Thursday, 22 June 2017

Modern listing is rubbish

Although adding new birds to lists isn’t much of a pressing concern these days, I had at least given the Elegant Tern buzzing around the south coast a little bit of thought. No much, but I did briefly consider going before deciding I couldn’t be bothered. Big lines of people in a crowd, “meh”. So much for twitching. It’s an incredibly rare bird this far east of its home waters , but thus far I find that it isn’t really gnawing away at me very much. I must be nearly cured. Thankfully now I don’t even need to go at all, and this is all thanks to power of the internet. Yesterday the bird strayed away from Church Norton where it has been spending most of its time and wound up on Brownsea Island near Poole in Dorset. Somewhat staggeringly, of all the places it could have chosen to land it plonked itself down right in front of the National Trust Tern colony webcam. This fact was broadcast on Twitter, which I viewed very much in the same light as “lift offered” when it comes to rare birds. Seeing as it was just a click rather than spending an age in a car with a complete stranger I gave it a whirl.

Nothing. Presumably most birders in the UK were doing exactly the same thing and the website simply didn’t have the bandwidth.

I moved on.

Later that evening I was sat in the garden mothing. Still early and with not a lot of activity I idly fired up the webpage again. Although dark it appeared to have an infrared mode…


The Elegant Tern was roosting in the centre of the screen. I couldn’t see its bill, but the punk hairdo and ring on one leg were huge giveaways amongst the Sarnies. I watched entranced and after a little while it woke up and had a look around. Will you look at the bill on that!

Tick and run! Or rather tick and stay sitting at home.


What do you mean that doesn’t count as a tick? Of course it does! Travel to the site and look at the bird through some glass. Remotely look at the bird also through some glass. I mean the only difference is really the magnification, physically I am doing exactly the same thing, looking at a rare bird through some optical equipment. And with a far better carbon footprint I might add – eco-twitching if you will. I watched the bird for some minutes, getting absolutely excellent if monochromatic views as it craned its head skywards as the Sandwich Terns engaged in some late night squabbling. I honestly could not have asked for a better rare bird experience.

OK, so in all seriousness it does seem a little bit wrong to tick the bird, however technology is advancing steadily and we cannot ignore it. It’s like video-conferencing – back in the day all meetings were face to face and people travelled to meet each other at vast expense. These days however we all save ourselves the time, money and effort and simply sit in offices interacting in almost exactly the same way as we would have done in a single room. So cast your minds back to the White-throated Robin twitch in Hartlepool, the one which famously (or infamously) involved ladders and all sorts of shenanigans. A passing white van was also requisitioned and had its roof caved in as I recall. Scenes. But what if someone sensible had turned up with a long selfie stick and simply poked it over the wall? The crowd could have looked at the phone screen, live, and had perfect views of a bird that was only a few feet away and without recourse to the mayhem that in fact ensued, and which reinforced yet again what a bunch of misfits UK birders are. And you don’t need to see a bird with your own eyes, after all the concept of ‘heard only’ has been around forever and a day. If you have no doubt about what you have heard, many people call that unequivocal, as good as seeing it.

Taking the technology piece a bit further, what if somebody had had a drone and hovered it fifty feet above the garden? The only differentiating factor between the selfie sick, that, and viewing a webcam then becomes the distance involved. You’re either physically quite close to it but separated by a physical barrier or you’re a further away. And if the only barrier to ticking a bird is simply a test of whether you have the time and inclination to drive a vast distance quickly, well…. Oh hang on.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Egretta gardenetta

Yesterday was very pleasant indeed in London. I made the most of it by doing very little – some mild gardening in the morning, more on which later, and then some heavy sitting in the afternoon whilst listening to the Champion’s Trophy final between India and Pakistan. During this latter period a long-awaited event occurred - a Little Egret entered into my airspace and thus found itself on my garden list. In keeping with many if not all garden lists, the area in question is of course far larger than just my garden. The list would be a fraction of the size were it restricted to species actually IN my garden, a quick mental tot up suggests that it would be no more than about 25. So you also have to look UP and count stuff that flies over. And because it would be virtually impossible to judge straight line extending vertically upwards from your fence lines, the only practical suggestion is to simply count everything that you can see in any direction. Some people take this to mean standing on their roof scoping a distant reservoir, but here at Chateau L the worst that generally ever happens is standing on the very edge of my drive listening for Warblers on Wanstead Flats. Oh yes, heard only is just fine. Coots in the still of the night on a distant local pond? Fair game.

Anyhow, as I was on the phone to Mick S discussing in some detail the merits of Iceland as a photographic destination, a Little Egret flew roughly north-west through my field of view, thus gaining the distinction of becoming #82, a mere 4 years after #81. My camera was indoors so there is no photographic proof, however if you grilled Mick on the slight change in direction of our conversation that occurred he would quickly confirm that there could be no possibility of this having been anything other than a full-fat garden tick. I basically lost the plot. Red-throated Divers were forgotten, and instead there was excited jubilation and accompanying bad language.

It has been a long time coming, the proximity of the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which I can’t see from my roof) means that birds must go over relatively frequently, and it is just a question of being at home to see it. And of course I am not all that frequently at home….. I have come close before on two occasions. Once on the school run when one flew over the car not long after we had left the house, and then a bird over Long Wood heading towards where I live. That second bird would almost certainly have been visible from my garden had it continued its trajectory, as would the Stone Curlew that headed off north a few springs ago, but that’s a stretch really. No, I have to content myself with ones I am actually home to see do it.

Little Egret was actually my top prediction for my next garden tick, and now that it has fallen that honour now sits with Nuthatch. These have undergone a local resurgence of late, are known to be nearby, and are also quite vocal. I’m hoping one will visit my peanut feeder one day, although that would require prizing off the Ring-necked Parakeet that is currently nailed to it.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Iceland, where to start?

Where to start indeed. I left after work on Friday and was back at my desk before midday on Monday. Between those two times I drove something like 500 miles, had under 10 hours sleep, and reduced the life of my camera shutter by about 4,100 shots. 

It was epic. I took a budget flight with Wow Air, enjoyed free car hire via an annual voucher I tend to get, took most of my food with me and 'slept' in the back of the car. This ensured that the weekend was as cheap as it could possibly be; Iceland has justifiably got a reputation for being obscenely expensive. I was so tired on Tuesday that I fell asleep at my desk momentarily and was woken up by my boss with a light tap on the shoulder. Not the best just before mid-year appraisals, but I still maintain that it was worth it. Iceland is fantastic, you bird in monumental scenery and you are surrounded by wildlife. If like me you live in a big city which is pretty bereft of wildlife at this time of year, especially birds, then a visit to somewhere like this around now is an excellent way in which to stave off the summer blues. 

I was fortunate with the weather, blue skies and wall to wall sunshine is by no means guaranteed, even in June, and it could equally have been a dreary weekend of grey skies and drizzle. A gamble that you have to take, and I got lucky. But oh my poor camera....It might be a bit old these days, and certainly more than a bit battered, but it did the job. It's on its second shutter now, and I made sure to get as close to the third as possible - though when that day comes I reckon there won't be much of the rest of the camera left. I got wet, muddy, cold and sun-burned all at once, and I had a brilliant time. I've managed to reduce the resulting images to under 700 now, but I've got months of editing to look forward to. The things I do to myself, honestly.

Here are a few tasters.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

A tweet of diminishing returns

I just returned from Iceland, a glorious trip in which I suffered severe sleep deprivation in the pursuit of birds. I ended up pressing my shutter 4,114 times over the course of the weekend which is pretty obscene. Last night when I got home I downloaded all of these, and before I passed out I quickly processed a few of them that I remembered taking. I tweeted them out, including one as I thought it was actually quite good and had a little bit of a “wow” factor to it. Showing off in other words. I don’t do it often, or at least not any more as I barely get to use my camera. Then I had the most amazing sleep I can’t remember.

Turns out that I was right, it does have that little something extra about it, and as far as I am aware it has gathered more attention than any other photo I have put up. I say as far as I am aware because I have only just now discovered a function of Twitter that shows you how many times any banal tweet you sling out has been seen by other people. Stats in other words – a little bar called “view tweet activity” on my mobile phone, or a little graph symbol online. Has anyone ever used this? I had no idea that this was even possible and I am staggered that the IT systems that sit behind Twitter can even do this at all. Now I don’t know that I can call this viral exactly, but as I write this the photo has been seen by nearly 16,000 people in the last 24 hours. I say seen, but this is where the stats become interesting, and where the true vacuity of Twitter becomes apparent. He actual stat is called “Impressions” and apparently means how many times a tweet has been viewed on Twitter – you can actually see this number ticking up as you look at it, so you know that somebody somewhere just wiggled their finger and….scrolled right past it!

The reason I say that is that there is another stat called “Total Engagements”, which I think means how many times somebody didn’t scroll right past but actually paused and clicked on it. That number is 1,598, so about 10%. Nine out of ten cats….. Then we have something called  “Media engagements”, which is how many times somebody actually clicked on the photo, i.e. to make it bigger. This is where it gets interesting. 953.  So 60% of the people that lingered also wanted to see more. Of those, 319, so about a third, felt they had the time to hit the little “like” button. This takes all of about a nano-second, I know this as I’ve done it myself many times with little to no thought whatsoever. Until now I had no idea what it actually meant, but now of course I realise it is directly connected to inner glow and happiness. 55 people went the extra step of retweeting it, the Twitter equivalent of forwarding an email, so about a sixth of those who had “liked” it if of course it is a subset which it may not be. I don’t know and I am not interested enough to find out. And anyway, it would not fit with my journey of diminishing returns that is the whole point of this post. 

Continuing with which, 37 people decided they were interested in who took the photo and would look at my profile, the one which says I am a dedicated patch birder hem hem. I have received no proposals of marriage and my acolyte count has risen by approximately four, and here we are getting to the nub of it I think. There have been six replies. Six. A mere six people could be bothered to actually type anything, and one of those was a German guy who I think missed what was supposed to be an expression of favourable fortune and extreme jamminess when I said "Not quite sure how this happened, but I'll take it" and told me that the reason was the bird's feathers had lost their hydrophobicness. I thank them for it of course, especially Kurt, but as a demonstration of the here today gone tomorrow uselessness of social media I think this is an excellent case study. 0.0375% of people who saw the photo actually said anything about it. To put that another way, for every one person that did type something, 2,665 did not!! It is therefore fortunate that I do not rely on bird photography (or Twitter!) for a living, as the amount of money I have earned from this photo rounds to exactly £0.00. In fact it cost me money to even take it, not only because my shutter is now one frame closer to stopping working, but also because surviving on anything other than bread and water in Iceland requires that one practically be a billionaire.

Here are those numbers again.

On a timeline/scrolled past: 15,994
Paused/clicked on: 1,598
Image expanded: 953
Liked: 319
Forwarded: 55
Interested in who took it: 37
Commented: 6
Defrayed costs: 0

Because a picture is better than a thousand words, I also put it on a graph.

Oh, and because we have come this far, here's the actual photo...

Not quite sure how this happened, but I'll take it

Sunday, 4 June 2017


Ugh, it’s June. As several people have said, including without fail me every year, June is just rubbish. In birding terms it holds virtually nothing to get excited about whether you live on the coast or do your birding inland. I suppose an exception would be if you happen to live near a seabird colony, but for most of us there is not a lot going on. In truth I gave up about ten days ago, about two thirds of the way into May I decided that June had arrived early and curtailed my early-morning forays. Then last weekend I finally bagged Red Kite for the year and so have been able to hang up my binoculars until August.

So now I have to somehow survive about two months of bird-free life. What to do, what to do? Many people struggle, as evidenced by pretending to be interested in butterflies and so on. I have no such worries as I suffer from a surfeit of hobbies at the best of times, and an enforced break from one of the biggest ones is actually a welcome chance to invest some energy in something else. Traditionally many birders dust off their macro lenses around now, and I may start doing that too, but for now I’ve been enjoying an extra two hours in bed every morning. I am getting itchy feet however, and the garden is beginning to get my attention. Now I am not a big gardener, indeed for all the years I’ve lived in Wanstead the garden has just been there and has largely looked after itself. Every now and again we pay a guy to come and hack it back, but as a family we’ve taken very little interest in it. This year however there are some big plans afoot, and the first of these actually caused me to dig out the fork and spade that have been gently rusting away in the shed for the decade since we moved here. Prior to that they rusted gently in my old shed in Becktonia, but last week I actually used them! If spades could speak you would have heard this one squeal with pleasure as it was sunk into the soil for the first time this century.

Needless to say my back still aches, but the main goal has been accomplished – about 150kg of sand, grit, gravel and perlite has been dug into a bed near the terrace which will become a tropical oasis. Up until now I have been banned from planting anything exciting in the garden. This is grossly unfair as it is not like Mrs L does any gardening. Nonetheless rules are rules, so all my exciting plants have remained in pots and make an annual appearance on the terrace and dotted around the garden. What do you mean? Of course plants can be exciting! Now however I have permission to actually plant some out and I am wasting no time in doing so before she changes her mind. Here is the area in question, it is only about 3ft x 10ft and being a bit of a softy I had no idea that simply digging in a bit of substrate to improve drainage would be quite as back-breaking. Happily the worst is now over – I reckon a further few sacks of gravel and sand ought to do it and then I can sculpt it into a slope and get planting. Maybe Chelsea is rubbing off on me after all? Anyway, stand by for the “after” photos!

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Great British Airways Red Kite Bonanza

Today I spent a lot of time in the garden staring skywards. British Airways kindly made it possible for me to be at home this bank holiday weekend rather than abroad as originally planned, which meant I was able to engage in one last push for treble figures before I shut up shop for the summer and join the odonata-loving hoards. 

So after I had mowed the lawn and weeded a couple of flower beds I plonked myself in a garden chair for some well earned relaxation and started to read my phone about the continuing chaos at Heathrow that I had thankfully only minimally got caught up in yesterday. Who needs Florida anyway?  Red Kite used to be a difficult bird here, although in late March and early April local birders' chances increase as birds start to move around a bit. As with Peregrine I missed all the early action, but I was confident that it would come good. All it needed was a bit of monumental IT failure karma.

And so five minutes after I had sat down in my chair I espied three very distant and high dots. Two were Buzzards and the third was a Gull. Whilst I was unsuccessfully trying to alert Bob to the former, a nearer bird caught my eye....

I raced upstairs, grabbed my camera from my as-yet unpacked hand-luggage and dashed back downstairs again to find the bird still on view. Most satisfying, and most importantly has allowed me to notch up three figures on the patch before June. Without this bird today I was probably looking at Spotted Flycatcher in August for #100. Anyway, here it is. I've gone for the more authentic "back of camera" approach as the photo is so rubbish.

After social media-ing this bird to the max I settled back down in my chair, content in a good job done. Basking. About 50 minutes later, ever alert, blow me if another one didn't sail across the sky. Given it was heading the opposite direction to the first, I assumed it must be the same bird coming back, but the photo tells a different story. This bird has a less ragged tail, and appears to also have a better set of wings, as well as two distinct notches in P7 and one in P8 that the first bird doesn't have. It was also a lot lower which resulted in a photograph that was inexplicably equally as naff, thus:

A bit more pottering in the greenhouse, a spot of lunch and some more sitting, all accompanied by the inner glow which only comes from the realisation that in 13 years of skywatching in the garden, including two years of domestic godliness, I'd only ever seen two Red Kites and had now doubled that number in under an hour.


I had joked online about the hat-trick being 'on' without really believing it, so when this flew over about two hours later I was genuinely surprised. Inspecting the photo it looks to me like this is a third bird, and one that is progressively in finer nick than the first two. Look at the tail on that! 

And so despite having my holiday plans trashed by corporate ineptitude that borders on gross negligence, I reckon I can say have had a pretty decent day, unlike many people still gamely trying to go on holiday (my trip was only four days, I've simply binned it). Three Red Kites over the same small patch of airspace in one day is superb, and I can head into the summer period pleased with a good job done.

Friday, 26 May 2017

A window into a different world

I went to Chelsea yah. The Flower Show yah? Yah, terribly good fun, simply fabulous darling. Yah, see you at Ascot. Or Glyndebourne. Or Pippa’s next wedding! Toodle pip! OK, so nobody actually said “toodle pip” and whilst it was a bit of an eye-opener in regards to demographics, I can honestly say that I have not had so much fun in ages. I was volunteering with work, otherwise known as a jolly. It is apparently sound marketing for my company to sponsor a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, and the number of emblazoned leaflets I gave away suggested we know a good opportunity when we see one. My job was to stand around in lame similarly-emblazoned clothing and answer questions from the general public on anything and everything to do with the garden. The concept (all gardens have concepts, surely you knew that?), the design, the plan, the future, and of course the plants. All I can say is that if I see another Cardiocrinum Giganteum again as long as I live it will be too soon.

What? You mean haven’t ever heard of the Giant Himalayan Lily? Good grief! This is what happens when a blog is read by the Hoi Polloi I suppose….. Actually, despite my mild horticultural interest I had never heard of it either, but after 6 hours of fielding questions on it I now consider myself a world expert. It grows to 10 feet tall, it takes many years to get to flowering size and being monocarpic it then dies. Oh come on! Monocarpic? I give up. Anyhow, 99% of questions were on this enormous lily thing and it wasn’t even flowering andt just looked like huge asparagus stalks sticking out of the undergrowth. The overall garden was beautiful though, a winding limestone path through a shaded understory of ferns, hostas and perennial flowers evoking a natural woodland, into a loggia (don’t ask because I don't know….) and then out into a more formal sunny garden bursting with colour, topiary and sculpture. Stunning and perfectly balanced. The kind of thing that mere mortals can only dream of.

But of course this is Chelsea, and Chelsea is not populated by mere mortals which is what made this day so fun. I’d never been before as generally and despite my interest in plants I just didn’t feel it was my scene. This visit absolutely confirms that! But it didn’t stop it being a fascinating window into another world and a really good day out. Not of gardens so much, though many lovely and expensive things were on display, but of people. I have never seen so many Joanna Lumley’s in one place. Nor Henry Blofelds. Nor as many pale salmon-coloured trousers, pink jackets and panama hats! Away from the sartorial splendor, the people wearing these fabulous get-ups were quite incredible, totally fascinating. I am no anarchist, indeed I can dip in and dip out of this social sphere as required, but rarely am I so immersed in it and it was simply brilliant. These people live in a parallel universe! (the same parallel universe in which I am polite to people for 6 hours straight!). Austerity and the state of the planet just are not concerns. It’s all about soil, trellises, Pimms and the next trip to St Lucia. Many of them were delightful of course, the epitome of British courtesy and politesse, expressing genuine interest in the garden and the plants, even some preliminary small-talk at times. “So what do you do then?”, at which point I had to confess to not being an equal to Chris Beardshaw in the horticultural arena but instead to working in a bank. This being Chelsea of course this didn’t raise any eyebrows. If you are so unfortunate as to need a job then a bank is as good a place as any. A smaller number however treated us as mere lackeys – “Would you give me one of those?”, indicating a desire for an emblazoned leaflet, or “You there, what’s that tall thing over there near the hedge?” “Eh? Himalayan what?

Seriously good people watching. Whilst the majority were there for the plants and mostly spoke latin, some were there simply to be seen. I suppose it is an 'event' in the annual social calendar, like Wimbledon or whatever, but there is no denying that it is great fun and I consider myself fortunate to have been involved. It covers a huge site, and there are thousands of opportunities to spend serious money. Sculptures, seeds, tools, even greenhouses - to which I am no stranger - but some of these were hugely impressive. My greenhouse is a big mess, loads of empty pots, boxes of soil and grit, hoses, labels, spiders..... These were immaculate, nothing out of place whatsoever, charmingly perfect, and if I am honest, rather inspiring. I will see what I can do.

Selling like hotcakes!