Monday, 16 September 2019

A sudden rush of blood to the head

Another bad sleep, this time as a result not of excessive wine, but over-enthusiastic gardening. I have had a bamboo plant for over a decade in a large pot, and it has done almost nothing in all of that time. Finally this spring I planted it in the ground whereupon it exploded into growth, shooting up immensely tall culms at a rate of knots. Some cursory research showed that this was only the beginning, and that it would soon overtake Wanstead if left unchecked. So I spent Saturday digging a huge and very deep trench to bury some root barrier around it, and whilst I was at it planted another one. When you get to about 40cm you hit London clay, and the final 20cm are hellish. At one stage Mrs L rushed outside thinking it had killed me, but I was just lying on my stomach with my arm in the pit having a bit of a rest. It is done now, hopefully giving Wanstead a few years before the Pandas arrive en masse, but I have not worked so hard for ages and on Sunday I could barely move. 

I thought I would end up sleeping all day but for some reason I woke up at dawn. Pain I think. Anyway, a quick peruse of twitter and I saw that the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was still at Farlington. I have spent the last few weeks smugly laughing at all those madmen dashing down to Cornwall multiple times to try and see a Brown Booby. Fools! Not for me. Once, granted, but I have grown up now and my twitching days are behind me. Well behind me.

Anyway, it took just over an hour and forty minutes to get down there and the bird showed immediately. It was extremely dude-y I have to say, and I rather let the side down by dressing in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt rather than regulation green and beige. Clearly not a serious twitcher. Talking of which I met Monkey there doing much the same as me, and we established that the last bird we had twitched was nearly two years ago, so actually I have done quite well. I didn't stick around for very long, it looked like it might get a bit crowded and I am not one for crowds these days. And so I was back home before lunch and thus managed to fit in a bit more gardening. Very slow gardening.

Not quite sure what came over me but it certainly made a change from my usual sedate Sunday mornings. Sometimes it is good to do something a little different. You won't find me screaming down to Cornwall any time soon, nor up to Shetland, both of which have been known in the past, but this one was well within range and took less than a morning. And as you can see below, it was a glorious feast of colour.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Wanstead at dawn

I had a very bad sleep on Friday night, probably as a result of the first booze all week Mrs L and I agreed - we are trying to be good. Still, it meant I was out on the patch extremely early and able to enjoy the rising sun. It is at its most beautiful at this time of day, you can't see the rubbish. Alexandra Lake was particularly grim, and is losing water rapidly. Soon it will become the cesspit it has always threatened to be - hopefully Waders will find this more attractive than I do. Needless to say there weren't any, although the Greenshank endures on Heronry for some reason. Best birds were a pair of Stonechat fresh in, the first of the autumn, but mainly the morning was notable for a large clear out of the week's earlier migrants, and between us we couldn't dig out a great deal.


Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Buses in Wanstead are Green

I've lived in Wanstead for nearly fifteen years. My wader list after last year's Black-tailed Godwit, was fourteen, neatly mirroring my time here at that point. Now in my fifteenth year it is only right that I add another wader to my patch list, and so late last week I did exactly that - Greenshank. One was found by Simon and Nick on the deck on Heronry, and even more remarkably was still present when I and the rest of the patch stalwarts got to it after work. It was still there the following morning, and mind-blowingly was also still there on Saturday morning. I toddled over to see it with Tony, noted that it was favouring a narrow channel on the south side and was thus relatively close, toddled back home to fetch the largest camera I could find, and then toddled back to Heronry and papped it. 


The bird was flushed by a water-borne dog and flew east calling, but dropped back in a couple of minutes later. Deciding I'd got as good as I was going to get, I got up to leave and had not walked more than about a hundred yards when Nick sent a message to say he had seen a white-bellied wader flying east over the SSSI. Those of you that know that patch will know that the next bit of water a wader will see on that vector is the Shoulder of Mutton Pond, followed by Heronry, where I just been. I was under trees and had no sky, but it had to be worth a look so I retraced my steps and went to the north side of Heronry where I could see the biggest expanse of water. Scanning the southern edge I nearly dropped my binoculars - there were TWO Greenshank sat side by side in the shallows. After a while they both got up, and calling loudly flew over my head and disappeared over the golf course. Mouth agape, camera uselessly on the ground, I followed them through the bins getting glorious views as they flew against a charcoal grey sky and were lost to view. 

Greedily I went back to the southern channel just to check that the original bird wasn't there, that would have been quite ridiculous. It wasn't, but nonetheless what are the chances? That said I remember when two Golden Plover on Wanstead Flats were joined by a third overnight, so there is at least some precedent but still, it is just extraordinary when you think about it. The photograph of the two together is not very good as I was on the other side of the pond, but it doesn't matter as I doubt this will ever occur again.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Trashing the patch

Trashing. Not thrashing. My guess is that given it is autumn and that Wanstead is drowning in migrants that some of you may have misread the title, and were perhaps expecting another birdy post? No. Trashing. From the verb to trash - to damage or destroy something, either deliberately or because you did not take good care of it. Migrants are not the only thing we are drowning in. I am talking about litter and people's waste. Wanstead is slowly but surely being ruined by selfless littering and tipping.

I don't litter, my children don't litter. I would never dream of dropping something on the ground, the mere thought of it is completely foreign to me. I view littering as one of the lowest things somebody can do, as it just so avoidable. There are bins everywhere, recycling facilities in London abound. How hard can it be to find a bin or take your rubbish home with you? Not hard at all, so when people just chuck whatever it is - normally food and drink containers - on the ground and saunter off, well it just makes my blood boil. I know I am sounding a bit like 'outraged of Tunbridge Wells' here, but it has got to the point where it is an epidemic. 

As well as a few migrants around the patch last week, here is a flavour of what else a visiting birder might have seen.

Nice eh? Almost every corner of the patch that you walk through has something similar. Under bushes and around tree trunks are the most popular spots, although the sides of the lake are also pretty grim. It would be a lot worse were it not for the heroic action of a local volunteer who walks around the patch almost every morning pulling a trolley and picking it all up. He fills several bags a day but cannot keep up with the sheer volume of crap dropped by the selfish and oafish users of the Flats.

Up there with littering is fly-tipping. The Flats sees a lot of this, most often when the fun fair is in town, although there is no direct correlation. Possibly it is because there are more gates open during these periods to allow access, possibly it is because less scrupulous ride operators do a bit of house clearance work on the side. I have nothing but flimsy circumstantial evidence for this of course and I am probably being discriminatory.

All I can say is it becomes a lot easier to become discriminatory and cast aspersions when you step out onto your patch and see this.

And this.

Lovely. Who exactly do the dumpers of this stuff think is going to sort it out? The answer is that they don't care one jot. The physical answer is that it is the hard-working keepers of Epping Forest, who rather than manage the habitat have to instead pick up the contents of a lowlife's uninsured white Ford Transit. We regularly have to direct them to piles of rubbish that some callous arse has tipped out of a van, as if they don't have enough to do already. Prosecutions are rare, though they do sometimes manage to prove it and fine the person concerned - my favourite was someone who had fly-tipped a load of stuff in a massive cardboard box that had their name and address on it....

There is only one acceptable form of dropping something on the ground, and that is when the aim is to feed the birds. Yes, despite the rather ambiguous signage of "Don't feed the birds" around the various ponds on the patch, actually it is quite alright and perfectly acceptable to put a little extra out for our feathered friends. So many people have such little regard for wildlife that I have to say my heart gives a little flutter when I see such acts of human kindness. This is one of the truest expressions of a love of nature.

Look! So thoughtful.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Sneaking a few in

My patch dedication has been less than impressive this year, mirroring my blogging. I may have ‘phased’ in both. As previously mentioned I am not too bothered by this, and sure enough in the last few days something has begun to stir, and what started off as small forays to pick off migrants are turning into longer outings. I think I have timed this perfectly, particularly given all my other interests.

It began a week ago, last Friday, when in danger of missing the largest influx of migrant Tree Pipits any of us can remember for a long time, I snuck out on the patch early one misty morning and was rewarded instantly. There were three birds that day, and I saw either one, two or all of them, it is impossible to say. I also found a Whinchat, another year tick. I wasn’t able to then get out at the weekend, mainly by virtue of being in Belgium, but another quick raid on Bank Holiday Monday netted a Spotted Flycatcher and a Pied Flycatcher in under half an hour, as well as a Garden Warbler.  The following few days were dominated by Canary Wharf, but I managed to get away early on Wednesday and snuck in 5 Whinchat and a Common Redstart before it got dark. This really got the juices flowing and the following morning I walked across Wanstead Flats to Manor Park to catch the train rather than my usual tube from Leytonstone. During this really quite direct walk, which took a little over half an hour, I totted up 5 Whinchat (almost certainly the same birds as the previous evening), 3 Common Redstart, and 8 Northern Wheatear. To say I arrived at Canary Wharf with a spring in my step would be an understatement.

Which brings me to this morning, keener by the day, when I was out at 7am. With more time on my side I was able to linger for longer in the Enclosure. A Garden Warbler, a Reed Warbler, and two Common Redstart, one of which was an absolute belter of a male. Close by 4 Whinchat remained in the brooms, and a Hobby cruised overhead. Tomorrow is the weekend, I am in the country, I am not going to Cornwall/Brittany Booby-twitching, and I cannot wait!  

Bird Days.

A lot of the birds we have all seen this week are the same birds that have decided that Wanstead Flats is so nice that they are going to stay for a few days. This makes determining how many individuals we have seen very hard, so the best thing to do is to use the concept of bird days. We all understand that this multiplies the numbers, but it makes annual comparisons more straightforward. My totals are meagre, but the overall numbers for August are phenomenal.

Wheatear = 24
Whinchat = 55
Pied Flycatcher = 17
Spotted Flycatcher = 29
Common Redstart = 24
Tree Pipit = 39

So we all know that the Whinchat total is significantly boosted by a group of 4 or 5 birds that have hung around for nearly a whole week in a large patch of Willowherb south of Long Wood. Ditto the Common Redstart, the last few days have seen the same birds remaining in exactly the same spots around the patch. What can be quite illuminating however are the maximum counts, they at least prove unequivocally that we are getting some really rather good numbers, as opposed to a single bird hanging around for weeks on end.  So for example on one day, August 24th, there were 6 Pied Flycatcher reported. On the 27th there were 10 Whinchat, and on the 29th 7 Common Redstart and at least 12 Wheatear. Birds obviously move around a patch during the day, and so this can be somewhat subjective, but we do try and take account of specific locations to assess the likelihood of duplication, and we don’t think this exaggerated. For example we would generally not expect birds near Alexandra Lake at the far eastern end of the patch to be the same birds that are recorded in the SSSi at the western end, though we acknowledge that it can happen. Best efforts really.

Still, I don’t know of another urban patch quite like it, and I am very lucky to have it on my doorstep.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019


As I mentioned in the last post, for the last ten years I've kept a travel journal. This started off life as a pure birding diary, a day by day blow of birds I'd seen along with meticulous lists. It still is, though its scope has expanded to also include pure travel. Not all travel, that would become a little tedious, so for instance a day trip to a european city is unlikely to feature. However some of my more far-flung trips get a mention, even if their primary goal is not birds or photography, such as Malaysia and Japan with Mrs L, or Utah and Arizona with Henry. Birds always feature however, however minimally - as a birder I can never properly switch off, there is always something that needs recording.

I use something called the Alwych, I think I picked it up from a Mark Cocker book on birding (Tales of a Tribe), and it has proved perfect. It fits nicely in my newfound jacket pockets, and is neatly lined, although I only use these as guides to try and keep vaguely straight. My handwriting is extremely small and I only get around 25 days holiday a year, so I'm actually only on my second one although this is now nearly full. I started it in 2014 and I don't think it will last much into 2020.

I used to be extremely diligent, writing it up every evening after a day's birding, but more recently I have lost my way, and for a whole year I didn't even pick it up. This became a significant niggle, and in May I put it on my to do list. It was a mammoth undertaking. 
Somehow I had to remember all the the trips I had been on since around August 2018, as well as all the birds I had seen. Luckily I had forseen my extreme laziness and had made various lists on scraps of paper which I had carefully retained, but actually placing myself back on my travels was a long and labourious process. Mostly I caught up on flights, airline lounges or hotel rooms - constantly irritated that I wanted to be writing the here and now rather than the past, but not wishing to mess up the chronology. I must never be so slack again. 

Earlier this month I finally finished - the last entry was my trip to Long Island. Since August 2018 I have filled 56 pages. I counted the words on a random page and there were 359, so it has taken me 20,00 words to catch up. No wonder it took a long time! Of course it is a lot slower after the event. I needed to remember what order I went to places, I had to consult maps, old blog posts and lists of flights, I needed to painstakingly transcribe bird lists onto the page and do the odd sketch. This was quite a fun process and a good test of my memory, but sometimes there would be a mental delay and I would find that after I had finished a day off and moved on to the next only then would I remember some funny incident I had witnessed, people I had talked too, other birds I had seen, what I had eaten or in some cases whole passages of the day that with the passing of time I had completely skipped and now there was no room in which to go back. In fact the last year of writings could be described as rather boring in the context of the rest of it. Writing it so far down the line is never going to be as rich as doing it whilst travelling. It felt rather forced, that I had lost the emotions of immediacy, of the present. My family would contend that the whole thing is boring! But this is not supposed to be a classic read, it is supposed to be a memory jogger, a record of the fun I have had. Nobody else really cares and nor should they, despite the length this is not my magnum opus, it is just another way to while away the many spare hours I have and no idea what to do with them.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Book Club 2

I tried this out at around this time last year, and seeing as I restarted birding at the weekend yet only saw a Chiffchaff this strikes me as a perfect time at which to have another go. I have been reading a lot recently - I am in the voracious phase and have read most of these in the last six weeks. Clockwise from the top left a visit to a friend provided the first two, a trip to Daunt Books provided the third which in turn recommended the fourth, and Mrs L passed me the fifth and sixth saying I would enjoy them. She was not wrong. Books are one of the great pleasures in life - I read on the tube in the morning and evening, in bed at night, and very frequently on airplanes. I just wish I could develop a habit of sitting down in the daytime at home and reading - I have a lovely armchair with a nice view which would be just perfect for this - but unfortunately I am totally unable to sit still as there are just too many jobs to be done. I have not read as much as I would like this year - a lot of my spare sitting time was spent catching up on my travel journal which I let slip for the best part of a year. That is now finally done and I can turn my attentions towards what others have written which is a lot more interesting. So here are this summer's reads.

Travels with a Tangerine - Tim Mackintosh-Smith
This book explores the remarkable travels of Ibn Battutah, a fourteenth century muslim native of Tangiers who set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca which ended up taking him most of his life and across huge swathes of what was then the known world. Like me he kept a journal, he can be said to be one of the first travel writers. His experiences however were incredibly interesting, and so with "The Travels" in hand the author (fluent in Arabic) sets off to try and trace Ibn Battutah's medieval journeys and to see if he can find what he saw. A lot of this involves religious shrines of one sort or another, but don't let this deter you from what is a cracking read and truly excellent travel writing.

A Little History of the World - E. H. Gombrich
If like me your knowledge of entire eras is a little sketchy then this is an ideal book to try and fill in the gaps. It was written for children, and is brilliantly done, no wonder it is a classic. In a six week period the author somehow covered the entirety of human history from 2500 BC to the end of the First World War. The language is a bit facile in places as you would expect, but if you are in need of a crash course of almost the events that have shaped the world as it was known up until the advent of Facism, this is a book for you.

Sicily through Writers Eyes - Horatio Clare
In a rare outing to London Mrs L dragged me to Daunt Books - a heavenly place. We have a family holiday to Sicily coming up, and so I went off to have a look at the Italian section and pulled out both this and Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell. This book is an exploration of Sicily throughout the ages, from its earliest beginnings to the modern-day Casa Nostra. The islands has been through more hands than almost any other place, and the Sicily of today is therefore a tapestry of Phonecian, Carthagian, Roman, Greek, Norman and Italian to name but a few. Like the book above it is presented chronologically, with the author using the prose of others to navigate through the centuries. In truth I found some of the earlier parts of the book hard work, ancient battles and campaigns chronicled by Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch and Cicero felt like something I had to get through, but the extract from the Travels of Ibn Jubayr (who preceded Ibn Battutah by 140 years) was a particular highlight, as was the chapter taken from Il Gattopardo by Lampedusa. So good in fact that I bought the entire book straight away and absolutely raced through it.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) - Giuseppe di Lampedusa
What a book. You can never really do wrong reading the classics. It desribes the life of a Sicilian noble, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, and his extended family, set at the time of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy). The Prince forsees that he is the last in his decadent upper class line, and that a new vulgar order will take over and could destroy all traces of the past unless the old order somehow accepts the new. An unenthusiastic and unsuccessful attempt to change the unfaltering path of history then follows. I only wish that I could have read this book in Italian, for what I found hugely enjoyable would probably be doubly so in the original text.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I don't know how to describe this book. It is both comedy and tragedy, magical farce and bitter historical violence. A hundred years of multiple generations of the Buendia family (almost all called Aureliano - confusion is inevitable, even the family tree at the start barely helps - I am sure this intentional) from the founding of their town of Macondo to it's utter ruin after war, famine and flood, a microcosm of Colombian history and national ethnicity. It inspired Louis de Bernieres' South American trilogy set in the city of Cochedebajo de los Gatos, and I am glad I have finally read "the original", another modern classic. 30 million people were always unlikely to be wrong.

The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert
I am only halfway through this one but it is riveting. There have been five main extinction events, the most recent being that which ushered the Cretaceous period out. Humans are now creating the sixth, condemning many thousands of species to death before we had even worked out a word for "extinction". It is a sobering read, and in the context of the daily news around climate change and people like Trump and Bolsonaro, an important one. In short post-industrial revolution humans are creating an event that is geological and catastrophic in terms of scale, and that will be recorded in the sediment in the same way as the gigantic meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs.


I have lots more to come. As I think I have mentioned I go through intense periods of reading followed by intense periods of doing other things. It was ever thus. So I have an extensive backlog of books that I want to read. They are gifts from others, or indeed gifts from me to me, loans from friends and hand-me-downs from family, and it is quite exciting to think that so much discovery awaits me. Some of them I am in the middle of already, but have put them down to read something else. The scramble for Africa is 680 pages of european incursion and robbery that has set the scene for post-independence dictatorships and civil wars that have lasted longer than the original colony. It is a tough read and there is only so much of it I can take in one sitting, but I am learning a massive amount about a continent that I have barely visited yet know many of the countries, place names and areas through my love of plants. 

There is another book about Sicily, a book that combines birding and travel, a book about espionage, a Jamaican microcosm and a book about the use of Pigeons in WW2. A rich and varied pile, I have no idea which one I should read next! Do let me know if you have any particular suggestions regarding reading order, or indeed your thoughts on any of the ones I have already read.