Sunday, 22 March 2015

Wheatear Question

Question: How many Wheatear photos is too many Wheatear photos?
Answer: Nobody has any idea as we have never yet got to that point.

It was still there this morning and so this selection is specially for the Kent boys, who quite frankly need to up their game in the images of spring Wheatear stakes. They must have had loads, whereas we in Wanstead have had just one. We are however smashing it to bits on a daily basis. Hours have been devoted - we want that trophy from Steve G, and whilst not wishing to declare the contest over just yet, we feel we have a very strong chance indeed. Also, I have two blogs, and I'm putting them on the other one too.










Saturday, 21 March 2015

The post we've all been waiting for...

Specifically this post here, and look what it has on it! I've been missing these guys for the last few months, and indeed missed them earlier this week when work got in the way of birding. This morning however I had the time, and who should I bump into but this little chap. Yes, the Wheatears are back. I've been eagerly following news from Portland and other coastal hotspots, and the initial trickle started a couple of weeks ago, but with no big build up as yet. Various London sites had singles, and Wanstead's turn came about mid-week. Not sure if this is the same bird or not, but on a cold March day it warmed the soul.








Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Priorities and how to get them completely wrong

As a nation we are failing to get our priorities right. This is a bold statement, but one that is very easily proven by the use of two very straightforward examples. One is national news, the other is not. In fact the very fact that the first is national news is yet more proof that the country we live in is immensely screwed up. It is that Jeremy Clarkson, the boorish host from Top Gear (if you do not know of it, it is a TV program about cars featuring three grown men doing mostly stupid things, and that appeals to people with the mental capacity of eleven year olds. And actual eleven year olds), has been suspended from the BBC for an altercation with a producer, and that the remainder of the current series has been scrapped. If you will pardon me for saying so, this is not news, or at least, not headline news, even though I did proclaim that there is not enough good news around just the other day. More telling is that fact that a petition for his reinstatement was immediately started and at the time of writing has garnered over 520,000 signatures. By contrast, Mark Avery’s petition to ban driven Grouse shooting has 21,212 signatures. As is stands, this means that nearly 25 times as many people would prefer that Clarkson, an outspoken, loutish and frankly rude-in-a-mildly-amusing-manner TV presenter, comes back to the show, than would like to see Hen Harriers quartering elegantly over English moorland from where they have been relentlessly eradicated by generations of criminal gamekeepers and their employers. How can this be even be possible?

Unfortunately Hen Harriers are not obnoxious and do not frequently antagonize and insult other countries and cultures. If they did they'd be a lot more popular and we might be able to preserve them.
Hen Harriers are awesome creatures, majestic. When you see one, as I have been lucky enough to on many occasions, though admittedly not in England in the summer, your spirit is lifted. Especially if it’s a male, slender with silvery wings tipped with black, gliding effortlessly along hedgerows and ridges. This experience is now really only available in winter, or in Scotland. I’ve said it before, but it is a complete travesty that so many areas of eminently suitable habitat are so sterile and lacking Hen Harriers. We all know why that is, but in case anyone isn’t clear, it’s because of money. Grouse Shooting is big business, and Hen Harriers might reduce the numbers of Grouse available to be shot, and thus the amount of money that can be earned. I know it sounds perverse, but that’s the way it is – people will actually kill one bird in order to protect another bird so that it can be killed later. And so for years gamekeepers, almost certainly with the full knowledge of the landowners, have quietly knobbled almost every single Hen Harrier nest in the entire country, along with many other birds of prey. Some no doubt fail for other reasons, weather, predation, sheer bad luck perhaps, but most are at the hand of man. The stats are incredible, hundreds of suitable territories, single figures of birds, four breeding pairs. It’s not right and it shouldn’t happen, but it does, and there is a massive lack of political willpower to do anything about it. There are reasons for that too, and they mainly have to do with cronyism and that the current set of politicians holding the reins of our dear country quite enjoy field sports, and in some cases own the land it happens on. Various people in conversation are doing a brilliant job to raise awareness, Hen Harrier Day for instance was a great success, but this morning the BBC have devoted more time to this Clarkson business than they ever gave to that Norfolk keeper clubbing a Goshawk. The coverage on my office TVs can only be described as blanket. And you can see why that is – only twenty thousand have signed the petition to ban driven Grouse Shooting, and half a million want Jeremy back on TV. As a media organization you pander to the masses, I can see that, but it is pathetic that more people care about what and who is on TV than care about wildlife. Though frankly if he was given his job back thus ending this hysterical coverage and limiting him to an hour a week, I might sign it too.


Which brings me to my next point, and one I care about possibly more than Hen Harriers – my local area. Wanstead Park is on the "At Risk" register. I assume this means it is at risk of having any value for wildlife completely eradicated, as there is now a management plan for it. The Corporation of London is working with a number of civil and citizen organisations to identify and prioritise opportunities for capital investment and potential changes in management. Now that would be all well and good if any of the plans were focused on wildlife and birds. They're not. They're focused on restoring 17th century landscapes and welcoming local people and visitors from further afield. Call me a thuggish boor, but I don't want local people and visitors. Local people are the problem, or some of them are. Those that let their dogs run out of control and shit everywhere. Those that dump tons of rotting bread on the sides of the lakes. Those that fish illegally. Those that sleep there and cause the management to cut back vegetation to prevent them doing so. I could go on. Instead let's look at a few of the various things on the table.

1D. Create a visitor hub. Includes a cafe. Great, might put the Little Tea-Shop of Happiness out of business and attract more people. FAIL

1E. Conserve the Grotto. The grotto is a stupid Victorian heap of rubble with no practical value whatsover. A folly for good reason, a complete waste of valuable money. Dynamite it I say. FAIL

1F. Reveal vista along Long Walk. Need I say more. The minute you say reveal what you actually mean is chop stuff down. This may mean restoring the various aspects that the original landowner could see from his enormous pile, but please, the house was sold brick by brick to pay his gambling debts. Not a single morsel stands, what will sweeping views achieve exactly other than less habitat? It's a bit like the Friends of Wanstead Parklands chopping down a lovely little copse that could have held nesting birds in order to reveal a few Bluebells. WILDLIFE FAIL

1G. Open up other views. See above. WILDLIFE FAIL

1H. Reveal Mansion site; selectively clear vegetation to open up views. See above, are you sensing a pattern? WILDLIFE FAIL

1J. Reveal the Fortifications. Selectively clear.......WILDLIFE FAIL

1K. Improve paths and access. Yup more people. More dogs. More litter. More noise. Did somebody say fewer birds? FAIL

1I. Reveal North Mount (Warren Wood) and South Mount (Chalet Wood). Reveal in the sense of chopping down parts of Warren Wood and Chalet Wood I suspect. Has the benefit of being able to carry out archaeological investigation. If you were thinking that this is all some kind of egotistical project from a bunch of history buffs, you might very well be right. WILDLIFE FAIL.

1L Improve all main entrances. Clear vegetation to, you guessed it, open up views. FFS. Sorry, I meant FAIL.

1Q Improve the integrity and appearance of the historic water bodies. Selectively clear vegetation to open up views. Views. We don't want bloody views, views are sterile. We want wildlife. FAIL

1R. Reveal islands in Perch Pond. Selectively clear.............AAAAARGHHHHH!!!!

1S. Management of the Plain. Selective removal of encroaching trees and scrub. SEE ABOVE.

1U. Improve links with the River Roding; selectively clear vegetation to open up views. FUCK OFF!!

As far as I can see there is one decent wildlife-friendly proposal, which is 1C. Restore Heronry Pond. Re-line pond to stop water leaks; restore channels and islands on southern edge and introduce new wetland and marginal habitats along edges of ponds and islands. SUCCESS.

Those are just some of the immediate priority ideas. There is a whole long list of longer-term priority items, 13 to be precise. Eight of them involve the words "selectively" or "clear", or in one case a more overt "push back woodland edge". And there are a further eight plans labelled as possible aspirations. Of these, four involve restoring views, and one is extending a car park all the way down to the norther edge of Heronry!! So there you have it, the future of Wanstead Park, sponsored by Stihl. Other makes of chainsaw are available. I don't know who's genius idea this is, but they're clearly obsessed with returning to the 1800s. Probably some decrepit history nut who remembers it 'back in the day' and whose grandmother once worked as a scullery maid in 'the big house'. Wanstead in 2015 is not about returning to the time of Jane Austen, admiring sweeping vistas that a long-gone palace had, it's about saving what little decent habitat is left. The priorities of this plan are massively wrong, and combined with the slash and burn tactics on the Flats, are a huge disappointment that we will all come to regret. 



Saturday, 7 March 2015

Spring in Wanstead

The birds have been belting it out all week, in particular a Dunnock that has taken up residence outside our bedroom window. I went out on the Flats for the first time in ages to start the hunt for a certain Chat. There wasn't one, but Dan had picked up a Stonechat which was clearly fresh in, whether from afar or nearby we will never know, but it was most welcome and the best thing to have occurred in Wanstead for several weeks.

A steam train went past Canary Wharf. Bob looked misty-eyed....


Bob, Nick and Tim were there too, and we spent some time talking about the possibilities, and March is definitely the month for possibilities. Sand Martin, LRP, Rook, and of course Wheatear. Stone-Curlew was in March too, and tomorrow is the second anniversary of Curlew Day, a memorable encounter that Dan and I had out near the vizmig point, when two birds that had been feeding on the playing fields suddenly screamed over our heads to add to the dozen or so he had seen earlier. Brilliant stuff! Today didn't feel like that, but spring is in the air and it felt fantastic. The winter, such that it there has been, has been as poor for decent birds as I can remember. The Slavonian Grebe of course cannot be forgotten, but it remains the sole highlight in a season where really we ought to get a lot more. Things are looking up though, and the enjoyment factor is back.


Dan's Stonechat

The Skylarks are still clinging on, one of five birds today. Time will start his surveys soon - they've been declining for years now.



Istanbul



Istanbul is quite some way away from Wanstead, but with very little happening on the bird front this winter, and the Laughing Gull safely on the list, what better than a quick trip away to somewhere I've wanted to explore for a long time. Of course Turkey is so much more varied than Istanbul, and I'd like to venture much further afield, but I am time poor and quite unable to do something like that at the moment. It's a vast country, with incredible diversity of both people and habitat. But for a weekend Istanbul gives at least a flavour, and is very easy to get to. I left work early afternoon on Friday, schlepped over to Heathrow and was hailing a taxi at Ataturk airport by around 10pm in Turkey, a taxi that took me along the Bosphorous and past some amazing mosques. A deep sleep and then the excitement of a new place to see. 

The Blue Mosque. With Panther.




Hagia Sofia

I had chosen to base myself in Sultanahmet, which I guess is what 99% of tourists do. So I found myself looking at the Hagia Sofia by eight in the morning as the city was getting going. It didn't take long to get hassled of course, but I knew it was coming, and they were pleasant about it. The aim of course is to get you to come to their brother's/cousin's/uncle's/friend's shop, there to sell you a hugely overpriced 'Turkish' carpet that has been recently imported from China. I deftly sidestepped all their attentions and spent the morning happily wandering around seeing some incredible architecture. I visited the Blue Mosque which was stunning, if let down by the whiff of a thousand tourist socks an hour, and then the Hagia Sofia a little later which was literally monumental, standing over the centuries as a church and a mosque, and now as a museum. I spent easily a few hours in here admiring the different aspects, as well as people-watching, which was sometimes as interesting as the building itself, particularly this remarkable craze for selfies. Why would you want a photo of you in front of everything? A small panther I can understand.....


From the hip! Possibly the most awesome "selfie candid" I have ever taken.


In the afternoon I hit the Grand Bazaar. The shopkeepers here were of the hard-sell school, but I was having none of it, and plenty of smiles kept me on my way as I trekked through the heaving maze of spice, precious metal, lamps and carpets. It's something I've meant to do in Marrakech as well but have always turned my back on the city and headed to the mountains and the deserts. Next time maybe I'll build in a day. I spent an hour or so in the Bazaar, and emerged with all my possesions intact, and then spend the rest of the day wandering around other areas, including visiting the carpet museum which has some amazing (and not Chinese!) carpets from the centuries. Some are mere fragments now, but the work is incredible. I'm a bit partial to a nice carpet, and it's a great shame that for the most part the places where weaving still happens are not really places that it would be wise to visit at the moment. I'd imagine that Iran would be pretty safe, but it's still low down the list at the moment.





In the evening I went out to a restaurant which offered a Turkish show as you ate, groups of dancers from various parts of the country performing traditional numbers for western dollars, and of course belly dancing. I'd never seen this before, but it really is belly dancing, shaking, shimmering, gyrating, ridiculous muscle control. I've got the belly of course, but none of the skill in controlling it.... 

The next morning I went for a stroll by the shore and looked at Asia. I didn't have the time to cross over, but I enjoyed the harbour a great deal. Like all great cities near water, it becomes central to the way the place works. Just like Hong Kong ferries plied back and forth, tourist sight-seeing boats chugged along, and real ships - tankers and freight carriers - stayed out in the middle taking a direct line to the Black Sea. Sunday morning on Galata Bridge is fishing time, and I spent ages on the bridge watching this social activity take place, seemingly without a fish being caught. It could be that fish are completely secondary, and it's more of a place to go chat, smoke and pass the time - a bit like birding can sometime be. Tea-sellers moved up and down the bridge, paralleled by Sandwich Terns and Gulls over the water.




Right, time for shopping. Having avoided spending a dime the previous day and instead taken notes of where the genuine merchants were I went back to just two shops. In one I bought an old Kilim from Western Anatolia, a small dowry square with spider motifs in blues, reds and whites, and in the other I bought some incredibly fluffy cotton towels and a throw. Job done, I enjoyed a kebab and some tea while watching the world go by, and then went back to the airport. 




Monday, 23 February 2015

Zoo Day

I've not been to the Zoo for ages, animals in cages are not really my bag, but my youngest really wanted to go and see Elephants and so for a special treat that's what we did. I've rarely seen such excitement, it was palpable. And of course my daughter really enjoyed it too. First stop, naturally, was the elephant enclosure, where four of these incredible animals were standing around eating dry sticks, their warm bodies steaming in the cold air. As we watched, one of them did a poo, which was obviously quite a lot of fun. We progressed round the rest of the site, a slow procession of parents and children, and saw loads of interesting animals. Whilst people may disagree with the philosophy, you can't argue with the educational and stimulation aspects. Question after question, most of which I was quite unable to cohesively answer. A highlight was the Polar bears, seeing their fur expand and ripple as they swam was incredible, and the paw of the male was the size of a child's torso. You can see what seals would only need one swat. But it was the otters we kept coming back to, five incredibly cute squeaky little things that seemingly loved visitors. Or wanted food. Or letting out. They followed each other everywhere, running from one viewing area to another and gazing up at people. Asian small-clawed otters, much more diminutive than our native otter, but just as lovely.

Daniel the pygmy elephant enjoys meeting his larger relatives

"miaow"
 
White with black stripes. Definitely.

I think this was the small one....
 
Want


After the delights of the Zoo a quick trip across town to the Aquarium to soak up another animal kingdom, and as with the land-based attraction, fantastically done. Our favourite bits were the rainforest and the tropical reef, this latter being about thirty or forty feet long in a vast shallow arc. Again more questions, and as the denizens of the oceans are easily factors weirder than mammals and birds, and I stood no chance. The variety of things is amazing, and some of the amazonian fish defied reality - the giant Arapaima were sensational in every way. All in all a different and enjoyable day out.




We didn't see any of the rest of Copenhagen at all ;-)



Friday, 20 February 2015

He who laughs last laughs longest!

When the first winter Laughing Gull turned up on the Wirral at the start of February or thereabouts I could not get excited. Despite it being theoretically the most common bird I'd not seen in the UK, I could not muster the enthusiasm. Partly this was to do with being Gulled out following my trip with Mick S and Richard, but also that New Brighton is an eight hour round trip. For a Gull. I knew I ought to go, but it just wasn't happening. Oh, and on the first free day I had I went to Madrid. Seemed to be a long-stayer though, so I thought I might give it a bash on the way up to Scotland at half term. Ten minutes out of the house on Saturday morning and the matrix displays were already showing the M6 as closed, so we went up the east coast and that was that - another reason to hate Gulls. A few of the boys went that same weekend, so I realised I would have to do it on the way back instead, and crossed my fingers that it stayed, which seemed likely as it barely strays three feet from the pontoon on Marine Lake. 

I dropped the family for lunch on the Liverpool side, and then took the Wallesey tunnel over to New Brighton. I have a pretty miserable strike rate on twitching birds whilst on my way back from Fife, having gone out of my way several times and dipped, but this time fortune was on my side and on arrival the Gull was still sitting on the pontoon, as it has done more or less constantly since it was found. It didn't seem to fancy doing a great deal, and even a hastily purchased loaf of bread from a conveniently-placed Iceland (not the Gull) didn't do much for it. A couple of half-arsed sallies and then back onto the pontoon again. Hey ho, a tick is a tick I suppose, and as far as I can recall, there have been very few (possibly zero) Laughing Gulls in the whole of my brief twitching career so it's a good one to finally see. Plenty of other birds around as well, with nine Purple Sandpipers on the pontoon with a load of Redshank, Turnstone and Dunlin

Given my phobia, this is remarkably the 22nd species of Gull I've seen in the UK, with only Slender-billed and Glaucous-winged eluding me. I'm tempted to not even call it a twitch as I was more or less passing anyway.