Sunday, 18 November 2012


A week after they first hit Shetland and Orkney, the Waxwings start filtering south. Everyday they reach another town further south before eventually hitting Stirling. First it’s a few flyovers, then small groups; then a surprise three figure flock. It’s another invasion year this year – if it carries on as it has – like it was in my first year here. Yet its not really been like that at all. This time they hit Shetland and Orkney then Scilly, bizarrely, before Stirling or Suffolk. This year instead of filtering through they’ve exploded all over. They’re in Down and Derby, the Isle of Man and your local Rowan tree, it seems. Though the Rowan crop here has mostly been had by the Blackbirds this year. It’s not as cold as the previous influx. I never found my own flock then, either.

I did this time.

It was a strange morning. Blue sky to the east and leaden to the west as Michael and I put aside our birding rivalry and walked into Bridge of Allan. The streets were quiet but the roads were full with commuters heading east: the air thick with geese going the other way. Passerines flitted over grey rooftops and Starlings squawked from aerials. The last of the leaves flutter from the trees: they fall in an oddly bird-like way and those that remain stand proud like a perching bird. You can’t avoid it: you look like a fool when you rely on your peripheral vision to detect ‘bird movement’ and it turns out - mid exclamation - to be a leaf. A lot of birding, a lot of everything is in the head. You don’t want hope to be an autumn leaf because you’ll stop looking. Scenery is a big part of that. Up hill, Bridge of Allan is an old spa town of wide, leafy roads, and plenty of trees. As it merges into the carse, the roads get tighter, the trees get fewer, more planned and less loved. In a fleece (always a fleece, we’re birders!) and with binoculars in streets in the early morning, I feel terribly self-conscious. So does Michael. We were going for safety in numbers. It’s so easy to sack it off and hope for a flyover.

One last road. They all merge into one. We’d had geese, countless geese, from their roosts near the Forth heading into the carse, and my first Dipper of the winter flew down the Allanwater, but it wasn’t a successful morning. Avenue into lane into street, road, drive, cul-de-sac: all dead-ends. Then in the gap between two semi-detached houses, a glimpse of back garden tree. Standing proud was, this time, not a leaf. I turn to Michael. I bet it’s a Waxwing, I said. It trilled, and flew.
One building down we got a better view: a back-garden tree decorated with bauble-like Waxwings, delicately buff-pink in the morning light and tinkling like wind-chimes. And they flew down the street again. They’re completely hyperactive. They pitched up in a park at the bottom of the street. I sunk to my knees and scoped them, counting at least 35: Michael’s photo showed there was at least 39.
(I have still never managed a good photo of one.)

That was, I think, two weeks ago. Last week I found the same flock a few roads away, in a complex of streets named after Hume (that’ll be the Enlightenment philosopher, not the ornithologist of Phylloscopus fame). Without binoculars and with heaps of Starlings they were discovered by their elegant flycatching (which the Starlings weren’t doing) and incessant trilling. My friend, killing the same time as me, was duly impressed.

And then a few days later there were no reports of any in the small belt of suburbia from Dunblane to Stirling. That’s approximately 400 birds spread out, all decamping at once. I tried for the Stirling flock of 200 before I’d realised this: the patchwork of carpark Rowans all stripped and bare, except for about five berries. I wonder if we’ll get a second wave of the birds left in the highlands when the snow comes or if all the berries really have been had…

Friday, 2 November 2012


One of the problems with studying English is that things read a few months ago all congeal into the fuzzy blob of half-remembered quotes that is my memory. I can't remember where I read it but I remember Martin Amis once wrote something along the lines of, 'the problem with reviewing books is that your review is in the same medium. You can't help but be judged in comparison with what you're judging'. Or at least I think he said it. It could've been someone else. My memory might have made it up.

Anyway, with that in mind, here's my latest book review, of Anthony McGeehan's Birds Through Irish Eyes. I hope it doesn't suffer in the light of his writing. Click on the image and cross your fingers the hyperlink works.

And whilst we're on the topic, here are my older reviews on BirdGuides.

The Urban Birder by David Lindo
Facing Extinction by Paul Donald, et al.
The Jewel Hunter by Chris Goodie (The somewhat controversial one. I've reread the review but not the book (time issues) but I've passed it on to other people who said pretty much the same thing as me. I still think it's a good and fair review. See comments seven and eight for more of a discussion; see comments one to six for a pointless waste of everyone's entitlement to be a keyboard warrior.)
Birding from the Hip by Anthony McGeehan (The first one. I was a mere seventeen, acne ridden and prematurely bearded when I wrote this.)

In the meantime, I've been busy drowning in essays. Recently I stretched my legs for the first time in far too long and I found these fish trying too hard and getting nowhere:
And I know exactly what that feels like. Though to be fair I've never tried it in a river. I think they're trout; I imagine Atlantic Salmon to be much bigger and much more capable and taking that jump.

Winter arrived recently.
But hasn't been seen since. Waxwings are filtering through, and I'll probably spend the next fortnight wandering through the backstreets in search of Rowan trees, cotoneasters, etc. failing to find my own flocks. I have quite an extraordinary history of failure with these things, hopefully this year will be the year I finally find a decent flock.