Sunday, 13 October 2019

To reminisce or not to reminisce?

Of the few blogs I read, a few have started to go back in time. Some of them are just random, others are triggered more by current events - a gem of a Red-throated Pipit on Scilly earlier this month caused Gavin H over at NQS to recall his first ever RT Pipit back on the Scillies in about 1885. Sorry, I mean 1985 of course. 

Which brings me neatly to my point. Is reminiscing purely the realm of old codgers reliving their glory days because, and to be frank, they have passed. For example were Gavin to be lucky enough to find a Red-throated Pipit in Dorset tomorrow, would it generate in him the same amount of excitement that it did back then? Maybe it would generate more simply due to being wholly unexpected! It might all be too much!

The chances of me finding anything rare are remote, I don't stray sufficiently off patch to coastal locations. That is not to say that Wanstead cannot generate a rarity or two, as Rustic Bunting and various other unexpected birds are testament to, but Porth Killier it is not. However If we aim at the next level down, things that are good in a London context, I can attest that finding a quality local bird remains very exciting indeed - it would have been very interesting, perhaps even downright worrying, to have measured my blood pressure when the Stone Curlew flew up ahead of me back in March 2013. I can still remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday, that is what these moments mean.

And I think that is the key to it really. If for you it retains a freshness that will never fade, brings a smile to your face each and every time, then it is surely worth writing about. It likely won't mean a thing to anybody reading it, why would it, but if it it's that exciting for you then it is also likely that it will translate well into a jaunt down memory lane. Reminisce away I say.

Which is also why rather more dry nuggets like the fact that on this day exactly ten years ago I saw a Brown Shrike on a misty Staines Moor don't work as well and you won't find me writing about it or posting photos or anything like that.



Saturday, 12 October 2019

Wrong Way Listing

Here is a list of ten birds. I would like you to guess what is special about it.

Slavonian Grebe
American Bittern
American Golden Plover
Black Scoter
Red-throated Diver
White-fronted Goose
Baird's Sandpiper
Red-necked Phalarope
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher

Need a clue? I would have thought the final two birds on the list would have given the game away. No? OK, I'll tell you. These are birds the commonest American birds that are not on my ABA list but that are on my BOU (UK) list. Four of them are of course common to both areas, but the others patently are not. In fact out of the 100 most common gaps on my American list, fully a third are birds I've seen in the UK. Given how frequently I go to America this is amazing really, what on earth have I been doing wrong?

Going repeatedly to Florida is one of the things I've done wrong. The birds are incredible, but barely any of them are ticks. I'm going again soon, and there are perhaps five new species on the cards. Mostly I'll be photographing Willets I expect....

Going on family holidays is another. I get the odd session where I pick up a few here and there, but there is no real birding. I went to Monterey in 2016. Did I go any pelagics? In Atlanta all I saw was horses. In Utah and Arizona, snow....

In fact I've only been on three trips to America where my ABA list has advanced significantly. A full week in the Pacific Northwest was superb and added 75 species, four days in Arizona the following year added 55, and three days in southern Texas added 34. American big listers get 700 in a year, my total across countless visits is 419. I need to pull my finger out.

The alternative argument is that listing is a pile of nonsense and provided you are out birding and seeing and enjoying birds for what they are, rather than as numbers based on where they are, then that is all that matters. If you have to have a list, make it a world list. My world list is around 1,800. In 2015 a guy called Noah Stryker saw 6,042 in a year, smashing the previous record. The very next year another guy called Arjan Dwarshuis saw 6,833.....








Thursday, 10 October 2019

The Mail Fail and the Whale

I learned a few things about the press this week that I had not previously known. I knew they would pick up on the Humpback Whale story, but I was a little surprised to find them all over my Twitter feed and this blog. Could they use the photo please? Initially I naively said yes of course, and, it being Monday, got on with my work. A few hours a later as I was having lunch I found that there were a few more enquiries, and I started to pay a little bit more attention. One of the requests was from a press agency who made photos available for the press, and said that my photos could get picked up by any newspaper but I would not get paid. Hmm, that's interesting isn't it? I send my photo to them, the newspaper buys it from them, and they pass the money to.... ah, I see. They keep it. Great business model when you think about it, I applaud the enterprise. Whatever. However when I also learned that any newspaper could pick it up I realised I'd been had and rescinded my permission. There are some things that are more important than money. What if The Sun had used my photo? Or some other racist fear-mongering hate-merchant? What if, heaven forbid, it had been the Daily Mail?

The Daily Mail did in fact ask me directly if they could use my video footage (this was before any decent footage had been obtained of course, I was very quick off the mark apparently). You can imagine the response that got, and also how pleased I was to have been handed that opportunity! What I found interesting was that after I replied - politely I might add, albeit making my feelings quite clear - The Mail decided to delete their request from YouTube, which also deleted my response. Cunning. Not cunning enough though.



Various other requests followed, including from The Times, which put my crappy photo in their online edition. Possibly also the print version but I don't buy it so I have no idea. This one I followed up on, and remarkably I might actually earn a few quid and I've sent them an invoice. I took it though my scope with my knackered old phone, which given I earn precisely zero from all the bird photos I take with my extremely expensive SLR equipment does rather make me laugh. A cursory search also found my photo on the online version of the Evening Standard, who had never been in contact at all. Unfortunately It's a screenprint from Twitter and I'm told that the small print suggests that they can do this with impunity. 

My conclusion is that trying to make a living as a press photographer, or indeed any photographer, is a non-starter. People either steal your photos or want them for free. About the best you can get is a copy of the book, or in the case of the Standard, a screenprint of your screenprint....



Unfortunately the story does not have a happy ending. The Whale was found dead during the week, and a post-mortem suggests that a ship strike was the cause. Whether it was fully healthy in the first place I suppose we'll never know - certainly swimming up the river was abnormal, and whilst it wasn't certain that it wouldn't make it out, I guess it was overwhelmingly unlikely. That the Beluga made it out last year was perhaps a miracle.



Sunday, 6 October 2019

Thames Whale

Just another October London whale.... 

Yesterday news broke of a possible Minke Whale off Rainham. It was still there, or thereabouts today, and around 4pm I decided it was now or never and headed over there. My London Whale list means a great deal to me. Andy L was viewing it just from the Kent side just east of the bridge but felt confident that it would return upriver on the rising tide. He was spot on, but as I walked down the dead end path at Purfleet's Harrisons Wharf, I was still astonished to see a huge blow from a surfacing cetacean just off the condemned jetty. 

The whale was making its way slowly upstream, and about every five minutes I had a view as it surfaced. First at the Mardyke, then off Rainham RSPB, and finally in Aveley Bay. I was camera-less, electing on this occasion to go with a scope. I could always take a shot with my phone... yeah, in the three seconds it spent on the surface each time! To see it against the London skyline was surreal in the extreme. Let's hope it finds its way out again.




By now Dave C had it from the small car park at the west end of the sea wall, so I hopped back in the car and drove around to Coldharbour Lane. As I walked down the path it surfaced again off Erith Yacht Club, still heading steadily west. We tried the Stone Barges in the hope it would come round the point, but the light failed before it did so. 




By now I had a few photos, the 'best' of which are shown here. I am not very good at phone-scoping, but Dave has some better ones, including of the tail flukes. The latest thinking is that this is a Humpback Whale, which would be quite extraordinary if confirmed. The Beluga last year got quite a lot of press attention, this may do so as well once it gets picked up on. Here is a very short video segment of it briefly breaking the surface. 





Saturday, 5 October 2019

8am is the new Raptor o'clock

I had always thought that around 2pm was the best time for raptors. That's traditionally when it would be eyes to the sky in anticipation of birds of prey drifting over. Not so in Wanstead. Last weekend the Osprey flew south at 8.04am. Today, six days, 23 hours and 54 minutes later, it was the turn of a Marsh Harrier. Next week, well who knows? Bataleur?

In 2012 I missed a flyover Marsh Harrier whilst looking at a Wryneck. Shaun H, a visiting birder, tried to get me onto it but unfamiliar with patch landmarks he just couldn't direct me. It has taken me this long to claw it back. James and Bob had met Charlotte and I in the SSSI, and had just crossed the road to Long Wood. Skirting around its southern fringe I spied a long-winged raptor coming east over the brooms. Bins up through the gap in the foliage but it didn't look right. Clearly not a Buzzard, and not a Red Kite either. Another Osprey? No, not that. It's looking quite like a Harrier, but that can't be right can it?

Cue bedlam. My daughter was able to see what makes grown men tick. And run. James made the first dash for open skies, I wasn't far behind. "Get a photo!" I yelled, and fumbled with my phone to call Tony who I knew must be somewhere south of us. He was already on it, already thinking what we were thinking. A Marsh Harrier, a patch tick for all of us. Yes, including Bob once again, I don't know how he does it! 160 for him, seriously impressive. 155 for me, which given I wasn't really expecting to get any ticks this year I am delighted with. Many years ago I remember being in awe of Vince at Dagenham Chase, his local patch, where he had seen 160 species. 160? Surely that isn't possible?  A normal thrash around Wanstead would produce perhaps 40-50 species, an average year perhaps a shade over 100. 160 was the realm of fantasy! Well guess what, it isn't. It's simply a product of the passing of time and of dedication. I've been birding Wanstead for around 14 years now, and slowly but surely this is just what happens. It gets harder every year of course, but there is always something.

What will be next I wonder? 

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

On this day...

France has had an Ovenbird and a Blackburnian Warbler. There are Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Red-eyed Vireos in the South West. Shetland has rare Shrikes by the dozen. Meanwhile I am in Canary Wharf, racing against other rats as usual. I had been planning to go to Shetland this year as I have not been since 2016, but the trip never really got off the ground and I ended up using my annual leave for something else. That something else has yet to happen, but I have high hopes. Shetland is unique however, and I wish I could be there. 

But I can't, so why not relive a few past glories? It's the 2nd of October today, the beginning of what I call the silly season. September largely sees the commoner rare birds, Little Buntings, Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers etc, but it is really in October that things begin to hot up and the outrageous birds begin to appear.

The 2nd October was a 2010 was a case in point. It had been an anxious trip up to Shetland, with our flight from London cancelled and a mad dash in a taxi to Birmingham to catch another, which ultimately got us to Sumburgh on the same day, albeit with little time for birding. Somewhere along the way my suitcase disappeared but I had my binoculars so all was well. In the three or so hours before the daylight ended I'd seen a Syke's Warbler and a Swainson's Thrush, which had arrived on the island from entirely different directions. They breed, at a minimum, close to five thousand miles apart, yet on Shetland one was at Channerwick and the other at Levenwick, roughly one and a half miles apart. 

Amazing to think that this was nine years ago, how time flies. Three years ago, also on the 2nd of October and also on Shetland, I saw a Lanceolated Warbler creeping through some long grass, but it is the first afternoon of my maiden trip in 2010 that sticks in the mind, the start of a crazy week up there where I got six 'lifers'. Subsequent visits, six in total, have never managed to live up that first trip, but I'm feeling the urge to get up there again. Quite when I am not sure, but my tentative plan is to spend a month up there when I next get made redundant. I am a glass half full kind of guy.

As I have no UK autumn birding planned this year, this is advance warning that this type of post could feature again. Scanning down my list early to mid-October is rich in the kind of birds that bring out the urge to reminisce all too easily. I could just tweet them to far greater reaction, but where is the fun in that? Also I need to write a further 62 blog posts this year in order to equal last year's already meagre total. Quantity not quality...


Sunday, 29 September 2019

Book Club 3

Another installment of the book club I'm afraid, covering all the things I've read since the last time I posted. It's a surprising amount actually, I guess I just really like reading, and it makes my commute to work and other travel I undertake pass that much more quickly. On a recent journey I went on I'd finished the one book I had taken with me by the end of the first flight and had to swing by a bookshop and stock up. It is rare I even switch on the fancy entertainment systems on a plane these days - maybe at a push the moving map, but I'm perfectly content just reading and listening to music. Ensure a regular supply of gin and tonic and I am an extremely fuss-free traveller. It has to be real book by the way, made of paper and so on. A bit old fashioned these days but I doubt I would read half as much if the sole option were a Kindle or whatever. 


So, what have been perusing?



A Single Swallow - Horatio Clare
You might think this is about birds, and in a way it is, but actually that's just a pretext. The author leaves a life of material possessions behind and attempts to follow the northbound migration of the Barn Swallow from South Africa to the UK. So it becomes an overland journey through Africa with a passing nod to Swallows from time to time, and is mostly about the people he meets, the physical travel and landscape involved, and how the journey changes him. And this is of course what makes the book. I'm fascinated by the continent, yet have only visited the very top and the very bottom. Horatio Clare does too, indeed he starts off at somewhere I've been birding. I enjoyed it a great deal, though it is not in the same league as Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux, which is the same journey north to south. 

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
This was one of those moments where you're working your way along a shelf of books with your head cocked awkwardly and the title jumps out at you and your inner voice says "Oh, wasn't that a film?", and reached out for it. Like me, most people will know or know of the film starring Anthony Hopkins, and so as I'd never watched it I gave it a try. And it was rather good, without being exceptional like some books I've read recently. Despite it being a novel in which not a great deal happens, it is just very well written as a character portrait. A butler in a once great english country house relives past glories of professionalism, loyalty and dignity, but at what cost did they come?


The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
This was a real left field choice, picked up in hurry whilst trying not to miss a flight, but it proved to be one of the very best things I've read recently. At first glance a 1920s novel about four unacquainted and very different ladies who leave their lives behind and together rent a castle in Italy for month was not exactly something I would normally reach out for, but somehow it sounded, well, enchanting. And it was, in fact it was completely wonderful. The writing is superb, the comedy understated, the characters expertly formed, and the eye for human frailty, small-mindedness and various other personality traits fantastic. Like the book above, the storyline is quite banale and simply to do with happiness, but that doesn't matter in the slightest and it is quite charming. Pick it up, and like Mrs Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Lady Caroline and Mrs Fisher, let the sun and the Italian riviera work its magic.

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
This was another loan from a friend of mine, very different to anything I might normally read. London Below is a parallel city inhabited by the magical and the occult. You cannot exist both in London Above and London Below, and one evening Richard accidently crosses from one to the other losing his identity in the process. Expect many plays on words, for instance there is genuinely an Angel called Islington, an Earl holds court, and there some Black Friars and old man called Bailey. See what I mean? Richard is taken on a whirlwind tour of this alternative and scary London by the Lady Door, hunted by ruthless assassins. Hard to put down, but ultimately not a book I can rave about for some reason. Nothing wrong with it, just not really my kind of book.

Pathfinders, The Golden Age of Arabic Science - Jim Al-Khalili
This was hard work but rewarding. I learnt heaps about heaps, and not just about the scholars, philosophers, scientists and polymaths of 9th century Baghdad. If you thought you knew about "modern" science, think again. Copernicus, Kepler and Newton and the like might be the ones we know in the west, but Arabic scientists had established the circumference of the world to within a percent of the actual distance by the 11th century, and much of the work of the court of the Abbasid Caliphs laid the foundation for much of what is known today. Algebra, Algorithm....just think for a moment where those words might have come from. I am completely hopeless at science and [real] maths, and I know far less than a middle-aged man ought to know about the laws of the universe, so this was a massive eye-opener in basic terms as well as for the historical story Jim Al-Khalili tells. If you have not heard of the enlightened Caliph Al Mamun and the House of Wisdom, well, you have a lot to learn. Fascinating.