Monday, 24 July 2017

Family twitching

This Saturday was the mass exodus at the start of the summer holidays. Famille L joined in, driving up to Fife to dump the kids with my parents. I couldn't help noticing that East Leake, currently hosting three families of nesting Bee-eaters, was only about five miles off the M1. We don't have great history of successful family twitches, the only result anyone ever remembers is a massive detour in East Yorkshire followed by a dip and then everyone in the car being really annoyed with me. Natch.

So it was really quite a surprise when Mrs L consented without any fuss whatsoever to my suggestion of a short break in our journey. There was a minor mishap when the satnav insisted on taking us to Loughborough town centre, but I manage to correct this before getting totally snarled up and we were soon at the special RSPB car park (a field). Seeing yellow "AA" style signs advertising Bee-eaters caused some amusement (Oh Dad, birders are so sad), but the five of us were soon walking down a well-trodden path to where the birds were showing. The kids pretended to be uninterested for a while, but eventually all three of them were arguing over who got to use the scope and binoculars. Winning!    

Henry saw the Isle of Wight birds a few summers ago, and I had seen a single bird on Scilly eons ago, but for the rest of them this was a new and exotic bird that they actually thought was pretty cool. Most rare birds would likely not have had the same effect, so this worked out very nicely. And for my daughters, both of whom had accompanied me to the Blue-cheeked version in Kent all those years ago, this neatly completes the set.We saw four birds for sure, and possibly five.  Now I'm not saying this is the start of a new family past-time, but it was very nice indeed to all be enjoying birds together. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

A dip into my twitching past

It is time to dip into the past, mainly as there is nothing happening in the present. I have never really been one for reliving past glories, but I suppose there must come a time. Also everyone else is doing it. As has probably been clear from my most recent posts, I have entirely given up on twitching. No Elegant TernNeedletail or Amur Falcon for me, nor any of the other stonking birds that have graced our shores recently. I am amazed at the commitment and drive (the operative word here in more ways than one) that hardcore twitchers have – even at the height of my interest in chasing far-flung waifs I couldn’t keep it up. I have not twitched a bird now since the Forster’s Tern in Essex last November and the good news is that I’m not really missing it very much if at all. When Britain’s second Amur Falcon came up recently I just knew I didn’t want to be part of the skiving procession to Cornwall the following day, nor join the long line of green-clad middle-aged road warriors who would no doubt encircle the bird in the dark on Saturday morning. I’ve phased, which is somewhat de rigeur these days. Or grown up. Part of me feels foolish that I burned so many hours and days on seeing all those rare birds only to subsequently completely give up on the list. A much larger part of me is relieved that there is no longer any anxiety associated with not being able to go for birds. Or dipping!

Seven years ago it was all so different. I’m aware that other bloggers have the ability to go back decades, and whilst I really enjoy those stories of yesteryear complete with brass telescopes and cars without seatbelts, I just don’t have anything that historic. Yet. My time will come. Still, from my perspective 2009 seems an age ago - I had lost my job in February that year as a result of the financial crisis that had started the previous year, and so was kicking back as a trainee house husband and domestic goddess. In between ferocious bouts of cleaning and cooking there was just the teensiest bit of birding. Now that I am desk-bound again I can fully appreciate how annoying this must have been to so many of my birding acquaintances, but in the spring of 2009 I enjoyed a purple patch lasting a month and a day, the likes of which I am not sure will ever come again. Let us revisit it just in case there are any NGBs reading.

2nd May
It is early May and only a couple of weeks have passed since I reached the landmark count of 300 BOU with a Hoopoe at Landguard that I twitched with all three children – back then a five year old, a three year old and a one year old. Heroic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Saturday morning comes, no different really to Friday morning for me in many respects, and there is a Crested Lark at Dungeness. My plan had been to go to Portland with Bradders for a Collared Flycatcher, but he had got so twitchy that he had skived off work on the Friday with Howard and seen it already. So instead I was off to Portland by myself, until the Lark turned up that was. So a quick change of plan and instead I’m off to Dungeness, again with Bradders, where I got excellent views on the shingle of what is a dirt bird almost everywhere but here. Flush with this success we returned to London whereupon I got into my own car and drove to Dorset for the Flycatcher. Looking back I must have spent the entire day in the car, something that would be inconceivable now but back then seemed entirely normal. Tick and run!

9th May
The following week was quite quiet but by the weekend I was on the road again, this time for a Red-rumped Swallow at Cley. I hadn’t thought that hirundines were even twitchable, but I made it up there in a couple of hours and the birds (yes, there were two!) were still there hawking above a field near the windmill. The following day I missed a Black-winged Pratincole in the afternoon in north Kent. I had been in Cambridge meeting old friends but was so consumed by twitching that I behaved really badly and curtailed what was a lovely picnic only to then go and dip at Reculver. It was relocated the next day at Grove Ferry and I was able to dip it again there on a quick Monday foray.

12th May
Undeterred I returned for a third time with Charlotte for what turned out be an epic twitch. What I hadn’t realised about Stodmarsh was quite how many ditches and fences there were between the car park and the hides, and after a mile or so my decision to take the buggy was beginning to look more than a little suspect. Various birders helped me hoik the pram over the various stiles, and finally I reached the hide from where the bird was showing to be greeted with my first, glorious, Pratincole. What a bird, I had quite literally never seen anything like it. Much of the time it was hidden from view on the ground below the horizon of vegetation, but every now and again it would take flight and treat those watching to its superbly elegant mastery of flight. The journey back from the hide was somewhat harder with no birders to assist me, and at one stage my hat blew off into a ditch and in retrieving it I fell in up to my waist and thus had to drive back to London in my underpants, quickly change, and then rush to the nursery and school for the pickup – those days my birding was only between 9 and 3.30 – frequently 9.01 to 3.29…….

13th May
The next day, Wednesday I think, I returned to Dungeness in the evening to twitch a Melodious Warbler at Southview followed by an Icterine 20 minutes later at the lighthouse. Or the other way around, I can't remember. Good to be able to compare these two very similar species in short order ahem. I also dipped a Subalpine Warbler that same evening, but since the start of the month I had had six lifers so I could hardly complain. I was on a roll!

16th May
The rest of the week was relatively quiet as I grafted a few Brownie points but on Saturday I found myself at Salthouse on the north Norfolk coast successfully twitching a Collared Pratincole only four days after I had first seen the genus. Amazing! This was a bird that had just missed my catching of the bug, most people I knew had seen a bird at Rainham before I became hooked, and whilst Norfolk isn't as convenient it can hardly be said that I was caring about miles at this point. If I add up the petrol, good grief...

25th May
I couldn't let a trip up to Scotland to see my parents pass by without some more crazy ticking, so I used a day to manically drive all over the highlands. Whilst Scottish Crossbill and Wood Warbler may seem a bit pedestrian in the context of the rest of the line-up, you have to remember that this was just what happened back in those days. Most birds were probably new, and whether it was an eastern Mega or a breeding bird didn't really matter. A numbers game. 

3rd June
Remarkably my next tick was also a Pratincole! Just over a week later rumours began to swirl that a Pratincole at Dungeness might not be a Collared. Which meant it was probably a…… I zipped down there late in the day once Mrs L was back from work and managed twenty minutes with the bird at dusk as it flew around a few final times before settling down to roost on a small island. Sure enough, it was an Oriental. I can’t think that there are many people who ticked all three UK Pratincole species within the space of about three weeks.

So there you have it, a section of my past life as a filthy twitcher. Those were 302-311 respectively, and given I am now on (and likely staying on) 437 there was clearly a lot more twitching to come, but I picked this period because it covered 10 ticks starting and ending at Dungeness in almost exactly a month, about half of which were truly mega, and of which three were all the UK species of Pratincole. Those were the days! Then there was July of course, but nobody needs to know about that. Or at least, not today...

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Two nights and a day in Estonia

I'd been to Estonia once before in the depths of winter for a very particular type of birding - woodpeckers at a feeding station, and the Baltic population of Steller's Eider. This trip would be very different, a quick visit in early July to the wetland meadows and forests of southern Estonia. Originally planned as a city break in Tallinn, at some point leading up to the trip I cancelled my hotel booking and reinvested the money in a rental car instead. I arrived in the country at midnight on Saturday, and had until 6am on Monday morning. What could I see and hear? As it happens, loads....

  • A one day solo trip in early July.
  • Spent almost the whole time in Soomaa National Park with a short detour to the coast at Matsalu.
  • Finnair flights from LHR via Helsinki on the brand new A350 (geek alert), though there are also direct options with other airlines. I spent Saturday afternoon in Helsinki and then took the short hop over to Tallinn. The return left Tallinn at 6am on Monday morning with an hour in Helsinki in which to have a shower and get some breakfast before carrying on to London for an arrival which saw me get to work only slightly late.
  • Car hire from Avis got me a brand new Mini Cooper for about £90, however the booking was very last minute.
  • You can guess where I slept...
Hotel in the landscape...

Day 0-1
I arrived in Tallinn at about midnight with only optics as luggage and picked up my car without fuss. Soomaa is about 1h45m south, and the main roads out of the town are straightforward - just head for Parnu in the first instance. An hour and a bit on main roads then saw me head east towards the National Park on much smaller country roads. Here I stopped the car many times just listening to the astonishing cacaphony - Corncrakes everywhere but also River and Grasshopper Warblers reeling away. Thrush Nightingale could be heard too, and also something I wasn't familiar with but that turned out to be Icterine Warbler - I didn't know they sang at night. I eventually arrived at Soomaa at around 3am due to having spent so much time birding by ear on the way, and I was absolutely shattered. I parked the car at the end of a track which had a bird tower and a toilet, and gratefully reclined the seat. River Warbler and Corncrake serenaded me as I drifted off, but I was far too tired to notice.

I woke up at around 5am feeling only a little better. It was pretty light of course, and I could now see that I was exactly where I had aimed at, a lovely landscape of wet meadows surround by forest. I unpacked the optics that hadn't been needed during the night and drove the short distance to the main visitor centre and started off on the well-known Beaver Trail, a part path part boardwalk loop that goes through deep forest before travelling alongside a stream favoured by beavers. I didn't see any of course, but there was plenty of evidence of them with felled logs all over the place. It's a great birding trail, and highlights included loads of Wood Warblers trilling away, as well as Spotted and hard to see Red-breasted Flycatchers. It was however also mosquito heaven and it turns out that without Mrs L by my side I am quite attractive... I also heard what I assume was a Grey-headed Woodpecker but I could not leave the path to look for it.


The trail took around an hour to pick my way around, after which I spent a little time watching the surrounding area from the car park. Plenty of Whinchat in the scrubby field, Fieldfare feeding on the short grass, and loads of House Martin and Swallow nesting in the centre's outbuildings. A single Hawfinch landed on the track next to me before heading back into the woods, and further away I could hear the flutey calls of Golden Oriole. Cuckoos were seeming everywhere. Heading back out I passed an open meadow with a pair of Crane feeding. As I slowed the car to a halt they started calling to each other, almost impossibly loud bugling, and incredible sound in the stillness of the early morning.

Common Crane

I returned to my bird tower and this time climbed up it. A song I could not place but that reminded me in places of Nuthatch and it took ages peering into the canopy before I finally got onto what was making it - Icterine Warbler! Some mournful calls that sounded like a giant Scops Owl prompted me scan out from the tower, and I was stunned to see an entirely dark and very large woodpecker bounding away into the forest from a dead tree. Black Woodpecker! The first I had seen for an absolute age, and throughout the morning it or another came back out several times. Green Sandpiper was on a stream, Yellowhammers sang everywhere as did Rosefinches, a Red-backed Shrike saw off a Great Grey Shrike in a very noisy encounter and at one point a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker actually landed on the tower. If this isn't fantastic birding then I don't know what is!

Black Woodpecker

Icterine Warbler


I returned to the Beaver walk and did another circuit in better light and warmer conditions. Nuthatch and Treecreeper were strongly in evidence, but Woodpeckers were not! As I dawdled near the stream hoping for a beaver a distant raptor on flat wings came in from one side. Honey Buzzard!! Brilliant views of this bird as it came in and then over my head, it is hard to see how they are so frequently strung in the UK. I completed the circuit and realised it was lunchtime and that I had no food or water due to poor planning. On a Sunday my options in the park were zero and so after discovering that the Ingatsi path out to the bog was closed and there was nothing else to do but seek out food I headed to Parnu, back along the same roads I had driven in the night. Endless fields, but fields surrounded by trees and water, and full of birds, including several hunting Montagu's Harrier in the space of just a few kilometers. Brilliant views of these birds, but no photo opportunity - something common to the whole trip actually, loads and loads of quality birds and massive diversity, but none of it very photogenic - the exact opposite of Iceland.

Honey Buzzard
Great Grey Shrike

Restored at Parnu by Hesburger, I headed for the coast. Part two of my plan had been to visit either Lahmeaa RP on the north coast or Matsalu RP on the east, not far from where we had taken the ferry through the ice from Virtsu. I chose the latter as it was no distance at all (albeit that no distances in Estonia are very large) and was soon at another bird tower (Keemu vaatetorn) overlooking a vast bay. Lots of different birds here, including Wheatear and Yellow Wagtails in the fields, and great numbers of Lapwings, Baltic Gulls and Common Terns. The reeds held Sedge and Reed Warblers, but try as I might I couldn't detect a Savi's on this occasion. My hoped-for White-tailed Eagle also never materialised although Marsh Harriers were around, and I spent a very pleasant afternoon chilling out on the coast doing general birding as well as having a nice long nap! Early evening I returned back to Soomaa for some more overnight birding.

I spent most time on this third stint at the original tower, as well as driving some more roads in the park. This time I managed to get very good views of a singing Blyth's Reed Warbler, but best of all was a world lifer in the form of a Hazel Grouse by the side of the road. I drifted to a halt and did a U-turn but when I reached the spot it had gone. Bummer as I would have liked prolonged views of this hard to find species. At the tower a Woodcock was roding, emitting funny little squeaks as it did its circuits, and as ever there were Corncrakes starting up in every corner of every meadow. I left at around 1am for the drive back to Tallinn, taking a slightly different route which I hoped might net more night singers, but I was actually too tired to do much birding. I stopped half-way for a power snooze until I was rudely awakened by bugling Cranes, and thus managed to make Tallinn airport for around 4.30am. My flight left at 6, and at Helsinki airport I grabbed a shower and breakfast before gratefully falling asleep on the flight to London.

It probably wasn't very good for me but again demonstrates how much it is possible to cram in when you don't have much time. That said next time I may go for longer as I quite fancy the old growth forests to the east. There be bears....


Trip List - 86 species
Mute Swan
Hazel Grouse
Grey Partridge
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Grey Heron
White Stork
Honey Buzzard
Common Buzzard
Marsh Harrier
Montagu's Harrier
Water Rail
Common Crane
Green Sandpiper
Black-headed Gull
Baltic Gull
Herring Gull
Common Tern
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Black Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Sand Martin
House Martin
Yellow Wagtail
White Wagtail
Meadow Pipit
Red-backed Shrike
Great Grey Shrike
Thrush Nightingale
Song Thrush
River Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Reed Warbler
Blyth's Reed Warbler
Icterine Warbler
Willow Warbler
Wood Warbler
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Spotted Flycatcher
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Reed Bunting
Common Rosefinch
House Sparrow
Golden Oriole
Hooded Crow

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A definition of disappointment

Elements of Famille L went to visit some old friends a couple of weekends ago. We had not seen them in ages and in the intervening time they had moved house. Where they used to live they had had a lovely long garden, albeit very thin, and right down the bottom (about a mile and half if I recall) there were a selection of wonderful vegetable beds. Whilst their new place does not have any where near the same amount of outdoor space, their new garden is up and running and one corner has been devoted to a couple of raised beds. In one of these were the remains of this year's strawberry crop, and in the other was the most gigantic clump of rhubarb I think I have ever seen. It resembled a Gunnera in stature.

Anyway, we had a lovely weekend, stayed overnight on the Saturday, and as a parting gift my mate chopped some rhubarb stems out from this clump and sent us on our way. I don't know about you but I love rhubarb, and I especially like it in a crumble. Mmm mmmmm.

So, we arrive home and the rhubarb is stashed in the kitchen. A few days later as I am passing the kitchen door one evening I see Mrs L at the far end just adding crumble topping to the crumble dish. Ah-hah! I know what that is! I started to salivate at the thought of what was to come, it has been a very long time since I had a rhubarb crumble and I couldn't wait! Dinner was served and I gleefully headed to the table. The green crumble dish was there, centre stage. A bit unusual that dessert was out before a main course, but on reflection I would be perfectly happy just eating rhubarb crumble on its own.

It was haloumi and couscous.

What the? I have rarely experienced such crushing disappointment. From a distance, couscous looks a lot like crumble topping, and there was no mistaking the dish. Why did she use the crumble dish? This was last week and I am not sure I have yet recovered. Meanwhile the rhubarb is still on the kitchen counter. Calling me. Taunting me.

I just thought I would mention this in case anyone else has a similar tale of unrequited lust and bitter disappointment that is any way comparable. To be honest I would be surprised, but who knows what lurks out there in blog land? Please do share any thoughts below.   

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Ant Day

I expect that many readers may have experienced something similar recently, especially if they live in Wimbledon, but for me in Wanstead on Sunday it was Flying Ant Day. Flying Ant Day is an annual event with no set timetable, it just needs to be hot and muggy and then it will happen. I’d been in the garden all day – a frequent occurrence of late – and was just sitting down to a very well earned G&T when I noticed a small trickle of ants coming from a hole at the corner of the terrace. Soon the trickle became a torrent, and gradually the large winged ones started coming up. They climbed up the brickwork steadily, and once at the top milled around for a while before taking flight and floating into the humid evening sky - it would have been a good evening to be a local Swift. An hour later and there were none left at all and you would never have known that it had happened. I know it is only small scale, and isn’t quite comparable as a wildlife spectacle to the annual migration of the Wildebeest, but it’s always quite a special moment – especially the way that these hidden colonies all of a sudden become incredibly visible.

In a previous house we lived in we had the unfortunate ‘pleasure’ of one of the egresses being indoors. No matter what we tried in terms of blocking up holes or putting down ant poison, once a year in addition to the hordes taking flight in the garden, a steady stream would exit into the house, in the kitchen and conservatory to be precise, and we would then spend the next week either transporting them outside, or more likely hoovering up dessicated carcasses. It makes you wonder what their subterraenean world looks like – somewhere under our house there was clearly this large network of catacombs, home to thousands of tiny creatures going about their lives in total darkness. The kitchen was some way away from either the front or the back, it must have been like the mines of Moria down there, I'd like to think with one super-ant in charge. I wonder how big it was? Shudder. Luckily the Wanstead colonies are all outside. I’d known about three nests as I disturb them from time to time with my potterings, but this one yesterday was a new one on me, and seemingly right below where I like to sit and contemplate. An interesting thing to think about, especially in flip flops…..

Monday, 17 July 2017

Oh, hello

Oh hello, I’m back, at least for now. For one reason or another I have been finding blogging difficult. This has gone hand in hand with also finding birding rather difficult. The end result is that I felt compelled to do neither for quite a while. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy, far from it. In fact I consider that I have been as productive as I have ever been, but unfortunately unless I rename this blog “Wanstead Gardener” then the kinds of things I’ve been up to don’t really fit. There were hints I suppose; a photo of a flower bed at Chateau L earlier on in the summer, and then most recently of a plant in the greenhouse doing its thing, but I did rather feel that those fell on deaf ears so I subsided into silence.

Ah yes, when a hobby goes quiet. Phasing. Most often seen in the context of birding, I’ve seen talk of this surface in a few places lately and it has definitely struck a chord. I am hesitant to label myself a serial phaser, after all the whole 'not birding during June' thing is basically an annual event for many people, however this year I have extended this period of abstention into July as I have been busy digging holes in the garden. I did consider going out and trying to find a Yellow-legged Gull, but then those holes won’t dig themselves will they?

No they won’t! It has been a bit back-breaking actually, and whilst I would love to show you my carefully crossed-out to-do lists as they tell a tale of true graft and considerable effort, it actually bores me as well! In summary however the extensive grounds of Chateau L are undergoing a transformation, and I am very much enjoying the visual results of my labour. But given that this is of interest to, oh let’s see, zero other people, I think I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that all my obsessive tendencies have been spent on horticulture (itself a victim of phasing in the past) and as such I have felt no compunction to go out birding at all in the UK. I did manage a weekend in Estonia which I plan to share in due course, but compare this to April and May when I spent several hours a day out on the patch and it must be difficult to understand why something that was so all-consuming can so easily and abruptly be dropped entirely.

It’s the same with the camera, it has barely seen the light of day since I pumped 4000 frames through it in the space of 48 hours in Iceland. When I sit down and think about I’ll admit that it sounds odd, but it is just what happens and I don’t fight it. I don’t have any interests that ever truly die, or at least not any more. I have of course dabbled in many things over the years, but I think I am now down to the few hobbies I know I really like, and whilst they might wax and wane from time to time, they’ll always be there. Take birds for instance, I’ve been interested in them for many years, but there was probably a break of ten years from late teens to my late twenties where they barely registered. In that context a gap of a few months is nothing! I’ll get back out there soon I expect, it is beginning to feel about right.

I'm pleased to say that despite the recent lack of use my binoculars have seen, I remain as sharp as ever. Here is a Cattle Egret from Estonia.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

On growing things

No, not my midriff..... Although that said I have recently hopped on my bike again after Mrs L serviced it for me. I took it as a strong hint, what can I say? I cycled all of about five miles and felt none the worse for wear. Anyway, in the absence of much inclination to go birding I have been concentrating on the greenhouse, and I can think of no better way to bore you all rigid now that June has passed by showing you quite how quickly one of my plants has grown new leaves during this hot spell.  

It is of course a Dioon spinulosum, a type of cycad from Mexico. The key to a successful blog is knowing your audience... Here it is in mid-June growing next to a dustbin full of bird seed. The trunk (known as a caudex) is about 30cm from the soil to the tip of the growing point, and the pot is about 40cm across. I bought it cheaply on Ebay of all places, from a nursery in Spain, and it arrived in terrible condition in early March. However under my expert care it has slowly been recovering, and as you can see from the pointy bit in the middle has been gradually planning something....

As you can imagine, I was delighted when three days after this photo I saw this:

20th June
Signs of life! Being somewhat of an obsessive type I've been carefully charting it's progress since then. This was for my benefit and pleasure alone, it was only later on I realised what a fine blog post this would make, hem hem. So here is a short sequence of photos showing the last three weeks.

21st June

23rd June

24th June

26th June

27th June

30th June

4th July

5th July

7th July

This charts a mere 17 days from the first visible sign of leaves to yesterday, when the tallest leaf now reaches my nose! The nice weather has seen the greenhouse hit 30 degrees pretty regularly, and I sure this has contributed to the breakneck speed. I reckon it has a little way to go yet whilst the leaves harden up, but the difference is astounding. I've gone from a boring pineapple-lookalike to a magnificent firework of bright green. The leaves will darken over time to a glossy olive green, unyielding and spiky. Happily for the family it will have to come indoors over winter as this is not a cold-tolerant species and a few days of minus temperatures could see those lovely leaves turn brown and collapse. Nobody wants that...

As I am sure you can tell from the photos I have a lot of plants like this, and thus lots of growth sequences. We had all better hope that I see some birds soon.