Monday, 18 May 2015

Been a while, been busy, been travelling, been birding

Old age isn't exactly slowing me down. I've been to a couple of places and done a spot of birding. Not at the places. The places were tourism, the birding has been confined to here, and has been terrible and wonderful in equal measure. Last weekend was terrible so I won't bother writing about that. Today was fantastic, in a raptory sort of way. Three hours watching the junior cricket at Overton Drive added three Red Kite, two Hobbies and a Buzzard (between overs), and then this afternoon I added another half dozen Buzzards, a Peregrine, a Sparrowhawk and a Kestrel for a six Raptor Day and a burnt nose. In Wanstead that's pretty damn good, almost as good as the Peak District I'd wager. Oh no, my mistake, they're all dead. 

Talking of which I've kind of recovered from the General Election and all the disappointment it brought, but it's a long hard road ahead. Bringing some much needed levity (if not outright pleasure) lately has been watching UKIP implode, but that's about the best I can say. It's hugely depressing, and if it angered me last time around it is going to properly make my blood boil this time. I tend to steer clear of politics as I very rapidly get accused of having views that sit nicely alongside my profession - whatever people choose to believe is what they choose to believe, but five more years of this mob with no coalition partners to add a grain of conscience is really not going to be pretty, with wildlife likely to take a real beating. On the plus side rich people are likely to make a lot of money from it, so that's good. Honestly, roll on 2020....

In between filling my boots with raptors I've been to Venice and Stockholm. And Barcelona actually on a family outing, but that seems like ages ago now. Birds seen in Venice included oodles of Swifts and Med Gulls, whilst in Sweden the best showing was from a Baltic Gull. I had no idea I was following in Mick S's illustrious footsteps, but I wasn't armed for bird photography topping out at 200mm. Not to worry, plenty of that to come this summer. I have to say that I enjoyed Stockholm very much, even if the main museum we had planned to visit was closed. Kiddo and I instead walked around a bit, had some meatballs as one does, and enjoyed the old town of Gamla Stan. Venice, with a different kiddo, was every bit as fun and we spent the day mostly on boats in warm sunshine. I'd been before as a kid, but forgotten quite how awesome it is - a wonderous place, crowded as hell but absolutely unique and definitely one for a family trip at some point. When I have a little more time I'll expand on these places but for now simply the usual.......

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Hudwits and Hirundines

An eventful few weeks but the birding has now turned to mush. Bearing that in mind, and with a two notable successes under the belt, I turned once again to foreign lands. But of the successes first. One, my magnificent Wheatear victory as detailed in my last post, and second, a perfectly-timed twitch to Somerset for the Hudsonian Godwit, a bird I had spurned the previous weekend in favour of staying faithful to the patch and breaking the Warbler day record. I wondered at the time if I hadn't got it wrong, but dismissed it as absurd - one cannot see every bird and I've missed enough that missing another makes no difference at all. But the bird came back and so the opportunity to have a rethink presented itself. Bradders, Nick, Tony and Monkey all had a very long think * and decided that we would go, so Saturday morning and with news of the bird still being there we were on our way. Upon arrival a mere three hours later the bird was still present, having moved approximately one inch since first light. Here's the view we got, which works just as accurately in two dimensions.... Great excitement when it once stretched its wings, and a number of twitchers actually fainted when it walked through the flock for a bit before hiding behind a Blackwit and going back to sleep. Exciting it was most definitely not, however they all count and this is a true rarity and seeing as I had the time, why not - always fun twitching as a group, and particularly so with this particular bunch of comedians.

The blurred bird is the Hudwit, moving so quickly that it only ghosts the sensor..... 

The next day I went to Corfu with my son, a long planned trip to sate some Gerald Durrell inspired wanderlust, and also to get a change of scene and some sun in the middle of yet another long slog at work that I can very accurately predict and thus make survivable. In short it was wonderful, ludicrously cheap with ample sunshine, nice food, father-son bonding, and a few quality birds. Not many, but that wasn't really the aim at all, and they were all a bonus/ A real flying visit, in one afternoon, out the next, but it is amazing what can be accomplished if one has no real agenda. Thus we walked to the Chessboard Fields as explored by Gerry in the 1930s a couple of times, soaked up a wonderful evening watching people fishing, and marvelled at the fantastic display of Hirundines and Swifts that were thick in the warm air. Also pretty good if you're a fan of airplanes flying right over your head - crazy stuff. Retired to a balcony with a stunning view and enjoyed an almost unrivalled dawn the following morning. 

The rest of the day before the flight home again was occupied by another walk out to the fields, followed by some good old-fashioned chilling out around the pool, admiring Red-rumped Swallows as they skimmed the water for a quick drink. Doubt any of the countless idiots round the pool, a mixture of extremely loud French and British slobs, even knew what the birds were or cared, but a heady mix of the latest iconic country music made them easily ignored. And when we got home I logged in and did some work, the perfect tonic to an enjoyable weekend and an excellent way to ease my way back into Monday morning.

* note that this is a complete lie

Saturday, 2 May 2015

I've won!

It's official, I've won the big one, and I can confidently say that life will never be the same again. Many people say that a big win won't change them, but that's ridiculous, of course it does. In my case I fully expect that my new celebrity status could see me get endorsement deals, TV shows, and it's perhaps even possible that the story will transfer to the silver screen. For I am now the holder of the coveted North Downs and Beyond Wheatear Trophy, awarded to the blogger who manages to post the most photos of Northern Wheatears in any given Spring. To say I am chuffed to bits doesn't even come close, and of course I can start to travel again now. 

Rather than relate it all again, I'm just going to post the transcript from the award ceremony that recently took place on Wanstead Flats - where each and every Wheatear photo that I took came from. No travel involved, this is a very "green" win....So, back to the marquee....

* sound of thunderous applause gradually fading away * (NB this lasted for a full five minutes and was intensely embarrassing actually)

I honestly don't know where to start, to win this trophy is my dream. I'm totally overwhelmed. * blows nose loudly, wipes eyes *. First of all, I suppose I ought to say a little bit about the birds, this trophy is really for them. * more applause *  Wheatears are just, just, so, well, so, so perfect. They're the perfect bird. I mean Shrikes are fabulous, Whinchats are lovely, but they just don't come close to Wheatears. Perfection in a tiny package, they herald spring migration like no other species, they're the ones we all wait for. Sure we get LRPs, early Sand Martins and the like, but they're just not, well not Wheatears frankly. The little eye mask, the brilliant flush of peach, the silvery back, and of course the rump. Oh the rump, the arse! It's just so, so splendid, so pure, white. That first flash of white-arse, a joy as it flits away. You don't often see the bird at first, but the white emblazoned across the retina brings with it the joyous realisation that they're back and that a new season has begun. * lengthy applause * But I know that you all know that, as you're all fans too. We all are. 

Anyway, a few Thank Yous, there are so many people here that made this possible. First of all to Steve, whose marvellous idea this was. Many people thought that this competition was a piss-take, a way of expressing ire at the number of Wheatear images that appear on the internet from about late March, but nothing could be further than the truth. Northern Wheatears, Desert Wheatears,  in fact any Wheatear at all, Steve's a believer. 

To Tim, who found the first one, you're a hero, a legend, I couldn't have done it without you. Indeed all the patch-workers in Wanstead who patiently staked out the birds whilst I was at work, staying with them until I could get out, my thanks to you all.

I'd like to thank all my fellow competitors of course for a race well run. Really we're all in it together, we share a common objective, a common love. Your ambition spurred me on, and I look forward to next year. 

I'd like to thank my Mum and Dad, who ensured I got well enough educated to get a job which allowed me to buy the camera in the first place, and who I think now know what a Wheatear is. 

To the engineers at Canon, what can I say? The kit is superb, I can think of no better way to use it than to utterly wear my shutter out on a single species, and that of course is Oenanthe oenanthe. This trophy is partially yours too. 

In fact it belongs to everyone, even though it is going on my mantelpiece. I'd like to dedicate this win to to all white-arse fanciers everywhere. Thank You. Thank you. Thank you. Excuse me while I go and sit on that hummock. * bursts into tears *  * immense applause *

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Wheatears again

We seem to have a second wave, with up to seven on the Flats today following three yesterday. It was wet and miserable out there, but perhaps this is what allowed me to get ridiculously close to one of them. It looked damp and, frankly, pissed off, and I ended up pretty damp too whilst getting photos of it, but came away happy, where the Wheatear (which didn't move at all) probably remained peeved. Shame there was no sunshine, but these should set the scene. Hopefully more sunshine next week, and with it more birds. April has been amazing, I've had three patch lifers and missed another.


Saturday, 25 April 2015


Today has been epic. No, I didn't go and twitch a Heron. Nor a Godwit. Nope, today was all about the patch, the only place I wanted to be. And it was all about Warblers. It started off well, with yesterday's (and likely last year's) Garden Warbler singing away in Motorcycle Wood. With this tick under the belt I wandered over to the Vizmig Point, discovering that my timing was very poor as I arrived to see Nick with three coffees, and two other patch workers already present. Oh well. We chewed the fat a while, and then Tony left to twitch the Garden Warbler. Nervously, as it's always dangerous heading off solo and leaving a group of us. It turned out exactly the opposite though, as Dan, Nick, Bob and I were halfway towards Alex when Tony called with news of a singing Wood Warbler next to Motorcycle Wood*. Wow! A great bird anywhere, let alone the patch. We all hurried over there, though Nick and Bob didn't have quite the spring in their step that Dan and I did. How so? You guessed it, another massive grip-back was about to occur!

Dan I started running. Not really. We casually wandered over there, and after a temporary period of AWOL, the fantastic trill rang out from the copse. Ooof, and what a beauty it was! With rain beginning to fall reasonably heavily, the bird kept low and fed constantly, every now and then letting out a shimmering trill. Stu and Tim turned up to enjoy this special treat, as did Hawky - silky white underside, lemon yellow chest - stunning. Sadly I don't have anything to show you as I had looked outside and decided that the dark skies indicated a cameraless morning. Nevermind - I suggest you head over to Tony's blog for a peek of what I mean. Warblers in general are pretty good, but Wood Warbler - singing Wood Warblers - are epic. We probably watched it for an hour before the rain started to ease and thoughts turned to what else what might be out there. LOTS more Warblers as it turned out. And a male Whinchat and three Wheatears.

Steve, this is TWO

I picked up House Martin near Esso Copse, and then hitched a ride with joint second Wanstead lister (!) Bob over to the OSW, who was desperate enough to be driving over there for a Sedge Warbler recently found by Dan, and stopped when he saw us. This took a bit of locating and never really got going, but along with a Little Egret saw me hit 91 for the year. Back to Heronry for the year's first Common Sandpiper, and then a short stroll over to Shoulder of Mutton for the recently returned Reed Warbler. totting it up, I worked out that this was the eight Warbler species for the day, and the only bird missing was Willow Warbler. Luckily I know where one of those is, and so back off to the Flats I trundled. Sure enough, the Brick Pit copse bird was in full song, which made it nine for the day (the others being Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat). Can I count Goldcrest as a Warbler? I hope so!

* Motorcycle Wood is so-called because many years ago the local youf set fire to a moped there. Its blackened frame remained for just long enough to give name to the copse, but visitors now are no doubt rather confused. Anyway, now you know.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Surprising patch total

I've just spent a happy hour totting up my 2015 patch list. I had a feeling I was around 80-85, but didn't have any proof either way. So I'm quite surprised to be at the upper end of my guess, especially as I missed quite a few winter species, and have yet to even make the effort to see Little Egret or Tawny Owl. House Martin and Swift are still needed, as is Redstart. Despite this slack attitude, I'm still several species ahead of 2014 at the same date, but of course miles behind my peak year of 2013 when I managed 118. 

The last few days have been good, with a cracking male Whinchat on Monday (likely to be the same bird as Saturday), and then today my first Lesser Whitethroat and four (count 'em) Green Sandpiper. Four is a flock, and a big flock at that! I was wandering around with Nick in the SSSI when one of them called. Old Crofty is pretty sharp these days - the countless hours on patch are working - and he called it pretty much instantly. We found the first one in the sky pretty quickly, and were surprised to then see another one with it. Nick's bins are something like 100x magnification and totally enormous, mine are piddly in comparison, however this means they have a somewhat wider field of view and so I found myself counting a third and a fourth bird. This is unprecedented, I've had two before over near the Alex, but four in one hit is ridiculous. Not a bird I expected to get back in clear blue skies after the guys had one a week or so ago in the heavy mist, but the patch always has the ability to surprise.

In other news, the evil crew at Walthamstow have kidnapped Alan, our cute little Partridge, and are refusing to give him back. Somehow he is a patch tick for all of them bar the Prof, which is odd as I've seen one at the bottom of the Lockwood some years ago. If I were a complete dorky loser I'd be able to confidently state that it was May 9th 2007. But I'm not, so I can't.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Look what I found down the back of the sofa!

You never know what it's going to be. A bit of pizza crust, some lego, a coin or two, a hairband. Imagine my surprise when I unearthed these! All unpublished, and none of the really failing the quality test - there are plenty more to be found which are frankly terrible, but if this is a numbers game Steve.....

In other news the patch has come off the boil slightly. An incredibly early Swift was seen yesterday, but I was sunning myself in Spain and so missed it (although I did see a Swift there too). Redstart and Whinchat have both made an appearance, and I am hoping for both this week at some point. Oh, and I finally saw that bloody Pheasant, and though it gives me no pleasure, it is now on the list as heard and seen.

It was a post-work evening twitch, with my fellow Pheasant dipper Bradders. Pitching up at about 6.30, the bird had the good grace to cross the open ride at about half seven.It did so at approximately the speed of light, blink and you would have missed it. You had to feel slightly sorry for the stoic twitcher, who nearing his twelfth hour at the site that day, happened at that moment to be on the telephone and looking the other way... Oops. I didn't snigger. Much.