Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Nothing has to interfere with Visible Migration

(Please click over sketches once to enlarge and then click yet again to supersize)....

I suppose if I knew then what I know now it might have been a different story!

I reckon there are actions, that I will never "live it down", one in particular recollecting the time when I went birding on my daughter's most important day and I left it within the last hour to chase along to the all important proceedings.... The Wedding.

October is probably one of the most important times of the year for the addicted vismigger, the time of the year when the thrushes start to pour through. So how can anyone plan a wedding during the month of October!!

I am by now a pretty regular daily vismigger during the period September to November and try to put in regular visits and counts.

Guess what! only last year, when the peak "Fieldfare" arrival came (and there's no way of predicting the actual day!). It arrived on Sunday October 24th 2010. The day I had to break off at Hutton to take my grandson to his football training over at Storth. Yes at first I was "gritting my teeth" so to speak, but it turned out pretty good actually. Because I dropped down below Storth and watched the birds crossing over Sandside towards the Lyth Valley in their thousands! (well actually it was 3,278 in one and a half hours.... not bad at all.

But when I got back home at Burton, It soon became clear that the main migration was really getting going and I could see hundreds passing in front my lounge window, as though heading from Dalton to Holme and in fact they where in parties of anything up to 300, (well some of the parties that is!). And guess what? the inevitable happened!! Some close friends decided to pick that very day of all days to arrive and take up the full afternoon. Can you imagine having to miss such good stuff, and constantly thinking to myself "what must I be missing going over Hutton Roof, probably in their thousands, yet I was left here and could only sample the small (in comparison) amount which went passed my window. Its so hard to take when you waited all year for this very special day. Anyway we had to make the best of the situation, so I spent the rest of that afternoon sat in my chair with one eye on the window and one eye on our guests, and probably saying yesses when I should have been saying no's!!!!

Thats just one angle, but theres a lot more to this vismigging, than meets the eye and I will try and explain further...

Getting up every morning at the stroke of dawn to collate visual sightings of birds going from North to South or East to West or South East to North West, on their annual autumn migration… witnessing these movements, not just one day a week, but everyday of the week during the months of September, October and early November, but the rewards are well worth it!

Lots of people believe I am mad! (and they are probably right!!). I mean what would you think if you were one of those walkers, runners, cyclist, or passing by in a motor car, the type of people I meet everyday? There! It’s that guy stood in the same spot every morning, at the side of the road with binoculars and notebook and pencil, wrapped up in thermals and maybe 2 or 3 coats as well, in fact can you imagine, especially when the wind was blowing a gale force 8, a “Michelin man” birder, well perhaps that’s what it must look like to them! It’s no wonder I get some strange looks!

A birder from birth, but more serious stuff started for me in the late 80s down in East Lancashire, I was out doing my normal weekend birding one particular Saturday morning, it was November 2nd in fact, it was warm, at first I recollect seeing “Red Admiral” butterflies moving past me and going South!, questioning wow! That’s late surely!! But even bigger things had to come! It would have been around the 9 o’clock mark in the beautiful Grane Valley in Haslingden. It soon became quite noticeable that flock after flock after flock of Redwing, Fieldfare and Starling were passing through from the SE and going out NW, in fact there where so many, I then decided to sit and start making a rough count of the passage. I had never seen anything quite like this before and it was a magnificent experience as it always is even today, but that very first time, that was something really special! I counted a couple of thousand (but there could well have been thousands more!). I can remember on several occasions looking up through the bino’s to check out parties flying so high, and then noticing that even behind them I could also see little fine specks indicating further movement at even greater altitude, so how many was I missing?

I remember reading in the Bird Watching magazine at about the same time about a guy from Sheffield by the name of Keith Clarkson, who was well into bird migration. Keith was going up in a hot air balloon, to count birds on their migration. So I contacted Keith, thankfully realising I was not the only mad person about doing this vismigging lark!, but that others could well be doing the same sort of thing! I got to know Keith well and we used to contact one another every year during the Fieldfare and Redwing movements to compare notes etc.. Keith was very instrumental in the early formation of the Sheffield Bird Study Group and later with the online Vismig group.

I suppose vismig can be like a drug (a good drug!), once or twice experienced and you become addicted, and the addiction becomes stronger, well that’s how it’s been for me.

Since my early days, visible migration has moved on and since 2002 a specialized yahoo online site was formed calling itself, simply ‘vismig’ (the visible migration of birds) and the group brings together members with common interest from all over the Country to collate their vismig counts and notes within this group on the internet.

And it doesn’t stop there! There is another online site promoting migration counts and which expands itself throughout Europe, and this group is called Trektellen. This is a fascinating website with lots of places, graphs, charts, bird counts entered daily during migration times by vismig enthusiasts. If you have a computer, put the link into your browser and then click on the Great Britain tab, and then you can click over the dates at the individual sites or species or dates as required.

Getting back to basics! It’s all new for me around here, and I am still trying to find my feet. I am currently giving Hutton Roof (Clawthorpe side) a try and during 2009 and also last year found it did prove so successful in regard to the Thrush movements, which far surpassed my expectations.

Different birders have different ways of counting, but I just try to keep it very simple, by entering in my notes the date, the times of the watch, the wind strength and direction, and then the main stuff – the amounts of birds, I just enter the number as 1 if it’s a single bird passing over, or 2 for a pair and so on up to 10, but when I get parties over ten, I put a ring around the quantity to save confusion with the single figure movements.

I can’t help but refer to that great “Thrush push” (again push = vismig language) last year on Saturday 17th October 2009. I did a first watch from 0715hrs – 1245hrs and then again from 1330hrs for another hour or two. In this period I had 10,975 (Redwing), 9886 (Fieldfare) and lots of other stuff as well, but even though the numbers seem phenomenal to me and it did turn out to be the best Thrush movement day of the year, I would still have missed thousands more birds which would have been going through at far high levels.

People often ask me how I manage to count a party of say 150 or 400 when they are travelling through at such speed. Well it’s more a question of estimating, I suppose over the years you sort of get used to it. Initially I count a batch of say 20 and generalize a volume picture in my mind whilst then counting further batches within the whole group, and from this I can approximate. I’m usually pretty conservative with my estimates. But the day when you get huge flocks and parties of hundreds of birds spilling through the air, it can be quite trying and tiring!

Generally you only ever get one really good push day a year, with most birds and that’s when the conditions are just right for the birds to move. I haven’t the answers why, but I am sure that it’s down to wind direction and strength and probably more important the actually air pressures on that day and I am sure other factors as well. I have known the peak days with Thrushes be anytime between mid October, and through to early November. There is no sure date, it’s just when all things like I mentioned fall into place. The weather condition factors in Scandinavia are the most important because its obviously there that sparks the start.

I suppose I’ve gone on a bit about the Thrushes, but I do have another favourite migration species and that’s the Meadow Pipit (or “mipits” in vis language), and Hutton has so far proved quite disappointing so far, with very few birds actually coming over this way. I am suspect that the bulk of the Meadow Pipits in our area could be going further to my East and possibly down through the Lune Valley, and then crossing over towards Caton and the Trough of Bowland, and I think maybe further East also, and I suppose its even possible they could continue past my old watch-point in Rossendale and onwards, crossing the Manchester and Cheshire planes to possibly the Dee Marshes and beyond.

Last year I also managed to put some time in at "Hunting Hill" just off the Shore Road in Carnforth. I had good concentrations of Mipits (Meadow Pipits) and Chaffinch, and it really looks a superb area to spend more time. So hopefully during this year (2011) I might get a better analysis of the passage.

Another interesting thing that goes on at Hutton Roof are the finches which come through from the North East and leave by the South West or visa versa. I suppose you could say that this is not a conventional southern migration routing!

Thats a little bit about vismig, but will try and come up with some more results (Soon!)