Sunday, 7 February 2016

Not much birding - Amsterdam and Hamburg

I have no birding updates. Or do I? The Caspian Gull came back to Wanstead Flats and I saw it. Right, that's quite enough of that. Instead I have been doing a bit of galivanting, as has of course been known to happen from time to time. Amsterdam last weekend, and yesterday Hamburg.

Amsterdam was nice. I met up with my mate Andy, a university buddy that I don't get to catch up with very frequently because he lives in, well, Amsterdam. We walked and walked, and talked and talked. We have very similar outlooks of life, both working for big corporates, both wishing that perhaps we didn't. Good to see him, and the city is fabulous. Being both sensible grown ups, neither of us partook of anything more exotic than coffee, and pushing the boat out, a single beer over lunch. Such is life in the forties. The smell of things other than coffee hung heavy on the breeze, and in various windows in the very touristy red-light district young ladies of the night day advertised their wares. Well, themselves really. Andy and I spent far more time looking at the buildings I'm ashamed to say - one of the things I particularly enjoy about european cities are the fantastic buildings, particularly in those places founded upon commerce and the sea. Amsterdam is full of tall thin buildings, rows upon rows bordering the canals. You can see some in the photo below, and they are superb.

The stairs are so narrow that things have to brought in through the windows. Today there are specialised trucks that have vertical conveyer belts attached, however in the past the goods to be stored on various levels would have been winched up from the waterside, so it's pretty cool that this use continues in modern Amsterdam. Andy lives in the top floor of one and is about to move into another one, it was pleasure to be able to see one inside - what a fantastic living space.

Hamburg has a whole trade district, with fabulous red brick warehouses lining a section of islands. Today they're preserved and harbour galleries, museums, antique shops and the like, but to wander amongst them is to be transported back to the Hanseatic League. I spent the day just wandering, as I usually do in these places - 12 miles in Amsterdam, 6.5 in Hamburg - taking a measure of the city. What was is like when it was growing? How busy was it? Who lived here then and who lives here today? And why do Germans smoke quite so much? Honestly, in the UK there is more than a little stigma now associated with lighting up. In Germany however it is a way of life, and even indoors they have little smoking booths. They don't work, and everywhere you go has undertones of smoke - like background radiation. Took me back twenty years when any visit to a pub or restaurant and you would come back reeking. 

This was the only negative really, and if anything the Hamburgers are addicted to coffee (and cake!) possibly more than their counterparts in Amsterdam. An interesting city that it was easy to spend a few hours in, the time went very quickly. Shame that the weather was a bit dull, as my skies got washed out by the neutral density filter. The one disadvantage of day trips in winter is that you're rarely there for the sunrise, and sunset is often a non-event. Anyway, if you do get a chance to visit either of these two places, even for just a few hours, I definitely recommend it. Now, back to my maps and timetables!

Sunday, 31 January 2016

January blitz!

Well what a start! As all patch birders know, January is very much a numbers game, a mad dash to try and see as many birds as possible on the patch. The common becomes rare again, birds you will ignore for the next 11 months become "must sees". The danger of course is that you leave nothing for February and mope about in state of deep depression, but let's try and not think about that. 

Despite not seeing a Sparrowhawk I've somehow managed 71 species on the patch. By way of contrast I didn't get to these dizzy heights until April 7th last year, and last year was nearly a record one. The soul-less will argue that it is merely a different shaped curve, but that's hardly the point. It means I've been in amongst it, out and about, living the patch dream and achieving high things. Doing more birding, and as the sad news of the loss of Martin Garner reached us this weekend, you really need to get in as much birding as possible while you still can. You never know when you won't be able to any more.

It was blowy out on the patch today, the remnants of Gertrude or the beginnings of Henry. The Flats are a muddy morass, the haunt of stacks of Common Gulls with sprinklings of larger ones. I missed the Med Gull yesterday on account of having lunch with a mate in Amsterdam, but realistically I could be ending the month on 75 or so. I clinched Woodcock last weekend down by the Roding, but Little Egret, Little Owl and Tawny Owl have probably all been available at some point. Still I've really enjoyed January, and that's the whole point. Not of January, just the whole point of everything.

I managed to get to Norfolk for a family walk along the beach, seeing a ton of decent birds along the way. I went to Cyprus on Mission Wheatear and came away successful. I gave the patch a decent go and blew my personal records away. I've been to Rainham a couple of times, and seen a lot of friends from University days and more recent. I've lost several kilos and started cycling to work. The lack of booze hasn't been as hard as I thought it might be, it turns out I am not addicted after all. I've mostly sorted out some obscenely unfair amounts of paperwork needed to comply with an outrageous money-grabbing attempt by a large bully of a country, a considerable weight off my mind. I've started eating fruit, and I've begun in a small way to clear Chateau L of unnecessary things. In other words it has all been very positive and I am enjoying it. 

February is shaping up to be fun too. There is a family holiday to look forward to, and then another birding extravaganza in the USA along the same lines as the Washington trip - i.e. me, a large 4x4, and a list of very exciting targets. And then the Wheatears arrive in March...

Thursday, 28 January 2016


We recently contemplated moving house, but quite quickly discounted the idea. Various reasons, the thought of avoiding having to do a loft conversion was one them, complications of citizenship another. Above all though it was the sheer agony of having to pack! Good grief we have a lot of stuff. Unnecessary junk for the most part, Mrs L and I both guilty - me more guilty, but less obviously so. Would that we could roll the clock back to when we arrived 11 years ago. We moved from a house half the size, and after moving in continued to wander around largely empty rooms for quite some time. Roll on ten years and we can barely move, but have no recollection of when this change happened. Gradually I suspect, the purchase of a book here, a pair of binoculars there..... Not that the house is totally stuffed with reading material and optics, but you get the idea. Partially stuffed. The other day I looked at a bookshelf and realised I had not even opened the glass door on it for about five years. My 7x42 binoculars, when did I last look through them?

Ugh. There is junk everywhere. Fishing stuff, millions of bird books, two-way radios, wool, rocks and pebbles, plants, cricket balls, photos, a collection of pine cones from around the world. Why?! How does this happen? Well it just does. Stuff just accumulates if you're not careful. Like children. We arrived with a one year old, tiny. Now we have three of them and that one year old is massive, way bigger than we ever anticipated. And is collecting his own belongings! The house is awash with sports kit, clothes, shoes, and all manner of crap that a twelve year old picks up along the way.

Something must be done. Some serious decluttering must occur, and I am starting now. Naturally I made a list..... In fact it is three lists.

1. Sell
2. Give away
3. Throw away

The key I think is to be strict. If I have not actively used something for a year, I must not need it, so off it goes. So goodbye the pair of bins that live in the car. Whenever I drive to a bird I take my other bins, so what is the point of car bins exactly? A couple camera lenses bought on a whim and used.....twice perhaps? A watch that just sits on the windowsill. A shelf of books I've not opened for a couple of years. Some cassette tapes and a pair of shoes with a hole in. A long wave radio! A dead amplifier that was replaced but yet sits on top of the new one! A hundred DVDs that are all classics but that I never watch as I don't have the time.

And this is the key part. It takes time to get rid of stuff. If I was being totally ruthless I would hire a skip and simply heave the whole lot in. I'd be done in an afternoon! Goodbye and good riddance. But you shouldn't really do that with Leicas.....

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dying at Dagenham

I've been ill. Really ill. Ill enough that Mrs L brought my daughters to my bedside, not to say goodbye but to solemnly pronounce that this was "man flu". They nodded, concerned, then giggled and ran away. Hmph. Why is it that no disease that I succumb to is ever treated seriously? I've literally not left my bed all of Thursday or Friday, yet this is man flu and thus to be scoffed at.

I blame the cycling and the lack of booze. Still dry, I gamely cycled to work on Wednesday, feeling weak yet managed a day of work, but that ride home was the most difficult thing I have done since walking Blakeney point for that Alder Flycatcher. The next morning I was flat out. Hot, cold, shiver, a wracking cough. I ache all over, particularly my lower back, which feels like somebody emtied out my insides, stuck them in a ring with Mike Tyson (sorry, only boxing reference I know of) for ten rounds and then stuck them back in. I swear I passed out at some point on Friday afternoon, and last night I woke up soaked to the skin three times. 

I still feel terrible, but at around 11am today, which happened to be the cricket lunch interval, I thought about blogging for the first time. And food. Ah-hah I thought, I must be on the mend. I skipped the food and went birding instead, thinking that the fresh air of Dagenham might cure me. Or kill me. We shall see tomorrow (or you might!) but for the moment I am still standing and able to type this.

The Scaup was nice, last year I didn't see one, so this is another victory for the new 2016 approach of getting up off my backside. Or in this case, my back. Met up with the locals - an acquired taste I should warn you! - at the Pond-of-a-thousand-names and then had a wander round the site looking for Vince's Sibe Chiff. We found this easily down past the Slack and it's a belter, though too quick for my dulled reactions. At least ducks just sit there and bob about. My first visit to the Chase for donkey's years despite it being only half an hour away by car. I reckon I could get there quicker by bike....

Confuse these two!!

Next stop on the tour Rainham - targets Raven and Bittern, which would both be site ticks. Neither were forthcoming, though Shaun was there. Mind you Shaun being there was about the same level of probability of Robin being my first bird of the year every year - pretty much nailed on. If you need him as a year tick just head down to the Serin mound at about three in the afternoon. Trust me, he is unmissable ;-) Before I caught up with him I had enjoyed some semi-decent views of the Shortiesbut seeing as how their mission in life is not just to catch voles but also to frustrate the hell out of him it was not surprising that they seemed to disappear just after I met him. Rainham is great for amazing views, but really tricky if you're after photos. Defeated again I headed back to Wanstead.

I returned home shattered, but not before a cheeky Woodcock twitch, risking life and limb down by the Roding. Nick was there, motionless in the dark, but being the kind old gent he is took pity on me and spared my life, however sadly informed me that the resident Woodcock had appeared, and then disappeared, some three minutes previously. So close. He escorted me off the patch and then went and found a Tawny Owl.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Opening the floodgates plus bottom update

Now that I have taken off all of the various bits of comment censorship and approval I have not surprisingly started to get a lot more interaction on the blog. I knew this would happen, I should have made the change a long time ago. Oh well, live and learn. Two recent comments from readers are shown below. In addition to being topical, interesting and highly relevant, I was astonished to find that they were plastered with links to other websites! Websites that unlike mine had no connection to birding whatsoever. The very cheek! I've removed them for the purpose of publishing them here, but I'm actually wondering if Mr/Miss P Islam might not be interested in birds at all!

Pinky Islam has left a new comment on your post "Making money out of birds": 

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However My Kiều is clearly a very keen birder as you can see below....

My Kiều has left a new comment on your post "Pope flees to Turkey":

Với sự phát triển của thương mại điện tử, quý khách hàng muốn mua những mặt hàng tại Nhật Bản. Nhưng vì khoảng cách, thời gian, tiền bạc, những điều bất thuận lợi làm quý khách không thể mua được những món hàng tại xứ sở hoa anh đào này. Vậy hãy sử dụng
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về việt nam
ship đồ từ nhật về việt nam
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về tphcm
nhận chuyển hàng từ nhật bản về việt nam
dịch vụ vận chuyển hàng từ nhật về việt nam
dịch vụ ship hàng từ nhật về việt nam
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về hà nội
Dịch vụ mua hàng - order hàng -chuyển hàng từ Nhật về Việt Nam nhanh chóng, an toàn, tiết kiệm được nhiều chi phí.
Hoặc quý khách có thể sử dụng dịch vụ fado mua sắm các mặt hàng tại amazon Nhật hoặc Mỹ.

No, I don't know either, but I am supposing it has nothing to with either the Pope or birds, and probably more to do with the import of cheap goods, or worse, from Vietnam. Much as I would have liked to have clicked on the links in the name of research, these days you just don't know what that might do, and it could prove to be a costly mistake. It didn't translate into anything either, so remains a mystery.

Anyhow, on to my bottom. I am pleased to say that it no longer hurts at all. No, I can hop on and off the bike at will and my posterior is absolutely fine with that. My knees on the other hand... This is the trouble with throwing oneself into physical exertion with no preparation, indeed with many years of frankly un-preparation, if I may be allowed to make up a word. I am gamely getting on with it however, and today my birding list moved up by one with the addition of a twitched Stonechat on the way to work. This is an annual bird in Wanstead that you would be hopeful of always getting, but it is the first wintering bird for ages and so is a bit special. It came with the added bonus of an extra kilometer, taking my morning ride to a colossal 10.7km. In a fit of enthusiasm I then came home a somewhat roundabout way and upped that to an even more colossal 11.7km! It has the potential to become addictive, and if this is what winter is like, summer could see me coming home via Rainham. Or the Naze!

Cycling to work has also made me a better driver almost instantly. Not that I was a poor driver before, but I am so much more conscious of cyclists and pedestrians after only a few days - things other than cars. I think all London drivers should be made to cycle to work for a week, with an annual refresher, it would work wonders for safety. Anyway, despite being a driver myself I am beginning to develop some pet hates to do with cars. These can be covered in another post as I have wittered on for long enough and all I had really wanted to say was that my backside was fine, and thank you for asking. Oh, and I think that large supermarkets and dead high streets are a really good idea - again, a topic for another day.

There we go, a blog post with nary a bird in sight. Normal service is resumed.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Norfolk kick-off

Last year I went to Norfolk twice, in October. As distinct from going twice in October, if that makes sense. Yes, twice all year to perhaps what is, behind Wanstead, the best place to go birding in the entire country. However with young Master L now resident in the county, I find myself up there much more frequently. This can only be a good thing, and so today famille L got up very early and drove through literally millimetres of snow up to Norfolk, picked up a scruffy urchin en route, and made the coast at Cley-next-the-sea by mid morning.

It was a glorious day, cold and bright, and if anything we were over-dressed. Not quite shirt sleeve weather but very pleasant to be out and about. We pootled slowly down the east bank, me pointing out various birds to children who pretended to be interested. Rather bizarrely there was a Red-necked Grebe bobbing about on the flood which used to be Arnold's Marsh, along with lots of Wigeon and Brents. Gratefully received, though the family had lost interest by this point. A bird I didn't see last year, and according to the spreadsheet that never lies, the first I've seen since 2012! That tells you all need to know either about the status of Red-necked Grebe, or of my commitment to UK birding of late.

Down on the beach the sea was pounding at the shore, frothy, with good sprinklings of Gulls which I ignored until two became Kittiwakes. Better still was Grey Phalarope, yet another bird I didn't see in 2015. What did I say at the back end of last year? That I would see more birds? Why yes I believe I did say that, so it is nice to see that I actually am. The shingle was littered with the byproduct of winter storms, starfish, mermaid's purses, a dead Guillemot, and even more spectacular a long-dead Sperm Whale. Fun for all the family. Seriously not nice, it had clearly died some time ago and was grim, if interesting, with enormous jawbones protruding from the carcass. I checked it very carefully for Ivory Gulls, but possibly even they would have been put off by the best before date on this one. 

Also on the beach was James L, which was odd as we had been talking about him and his recent move to Norfolk on the way up, and he had been wondering when he might next bump into me up here. He too was on a family walk, and it turns out some of the Whale twitchers we had just passed were his wife and daughter. He was some way behind, no doubt waylaid by Phalaropes or more bits of whale that had dropped off. Having left London he is now every inch the country gent, green the dominant colour, and is clearly enjoying his new life very much. And why wouldn't he, the place was fantastic!. Action on the sea, flocks of Lapwing on the marsh, and 21 Snow Buntings on the shingle.

Lunch was taken at the Dun Cow, and was very fine indeed. Despite Wherry being on tap I remained immovable. Mrs L kindly had a pint on my behalf, remarking that it was very tasty and that I would have enjoyed it a lot. I am sure I would have. Still, the end is in sight now, only a couple of weeks to go before alcohol becomes de rigeur again. We took the footpath behind the pub back to Walsey Hills, where I flushed a Woodcock, and after a quick pit stop at the NWT, headed back to return kiddo to school. All in all a very pleasant day, some lovely winter birding, and a good family outing.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Meanwhile in Wanstead

Back on the patch today in the hope of a cold weather delivery of rare goodies. That was the plan, and that was precisely what didn't happen. Before I ventured out this morning Mrs L wished me luck with Wheatears. Eh? Fair enough I have been talking of little else, but could it be that she does not entirely listen to my witterings? Needless to say I did not see any, but I did think about how the moment we're all waiting for is only perhaps eight short weeks away! Doesn't time go quickly, it will be here before we know it! Which is why we need to make the most of the winter whilst we still can. So if there are any Lapwing or Smew listening, please fly this way!

After a brief stint on Jubilee attempting to take photographs but only really achieving getting very cold lying on the frozen mud, I met up with an optimistic Nick, who had pinned down a Snipe species in the long grass. With the anticipation building we kindly waited for Bob and James to shuffle over, and then proceeded to walk it. Sadly only a squawking Common Snipe came out, but any type of Snipe was a year tick for all of us so we were all still happy to see it. Barring this it was very quiet morning indeed, but I managed to add Reed Bunting to my year list before I had to head off for a party, social butterfly that I am.

More tomorrow hopefully, and yes we would like some winter Swans please.