Monday, 1 March 2021

Getting there

Is March officially spring? I think it is. I frequently get confused as my tropical plant hobby suggests to me that November is definitely winter and it is generally in September or October that I lose my nerve and start moving things to the safety of the greenhouses. The birder in me says November is autumn, which also means that this birder is now getting quite excited.

But first a little recap on the hard winter months that have been made so much harder by being stuck in London. The furthest I travelled from home was about 10 miles, a bike ride into the centre of town. I also nipped up to Walthamstow to reacquaint myself with that site but shortly after I did so they banned bird watching. This is patently ridiculous but I'd rather not get into trouble or have arguments. Therefore tropical feeder cams aside my entire birding life has centered around Wanstead and this has been both extremely dull and very pleasing. Extremely dull because I thrive on variety and that has been strikingly absent. Pleasing because against all the odds my pathetic yearlist which is basically 95% the same year on year with only the order varying has, well, seen the order vary. 

85. Yes, 85. Count 'em and weep. That's not only my best ever total by the end of winter, but also one better than my best ever total by the end of March. The magic bird was a Cetti's Warbler in the Old Sewage Works. This is only my fifth ever record here, and it was only as recently as 2016 that the species even appeared on the patch with any regularity. Having bracketed us for years, happily they seem now to have found us, and whilst I would not go as far as to say that they are here to stay the bank of the Roding does seem to be to their liking. I'm quietly hopeful that this is just the beginning. My 85 was of course boosted by the cold snap - Lapwing is not annual and Golden Plover is positively rare, but both fell during the month which also saw Snipe and Woodcock, and memorably my second ever Kittiwake. With the long-staying Med Gull, Goosander and White-fronted Goose all making it into the start of the New Year I think all the patch workers are probably in much the same position as I am in terms of bumper starts.

85 is of course quite meagre in the grand scheme of things. I knew I would not be travelling abroad of course and had instead made some grand plans for winter birding in the UK which I recently [re]discovered could be fantastic. None of these planned excursions happened and if they have not gone already the birds will soon be heading off - they know nothing of lockdown. Incidentally it appears that some birders also know nothing of lockdown. I'm deliberately not participating in online witch hunts, nothing good can come of them, but even without doing so I can't help but hear of people breaking the rules, continuing to bird as and where they like. Given how miserable the last two months have been for so many of us it is maddening but what can you do?

Anyhow on Saturday whilst gleefully getting an earful of Cetti's song I also heard the first Chiffchaff singing. I'd heard hweeting a few days earlier but the warm sunshine had clearly encouraged the bird to go the extra mile. It was a happy reminder that the long winter is behind us, and now - in March - I am most definitely looking forward. And of course what I am most looking forward to, whatever number it may be, is this:

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Yes, exactly as I remember it

With reports of people around the country firing up their microphones once again I thought I would do the same. The real diehards never stopped of course, and for a while Twitter was full of people comparing how their recording gear had fared in sub-zero temperatures. "Well my H2XYZ4nPRO1 sailed through -20C last night and recorded a flyover juvenile Whooper Swan at 02:57am." and so on. I am not so wedded to freezing balconies at night and sailed through the recent beast from the east mk2 tucked up in bed. Who knows what I missed?

On the strength of last night, nothing. Ah Nocmig, how I have missed you. I very carefully set everything up at about 9pm last night, nice and steady, step by step. And then I tested it just to make sure. No comedy of errors here, no siree. By the time I woke up this morning I had forgotten I had put in out and so trod on the MP3 player as I swung my legs out of bed. I have no idea how it will cope with sub-zero temperatures, but I do now know that it can bear a fair bit of weight and has enough little indentations to rival many pieces of Lego.

Nervously I inserted the SD card into the computer to see if it had survived. Happily it had and I was able to download 8 hours of white hiss interspersed with Foxes yowling, engines revving and various sirens. Yes, this is what is all about, exactly as I remembered it. There was one definitive and close Coot about two hours in, a solitary Redwing seep shortly after than, and the occasional honking of Canada Goose drifted over from the nearby pond. Other than that a solid nothing. Excellent, glad I bothered. That said it is likely the only type of birding I am going to be able to manage this week - work life balance continues to be rather challenging.

In other news the Government just confirmed that I will get to spend my second consecutive birthday in lockdown which is obviously just fabulous. Unfortunately this means that I have had to scrap my nascent plan of flying all my friends out to a palm-fringed private tropical island for a week. Sorry about that, I just felt that the press coverage might have bordered on the negative. Instead I'm scaling it down, staying local. A party in Exmouth shouldn't be a problem should it?

Sunday, 21 February 2021

A Tourist in London

Mrs L and I went for a bike ride yesterday. Not just any bike ride mind you. From our humble estate on the east side of London we pedaled all the way to the middle. All the way down the Mile End Road to the City and St Paul's, onwards to Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street and China Town. A detour to Marylebone to buy some cheese to recover any lost calories, and then along to Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, St James' Park for some exotic ducks and a Pelican, and then down to Parliament and along the Embankment to Temple. A long slog back down the Mile End Road, and then through the Olympic Park and home. 24 miles all told, I feel extremely virtuous. The Langres should see to that.

Leaving early we didn't see many people on the way, just a few deliveroo guys on electric bikes, however there was much lycra on the way back as the middle-aged converts were out in force, steaming along the cycle superhighway in gangs. Earlier on though places like Covent Garden were empty apart from a ballet dancer making a TikTok, Trafalgar Square had a man with a
Harris Hawk, Leicester Square I don't think had anybody at all and how often can you say that? It was eerily quiet, I guess the novelty of London has worn off even for the residents, and so we had much of it to ourselves. As the morning wore on a few hardy tourists appeared, Buckingham Palace still pulls in the selfie takers even during a pandemic.

Surprisingly I felt quite sprightly this morning. I have been plagued with back ache for several weeks now and had been worried that a bike ride might finish me off. It appears to have had the opposite effect, and I was up and into Wanstead Park pretty early. For little success it must be said, in six miles the only new bird for the year was a solitary Chiffchaff. One by one they fall, and slowly I am increasing my lead over all previous iterations of Febraury. Two
 more species and I will be ahead of March...

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Frozen birds

Good grief it was cold this morning. But having been cooped up indoors all week there was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me by, and so well wrapped up and with a flask of coffee out I went. Most of the Wanstead crew had the same cravings and as a loose gaggle we scanned the horizons for diplaced waders for most of the morning. It was moderately successful, with over 300 Lapwing for our troubles, and for Rob and I who were just slightly ahead of the crowd (er, I mean, a socially-distanced collective....) a single Golden Plover

I do pity the birds in this weather. Some of the geese had ice hanging off their feathers (one later had to be rescued), and a female Gadwall had a covering of ice over her beak. I think it was just a casing as she seemed to be dabbling successfully, but nonetheless, how cold does it have to be for ice to form on a bird's beak?

The exceedingly tame Shelduck was also still around. Opinions vary on whether or not it is kosher, but I reckon it is just the very cold weather that is inhibiting normal behaviour. I am also able to walk right up to Gadwall and Shoveler, which never normally happens. Apparently it warms up considerably tomorrow, and not before time. The birding has been great but the longer it goes on for the more problematic it becomes for many species. No doubt there are already many casualties, I've seen plenty of coastal birders reporting carcasses on the tideline for instance. 

Here are a few photos from first thing and before I started my Lapwing vigil.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

More freezing deliveries

I failed to mention it yesterday but being locked down at home combined with a big continental freezeout has meant my Wanstead year list has got off to an absolute flyer. I had to look back as far as 2012 to find a year that was even close, 78 by the 11th February. I reached 78 yesterday with that Kittiwake, so there were only two days in it, but I've managed to stay ahead of the curve by adding a 79th today which extends my horizon to the 24th.

This was a pair of Snipe flying down my road like Pigeons. Even during this cold snap 99 out of every 100 distant birds I put my bins up to seem to be Pigeons so this was actually quite a surprise. My desk is underneath a big velux window and because peripheral vision is so sensitive even if I am looking at my screens I will tend to notice anything that passes across it. I don't always leap up to have a look but I did on this occasion and was very pleased I did - only the fifth record for the house list and whilst easily annual it is not a bird I see frequently here and last year it took me until the 20th September to get it on the list.

Of course that is the truth of it. No matter what you see when, when you chart it on a graph the lines all trend to more or less the same place further on in the year at some point, and by the end of April any variance is much reduced. I am what is known as 'ahead of the curve' at the moment, but eventually I'll simply run out of new birds. Nonetheless this can definitely be considered a fine start

Other birds today included 114 Lapwing heading generally west, and a handful of Redwing. And I didn't go outside once, so work notwithstanding I remain hopeful of Golden Plover! That would be a full-on house tick, and this cold represents my best chance ever.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Freezing deliveries

The big freeze has also been the big impetus. Brightly coloured Tanagers being beamed to me from half way around the world have been replaced by the big and now white expanse known as Wanstead Flats. As with all weather events of this extended easterly nature lots of birds have been displaced, and local patch workers everywhere are eagerly seeking them out. This includes me.

It is properly cold outside. On Monday I don't think the temperature even reached zero, the perfect conditions you might think for staying indoors and watching webcams. The happy news for my health is that this weather has had precisely the opposite effect and I have been forced from lethargy and out onto the patch in search interesting birds. 

As ever the Lapwings were the first movers, and yesterday there were over 500 seen across the patch. As I was working I wasn't a big contributor but I did manage to add around 60 from home over the course of the day. The big news yesterday was the discovery of a Shelduck on a local pond, and which saw me scurrying out on a quick tick and run mission. These are more or less annual here, but only ever as very early morning flyovers so it was quite exciting to see one on the deck. As well as to be able to bask in the knowledge that future lie ins are now assured. The bird was unfortunately rather friendly, but at the end of the day it is only a Shelduck rather than anything really scarce, so we are putting it down to it being cold, hungry, and being unduly influenced by the poor behaviour of local Mallards.

Today was even better. Early morning a small flock of Wigeon were discovered on Alex, and whilst these too are annual it is always good to get them out of the way. Plus of course I wanted to be out, out under a wide horizon for that moment when a Golden Plover (or better) tracked across my segment of sky. That didn't happen, in fact as far as I know there were no displaced waders at all today, but on the way back home I jammed a 2W Yellow-legged Gull. I was expecting it to be the same bird that had been present at the weekend but photographic analysis shows it to be a new one. It didn't end there though, as at the perfect time of day for me a 1W Kittiwake was found on Alex and off I trotted for the second time. I had been scanning all the small Gulls in the hope of exactly this, so even though I hadn't found it there was a certain amount of vindication. This is a truly rare bird in a local context and is only the second Kittiwake I've seen here after a glorious adult in spring 2013. For many of the newer local birders it was a patch tick, so quite a few people moved quite quickly. We're not quite sure what Richard has been eating lately, but after the Shelduck and now this we are all very interested in his movements tomorrow. I've already suggest he comes and stands in my garden as he would undoubtedly attract something rare.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

Tanager tonic

Tanagers. Anyone who has travelled to South or Central America on any kind of birding trip cannot fail to have seen members of this engaging and above all very bright family. When I went to Costa Rica a few years back they were a constant feature on hotel and lodge feeders. Rather than have a well-earned siesta in the hottest hours of the day I was instead to be found watching Tanagers. Obviously that it is a distant memory, and likely to stay that way for a while yet, but thanks to the magic of the internet real live Tanagers are still possible. And they're good for you. The nobler among you may dismiss the concept of webcam birding as a weak substitute for the real thing. That's fine, you go and enjoy your Dunnocks and get a good soaking. Me, I'm warm indoors and watching the most magical birds. 

Of course I only have half an eye on them - probably less than that - as I'm actually working, a prisoner of a punishing first quarter schedule that even if there were no pandemic would see me chained up in front of various screens with little to no ability to go outside in daylight hours. But if I get a few minutes between meetings then I fire up a feeder cam for a while and sink into the tropics. My current go-tos are as follows:

Septima Paraiso - Ecuador

Canopy Lodge - Panama

At the moment the Ecuador seems to have the edge in terms of visitors, and in a short time I've racked up more species here than Panama, a succession of sublime species. Tanagers, Hummingbirds, Saltators, Euphonias, Motmots and Barbets. And of course you also get the sound to round out the experience - trills, chirps, insects, waving foliage. It's glorious. I've been using background sounds as escapism for a while now, ie "Alexa play rainforest sounds", this is just a notch up I suppose. In a world where you can't travel (or won't travel) this is a real boon, and even though it sounds lame this form of escapism has been extremely useful - calming, stress-relieving and just very pleasant. A rushed watch-checking tramp around a sodden Wanstead, overrun with people trying to avoid each other (or not....), or being whisked away to the tropics? Right now I am a proponent of the latter. This won't always be the case but right now I am finding it invaluable.  

All photos in this post with the exception of the Squirrel screen grab were taken in 2018 on a trip to Costa Rica

There are downsides of course, such as when you fire it up and for the brief five minutes you have all you see is a Squirrel stuffing its face and no birds whatsoever. Squirrels and bird feeders, it is the same the world over. Or the Tayra that came to visit and ate everything in sight, including drinking a fair amount of the sugar water in the Hummingbird feeder. And at night (ie during our morning) bats and nocturnal mammals visit as well. If you can stoop so low I urge you to give it a go, just for a couple of minutes. You'll see.