Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Twitching - did I waste my time?

My twitching efforts this year have been practically non-existent. I flirted with a Broad-billed Sandpiper in the spring, and turned around about half way and went home after it flew off. That’s it. I have not travelled to Cornwall to see a Pelican. I did not go to Devon for the Lammergeir. I didn’t go to Suffolk for the Purple Swamphen and have no plans to go to Lincolnshire for it. A White-winged Scoter that spent several months in Aberdeenshire was spurned, and an eminently gettable Cliff Swallow on Scilly was similarly ignored. No doubt there are several more examples of crazy megas that I have simply not bothered for.

I have recognized for a long time that my annual tick haul has been going down and down, however to fall off a cliff like this has surprised even me. You could say that I have grown up. Alternatively you could say that I have been unable to stay the course. Both are I think accurate. On the former point I have just had several face-to-face encounters with Pacific Golden Plovers. The views were fantastic, incredible even. I savoured them, I spent over an hour watching a single bird on a beach. A couple of years ago I haired it up to Norfolk to get distant views of one near Salthouse. The experiences could not have been more different, however only one of them increased my UK list by a species. I enjoyed the close-up encounter far more, the listing element has somehow diminished in importance.

But there’s the rub. Back in 2009 it was important, or it felt like. I’ve never been the type of manic twitcher who drops everything and just goes, elevating a tick on a list above any other consideration. I’ve been quite restrained really, however I have made a significant effort to see many of the 435 birds on my UK list. Some of them have been trips that required huge amounts of planning, time off work, and return journeys of 1500 miles. Others have required ridiculously early starts, driving through the night, staggering down unpleasant shingle spits, getting wet, cold and in some cases trampled. All to add a single bird to a list. So to all of a sudden completely stop, to consciously decided that I am not going to bother to add a bird to list (or attempt it at least), how does that reconcile with the immense effort that I have previously put in? Was it all in vain? Why, basically, did I bother if I wasn’t going to keep it up?

Well I didn’t know that at the time I suppose, and also I don’t like the attitude of not bothering to do something if you think you’re going to ‘fail’. It was what I did and [mostly] enjoyed during a particular time in my life. I was driven by the exuberance of youth. Yes, early thirties is still youth. Pffff. But now I’m not particularly interested anymore and it’s other thrills that are taking precedent. Like gardening for instance, a hobby far more suited to a middle-aged duffer like me – my early forties have seen a marked change in my approach to adrenaline….  Admittedly I’ve been interested in plants for almost as long as birds, but the appeal of a thirty yard walk to my greenhouse is not lost on me versus, say, Bodmin.

a memorable bird for all the right reasons

Nonetheless I still look back with some fondness on some of those twitches. At the time the vast majority of them did not feel like a chore in the slightest, and I had a lot of fun. Some of did of course fall into the “going through the motions” category – birds I had almost no interest in seeing other than the fact that they were new for my list. Short-toed Treecreeper. Zitting Cisticola. American Coot. American Herring Gull. Black Duck. The last three I saw in a single weekend, so the pain was condensed into a very short period, but honestly, talk about dull. These few however were eclipsed by a multitude of glorious birds, some of which I’ve barely seen anywhere else. Oriental Pratincole. Black Scoter. Cream-coloured Courser. Harlequin Duck. Northern Waterthrush. I could go on and on. Some others were glorious but only briefly so, leaving more of a feeling of relief rather than elation, much less satisfaction. Lesser Kestrel. Common Yellowthroat. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. All fall firmly into this category – mad scrambles resulting in rubbish views, all for that magic counter to tick upwards by one digit.

As mentioned, this year that counter has not advanced at all, or at least not through any action on my part. There remains the beauty of armchair ticks, new birds you can add to your list without needing to do anything. Brilliant! Absolutely perfect for my current frame of mind. I was probably abroad encountering very rare UK birds at extremely close range, and when next hit wifi I discovered I had gained a couple of armchair ticks with the 2011 Rainham Slaty-backed Gull and the somewhat dubious Kent Chinese Pond Heron in 2014. How on earth did that one get the nod? 

Whatever. It's just a number.

Monday, 26 September 2016

LAX stopover

I planned my silly Hawaii trip with a couple of stops to break up the journey. The first of these was a very pleasant evening chez my Aunt in Washington DC, however as that does not involve birds and I am very strict about that on this blog, I don’t propose to spend any time writing about it. The second stop did involve birds, and was the beach at Los Angeles just west of the airport runway. I’d seen this on maps and done a bit of reading, and it suggested that there would be loafing birds and that it was very quick to get there by cab. Or it would have been if the cab driver had any concept of where anything was. I’m not sure he even knew he was in America actually, as “please take me to the beach the other side of the airport” meant nothing to him, and enhancing this with the name of the beach, Dockweiler, also did not help him pinpoint where I wanted to go. Maybe mine was an unusual request and most people want to go to Beverley Hills or Sunset Boulevard or something. Showing him a satellite map of the area was similarly futile, the only thing that would induce him to move was a road name he could put into his satnav and then follow blindly, so in the end I gave him the main road just outside the airport perimeter and once there reverted to “straight over”, “right here” and so on until we got to the beach. He is probably still there now, totally flummoxed as to how to return to LAX for another fare.

Dockweiler State beach was fairly busy at 11am on a Saturday morning, all of the usual California clichés, joggers, people walking designer dogs, rollerblading, cyclists and so on. Scanning the area I could see several groups of birds, mixed Gulls including Heerman’s and Western, and then a few sleeping waders that appeared to be Willet. Willet not being Gulls, I headed towards them, dragging my wheeled camera bag behind me – on reflection the backpack would have been significantly better for this part of my trip, though with so many airports on the route I did come to be thankful for it in the end. There were Willet, and lots of them, but more excitingly there were lots of Marbled Godwit, believe it or not a full-fat world lifer – wooo!

Yes I have a very long bill

Thankfully the weather was cool and overcast, in marked contrast to Washington DC which had been an oven, and which would have completely prevented any bird photography at all. I had banked on the coastal affect in late August, and it was absolutely perfect. I got to work, and in between all the human activity managed to get a few nice ones. A lowlight was a lady with a dog who walked up to near where I was lying, and then took it off its lead and told it to chase the birds. Which it then did with some relish. You could not have made it up. I mean even if had not been there obviously taking photos of them why would you do that? I jumped up and laid into her, the only thing missing was actual physical violence. I held nothing back Lost it. I called her every name under the sun until a nearby lifeguard arrived and threw her off the beach. There was probably cause to throw me off as well, but I am guessing she had seen what happened and realised where the problem lay. That was it really, the Willets, Godwits and a single Long-billed Curlew had flown about a mile (as would I if somebody had released a greyhound at me) and with my bag being somewhat sand-challenged I did not fancy it. That left the Gulls, and much as I dislike them you can’t really argue with adult Heerman’s, even going into winter plumage.

Not too bad for a Gull

Once I tired of these, and with my demeanour somewhat shattered by the dog lady, I decided to leave the beach and go birding at the nearby Ballona Wetlands. Quick spot of lunch at a nearby eco-café and then I headed off inland. I had not bargained on there being no pavements. I know, what was I thinking? This is the US of A, where people walk precisely nowhere. Being wheeled, I had to drag the case along the road for about 20 seconds, and then retreat to the safety of the soft shoulder whilst the cars roared by for a couple of minutes, and then I’d have another 20 seconds, presumably on a lights change, in which to make a bit more progress before diving for cover again. When I eventually made it I discovered that the sodding reserve was closed and probably had been for some time! Thanks LA! I walked the perimeter, birding in the gaps, and in this manner picked up Bushtit, my second lifer of the day. It was overall quite quiet though, mostly I suspect due to the time of day and the coastal murk finally having been burnt off by the sun meaning it was now quite hot. Time to flag a cab and retreat to the cool of the American Airlines lounge – a shower and then a series of cold drinks helped restore my mood, and I started tucking into my Hawaiian field guide in anticipation of the next couple of days.

Regulation Gull

Saturday, 24 September 2016


Looking at the weather forecast yesterday suggested we wouldn't see a whole lot going on on Wanstead Flats this morning. Nor anywhere else in the south-east by the looks of things, and as at 1.30pm as I bash this out, this has proved to be spot on. Nevermind, it has been an OK week for late September - Spotted Flycatchers hanging on, a few Whinchats, and a steady trickle of Swallows. Earlier in the week these were going East, mid week they changed around to all go West, and this morning they were headed South. If they continue this stupidy they'll have made the Pyrenees by December and might as well turn around and come home. Probably the best birds since the Ortolan have been a couple of Stonechats. These used to reliably winter on the Flats a few years ago, but now seem only to be passage migrants. I managed one in the spring over by the Harrow Road changing rooms, so two that appeared by Centre Road carpark yesterday were most welcome. I didn't have a camera yesterday as I was CW-bound, however this morning I lugged it out there. Hard work, as two birds always are. I got into position just once before they realised what I was up to and kept a much closer eye on me.

The Whinchats all seem to have gone too, but a lone Redstart is hanging on at the west end of Long Wood. Just waiting for the Ring Ouzels now I suppose, and then it's officially winter birding again. Tony had a Siskin this morning, Starlings are gathering, and Goldcrests are starting to get easy again. It is coming. This is the eight autumn of blogging from Wanstead (and very occasionally elsewhere), and whilst it's easy to see that my enthusiasm has diminished over time and that priorities have changed, I still get a minor rush being out there on good days. More importantly, there are now enough other people out there who also recognise how good it is, the message has been well and truly delivered. 

In other news, Nick has been shopping for England. I have never known a splurge like it - new everything, including a new handbag apparently. He has been threatening this drastic action for sometime, but the moment finally arrived today. Tony, James, Bob and I spotted him from some distance away, gleaming in the sunlight. Shading our eyes as he came closer, we could not work out quite what this sparkling object was. Positively glowing, a spanking new camera, lens, and most amazingly of all, boots that do not yet let in water. Shetland will be the test of course. I give them a just under a week, with Quendale getting the better of them on about day six. Anyway, like Brexit, Nixit (Friday) is clearly not as bad as originally feared and he may single-handedly help us stave off recession if he is able to keep this up.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The “of Happiness” concept

It is entirely possible that this post is a repeat of one that I have made before. If that is the case you will have to forgive me, but the concept of a Something of Happiness has been pretty central to my life since about late 1996, which is now nigh on 20 years. In fact it could easily be right about today’s date that the phrase first entered my consciousness. And it has spread further than just me – people who never met my mate James from whom it originates use it too. The Log of Happiness on Wanstead Flats for instance (well, multiple logs actually) so favoured by passage Wheatears is one example of its usage but there are many others, springing up in parlance all over the place. All thanks to James.

He was a pretty happy-go-lucky person. Unconventional, not designed for the straight-jacket of conformance that modern life forces upon most of us. Things were pretty easily categorized – for the most part either he liked them or he didn’t. He had little time for the latter and that drove how he lived his life. He did what he enjoyed, he actively avoided what he didn’t. As a result he never settled down in any one place, but neither was he transient. When he needed to he knuckled down to it and worked his ass off. When he didn’t need to, he had no compunction about chucking it all in and telling whoever it was he was working for to go and get stuffed. When I planned a two month stay in Australia before starting work in the bank I still walk into every day, he scrimped and saved to buy a camper van and joyously quit work the day before I arrived. If there was something fun in the offing, he wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I came into contact with the concept of the Something of Happiness was in France. James came to stay with me for a few days in my student flat in Montpellier. He threw himself enthusiastically into our lives and the few days turned into several months. In fact he stayed with me until I came home again a few months later, we took the same bus. He was a little older than me, perhaps 8 years, but just like me remained extremely childish, but was also almost entirely without my risk adversity. He just did stuff and worried about what might go wrong later. Those months were among the happiest and funniest of my life, and he made a lasting impression not just on me but on a number of my fellow foreign students. A permanent smile and an insanely gregarious personality meant he was a hit with most people he met. Beaches, mountains, bars and parties, he was a force of nature. Good things were good, bad things were bad. A beach was a Sandy Place of Happiness. A telephone bill replete with expensive calls back to the UK was Shitty Paperwork of Unhappiness. He didn’t like bills, bills were unfair, as were many things to do with corporate life. Banks for example, but he did not begrudge the fact that I was about to join one.

It was the Van of Happiness that really cemented the phrase. He and I lived in this decrepit van for two whole months, a van older than me and which had a top speed that barely exceeded my age. The Van of Happiness contained a Dirty Clothes Basket of Unhappiness, and ultimately a [cracked] Head-gasket of Unhappiness, but for two months it was our home and the centre of many wonderful adventures as we drove it from Sydney to Cairns and back. The Great Dividing Range west of Cairns did for us, our grand plans to get to Alice Springs shattered as the van lost all speed going up the hills and eventually overheated and ground to a stop. We could not afford to get it fixed, but some chemiweld (Goo of Happiness) provided for free by a local taxi repair garage that he charmed ensured we made it back to Coff’s Harbour in New South Wales provided we only drove during the cool of the night. This introduced a whole new dynamic to our trip, arriving in the early morning at fabulous locations and chilling out in during the day, sometimes for several days, before departing under cover of darkness to new places to have fun, climb mountains and find wildlife. The spirit of the van lives on in some of the birding trips I make today. When I travel with Bradders there is a Purple Folder of Happiness which contains all our travel documents, maps, and bird gen. And all trips generally conclude with a Spreadsheet of Unhappiness which works out who owes who for petrol and other expenses. Mrs L uses it for various things, so do my kids, and so do a number people I work with. It just catches on.

Whilst few of the people who use the phrase other than me have ever met James, and indeed never will as he died in 2009 in the Victorian bush fires (wrong place wrong time, and sadly also an element of not quite thinking things through), but some twenty years later I think he would be pleased to know that it lives on in numerous people and is used daily to express either pleasure or moderate displeasure. But never seriously, as most things were never so bad that they were a problem, and he just navigated his way around whatever it was in the pursuit of regaining happiness. Sometimes that was quick, sometimes it took a little longer, but he mostly always got there. And so too do I. Life throws up these road-bumps, if you’ve never had to deal with one then you’re most definitely an outlier but rarely is anything insurmountable. That was how he lived his life, aiming at happiness, attempting to avoid unhappiness. Doing what he wanted to do, avoiding what he didn’t want to do or had no time for. It’s a simple philosophy, and I wish I could apply it as effectively as he did. So the next time something irritates you, just call it the X of Unhappiness and it will cease to be as big a problem. Equally if there's something that makes you smile call it the Whatever of Happiness. It'll stick, and you'll smile more. Guaranteed. 

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Summer to autumn

Thursday morning it was summer. Thursday evening autumn. The mother of all thunder storms swept in and the temperature dropped ten degrees in the space of a few hours. Fascinating to experience, and a shame it is over. I am grateful however for the additional two weeks of summer, it has been hugely helpful in the continuing recovery of Chateau L's plant life. Since I last wrote another set of plants have started pushing up - including one of the biggies that will now look spectacular in a few weeks.

Didn't get up to much today - a long and hard week which included some long hours and a heavy night out. I struggled off to the patch this morning in the autumnal weather - a stiff breeze and grey skies wasn't helping migration much. A few Mipits over, but the morning belonged to the Swallows. Probably saw around a hundred, all heading west, with a handful of House Martins in the mix. Spotted Flycatcher still in Long Wood with a few bright Chiffchaffs, but it felt completely different. It felt like Shetland.

I'll be there in two weeks after a 2015 absence. It will be good to be back, but with two more years in my legs it'll probably feel a lot harder - luckily we've managed to find a Iris bed sub in the form of Bob. He'll be issued with a radio by me, instructions by Bradders, and sent IN. I then plan to track his progress from roads, dry stone walls, car windows..... 

With the onset of autumn proper and a sharp drop in overnight lows, I've been doing what all good gardeners do and have been getting ready. This mostly means hulking large plants back and forth. The terrace, a tropical delight in summer, is being gradually emptied, and the greenhouse is being filled up. Equally plants that spent the summer in the humid greenhouse are coming back into the house as I can't maintain adequate temperatures in there over winter. Over winter it becomes a place to park the arid stuff instead, cold and dry with a constant flow of air. It is now looking tip-top after my constant visits - I've repaired the lights and have tackled some of the harder to reach corners.The fans are working again, and there is cleanliness and ORDER. A happy three hours down there today rearranging stuff, and look at one of the benches - regimented calm. And instant blindness and possibly death if you trip....

The tall blueish plant in the middle of the bench has a bird connection. No really. When it was younger it used to live on Kensington Cliffs in Cyprus. When I went there this January I popped in with Andrew M to have a look at the Vultures on the cliffs. It was raining fairly heavily and the birds were sat around looking miserable. Whilst Andrew ran back to the car to avoid getting completely soaked, I made a detour to a magnificent Agave growing nearby in the sandy soil. I could not resist pulling up a small offshoot (one of the ways the plant reproduces). I wrapped the roots in wet paper and a plastic bag, and then popped it in my camera bag. It was our last day, and so later that day when home I potted it up and put it on a bright window sill. It was a mere 10cm tall at that point. Eight months later and it is approaching 50cm and has been potted on several times, I have never known an Agave with such vigour - it is now producing babies of its own - you can see one just poking up on the right. In time I will dig it up and put it in a pot of its own and no doubt it will romp away.

Thank you for reading my gardening blog.

New York beaches in late summer

  • I snagged another one of my favoured ex-EU tickets which meant a bit of a faff leaving from Copenhagen rather than London. However it meant I travelled across the Atlantic in extreme comfort and would be extremely fresh for an early start on Sunday morning, except……
  • …..I booked into AirBnB just down the beach from where I wanted to be, probably about a mile or so. Unfortunately the owner/room letter went out partying on Saturday night and totally forgot about me which meant I did not get access to the room until 1am, having arrived in NYC at 8pm. Rubbish.
  • I visited just one site, Nickerson Beach, for two mornings and two afternoons.
  • No hire car necessary, I walked everywhere or took cabs. Interestingly enough though I discovered that there is a campsite right next to the Skimmer location, so next time I would probably just hire a car, sleep in it, and use the campsite for the facilities.

Day 1: Early start and a lovely walk down the beach to the colony. Spent the morning photographing the birds before going back for lunch. I repeated this in the afternoon for different light.

Day 2: Another early start and morning session, but the afternoon session completely curtailed by a massive storm which soaked me to the skin and then just sat over New York. I went the airport early as there were few other options, and the airline put me on the first flight back to London, during which I slept like a baby.

Day by day account

Day 0: Arrived feeling great at JFK at around 8pm and got a cab out to Long Beach very efficiently. Looking forward to a nice night’s sleep and then a 5am start for my sunrise walk down the beach. However an immediate snag when the owner of the AirBnB was not home, despite the texts I had sent immediately before leaving and just after landing, as agreed. So I phoned. And then phoned again. I managed to get access to the lobby of the building which had a sofa, and basically just had to sit it out. She eventually showed up at about 1am, blind drunk, and walked straight past me. Figuring this was likely my “host”, I gave her five minutes to find her front door and then rang up. She was on fine form, staggering heavily, and delighted that I had made it, absolutely no mention of the fact that she had agreed to let me in at 9pm. Her first question was something like “Did I like liquor?”. Second question “Did I smoke weed?”. She managed to give me a key and then collapsed. Excellent. I am not going to do AirBnB again if I can help it, or at least not if it’s a room in someone’s house. So much for my planning.

Day 1: I did manage to get up relatively early, but not as early as I had hoped. It was a dull overcast day so there was no sunrise to miss, but I got my gear together and headed off down the beach. The various plant machinery were busy scraping seaweed off the beach in preparation for the weekend crowds, but I was going much further up, probably over a mile. I could see my target in the distance, marked by a blue water tower. It took a lot longer than I expected to get there, but I was constantly diverted by birds, including my first Piping Plovers, a bird I had been hoping to see. When I eventually made it to the colony there were already a group of photographers there, but clearly no pros. The colony itself is quite large, scattered across the dune systems, and mostly roped off. Many of the birds however seemed to spill out, so there were plenty of subjects outside of the no-go areas, including lots of chicks of various sizes. There were also many Common Terns and a few American Oystercatchers  - in other words I was never bored! What I really wanted of course was actual skimming, but whilst I was there the adults barely did anything. Birds which encroached on each others’ territory would occasionally engage in mid-air squabbles which was quite entertaining, but I think I saw a parent feeding a chick just twice in two days – for the most part the birds simply loafed around. I have no idea whether this was weather-related, but it was far from a calm day. 

I spent the entire morning here despite the mediocre light, cranking through something like 800 images of mostly Skimmers, moving delicately so as not to aggravate my broken hand which I cleverly managed to knacker a mere three days before I left. Then I trekked back to civilisation for a late lunch and a nap to compensate for my lack of sleep the previous night. In the late afternoon I took a cab back up to Nickerson for a second bite of the cherry. Rinse and repeat basically, and very much what I had I mind. The beach was a little busier this time around, and consequently there were fewer birds that I could get particularly close to. Plenty of other birds on the shoreline though, so I spent some time with waders instead before heading for home as the skies darkened.

Day 2: It rained heavily overnight and was still looking rather grim when I woke up. Back up the beach again, no point just sitting around, but it was clear I wasn’t going to get the soft golden light that is so brilliant for bird photography. Indeed when I look back at the series of images I came away with, very few of them have any hint of sunshine at all, and they do all look a little flat despite the post-processing. There is nothing you can do about this, particularly when you’re travelling and on a tight schedule, it just is what it is. There’s an argument for doing longer trips to ensure that you get at least one day of decent conditions, but that would then mean fewer trips, and given that it is just luck, I don’t think it makes a difference. The good weather in New York did not return until the middle of the week, so there is no point dwelling on it, you just do the best you can in the conditions that there are, and I have never been anywhere on a short trip where it has been a complete write-off and I’ve sat around doing nothing.

To cut a long story short, after a decent session with Semipalmated and Piping Plovers it absolutely chucked it down from about 2pm, and soaked to the skin I called a cab as the weather radar strongly suggested that it was game over for the day. I had booked the last flight out so as to enjoy the evening sunshine, but after drying my stuff out a bit I went straight to the airport knowing that the steady stream of London-bound flights started around 6pm and suspecting I could probably wangle something. I didn’t even have to ask – the lounge manager took one look at my boarding card with a departure time nearly six hours away and moved me to the first flight instead. I just about had time for dinner and a few drinks and then I was on my way home. A bit of chimping and deleting on the climb out and then it was straight to bed.

A larger selection of images are on www.justbirdphotos.com

Friday, 16 September 2016

Plover Appreciation Day

Dunno who invents these World insert something here Days, but they all seem rather spurious to me. As far as I can tell it's World Something Day every day, and days specifically for Plovers (today), or Laughter (May 1), Star Wars (take a wild guess), or Pancakes (variable.....) seem a little bit lame. Why isn't there a Wheatear Appreciation Day for instance? We could have 365 of them. Still, Plovers are nice birds, and it's not like I need much of an excuse to roll out a blog post overflowing with photos, and trawling the archives it seems that I do have quite a few images of Plovers tucked away. So here are a few for you to, er, appreciate I suppose. I think it would be better to have World non-appreciate days, hate days if you will. Hatred of Chickpeas Day would be my starter for ten. Or International Dog-free Day, where no dogs were allowed out of their houses. International Dog-free Week sounds better actually. Month perhaps? At my work we have Global Volunteer Month, so there's precedent....

Semipalmated Plover

Spur-winged Plover

Piping Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

American Golden Plover

Wilson's Plover

White-tailed Plover
Isabelline Plover

Red-wattled Lapwing

Ringed Plover

European Golden Plover (pre-Brexit)