Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Dogged persistence delivers the goods

With massive overnight rain yet a day that dawned bright and relatively clear, there was only one place to be at first light. Long Wood, the favoured haunt of Ring Ouzels at this time of year. Jeremy Bob had found the first of the autumn at the weekend while I was away enjoying Snow Bunting, and my first opportunity came today. You can only imagine my massive disappointment and frankly, rage, at approaching Long Wood and seeing 187 dogs, an enclosure, some little jumps and a fat lady giving out ribbons. It's ridiculous it really is. I had hit the Flats at about 6:45am, it was barely light and yet the place was overrun. Ring Ouzels are about the shyest bird species known to man, nervous beyond belief. I don't think I'll ever come across a friendly one, you get within a hundred yards and they're gone. So to have Crufts in full swing before it was even light was a major obstacle to seeing one. It was hopeless, and I started thinking dark thoughts. Mainly about how ISIS were better than dog-walkers, several of whom were chummily (see what I did there?) chatting away as their charges crapped wantonly in the long grass away from view. I've said it before and I'll say it again now.

Dog-walkers are the most selfish and deluded group of people on this earth.

They are never in the wrong, they have an absolute God-given right to do whatever the hell they want, and hey, if their dog deposits a turd and they don't see it, well so what, it's somebody else's problem at that point. Which it largely is even if they do see it. I would be willing to bet that 90% of dog walkers on Wanstead Flats have never picked up their dog's mess in the entire time they've owned it. They're arrogant, defensive and aggressive to the point of absurdity, and do not give a flying fuck about anyone other than themselves. And in case you hadn't worked it out I hate them passionately. 

Today however I didn't even talk to a dog walker. I just silently loathed them just for being there, just for existing, for totally scuppering any meagre chance I had at seeing a special bird. I met up with John W at the east end of the wood in a grim mood. He too was feeling completely disillusioned with London living, of his birding dreams dashed by the omnipresence of other people of the sort most likely to result in fewer birds with the possible exception of gamekeepers. We whinged for a while before going our separate ways. Roughly 30 seconds after this I glanced up at the sky and picked out a Short-eared Owl spiralling up from roughly the Coronation Copse. "John! John!!". He heard my desperate cries and came back quickly (I can't in all honesty call it running!), thinking I had an Ouzel. Fat chance, but as it happens SEO was a year-tick and only my fourth in over a decade, whereas I found five Ring Ouzels this April alone and have seen well over 20 individuals here since I started watching the patch.The irony that a dog had probably flushed the owl out of the long grass that I would not walk in was not lost on me.

I went to work buoyed by this success, and continued to thank my good fortune for the rest of the day. 

John carried on birding and found an Ouzel.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

But as long as you love me so...

Who knows whether the Cley Marsh Sandpiper was a Greenshank or not, I don't even need it for the Norfolk list I don't keep. For me the star of the show yesterday morning was a ridiculously tame Snow Bunting on the shingle north of the reserve. The first of the winter, it pottered unconcernedly around people, it's only care in the world where the next seed was coming from. Despite it walking up to you - literally - 'real' birders felt the need to scope it, which was totally absurd really. I mean sure, you'd get a nice view and all that, but the real relationship with the bird was one where you lay down on the shingle and observed it from about three feet away. Possibly two feet actually, it just got silly at points. This was a bird that you knew had never ever seen people before. Photography took a back seat for large parts of this special encounter, mainly as it was a pleasure to simply watch it so close and observe it feeding, but also because for a lot of the time I would have needed either a wide angle lens or a macro. I honestly could have reached out and touched it it was that close. So delightful - let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Weekend target

As you will have gathered from my previous tweet, I am somewhat jealous of all my pals on Shetland. They have the potential to "go large", as they did last year with a Rubythroat, but even if they don't top that, the fact remains that they're knee-deep in Yellow-browed Warblers, and Yellow-browed Warblers rock. Birders not clued up on autumn won't have any idea what I'm talking about. Non-birders who have perhaps landed here by accident looking for domestic pointers will be even worse off. So what's a Yellow-browed then? Well put simply it's a very regular migrant whose frequent occurrence in the UK at this time of year belies the massive distance that it has come. Siberia and the Urals is about the closest they live if you read the literature, yet somehow they are the most regular eastern migrant. They're small, marginally bigger than a Goldcrest, but with the most superb call you could imagine. Writing cannot possible do it justice - its a very high-pitched, very quick and extremely strident "Tsuu-eeee-viit" that sounds like nothing else. It cuts through wind and the rustling of leaves, and is a sound that autumn rarity-hunting birders are very in tune with. Until you've heard it you don't know what it sounds like if that makes sense, and in my case autumn isn't complete without it.

I remember hearing my first one on the north Norfolk coast in about 2008. I knew exactly what it was but I couldn't tick it as I couldn't see it! Can you imagine the frustration, my number one wanted bird somewhere invisible above my head. Later that day I did finally clap eyes on one a few miles down the coast, and since then I've seen them every year and in some numbers. I'm probably on 60 or so now thanks to several trips to Shetland, but the numbers there this year are incredible, with some guys seeing over 40 in a single day. Whilst I can't get to Shetland this year, there was no way I was going to let a year pass by without hearing that magical call, and with birds gradually trickling down the coast I headed off to Norfolk this morning for a spot of coastal birding, with a particular focus on Sycamores for that is what they particularly like. 

There was one at Beeston Common, bouncing around in a Sycamore (!) close to the road and sure enough I picked it up on call just as I'd walked up to local who was explaining how the birds this year just weren't calling. This particular "Tsuu-eee-viit!!" was triumphant in quality, a real "are you sure about that 'cos I'm not!" riposte. Music to my ears. No photos and it remained mostly hidden, but it called its head off for us, and then solely for me as the other people headed back to the sea to twitch a fish. No really, there was a Basking Shark off the coast and they were really interested in seeing it. I'd already seen it from Cley Coastguards, and perhaps was a bit blasé about it. Hey ho, just a big fish, whatever. This however is a Yellow-browed Warbler from Siberia and it's a gem. 

Here's one from Shetland a few years back so you know what I'm talking about - you can see how they get the name.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Gah no Shetland!

For the first time since 2010 I'm not going to Shetland. Bit of a shocker really, however these things happen I suppose. In my defence I am less tick-tastic these days, and the thrill of the chase does a little less for me. Don't get me wrong, I love it up there, but various things conspired to make it impossible this year. Mostly that I burned up loads of my holiday doing other things. Good things, but not finding rare birds on far flung islands things. I could have gone, but it would have been a four day trip, and in researching how to fly there last-minute on various websites I came across a ticket to Florida for a little less money. Given the risk of four days of seeing a couple Blackcaps in a north-westerly, and seeing as how Florida seemed to be chock-full of Yanks the last time I went, I sensibly yet regrettably opted for the latter. I'm well aware that you gotta be in it to win it, but I know that I am guaranteed to have a ball on the Gulf Coast near Tampa, and whilst I could hit it off massively on Shetland in those four days, equally I could see bugger all. I've elected for nailed on. Black Skimmer please, and Snowy Plover.

Still, it is a shame, as virtually everyone I know is going up there for at least a week, some longer. Last time I didn't go with them a Rubythroat turned up. Gah! Today a Thick-billed Warbler has arrived. Have I made the right choice? Possibly, but when the lads are filling up on White's Thrush next weekend I may come to change my tune! I did go last year for a few days and was submerged in Yellow-browed Warblers - it was superb fun, but this year I'll simply have to watch from afar. That said, the UK mainland hasn't been doing too badly of late, Florida is a long way off, and I have no other plans at all for the UK autumn. Bring it on!

Yes please!
Since August I've really been getting back into the UK. This is entirely normal as the summers are so dire on the patch, but I'm really feeling it at the moment. Wanstead has been brilliant, the day out in Essex and Suffolk the other day was very pleasant, and seeing a couple of rarities has got the juices flowing again. My bins are living in my pocket as you just never know. Between now and the end of this month I've seen a ton of amazing birds, both on Shetland and elsewhere.This Saturday for instance sees the five year anniversary of the Blakeney Point Alder Flycatcher, which I remember clearly to this day, mainly for the incredible walk out there. What are the chances of another one of those turning up?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The spectre of county listing

My good London twitching buddy recently moved to far flung Essex, which is not very convenient for picking me up and driving me to rare birds. We’ll have to see how that plays out and whether my UK list now stalls as I simply can’t be bothered with long solo drives. Worse than this though is that his move has started me thinking about listing again.

Everyone enjoys a bit of friendly competition, and whilst I am precisely nowhere near filthy enough to bother the scores on the national front I was comfortably ahead in the London game, mainly due to working a local patch and pursuing a London year list in 2010, which saw me get all sorts of things I probably wouldn’t normally have moved for. With Bradders now having moved away, I think I can probably claim victory in London, however a new problem has arisen – Essex. I have always maintained an Essex list as I live in Essex. Fair enough, no? I don’t, for instance, maintain a Suffolk list as I don’t live there. That said I have a Norfolk list, but only because I need to know what it is versus my Essex list in the vain hope that I can keep Essex higher. I can’t as it happens, and though it’s close I suspect Norfolk will pull away as my son now goes to school there and the various pick-ups we’ll need to do will result in some incidental birding. But back to Bradders and Essex. As soon as he had the keys to his new house he unpacked his computer and notebooks, fired up Bubo (an online self-help website for people suffering from OCD), and totted up his Essex list. He was appalled to find that he was one species behind me, and resolved to immediately start Essex listing. Then he went back outside and let Mrs Bradders and Bradders jnr. out of the car so they could see the new house too.

So, one behind, he on 261, I on 262. Annoying for him perhaps, but even more annoying for me. I had actually managed to get over Essex listing, or indeed any kind of listing. This is just not helpful. I’d not had an Essex or a London tick, or even been bothered about getting one, since 2014. I thought vaguely about Lee D’s Staines Barred Warbler, thought about the M25, and went and did something else. My last Norfolk tick was also in 2014, and I'm not sure I've been birding there even once this year! Anyhow, in a quiet moment I did the old compare and contrast thing, working out each others gaps, and we each have some tasty blockers. Most of mine come from London and on balance I think he has the easier task, but good luck with that Baird’s Sandpiper!

To cut a long story short, we both got Grey Partridge with consummate ease at the weekend, and then on Monday afternoon news broke of a Wilson’s Phalarope at Vange Marsh. Good news soon filtered through that Bradders was stuck at work, but I however played a cheeky “3pm” card, a work concept whereby once a month I can get an early leave in recognition of the otherwise rather unfriendly hours I put in – I’d like to point out to all managers or indeed team members reading that this is only the third one this year and that September is the ninth month. Essex listing aside, my notes on the only previous Wilson’s Phalarope that I saw have those dreaded three letters – bvd. It was down at Stodmarsh in Kent five years ago, and the bird was feeding on a hidden pool. Every now and again a Marsh Harrier would cruise over, and the entire avian contents of the pool would collectively crap themselves, lift up into the air, swirl around for a bit, and then dive back into the pool and resume hiding from me. Although I clearly saw the bird it was a little bit underwhelming. Naturally I ticked it immediately, but having extremely high listing standards noted I’d like better views.

So in filthy weather I caught the train out to Pitsea from work and walked from the station. This cost me £9.70 as it was outside the Oyster zone, and a judicious umbrella was £18. Optical aids were already in my pocket, else this would have been an absurdly expensive tick. To cut a long story short I got rather wet and muddy but the views of this one were a lot better, and bvd is no longer an issue. Sadly it was still there this evening, so we shall see whether a certain Essex listing fiend toddles off there at some point….

Monday, 21 September 2015

Swallow Saturday

The alarm went off seemingly five minutes after I went to sleep. "But it’s Saturday" my brain screamed! Saturday or not, today was a day to be up and out as soon as possible. On my way home from work on Friday, a five minute walk through Wanstead Village netted 200 Swallows all streaming steadily north. Deskbound all day, I’d been hearing reports of stunning numbers of hirundines over the patch, and was glad I’d managed to see just a part of it. Nonetheless I felt that there was a real possibility of the passage continuing on Saturday – a quick look out of the study window showed leaden skies with heavy black clouds, potentially ideal weather for pushing birds down and keeping them low. So it was that I hurridly dressed, picked up my trusty bins and nipped out into the pre-dawn to head over to what we call the “VizMig point” on Wanstead Flats.

It was pretty quiet at first, but at around seven somebody turned on the Swallow tap. Birds began to pass me at anywhere from knee height to a couple hundred metres up. A trickle became a steady flow, and then they started coming in waves, predominantly heading north-west. I attempted to count the birds, as the team had done the previous day, but quickly conceded defeat. Sand Martins were coming through in small numbers, and gradually the House Martins began to increase in number, although often higher up than the bulk of the Swallows.

The next hour was a real highlight of the decade I’ve now spent watching the patch here in Wanstead. Tony was also out, and has written about his feelings here, and he has it spot on. It was birding of the highest quality. Visible migration is always exciting as you get a real sense of the seasons and the inexorable approach of a change, but this was the best I’ve ever encountered. That includes Falsterbo so I guess the patch always elevates itself above other places - getting up early on this particular day was perhaps the best decision I’ve recently made. The sky was full of birds – a scan with bins into the far distance revealed thousands, like swarms of west coast midges. You know when you look up at the sky at night with the naked eye and see hundreds upon hundreds of stars, and then look up through binoculars and see the hundreds transform to into hundreds of thousands? It was like that – I could see tons of birds over the copses, but then through bins I realized this was just a fraction of the activity. The threatening skies seemed to push them ever towards me, and facing south east I had a spectacular view of more birds than I think I have ever seen (Hornoya cliffs perhaps being the only real contender) moving steadily through at all heights. As the hour progressed the numbers of House Martin rose, and although I made no attempt to record numbers, it too had to be in the thousands. Whether this was a localized front, or was occurring over the whole of the south-east I have no way of knowing, but my assessment having witnessed this mass movement is that Swallows and House Martins are doing OK in at least some places. I am hoping that one of these places in future will be my house, as I’ve just bought a few Martin ”cups” for my eaves which will be in place next season.

By eight it was mostly over. A few trickles, but as it began to brighten up the birds disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Hopefully they graced a few more patches as the day progressed, but the likelihood is that as the fronts dissipated the birds got higher and higher until they were lost from view. But while it lasted it was bloody brilliant.  

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A very sociable plover

So first the view were like this, and we weren't sure if it was going to be that friendly.

And then after a bit of creeping around and getting quite sandy and a little but muddy the views were like this, and it all seemed to be going pretty sociably.

And then the various bits of plant started being really anti-social and just getting in the way, and so there was a little bit more creeping and crawling, ending up with a bit of slithering.

And then it was decided that the background really wasn't that much of a turn on, and if this bird (a sociable plover and not a Sociable Plover) would just do the decent thing and move a bit rather than just be sociable right next to us, that would be best for all concerned. And then it did.

And then it did some more.

But the background, whilst nicer, was still a little bit bluey and browny. Bluey is ok in my book. So is browny. But multi-bluey-browney can be improved upon, and so there was a little bit more creeping and neck hurting until the browny went away. It was clearly antisocial. But this left blue, though some might call it grey, which was nice.

A Dotterel. But you knew that.