Thursday, 21 August 2014

Kingbird Highway to Rome via Wanstead

I birded Wanstead on Saturday, although that mightn't be hugely apparent from the title. Autumn has started. I know this as Nick told me, so I came out and had a look. It was great, so good I've been out twice this week. Whinchat, Wheatear, Reed Warbler, Med Gull, Garden Warbler - it has definitely started, and I hope to enjoy more of it. I'm inspired to go birding again, and there is lots planned - and I mean lots. 

Sunday was another early start. 4.15am to be exact. Hard, in other words. Hard to get up, hard to believe I was doing it again. I enjoy it, I tell myself. And I do, but sometimes I enjoy my bed too, and after a wedding reception the prior evening, another three hours would have been spot on. But no, and anyway, I could snooze on the plane, could I not? Well, as it happened, no I couldn't. The reason? Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufmann. Now an established author and highly respected birder in the US, this book details his birding coming of age as he hitched back and forth across the US in the mid seventies, and it's wonderful. I'd read it before of course, but as I cosied up in the lounge with a coffee and several mini pain au chocolats, it was immediately obvious that the sleep wasn't going to happen. Oh well, another shattering weekend.

We landed right on time, but Rome airport was a fiasco. This was no problem, as it gave me more time to read my book, and I closed on about page 150, probably about a third of the way through his "Big Year", leaving him at the Dry Tortugas. Had I been at home it's entirely possible I would have been caught up in the moment and booked a ticket to Arizona there and then, so perhaps it was for the best that I was on the Leonardo Express into Termini, Rome's central railway station. Whilst my french is good, my german passable, and my spanish so-so, my italian is non existent. I'll just wave my hands around, I figured, and mostly it worked. 

I exited onto wide streets, a huge church almost immediately in front of me. And do you know what? I went in it. Yes I, JL, set foot in a church. I actually also briefly set foot in a London church a few weeks ago, but that was just to pick Mrs L up. This church I walked into of my own volition, and I was quite transfixed, for churches in Rome are different somehow. They are grander, more opulent, seeped in age and history. I read not a single information board, it's not my style. I merely wandered, looked and listened. And was largely amazed.

Il Papa had very rudely gone to Korea. Snuffi disappointed.

Shortly after I took this, this guy jumped through a hoop and planted a custard pie in the face of a Carabinieri

The renowned Renaissance sculptor Panasonic
It's a real walking city, and I walked my little legs off. A meandering route via a leisurely lunch, the Pantheon to take photos of people taking photos, various churches, the Castello Sant'Angelo, St Peter's Square, the Gieuseppe Garibali monument, the Tiber, some palace or other, the Forum, the Colosseum.....the list is basically endless and I saw barely a fraction of it. A real walking city, stunning in every respect, I loved every second of my visit and need to go back as soon as possible. Binoculars? Not a chance. 



How could I resist?
Back in the US, the protagonist had moved on to High Island in Texas. I need to follow him there is essentially my thinking at this point. It's such a good book. Kerouac meets Dylan meets Mark Cocker. It makes you want to travel, it makes you want to go birding, it lights in you the flame of discovery and of adventure. He ate catfood, and spent less than $1000 in the entire year to rack up what was at that time the second highest ABA yearlist ever, possibly even the highest depending on whether Baja is counted or not. I finished it on the return flight and almost want to read it again straight away. But I have plenty of other things on my kindle that I ought to get through. The advantage of so much time commuting and travelling is that I get time to read, one of life's genuine pleasures.

The eternal city

Monday, 18 August 2014


It has been a long time since I wrote anything here, possibly the longest barren period ever as I am not known for being quiet. But events have simply overtaken me – I like to be busy as I am sure you know, but recently it has been a new level of busy and something had to give. This time it appears to have been blogging, but as I suspected, the world did not end.  It’s all a bit of fun, I am under no illusions that it is remotely important. But I am certain that you are all dying to know what has been happening. Well, sorry, I’m going to tell you anyway, but I am going to do it rapidly so that I can get back to the here and now that is birding in Wanstead – remarkably I have actually done some and it was rather good. I also rather enjoyed it and need/want to do more of it. Back to basics really.

Anyhow, since Finland it has been completely frenetic. Manic. Mainly, and entirely normally, it has been non-Wanstead based, and involved four distinct blocks of time in four distinct places. The first of these was Berlin, where I and, shock horror, Mrs L, managed a weekend break together in the German capital. Jawohl! I have never been, and whilst it isn’t Paris or Venice, it was certainly extremely interesting, and contained much beer. Not that we drank much of it, we were too tired, and what we really needed was a weekend doing nothing much in Wanstead. Really ought to try that someday....

The sinking of the Bismarck

We did lots of cool things like eating lunch at the Reichstag, visiting bits of Wall, seeing Checkpoint Charlie, and then going straight on and around the corner to the station whilst repeatedly asking each other if we had any pets, which both us of know we do not. I should mention at this point that we were, and continue to be, childless - the children are summering in higher latitudes. Well, were at that point. They are now summering on the English riviera, also without us. So a very pleasant little break a deux, which rarely happens.

We have also all been to the Outer Hebrides, although I managed to squeeze a Black-winged Pratincole in before we left. Pratincoles, in case you did not know, are ace. Sensational in fact. Part Bee-eater, part Tern, a dash of Wader and sprinkling of Sandgrouse all add up to a pretty fabulous bird. Black-winged, Collared, Oriental, it matters not. If you get the opportunity to go and see one, leave immediately. This was my fourth, and second of this species. The first was back in the formative and higher quality days of this blog, and took two attempts. When I did see it, I am pretty sure it was just sat on the ground doing nothing. This is not how Pratincoles should be seen. They should be seen hawking serenely and majestically for insects, which is what the bird in Cambridgeshire did, and made all the better for the fact that I was viewing it all of twenty yards from my parked car as it flew above the heads of about 20 oblivious birders, all of whom had walked at least two miles to not see it do this, and had another two miles to get back. I think they all got on it eventually, but not before it had completed an epic 15 minute sally.

Quality post ruined by Stonechat, one of the only post photos I took
So, the Hebrides. Once again harking back to the past, I had vowed on first setting foot on North Uist and Berneray that I would come back with the family. I had been there to see the Harlequin Duck, and the overall quality of the twitch was so ridiculously high that I felt they had to see it too. The island, not the duck. With the kiddos already in Scotland, it was the work of moments to swing by from London and pick them up, and so the Saturday before last we very nearly instantaneously found ourselves at the port of Uig on Skye waiting for the ferry across to Lochmaddy on North Uist. The journey was very smooth, with added Manxies, and pretty soon we were staring out at the Atlantic from one of the very best beaches on the planet. We did very little during the five days we were there. Walks, more walks, looking at seals, some moderate birding, and when it rained, lots of Loom Bands. It was desperately hard work if the truth be told, and we all enjoyed it hugely, including the stunning drive back across Skye and the Highlands to Fife. From there I commuted to Glasgow for a couple of days, and then drove back to London directly from the office there, the family having picked me up. 


So home again, finally. To have a big rest you might think.....No. Some feverish repacking, and the kids and Mrs L are off to the Isle of Wight, presumably to twitch the Bee-eaters. Meanwhile I went to a wedding, and then, as I have not done much travelling recently, Rome. I've never been to Rome before, and I need to go again as soon as possible as it was amazing. I am not typically one for culture and fine art, but I found myself wandering in awe around immense and brooding churches, looking at old bits of buildings, examining frescos..... Who are you and what have you done with Jono you might ask. Well you might, it's incredible. More in the next post....

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Running round Helsinki in the middle of the night

I am not entirely sure where this idea came from, but last weekend I found myself tramping round Helsinki in the middle of the night. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but at 2am in the centre of a misty reedbed somewhere north of town, beating highly irritating mozzies away, I began to question my sanity. I attempted sleep on a viewing platform, but the insects and cold mist put paid to that fairly rapidly. Instead I carried on along the boardwalk to the island of Lammassaari. Here there were even more mosquitos, so I went back to the reedbed after stumbling along a narrow circular path between millions of Finnish summer houses. I amused myself by singing that Monty Python song over and over again.

Backtrack a bit, why was I in a reedbed? Well it was so as to a) be in prime position as the sun came up and b) to save money and not pay for a hotel. Reedbed free, hotel €100. Easy, reedbed every time, even though the standard of comfort wasn't quite as good. I'd arrived very late anyway, the airport bus hadn't dropped me off until about 1am, and I figured that dawn came early. And also, reedbeds in the middle of the night are pretty cool, all sorts of wonderful noises. Post bus, somehow I had managed to find my way to the shore of Old Town Bay, otherwise known as Vanhankaupunginlahti. I stuck to Old Town Bay.....

Dawn was simply incredible. I had found my way to a hide that faced out onto a pool. If I have experienced a cooler sunrise, I cannot remember it at the moment. As the sun grew in the sky, so the mist seemed to increase. Various birds floated past and there was an ethereal quality about the whole place. Sedge Warblers, Bearded Tits, Water Rail and Reed Buntings provided the soundtrack to a simply glorious scene. It merits photographs, even though photographs do not, cannot, do it justice. You had to have been there. But it was just me and the birds.

Finland, Finland, Finland

The country where I want to be

Pony trekking or camping

Or just watching Caspian Terns

The final bird is of course very special. Can you recognise it? Of course you can, it's a monstrous Caspian Tern, the biggest of the genus, and all mine that morning as it went for an early morning fish. I really lucked out on this shot. Then again, it was kind of what I was aiming for, and despite zero sleep it all worked out. The sun rose steadily and by 5.30am it was broad daylight, albeit with some warmth still to the quality of the light. The small birds were by now out in force, and I was surprised to see Fieldfare moving through.

You're so near to Russia

So far from Japan

Quite a long way from Cairo

After exhausting the possibilities of the hide I decided I would walk around Vanhankaupunginlahti - there is a path that takes in several Lintutorni (bird observation towers), an Arboretum, and lots of interesting habitat along the way. What I had failed to consider was that it was miles and miles, I was knackered, and that Finland has been experiencing a heatwave of epic proportions. By 9am it was probably approaching 30 degrees, and my pace became slower and slower. I had water, but it made little difference, and by 11am or so, and approaching town again, I caved and limped to a tube station for the by then short hop into the centre. My hotel for Saturday night took one look at me and decided I would be much better off in my room than as "advertising" in the lobby for the next three hours, and thus an early check-in was mine. A short swim in the rooftop pool followed by a fantastic siesta sorted me right out, and by late afternoon I was ready to hit Helsinki. And let me tell you that Helsinki on a warm Saturday evening is absolutely buzzing. 

This tram isn't particularly buzzing admittedly, but you don't need photos of lovely Finnish women who are several sheets to the wind.
Despite the obscene cost of alcohol, the Finns drink like I have never seen (Shetland evenings not included...). There was a craft beer festival in the main square, and it seemed people had probably been there all day. I found a nice place to have dinner, Arctic Char being the dish of choice, and then continued my wander around town watching people get increasingly drunk. I must be some kind of old fuddy duddy, as I had no interest in this whatsoever, and so returned unblemished to my hotel and had the kind of sleep I can only dream of. 

The next morning as I walked into town to catch the airport bus the full extent of the carnage of the night before became apparent. The central square that surrounds the train station was a war zone, and needed likely several weeks for a clean up operation. In some corners, drinking still continued. Unbelievable. Perhaps London is no different, but come on! Bodies everywhere. On verges, under bushes, on steps. What these people need is a good reedbed for the night. 

Lots of miles from Vietnam

Altogether now, Finland forever!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Inexorable fall and rise

The numbers game is an easy trap to fall into, list at your peril. Here's the deal, drive round the country, see rare birds, adulation is yours. Simples. But it does you no favours. I'll let you into a little secret - when I twitched the Spectacled Warbler in Norfolk a few weeks ago, I had forgotten how to use a scope. But my UK list is now well over 400. How can this be possible? I honestly don't know. Well, I do actually. It's because I rarely go birding any more, and when I do, I am not likely to carry a scope (people don't hate me enough if I carry a scope, I need a camera for that). There are a number of reasons, the largest is obviously time. I may have managed to squeeze in most of the decent rarities this year, but I've committed almost no time to decent days of proper birding. This shouldn't really be allowed, but I have paid the price. Such meagre skills as I may have acquired have dulled. Waders confuse me, and I can barely handle my scope. A sorry state of affairs indeed, but entirely my own fault. Spare time, such that there is, I devote to other things. Family, Travel, photography, drinking....

It's a shame, as I really enjoy birding. It just I enjoy other things slightly more at the moment. Things will change though. I have a weekend in Finland soon that I plan to spend wandering around places with better birds than here, and I have a long weekend at Falsterbo over migration. That, I am told, is superb birding, and I can't wait. I am also half considering booking up Shetland this October. More precisely I am considering gate-crashing some mates that are going. Shetland is proper birding. It separates the wheat from the chaff, and you have to properly go at it. I love it (for a few days), and when it really kicks off it's one of the best things ever. When it's dead, you revert to drinking. Win win. Last year I found an OBP. Imagine that! Instinct kicked in, I knew I had something, I knew it was good, but I hadn't seen it well, it hadn't called, and didn't know what it was. The feeling was totally awesome. 

The point being that is it about time I eased myself back towards birding a little. It's been a tough year, I've done a lot, but the pendulum has swung a little too far off course. Once a week round the patch, especially as it becomes interesting again. Why not? The upside to rampant twitching is that I need never worry about certain birds again. When a Semipalmated Plover appears somewhere I'm not going to give two hoots. When a Snowy Owl arrives on a distant Hebridean Island, not even one. Great Knot, no interest. Brunnich's Guillemot in Thurso harbour, not for me. The odds are moving in my favour. Sure I'll miss a few, I always do, but if I'm away when the big one breaks, it won't be a big deal. And despite my hectic schedule, I seem to do OK. Pretty good even some might say.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler early on, followed by a mammoth weekend of a trio of (boring) Yanks in Scotland. And then Spectacled Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Great Knot and Ross's Gull in the summer that kept on giving. A tidy haul indeed, especially as I was out of the country when three of the final four broke. Best bird so far? Either the rogue Caper in Scotland, or the Long-tailed Skua just recently. Or that really friendly Shrike in Morocco. Or perhaps the Pied Wheatear in Cyprus (mmmm, Wheatear). Or maybe the......Whichever, I just love birds.

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Anyone who calls me a filthy twitcher should think again. The Ross's Gull in Devon has been present since May 21st. Today is July 20th, so that's almost two whole months. Ross's Gull has under a hundred records, did I jump in the car in May to go and twitch it? No I didn't. June? Once again no, I merely chilled. I almost waited until August! That's how relaxed and calm I am about these things. Ticks? No, very little interest in such lowbrow things, I just like a nice drive.

Today I made a leisurely trip to go and see it. Approximately 20 seconds after entering the hide at Bowling Green Marsh, I had seen it. Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I mean, er, yes, that's nice. Is it a tick? I have no idea. Possibly I suppose, I don't concern myself with such trivialities Listing? No, sorry, not sure I know what you mean. Anyway, here it is, a very dainty little bird that showed exceptionally well from the new boardwalk next to the train tracks. Incredibly small next to the Black-headed Gulls. Common as muck I'm led to believe, but nonetheless worth the very slight detour.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Birds on Posts

There is an old wildlife photography adage, which is that birds on posts are far better than birds on natural features. Add a bit of barbed wire, even better. So, especially for non-believers, who miss out on opportunity after opportunity because the perch isn't the millimetre-perfect moss-covered knoll, here are a few birds on posts. These are mostly all from my recent trip to Iceland, a country with a great many excellent posts, some of them brand new!

Plain, dark, nice

This photo needs more post

A plain post AND a ring. Double the quality.
More post than bird. Brilliant
Excellent straight edges and man-made angles

Mega post, completely dominates. Bird added for scale.

A bit too natural for my liking...

I might come back to this and clone out that nasty moss

Superb! Clean, lovely background, slightly rusty barbed wire. The bird spoils it.

You're not going to see much better than this

Not a fan of all that lichen....

A simply stonking post!

Post of the trip

Needed to bring up the exposure on the post as the shaded area lacks detail

 A bit of moss is starting. This post will be no good in about six months time - ruined by nature,