Wednesday 25 March 2009

The importance of writing

I am bowled over. Not to often I can say that, but as I am off to Australia tomorrow for the sad event that is James' funeral, I found and am re-reading my trip diary from 1998, to remind me of people and places. I had just graduated, and had buggered off to Australia before starting work in the City (booooooo!), and he and I drove a 30yo camper van from Sydney to Cairns and back over the course of a couple of months. It was an amazing trip, but that is not why I am bowled over. It's because, somehow, back in my unkempt and frankly lazy youth, I managed to keep a diary, and diligently wrote it every day. How very mature, have I aged in reverse? I couldn't do that now. I mean, blogging is all very well and good, but it is no substitute for a proper diary. This has dates, locations, people, little hand-drawn maps, I even wrote the day of the week down. It is in a cheap spiral-bound notebook, and the inside front cover has card games scores and a trip budget on it, you know, who bought the petrol and beer etc, and it is most definitely not going to win any literary awards. But it is clearly me writing it, that much I can recognise, the same flair, that same elan, nothing has changed in the intervening decade. How about this morsel:

Day 15. 18/07 Sat.
"Did virtually nothing. Woke up feeling crap at Shippo's place. "

Wow. I'm thinking the Booker.

or this:

Day 20. 23/07 Thurs
"Van of Happiness in tip-top condition for the measly sum of 137.50 (Aus $) Woohoo! We prepare to leave. Pack pack pack, clean clean, pack etc. Van becomes incredibly tidy. Keith says it'll get us to Cairns. We piddle about all morning and at 2pm are ready to leave - minus some shopping"

Perhaps the Whitbread? (As I was googling whether Whitbread had an "a" or I not I just discovered it is now called the Costa Prize, how terribly tragic)

But the real value is in the birds. Apparently even 10 years ago I was writing down what I was seeing. This is a godsend to the newly obsessed lister:

"Coffs - a footnote. Delia has planted bird-friendly plants in her garden so I was in heaven. I saw - spangled drongo, little wattledbird*, eastern spinebill, rainbow lorikeets, honeyeaters, little lorikeets, magpie larks, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, and much, much more."

I'm only 2 weeks into the diary, and already I have found dates for a pile of birds I knew I had seen, but didn't know when or where, and have added 3 birds to my life list (* not the Little Wattlebird though, bad ID; it only lives in South-west Australia and I have never been there - most likely a Red Wattlebird, which I already had down. Slightly destroyed the magic there). Like I said, I was so bowled over, I had to stop reading it and come and write this whilst my thoughts of wowness were still fresh in my head.

So I have now packed a notebook, and I'm going to diligently write up each day that I am over there, and I may even continue it when I get back, there is no subsitute for writing, and we should all do it more. Real writing though, with pen and paper. Reading this Aus trip now, in my crappy black scrawl, I am transported back to specific locations. Memory is incredibly acute sometimes, but it needs a prompt. This morning I could not have told you where I saw my first Laughing Kookaburra, but having read the entry from July 13th 1998, I can tell you that it was in St Albans, in the Hawkesbury River Valley in NSW. I can very clearly visualise the location where we had parked the van, recall what we were doing (attempting to dry the washing), and remember being really excited at seeing these two Kookaburras in a nearby tree, and failing to sneak up on them for a photo. I don't remember leaving my towel on a fence, but the diary doesn't lie. Except about Little Wattlebirds.


EDIT, 2 hours later: The Little Wattlebirds Anthochaera chrysoptera have been bugging me. So I did some research and my field guide is quite inaccurate for the distribution for this species. Whilst it does live in SW Australia, it also lives on the east coast, and likes Banksia, of which there were many in Delia's garden. So there we go, the magic is restored, and the diary does indeed never lie.

Monday 23 March 2009

Everyone loves a Wood Duck


Connaught Water is a magnet for very rare, non-escaped, totally and utterly wild ducks. The number of waterfowl rarities hosted over the years beggars belief. In fact I am surprised that the wild Falcated Duck in Kent and equally wild Ferruginous Duck at Staines didn't end up there.

Despite their obvious wariness, with a stealthy approach you can often get quite close to them. A good technique is to just walk straight up to them when they are facing the other way, or are being distracted by bread, and then snap away hoping against hope that they don't notice you and fly away if they are able to.

Here is a selection of the latest nearctic vagrants, plus the undomesticated Red-crested Poch that arrived in a freak typhoon a few years back, and has yet to find the way home - probably lost its A-Z.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Busy Week

Well, no traffic infractions this week, so I must have learned something from my course. In fact I just remembered another interesting tidbit, and one pertinent to birders; Most road fatalities in Britain occur between 2am and 7am on country roads. Presumably because people are tired and distance cannot be accurately judged, but also because nobody sees the incident, and so there is no speedy emergency response. Anyhow, on that cheery note, what has been happening this week in Wanstead? Nothing, thats what. No more Wheatears, no Sand Martins, no Willow Warblers, no hoped-for disoriented Garganeys. I tried, went out early mornings a couple of times, but nothing doing, bar a few joggers - none of whom assaulted me. A few more friendly Skylarks, but that was about it.

So I gave up on Wanstead and instead paid a visit to the long-staying Falcated Duck in Kent. Lovely bird, very fond of bread though. Can't quite bring myself to tick it, but I'll give Monkey directions...Nobody knows where it came from, but it has been at the same farm pond for several months, and it seems very happy, and frankly I was happy to see it. And I just heard that there are four Wood Ducks on Connaught Water in Epping Forest, and I reckon I would be quite happy to see them as well. Could be nice morning out with Charlotte.

"Tick me, you know you want to"

However, moving on to real birds, I put my Staines failure to bed with a visit to Trimley Marshes in Suffolk for the Ferruginous Duck that has been there this week, and actually managed to find it. For people thinking of doing the same, be aware that whilst it only takes an hour to drive to Trimley-St-Mary, it then takes a week and a half to actually walk down to the reserve. Miles. Had I dipped I would have been spitting. And probably crying. As it was, I came away flush with success, but the duck was at the far end of quite a long lake, and I could not even get a few pixels of it. I did find a nice frog though. I may take up Amphibian photography. Much easier, you can get really close, and they don't move, much less fly away. And presumably much less frantic twitching involved. I could start my list tomorrow and be done by Wednesday.


Talking of which, I am able to continue my series of "Raptors in less than 100 pixels", as I managed to get a Gos today. Did you notice the way I cunningly linked those two paragraphs? I was quite pleased, given how tenuous this whole blog is. I was thinking of making it a competition, with a prize for the lowest number of pixels used to represent a raptor, but still have an identifiable bird. Here are two more particularly fine efforts.

And finally a surprise. Yet another awesome view of a Great Grey Shrike, but with a twist...

Yup, I got closer than 1km [hint: click...]

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Amber = Accelerate. Or Stop. One of the two anyway.

Guilty as Charged. By 0.8 sec.

I have just got back from a 2 1/2 hour Traffic Light Awareness Course. I got done on the South Circular at the end of last year, hurrying to see a Long-eared Owl over at Beddington, so the cause at least was noble, if not solid enough to get me off completely. Frankly I was amazed I had done this (and naturally all 20 people on the course were innocent as well, it was only on amber...) But I did learn some relatively interesting titbits, for instance, did you know that for a junction to have a camera, at least one person has to have been killed and another seriously injured? I didn't. And that there are 287 of these in the London area. And that Green is the most dangerous signal. However, the main lesson learned was that of the 21 people on the course, 13 did not know the Traffic Light sequence, and that driving in London is therefore a very scary proposition indeed. Here, have a go. The first one is already filled in.

Click for my correct sequence. 13 people, working in teams, put down the order on the left hand side (I was counting, in disbelief).

Taking this one step further, for every two cars that you see driving down the road, more than one of the drivers (but fewer than two) does not know the basic rules of the road. Obviously you can't have a fraction of a driver or a car, so basically you should assume that every other driver on the road is a total and utter muppet - this in fact was the view taken by 100% of the people on the course.... Now, given where I have been all evening, I'm on reasonbly shaky ground lecturing about how stupid people are, but come on, this is appalling. But I suppose this is why we all drive past dead flowers tied round lamp-posts on almost every journey we undertake. We should all sell our cars and stay indoors and concentrate on our garden lists, as every time we go out on the road we take our life, and that of others, in our hands (which was the central message of the evening).

At £95, the most expensive pen I have ever purchased.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Played for and got

Up at first light this morning, straight out, no tea, no breakfast, there were Wheatears that needed finding. It was a glorious morning, and I mean fantastic. A slight chill in the air, and a bit of frost, but a clear sky and stunning sunrise. There was nobody there bar me, not even a dog-walker to appreciate the clarity of the morning. The whole place was mine mine mine, which is how it should be really.

I went straight out to the fence-line that remains from the Thames Water pipe-laying, and walked the entire length. Nothing. Well, Mipts, Skylarks etc, but no Wheatears. But right at the end, as I had given up all hope and was turning around, what should fly off one of the goalposts and perch up on a little mound, flashing a little white bum? He shoots, he scores! It allowed a reasonably close approach, and then the morning's first dog appeared.... The only dog I could see on the entire Flats and it happens to coincide with the only Wheatear, what are the bloody chances? Luckily it didn't flush far, and I soon relocated it post-dog on the top of a hawthorn, bit bizarre for a Wheatear really. This turned out to be extremely convenient, as it allowed Paul, a local birder and Wheatear-related text recipient, to scope it from his living room window without even getting dressed. Chuffed to bits I headed for home, where I knew there would be pancakes and maple syrup. I have lost a stone since getting axed, proving that weight gain is directly related to stress and fried breakfasts.

Later that morning I cunningly chose the playground on Dames Road for the family jaunt. The day was screaming "Large Raptor", and our usual playground near the Green Man would have been rubbish, whereas at Dames Road you can scan the whole of the Flats. As the children fell off various climbing frames onto the bouncy green stuff, I happily looked at the sky, and roughly an hour into proceedings a pale Common Buzzard drifted over SW, very very high. I didn't see a Buzzard on the patch at all in 2008 as I only birded early mornings, so I have put that one right very early on. Osprey and Red Kite next please.

Buzzard, 2 megapixels

Saturday 14 March 2009

Where is my Wheatear?

Seemingly all other sites in London today have had a Wheatear, in some cases several. Wanstead though remains a Wheatear-free zone, despite some serious bashing this morning. I did find some reasonably photogenic Skylarks though.

Rainham is hotting up, have been three days on the trot now, very pleasing indeed. Still not caught up with any of the white-wingers, but I did jam in on the first Mandarin Duck for about 20 years, which pleased Howard. He had to be pleased for me from a distance though, as he was in Kent. As a true birder, he did of course consider driving all the way from Kent just to get it on his Rainham list, but in a fit of sensibleness didn't bother, so if you saw it, be sure to mention it to him.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

I drove to Staines for the Scaup

The Ferruginous Duck is reputed to be a long-staying escape from 2006 that has just moved east a bit. Piss. This is according to none other than LGRE, the master of all lists, anywhere, even ones you thought were your own. I have forthwith deleted it from my 2009 tally. What Ferruginous Duck? Was there one there, I don't remember. I went for the Scaup. Good London birds Scaup, and there were three, so that was well worth it. Doubles the number of London Scaup I have seen, and significantly boosts the BN Grebe total as well. All in all an excellent visit. I vaguely recall another birder looking at the North Res, but I didn't bother, too well known for escapes and such like.

Anyway, after the shocker that was yesterday, here is the plan for today. I am currently between 2 & 3 somewhere.

1) This morning: Wanstead Park, pleasantly warm at about 11°C, and a flock of feeding Siskin. #63. Merci.
2) This afternoon: My Greenhouse, "Magic" by Bruce, first dose of fertiliser for 2009. 20.1°C, Rock on.
3) This evening: Puligny-Montrachet 2005, 12°C.


Tuesday 10 March 2009

Not quite what I had in mind

Being made redundant meant I was going to see loads and loads of birds, especially in Wanstead. Today however, I cannot recall seeing a single bird. I do recall doing the school drop-off, going shopping, going to the dump with the weekend's gardening efforts, cleaning my son's room, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, doing a load of washing, changing nappies, cleaning the front windowsills, cooking two meals, and looking after a small clingy baby. Some of these things may garner Brownie Points, but honestly, what a waste of bloody time! By the time I'd finished that little lot it was time to do the school pick-up and the day was basically over. I am a week-and-a-bit into this and already I am in need of emancipation. Shit.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Birds found in the Ingrebourne Valley!

Shaun has well and truly redeemed himself by actually spotting a bird in the Ingrebourne! And not just any bird, but a Penduline Tit. And not just one, but four! What a stunning find! A week ago as we were finding no birds at all, we had remarked how unbelievably penduliney the large patch of reed-mace looked, and wondered aloud if when the Rainham birds went missing they might come here? Indeed he told me he had already spent some time staring into the reeds in that exact vain hope. Well that promise was well and truly fulfilled today. I suspect that a number of people will now spend many hours looking into that patch of reeds - particularly people called David. I will too, even though I have rather greedily seen four Penduline Tits this year already.

Meanwhile my incomparible patch-find this week was a female Ring-necked Parakeet prospecting for nest holes. Only the second time I have noted this species in the area. I heard the typical screeching ahead of me and for some reason could not work it out. I went through Gull sp (fool), and Jay (less of a fool, but still a stupid suggestion), but it wasn't until I had actually walked right past the source of the noise that I suddenly twigged, swore a bit, and turned around just in time to see a bright green bird fly out of the tree. It ranged widely in the park, and I finally tracked it down near the Dell for a snap.

"I am actually a large green Penduline Tit, are there any reeds here?"

Saturday 7 March 2009

London Tickfest

A casual day birding today, well not birding exactly, more just ticking a variety of interesting local birds, twitching if you will. First stop KGV Reservoir in NORTH LONDON, for a Grey Phalarope that was every bit as confiding as I had read that they were. As we were all snapping away, another birder spotted the long-staying Red-breasted Merganser. Excitedly I jumped up as this was a London tick for me. "Saddo" thought Shaun, before realising he also needed it for London, and following me... had the bird but flown in those few seconds....

Bradders and I then drove ~40 miles round to Staines Reservoir in WEST LONDON, for a recently arrived Ferruginous Duck and some long-staying Scaup. These were very rapidly bagged for the yearlist, and good as the Phal undoubtedly was, there followed the highlight of the day, as a red-faced and excited birder appeared on the causeway. "Is the Phalarope still showing?" Absolutely superb!

Thursday 5 March 2009

Economy in good shape after all

Good news, we can all stop worrying.

As almost the lone Dad in a playground full of Mums, dutifully standing in a queue waiting to pick up my offspring, I get to hear all sorts of Mum-talk. Today's Mum-talk was most heartening - somebody should tell Mervyn King & Gordon Brown that everything is in fact OK and that no quantative easing is required. Apparently a local hairdresser is still able to charge £77 for a haircut, and what is more, the owner of this new haircut was a) not blown away by the staggering enormity of the price, and b) very very pleased with the result. I should bloody well hope so too! Anyway, my reading of this is that the economy is in great shape and that the media are blowing it out of all proportion. And that we have all massively underestimated the intelligence of hairdressers, choosing to pour scorn, whereas in fact we should be going to them for financial advice.

I did not get my hair cut today, choosing instead to save £77, and earn 0.08p interest on it. I scrubbed all the green stuff off the terrace, and spilled some undiluted anti-algae chemicals on my knuckles, which are now bright red, but algae-free. I need to invest in some gardening gloves, as I am constantly knackering my hands doing plant stuff. This was last week's effort. Don't forget I was until recently an office-boy, and thus very delicate, but each and every one of the little abrasions really really stung.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Excellent scope views

"Please view me from a sensible distance"

Just thought I would bung this up, as a reminder of a superb day out in November last year with Shaun, Paul & Monkey. Not that I am saying that all rarities should do this, as that would become boring. Just most of them. Also, that's me in the photo, not just some random thin birder.

Monday 2 March 2009

Wow, that smells great! Here, have several thousand Brownie Points

I am settling into my new job as a domestic god & local birder. Today I cooked chicken with a honey, olive oil, lemon and garlic marinade. Had it in the oven when Mrs L came in from work. I don't have a Brownie point counter, but several thousand were gained. Also went birding in Wanstead Park, so here are a few gratuitous photos. For the technical amongst you, this is the output of the Canon 400mm f5.6L. Nice isn't it?

Also, stop press announcement that I know you have all been waiting for: The putative Black Brant candidate from Old Hall has been dismissed by those in the know as a "Norfolk Brant", ie it would pass muster up there, but not in Essex, where a more critical eye means it goes down as a hybrid with Brant lineage. As I am sure I must have mentioned, there was no way I was going to tick it, oh no, that would just have been wrong. Fucking Geese.....

It was bound to happen

Well, after annexing the Golf Course only a few days ago specifically in order to add Nuthatch and stand a better chance of Great Crested Grebe, there was a certain inevitability about what would happen this morning in Wanstead Park. This was the first time I had been on the patch since the declaration, and only 30 minutes into the birding day I heard a Nuthatch singing in Warren Wood, and then picked up two Great Crested Grebes on the Perch Pond. This is of course infinitely more Great Crested Grebes than I have seen on the patch in 2009, and in fact double the number of Great Crested Grebes I have ever seen in one outing. Perhaps this is the answer to getting a decent patch list? For instance, if I annexed Thetford Forest tonight, might I get a Gos displaying on the patch by Thursday?

Warning, this post may contain Geese

Geese, as everyone knows, fuck you up. Yesterday at Old Hall Marshes was no different. Bradders and I were looking for (and failing miserably to find) Ferruginous Duck. When we had scanned the Tufties and Pochards for the 20th time without rufous joy, we turned to the Brent Geese. Mistake.

Scanning a flock of at least a thousand birds produced 997 pretty standard Dark-bellied Brent Geese and 3 abnormal ones that got us quite excited, but ultimately screwed us over. The odd thing is, it becomes a bit enjoyable, addictive even - you tell yourself to leave, quit while you're ahead, but end up staying for just one more scan, and then just one more.....

1. JL's tentative Black Brant. Darker mantle than the surrounding birds, no clear tonal distinction between the neck and the breast, bright white flank patch, but probably 2/3 of the size you might expect a Brant to have. Neck collar only average, clear break at the back, and indeed some of the surrounding dark-bellieds had much wider collars. Hmmm. Stupidly did not take a photo. It was a standout bird though. If DB had not been with me I would have called it a Brant, and gone away very chuffed.

2. JL's tentative Pale-bellied. Juvenile bird, standout pale rear flanks, however front flanks, upper breast and belly tonally not much different to a dark-bellied. Possibility, but not quite right. Not having seen one of these before, I had to consult photos on the web, and it does look a bit like some juv pale-bellieds, but then again, they could be badly labelled, blind leading the blind and all that.

3. DB's tentative who the hell knows goose. Again, a standout bird, several shades lighter on the mantle and flanks, which in fact were the same tone. Kind of Canada Goose coloured. Neck, head and bill correct tone, ie no leucism going on. It could just be a funny-coloured dark-bellied. Equally, it could be a funny-coloured pale-bellied. Best just call it a Brent Goose.

If any of my vast readership have an opinion, I would love to hear it.