Wednesday 8 May 2024

Milestones

 * pops head round door *

Oh, hi. You still here? I've not been around much, one of those phases I'm afraid. We've been here before. They happen, they pass, they come round again. I've got loads to write, tons to say, lots to report. But I can't be bothered. Or at least not right now. The only reason I'm here typing this is because three milestones have recently been passed and I am nothing if not a numbers guy. Let's get right into it.

1) My 2024 World year list recently went through 500 with a Blue-winged Warbler in Arkansas. I know, who goes to Arkansas right? Well I did, and also to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky. An epic southern road trip last month. Will I ever write it up? Probably. This year? Seems unlikely y'all. 

2) I went to Scotland last weekend to stay with my parents. Owing to a communication failure it turns out that they weren't there so instead I just went birding. What a bummer. Mick joined me up there and on Saturday we had a big day - we managed over 100 species, not something I think I've ever done before. It turns out that I know the county well enough in terms of what's where to be pretty proficient at taking someone round. Everything just fell into place, Goldeneye were on two out of the three water bodies I thought they would still be on in early May. Raven were right where I knew they would be, as was Short-eared Owl. Goldcrest was in the exact tree I'd found one in before, and Garden Warbler was found in both spots where I thought there would be potential. That kind of thing. Probably not that impressive if you live there, but I live in London. But even though Saturday was a nice round number that's not the milestone I'm talking about. That milestone is 200 for Fife. I couldn't quite manage it in February, with a Waxwing and Bearded Tit leaving me on 199, but a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher at Kilminning on Friday evening became my 200th bird. Shortly afterwards, and at the same site, Pied Flycatcher became my 201st. I've been knocking on this particular door for some time now and it was great to finally get over the line. 

3) As the points above probably make clear, I've not spent every single waking hour in Wanstead. But such is my dedication, ahem, that this afternoon a Hobby became my 100th bird of 2024 for the local patch. Barring 2021 which will never happen again, this is actually the earliest I've reached this milestone, beating 2020 by a day! 

So a lot of nice round numbers. 500, 200 and 100. I need to have a look around and see if I am close to any others. Anyway, that was it. As you were. Bye now.

The incomparable Ruddon's Point and Largo Bay. Note the discarded camera....




Thursday 11 April 2024

Has it stopped raining yet?

It has been one of the wettest winters I can recall. The local ponds are all full to the brim, wader passage (such that we ever get here) will be virtually non-existent. I'd rather them be full than empty, as that would just be disgusting around here, and as we head into no doubt another record-breaking summer we need every ounce of water we can store as the levels will fall very quickly with the kind of temperatures that are commonplace these days. Ounce? Drop, maybe. Large sections of the patch which are not ponds are close to becoming ponds, or at the very least incredibly waterlogged and boggy. And bird-free of course, even though from a distance it looks really quite attractive. But of course what do I know? I am not a bird, and as Jubilee Pond constantly reminds us what looks completely grim from a human perspective seems to be very attractive to birds. So the reverse is probably true - to me it looks great. To a passing bird, meh.



The deluge is showing signs of easing, finally, and occasionally a funny yellow ball can be seen in the sky. This is very pleasant, and both and my plant-growing environments have begun to feel warm again. Only briefly of course, but I have sown the seeds of what will eventually become my annual bean harvest and now have a nice collection of seedlings that I will soon plant out. Concurrent with this change in the weather we have finally seen a bit of migration, although I missed by far the best day of the year by virtue of being somewhere else that was also very waterlogged. So waterlogged in fact that the streets had all flooded and the residents were having to get about in boats.


Even though I missed the fun at the weekend, the mornings have provided an opportunity to partially catch up. We've had a good passage of Common Redstart (unusual for Spring) including a lingering bird that has started to sing, the first Swallows have been passing over,  the regular Reed Warbler has put in an early appearance on Shoulder of Mutton pond, and in the last couple of days the first Whitethroats have arrived and are tentatively singing whilst getting booted around by Robins. Patch birders are never satisfied of course, and t
houghts are turning to what we might get next, and all local birders worth their salt have a mental list of targets and have fine-tuned their birdy radars for specific species. I am on high alert for Ring Ouzel for example, the 'tsiep' of a Yellow Wagtail, and for that first rattle of a Lesser Whitethroat. Any day now.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Easter weekend

I've spent all weekend on the patch, birded it three days out of four. The result, a stonking bag of spring migrants one Willow Warbler. One. That's it. Barring this one bird, not a single migrant of any note. No Wheatears, no fly-over waders, no hirundines, no nothing. It is hard not to be disappointed over four days. The numbers tell a different story as I ended March way above average on 83, but those are just numbers - all you need to see is one individual of one species and you're done. A more interesting stat is how many passed through. If I purposefully ommit Chiffchaff and Blackcap as they now overwinter in small numbers and are thus seen way before migration has officially started, the only passage migrant to appear so far this year prior to April 1st's Willow Warbler has been Wheatear.  The first of these was on March 16th, the next day it was joined by another, and a little later that week, the 19th, I picked up another male whilst Nick found a female. So what's that? Four birds if you're feeling generous? Since that day there hasn't been a sausage. Yes there was a Partridge, and you could say that a few Red Kite passing over are also migrants, but what I am trying to say in a far too roundabout way is that it has been shit. Four days of complete freedom to bird the patch, no work, no committments, and one single Willow Warbler. Unremittingly shit. Luckily I have other hobbies too, but I won't bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I have put in some serious shifts in the greenhouse and garden with which I am extremely satisfied.



So a weekend of pottering around basically, something I am extremely good at. I did exciting things like sweeping, pruning, and going to the dump. I have been middle-aged since I was about 19 and am now really beginning to hit my stride. As I took a lunch break on one of the days I wondered aloud to Mrs L whether this was what retirement was like. For some reason she put her head in her hands, I am not sure why. It is nice to spend time at home with the family, and I can only assume she is looking forward to it as much as I am.

The weekend also revolved around food. It being the holidays we have a full house here, and with the five of us it made a bit more sense to push the boat out a little. Of course some dishes were sniffed at - chickpea and chicory salad was not met with universal acclaim for some reason although Mrs L and I both liked it a lot. What irritates me is the picking and choosing, or that we will spend hours cooking a substantial meal and only a few hours later they will be swarming in the kitchen again, wolfing down cereal and toast as if they haven't been fed for days. Teenagers eh? Was I like this? The highlight of the weekend was probably our Italian meal, I haven't stopped jabbering about Italy since I returned from Piedmont in early March. I imported a load of goodies including a local pasta called Tajarin which we had as a primi piatti with some of my home-made ragu, and it was every bit as good as the dish I ate in an osteria in Alba. 



In other (now sadly regular) news the fence battles continue unabated. There was some minor respite on Good Friday, and for a moment we thought our anonymous adversary had perhaps gone away for Easter. Unfortunately they had not as we arrived on Saturday to one of the most egregious slashing incidents thus far that required the CoL team to come out and repair it as it was beyond the volunteers. On Sunday and Monday there was virtually no damage at all, but this morning it had been cut again, albeit only a little. Perhaps as we now re-enter the normal working week it will all start up again, my pet theory is that weekdays are more likely than weekends as people are up much earlier in order to walk their dogs before work, and the damage has always occured before we get there in the morning. So, a bum note to end on, but the Skylarks continue to sing - perhaps as many as four birds. Fingers crossed.





Thursday 28 March 2024

Red letter day

Back in 2015 one morning in April became rather a red letter day. Tim had found a Grasshopper Warbler, a patch first, in the Old Sewage Works. I'd dashed over there from where I had been on Wanstead Flats and managed to see and hear it, but literally as we were watching it news came from the Flats of a Red-Legged Partridge running around. Whilst not a patch first it was new for most of us and so I desparately dashed back over there. It wasn't to be and I had had to leave for work. But I decided to walk back across Wanstead Flats after work, and there in glorious low sunshine was a Red-legged Partridge bimbling around the football fields, happy as you like. I could scarcely believe my luck, and even managed to run home and get my camera, returning just in time to take a few photos in the dying rays of light.



It remained the only sighting for ages until Marco found one during the pandemic years, but that eluded everyone but him I think. That changed early yesterday when Tony found another one in the Skylark enclosure. It didn't show quite like the one above, but occasionally popped its head up from the long grass to have a look around. Of course being beyond the rope we couldn't get any closer (where is our knife-wielding friend when you really need him?) but it was excellent to finally get another, and it was a patch tick for at least two people who had missed the last one or not been birding here then. 

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Offensive fence offences


The battle for the fence is in full swing. On the one side, the birdwatchers of Wanstead Flats, the local wildlife group, and the Corporation of London. On the other, a small band of pathetic local vigilantes. Each morning the birders and wildlife volunteers find small sections of the fence cut, and each morning they repair it with spare rope that they carry. The next morning we find that it has been cut again and so we repair it again. This happens literally every day. It is quite tiresome and detracts from birding, but at the same time the damage is repaired very quickly and the integrity of the fence restored. Damaged or undamaged, it is having the desired effect of keep people and dogs out of the main Skylark breeding areas.

The damage is almost always where the footpaths intersect with the fence, a clear message that a person's right of way trumps wildlife. Sometimes a real rage descends, and not only is the rope near the paths cut but also anywhere where there is a sign about Skylarks. Sometimes the signs themselves are hacked to pieces. The mind boggles, really it does. Can you imagine a grown adult becoming so incensed with a sign about protected birds that their reaction is to kick it down and cut it up? I can't. This is the reponse of a truculent child, a spoilt brat. Every evening, or early morning, or possibly in the middle of the night, they sneak out with scissors or a knife and engage in this petty vandalism. No doubt it makes them feel good, important, untouchable and full of anti-woke virtue. They need to have a long hard look at themselves.



Some mornings after this red mist the damage is so severe and the Corporation has to send out a team to repair entire lengths of it. Last week I was first on site and discovered over 60 sections of fence cut through, signs slashed and thrown to the ground. As you might expect CoL are getting a little fed up of it, and rightly so. Lines have been drawn, the Police are involved, and they are out to catch the perpetrators. There is now CCTV, and signs warning of this. One person has already been caught in the act, a dog walker who in the middle of the day and casually as you like approached the fence, cut it, walked through the gap and all the way across the Skylark area before cutting the fence at the other end and walking out. Entirely deliberate, brazen. Happily they've been identified and the various follow ups that you would expect are apparently in hand. On another day a jogger decided to hop over the fence and carry on down the main path; they were apprehended on the spot by the Epping Forest Constables and told in no uncertain terms that they would not be doing that again. Turns out there was a language barrier, but at the same a physical barrier is a physical barrier and you shouldn't need to be able to read a sign to understand that a fence is there for a reason.



But the strong feeling is that the main vigilante, or possible several, are still out there and remain deeply committed to sending their message. So be it. They're outnumbered, out-gunned, and ultimately they are ineffectual - the fence remains, the Skylarks are within it and are singing away. No doubt these people are very pleased with themselves but that will change when they're caught. This isn't a one off, a mistake, oops, mea culpa. Every time the fence is damaged we're photographing it, sending the evidence to the Corporation, and a case is being built. As well as cameras there are now also patrols, official and unofficial, and we're collectively all committed to finding and stopping these people. And when that eventually happens, as surely it must as we've only got to get lucky once, they're not going to be let off with a slap on the wrist. It's gone way beyond that at this point. Watch this space.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Playing catch up

For a variety of the usual reasons I'd not spent any time on the patch for the last few weeks. My mood was buoyed on Friday by my first Chiffchaff of the year as a I took a slightly different route to work, but I felt strongly that Saturday would be the day that I would properly catch up with all that I had been missing. So it proved.

I bounced out of bed at 6.05am, annoyed with myself for oversleeping a bit. My eBird list went live at 6.24am as I stepped out of the front door. Game on. I had a little chat with Eve on Centre Path whilst not seeing very much - still too early for many things, a small flock of lingering Redwing, some excited Woodpeckers. The temperature began to rise just after 7am when Tony found a Yellowhammer - a strange combination of a skulker that could simply vanish, but also a belting bright yellow male that even began to sing from bushes. It was my tenth Yellowhammer on the patch, so a rare bird here, and the timing was pretty spot on. Of those ten records, seven of them have been in March or April. An ice-cool Richard managed to get across in time to tick it, but unfortunately couldn't stick around for the celebratory breakfast.

Of course the real prize this morning was a certain Chat. We were at exactly the half-way point in the annual Wheatear Sweepstake, mid month a prime date, and for Tony whose day it was all to play for. As we contemplated breakfast an odd Duck flew over us towards Jubilee. In almost all cases a Duck across Wanstead Flats is a Mallard, but this was completely wrong. A very small head, and a diminutive bill, pale underneath - alarm bells started to ring. This was surely a female Mandarin wasn't it? We scooted across to Jub where it had appeared to land, discussing the various things we had seen, and concluded it could only have been this. Wood Duck anyone? Frustratingly there was no sign on Jubilee, but I'd searched for Mandarin on here before knowing full well it was there and come away empty handed, so either it only thought about landing and then carried on, or it simply melted into the thick vegetation on the islands.

Breakfast from Greggs was superb and we sent Richard the bill - these are basically the rules for full fat patch tickage. As we strolled back towards VizMig a large Peregrine circled the Skylark enclosure - now enclosed again, although more on that later. Another year tick! Then, just as I was finishing my coffee, a Rook flew over. Not as rare as Yellowhammer, my 20th sighting, but really quite tricky as they are almost always flyovers and who can be bothered to check out each and every Crow as it goes over? The timing is a little early, at least for my records, with 15 out of those 20 in April, but it's a good time for things moving around and indeed Wanstead was not the only London patch to record its first Rook of 2024 yesterday.

Leaning against the fence I picked up my first Buzzard of the year, one of ten that morning once the sun had come out. Perfect, the day was proceeding exactly as planned in many ways, but with some massively unexpected bonuses. Tony and I had joined Sgt. Bob (on patrol) to check out a pale Stonechat when the moment happened. WHEATEAR! A smart male on the fence right next to us! Tony called it first, Louis still forming the letter 'W' as Tony claimed the prize and both trophies, finder and date - a new member of the exclusive 'double' club. My sixth new bird for the year, what a morning this was turning out to be!

I wasn't over yet though. Thanks to a dog walker we were alerted to a Little Owl in Centre Copse, and as the day warmed up and the raptors began to soar I felt certain I'd manage to pick out a Red Kite. This took until about 11.15, some five hours after leaving my house, but a bird flew relatively low over VizMig as I continued my vigil. My laggard performance of 74 on Friday had become 82. I basically skipped home.

The presence of a entirely reasonable sign is just so utterly offensive that it simply has to be kicked down and snapped in half.


So what about that Skylark fence? Well in 2024 it has been decided that whilst there will be a fence again it won't be as intrusive as last year, so rather than the full plastic barrier we just have the rope. It looks a lot better of course, and is far more sustainable, but also far less effective as dogs can just run straight under it. I suppose that the mere presence of a barrier of any kind will stop the majority of people, dog owners or otherwise, from crossing the area, but it feels rather weak.

Of course for some people, or perhaps just one person, even a thin blue rope is an outrage. The culture war is in full swing, and the fence that has now been up for a little over two weeks has been repeatedly vandalised. And I mean repeatedly. Day after day someone has methodically worked their way along whole sections of it cutting it between each post. It is maddening that someone can be so incensed by the thought that wildlife might be more important than they are, but this is where we are in 2024. Bob, Tim and the Corporation have just as methodically repaired each and every section, but it keeps happening and unless we can catch the perpertrator in the act I don't see that this will stop. Lines have been drawn.



You just wonder how petty, small-minded and pathetic someone has to be to come out day after day and defiantly engage in this absurd vandalism, sabotaging a well meaning-effort to safeguard what is now a mere handful of ground-nesting birds. It is just shameful, but as I said, it's a culture war. We know there are a few dog walkers who vehemently disagree with our efforts to protect the Skylarks. It is their right to walk wherever they want to, it's public land, blah blah blah. There is no educating these people because this is not about birds, or Wanstead, or even their dog. That is all a pretext. It's about their diminishing influence in the world and I see it as identical to the themes that handed us Brexit. Poisoned by the media, a certain segment of the population has come to hate liberalism, and ironically also authority. They can't tell me what to do, who do they think they are? This is my country, I can do what I want here, your woke rules don't apply. Great Britain. The fence is just a symbol, one of many things that provokes irrational rage in a particular type of person. Unisex toilets and pronouns, asylum seekers, women in power, pride flags, the mere concept of wellness, our blue fence is just another thing in a long list of things that are wrong with this country. Our scissor-wielding friend is fully on board with hating all of this, and chopping our fence is the one small act of defiance that he, for it almost certainly a he, can carry out. It probably gives him a daily sense of satisfaction that he is fighting back against the system that in his head has marginalised him. That's what this is about, a feeling of declining power and a deep concern that the era when he and people like him ruled the roost is over. Well I have news for this guy. It is over and cutting our fence every day isn't magically going to bring back the 1950s. All that's going to happen is that we're going to repair it, and the cruel system that is responsible for so many imagined woes and slights is going to move forward unabated because the world moves on whether you like it or not. Get with the program. And hope that we don't catch you.



Tuesday 12 March 2024

Madrid

I had a problem. UK Air traffic control was having a melt-down, and it was not certain if my flight home to London would run. Fine fine, spend another night in France or Switzerland, no? Well yes, that's what a normal person would do but my travel plans are generally more complicated than they need to be. In this case I was due to fly to Bogota from Madrid the following evening, a trip to visit a Colombian friend who was spending some time back home after a long period in London. So I might have been able to get back to Heathrow, but would that have allowed me to catch my afternoon flight to Madrid to connect with the long haul flight? With flights being cancelled in their hundreds and no end to the chaos, would that flight even leave London? I couldn't risk it, I had to be in Madrid, and this was all on separate tickets which meant that if I missed it I was on my own and wouldn't just be put on the next one. Plus I had a day of birding planned as soon as I arrived which I did not want to miss. So in the taxi on the way to Geneva I cancelled the following day's London to Madrid flight and replaced it with one from Geneva to Madrid that was leaving imminently! This was free as it happened, the magic of airmiles and BA and Iberia being in the same alliance - the only bit of marginally good news that evening. Indeed my friends were still in Geneva airport in the small hours long after I'd arrived in Spain.

The big issue of course was that my bag for Colombia was waiting for me in London. In it were were packed lots of clean clothes for the tropics, but also more critically my birding camera and lens. Bugger. Then again I had my binoculars and my passport, all a travelling birder really needs, and I could buy some clothes in Madrid now that I had a full day there rather than a matter of hours. Not ideal, but not a complete show-stopper by any means, and I was glad I had made a snap decision and could now get on with things - it is the uncertainty that drives you mad in these situations. Of course had I planned it better I would have gone direct from Geneva to Madrid in the first place and taken everything I needed with me, but the trips were not planned in this order - Colombia was (by my standards) quite a last minute thing, squeezed between Chamonix on one end and a visit to see my Aunt in America on the other. 



I like Madrid, I come here quite a lot and know my way around quite well now. After dumping my bag at a cheap hotel that was coincidentally close to Colombia Metro I went out for the evening to a tapas place I know and had a fun time watching the city go by. Even on a Monday evening Madrid is buzzing, especially so in August. Whilst eating prawns and having a glass of wine I constructed myself a little itinerary for the following morning to take in some birding, some clothes shopping, and finally getting some US Dollars, which had also been in my bag in London ready to go and which I had forgotten about up until this point. With this plan formed I returned to Colombia and went to bed.

The next morning I was up early(ish) and had a happy three hours walking around Parque Enrique Tierno Galvan in the south of the city, chosen because there were a number of Spanish ticks available. Yes eBird does govern my every waking move, why do you ask? This was really very pleasant, it was a warm morning and whilst I only recorded 30 species five of them were new including Garden Warbler, Western Bonelli's Warbler, and Pied Flycatcher. These latter were everywhere, and I counted at least 28 as I walked a circular route around the Park, quite exceptional numbers. Some were incredibly showy as they fed up, where was my camera? Excellent, missing it already. I hoped this wouldn't also be the case in Colombia, but at least I would get there and that was the most important thing.








I had a relaxed open air lunch at a place near the park popular with office workers. This is one of the reasons (there are many more) why Europe is so much better than the UK. People take lunch seriously. At Canary Wharf it is exceptionally rare that I don't eat my lunch at my desk. In Spain I would leave my desk, roll up my sleeves and put on my hat, and go to a local restaurant for an hour and a half whilst soaking up some sunshine. Which of the two scenarios is better for the soul? Anyway, very pleasant indeed, the Europeans have it all worked out and we could learn a thing or two. After lunch, which included a nice cold beer, I went shopping at Uniqlo which is a cheap source of OK-ish light-weight clothing in my experience. Pants and socks formed the bulk of my purchases but I also picked up a couple of shirts that I could wear until I could do some washing in Bogota. I think I may have changed into one straight away. I replaced my dollars close by and then spent the rest of the afternoon being a tourist and doing things like having an icecream, some more early evening tapas, and another beer. I returned to the hotel quickly to pick up my case and repack, and then went to Barajas where I was able to have a shower and repack yet again. The flight left on time just after midnight and as I settled down in my seat a sense of complete calm and satisfaction came over me. When travelling lots of things inevitably go wrong but they are quite often surmountable with a bit of tweaking provided you don't hang around. In the event I worked out that I would have been able to manage the turnaround in London although it would have been a matter of hours at home rather than a full day, and the flight to Madrid by some miracle did in fact leave as scheduled despite the chaos. It even arrived early! Such is life I suppose, but I have no doubt that my decision was the correct one. In a few hours I would be birding the western slope of the Cordillera oriental in Cundinamarca, that was all that mattered at this juncture.


One of the murals at the Colombia Metro. Very apt indeed.