Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Madeira May 2022 - Logistics and Itinerary

Madeira 20-23rd May 2022

This trip was organised by my buddy Mick S and he kindly invited me to tag along. I was at a low ebb after a tiring few months, had nothing planned, and the plane ticket for the flight he was already booked on was surprisingly reasonable. Why not eh? So about a week or so before departure he changed his hotel bookings to twin beds, got me booked on his whale watching trip (aka pelagic substitute), and arranged to pick me up in the middle of the night for a crazy-early departure from Heathrow. I provided all the camera equipment as just before the pandemic Mick liquidated all his, fortunately I have enough for two birders. We were off!

  • A four day trip in late May, departing London at the crack of dawn on Friday and returning early on Monday evening. This allowed for just under three and half days of birding.
  • Flights: Direct from Heathrow to Funchal on BA. I think this would normally be a Gatwick flight but post-pandemic things are still a little mixed up.
  • Covid logistics: a big fat nothing.  
  • Car Hire: A Citroen Cactus from Europecar. In Madeira you do need something with at least a medium-sized engine to get you up the incredible hills.
  • Accommodation: Two nights at the centrally located Lido district next to the coast, and then the final night in a great spot high above Funchal. This was the result of a screw-up rather than any pressing need to move, but it was a pleasant change!
  • Food: All I am going to say is don't travel to Portugal with vegans if you can possibly help it!
  • Literature: This was my fourth trip to Madeira so I knew a lot of the good spots. eBird seems to be barely used over there, but nonetheless I was able to find a couple of new places, both of which delivered the goods.


Day 1: Landed at 10.30am and were birding at Machico and out on the Sao Lourenco peninsula before lunch. In the afternoon we explored the Lugar de Baixo and drove across the island to Porto Moniz.
Day 2: Whale watching trip in Funchal bay in the morning, and the Palheiro gardens and Ribeiro Frio during the afternoon before watching the sun set from the Pico do Arieiro.
Day 3: Back to Ponta de Sao Lourenco for the morning, and then up to Santo Antonio da Serra via Machico in the afternoon. Early evening spent watching the evening passage of Shearwaters off Lido, at the Ponta da Cruz.
Day 4: Mick went out on a boat for a second go at Shearwaters, I piddled around at Machico and the surrounding area. In the afternoon we went for a non-birding wander around Funchal botanical gardens before heading to the airport.

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Finding a new patch

Worry ye not, the title of this post is a little misleading. Deliberately so of course, I like to keep people on their toes... 

I have been in Fife staying with the old people. Mostly I have been working of course; the pandemic has conferred certain benefits to people like me, one of them is that working remotely is now viewed as perfectly normal and as such the only change visible to other people is my Zoom background. What my colleagues can't see of course is the Tree Sparrow on the wire outside my window - I don't get that in Wanstead! And Bullfinches in the hedge. It still blows my mind that these are regular garden birds here. Every trip I find myself marvelling, an involuntary "wow!" escaping my lips. And so with this bounty on my doorstep, where else do I go birding when I come up here?

Fife is a great county for birding, it truly has everything - amazing coastline, hills and forests, reservoirs, pools and rivers. It has scrub and arable land, it has shiny golf courses, dunes and long sandy beaches. It has sea-watching, migration, and the Firth of Forth funnel. There is more than enough here to keep a birder very happy. The only issue really is that it takes an age to get anywhere - the prime spot of Fife Ness is not far away as the crow flies - under 25 miles - but it can take 50 minutes to drive there, and over double that on the bus! Tentsmuir is about the same distance but only 40 minutes, again the train and bus basically doubles it. Much as I like these two places, particularly the former, in reality I visit only sporadically, they are just too far. Time, as much as fuel (and these days therefore, money), is the limiting factor.

And that is the first thing about finding a local patch. It has to be close or you won't bother. I don't understand those who have a regular patch that is a long way from where they live. Fair play if they stick at it I suppose, but I wouldn't be able to sustain it. No, for me it has to be just about on my doorstep. Now where my parents live does not have any special birding spots that I can tumble out of bed onto like Wanstead Flats, but over the last few years I have found myself returning to a handful of spots that are just a short distance away, and as I visit over different seasons I am starting to see patterns, beginning to understand what might be where, and most importantly beginning to expect certain things. One of these sites has become somewhere I always go when I come up here, usually several times. Have I perhaps found what might be considered 'a patch'?

Letham Pools is 8 miles away, and takes about 12 minutes to drive to. It is two shallow pools in the middle of agricultural land with a minor road bisecting it. Once upon a time it was just fields that flooded regularly, but the effort and cost of running pumps became too much and it has simply been left as is. A wire fence still runs through the middle of one side, and pylons through the other, useful perches for Martins and Gulls. It has reeds and muddy fringes, and a spot of high ground is now a small island. Crop fields surround three sides and often contain Geese, and ditches run along one edge that right now are filled with Sedge Warblers. I have no idea if anything that might count as management work occurs, but if it doesn't so much the better as it is marvelous just as it is, and I sincerely hope that the effort of draining it remains a losing battle. 

Although I've been coming up to Fife for many years, I only discovered this location a couple of years ago when I stopped there one day on the way back from somewhere else (a hospital in Dundee as it happens!). But if I look back at my recent visits to Fife, Letham Pools is generally the first place I visit, and on my most recent five day trip I found myself there three times. Once I drove straight there from London, bypassing my parents' house completely; the pull of an Egyptian Goose too strong to ignore.

An average visit to Letham Pools might produce 25-30 species, fewer in winter. That's nowhere near as many as Wanstead where you could reasonably expect 40-50, but it is a much smaller area. Nonetheless my overall list for the site is up to 61, with eight species added on this most recent trip. On my final morning I found a Dunlin and two Ringed Plovers, brought down by rain, and a group of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding on the southern pool. A Water Rail ran across the road right in front of me, one of four that were there. Probably all perfectly normal, but for this Londoner they generated a huge smile. And that is key to a patch - it is firmly one of my happy places, and I think about it when I am not there. Which of course is most of the time, as I live in London. This is also quite annoying, as I receive regular updates of what is there, 450 miles from me, and this spring brought in both Temminck's Stint and Pec Sand, the former of which stayed a long time and was widely appreciated by almost everyone in Fife. I expect that pretty much every single Fife birder will have seen more at Letham Pools than I have, so how can I call it a patch? Well, all I can say is that it isn't just a numbers game - that's clearly part of it, but in essence I think it is rather simple. It is a place that is not too far away that you look forward to visiting.

Like a fool I have completely neglected to take a single photos of Letham Pools with which to illustrate this post. It is literally begging for it and yet I have nothing. I just don't think like a blogger any more. So instead above is a photo of a different patch, my "second" garden. This is literally a patch, an empty plot of land adjacent to the house up here in Fife. It is a wildlife haven - like Letham long may it stay that way. I've seen a Hen Harrier quartering here once, Sedge Warblers and Whitethroat breed, and it is a smorgasbord for the local Blackbirds, House Sparrows and others. Swallows and House Martins swoop above it, Wrens chatter from it, Pheasants roam around it, coughing gently. The garden is set slightly higher, so I have a decent view into it, and many a happy hour has been spent just loitering near the wall, listening and looking. The room in which I work overlooks it, which can provide an interesting distraction, and needless to say I count it as part of the garden up here, for which I also maintain a list. It is slow progress as I only come up half a dozen times a year or so (and during the last few years it has been a lot less than that for obvious reasons) but as with Letham I am beginning to better understand what is where, and to seek it out when I come. Above all it is so different from home, and that is part of the draw.

There are obviously a few other places I visit locally, it is not just Letham and the garden. Levenmouth is another favourite spot that is really close, and the Lomond Hills and Loch Gelly are both within range though I don't visit those every time. I'll cover those next time, I have quite a few trips to Fife planned over the next few months. Maybe I'll even remember to take a photo! 

Friday, 3 June 2022

This house has no bunting

After the fabulous fly-by from the Eleanora's Falcon in Kent last weekend, this weekend it was the turn of some different flying beasts - planes! Every since we have lived here our house has been directly under the final approach flight path for Buckingham Palace events, in this case the Platinum Jubilee. And I mean directly underneath! 

I am not exactly a staunch royalist. This house has no bunting and I am not attending our local street party. That said the Queen has done a remarkable job and lived an incredible life. Who would want to do a job like that for their entire lives, and put up with it in the way she has? Imagine having to be polite to people for that long? I find it astonishing, an extraordinary public servant. The rest of her family, well, they can do one frankly, and I couldn't care less what happens next. 

Anyway, here are a few photos of the airborne parade that ended up down The Mall about half a minute later. I missed the helicopters as I had forgotten that this was happening, and was busy listening to a rather enthralling first day of cricket on the radio. So, roughly in flight order.

Lancaster and Spitfire

C130 Hercules

Atlas (top) and C-17 Globemaster below. The bottom one in particular was ridiculously enourmous

So enourmous I didn't need to crop this. I wonder how many G&Ts you can fit in it?

A Rivet Joint. I had never heard of this.

F-35 Lightning. Only £90 million.

I admit I smiled when I saw the formation .15 Eurofighters. Probably now renamed, I would not put it past those in power. 

A perennial favourite....

....The Red Arrows

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Madeira - a few photos

Whilst I'm contemplating writing up a series of posts to form a trip report (they are always such a great success!) here are a few photos that I have managed to get round to processing in the odd free gap. In short I did mostly remember how to use a camera, what type of photograph I Iike and how to get it. And now that I am back I am also having to remember how to convert and edit them. It does not get any easier!

It was strange, but in a nice way, just sitting down quietly and waiting for a bird to land where I hoped it would land. When I go out birding these days I no longer take a camera at all, I am back to where I started - bins locally with the addition of a scope if I go further afield. But actually (unless you are supremely lucky) if you are trying to take a vaguely artistic photograph then that requires a slow approach. And that slow approach, as well as the need to be a lot closer than non-photographers realise, results in quite fabulous views of the birds. I still don't understand bird photographers who don't own binoculars, surely they're a key piece of kit to observe what is happening before you start, but there is definitely something to be said for getting tucked up in one spot and merging with the scene. Mick and I managed this several times on our trip, most notably with a group of Canaries returning to the same clump of Agave to feed fledglings. But it also worked with a very friendly Berthelot's Pipit close to Madeira's highest peak, and with some endemic Trocaz Pigeons in a botanic garden. Oh, and with a frog as well.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Once upon a time I had a blog....

Hello there. Remember me? Once upon a time I used to write a blog. And then, just like that, I didn't. These things happen from time to time, and I learned a while ago not to bother fighting them. You cannot force creativity and as such I have not missed it much if at all. I have been keeping busy of course, just not with anything worth writing about. Did you want to hear that I planted some runner beans last month? I admit I thought about it.... 

What is the change, what has caused me to pick up the metaphorical pen? Not local birding that is for sure! This year has felt a bit like a chore thus far. Spring was some distance from being memorable, and we are now in June and you know what that means. Yes yes, I saw some birds, all the usual suspects, but not with any great enthusiasm really. It felt repetitive and dull. Very dull. 

What has changed is that I have left Wanstead a few times. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is to me, how life-affirming it is. It can be near or far, long or short, it seems not to matter. I went for a nice meal in Marylebone and I went on a city break with Mrs L in Istanbul; both were fantastic. I had a few days birding in northern Spain with a couple of the Wanstead group. I worked a full week in Budapest and I went to Regents Park for an hour to listen to an Iberian Chiffchaff. I had wonderful views of an Eleanora's Falcon in Kent one morning and I took a camera to Madeira for three days. I spent two days wandering around Porto in the sunshine and I went to a wine-tasting evening in Islington. What I did not do was sit in Wanstead doing nothing. Well.... Actually I did a lot of that, in fact mostly that, but by interspersing it with things that were not that I came alive.

Madeira in particular was hugely helpful. It was unplanned, but when Mick said he had a trip planned and was I free.... ? I was free as it happened, and whilst I don't usually up and go just like that, I realised that I really really wanted to go. Mick and I used to travel a fair bit in search of bird photography opportunities but the pandemic put an end to that and I put my camera away. From time to time I had a go, but there was no spark, and it was entirely possible for it to sit in a corner for months gathering dust. Mick went one step further and sold the lot! 

I spent a day gathering everything together, retrieving lenses, charging batteries and that sort of thing.  Luckily I have two of everything so there was a camera and lens for Mick too. All of it was 100% dead, not a single ounce of charge in anything, which tells a story in itself. Bird photography is something you have to do a lot of to get any good at. Would we remember or would we be totally hopeless? The answer was a bit of both. For instance I clipped the wingtips on this one....

Cory's Shearwater, Funchal bay

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Patch woes

How has another month gone by? I'll tell you why, it is because all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And boy am I dull. And lazy. And lacking in inspiration. And frankly the birding has been absolutely dire. And I mean dire. The patch seems unrecognisable from last year. There has been a dribble of migrants. Well. What's smaller and even more pitiful than a dribble? A drip? Yes, let's go with a drip. 

So, this past weekend, all four days of it, I eschewed all the magnificent birding available in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scilly and so on, and instead thrashed the patch under largely blue skies. Lovely. Surely at this time of year a bank holiday weekend spent locally would pay handsome dividends? The drip would turn into a torrent! I walked 15 miles over 16 hours - I guess there must be a lot of standing around as I don't walk that slowly!

Those 16 hours delivered the following meagre totals: 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler, 1 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 1 Yellow Wagtail and 1 Nightingale. The Nightingale is a quality local bird, not quite annual but seemingly being picked up more often of late. I never saw it of course, but walking past Long Wood early on Good Friday I heard a snatch of song which persuaded me to linger. It took a while to get going, and I was wary of mimicry at play, but after a while it did enough of pure Nightingale to convince James and I of its undeniable identity. Quite mobile, it moved from one end of the copse to the other, at one stage ending up at and singing from the exact spot last year's bird had. It is tempting to think it could be the same individual, but more likely is that it is just semi-decent Nightingale habitat. Not decent enough to hold it sadly, and it was gone the next day. 

So that was the highlight. It is the rest of the list that I think deserves attention. Look at it, just look at it!  I'll repeat it for emphasis. 3 Lesser Whitethroat, 2 Willow Warbler, 1 Swallow, 1 House Martin, 1 Yellow Wagtail. That is the sum total of the other migrants that I saw or heard over four days. Four days!! There are levels of poor, and this is towards the bottom of the lower rungs. Part of me wished I had just jumped in the car and gleefully headed off on a big twitch, but I kept feeling that it just had to happen and so I stuck it out. Of course it didn't happen until this morning when everyone went back to work (by everyone I mean 5% of the local birders as employment is pretty overrated on this patch these days), when the year's first Ring Ouzel made an appearance in front of Marco along with Yellow Wagtails and Wheatears. I cannot help thinking that my whole big local weekend was a big damp squib. Luckily I managed to quickly snaffle the Ouzel as I headed to work else I would be in a foul mood. I don't know what other inland patch workers experienced this weekend, but if it was anything like us then they have my pity and admiration.

At least the weather was good, which meant a lot of gardening that I have been looking forward to was able to get done. And a lot of gardening I had not been looking forward to as well, including over doubling the size of my vegetable patch by removing some large shrubs which came with two massive root balls that needed digging out. The veg patch has not been a great success to this point, and I have done much better growing stuff in large pots. The main reason is that it was excessively shaded by a large sycamore tree in next door's garden, as well as being overrun with weeds from the same garden as we have a wire fence. However some new people have arrived and drastically reduced the size of the tree as well as more generally blitzing the entire garden - cutting almost everything down and ploughing it into a barren wasteland. Not great for nature, but my garden is noticeably brighter and the weed incursion has basically stopped. I figured I'd try again, but I wanted a bigger area - it is not huge, but it has potential. Getting rid of the shrubs above ground was bad enough, but the root balls I had to dig out were huge and I am feeble. I saved this worst of jobs until yesterday. It took me four hours of digging and  levering, and so predictably this morning I was a wreck. But I now have a nice area to sift stones out of and dig manure into when I am well enough. Meanwhile the seeds are germinating in the greenhouse - beans, lettuce, cucumbers and others. Some have already started so I am just in time.

The long weekend and nice weather also meant many opportunities for eating and drinking, both favourite activities of mine. After a long afternoon of toil in the garden, what better than a bit of pre-dinner pick-me-up? It is blood orange season, so....

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Lust for Life: 2022 edition

I nearly made it all month without a post but I appear to fallen at the last hurdle, close to covering myself in social media glory but felled by the sucker punch of actually having something to say. Or thinking I have at any rate. To start with though let me state that 2022 has not been great - a maelstrom of endless work and constant doom-scrolling. If we were all naive enough to think that this year might be better than its two immediate predecessors, well, more fool us. Time to reconsider. What is happening in Ukraine is barbaric, heartless and completely unjustified - the crazed machinations of a deeply bitter megalomaniac, hemmed in by in the past and unable to accept change, and who sees a world without Russia as a major power as a pointless world. Scary. That this is happening on Europe's doorstep is extraordinary - we have been able to somehow ignore similar conflicts further afield, the media willfully steering us away with some new trivial soundbite that we have been collectively stupid enough or lazy enough to fall for, but there is no getting away from this one and hard as it is we all need to sit up and pay attention. I am not going to lecture anyone, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but everyone should have seen this coming. That this country and many others are so inextricably beholden to this man and his cronies is inexcusable, and it is not just the politicians that are to blame this time - it is our lifestyles.

The timing could not be much worse, and Russia knows this. My energy supplier went bust last year, and my newly appointed supplier wasted little time in telling me that my annual bill of £2,780 was going to rise to £4,179. By the time October comes around I fully expect that this will become £6,000, perhaps more. I will do all I can to reduce it, but ultimately I will pay it, what choice do I have? Lots of households have a much harder choice coming up, think about that for a minute and about those people. And then consider what it means for the fabric of society as a whole. Mrs L is a teacher, she is already seeing the impacts in some of the kids that sit in her classroom, but versus where we are headed early 2022 will be looked back at as a golden period. Meanwhile our politicians have abandoned one dictator (a bit) and are busy cozying up to new ones so that we can continue to live in comfort and wander around in T-shirts in December. Tell that to people in Ukraine and other countries who no longer have a house or a town.

In a rare moment of good news Covid is over. Oh wait. No, sorry, that is just wishful thinking on my part. And government policy of course, thus consigning us to another year of unnecessary deaths, illness, strain and all the rest of it. Anyone who thinks this is over is a complete dope. This unfortunately means that very large segments of the population are idiots, as evidenced by my newly restored commute and a rare visit into London last week. We seem to have happily, joyfully even, dispensed with any suggestion that the virus is still present and mutating, and are all skipping along merrily pretending that everything is fine. La la la! Don't look up! On the one hand the 2020/21 approach could not go on indefinitely, on the other how hard is it to take a few trivial precautions to help out your fellow man? In Portugal recently social distancing and all the rest of it was being practiced by 100% of the population, indoors and out. We on the other hand are a nation of twats, ungovernable.

But back to this uninspiring corner of London for a moment, the initial point of posting before I was distracted by the shithousery of planet earth. I have found 2022 hard. This does not apply just to blogging but to many things. Birding. Reading. Photography. Plants. Getting stuff done. Everything I enjoy has been hard to focus on, let alone stuff I don't enjoy, and instead or forcing myself to get on with it I have instead found myself coasting along, floating on the circadian current of work, sleep, work, sleep. Even at the weekends I have had almost no get up and go. I have not been unhappy per se, just content for some reason to do nothing, to let the days pass by without fighting them. Consequently is it nearly April and I can look back at the first quarter of the year and know that I have underachieved massively in most facets of my life and that I couldn't really care less. It is a funny feeling, not caring. In the mornings I have been staying in bed for longer than I should. There are no evenings, I just go to sleep, most of the time before 9pm. Lust for life I think they call it.

However recently there has been a change. Possibly it is the weather, who can say, but I have rediscovered the joy of doing things. There have been a few early morning starts, the camera has come out - only for a few ducks on one of the local ponds, but it is something. There has been a flurry of activity in the garden - the first stages of the transition from winter to spring have occurred in my greenhouse, the terrace has been repopulated with Agave and Yucca, the pointless Yew bush under the Monkey Puzzle has gone and the lawn has been mowed. I even went to the dump to get rid of all the garden waste so that I could continue my work with empty green bags. If the mood takes me I may provide illustrations at a future point. There is a lot more to do and that I am looking forward to despite the accompanying aches and pains that getting this far entailed, but for now it appears that winter is returning so I shall pause.

On the birding front there has been a smidgen of returning interest. I have missed both Wheatears to have graced the patch, and so far my migrant searches have turned up only Blackcaps that may never have left in the first place. Overall I would say fervour is still lacking - the patch has been quiet for sure, but my drive has been more silent still. I suspect I am being hindered by the ghost of 2021, a nagging feeling that last year cannot be topped and this is weirdly preventing me from getting out there. It may of course be the general all-permeating malaise of 2022, but whatever it is, this time last year I had seen 15 more species that I have so far this year, and which ranks as my least impressive start since my records began. This is not restricted to Wanstead - I have not been birding anywhere in the UK in March. A drive to the coast feels like a world away for some reason (and not just diesel being in excess of £1.70 a litre!), a twitch for a rarity even further than that. I do occasionally wonder if the sight of a Belted Kingfisher in Lancashire might do me some good despite the cost, time and effort, but I quickly move on. Part of the reason I went to the dump was to ensure the car battery didn't go flat, I can't think when we last went anywhere or did anything in it. In that respect it is a fine symbol for 2022.

In more potential evidence of a change in the air I am nearly done with the London Bird Report 2020 images - a "to-do" that has been hanging over me for ages. It is a month later than I said I would have it completed by; when I say that I have I had trouble doing anything I really mean that. I've dabbled with it in fits and starts, made the shortlist, sorted the covers, but what I have not been able to do is sit down for three or four hours straight and absolutely nail it. I think about it frequently but then I go and do something else instead. Or do nothing most likely, the overriding theme of 2022. When I finally hit send it will be one of the only things I have achieved of any note this year. I hope to use it as a catalyst, but let's see how we go. Initial indications are reasonably positive, and not before time. Small steps. 

I am 47 years old, I cannot believe I am typing this but these are strange times and they affect people differently depending on who they are and where they are on life's journey. Like many I feel that the events that started in March 2020 have been nigh on impossible to control, and have dominated our personal narratives for two years. The state of the world is quite numbing, or at least I find it to be. And as mentioned above we are kidding ourselves if we think we are on the up. We are not, and not only that we seem to be seamlessly morphing into a new phase of awfulness, a cost of living crisis that will impact almost everyone. 

For now, have another Pochard. I'm fine by the way, just not very productive.