Monday, 16 October 2017

Ophelia please darken my door

Well the old neighbourhood just ain't the same. Look at this - this was taken out of my office window at about 4pm, but it appeared to be verging on dusk such was the effect of the dusty and smoky atmosphere brought northwards by Ophelia. It started early afternoon when things began to appear a little hazy outside. I went to a meeting where I couldn't really just stare out of the window and when I came back it was verging on apocalyptic. Very strange indeed and I'm a bit miffed that I didn't have a real camera with me that would have interpreted it rather more accurately than my phone which was doing its best to turn the scene into a sunny Samsung day! I think I managed to get vaguely get it to stop mucking about with it, but all I can say is that it if wasn't like the below then it was damn close. Everything was yellow, a dull sepia, as if somebody had stretched a pair of tights over the sun. The effect was quite amazing actually, one of those events that we may not witness again. An hour later it had cleared up considerably, the band of polluted air taken further north, but I imagine that there will be all sorts of amazing photos from up and down the country that emerge in the coming days.

The funny thing is that Canary Wharf didn't really appear any more windy than normal, and sitting here typing this at home it seems to be pretty calm outside. As a patch worker this is a bit of a shame, as I was hoping for the Bald Ibis/Gannet double tomorrow morning. On that subject, the patch was not on fire this morning in the same way as yesterday. From dawn to around 8.15 there were quite a lots of Wood Pigeons, up to c80 Redwings and four late Swallow, but the big numbers of finches just weren't there. Nor sadly the Woodlarks. Still, I am up to 107 for the year, which is already better than 2016 by one, and there is still quite a lot of time left in which to add to it. Woodcock is probably the only regular bird missing, and Bullfinch if I'm lucky, anything else will have to come with a fair slice of jam I suspect. Speaking of which, Hawfinch would be just fine.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

A momentary lapse

It had been a wonderful morning on Wanstead Flats - two Short-eared Owls, a couple of Brambling and stacks of other great viz-mig. Then an aberration occurred, and shortly after I found myself looking at this.

From certain vantage points, Wanstead Flats can look pretty amazing.
And then this.


Ok so this isn't Wanstead, or even close to Wanstead. It is in fact Wales, and this is the Rock Thrush that for some reason I was actually a bit miffed I didn't get to see yesterday. This is my first proper twitch since November last year, and confess I really enjoyed it. Apart from the seven hours in the car of course. Unfortunately Wales is a really long way away, but for whatever reason, and being somewhat bloody-minded, I decided that I could bear it for the sake of this bird. Being a total wuss I only left on positive news though, which meant I didn't get there until about 2ish which could have backfired rather badly. However it also meant that I got a decent session on the patch, which netted the two year ticks above and was hugely enjoyable. I did however miss out on two Woodlark shortly after I departed, which caused no end of local chortling. Looking at the above photo, I think I'm fine with it....

Am I restarting twitching? No. I just wanted to do something different, and I wanted a day out. As it happened I got the best of both worlds, and the welsh scenery is nothing short of magnificent. I've seen some birds in god-awful places, and I've seen some birds in some spectacular places. This is right up there with some of the best of them, and apparently only just down the road from where I saw a Marmora's Warbler back in 2010.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Abiding memory of confiding

I nearly considered going on a twitch this weekend. Happily Mrs L was already out so instead I took my daughters swimming whilst all my mates filled their boots with Rock Thrush, so my Saturday is mine again. However it did get me thinking about how I did actually enjoy seeing rare birds a few years ago. I am not sure why this isn’t the case anymore, perhaps it is just because any rarity these days is likely to be a complete scrum. Did twitching become more popular all of a sudden? Or is it that digital photography’s mass appeal has made it to birds? I am not sure, but a twitch these days holds little appeal - as the recent pathetic scenes at a Norfolk PG Tips only served to confirm. I didn’t go and I am glad that I didn’t.

A few years ago however I did go, and I have some fabulous memories that are dominated by the bird and not by out-of-control crowds. The Steppe Grey Shrike in Lincolnshire comes somewhere near to the top of my list. It was a long day – nearly nine years ago now - starting out by driving to Yorkshire. It sounds crazy but looking back it was kind of normal. Anyhow, we had  successfully seen a Two-barred Crossbill on a farm somewhere and having dipped a Pied Wheatear at a Caravan Park near Bempton we were headed back home via what we had heard was another decent bird, a Steppe Grey Shrike. This is a very similar to a Great Grey Shrike (excubitor), but actually falls under the Southern Grey Shrike (meridionalis) group – this one is known as pallidirostis and is a paler version that breeds in Central Asia, a seriously long way away. Back then I don’t think I knew any of this, all I knew was that it was a rare bird, a Shrike, and that I liked both of those things.

We drove through the endless flat landscape of Lincolnshire fields until we found the spot. A few cars were parked up, and a few hundred yard away we could see a small line of birders along the edge of a field. Optics unpacked, I slung my scope and tripod over my shoulder for I was a proper birder back then, and we made our way out to join them. As we came along the muddy margin the bird flew directly towards us, past us, and landed on somebody’s head. Gah!!

It was astonishing, it really was. For the best part of an hour this crazy little bird used people, scopes, tripods, camera bags, you name it, as perches from which to hunt. It had clearly never seen people before and was completely unafraid. I had never seen anything like it, and to this day it probably remains the least wary bird I have ever seen anywhere. I was spellbound and captivated – moments like this are so very very rare, and I knew then I would never forget it. And that holds true today – it is still one of my most fondly remembered birding moments. I’ve seen rarer birds, I’ve seen many Shrikes, but this one is still top of the heap. Being a massive fan of social media, I tweeted out a random photo of it last week and clearly it struck a chord as people from far and wide responded that they too remember the event incredibly clearly.

I've included a couple of photos from the day. Back then I wasn’t really very skilled and did not understand that pointing a camera directly at the sun wouldn’t likely result in a decent picture. Julian Bhalerao however did a far better job, and sent me this photo after the event of the bird perched on my scope with a very youthful looking me behind it.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I must be dreaming

It has started. Remarkably a couple of days ago saw my first direct photo sale outside of printed publications. Two landscape photos of Wanstead Flats have been requested as prints from the my website, the appropriately-named The one with only birds on it, ahem. They’re of the copses at dawn, and I think they will look rather nice printed up. They’re not going far, the lucky owner seems to be pretty local, which makes sense given the subject matter. I am dead chuffed, this is exactly what I had hoped for. Well, I say that, but a 20m x 20m canvas of a Wheatear to hang from The Shard would have been quite nice…. Anyway. I can’t retire yet is the bottom line, but I am a little bit closer and I am very grateful. Small beginnings and all that.

There are number of other things I am exploring whilst awash with enthusiasm. The first is an exhibition, which despite the outlay could generate some interest and potentially some momentum. I think I have enough images now that are of a sufficiently decent quality to potentially present something rather nice. No gulls obviously. And then the elephant in the room is whether photography tuition is something I might explore? One on one, my full undivided attention for an hour or for a morning on how to get the best out of your camera and the available light locally. Or potentially abroad, where the opportunities for bird photography are far better. I’m lucky/stupid enough to own two prime lenses suitable for bird photography, and I’ve seen first hand the effect that using one of these for the first time has on somebody used to something much smaller. That smile that spreads across their face as they realise that the kind of photos they had dreamed of might actually be possible after all.

Actually perhaps it is me that is dreaming, I have no time for any of this!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My desired life - you can help!!

I work in a bank. In an ideal world I would not work in a bank, I would spend every single day behind a camera, taking photos of birds, plants, landscapes, cities. Anything but people. I could get quite good I reckon, practice makes perfect and all that. The reason I don't do this and that idealism is not reality is that I would be destitute. Utterly poverty-stricken. Over the years I have perhaps earned a few hundred pounds from bird photography. A couple of magazine covers, a few quarter pages, a handful images in books that more often than not get me a free book. You can't eat books. 

I am not sure how you earn a living wage from photography. I think you have to run tours, have to learn how to put the clueless in situations where they cannot possibly fail. I have not tried, but am not sure I could hack it. It is the stuff of waking nightmares surely? But you have to start somewhere I suppose. So....

For many years now I have had a separate website devoted to galleries of my photos, generally what I consider the cream of what I have taken. I am pretty ruthless as to what makes it on there, and I frequently have a massive self-critique session and cull a few more. No doubt there are a few duffers on there that I am too emotionally attached to to get rid of, but largely I think they represent the best of the last six or seven years of not inconsiderable effort. Taking photographs of birds is not easy, in fact I would put it out there that it is bloody difficult. Sometimes hours of planning fizzle out into nothing and you get up from the mud in depair. Equally sometimes five random minutes can produce something sensational and you have to pinch yourself that it really happened.

Up until now my website has just been galleries - a visual feast for the casual visitor. However I have discovered that there is a free add-on where you can market your work. I've decided to give it a go, nothing ventured and all that. I've spent a bit of time revamping it, uploading far larger files that will reproduce nicely in a variety of formats - most are 4000 pixels wide, that's massive. Now I know that birders are notoriously tight, fine, I accept that. But think about it? Only a small number of people need order a couple of prints and that could be just the start I need. Have you any idea how much my lens cost? It's ridiculous, honestly absurd. Quite how so many people seem to have one I just can't fathom. Anywhere you go and there are tons. Tons that are seeing a poor return on their investment - and I'm not just talking about the ones attached to people who haven't a scooby. I'm talking about mine - it spends almost all of its time in a cupboard gathering dust. It is aching to get out there and earn its keep. Trust me, I do actually know how to use it, and your generosity could allow me to stop working in Canary Wharf and to spend my days fulfilling my destiny. And I need a new camera - mine is five years old and a total wreck. It had a new shutter last year but there is only so much you can do. So, are you looking for Christmas Cards this year? What about a calendar for 2018? A mug? Or - and this is novel - a framed photo of a bird to hang on the wall? If you are, please visit the link below and go wild. My dreams thank you.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Spotted Crake

A nice easy post today, a simple photo of a Spotted Crake. Funny that nobody calls them Spotcrake in the same way that Spotfly is a well known contraction. Maybe they do? I don't however, as with this species familiarity has yet to breed contempt. This bird was at the Ingrebourne Valley at the weekend, and was the second I have seen there. It is probably still there now actually, but I only have weekends in which to prove this beyond reasonable doubt, unlike every other person on the planet who can seemingly rock up on more or less any day they choose. This caused at least one well-known birder to whom this applies to publicly express envy of the happy five days a week I am lucky enough not be able to spend birding. His point was? No, I don't know either. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Modern life is rubbish

I tweet, I text, I whatsapp (if that is a word?). I am the very definition of modern. And let me tell you, modern has a lot to answer for. Right now I am in despair at the minute by minute aspect of modern life, specifically the lack of time that most people seem prepared to devote to anything. I use social media as an example, but you could as easily apply it to the news, where you work, how you shop, and even to how you vote. People want headlines and soundbites, almost everything today must be distilled into as few words as possible, and ideally have a conclusion pre-formed so that nobody has to do any thinking for themselves. The most important issues of our times are compressed into tiny snippets, lacking almost entirely in decent information. And unless what is left takes less than ten seconds the vast majority of people simply lose interest. We are vacuous in the extreme. It is the same at work, bullet points only please. If somebody has to think about something, that’s it – they move on and you have lost them. As a society we have become conditioned to brevity and to dumbing down – the two go hand in hand. Is it any wonder things like Brexit happen?

Attempting to write a blog has brought this home to me in quite a simple way, and I thought I’d jot a few things down in order to make the point. Writing – actual writing – is hard. Contrary to what you may think, each and every paragraph requires thought and consideration, there is no effortless flow here, no stream of consciousness that can lay down 1000 words in a matter of minutes. For the most part if I have an idea of what I want to say, I find myself composing things in my head as I walk around – frequently this is on the commute when I retreat into my inner shell and strap on my armour. My physical form is being crushed by humanity (or maybe not given I am on the Central Line), my literary form is buzzing, thinking a thousand thoughts, forming sentences and pithy one-liners. When I reach a keyboard out it all comes, a jumble of those musings. Then of course it has to be sorted, shaped, reordered. Sometimes re’written’ entirely. And of course sometimes nothing comes out at all, a day at work has frazzled me and I am left incapable of stringing even a few words together. I resort to gin and instead potter around the greenhouse. Occasionally this goes on for a few weeks and I am entirely silent. The point I am trying to make is that writing takes time. It might come fairly naturally to me, but that does not mean it is quick. Over the years, over eight and a half now, I have spent countless hours bashing out blog posts - around 1500 of them. That’s a big commitment, and it’s increased by the time taken to process and upload photos, to tinker with links, lists, maps, and all the other things that form a part of it.

As well as this avenue for the written word I also have a couple of Twitter accounts, and several times a day I might offer up some small nugget on one of them. Unlike the blog, almost no thought goes into this at all – with 140 characters to play with you could argue that you need to work even harder to craft a message, but actually it’s a far less intensive medium that I suspect takes most people almost no brain power. I offer up President Trump by way of example. So, a brief sentence that requires practically no effort to produce and can be done in seconds, versus several paragraphs of carefully honed prose that might have been, on and off, the product of an entire day. Of these, which do you think is likely to generate the most comment, the most interaction, the most introspection and response?

Exactly. It is the single sentence and this is the problem. And it is by such a wide margin that the blog does not even figure. Most posts I write are eventually clicked on (though not necessarily read I surmise!) a few hundred times. By contrast a two second tweet will likely get a couple of replies, a few 'likes', possibly a retweet. Now you could argue that none of this matters and you are right, it doesn’t. But the inverse proportionality of effort I actually find quite irritating, and it leads me back to the beginning of this post and the society we have become. When a blog, article, editorial or whatever it is is too long, or contains too much within it to allow reflection to be sufficiently brief, it has no future. Instead it takes almost no effort to 'like' or 'favourite' a tweet, literally none – it is the perfect button really. Tap, scroll on. Next! Actually composing a reply is also the work of mere seconds. A few squiggles on the phone, and blur of fingers, and it’s done. Two seconds to read it, a few seconds to consider it, perhaps ten seconds to reply back - including correcting the predictive text. The whole thing is done in almost the blink of an eye and we have moved on to something else. We are being trained to have the attention span of gnats – Breaking News! -  and most of are coming up that curve very well indeed! I despair. When is the last time anyone read a book?

So when it comes to writing a blog post I am beginning to question why it is that I bother? The reality must be that nobody gets beyond the first two sentences before giving up as it is too much like hard work. That is the almost inescapable conclusion I am sadly coming to. Or, as many of my good friends have pointed out, it’s just really really boring! I’m backing myself on this one though. Yeah you might have to think a bit, not a lot but a bit, but actually as a medium this is far better than a tweet. Better than Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram or any of the thousands of ways people can now rapidly and blithely communicate. Actual writing is far more able to convey meaning, emotion and fact. That it and the printed press in general is gradually withering and dying is a very great shame, or at least I think so. 

I'm off to the greenhouse. Via gin and tonic.