Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Plover Lover

Word light, photo heavy. Still struggling with eBird, although some instances of vindication are occuring. Regardless, this post is one hundred percent filler. I was recently in Florida getting very muddy on a tidal beach and it was fantastic. Despite the many many birds feeding I am not convinced on the water quality as my latest set of Fire Ant bites have become infected and are still oozing nearly three weeks later. I thought salt water generally cured all ills. I'll spare you the foot photos, but you do have to suffer some Plovers.


Monday, 2 December 2019

eBird hero to zero

There is a new eBird hero on the block. Me. And I deserve some serious kudos, for I've just uploaded some 2500 UK checklists. For those not familiar with the concept, a checklist is a defined list of birds seen in a certain location on a certain date - either actual counts or an indication that a species was present but without a count. The theory is that other users also enter their lists, and thus you have a gigantic database that grows exponentially and in time becomes an incredible scientific resource. I had a lot of lists going back years, all stored in a huge Excel spreadsheet. Thousands of lists with every bird I've seen. Counts too in some cases, not simply that I'd seen a species, but that I'd counted twenty three of them. Not many birders will have that kind of electronic record. Faced with that many lists in a series of notebooks for example, how many birders would attempt to digitize them? Some of the earliest lists date from 2003, and there is a glut from 2009-2011 when I found myself gleefully unemployed and able to go birding the length and breadth of the land. UK birding has of course rather tailed off now that I don't twitch, but I still dutifully record each and every outing on the patch when I get home. I submitted 997 lists from Wanstead alone.

EBird has the facility for bulk uploads, so I painstakingly created a template that would allow me to transfer my Excel records in large batches. At this point I'd like to apologise to all the volunteer bird list checkers out there, graciously giving their time to try and keep eBird free from nonsensical data. It's not that my lists are complete garbage, but there has been a teensy weensy problem with dates. My spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, but I will be the first to admit that spreadsheet design is not my forte. It appears that about fifteen years ago i made the momentous decision to combine the location and the date in one cell. Apparently I also decided that consistency was something that needn't concern me too much. Anyway, many years later I have an exceptional record of sightings which are almost impossible to extract a date for, despite the fact that it is there in black and white.

"Wanstead Flats, Sep 2nd", with the year recorded in a separate cell.

Looks simple, but it isn't. 

What about "Wanstead Flats. London, 2nd Sept"? 

You get the idea. How do I get from myriad versions of this to a simple US date format of mm/dd/yyyy? It was very nearly beyond me. Numerous eBird volunteers may suggest that it was definitely beyond me. Eventually I worked out a formula that converted vast majority of the dates correctly, removing commas, splitting the location, days and months, and then concatenating them back up. It was so nearly perfect....ahem.

Many of the dates are correct. Many however seem completely random, and where these concern rarities, as many do, this is confounding the volunteers. Some are close, for instance I was only ten days out on the Portland Brunnich's Guillemot, my translation formula having produced 12/19/2012 rather than 12/29/2012. But when the bird was not found until the 26th..... Others are just rubbish, with no element of the day, month or year bearing any resemblance to when I actually saw a bird. Puffins on the Isle of May in December, Pink-footed Geese in high summer, that kind of thing. When you order my lists by date this results in my being in Scotland, on Scilly and at home in Wanstead more or less simultaneously, or at the very least hints at some rather crazy driving.

Correcting these foul ups is taking some time, and in many cases the vols are get to them first. I think they have some sort of auto exception flagging, but nonetheless it must be rather irritating, especially when these records are from 2008 and so on. Mostly they are being very helpful, suggesting what the actual dates was based on weekends etc, or telling me the period during which the bird was present. Others are more curt, just saying my list is wrong and to please check it. Fair enough really, and so that is what I am doing, helped by the original spreadsheet, this blog, and also good old fashioned notebooks - essential for working out which list is which where it involves a pace I've visited many times. Norfolk seems particularly screwed up, along with Scottish records excluding Shetland. I'll get there, but so much for the efficiency of the batch upload. Then again without it I likely would not have bothered.

Hassle aside it is a great trip down memory lane. I didn't half get about in those days. Every weekend there is something. A juicy mega, a long sea watch, a day of migrant quality on the Norfolk coast and, in between, hundreds of patch visits. I birded a huge amount. It makes me want to do so again.

Monday, 25 November 2019


There are certain advantages to the onset of cold weather. Whisky is one of them. Whereas Gin and Tonic dominates in summer, as winter begins to take over from autumn Whisky starts to feature a lot more. This evening marks the first of this period, and I have chosen something from Orkney in honour of the Steller's Eider that I would really like to see but probably won't. I have never been to Highland Park actually, it would be a good double. Never say never, but unlikely.

Like all good whisky drinkers I have a special glass I am drinking it from, and I am afraid I am also wearing slippers. I could be 80 but I'm not. I definitely feel old though. Recently in Scotland I really felt the cold, especially in my hands, and a I enjoy a solid eight hours of sleep every night. Oh, except when I have to get up half way through, you know.... Well, some of you will know. Younger readers perhaps not. You will though, you will....

The dram is going down a treat, Highland Park always does. It is neither too bland nor too peaty, neither too smooth nor too fiery. Perfection . I had forgotten how much I enjoy Whisky, in moderation of course. Everything in moderation nowadays. Especially birding....

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Taiwan - Trip List

Trip List

Bold = widely recognised endemic
Bold Italics = treated as endemic by some authorities
Asterisk = subspecies unique to Taiwan

Friday, 22 November 2019

The great Wanstead carrot harvest of 2019

You know how they talk about great wine vintages of the past? The amazing 1945, 1961, 1982 in Bordeaux, more recently 2005 and so on. They are referred to in almost reverent whispers in some circles. Well in the years to come the same hushed tones will be used to describe the 2019 Chateau L carrot crop. People will likely end up writing scholarly essays on it, this blog post will be the first of many I expect.

The carrots were pulled this past weekend, and to say that the harvest was a bumper one would be a gross understatement. Bountiful, the soil here is unparalleled in its ability to really impart nutrients into the vegetables. As a result they grow larger, and more quickly, and the taste is second to none. I estimate we will be feasting on carrots for many, many months. I can only hope however that there is some other food to go with them.....

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Ruddon's Point

I was in Scotland a couple of weekends ago, checking in on aged relatives. As I myself age I find myself less inclined to subject myself to Scottish weather, and more inclined to sit inside near warm Agas, but I did manage to get out for a short stroll at Ruddon's Point on the Fife coast. This is one of my favourite birding locations. These days I either bird Wanstead or somewhere in a different country. Trips to the coast, for instance North Norfolk, or perhaps the Naze in Essex, or one of the many great sites in Suffolk are all pretty much unknown these days. I should get out more, it would be good for me. And yet...and yet I am perfectly happy really. I feel no great need to go birding here there and everywhere. Some people I know are out every weekend, and why not. Do what makes you happy, don't do what won't. It's not that going to the coast would upset me of course, it's just that staying at home and pottering around the place also makes me happy and is the easy option. The warm option too!

Anyway we felt we should get out of the house, and as it is a nice easy walk I suggested Ruddon's. The path takes you from Shell Bay out to the edge of the pines and then to a small headland with a view back across Largo Bay all the way to Leven. It was early in the winter period, so the bay was not stuffed with birds, but with just binoculars I was nonetheless able to pick out two Red-throated Divers, three Red-breasted Mergansers, and a few rafts of Common Scoter and Eider. Around the rocks were loads of Oystercatcher and Redshank, and on the beach a few Turnstones pottered around as a Rock Pipit stood watch. Glorious.

On my local patch I have not seen any of these birds, and so it was extremely refreshing in multiple senses. So refreshing in fact that we hurried back to the car, were thankful for the heated seats, and then zoomed home to the warm kitchen for a hot lunch!

Meanwhile Ray the postman is still in shorts.

What Wanstead lacks

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Book Club 4

It somehow seems appropriate to write a post about reading books on a blog that nobody much reads anymore. Difficult to say whether I am playing to captive audience or not, do blog readers also read books? If you are a reader, are you a reader? So to speak. Anyway, I don't have a huge amount to say about birds or anything really, so books it is. Perhaps you will be interested that one of the books below in read in one single commute to Canary Wharf and back. Then I read it again, to really chew over the words, the language, the rhythm. What is it about this book that won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Do others write like this? Indeed could I write like this? 

It is an interesting question - does reading make you a better writer? Do you somehow pick things up, be it vocabulary or construct, and weave it, perhaps subconsciously, into your own writing? Is your writing better for it? For instance can you too put four commas into a single sentence? What I found interesting about Hemingway, for that is the author I'm talking about, is that some of his sentences seemed very long indeed and entirely devoid of punctuation. And yet it flowed and flowed, borne on by the fish. Anyhow if you have a spare hour or so it can't hurt. Everyone can find an hour can't they? Just skip the latest episode of whatever junk it is that you're watching on Netflix and pick up a book instead. And if by some miracle there is still a functioning library where you live, you could even do so for free. What I am saying is read more books.

So here is the latest installment. I know it is not a long time since the last one, but I've had a pool-side holiday and a trip to the Far East with interminable hours in a plane. A very nice and comfortable plane with a huge TV screen, and yet....

Augustown - Kei Miller
This was rather a departure for me, passed on by Mrs L after one of her regular visits to Daunt Books in Marylebone. Although it is fiction, August Town and some of the events and people described are very real indeed. Centered around a depressed and downtrodden suburb of Kingston, it explores Jamaican society, divisions and belief, with character dialogue written in a form of patois that if you are in the right frame. A mixture of myth and grit, you can see where the story is headed from some way out, if not exactly how, and as a result it is a quick and enjoyable read. Not the type of book I would normally pick up, but in straying outside of my comfort zones I've yet to find something I have truly not been able to read which can only be a good thing. And I now want to go to Jamaica...

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway has better known works, novels whose names you will all know, such as A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and so on. But this short story is one that won the Nobel Prize however, and taken as whole is a delight. But when you first pick it up you could be forgiven for thinking that it's not all that. I found it laborious intially but gradually I became hooked. See what I did there? I fairly raced through it, pulled by the strength of the fish and the direction of the narrative. When I had finished it - one commute is all it took - I read it again, for it is truly a short story. And it is a glorious tale, built on dreams and fable, and anchored in blood, tears and hope.

Ghost Month - Ed Lin
As well as a Mediterranean holiday I also went to Taiwan. As is becoming customary, before I travel I like to read something either about or set in the place where I going. This is the latter, one of seemingly very few choices. I think I would have preferred some historical non-fiction, the story of the Chinese civil war, the two Chinas, and Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. However this is what they had, and like the Miller above something different can often be good for me. Well in this case I am sad to report I found it complete and unadultered garbage with a pathetic plot line and a fascination with Joy Division that was totally out of place. Despite actively thinking "God this is shit" about every five pages I persevered, and then right at the end I found a glossary of useful information about Taiwanese history and culture. Would that I had started there. The best I can say about it is that it made me want to visit a Taiwanese Night Market and eat some food, but as far as "good reads" go I found it made Dan Brown look like Pulitzer Prize material. Avoid unless desperate.

Sicilian Carousel - Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell spent almost his whole life in love with the Mediterranean, and this is another of the many books set either on its shores or islands. It is the late 1970's and Durrell is being driven around Sicily with a tour group. It seems so out of character but of course his fellow participants become integral extras as he weaves the letters of a dead friend who he never managed to visit on the island with a potted history of the main towns and their history. Durrell takes a clockwise loop from Catania on the east side, through Syracuse and Agrigento, and then up to Palermo and across to Taormina. A dissection of the foibles of people and Sicilian life and history follow, and having now been to the island on holiday it does not seem that an awful lot has changed. If you are as acerbic as I am this is really a fun read. 

Puligny Montrachet: Journey of a Village in Burgundy - Simon Loftus
If you like wine, as I do, you will like this book. In fact I would say that even if you don't like wine you are still in for a treat, for at its heart it's about people. Although he did not ever reside in the village, the author spent many weeks over numerous seasons visiting the vignerons and sampling the wine. The wine is front and centre of course, and reading this will teach you a great deal about 'terroir', the individual plots of land that make Puligny so special (and so expensive, sadly. It also provides and overview of the science (or perhaps art) of wine-making, but to classify this book as being solely about wine would be a huge mistake. Over the course of the book he explores the characters in the village and its history, and of course the ancient rivalry with the neighbouring village of Chassagne, with which Puligny shares some of the great Montrachet slope. I devoured this book in short order and above all it made me want to go back to Burgundy, to walk around the sleepy village, and to taste the wine in situ. Plans are afoot!