Friday, 26 May 2017

A window into a different world

I went to Chelsea yah. The Flower Show yah? Yah, terribly good fun, simply fabulous darling. Yah, see you at Ascot. Or Glyndebourne. Or Pippa’s next wedding! Toodle pip! OK, so nobody actually said “toodle pip” and whilst it was a bit of an eye-opener in regards to demographics, I can honestly say that I have not had so much fun in ages. I was volunteering with work, otherwise known as a jolly. It is apparently sound marketing for my company to sponsor a show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, and the number of emblazoned leaflets I gave away suggested we know a good opportunity when we see one. My job was to stand around in lame similarly-emblazoned clothing and answer questions from the general public on anything and everything to do with the garden. The concept (all gardens have concepts, surely you knew that?), the design, the plan, the future, and of course the plants. All I can say is that if I see another Cardiocrinum Giganteum again as long as I live it will be too soon.

What? You mean haven’t ever heard of the Giant Himalayan Lily? Good grief! This is what happens when a blog is read by the Hoi Polloi I suppose….. Actually, despite my mild horticultural interest I had never heard of it either, but after 6 hours of fielding questions on it I now consider myself a world expert. It grows to 10 feet tall, it takes many years to get to flowering size and being monocarpic it then dies. Oh come on! Monocarpic? I give up. Anyhow, 99% of questions were on this enormous lily thing and it wasn’t even flowering andt just looked like huge asparagus stalks sticking out of the undergrowth. The overall garden was beautiful though, a winding limestone path through a shaded understory of ferns, hostas and perennial flowers evoking a natural woodland, into a loggia (don’t ask because I don't know….) and then out into a more formal sunny garden bursting with colour, topiary and sculpture. Stunning and perfectly balanced. The kind of thing that mere mortals can only dream of.

But of course this is Chelsea, and Chelsea is not populated by mere mortals which is what made this day so fun. I’d never been before as generally and despite my interest in plants I just didn’t feel it was my scene. This visit absolutely confirms that! But it didn’t stop it being a fascinating window into another world and a really good day out. Not of gardens so much, though many lovely and expensive things were on display, but of people. I have never seen so many Joanna Lumley’s in one place. Nor Henry Blofelds. Nor as many pale salmon-coloured trousers, pink jackets and panama hats! Away from the sartorial splendor, the people wearing these fabulous get-ups were quite incredible, totally fascinating. I am no anarchist, indeed I can dip in and dip out of this social sphere as required, but rarely am I so immersed in it and it was simply brilliant. These people live in a parallel universe! (the same parallel universe in which I am polite to people for 6 hours straight!). Austerity and the state of the planet just are not concerns. It’s all about soil, trellises, Pimms and the next trip to St Lucia. Many of them were delightful of course, the epitome of British courtesy and politesse, expressing genuine interest in the garden and the plants, even some preliminary small-talk at times. “So what do you do then?”, at which point I had to confess to not being an equal to Chris Beardshaw in the horticultural arena but instead to working in a bank. This being Chelsea of course this didn’t raise any eyebrows. If you are so unfortunate as to need a job then a bank is as good a place as any. A smaller number however treated us as mere lackeys – “Would you give me one of those?”, indicating a desire for an emblazoned leaflet, or “You there, what’s that tall thing over there near the hedge?” “Eh? Himalayan what?

Seriously good people watching. Whilst the majority were there for the plants and mostly spoke latin, some were there simply to be seen. I suppose it is an 'event' in the annual social calendar, like Wimbledon or whatever, but there is no denying that it is great fun and I consider myself fortunate to have been involved. It covers a huge site, and there are thousands of opportunities to spend serious money. Sculptures, seeds, tools, even greenhouses - to which I am no stranger - but some of these were hugely impressive. My greenhouse is a big mess, loads of empty pots, boxes of soil and grit, hoses, labels, spiders..... These were immaculate, nothing out of place whatsoever, charmingly perfect, and if I am honest, rather inspiring. I will see what I can do.

Selling like hotcakes!


Monday, 22 May 2017


This morning I did not even see a Swift. Lesser Whitethroat and Whitethroat were both singing, but the only movement on Wanstead Flats was newly-fledged Starling accompanying their parents on feeding excursions. Nothing is moving. Getting up at 5am therefore seems rather unnecessary, and I will be attempting to limit this for the next few months. This is rather difficult however as after so long getting up early my body clock has adjusted to it. And of course at the moment it gets light incredibly early, and as Bob who lives nearby can unfortunately testify, our curtains are out of action at the moment. I hope Bob will recover in time….

So what’s the round-up then? I don’t think anyone who birds the area will look back at this as a classic spring. I think all the individual migrant species have been present and correct so peoples’ patch lists look more or less respectable, but generally numbers have been down on what I would expect.

Little Ringed Plover – 4 birds, a group of 3 that I saw and a single that I didn’t – definitely better than average
Snipe - after none in the winter, a handful in April moving through. I saw 1, which is just enough.
Common Sandpiper – 2 birds, I saw one.
Green Sandpiper – 2 birds, I saw none.
Common Tern – with the traditional fishing spot of Heronry dry, lucky to pick up 3 birds on a stormy day.
Hobby – a few birds through but not sure if we have any breeders.
Red Kite – perhaps 4 birds moving through, happy to say I missed them all.
Buzzard - I've seen at least 10, mostly from the garden. I don't know how other birders miss them...

Rook – 4 birds so better than normal, I somehow managed to jam one of them.
Common Redstart – 2-3 birds of which I saw none.
Ring Ouzel – 2 birds of which I saw, oh let’s see? Neither.
Nightingale – less than annual and I was away.
Whinchat – 2 birds on morning and that was it.
Wheatear – a very early bird mid-March with far better numbers in April. I didn’t see many of them.
Yellow Wagtail – generally poor but a decent passage on some days
Tree Pipit – 2 or 3 birds only. I was away.
Woodlark - the guys jammed in on a spring flyover when I was, er, away. I sense a pattern.
Swift - small numbers, but until this morning pretty regular.
Swallow – I’ve seen trickles.
House Martin – the local colony is still alive but numbers are not good.
Sand Martin – I’ve seen 3 single birds, pretty sure there have not been very many.
Blackcap - plenty
Garden Warbler – 2-3 birds in spring, but only sang for a day or so and are seemingly now gone.
Chiffchaff - plenty
Willow Warbler – to my mind a success, with more singing birds, and for longer, than I can ever remember.
Whitethroat - plenty
Lesser Whitethroat – more this year is my impression
Sedge Warbler – 2-3 birds which remarkably I saw/heard 100% of
Reed Warbler – back on their SoM stronghold
Cetti’s Warbler – first bird last year, and back in the same spot this year.

The overall patchlist for 2017 sits on 110, and I have seen just 99. This is mildly irritating me, but I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the early morning shift isn't likely to change this and my time would be much better spent asleep.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A veritable procession

I went to Rainham today for the third time in as many weeks, the place is on fire at the moment. Before you say it, it was not for a Gull. Had it been I would not be confessing on here, no, I would have kept it nice and quiet and moved on. What got me moving today (and quite quickly at that!) was a Common Crane.

Pottering about in the garden, I at first thought it was a joke so nonchalantly did the news come out. "Crane Serin Mound" was Dick's to the point message. Whaaat?! Rainham has never had a Crane, and they're a hard bird to catch up with anywhere as they can cover about 10,000 miles an hour on a nice warm day. I assumed it was a fly-over until the next message said it was on the deck....

Oh, er right then. Horticultural plans abandoned, scope sourced, bins grabbed, and off down the North Circular and A13 to Ferry Lane. I made it in nearly record time. The record of course lies with the White-tailed Plover a few years back which was before the installation of average speed cameras, now that was quick. Nonetheless I was nervous, this was not only a Rainham tick but also an Essex tick. Surely in the 20 minutes it would take me it would get up and be in Sweden before I got to Dagenham?

I need not have worried, the bird stayed all day and allowed almost everyone who cares to waltz up and have a good look - albeit a distant and at times hazy look. Arriving at the Serin Mound I was surprised to find only a few people there, maybe I was quicker than I thought. At first you could only see its head pop up every now and again, and at that point it could easily have been a Canada Goose. Gradually it walked out into the open and revealed the rest of it - a proper adult complete with a shaggy rear end. My only other London Crane was a juvenile at Beddington in 2010. Whilst that was closer, this was a lot better, and more importantly was within the boundaries of a couple of lists I take. It's a numbers game.

This was number 194, and hot on the heels of both Stilt and Quail makes a good dent in the target whilst still leaving quite a lot of easy ones. A morning on the sea wall in the autumn might net another 2 or 3, I nearly got the Raven today, and as well as the Laughing Gull there is now a Bonaparte's knocking around. It's always good to have something to aim at.

The rest of the day I spent aiming my binoculars into Wanstead air space. Futilely. One Buzzard for my troubles, a stratospherically high bird heading south so rapidly I didn't even bother to call Bob who still needs it. That's June for you I suppose, but the brief May interlude this morning was most welcome.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Nearly over

You feel that it is just about over. Spring I mean. The last few sorties on the patch have produced essentially the same birds, there is nothing moving. I am holding out hope of spring Spotted Flycatcher, though they are ridiculously difficult versus autumn birds. Per the uber-spreadsheet of happiness my tally is 1:91. There is likely a little bit of long-staying birds in the 91 records, but even so. Other than that I am pinning my chances on a wandering Red Kite. Historically I always saw these between mid-March and mid-April, but my sense is that there are more about now and that they could 'happen' any time.

And let's hope they do because I am stuck on 99 for the year. Agonisingly close. There are many misses still of course, but most of those cannot be rectified until at least July and more like September. The last remaining gimme fell on Sunday, when Richard and I enjoyed brilliant views of a Peregrine Falcon. Two Peregrine Falcons in fact. There was some kind of altercation, the first we knew of it was when we heard one of the birds, which I think is a first for me. Looking up one bird bombed off east whereas the other, possibly the victor in whatever had just happened, then cruised lazily round us in a big circle before powering off back west with a bit of mid-air shake. 

I had been wondering why I had been birding the patch for nearly five months without seeing a Peregrine, so this was much appreciated and was long overdue, as well as being easily the best views I've ever had of this bird anywhere. So that was 99, but all subsequent outings I've been seeing the same four Swifts and a motley collection of non-breeding Herring Gulls doing nothing on the football pitches. There are only so many mornings like this one can take, so it could be that my bins get hung up quite soon so that I can catch up on some much needed sleep.

June will be about sleeping. The question is basically if it is June already. I think it might be.

It may also result in more blogging. Leaving the house at 6am to go birding and then working leaves little time for anything else. Eating is prioritised, as is going to bed in order to be up early to repeat the whole routine. Happily this can all end soon as proper no-birds summer kicks in and we all lose interest. Can't wait!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Ditch of Dreams

The Whinchats were fantastic, but look what else was in this ditch! 

Yes, Great Reed Warblers, and lots of them. At one part of the ditch there were about five or six birds in a very small area – a patch of reeds no more than 2m wide and about 5m long, and they were winding themselves up something chronic. One would kick off “Kerrr kerrr kerrr cha cha cha” etc, and this would spur its neighbor to scurry up a stem and start as well. The first bird would then fly at the second and there would be aerial flurries, during which a third bird would creep up and get in a short burst. Two more then flew in with a few experimental croaks, their interest clearly piqued, and the whole circus would start again. I confess I watched from the comfort of the car for easily over an hour during which I had ample time to change lenses, add or take away converters, play with exposures and so on. At one point I even gave the sensor a bit of clean when I noticed a big gob of dust on some of the photos.

In short it was magnificent, and from my perspective even outshone the trips out on the lake that I went on. I spent a full afternoon here bouncing up and down some rough tracks in my lovely (but abused) Nissan Micra trying to get some pleasing shots. Now whilst Great Reed Warblers are properly charismatic, the show was stolen by the Black-headed Wagtails. What a stunning bird! These too were in the reed beds, and a number of them perched rather obligingly when I wasn’t ogling Whinchats. I had a very productive time, but what struck me most was the sheer numbers of birds at every turn. Nightingales were everywhere, and whilst they were at their most deafening after dawn, they continued all day and there was no point at which the soundtrack didn’t contain their piping songs. There were Shrikes, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Cuckoos calling, masses of hirundines and obscene numbers of Herons and Egrets flying over. Compare this to the British countryside where you could take a walk and see only a handful of birds. We might grow more crops but look what we have done. Much of eastern Europe is the same, the last bastions of a more low level form of agriculture and it abundantly evident. Bulgaria and Poland were the same, Bulgaria especially so, and which shares a border with the area of Greece I was in. Abundant birdlife. It takes a visit to one of these places to realise how impoverished we are here – any birders who do not travel are missing out.

So, apologies for yet another image-heavy post. Think of me as a travelling salesman, or rather a travel salesman. If you go to these places you can see really good birds, and lots of them. People wet themselves here and fall over in heaps when confronted with a Feldegg half a mile across a stubble field. In eastern Europe you can be 20 feet away from half a dozen birds and have them completely to yourself.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


"And a Black-winged Stilt must drop in one of these days surely?"

I wrote this yesterday, idly wondering what new species might propel my Rainham list to the magic 200. Today I popped over there after work and ticked it off. Yes, that's right, a day later, in fact less than 12 hours later, a pair of Black-winged Stilt dropped into the reserve and had the good grace to stay all day. What curious coincidence is this? Do I merely need to write the species I would like to see there and a day later one will appear?

An interesting theory, and I'd be delighted to see a Bee-eater, Hoopoe or, err, Green Heron, however my guess was not really a guess. Black-winged Stilts have been seen all over the place at various sites along the Thames Estuary over the last few years, but for some bizarre reason have never chosen to visit Rainham. I think there was a day bird back in 2010 but I was abroad and missed it, and there has not been one since. I figured it was only a matter of time until a repeat given the numbers in the country, and whilst I admit that the speed of arrival was incredible I can't say I'm that surprised.

They were about half a mile away, but the views were crisp in the early evening light. Excellent! I may have done a little jig, as I had had to find them by myself - none of this pitching up and asking for directions from a long line of green fleece. #193 in the bag, under the belt etc. I was soon joined by other members of the Employed Birders Club (there are not many of us) who had also presumably spent a day in agony hoping against hope that the birds would stay until they could get there. They need not have worried, Rainham is on fire at the moment - one of them I had seen only a few days ago whilst twitching the Quail.

All I can say is that hopefully we'll see each other again very soon!

Mostly very similar to the views I had.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Back on the Rainham tick trail

Once upon a time I used to bird Rainham Marshes. Predominantly this was in the carefree days of gainless unemployment - bird reserves are a magnet for the jobless and retired, or so my local Whatsapp group keeps telling me with message after birdy message whilst I'm firmly ensconced in a concrete jungle! As a result of being out to pasture I saw countless good birds there over a happy two year period. I say countless but I am of course lying, for I counted them all... this is after all what birding is mostly about.

In the space of those two years my Rainham list increased by a whopping 43 species, and I was on 140 to start with! I saw all sorts of goodies in a London context, including Hen and Montagu's Harrier, Spotted Crake, Snow and Ortolan Bunting, Merlin, Great and Arctic Skuas, Slav Grebe, Pink-footed Goose, Eider, Kittiwake, Gannet, Manx Shearwater..... Those two years were a huge amount of fun.

It gets progressively harder of course, and in the intervening six years since then I've only added nine more species. One of those was last night, a Quail singing on the edge of the tip at the west end of the site. This is only the second I've ever heard (for I did not see it) in London, a seriously decent bird, and it took my Rainham total up to 192. Or as I prefer to call it, eight away from 200. Oh yes, the irresistible lure of the nice round number.

There are some glaring gaps. Siskin and Lesser Redpoll for starters, and Tree Pipit. Raven is pretty regular at the moment and I still need that, as well as nearly every Heron bar the obvious ones. And a Black-winged Stilt must drop in one of these days surely? Doable in other words, although it will require some effort and some jam. The trouble is that I just don't go there enough any more, and reports of Siskin are not going to get me moving very fast in that direction. Last year I got two site ticks, Razorbill and Dusky Warbler. I 'needed' Razorbill for London, and also jammed in on a famous twitcher very unfortunately tripping over an electric fence. Of course I enjoyed the bird more, what are you talking about? The Dusky Warbler was only the second one ever for the capital, and whilst I had seen the first I suppose I must have been a loose end or something. Lesser Redpoll however? Meh. If I can somehow get over the limiting factor of not being impressed enough to drive twenty minutes for common birds that I can easily see two minutes from home on foot.....

However as I type this there is news of either a Franklin's or a Laughing Gull near the tip. Whilst the thought of a Gull is frankly appalling in May and only marginally better in winter, this would be a proper London tick and could tempt me back over. I am joking of course, I would never go anywhere for a Gull. Ahem. But the excuse I might use is that the birding there is just really nice and I will see infinitely more Whimbrel, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Redshank than I will in Wanstead.

One of my above average Rainham ticks