose the wrong weekend, and sat in the wrong location in Cornwall pretty much everytime I moved, but these things can't be helped. I console myself with the thought that I was at least out in the field seeing birds rather than sat at home on my arse, despite the trip having cost me 150 quid+ with only 1 very crap tick to show for it,despite the weather, time of year and location promising a whole lot more.

Thursday night saw me and Tim heading down from York at 7pm, aiming to get a little sleep in PG car park before dawn. As we hit Cornwall, a storm was brewing, wth immense lightning flashes over Dartmoor and Bodmin, promising a good seawatch ahead. As dawn broke, Ash Howe and Joe Stockwell pulled into the car park, and we headed for Gwennap head. The day started well at PG, with 3 Great Shears, 10+ stormies mooching, and our best counts of Balearics for the weekend. In the afternoon, we moved on to Pendeen as the wind had switched a bit, and arrived to the impressive site of thousands of Manxies streaming past, with good numbers of Sooties caught up with them. However, I found it more of a struggle to get on birds from here with the higher elevation, and missed all 3 of the large shearwaters that were called out, which resulted in a rather bad tempered seawatch on my part. A couple of Basking sharks thrashing around went some way to cheering me up a bit.

Saturday saw more of the same off Pendeen, with large numbers of Manxies and a good passage of skuas as well, which included 3 poms, including one stunning intermediate morph bird with full spoons just beyond the rocks. (Joe and Ash missed most of the moring, including that Pom, through a combination of sleeping, getting breakfast, and generally being a bit dudey). By about half 11 the passage had dried up, and we headed down to the Hayle, where we found (at least we didn't know of their existence before we rocked up) a Little Stint and a Curlew Sand, along with about half a dozen Med Gulls of varying ages. We headed to Long Rock, full of sunbathers, holidaymakers and a few definitelynotstrungasapurplesandcostheyweresatonrocksinmountsbay Knot, where we got a call from Ash to say the Black Kite had been seen again on the Lizard. We headed off to see the bird, and I picked it up briefly dropping down behind a house in the direction of Lizard point. Unfortunately the others wouldn't leave with only 3 second, head on views of a Black Shite (in fact, didn't even believe I had identified it), so I wasted at least half an hour of seawatching time watching the most boring raptor in the world fly around a field eating a vole, whilst locals and holidaymakers borrowed our bins and said stupid things like 'isn't it beautiful' and 'look how big it is'.
We headed back to pendeen, to hear we had missed about 3 manx shearwaters, and continued to see about 3 more for the rest of the afternoon. then we went to the pub and drank Rattler. After the Pom, that was probably the highlight.

On Sunday we got up, I chucked some grass in a north easterly direction, and we drove to PG. Quickly realising I am an idiot, and cannot tell which way the wind is blowing, we headed back to pendeen (but not before logging a few Sooties)and didn't see a lot from there either, the highlight of an otherwise quiet morning being an adult Sabs Gull picked up by Brett. By (sometime before) midday it had gone dead again, so the three others went to string stuff at Drift whilst I slept. None of us were particularly succesful. An afternoon session off PG was more fun, with a steady drip of Sooties and skuas keeping us in good humour, with Joe being a wuss and staying down in the cove (but still managing to see roughly the same birds). The highlight was an adult Roseate tern which we succesfully picked out, despite the obvious skepticism of the Seawatch SW observer, who missed it, picked it up late, then sounded very doubtful about its identity. We were very pleased to have it confirmed later by Brett and Joe who had watched it at much closer range as it had passed the Cove.

On Monday, the wind had completely died, so we sacked of seawatching, Tim dragged me down to Devon kicking and screaming, to sit in Bank Holiday traffic round Paignton and eventually look at a few partially concealed Cirl Bunts in a hedge in Broadstairs car park (tart tick number 3 for Tim). We split from Ash and Joe who headed back to watch woodpeckers in Hants, whilst we continued on to stare at a reedbed in Somerset (Meare Heath). The pool in front of the reeds had a couple of Garganey, a Spotshank, a few Greensands and other bits and bobs that made for a pleasant few hours unsuccesful wait. I wandered down to Noah's lake to watch an osprey sit on a large stick, and I'm told that if there had been space in the hide for me to turn my head, I could have seen a Great White Egret (which Tim promptly ticked on my return to Spotted Crake watch). There wasn't, so I didn't, and a chat with Dan Pointon, sheer laziness and a pressing engagement with a 6 hour drive all conspired to stop me returning to the hide for a second attempt to see one of the largest and most obvious birds on the British list.

Overall, it wasn't a bad weekend, with some very good birds seen. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it is the story of what might have been that means it was not a pleasant an experience as it might have been otherwise. On the Saturday, we (and everyone else watching) missed what seems to be a very dodgy claim of Yelkouan Shear, on the Sunday, we missed a close in Little Shear (that passed PG cove whilst we were watching from Gwennap) last thing in the evening, partly because we had decided passage was done for the day despite all evidence to the contrary, and because we were looking to far out at Sooties, despite repeated warnings from regulars that the biggies pass close in. It was even worse for Joe, who had left the cove ten minutes before it was seen, due to another pressing engagement with a nap. On the same evening, one of our number (who shall remain unnamed *cough* hants birder *cough* Cockram *cough* failed to mention an unidentified bird which possibly/probably got picked up and seen on Scilly the next day, until we reached the pub that night. A few days (one??) after, a Baird's was found on the Hayle, and this week, record numbers of Great Shears and Balearics went past. Overall, these cast a bit of a shadow on our trip, but at least we saw the birds we did, better than being stuck in front of the TV any day of the week.

The big question is, with more weather fronts piling in to the Uk over the next few weeks, where to head to next? My money's on NW Ireland, where I fully expect to find myself, hopefully finding, not twitching, before September is out.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

New job

So I have now finished my degree (although I'm yet to get my results, or graduate - an unpleasant limbo) and have quit my weekend job at Birdnet. Instead I now have a job working as an Assistant ornithologist, largely doing bird survey work in the field. This means that I have been pretty busy in the last 3 weeks, with several overnight stays in West Yorkshire, and I have seen 04:30 more times in the last 3 weeks than I think the rest of my life combined. There have been some terrible, dull surveys, for instance 6 hours with only a couple of canada geese as company is as dull as birding gets, but there have also been some brilliant highlights, including a male Hen Harrier hunting over moorland, Short-eared Owl, Merlin, Quail in the open, as well as hearing several others, and just having the pleasure of watching breeding waders on upland sites. Overall, a fantastic job, and one that I am enjoying the challenge of getting to grips with.

It is, combined with end of degree socials, having something of a negative impact on my birding and twitching. The first two Mondays i worked coincided with 2 1st for Britain's, wholly unexpected in June. I have only so far managed to connect with the WT Robin, happily standing on some scaffolding on the back of a pick-up to get decent views of the bird. Not the most relaxed twitch ever, but pretty funny, and my first ever post-work, which i must say adds to the stress of the whole thing. The duck will have to wait for a bit yet unfortunately.

The only birding I have managed recently, other than a few uneventful hours locally, was a day out at Wykeham with Cat. The HB's performed admirably, wing-clapping overhead and giving stunning views. Even still, I was shocked by the number of people, 50+ watching the HB's and another 20 odd looking at Turtle Doves!?! round the corner. On a weekday! Surely there must be more HB pairs in the UK than this this year. After that I headed up on to the moors again with Cat, to show her Ring ouzel and Whinchat, but unfortunately failed to track down any Redstarts in a brief look in the lazy mid-afternoon sunshine.

All very pleasant, but unfortunately the next few weeks will be dominated by moving house (twice) and all the stress and faffing associated with it. Roll on August and the seabird season!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Long time no post

Hey. Sorry about the long break in posting, had my final exams and stuff all went a bit manic. Nearly done now tho. Anyway, no wildly exciting local birding done by me, but a fair bit of twitching in the last few weeks. I was on the way to Flamborough when news of the Calandra broke, so kidnapped Chris Gomersall and took him kicking and screaming across the county line. Needless to say we failed to connect, seeing as the warden had booted it halfway to Scandinavia by all accounts, but spent a pleasant few hours at Frampton Marsh RSPB, finally managing to put KC's name to a face, and year-ticking R-N.Phal, 6+Temminck's Stint, Garganey and a few other pleasant bits and pieces. O, Tim TICKEDWATER PIPIT, the big tart. We then dipped on WT Eagle again. FFS.

The next day I was back at Frampton so Josh could yeartick all that stuff, on the way to dip Great Snipe at Cley. Did get Lesser Yellowlegs, Spoonbill, and Bearded Tits bouncing about whilst we were aimlessly standing around, ostensibly in a queue.

Sunday picked up the success rate a bit, with two ticks in an afternoon, me and Tim driving to Sheff to meet up with Josh, before picking up his Uncle just over the border. Not really what you expect when you're travelling to Wales, and don't leave the house til half 3. Anyway, the 1s male Citrine Wag at Conway was stunning, the Broad-billed Sand was underwhhelming, whilst the flock of Dunlin it was with was really quite impressive. A Curlew Sand amongst them as well. Sadly there wasn't enough light to make it a 3 tick day with the Buff-breast at Frodsham.

This Sunday saw a dawn start with Josh picking me up at half 4, and watching the Rustic Bunting at Filey by just gone half 5. An absolutely stonking bird, very tame and showed magnificently. No one else had bothered to get up for it, and what a tret it was compared to the Cley twitch to have such a fantastic bird to ourselves. We carried on to Easington, so that Josh could yeartick Tawny Pipit. It was my first time out that way this spring and was quite impressed by the constant hirundine passage, although i know its been far bigger and more impressive on other days.

Thats me up to date, I'm currently writing this rather than watching a Least Sand cos i seem to have mislaid my car keys quite seriously, so fingers crossed the situation will be resolved soon and you wont hear from me again for a week or two.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Yellow Wag

This is the Yellow Wag mentioned in the last post. It had an obviously paler grey mantle than the other flavissima it was feeding with, and the head had a grey hue to it as well. Altogether very odd. I watched it with Jack Ashton-Booth, who initially picked it out, and it may well be the same bird Tim saw yesterday evening. When it called, it didn't seem very different from the others, certainly not a rasping call. Anyway, I'm pretty stumped by it, more research needed. Apologies for the quality of the photo's it was pretty dark, but the video is OKish, and will hopefully give some clues.

EDIT: Problem solved? Just a grey-coloured Flavissima it seems, my ignorance shining through brightly again. -see post 32

Hes East; productive day

Spot the Green Sand (not deliberate, just got the pics mixed up)

Had a decent day today, although infuriating at times. Woke up to a text from Tim saying he had found 2 Wood Sands and a Green Sand on one of the smaller pools at Hes East. I was feeling pretty lazy, so didn't head down til about half 9, to the sight of a person stood out on the bank, clearly against the horizon and very close to the pool, and unsurprisingly no sign of the Wood Sand. I later found out that there had been 3 people twitching the Wood Sands, all stood far too close and clearly above the horizon (one person came back later and apologised for disturbing the birds, so fair play to him), which just seems to display a lack of common sense and field craft. I headed up to to the c/pk to scan the other pools, to one of the same guys having parked out at the end of one of the construction tracks. When Tim confronted him about driving out and flushing the birds earlier, apparently he was met with silence. Not really on, especially given the effort Tim went to to give clear directions for viewing and to help everyone see these birds. I'm committed to putting bird news out whenever possible, but days like today make you question when it's appropriate. Anyway, one of the birds returned later on, and I got some decent views of it with a Green Sand. I went back later on, and had a decent flock of 13 yellow wags, including an odd bird, that I'll post photos of above.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Wheatear age

Just had a quick look round Hes east, not much doing at all, but wI was watching this Wheatear and was struck primarily by how variable it seemed, at times apparently showing a peachy was across all of the breast, at times white flanks and a clear colour divide between the breast and underbelly of the bord, as well as primaries that seemed to look anything from chocolate brown to black. I also wasn't sure if I could reliable age the bird, is it an adult or 2cy male? Any comments welcome, fwiw i think it's possibly a 2cy male, my 1975 Svensson seems to suggest that if the remiges are darker than the lores, it's 2cy. However this and have confused me a bit.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Politics Revison

Just been doing some revision for my SA politics module and was reminded of this truly terrible human being. Just thought I would post here in case anyone is interested in the depths people will go to make a few bucks. The rest of Bad Science is worth a read as well
This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at


The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow. Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?

In an ideal world this would be only a thought experiment. AIDS is the opposite of anecdote. Twenty-five million people have died from it already, three million in the last year alone, and 500,000 of those deaths were children. In South Africa it kills 300,000 people every year: that’s eight hundred people every day, or one every two minutes. This one country has 6.3 million people who are HIV positive, including 30 per cent of all pregnant women. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans under the age of seventeen. Most chillingly of all, this disaster has appeared suddenly, and while we were watching: in 1990, just 1 per cent of adults in South Africa were HIV positive. Ten years
later, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

It’s hard to mount an emotional response to raw numbers, but on one thing I think we would agree. If you were to walk into a situation with that much death, misery and disease, you would be very careful to make sure that you knew what you were talking about. For the reasons you are about to read, I suspect that Matthias Rath missed the mark.

This man, we should be clear, is our responsibility. Born and raised in Germany, Rath was the head of Cardiovascular Research at the Linus Pauling Institute in Palo Alto in California, and even then he had a tendency towards grand gestures, publishing a paper in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine in 1992 titled “A Unified Theory of Human Cardiovascular Disease Leading the Way to the Abolition of this Disease as a Cause for Human Mortality”. The unified theory was high-dose vitamins.

He first developed a power base from sales in Europe, selling his pills with tactics that will be very familiar to you from the rest of this book, albeit slightly more aggressive. In the UK, his adverts claimed that “90 per cent of patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer die within months of starting treatment”, and suggested that three million lives could be saved if cancer patients stopped being treated by conventional medicine. The pharmaceutical industry was deliberately letting people die for financial gain, he explained. Cancer treatments were “poisonous compounds” with “not even one effective treatment”.

The decision to embark on treatment for cancer can be the most difficult that an individual or a family will ever take, representing a close balance between well-documented benefits and equally well-documented side-effects. Adverts like these might play especially strongly on your conscience if your mother has just lost all her hair to chemotherapy, for example, in the hope of staying alive just long enough to see your son speak.

There was some limited regulatory response in Europe, but it was generally as weak as that faced by the other characters in this book. The Advertising Standards Authority criticised one of his adverts in the UK, but that is essentially all they are able to do. Rath was ordered by a Berlin court to stop claiming that his vitamins could cure cancer, or face a €250,000 fine.

But sales were strong, and Matthias Rath still has many supporters in Europe, as you will shortly see. He walked into South Africa with all the acclaim, self-confidence and wealth he had amassed as a successful vitamin-pill entrepreneur in Europe and America, and began to take out full-page adverts in newspapers.

˜The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,” he proclaimed. Anti-retroviral drugs were poisonous, and a conspiracy to kill patients and make money. “Stop AIDS Genocide by the Drugs Cartel said one headline. “Why should South Africans continue to be poisoned with AZT? There is a natural answer to AIDS.” The answer came in the form of vitamin pills. “Multivitamin treatment is more effective than any toxic AIDS drug. Multivitamins cut the risk of developing AIDS in half.”

Rath’s company ran clinics reflecting these ideas, and in 2005 he decided to run a trial of his vitamins in a township near Cape Town called Khayelitsha, giving his own formulation, VitaCell, to people with advanced AIDS. In 2008 this trial was declared illegal by the Cape High Court of South Africa. Although Rath says that none of his participants had been on anti-retroviral drugs, some relatives have given statements saying that they were, and were actively told to stop using them.

Tragically,Matthias Rath had taken these ideas to exactly the right place. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa at the time, was well known as an “AIDS dissident”, and to international horror, while people died at the rate of one every two minutes in his country, he gave credence and support to the claims of a small band of campaigners who variously claim that AIDS does not exist, that it is not caused by HIV, that anti-retroviral medication does more harm than good, and so on.

At various times during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa their government argued that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that anti-retroviral drugs are not useful for patients. They refused to roll out proper treatment programmes, they refused to accept free donations of drugs, and they refused to accept grant money from the Global Fund to buy drugs. One study estimates that if the South African national government had used anti-retroviral drugs for prevention and treatment at the same rate as the Western Cape province (which defied national policy on the issue), around 171,000 new HIV infections and 343,000 deaths could have been prevented between 1999 and 2007. Another study estimates that between 2000 and 2005 there were 330,000 unnecessary deaths, 2.2 million person years lost, and 35,000 babies unnecessarily born with HIV because of the failure to implement a cheap and simple mother-to-child-transmission prevention program. Between one and three doses of an ARV drug can reduce transmission dramatically. The cost is negligible. It was not available.

Interestingly, Matthias Rath’s colleague and employee, a South African barrister named Anthony Brink, takes the credit for introducing Thabo Mbeki to many of these ideas. Brink stumbled on the “AIDS dissident” material in the mid-1990s, and after much surfing and reading, became convinced that it must be right. In 1999 he wrote an article about AZT in a Johannesburg newspaper titled “a medicine from hell”. This led to a public exchange with a leading virologist. Brink contacted Mbeki, sending him copies of the debate, and was welcomed as an expert.

This is a chilling testament to the danger of elevating cranks by engaging with them. In his initial letter of motivation for employment to Matthias Rath, Brink described himself as “South Africa’s leading AIDS dissident, best known for my whistle-blowing exposé of the toxicity and inefficacy of AIDS drugs, and for my political activism in this regard, which caused President Mbeki and Health Minister Dr Tshabalala-Msimang to repudiate the drugs in 1999″.

In 2000, the now infamous International AIDS Conference took place in Durban. Mbeki’s presidential advisory panel beforehand was packed with “AIDS dissidents”, including Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick. On the first day, Rasnick suggested that all HIV testing should be banned on principle, and that South Africa should stop screening supplies of blood for HIV. “If I had the power to outlaw the HIV antibody test,” he said, “I would do it across the board.” When African physicians gave testimony about the drastic change AIDS had caused in their clinics and hospitals, Rasnick said he had not seen “any evidence” of an AIDS catastrophe. The media were not allowed in, but one reporter from the Village Voice was present. Peter Duesberg, he said, “gave a presentation so removed from African medical reality that it left several local doctors shaking their heads”. It wasn’t AIDS that was killing babies and children, said the dissidents: it was the anti-retroviral medication.

President Mbeki sent a letter to world leaders comparing the struggle of the “AIDS dissidents” to the struggle against apartheid. The Washington Post described the reaction at the White House: “So stunned were some officials by the letter’s tone and timing during final preparations for July’s conference in Durban that at least two of them, according to diplomatic sources, felt obliged to check whether it was genuine. Hundreds of delegates walked out of Mbeki’s address to the conference in disgust, but many more described themselves as dazed and confused. Over 5,000 researchers and activists around the world signed up to the Durban Declaration, a document that specifically addressed and repudiated the claims and concerns–at least the more moderate ones–of the “AIDS dissidents”. Specifically, it addressed the charge that people were simply dying of poverty:

The evidence that AIDS is caused by HIV-1 or HIV-2 is clearcut, exhaustive and unambiguous… As with any other chronic infection, various co-factors play a role in determining the risk of disease. Persons who are malnourished, who already suffer other infections or who are older, tend to be more susceptible to the rapid development of AIDS following HIV infection. However, none of these factors weaken the scientific evidence that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS… Mother-to-child transmission can be reduced by half or more by short courses of antiviral drugs … What works best in one country may not be appropriate in another. But to tackle the disease, everyone must first understand that HIV is the enemy. Research, not myths, will lead to the development of more effective and cheaper treatments.

It did them no good. Until 2003 the South African government refused, as a matter of principle, to roll out proper antiretroviral medication programmes, and even then the process was half-hearted. This madness was only overturned after a massive campaign by grassroots organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign, but even after the ANC cabinet voted to allow medication to be given, there was still resistance. In mid-2005, at least 85 per cent of HIV-positive people who needed anti-retroviral drugs were still refused them. That’s around a million people.

This resistance, of course, went deeper than just one man; much of it came from Mbeki’s Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. An ardent critic of medical drugs for HIV, she would cheerfully go on television to talk up their dangers, talk down their benefits, and became irritable and evasive when asked how many patients were receiving effective treatment. She declared in 2005 that she would not be “pressured” into meeting the target of three million patients on anti-retroviral medication, that people had ignored the importance of nutrition, and that she would continue to warn patients of the sideeffects of anti-retrovirals, saying: “We have been vindicated in
this regard. We are what we eat.”

It’s an eerily familiar catchphrase. Tshabalala-Msimang has also gone on record to praise the work of Matthias Rath, and refused to investigate his activities. Most joyfully of all, she is a staunch advocate of the kind of weekend glossy-magazine-style nutritionism that will by now be very familiar to you. The remedies she advocates for AIDS are beetroot, garlic, lemons and African potatoes. A fairly typical quote, from the Health Minister in a country where eight hundred people die every day from AIDS, is this: “Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon–not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease.” South Africa’s stand at the 2006 World AIDS Conference in Toronto was described by delegates as the “salad stall”. It consisted of some garlic, some beetroot, the African potato, and assorted other vegetables. Some boxes of anti-retroviral drugs were added later, but they were reportedly borrowed at the last minute from other conference delegates.

Alternative therapists like to suggest that their treatments and ideas have not been sufficiently researched. As you now know, this is often untrue, and in the case of the Health Minister’s favoured vegetables, research had indeed been done, with results that were far from promising. Interviewed on SABC about this, Tshabalala-Msimang gave the kind of responses you’d expect to hear at any North London dinner-party discussion of alternative therapies.

First she was asked about work from the University of Stellenbosch which suggested that her chosen plant, the African potato, might be actively dangerous for people on AIDS drugs. One study on African potato in HIV had to be terminated prematurely, because the patients who received the plant extract developed severe bone-marrow suppression and a drop in their CD4 cell count–which is a bad thing–after eight weeks. On top of this, when extract from the same vegetable was given to cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, they succumbed to full-blown Feline AIDS faster than their non-treated controls. African potato does not look like a good bet.

Tshabalala-Msimang disagreed: the researchers should go back to the drawing board, and “investigate properly”. Why? Because HIV-positive people who used African potato had shown improvement, and they had said so themselves. If a person says he or she is feeling better, should this be disputed, she demanded to know, merely because it had not been proved scientifically? “When a person says she or he is feeling better, I must say ‘No, I don’t think you are feeling better’? I must rather go and do science on you’?” Asked whether there should be a scientific basis to her views, she replied: “Whose science?”

And there, perhaps, is a clue, if not exoneration. This is a continent that has been brutally exploited by the developed world, first by empire, and then by globalised capital. Conspiracy theories about AIDS and Western medicine are not entirely absurd in this context. The pharmaceutical industry has indeed been caught performing drug trials in Africa which would be impossible anywhere in the developed world. Many find it suspicious that black Africans seem to be the biggest victims of AIDS, and point to the biological warfare programmes set up by the apartheid governments; there have also been suspicions that the scientific discourse of HIV/AIDS might be a device, a Trojan horse for spreading even more exploitative Western political and economic agendas around a problem that is simply one of poverty.

And these are new countries, for which independence and self-rule are recent developments, which are struggling to find their commercial feet and true cultural identity after centuries of colonisation. Traditional medicine represents an important link with an autonomous past; besides which, anti-retroviral medications have been unnecessarily – offensively, absurdly – expensive, and until moves to challenge this became partially successful, many Africans were effectively denied access to medical treatment as a result.

It’s very easy for us to feel smug, and to forget that we all have our own strange cultural idiosyncrasies which prevent us from taking up sensible public-health programmes. For examples, we don’t even have to look as far as MMR. There is a good evidence base, for example, to show that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but this strategy has been rejected time and again in favour of “Just say no.” Development charities funded by US Christian groups refuse to engage with birth control, and any suggestion of abortion, even in countries where being in control of your own fertility could mean the difference between success and failure in life, is met with a cold, pious stare. These impractical moral principles are so deeply entrenched that Pepfar, the US Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, has insisted that every recipient of international aid money must sign a declaration expressly promising not to have any involvement with sex workers.

We mustn’t appear insensitive to the Christian value system, but it seems to me that engaging sex workers is almost the cornerstone of any effective AIDS policy: commercial sex is frequently the “vector of transmission”, and sex workers a very high-risk population; but there are also more subtle issues at stake. If you secure the legal rights of prostitutes to be free from violence and discrimination, you empower them to demand universal condom use, and that way you can prevent HIV from being spread into the whole community. This is where science meets culture. But perhaps even to your own friends and neighbours, in whatever suburban idyll has become your home, the moral principle of abstinence from sex and drugs is more important than people dying of AIDS; and perhaps, then, they are no less irrational than Thabo Mbeki.

So this was the situation into which the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath inserted himself, prominently and expensively, with the wealth he had amassed from Europe and America, exploiting anti-colonial anxieties with no sense of irony, although he was a white man offering pills made in a factory abroad. His adverts and clinics were a tremendous success. He began to tout individual patients as evidence of the benefits that could come from vitamin pills – although in reality some of his most famous success stories have died of AIDS. When asked about the deaths of Rath’s star patients, Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang replied: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that if I am taking antibiotics and I die, that I died of antibiotics.”

She is not alone: South Africa’s politicians have consistently refused to step in, Rath claims the support of the government, and its most senior figures have refused to distance themselves from his operations or to criticise his activities. Tshabalala-Msimang has gone on the record to state that the Rath Foundation “are not undermining the government’s position. If anything, they are supporting it.”

In 2005, exasperated by government inaction, a group of 199 leading medical practitioners in South Africa signed an open letter to the health authorities of the Western Cape, pleading for action on the Rath Foundation. “Our patients are being inundated with propaganda encouraging them to stop life-saving medicine,” it said. “Many of us have had experiences with HIV infected patients who have had their health compromised by stopping their anti-retrovirals due to the activities of this Foundation.” Rath’s adverts continue unabated. He even claimed that his activities were endorsed by huge lists of sponsors and affiliates including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and UNAIDS. All have issued statements flatly denouncing his claims and activities. The man certainly has chutzpah.

His adverts are also rich with detailed scientific claims. It would be wrong of us to neglect the science in this story, so we should follow some through, specifically those which focused on a Harvard study in Tanzania. He described this research in full-page advertisements, some of which have appeared in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He refers to these paid adverts, I should mention, as if he had received flattering news coverage in the same papers. Anyway, this research showed that multivitamin supplements can be beneficial in a developing world population with AIDS: there’s no problem with that result, and there are plenty of reasons to think that vitamins might have some benefit for a sick and frequently malnourished population.

The researchers enrolled 1,078 HIV-positive pregnant women and randomly assigned them to have either a vitamin supplement or placebo. Notice once again, if you will, that this is another large, well-conducted, publicly funded trial of vitamins, conducted by mainstream scientists, contrary to the claims of nutritionists that such studies do not exist. The women were followed up for several years, and at the end of the study, 25 per cent of those on vitamins were severely ill or dead, compared with 31 per cent of those on placebo. There was also a statistically significant benefit in CD4 cell count (a measure of HIV activity) and viral loads. These results were in no sense dramatic – and they cannot be compared to the demonstrable life-saving benefits of anti-retrovirals – but they did show that improved diet, or cheap generic vitamin pills, could represent a simple and relatively inexpensive way to marginally delay the need to start HIV medication in some patients.

In the hands of Rath, this study became evidence that vitamin pills are superior to medication in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, that anti-retroviral therapies “severely damage all cells in the body–including white blood cells”, and worse, that they were “thereby not improving but rather worsening immune deficiencies and expanding the AIDS epidemic”. The researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health were so horrified that they put together a press release setting out their support for medication, and stating starkly, with unambiguous clarity, that Matthias Rath had misrepresented their findings.

To outsiders the story is baffling and terrifying. The United Nations has condemned Rath’s adverts as “wrong and misleading”. “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence,” said Eric Goemaere, head of Médecins sans Frontières SA, a man who pioneered anti-retroviral therapy in South Africa. Rath sued him.

It’s not just MSF who Rath has gone after: he has also brought time-consuming, expensive, stalled or failed cases against a professor of AIDS research, critics in the media and others.

But his most heinous campaign has been against the Treatment Action Campaign. For many years this has been the key organisation campaigning for access to anti-retroviral medication in South Africa, and it has been fighting a war on four fronts. Firstly, TAC campaigns against its own government, trying to compel it to roll out treatment programmes for the population. Secondly, it fights against the pharmaceutical industry, which claims that it needs to charge full price for its products in developing countries in order to pay for research and development of new drugs – although, as we shall see, out of its $550 billion global annual revenue, the pharmaceutical industry spends twice as much on promotion and admin as it does on research and development. Thirdly, it is a grassroots organisation, made up largely of black women from townships who do important prevention and treatment-literacy work on the ground, ensuring that people know what is available, and how to protect themselves. Lastly, it fights against people who promote the type of information peddled by Matthias Rath and his ilk.

Rath has taken it upon himself to launch a massive campaign against this group. He distributes advertising material against them, saying “Treatment Action Campaign medicines are killing you” and “Stop AIDS genocide by the drug cartel”, claiming–as you will guess by now–that there is an international conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies intent on prolonging the AIDS crisis in the interests of their own profits by giving medication that makes people worse. TAC must be a part of this, goes the reasoning, because it criticises Matthias Rath. Just like me writing on Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith, TAC is perfectly in favour of good diet and nutrition. But in Rath’s promotional literature it is a front for the pharmaceutical industry, a “Trojan horse” and a “running dog”. TAC has made a full disclosure of its funding and activities, showing no such connection: Rath presented no evidence to the contrary, and has even lost a court case over the issue, but will not let it lie. In fact he presents the loss of this court case as if it was a victory.

The founder of TAC is a man called Zackie Achmat, and he is the closest thing I have to a hero. He is South African, and coloured, by the nomenclature of the apartheid system in which he grew up. At the age of fourteen he tried to burn down his school, and you might have done the same in similar circumstances. He has been arrested and imprisoned under South Africa’s violent, brutal white regime, with all that entailed. He is also gay, and HIV-positive, and he refused to take anti-retroviral medication until it was widely available to all on the public health system, even when he was dying of AIDS, even when he was personally implored to save himself by Nelson Mandela, a public supporter of anti-retroviral medication and Achmat’s work.

And now, at last, we come to the lowest point of this whole story, not merely for Matthias Rath’s movement, but for the alternative therapy movement around the world as a whole. In 2007, with a huge public flourish, to great media coverage, Rath’s former employee Anthony Brink filed a formal complaint against Zackie Achmat, the head of the TAC. Bizarrely, he filed this complaint with the International Criminal
Court at The Hague, accusing Achmat of genocide for successfully campaigning to get access to HIV drugs for the people of South Africa.

It’s hard to explain just how influential the “AIDS dissidents” are in South Africa. Brink is a barrister, a man with important friends, and his accusations were reported in the national news media –and in some corners of the Western gay press–as a serious news story. I do not believe that any one of those journalists who reported on it can possibly have read Brink’s indictment to the end.

I have.

The first fifty-seven pages present familiar anti-medication and “AIDS-dissident” material. But then, on page fifty-eight, this “indictment” document suddenly deteriorates into something altogether more vicious and unhinged, as Brink sets out what he believes would be an appropriate punishment for Zackie. Because I do not wish to be accused of selective editing, I will now reproduce for you that entire section, unedited, so you can see and feel it for yourself.


In view of the scale and gravity of Achmat’s crime and his direct personal criminal culpability for ‘the deaths of thousands of people’, to quote his own words, it is respectfully submitted that the International Criminal Court ought to impose on him the highest sentence provided by Article 77.1(b) of the Rome Statute, namely to permanent confinement in a small white steel and concrete cage, bright fluorescent light on all the time to keep an eye on him, his warders putting him out only to work every day in the prison garden to cultivate nutrient-rich vegetables, including when it’s raining. In order for him to repay his debt to society, with the ARVs he claims to take administered daily under close medical watch at the full prescribed dose, morning noon and night, without interruption, to prevent him faking that he’s being treatment compliant, pushed if necessary down his forced-open gullet with a finger, or, if he bites, kicks and screams too much, dripped into his arm after he’s been restrained on a gurney with cable ties around his ankles, wrists and neck, until he gives up the ghost on them, so as to eradicate this foulest, most loathsome, unscrupulous and malevolent blight on the human race, who has plagued and poisoned the people of South Africa, mostly black, mostly poor, for nearly a decade now, since the day he and his TAC first hit the scene.

Signed at Cape Town, South Africa, on 1 January 2007

Anthony Brink

The document was described by the Rath Foundation as “entirely valid and long overdue”.

This story isn’t about Matthias Rath, or Anthony Brink, or Zackie Achmat, or even South Africa. It is about the culture of how ideas work, and how that can break down. Doctors criticise other doctors, academics criticise academics, politicians criticise politicians: that’s normal and healthy, it’s how ideas improve. Matthias Rath is an alternative therapist, made in Europe. He is every bit the same as the British operators that we have seen in this book. He is from their world.

Despite the extremes of this case, not one single alternative therapist or nutritionist, anywhere in the world, has stood up to criticise any single aspect of the activities of Matthias Rath and his colleagues. In fact, far from it: he continues to be fêted to this day. I have sat in true astonishment and watched leading figures of the UK’s alternative therapy movement applaud Matthias Rath at a public lecture (I have it on video, just in case there’s any doubt). Natural health organisations continue to defend Rath. Homeopaths’ mailouts continue to promote his work. The British Association of Nutritional Therapists has been invited to comment by bloggers, but declined. Most, when challenged, will dissemble.”Oh,” they say, “I don’t really know much about it.” Not one person will step forward and dissent.

The alternative therapy movement as a whole has demonstrated itself to be so dangerously, systemically incapable of critical self-appraisal that it cannot step up even in a case like that of Rath: in that count I include tens of thousands of practitioners, writers, administrators and more. This is how ideas go badly wrong. In the conclusion to this book, written before I was able to include this chapter, I will argue that the biggest dangers posed by the material we have covered are cultural and intellectual.

I may be mistaken.


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Monday, 18 April 2011

Blue-winged Teal

So, a very eventful day in the end. After not seeing alot on Hes East, just 4 yellow wags, wheatear and a few sand martins and swallows moving thru, I headed off for an evening shift at Wheldrake(you can tell I've got exams coming up, I do more birding than at any other time of year).

Arriving in the car park, I could immediately hear my first Willow Warblers singing away, although I had to walk a few hundred metres along before I clapped eyes on any. After that, it seemed like they were everywhere. At the Tower Hide, there were a few displaying Curlews and not alot else other than the regular dabbling ducks and a few swans.

I headed on round the corner, so I was viewing out over the Refuge. From here I could here my first Reed Warblers and Cuckoos of the year, adding a pleasantly summery feel to the evening, and reducing the effect of the chilly wind. I scanned a few pools, picking up a Black Swan and some of the commoner waders and ducks, but still nothing very interesting. It was looking like it might turn into a very quiet evening. None of the gulls were even roosting, so there was little chance of picking out a little gull, one of the hoped for birds.

I moved on a little bit, to just before the start of the boardwalk. I put my scope on a grassy pool, and the first bird I saw had white crescents on the face. I did a complete double take, followed by a short blank patch whilst I was working out what possible birds I could be looking at. The conclusion was only one; Blue-winged Teal. The bird then proceeded to swim further out into the open, giving nice views of the chestnut flanks, blue-grey head, and white rear flank patch. I have to say, at this stage I was very excited, and not necessarily thinking that clearly. Rather than take a pic (I only had my SLR, not my compact, so would have been tricky) I rang Russell, to check if there had been any recent lookalike hybrids, or if I'd gone mad and forgotten something obvious. I hadn't, it was the real deal, so the news went out. Getting off the phone to Birdnet, I looked back down and to my horror, the bird had disappeared.

For the next hour, Wheldrake turned from a brilliant bit of habitat with cracking rarity potential to a bloody nightmare, with too many unviewable areas, too many birds and far far too long grass. After a while, Andy, Russell, Craig and Chris turned up, and the nerves got even worse. It would be very stringy to claim a teal for only 5 minutes, especially if it wasn't seen again the next day. The light was fading fast. Happily the birds head was picked up again in the last remnants of light, and the other guys got some views, at least enough to confirm its continued presence. A very good evening, and my first BBRC rare. Happy Days,

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Scottish update and Hes East

Just got back from a moderately succesful trip to Speyside, and having a very brief lay-over in York before heading off to Spain via Lincolnshire and Luton airport. I managed to get Parrot Crossbill, crossbills bearing all the hallmarks of Scottish crossbil (although I don't have any sound recording equipment, but as good as it gets otherwise) Ptarmigan, Cappercaillie, Black grouse etc etc. Failed to see any eagles and Crested Tit, but not much effort or time was put in to the latter. Anyway further updates, and crappy pics, will follow. Getting back to York, the temperature difference was noticeable as was the presence of migrants. A brief stop off at Hes East produced a Water Pipit, 2 Yellow Wagtails, 7+ White Wagtails, a Wheatear that looked a bit Greenlandish that i meant to come back to but it flew off, some singing Chiffchaffs and a few other bits and bobs. I go north for a week and apparently I've missed April and come back to mid-May!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Red Kites and Owls

Spent a very pleasant few hours above Harrogate watching the moorland birds, including a couple of Tree Pipits when we got out of the car, and a Raven heard going over. Predictably there were also a few Red Kites knocking about, one of which put a Sparrowhawk up off a kill that looked like a Lapwing. Does anyone know if Sprawks take Lapwing as a matter of course? Doesn't seem like it would be a major prey item. Anyway, the commotion caused was quite entertaining, the presence of the kite attracting 3-4 lapwing mobbing it, which in turn brought in a Buzzard to the kill, before the whole lot being thoroughly mobbed by half a dozen crows.

Got home and attempted to get on with my essay, but failed to concentrate at all, so decided to go and check Hes East in the dying light. Had 1 LRP, 2 Ringed Plover, 4 Redshank and an Oystercatcher. Still no real spring migrants to speak of (LRP's don't count, they're a bit crap compared to a nice group of hawking hirundines or a spanking Garganey), I'm gonna have to twitch some at this rate, and i swore i wasn't going to make any effort to see common birds this year, just cos they're here a few weeks earlier than the rest of them. Anyway, after that, went out on to the Tilmire, and had one of the Little Owls in the usual trees, although it was being a little bastard, dropping out of the tree just as Cat looked down the scope, and giving us a ten minute wait in the chilly wind before Cat could tick her first one. Happily a couple of Barn Owls were hunting in the fields behind, one of which was hunting the roadside hedge, popping over the hedge just where I was standing, doing a shocked 90 degree turn about 2 meters from my face when it spotted me. We also had a hare and 3 Roe deer in the twilight.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Good evening, good morning

Great Grey Shrike- North Duffield Carrs YWT

Had a brilliant time locally today and yesterday, less succesful tho when I wandered further away. I started yesterday with the intention of an early start, aiming to hit Flamborough hard and get in some first migrant passerines. It wasn't to be, tho, partly 'cos I didn't get up til well gone 9, and partly cos Flamborough was shit. Spent about an hour seawatching, altho I was demotivated from the start, when i rocked up and Brett said the highlight so far had been a LBB Gull. The hour I watched for was even worse, so I mostly sat and listened to the chat about birds from olden times, or at least pre-2003 when i started birding. Got Puffin for the year tho, so could have been worse. With news of 2 bluethroats in the country, I was misguidedly optimistic about bumping into at least a common migrant or 2, say a wheatear or even a Chiffchaff. But no, the place was thoroughly bird free, so I gave up, had a quick look at the White-fronts with the Pink-feet on tha marsh and fecked off back towards York.

I had a brief stop at Skipwith to look for the GGS, but was quickly reminded that it was Sunday afternoon by there being dogs and dudes everywhere. With grey clouds gathering overhead, I thought I would head to Wheldrake, in the hope that the heavens would open and a few hirundines or waders would get grounded. It didn't, but I did bump in to Russell Slack, who 5 minutes later, and after a lot of useless faffing by me with my useless phone, managed to get through to tell me there were 3 Common Cranes heading south along the river. I dashed back to get a vista, and watched them head down the valley. 20 or so minutes later, Russ got a call to say they were on the deck at Bubwith. My girlfriend, who is just getting into birds, had just finished her shift so I rang her to see if she wanted to come. She did, so a very fast drve back home, and then an even faster one back out saw us watching the 3 cranes, partially displaying, out on Bubwith Ings. Shortly after, someone got a call to say the GG Shrike was showing from the Geoff Smith hide at North Duffield, so we dashed around, and got good views in the fading light.

GGS- from Geoff Smith Hide at 06:30

2 of the 3 Common Cranes

Barn Owl at dawn in half light

This morning, hoping for a better look, and armed with my housemates old Cyber-shot, me and Cat headed back out to North Duffield, sure enough, both Shrike and Cranes were still there, as were 2 Barn Owls, all putting on a great show. We then went to Skipwith for a flying visit, and had a third Barn Owl perched on a post right next to the car. A visit to Wheldrake was aborted when we realised that work was being done all along the river, so instead we headed out to Newburgh Priory, where eventually the Green-winged Teal decided to show just enough of itself toconfirm it was the bird, do a quick dabble, then fall back asleep, obscured by branches on the far side of the lake. Shit bird, shit views, but still, hadn't seen one for a few years so had to be done I suppose. A scan of the lake at Castle Howard on the way back produced a whole lot of not very much, except a surprisingly large amount of heat haze.

Cat ticking Green-winged Teal

In the ten seconds it was awake for (this is the bird, honest)

Returning to York, birding again picked up with 2 LRP, 2+ Oystercatcher, 2 Dunlin and 2 Ringed Plovers displaying and mating on Snave Eel Pool, Hes East, as well as a Gadwall, the first I've seen there.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Ireland 5-7th March

I had been contemplating a winter trip to Ireland for some time, and the arrival of the American Coot in the autumn of 2010 served to make the idea all the more appetising. Despite trying to organise a trip with Josh Jones since December, but it wasn’t until the 5th March that we could find the time to get out there. By this time it was clear that the winter wasn’t a ‘classic’, with no big arrivals of white-winged gulls, or indeed new American Herring or Ring-Billed Gulls. Despite this, we were hopeful that we could find something of interest on the criminally underwatched west coast, as well as seeing a few good rarities, and get a couple of ticks in the for of American Coot and Forster’s Tern.

We caught the 9pm ferry from Holyhead on a dead calm evening, caught up on some sleep on the crossing, then headed across to Lough Arrow, Co.Sligo to spend the night in the car park waiting for first light. The day dawned misty and calm, and we headed round the Lough hoping for a Ring-necked duck or Lesser Scaup to kick start the trip. This was a real introduction to Irish birding in winter for myself (Josh had been on several previous trips), and a far cry from my local patch, Staines Reservoirs, with the Lough far from packed with aythya to scan through, instead just a couple of small groups of less than 20 birds, yet this site has previously held such goodies as Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck, meaning it was vital to check every bird.

Having drawn a blank driving round the lake, we continued on to Raghly, Co.Sligo to do our first bit of twitching, for the Taverner’s-type Canada Goose that winters out in the fields near Raghly Head. This bird was a real pleasure, the mist had cleared and the day had turned out gloriously mild, we were stood out in the beautiful Irish countryside surrounded by the calls of a thousand strong flock of wild Barnacle Geese, it was easy to feel what a beautifully remote location we were in. With more birds to see and sites to check however, we reluctantly moved on.

Taverner's-type Canada Goose in fields near Raghly, Sligo.

In Sligo town centre we connected with the juv Kumlien’s Gull, and Josh had a glimpse of the Ring-billed Gull from the car. We moved on quickly to County Mayo, heading for our trips main target, the 1w American Coot on Termoncarragh lake. We scanned from both sides, but viewing was far from easy with the low sun making viewing from the north end almost impossible, and after three-quarters of an hour, things were looking far from promising. Happily we picked the bird up shortly after, staying in the reeds on the east side, and being very elusive. After getting some decent views, we whizzed round to Annagh beach, which produced nothing of interest, and failed to locate the Snow goose, despite the 400+ strong flock of Barnacle geese at the lake. After that, we headed to one of the most promising looking headlands on the Irish west coast, Achill island, where we had spent some time the previous autumn. We went via Carrowmore Lake, picking up the regular drake Ring-necked Duck, and a few Whooper swans. With limited time, and few recent reports, we only checked a few of the larger loughs on Achill and the gull flock by the bridge on to the island, again failing to turn up the hoped for rarity. We did manage a hybrid Black duck X Mallard hybrid, but not the resident Black duck itself, and a few Pale-bellied Brents, always a pleasant change. We continued on to Galway, for dinner and a few pints of Guinness in town, and another night in the car at Lough Corrib, ready for another dawn start.

The day again dawned calm and misty. Low winds are vital to scan over this vast inland lake, and the day seemed perfect, so we were hopeful as we started out at Angilham. We scanned the flocks of duck, by far the most duck we had so far encountered, and after a few minutes Josh had picked out what looked to be a Canvasback. With the mist still causing problems for viewing however, we couldn’t rule out the possibility of a hybrid, and frustratingly the bird swam further out, to a range of c1km plus. We tentatively put new out of Canvasback or hybrid, a potential first for Ireland, and continued to watch the surprisingly flighty aythya flock. After a while, the duck drifted closer, and the light improved, and on 60X, it looked increasingly like the bird had an all-black bill, and it even showed a gular bulge when displaying. At this stage, our excitement grew, thinking we had found a potential first for Ireland, and I nipped back to the car to get my notepad to start making notes. Shortly after getting back, the flock flew, and the Canvasback-type bird landed a few hundred metres away, affording great views. At this range, a pale grey subterminal band on the bill became visibe, as well as showing the contrast between mantle and flanks was more obvious than we had previously thought, as well as slight structural problems, particularly with the crown shape, led us to conclude that it was undoubtedly a hybrid. Shortly after, Dermot Breen arrived to be met with the disappointing news. We also found a Ring-necked Duck X Tuftie hybrid, which hadn’t been seen since the winter before. So no pure birds, but plenty of interest. Our experiences here also demonstrate the potential of this site, Angilham had been checked at least 5+ times that winter by top birders such as Dermot, but we still saw 2 birds that hadn’t yet been seen this winter, Lough Corrib really is huge.

(see more on Canvasback hybrids at:

After this disappointment, we headed to Nimmo’s pier to try and alleviate the pain with a Forster’s Tern. Unfortunately this tricky bird wasn’t co-operating, and the only interest was provided by a Sandwich tern and one of the regular Ring-billed Gulls on Claddagh beach. We continued on to have a look at Rossaveal, but again there were few birds, with only a juv and 2w Glaucous Gulls, and a couple of Black guillemots, Great Northen Divers and the odd seal to compensate us for putting up with stench of the fish factory. We headed back to Nimmo’s, but again no Forster’s but a different ad. Ring-billed Gull on the pier. We continued on to check a few of the loughs from which there had been no reports that winter, but drew a blank at Loughrea, but had a stunning male Merlin, a few Pintail and some Whooper’s at Rahasane Turlough. We headed back towards the coast, determined to catch up with the Forster’s tern. We arrived at Doorus strand, where I picked up a Sandwich tern dive-feeding with the Forster’s tern. We watched it for a few minutes, then decided to join Dermot on the pier to get closer views. By the time we arrived, the bird had vanished, and despite an extensive search, we couldn’t find it, showing just how hard this long-stayer can be to catch up with. We spent the last few hours of light scanning the bay from various viewpoints along the north Clare coastline, hoping for Surf Scoter, but marvelling at the huge numbers of Great Northern and Black-throated Divers present. Darkness saw us heading south, stopping in Newcastle West for dinner (not recommended), and finishing up at Waterville, on the Iveragh peninsula, for another night in the car with the rather haunting sight of a hillside on fire in the distance.

Yet again we were blessed with a calm, still, sunny morning, this time clear with no mist. We scanned the bay at Waterville, but with little success, only finding a few Long-tailed duck and Eider and a mix of divers amongst the large Scoter flock. We moved on to the gloriously pretty Reenard point, with cracking views over Valencia island (surely an over-looked yank-magnet) where there was an adult Iceland Gull, but very little else. After a bit of debate about where to go next, we settled on a quick scan of the sea from Rossbeigh, hoping we’d track down the missing Surf Scoters from Waterville, or the Velvet scoter that had been reported intermittently. Josh quickly picked out the Velvet, at a few hundred metres range, and after a short time watching it, mentioned how much white it seemed to have on the face. We both agreed it seemed abnormal, but neither of us had had good views of Velvet Scoter in the last few years, and were unsure about the features of potential vagrants. At this point, Josh sent a few texts to people asking for ID features of White-winged Scoters, and tried to film it down my scope on 60X zoom, whilst I used his fixed lens to scan the bay for other Velvet Scoter, in the hope we could have a comparison. Unfortunately, at this point the bird flew to over a kilometre out, and fed constantly, making viewing much harder. Over the next hour or so, it drifted a bit closer but never showing well. Furthermore, our tired brains struggled to make sense of the features we were told to look for by text (for instance ‘a check-mark’ over the eye made me wonder if White-winged Scoters were fans of Burberry, rather than making the obvious link that it was a feature from an American book, and we should be looking for a ‘tick’ shape above the eye). With the bird not showing any inclination to move and with Dingle beckoning and a ferry to catch that night, we decided to make a move.

Stejneger's Scoter, Rossbeigh, Co.Kerry - a grab from the original video

We had a quick look at the Spoonbill at Cromane harbour, then a whizz round the ‘usual’ spots on Dingle, with little to show for it, bar several large returning flocks of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Yellow-legged Gull and a chance encounter with Jill Crosher and her husband, who it turns out, booked Jimi Hendrix at my university in the 1960’s. A campus legend if ever there was one. After that, a dash for Dublin ensued, with a lightning quick, and fruitless stop at Lough Gur to break up the journey.

Dingle-looking like it's midsummer

On arriving home, I was immediately pre-occupied with an essay that I had due in shortly, as well as having several badminton matches for the university to play. However, I stayed in contact with Josh, who was increasingly worried about the identity of the scoter. I concurred that from the brief google search I’d managed it didn’t seem right, and agreed with Josh’s suggestion that we contact the Kerry county recorder and explain our doubts. This resulted in Davey Farrar sending his earlier photo’s of the bird to Killian Mullarney. On Tuesday morning, I received a very excited phonecall from Josh, along the lines of “It’s a &*&(ing White-winged Scoter, Killian’s ID’d it”, before hanging up. The news was released, and after some of the people twitching it managed better views and photo’s, it was identified as being of the stejnegeri race, Stejneger’s Scoter, a first for Ireland.

The trip to me summed up how brilliant birding in Ireland can be, at any time of the year. We were lucky to have fantastic weather, but the scenery is always fantastic, as are the birds, so that even on a quiet year such as this, you can still see a fantastic variety of gulls and wildfowl. Furthermore it is incredibly underwatched, the two birds we found (Canvasback hybrid and the scoter) were at relatively well-watched sites, yet still hadn’t been picked up on, so that the potential for finding your own birds is incredible. That is not to say birding in Ireland is easy, we looked at a lot of empty lochs, that held only a couple of Tufties or less, covered 1400 miles, and failed to see any of the Surf Scoters or Lesser Scaups that had been reported this winter, but as this trip shows if you put the legwork in, and get lucky, the big ones are out there.

Oliver Metcalf

(all photo’s by Josh Jones)