Saturday 28 February 2009

New Patch Addition

Literally. I have decided to annex the Golf Course. I was conVinced (by Vince) yesterday. He says he adds all sorts of random bits of Dagenham to his Chase recording area, and I can actually see most of the Golf Course from Wanstead Park, so I don't gain a huge amount by adding it. Actually that is a blatant lie, I am just trying to justify it to myself. I in fact gain Nuthatch, which is a patch tick, and the real reason for the annexation, and gets me level with Dave Mo at West Thurrock for 2009. I also gain the Basin, which is a large round lake that looks excellent for a winter visitation of something good (and is not visible from the Park). I've failed miserably to find Great Crested Grebe on any of the ponds in the Park this year, so this gives me more of a chance, and indeed I have been scanning it twice daily as it is on the school run. Needless to say, it has been grebeless since my invasion....

Token Nuthatch photo, taken nowhere near Wanstead

In another pathetic attempt to justify it, I am telling myself that now I have so much more time, I can cover a larger area, and I have of course binned my short-lived Canary Wharf patch - I won't be going back there any time soon, or at least not until another Blyth's Reed turns up. Spent three hours in the Park yesterday, and got Lesser Spot and Teal, both tricky birds here.

"We're only tricky if you're crap"

Today I added Whooper Swan to my Essex list. Yes, thats right, I made a special trip to see birds I have seen hundreds of, just because they were within a different county. There is no excuse for such pitiful behaviour. On the plus side, door to swan to door took less than an hour and a half, so few if any brownie points were sacrificed. In a similar act of extreme coolness, I also made a specific trip to see some Waxwings in Chafford Hundred, which counts for London. Once again, we sat down and talked about posture, light, background and so forth, and then had a excellent photo shoot, after which they retired to their executive aerial.

"How's this?"

Tuesday 24 February 2009

I am monarch of all I survey

My right there is none to dispute

From the centre all round to the sea

I am the lord of the towel and the sleepsuit

Sunday 22 February 2009

West Wittering & Waxwings

I have now year-ticked the West Wittering Red-breasted Goose for the last three years running. My flimsy excuse this time was that Shaun needed it for his life list. I was happy to accompany him on this pilgrimage. By 8am we had found it, and it is fair to say that it showed very well, occasionally barking like a small terrier.

Red-breasted Goose '09

Red-breasted Goose '08

We were hoping that the King Eider off Dunge might make an appearance, but no news, so we decided to go home early and cash in the day-passes for some brownie points. Could not resist some Waxwings on the route home - and they provided some stunning photo opportunities. I took 172 shots in 20 minutes, some of which I am pretty pleased with. Most birds don't give you time to plan or think, you just have to react. With the two Waxwings at Goring-by-Sea, I was able to sit down with them and discuss the light, which branches would be best, and how to pose with berries. I have now deleted all previous photos of Waxwings I have ever taken, as they just don't make the new grade.

"Is this OK? How about if I incline my head this way?"

Back home via the birdless Ingrebourne Valley, where Shaun would have me believe that Yellowhammer is regular. From what I saw, birds (of any species) might be annual, just not this year. Probably a good thing, as it means there is no point Shaun going birding and he can instead devote his time to keeping his house clean. Honestly, it was amazing (particularly compared to Ch. Lethbridge), like a show home. I think he was embarrassed about the towel drying on the radiator, but I was polite enough not to say anything, and he surreptitiously folded it away while I was running my finger along the windowsill checking for dust. I had a nice cup of tea, and sullied the kitchen by leaving the dirty mug in the sink. Still, means he had something to do before the girls came back from shopping.

Despite my surprise arrival back into the family fray by about 3pm, whereas I had not been expected until 7 at the earliest, I am apparently still on negative brownie points for the year. I have no idea how the calculation works, but the general idea is that you lose points by going out birding. I don't know how you gain them, or at least gain enough of them, to ever get to positive territory. I cleaned 2/3 of the length of one of the kitchen counters, including spraying with stuff, hoping that would get me back on level pegging. No dice.

Friday 20 February 2009

Birding is much easier without a job

I have always known it, but never been able to put it into practice. In a nutshell it is this: Work really gets in the way of birding. Imagine being really rich, you could just be out all the time. Obviously this is just a temporary state of affairs in the Lethbridge household, but boy is it great, and I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.

Yesterday I went to Norfolk. Again. For those of you counting, that is twice this week. Yes, thats right, in the week. Ahhhhh. Started off at Wolferton at dawn, and surprised myself by getting Golden Pheasant at the first real attempt, with two immature males feeding on the grass verge. I was hoping for the full red and yellow monty, but a tick is a tick. The birds soon disappeared into the impenetrable Rhododendron thickets, but I managed to fire off a few frames out of the car window, the best of which is below. So, it's a cruddy photo, but 7am in mid-feb, even with 800 ISO selected, I could only get to 1/30s, so to get anything that even resembles a pheasant is a minor miracle. That is photographic speak for "it was dark and I couldn't hold the camera steady". A celebratory cup of tea later, and I was on my way, via a few Grey Partridges in some nearby fields.

Golden Tick

Next stop Titchwell - critical to visit this reserve before it opens. It was a lovely morning and I practically had the place to myself. I went through the Brent flock and again surprised myself by finding the Black Brant, a semi-tick. Somewhat stupidly I had not read up on nigricans before heading out, but in the event armed only with the knowlege that the back was a bit darker I still managed to pick it. As I was comparing it to the other birds, gradually little details slipped out, like the clean white flanks, the thicker neck collar. This was clearly a different bird - I reckoned I had scored. At the time I didn't know this for certain though, so when someone else came along, equally clueless about Black Brant, I lost all my confidence and so passed up an opportunity to look clever. But I did take notes, and later on the beach when I met a man, his wife and his Collins - a polygamous relationship - I was able to check it out. To thank him I found him some Snow Buntings feeding close by with Linnet on the tideline, which he then proceeded to turn into Twite, despite the large grey beakage. I've fallen foul of this before, desperately hunting for Twite and finding only Linnet, so I shouldn't sneer really. Nonetheless, I knew it was time to leave. Sure enough, as I headed back down the footback, tweed jacket after tweed jacket came past, getting excited about Marsh Harriers, and struggling with Spotshanks. Cor look at me, having a go at posh west Norfolk bird watchers! My postcode starts with E, I am unemployed, and I have not shaved since last Wednesday - this gives me full licence I think you'll find.

Titchwell has so many posh people that there are Robins who will valet your car whilst you go birding

The pager then bleeped that the Glauc was still at Cley beach. There was a good reason for this - it has a broken wing so can't leave. When I first arrived I had a quick scan with bins but couldn't see it. Nothing on the beach, and nothing on the water. There was a white buoy close inshore, but no gulls. Damn it! I had tried for this bird last weekend after Bradders' wedding and failed. I then noticed a guy scoping the buoy, bit odd, perhaps there was something sat on it? I set up and had a look as well....what can I say... Glauc's are MASSIVE - possible confusion species is Yacht. It was pecking away at a dead floaty thing, mmmmmm. After a while it flew onto the beach, despite a serious looking wing injury, and sat about 50 yards away from me. I bum-shuffled to within about 20 yards, and took a series of about 200 photographs, which were very boring to edit. Here is the most interesting one.

Glaucous Gull - eats seal pups whole

Towards the end of the day I found some real Twite at Brancaster Staithe, flying about the salt marsh. At one stage they came and landed on the mud right in front of me, which was quite handy for eliminating Linnet properly.

So, another busy day at the office....what shall I do tomorrow? I know, I'll go birding.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Goodbye Rat Race

Well, the so-called Credit Crunch has claimed yet another victim. Me, on Thursday. Oh, what a shame. Not really. Most people seem to be more sorry for me than I am. Nobody likes getting made redundant, and I have to say it was difficult sitting opposite my boss, and then having to listen to the HR spiel, and then going back to my desk afterwards to pack up, say goodbye. But when I found myself on the pavement, bins in my pocket, at about 11.30 on a fine February morning, and with the next three months fully funded, I felt much better. No more uncertainty, I can actually plan for the future. In fact, bar the one obvious negative, I can only think of positives. Here are a few of them:

1) No more bullshit at work.
2) See above - there was a lot.
3) More time with the kids
4) More time for birding.
5) Even more time for birding
6) I don't have to go on the Central Line ever again
7) Healthy living is once again a possibility
8) Dramatically reduced stress levels
9) The garden will get sorted out
10) More photography
11) Summer days with the conservatory vents open and chilled beer
12) I don't have to tell people I'm a banker

Anyway, I went home, had a nice lunch with Mrs L, and went birding in Wanstead. The following day, Friday, I went birding in Wanstead. What a terrific change of lifestyle! It won't last of course. My new career is in Childcare. Clearly finance is not the place to be for the next few years, if only because of the associated stigma. So the plan is that I will be a stay-at-home dad. For the last ten years I have been working about 50 hours a week, consequently I didn't really see the kids during the week (or at weekends once I discovered birding...). So now I get that chance, as we have pulled the kids out of nursery to aid the cashflow. I will also be responsible for housekeeping, cooking, and something called "shopping". This latter activity is a bit of mystery, as I discovered today. I went "shopping", and bought a 10kg sack of rice, and some shampoo. Mrs L then came home and enquired what was for dinner. Err... Anyway, it turns out that food does not just appear in the fridge, you have to go and buy it. So my attempt at shopping earlier today apparently goes down as a failure, even though millions of people the world over eat rice 7 days a week. Mrs L cooked Macaroni Cheese whilst I bathed the children, as we had plenty of water.

Another task I need to get to grips with is washing. I am told that you can't just sort it out by colour, which would be my natural inclination, you in fact have to sort it by fabric type and colour. This means that each load consists of approximately 3 garments. Ridiculously inefficient. Not helped by Mrs L being somewhat of a keen knitter, which means that 50% (and rising fast) of all the kids clothes are made of wool. And wool is not wool is not wool, if you see what I mean. It is far more complex than that. You get wool blends, and balls of wool which are multicoloured, so you can get a small baby's sock that is only 15cm long, yet which contains 21.324% merino, 24.19% alpaca, 27.5% cashmere, 10% nylon, 2.52% silkworm, the rest unknown, and in addition has 18 different colours in 53 different shades. And I am supposed to know that I therefore have to wash it on program "Q" or it will turn into a thimble and I will get served with divorce papers. And kids clothes also only last for about 2 hours, or until the next meal, whichever is sooner, so you can totally empty the washing basket (about 25 small yet subtly different loads), only to come back later that day and find it overflowing again.

But none of this has started in earnest yet. The 2 youngest are still in nursery, the eldest is with Grandma for half-term (planned when I was gainfully employed), so that means this week is the calm before the storm. Which means I am off birding, hurrah!

"What load would you wash me on?"

So on Monday I went to Norfolk for the day and had a marvellous time. I started off in Lynford with 3 Hawfinch, some Siskin, which took me to 160 for the year. Next stop Strumpshaw Fen - my Penduline cup truly overfloweth this year - another 2 birds feeding on Reedmace. Got excellent views, even helped a blind lady get a tick. Set up the scope, got the birds slap bang in the centre, invited her to look. "I can't see anything, are you sure its there?". Hmm, the bird has probably moved, let's have a look. Nope, still there, right in the middle. "No, it isn't there". Quick look, yes it is. "I still can't see anything". Quick check, yep still there, it might actually be having a nap on the reedmace. Anyway, repeat this for close on 5 minutes, and remarkably the Penduline stays on the same reed for the entire time. Finally, on about the 6 minute mark...."Oh, I can see it, I can see it! I don't know why I couldn't see it before!" "Because you're registered blind?" "It's almost exactly the same as the reeds!" "Well, apart from the brown back, grey head, black mask, and being bird-shaped, yes I agree, basically the same". Perhaps I am being unfair, they are quite difficult to pick out in the reeds, but generally not when someone has lined up a really rather good scope at 30x with the bird right in the middle.

Goose, washed on the wrong load - just look what can happen.

Two miles down the road and I am on a mission to take a photograph. If I am honest, this is all just a cruel prank. Yes it's a year-tick, yes it's a good bird, yes it's a challenge to find the bugger, but really, it's all about an email I am hoping to send to Paul later on in the evening. Tee hee!

Duck sp.

Ended the day at Stubb Mill roost, Hickling, where I counted about 15 Marsh Harriers, and 19 Cranes came in to roost in the enveloping darkness. I drove straight home, sniggering all the way, and sent my email. I am so juvenile.

Goodbye Rat Race. I won't miss it.

Monday 9 February 2009

Other halves compare notes, and some dancing occurs

Oh dear I

I use dancing in the loosest possible sense of the the word, especially where I personally am concerned, but fortunately as the managing editor of this publication, there are no photos of me, so it didn't happen. Monkey on the other hand shed twenty years after two beers and a glass of fizz, and took the dance floor by storm. In an interesting parallel with current weather patterns, no one could have predicted the carnage that would occur, and in retrospect, we were woefully unprepared for what would happen. Gritting would not have helped - a mini-hurricane raged for the next two hours - no 80s hit was safe - and by the time it was all over several us had been sucked up in the maelstrom, whirled around, and deposited on the side of the dancefloor, exhausted. Splendid entertainment, especially for his children, for whom this may have been a bit of an eye-opener.

Fine cheesecake

Taking a step back, we were attending a wedding reception near Sheringham, and many of the East London contingent were up. Using medieval naming convention for a moment, David the Obsessed* married Suzanne the Tolerant at the weekend, thus providing us all with an excellent excuse to a) go to Norfolk, and b) have a right knees up at his expense. Winner. It was a blazing success, the newly-weds looked fantastic, and a top night was had by all.

The happy couple and providers of fine cheesecake

However, danger lingered on the horizon at all times. This was the first time that Mrs L was meeting the reprobates I go birding with, and even more potentially problematic, their significant other halves were also present, thus allowing comparisons on excessive birding to be drawn. I don't yet know whether this was used purely as an information-gathering exercise ("He never!"), a sorrowful yet accepting mutual-sympathy session, accompanied by mild head-shaking and tutting ("Yeah, 'fraid so, mine does that too, its perfectly normal, you'll get used to it..."), or whether in fact some fully-fledged anti-twitching legislation will soon be enacted in the Lethbridge household. ("Cornwall? This weekend? I take it you're joking?"). It could go either way really.

I had not met any of these long-suffering veterans of birding relationships, but knowing the guys I correctly assumed that they would all be lovely and very VERY tolerant. And alert! Dave Mo and I were chatting about cameras for birding, and he, not thinking, mentioned his future upgrade strategy within earshot of Christine. Picked him up on it straight away, very impressive. Similarly, it turned out that Monkey hadn't really mentioned Scilly '09 to someone important, but she knows now.......

Dave Mo rueing his rookie error

Jack proof-reads Howard's speech

Of course, what none of them realised was that the whole weekend was merely a ruse to do a bit of birding in Norfolk, and very nice it was too. Highlights for me were a showy Little Owl at Felbrigg Hall, some very close Treecreepers at Lynford, and no children. Yep, thats right, Mrs L & I went birding together, just the two of us. I was careful to tone it down such that it wasn't a mad dash from pager message to pager message, but rather some proper decent birding in some beautiful spots. She still got 5 ticks though (for her UK list that I keep and that she has absolutely no interest in whatsover), so she was pretty pleased as you can imagine.


We took in the Great Grey Shrike at Lakenheath on the way back. Zoe (that's Mrs L) also came to realise why I am always late home from birding expeditions. I did not know this, but apparently she always adds at least an hour to whatever time I say. And that was *before* she had met the birding WAGs this weekend. My planned trip home (the details of which I shared with her as we left the coast at 3ish) encompassed Lynford Arboretum for another crack at Hawfinch, a cruise around farmland near Great Cressingham for Grey Partridge, a quick stop-off for the Great Grey Shrike, and then home for 6pm. Perfectly reasonable I thought. In the event she ruled we had no time for at least two of the three, and that I had to choose just one. Hence we only did the Shrike, and yet still arrived home at about 6pm??? How strange, something odd must have happened to the very fabric of time itself. Alternatively perhaps she was so bowled-over by the stonking close-up views of the Shrike that we spent all the time there without realising it? I have to say I don't remember her clinging on to the scope for dear life, begging for more time. My recollection is that it was more along the lines of "Right I've seen it, can we go now?"

Crippling views of a Shrike yet again

Anyway, lucky Suzanne and even luckier David are off for a weeks birding / bird photography in the Gambia, whilst the UK continues to languish in cold damp misery. Despite my meagre list, there has not really been a tick on offer since the Snowy Owl (the Emperor Penguin is still pending acceptance). Hawky has been tempted by several Green-winged Teals, but so far is resisting the urge. Roll on the Spring.

Oh dear II

H interviews unsuccessfully for Jackanory

* "Bobolink in the grass!"

Wednesday 4 February 2009

God it's cold. Do good gloves for birding actually exist?

At the last count I had five pairs of gloves. A recent pair, eXtremeties Mountain Guide Gloves, are 50% leather (at the front), 50% Goretex wind-stopper (at the back), and 100% useless. Another £30 down the drain. Even with some thin North Face ones on underneath, kind of like glove underwear, my fingers still go numb. If it isn't super cold, but still cold enough to wear gloves, they get all sweaty insde. Prior to these I had some North Face wind-stopper ones that were warmish, but had sponge-like properties undesireable in a glove. The latest attempt at finger happiness is a £5 desparation Ebay purchase of a Jack Pyke "thinsulate" fingerless glove/mitten combo thing. The mitten pull-over fastens back with velcro when you want finger exposure, and slips over when you don't need your fingers anymore. Sounds good, hell, I was sucked in, but they are in fact dreadful. What I didn't realise is that your thumb-tip is never covered. Also the patch of velcro is miniscule and getting all furry already, so the mitten bit will no doubt be flopping all over the place pretty soon. So here is a question, why can't somebody invent the perfect glove for birders that is light, unrestrictive, waterproof, warm even in cold weather but has wicking abilities in slighly less cold weather? Am I asking too much? Suggestions welcome (from my thousands of readers....).

Here are some photos taken with gloves. The eXtremeties ones. Without the under-gloves I can just about operate the camera. Any poor exposures should be blamed on the glove manufacturer, rather than the camera operator.

This blackbird was so desperate for food on Monday that it hopped in my footprints where I had disturbed the snow. Here it is on my fence. I attempted to go to work on Monday, but obviously London is so unbelievably crass and pathetic in the face of anything other than light drizzle that it was never going to happen. Instead I worked from home, hem hem, filled up the feeders, and spent 8 hours getting this frankly pretty dull photo.

In the Park, seven Meadow Pipits were a-feeding. No partridges were located but it did feel pretty Christmassy. Skivers were out en-masse, somewhat of a carnival atmosphere actually, TfL be damned.

Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats was approximately 85% frozen. Bird photography is much easier when the subjects are confined to puddle-sized stretches of water very close to the shore. Even with gloves on.

Amazingly, the pair of Red-crested Pochard that arrived on January the 9th are still here. Obviously still very wary, and only coming to Paella.

There should be more birds designed like this, they are superb. This one was feeding actively around the icy margins, and rarely had its beak out of the water. Probably saw the camera.

Although it appears someone has hacked this Mallard's foot off, in fact she was perfectly formed, and probably just a bit cold. I may have been imagining it but I think she was eyeing up my gloves, so I told her that they were crap. And far too big. D-uh!

Monday 2 February 2009

Wanstead does it again: A scientific first

Ursus maritimus sp "minimus" is common here, however the arrival of an Emperor Penguin in the recent cold-snap is unprecedented. I strongly suspect that this could be the first time that they have been seen together in the wild in the northern hemisphere. This is supported by the seeming total lack of fear exhibited by the penguin, despite the presence of the potentially predatory bear nearby. Following closely on the heels of the first Snowy Owl record for the borough, 2009 is turning out to be a cracking year for Frigid Zone fauna.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Year-listing and vomit

For some dumb reason I wanted to get to 150 species by the end of January. Given I was on 149, this didn’t present much of a challenge, but nonetheless I planned an entire family day out around a handful of birds to ensure success. Cambridgeshire was the destination, with quite a few good birds in a very small area. Various lurgies reduced it to me and #1 daughter by Saturday morning, but we decided to go anyway, as she wanted to see Lapwings, her fave bird. I put her in the front seat, which affords excellent views, is high up, and as such, anti-vomit. The fens were forecast to be bitingly cold, so I dressed her up in several layers. The outermost layer came off just before Ely, with a minor vomit on the A10. No problem, I am a dab hand at this; a convenient layby, and we were on our way within 10 minutes, minus a pair of dungarees. Slight pong, but we kept the window open, which served two purposes.

First stop Coveney, where a Rough-legged Buzzard has been reported. As usual, find the birders, find the bird. Remarkably, as I pulled up, someone called the bird, and there it was – it flew over our heads in the company of two Common Buzzards – seemed darker underneath, and the white tail band was very distinctive. Stonking views – I have only seen birds on Sheppey before, at a minimum range of about 15 miles, so this was a special treat. It drifted west, hovered a bit, and then disappeared. Seemed an opportune time to move on, given we were all now looking at a field, so we did, but not far.

A small convoy of birders then descended on Pymoor, which is Great White Egret central, and has been for several months. Could this be #150? As usual on a twitch (well, of sorts), a bunch of people were stood around having a bit of a chat. “Nah, it was reported earlier, but we can’t see anything”. Oh? Perhaps that’s because you’re not really looking? Tell you what, I’ll set up my scope and have a look. Oh look, 2 white blobs over there by that bridge. Looks like they might have yellow beaks as well. Oh and look, one has just stood up and it has a very long neck, what could it possibly be? To be fair, they (yep, there were two, astounding) were bloody miles away, but please, make a bit of an effort. The views were dismal, and it was very cold, so I didn’t linger.

WWT Welney had lots of these.

"Oi, you took this shot in Scotland!"

And ridiculous numbers of these.

And also a mixed flock of around a hundred grey geese, which were mostly White-front and Greylag, but also had 7 Tundra Bean Geese and a single Pink-foot. I found finding the Pinky and Beans very difficult when they were all asleep and tucked in, but once they became active it was straightforward. We were here for the regular Pochard feeding, hoping a Whooper might get a look in. Highly recommended for children and adults alike

We spent the rest of the day at Welney, moving between the Observatory, the Café, and the Toilet (generally for non-existent wees). The landscape is incredibly bleak, endless fields separated by drains, and a bone-chilling wind. The feeders had Corn and Reed Bunting, House and Tree Sparrow, and a variety of finches, and the field margins held Pheasant, Stock Dove, Starling and Woodpigeon. In the fields were Lapwings and winter thrushes, and of course Whoopers.

Back to Cambridge after dusk for dinner with my folks, via Pymoor again, where one of the Egrets was quite a lot closer. 100 yards from the Grandparentals, granddaughter was sick again. Hugely sick. This time the jumper and wind-proof trousers went, as did the atlas that was in the footwell. Drew up in a spray of gravel and commando-rolled out of the still-moving car. Thank Christ, Grandma was at the front door and dealt with the sodden child whilst I sorted out the car and threw the atlas away. If I had thought the car smelled after the first dose, well this truly raised the bar. I had basically run out of clothes at this point, so she was dressed in the unusual combination of tights and a Puffer Jacket. This turned out to only be temporary arrangement though, as over dinner she threw up again. A large burp, followed by a fountain. Goodbye tights and Puffer Jacket. Dinner morphed seamlessly into bathtime - don't think anyone was hungry any more anyway - and so the child returned home in a towel....

Its now Sunday evening and I’m sitting on the sofa writing this. Mrs L has just glanced over to see what I am writing, seen the topic, and has unkindly blamed my driving. What rot.

Today was a non-birding day, but I did manage to dip the Waxwings at Lakeside. They have been there a week. Everyone I know has seen them. Except me.

How to dip Waxwings

1) Go to where Waxwings have been reported.
2) Don’t bother looking for Waxwings, instead spend the time photographing birds that are not Waxwings

Like this one:

"Hey look at me, look at me, Waxwings are rubbish!"

Here is the crucial part.

3) Leave before the Waxwings turn up.

Job done.

I finished up the weekend at the Silt Lagoons looking for another year-tick, Short-eared Owl. Quite successfully as it happens.

Shorty at Rainham