Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Lockdown photography

I'm missing bird photography. I don't usually do much in the UK, and especially not locally - there is very little point. Instead I tend to get my fix on trips away, but as all of those have been cancelled I have found myself rather at a loss during lockdown. I've been following the guidelines on leaving the house quite strictly. A couple of walks, a tiny amount of early morning birding, no piss-taking. That has also meant that my camera continues to lie idle - I don't want to get called out toting a large lens around Wanstead Flats; I'm pretty sure that bird photography wouldn't be deemed as essential.

Instead I've had my camera close at hand for lockdown listing, trying to get shots of every species I've seen. Largely this has been completely unsatisfactory - crappy record shots of distant Red Kites and Buzzards and so on, or of garden birds obscured by foliage. In other words the kind of photos I loathe. Opportunities for anything better have been few and far between, but there have been a few occasions where a hint of what I am after has managed to creep in. There are only two natural perches within range that [just about] meet my requirements for a clean background, and only one of them is close enough for a small bird to be worth bothering with - but because it is quite close to a large human standing on a balcony, birds seem to visit it very infrequently. And then there is a chimney pot....

Here are three that I took this morning from my balcony. The local Wren, one of our many Ring-necked Parakeets, and finally an amorous Woodpigeon.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

A new garden record

My all time garden day record was until recently 30 species. I realise that garden day listing could be considered a pretty niche concept, but birders are a nerdy lot and this kind of thing is to be expected. I set it back in 2010 when I was not working and had oodles of time on my hands. It was in August so I expect that I just left the children to run wild in the garden and forage for food while I concentrated on the sky. Since then I have never really come close, a couple of days in the high twenties but that's it. Did I even attempt it again? I'm not sure. I may not have done, let's face it I would rather be out birding somewhere. So what more of an excuse do I need that this current enforced period at home? Will there ever be a better time than lockdown? This Saturday just gone I decided to find out. 

In short it was a walk in the park. Well, you know what I mean. Within an hour and a bit the record was gone. I've subsequently tried it on two other mornings and found it similarly easy to get to 30 in the same timeframe. I suspect that I've always been on an actual walk in the park and only started in the garden later when things have stopped singing, or completed their morning commute.

On the morning in question I was on the balcony at 6.30am. The gardens around here are mature and so this is a reliable spot for all the regulars. There are singing Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Wrens, and at the moment there is an audible Chiffchaff somewhere to my west. I can also hear Song Thrush early in the morning, and of course Woodpigeons, Collared Doves, Parakeets and so on are all over the place. Early morning also seems good for some of the larger birds, and I was able to add Canada Goose, Egyptian Goose, Grey Heron and both Woodpeckers flying over.

Blackcap was in the gardens to the front, as well as the regular Coal Tit and House Sparrows, and Jackdaws breed in the chimneys, so it was not a great surprise to surpass my prior total before breakfast. Great Tit proved surprisingly hard, as did Chaffinch. Like all good days there were some birds I don't regularly get - two Rook west were only my third garden record. I also managed to scope Stock Dove in the local wood - they hardly ever visit my garden.

By mid morning I was on 38, with the first Sparrowhawk and Buzzard of the day, and then a pair of Mute Swan on the stroke of 11. This is when it starts getting a lot harder, the targets dry up and of course the middle of the day just isn't as good anyway. 

Linnet was added after lunch for 39, a single bird west, and I finally found a hovering Kestrel distantly over Wanstead Flats a short while later for 40. There then followed an immense period of seeing nothing new at all - lots of Buzzard activity and Sparrowhawks all over the place, but the hoped-for Red Kite never put in an appearance (although on Monday when I was working and not birding two brief glances out of one of the skylights added four of the cheeky so-and-sos, including three together!) The only further diurnal addition was a Peregrine towards or over the Olympic Park for number 41 - I needed a scope for this. 42 is a number that I would more easily be able to remember, so I partook in some late evening nocmigging and scored Coot. It also scored Moorhen after I had gone to sleep, which would have been a garden first had I been awake. I'm not too worried, we have months of this to look forward to.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Feeding time at the zoo

Has anyone else noticed that meal times seem to have taken on a new importance during lockdown? Back when life was normal meals were somewhat peripheral, something that you found time for but were not that important, or at least not on weekdays. We made more of an effort at the weekend, but during the week meals were almost an irritation.

All that has changed, or at least it has in Chateau L. I suspect the gradual dwindling of anything interesting to eat last weekend has rather concentrated minds, and when lunch on Monday was plain rice and grated carrot we very nearly snapped. Another "meal" was a choice between either tuna or marmite sandwiches, both of which were refused by the children who instead made crisp sandwiches. No butter, that had run out.

Happily our delayed online shopping order finally arrived on Tuesday and we have food again. Praise be. But we are under no illusions that we will reach the same point again as it currently remains impossible to get another order booked in, and we are practising the kind of robust social distancing that definitely does not involve supermarkets. For now though meals are good again, and there is a convivial and light-hearted atmosphere around the family table. There is no shortage of wine thankfully, indeed it is flowing as it has never flowed before. Our pre-lockdown regime of alcohol-free weekdays has been quietly put to one side. Life is less straightforward than it used to be, and quite boring to boot, why deny ourselves something that so vastly improves the situation?

With so little to do I suppose you become more focused on the mundane and the routine, and what is more routine than lunch or dinner? We find ourselves milling around downstairs late morning, hanging around the kitchen early evening. The most apt comparison is probably prison. And perhaps for the first time we're not having seconds. For instance we would normally scoff a whole tray of lasagna, but this week we looked at what was left and realised that if saved until the following day then that was a tuna sandwich we didn't have to eat. Do that a just a couple of times and you have increased the days needed before you need to go shopping by one in the event that online deliveries continue to be unreliable. Do it a few more times and it will really make a difference, probably to our waistlines as well if we weren't drinking so much wine. However if this is the worst of it, we'll cope. I'm under no illusions here, we're just experiencing what plenty of households experience outside virus pandemics except with a well-stocked cellar to see us through. 

Plenty of people I've talked to have noticed the same thing, a renewed focus on the basics of food and shelter. A colleague I talked to said he can't stop visiting the fridge during the day. I'm not sure if he meant to constantly eat some tidbit from it, or to look wistfully at its bare white shelves whilst recalling the good times. I could understand either way, this is what we are reduced to. 

Anyhow, the happier news is that our last delivery contained some "Waitrose Essential" blood oranges. We have been saving these for a warm day like today, so in a moment I am going to go and make some Blood Orange Martinis - a recent discovery. Mrs L and I plan to consume in the sunshine and pretend that none of this is really happening. It's important to stay positive.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Lady Duck is on my side

After the crushing disappointment of being allowed to put Common Scoter on the overall patch list but not on my own patch list, I knew I had to try again. Happily lightning did in this instance strike twice and there was another movement of birds overnight - Twitter went into overdrive with birders all over the country adding the hashtag #nocmig to their messages. The movement was earlier this time, but I was primed and ready. My bucket was out.

At 2306 this happened. 

(again, volume UP!)

I could scarcely believe it! More birds than my previous record, although I don't suppose I will ever be able to tell how many. But just one is enough in this game! There was a further and less distinct set of calls about 15 minutes later, but this is the better recording. I have got out my metaphorical notebook and my special indelible pen, and INKED IT IN!

I stayed up listening for a while, but got too cold and tired, thus missing the Coot that had a bit of a fly around at 2am. I have a cunning plan though, which I tested briefly yesterday. The little sound recorder I have appropriated from Mrs L has a headphone socket. My bluetooth headphones also have a 3.5mm jack for when the battery runs out, or if I want to plug them into a airplane. This means that the recorder (which does not feel the cold like I do) can sit outside whilst I remain warm inside. I tried this with the very short cable supplied and can confirm it works perfectly, albeit that it was slightly drafty lying on the floor next to the balcony doors and I couldn't move without pulling the cable out. However the five metre cable which arrives tomorrow will comfortably reach all the way to the bed.....

Is that cheating? I don't think so. Think of it as the audio version of using a scope. Or as wearing a duvet and a door rather than a hat and a coat. Or dressing gown.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

NocMig Bucket List

As lockdown begins to set in I am trying new ways to bird from within the confines of Chateau L. So two nights ago I dug out Mrs L's portable recorder and placed it out on the balcony. The following morning I was able to enjoy six hours of wind and traffic noise and, somewhere in the middle of it, a solitary Redwing call lasting about a third of second. Excellent. I remember this from last time I tried Noc-migging, and I also remember that I gave up quite quickly.

That wasn't in lockdown though. So I did a bit of research yesterday to see how I might improve the experience and get a better quality recording. The answer - well, the cheap answer at any rate - was a bucket. Very low tech, but apparently by placing the recorder in a bucket you can block much of the wind noise. The size and colour of the bucket were not specified, but I am quite fond of subtle shades of red when it comes to birding.

Right, all set. I put it out at around 10.30pm last night just before I went to bed, and enjoyed a peaceful sleep untroubled by thoughts of what might be flying over my house attracted by my bucket.

The batteries ran out at 2.17am. What a rookie error - much to learn I still have. Nonetheless I had about four hours to go though, and so after my morning VizMig session during which I recorded a lot of Redwing, I made myself a coffee, fired up Audacity, and got to work. Sirens. Cars. Doors slamming. A few gunshots..... Welcome to London. The bucket had definitely made a difference though, the band of noise in the low register below 1kHz was much reduced and it was a lot easier to pick out the ususual sounds. I had a couple of definite Redwings at around 1am, and then at 1.19am a series of very interesting calls.

I was immediately suspicious as I did not recognise them. However many of the Noc-migging websites use Common Scoter as an example species as they are known to migrate over land in large numbers and give quite distinctive flight calls. These calls sounded quite similar to my untrained ear, the sonogram looked about right, and furthermore the birdy internet reported a lot of Common Scoter activity overnight. I wonder....

 (volume UP!)

I sent the file to our local WhatsApp group, one of whom also homed in on Common Scoter. Another friend said it was a Coot before settling on maybe a Scoter! Things were looking promising. Then I sent it to the wider East London birding group which has a couple of members who are well into sound recordings. I received positive affirmation immediately.


Common Scoter over my house! On my Wanstead li.......Ah. Dilemma. My fellow Wanstead birders were quick (some would say very quick!) to provide some helpful advice regarding the effect of rain on parades. I cannot count it, it would apparently be like counting a photo of a bird a neighbour took in my garden whilst I was on holiday. I think that's a little extreme, but I agree with the sentiment. I was physically present but not paying much attention, and only through the magic of technology and a red bucket do we retrospectively know that a Common Scoter flew over the patch. But what a shame! This is the first patch record since 1961, mega does not even begin to describe it. 

The question of course is whether I can stay awake all night in the hope of a repeat. A small part of me really wants to. However the rest of me is old and tired and doubts I can manage it.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Home schooling

Given the advanced age of many birders, having children living at home may not be something that many of you can relate to, or at least not any longer. However for those younger readers who visit these pages, it is quite likely that like me you will have children of school age. It is also quite likely that the schools that they go to are currently closed, and many children are now enjoying an extended summer holiday that stretches out to September. 

Six months of no school! I imagine that for many kids this new state of affairs has been received extremely positively, with possibly the opposite reaction from their parents! Goodbye maths, science, tests, exams, homework and pressure. Hello Playstation, online gaming, Netflix, sleeping until midday and a carefree existence.

Not in this house.

My poor children. Mrs L is a teacher and has access to all sorts of online resources. Before the kids' own teachers could react and start setting work via email, Mrs L had structured a home-schooling regime with ruthless efficiency. Weekdays would follow the same timetable as previously - if Charlotte had a maths lesson at 9am on a Tuesday morning at school, then that's what she will be doing at 9am on a Tuesday morning in Chateau L. 

I too have played my part. The house has been transformed. Forseeing the upcoming education crisis I invested in a new desktop computer, additional memory for the existing one, a further monitor, and, as our wi-fi is so poor, enough ethernet cable to wire up the international space station. An old television that was due to go to relatives has been repurposed as another computer monitor, and my laptop with the cracked screen is now hooked up to that in what used to be our living room. The new computer is in the front room and has been hard-wired into the router and the TV, and the upgraded old computer with the new screen has been set up in the guestroom on the basis that that we won't be welcoming any guests for a while.

There are no excuses. Gradually we are getting things set by the school that the girls can be getting on with, and we imagine that after the Easter "holiday" that this will become more formal. For Henry it is slightly different - it is (or rather, was) his GCSE year, and so on that front there is nothing forthcoming and his grades will instead be decided by his mock exams last year and some measure of teacher-defined progress. So instead we've been looking at some of his chosen A-level subjects, as well as essay writing. In other words unremitting fun. All of this is being supplemented by online language courses that we have signed back up to, and grandparents with subject expertise have been pressed into service via Skype and Zoom. This keeps the old folk occupied as well, and you never know, it might stop them going out on "essential" shopping trips for newspapers....

But that is not all. It is important that children become familiar with some of the more practical elements of school subjects. Theory is all well and good, but it is the application of this in real life which I find really engages young people. So far I have set some chemistry, whereby the children examined the effect of certain compounds on stubborn household stains, and there have been numerous lessons on textiles. Further down the line I have lots of biology fieldwork planned, and if we get some nice weather they may also be able to participate in some outdoor-based art classes in the close vicinity of the shed.

They'll be running back to school when all this is over.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Dressing Gown Birding

I've ditched my red camo hat. Indeed almost all my outdoor clothing is now mothballed for the forseeable future. I am probably not the only one - if people are being sensible this is probably happening up and down the land. Instead a new birding wardrobe is coming into fashion. Enter the dressing gown. Expect there to be a best-selling "Birders in their Dressing Gowns" calendar released later this year, complete with optics. Who wants to be Mr. April?

Beige and boring. Like me.

This highly versatile bit of kit is an essential #BWKM0 item that birders cannot afford to be without. Mine is beige and, like its wearer, has seen better days. In recent days it has been seeing a lot more use - I am not normally a slobbing around the house all day kind of person. It has become my go-to birding attire from the bedroom/observatory, and with apologies to my neighbours, also features quite heavily out on the balcony in the mornings.

Bright and early today I was out again and wrapped up in it again. A stiff breeze was blowing and I was glad of the extra warmth that it provided. The first new bird for the lockdown list was a Grey Heron, pretty regular around here but mysteriously absent these past few days. And just as that had stopped flopping around, the whole reason for me being out on the balcony flew past - a flock of about 20 seeping Redwing headed north. All before 7am, lockdown birding at its finest and takes me to the giddy heights of 45.

What I need now is a change in the weather. Specifically I either need a very very still day, or a gentle wind that blows from the south. In these conditions I can usually pick up the distant trills of the Skylarks on Wanstead Flats, and during the night, the Coots on Jubilee Pond.