Sunday 29 November 2009

He's behind you! Possibly. Or possibly not. Depends if you look or not.

Oh no he isn't! Yes, it's Panto season. We went yesterday, courtesy of the Grandparentals in Cambridge. I had been dreading it. Slapstick humour, pathetic jokes, screaming children, and someone out of Eastenders - I have all that at home, apart from Bianca. In the event it was superb - what I hadn't reckoned on was it being a Footlights production - Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Where else but Cambridge would you get a panto that mentions Schrodinger's Cat AND gets a laugh? From start to finish it was a cut above, and entirely put together by and starring students. It was so good that I strongly suspect that they have not been concentrating on their academic studies a great deal, but then presumably this is where having two brains each really comes into its own. The villain and the panto dame (a bloke, naturally) were the stars of the show, and frankly if we don't see them again in some guise I'll be amazed - the list of Footlights alumni is long and distinguished.

Anyway, enough cultural stuff, back to birding. And getting wet. The weather today has been awful, but being hardy and tough I ventured out into the pre-dawn. Before I had even got to the Flats I was assaulted by hailstones and thunder, and my first proper soaking occured about ten minutes into my [unsuccessful] hunt for Woodcock. I got diverted by a boat-load of gulls on the field west of Lakehouse Road, including a pesky large-and-dark-looking Lesser Black-backed Gull that gave me the run-around before revealing its true identity. Overall I counted over 400 Common Gulls, over 300 Black-headed Gulls, 77 Lesser Black-backs, and 17 Herring Gulls. Amazingly there wasn't a single rarer gull in there. Only a matter of time before I get a Med surely? All this counting took a long time, during which I got wet again, as horizontal rain swept across the playing fields. At least it kept the gulls in one place. I partially dried out on the way to the Park, and bumped into Stuart by Heronry Pond. He too was looking wet. The Tea Hut of Happiness was disappointingly closed, so no fix there. A dog-walker asked us if we were twitching something. As if! I am a patch-worker. He was only wondering, he said, as he had seen a load of people up at the top car park carrying scopes and everything. Eh? A twitch? In Wanstead? What the? We hurried up there as fast as our little legs could carry us and sure enough we found a large group of birders. Not a twitch, but an ELBF guided walk in Wanstead Park looking for Lesser Spots. It was being led by Roy, and he had already scored with a flock of 30 Redpoll sp in the southern corner of Warren Wood - easily the most I have ever heard reported here. Maybe there was a twitch on after all! We were saved this ignominy by the Redpolls having the good grace to fly over our heads as we were stood there chatting. Most impressive. They didn't linger so I didn't get to check them, and I am being good by calling them Redpoll sp. No doubt they were all exilipes. It rained again just after this.

A brief break in the weather

We carried on to the Basin to check for rare waterfowl, but all the sawbills had been replaced with Coots. At this point we got wet yet again. I was OK actually, fully kitted out in wellies, waterproof trousies and an extremely waterproof jacket designed for fishing, but Stuart has a more cavalier attitude to repelling water. He doesn't bother doing his coat up, he doesn't wear a hat (instead water just bounces off his head), and one of his boots has recently developed a leak. None of this puts him off in the slightest, he is unstoppable. A birding machine. Hunger was setting in, but I decided that one last check of Reservoir Wood might pay dividends as the sun had decided to come out. Sure enough, not long into the wood and I heard the piping call behing us. A female Firecrest flitted out of a holly and proceeded to bounce around the understorey giving good views. A bit of quality pishing sent her, and we think the male as well, beserk, and for two minutes we were captivated by a holly emanating with Firecrest calls, with occasional glimpses of the bird, before it or they got bored and zoomed off somewhere else. Got the Coal Tit in with the Long-tails as well, so a sucessful final roll of the dice. On the way home the heavens opened.

I appeared on my doorstep at around 11 doing my best impression of a drowned rat, collected scope, banana and orange, and headed off to Rainham to see if I couldn't repeat the Firecrest experience with the Serin. Halfway down Coldharbour Lane I spotted Hawky, so I stopped to say hello. He had just found a Dartford Warbler with his Dad, Roger. I wasn't twitching it, I was stopping to say "Hi". Moments later a White Van screeched up, performed a dodgy parking maneuvre, and out jumped Shaun and Monkey, twitchers extraordinaire. Shaun had been out early working his patch in a dedicated manner, and after four hours of hard graft for little reward had decided to give Rainham a crack. Oh no, my mistake, he had been lazing around in bed, listening to the sound of the rain on the windows and drinking tea, with his phone switched off in case work called. Monkey too had been busy working his patch. Oh no wait, silly me again... Pleasantries were exchanged about Hawky's Wren, the piss was taken - a lot, as is customary, and as sometimes occurs on this blog -, and then a Dartford called and popped up, just as we all knew it would. Another cracking find - expect a stunning pic on his blog later. Hawky and I may try and do a yearlist for Rainham next year. If we do, I fully expect him to whoop ass.

Monkey switched cars and he & I went to the Serin mound; I think Shaunboy went back to bed, and Hawkins pere et fils went home for lunch. We gave the Serin at least ten minutes, and then got bored. Monkey went home to bed, and I may have had a small and slightly illegal excursion up on the tip in search of Red-legged Partridge and Corn Bunting, neither of which I may not have found, but I might have got wet again. Got a Water Pipit on the foreshore near the barges but that was the best I could do. By this time Bradders had turned up and jammed in on both Serin immediately. Curses! Or should that be "Booooo! Hisssss!!"? I joined him on the path again, got rained on AGAIN, and in a brief (and final) period of sunshine, finally laid eyes on one or both Serin on the slope in front of Wennington. Got back home at three-ish, highly bedraggled, and had a nice cup of tea. A proper day of birding, and a couple of heard-only's converted to proper ticks. I did draw a Barred Warbler by the way, and a Wigeon, neither of which turned up, so the Birding Gods are clearly otherwise engaged.

Another brief break in the weather

Finally, some of you may have noticed a post entitled "London Listing" which appeared briefly here on Friday. Some of you may have been lucky enough to read it. If you did, Shhhh, don't say anything, it will reappear. It was a good one, topical, and full of gags at the expense of cheats people whose lists appear not quite whiter than white, but I have taken it down again. Things are afoot, and for now I must remain silent on the matter. Just remember kids, Norfolk is not in London.

Friday 27 November 2009

Garden List


1 Cormorant
2 Grey Heron
3 Canada Goose
4 Mallard
5 Herring Gull
6 Lesser Black-backed Gull
7 Black-headed Gull
8 Feral Pigeon
9 Wood Pigeon
10 Collared Dove
11 Swift
12 Great Spotted Woodpecker
13 Swallow
14 Wren
15 Dunnock
16 Robin
17 Blackbird
18 Chiffchaff
19 Long-tailed Tit
20 Great Tit
21 Blue Tit
22 Chaffinch
23 Greenfinch
24 Goldfinch
25 House Sparrow

26 Starling
27 Magpie
28 Crow

29 Stock Dove
30 Lesser Redpoll
31 Common Tern
32 Hobby
33 Jay
34 Goldcrest
35 Jackdaw
36 Green Woodpecker
37 Sparrowhawk
38 Mute Swan
39 House Martin
40 Skylark
41 Yellow Wagtail

42 Song Thrush
43 Peregrine
44 Greylag Goose
45 Common Buzzard
46 Mistle Thrush
47 Rook
48 Linnet
49 Kestrel
50 Tawny Owl h
51 Redwing
52 Fieldfare
53 Coal Tit
54 Pied Wagtail
55 Common Gull
56 Shoveler
57 Grey Wagtail
58 Blackcap
59 Ring-necked Parakeet
60 Lapwing
61 Snipe
62 Tufted Duck
63 Red Kite
64 Sand Martin
65 Willow Warbler h
66 Coot h
67 Meadow Pipit
68 Great Black-backed Gull
69 Waxwing
70 Brambling h
71 Siskin
72 Teal

Italics = single bird
(Senegal Parrot)
(White-cheeked Turaco)

Thursday 26 November 2009

Ye Gods!! (pt 2)

Picture the scene. I am at the breakfast table, chomping away on Tesco's Strawberry Crisp. A steaming mug of tea sits in front of me. Evenly spaced around the rest of the table are three angelic children, freshly dressed, chomping away on Shreddies (well, Tesco Malt Wheaties), Cornflakes (possibly not Kellogg's...), and Weetabix (the genuine article, what do you think this is?!). A small flight of geese enter the scene from the right, flying east. One of them is not a goose. The peace is shattered as I jump up from the table and bash my knee. "SHOVELER!!!!! Look, a Shoveler, with the four Canadas!!" A garden tick no less, and rather unexpected.

I have made mention of the Birding Gods before. In yesterday's confessional edition I invoked their name whilst discussing a (bastard) Pipit that probably flew over Bush Wood. As you know, sometimes they smile, sometimes they don't. Nonetheless, I am believer, and even more so now.

Look at what I drew last night.

Tonight I will be drawing a Barred Warbler, followed by a Little Bunting and possibly ten other birds.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Laundry List

A quite excellent and extremely irritating post by Gavin Haig has forced me to abandon my planned next post and instead write this one. It concerns ticking dilemmas. I discovered his most recent Not Quite Scilly post at around midnight just as I was heading off for bed, the title didn't have portents of doom, so I had a look. No doubt a short tale of seeing no Grey Phalaropes which would cause me to nod off in no time at all, I thought. Far from it. I was forced to read and re-read it many many times, and then ended up composing a comment that was perhaps longer than the original post, soul-baring, and highly contradictory. This took an hour, and then I couldn't sleep. When I woke up this morning I realised that the ideal place for my rambling, insightful and contrary musings was in fact my own blog. No matter, with kind permission I have stolen the general prinicpal, which was a list of hypothetical birding situations that Gavin had quickly and cleverly invented, and asked how many out of ten would you tick? My answers varied between four and seven, and when I woke up this morning it was as high as eight, and my total answers added up to eleven, so I have had to go back and comment again. The situations have been cunningly woven such that when you are happy with one answer, you then have to go back and start again on all the others. Ad infinitum. I didn't get to bed until 1am and then lay there wide-awake thinking about the ticking ethics for Corncrakes. This is blogging as it should be, surely? Thought-provoking and sleep-preventing.

So, rather than some highly hypothetical situations that Gavin has never had to deal with in real life hem hem, here are some real ones. These birds are all on my list. The question is, would they be on yours? This is my laundry list. Aired.

1) Barred Warbler
A very large and long-tailed warbler that was obviously the right colouration bombed past me and dived into elders never to be seen again. I was with the finder at the time, and we agreed that that was "the boy". A short while later I heard the machine-gun call from about 30m away. Life tick, with a 'better views desired' annotation.

2) Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Yes, this is a bvd species. Kind of. Frankly it has not had a mention on this blog for a long time, so I'm tempted to underplay the views I had simply to be able to talk about it again. A lot. I saw it you know, what a bird!! When the news broke I was shopping with the girls. I should have abandoned the trolley and gone straight for it. Then I would have had a good hour looking at it perched up in a bush. As it was I continued shopping, went home, labouriously made a picnic, and then left. I made it by about 30 seconds. As I was pushing the buggy down the hill towards the line of birders, a Bee-eater flew across the field, over and then behind me. Against the light, I saw the long tail projection, and dark buffy underwings. It called a few times as it flew, swallow-like, over the field, and then had the good grace to go to France. Ideally it would have stopped in a bush next to me for a few moments, posed for a photo, and then continued to France, but you can't have everything. I ticked it, gleefully, but secretly I wanted better views. Ho hum.

3) Capercaillie
At Loch Malachie in late summer a few years ago, I heard a female calling from somewhere up ahead. I attempted to creep along the path and was rewarded by a large brown bird's rear end disappearing rapidly through the forest. A bum view in more ways than one, but I ticked it as a lifer anyway. Since then, I have never had a glimpse, but have heard two males. One of these became a year tick for 2009.

4) Corncrake
This is probably familiar to many people. I was stood on the edge of a the fire station field on Iona, and at least three different crakes were rasping away. I phoned a friend. "Do I need to see it to tick it?" Vince replied "Yes definitely, of course you do". I phoned another friend. "No doubt about what you're hearing, go for it!" A much better answer, but I decided to give it a bit more time. A short while later, right the way across the other side of the field, a small gangly bird flew in a highly pathetic way low across the top of the grass, before dropping back in. It was so quick I didn't get bins on it, but it probably was one. Then, just as I was about to walk back to the ferry, I became aware of something peering out at me about 20m away. As I raised my bins, it turned tail and vanished into the grass. Another one? I felt I had enough for a tick.

5) Fan-tailed Warbler
I just missed out on Fan-tailed Warbler in 2008. I arrived on site just as it flew away never to be seen again. Another birder attempted to get me on to the dot, but failed. This solved an ethical dilemma for me at the time. Would I have ticked that dot, knowing that was it, but not having properly seen it myself? At the time it was the fifth British record, a real mega. My conclusion was that I would not have ticked the dot, although that was an easy one to reach having not seen it. This year another turned up in Kent and I went to see it. After two hours and no sign, I was about to give up when it flew over my head, went "Dzip", and flew into a bush. I saw no real detail whatsoever. It then flew out of the bush, hovered briefly, giving a very strong impression of a Fan-tailed Warbler, but without giving me the opportunity for any detailed scrutiny, and then disappeared again. Given that this was infinitely better than last year, I ticked it, but still have it as a 'bvd' species. If you want to annoy me, just say it was a Dunnock.

6) Golden Pheasant
I saw two of the Wolferton birds one early morning in February, and happily ticked them as a lifer, dead chuffed I had managed to actually find some on my own. Later on, I learnt that this population of darker birds might not be particularly kosher, and in any event are always seen in exactly the same place. I did not rescind my tick. I have since heard birds in the Brecks, but never seen them.

7) Little Bunting
In Sussex earlier this year I just managed to see what basically looked like a small female Reed Bunting before it zoomed back into the gorse in which it had been hiding for ages. I saw it for perhaps 4 seconds. I never heard it call, but everyone there said it was a Little Bunting, and a few people heard it give the appropriate call. I ticked it, and have been seeking to make amends since. Sadly I've dipped every time.

8) Long-tailed Skua
On Blakeney Point, Bradders got onto an obviously slim Skua sp. He confidently called it as Long-tailed based on the jizz of the bird. I'd never seen one before, so the jizz meant very little to me. I ticked it based on him hopefully being correct. I felt bad at the time, but Monkey was there too, and I couldn't let him tick it and me not, so on it went. I've since rectified this by seeing one really well, and have been able to get rid of the 'bvd' note on my list. Monkey hasn't.

9) Mealy Redpoll
I have yet to see a 'classic' Mealy Redpoll. All of the ones I have seen have been obviously different from the accompanying presumed Lessers, but have not been as clear-cut as photos I have seen on the web. I really want to see a properly cold-looking one. I came very close in Norfolk at the beginning of the year, but it wasn't enough to take off my annotation. Seeing as I'm airing laundry, I once called the pager company with 100 Mealy Redpolls on the basis that most of them were the same, and there were a few much more browny ones in there too, my theory being that they were cabaret so all the others had to be flammea. A large flock of Mealies had been reported from that location earlier on, which was what I was looking for. Oops. The age-old of issue of seeing what you expect to see and not what you actually see. Call it over-excitement. Or stupidity. Redpoll ID is tough, but I'll get a really good one one day. I suspect one man's Mealy is another man's Arctic.

10) Red-throated Pipit
St Mary's, Scilly. In Longstones, up to my armpits in a huge pastie, one of these flew over and called. Howard and Bradders heard it, I did not. Pissed off. A few days later, on the Airfield after a Richard's Pipit, the same bird, or another, called somewhere overhead. I had done some scrubbing up after Longstones, and this time I heard it very clearly, but before I could wonder aloud, some of the assembled birders called it. Nobody ever saw it. Tick. A definite 'bvd'. Or perhaps just 'vd'? Cruelly, the Birding Gods gave me another chance at this bird only a short while later, and on my own patch too. Related here, I'm still annoyed about this, and probably will be for many years.

11) Scottish Crossbill
As I was hunting for Caper in the Caledonian forests, I came across two Crossbills, male and female, feeding in a small pine. I got excellent views and indeed photographs of their obviously chunky bills. They never called, like that would have helped me anyway. It is possible that they could have been Parrots, but I wanted a tick. Scottish is the easier one of the two, so I had it as that, and even managed to feel a bit virtuous for not claiming Parrot.


12) Short-toed Lark
This was bird number 300 for me this year, and a lifer to boot. I was with quite a few birders in a field in Norfolk, all of whom confidently identified this thing in flight. I would not have been so confident, though it was noticeably paler and smaller than the Skylarks it was bombing about with. That was pretty much all I could say about it though. On it went, with the increasingly familiar 'bvd' annotation.

So there they are, my dirty dozen. All twelve of them are on my list, and all of the circumstances described were for life ticks. What I want to know is how many of them you would have ticked? Please confess via the comments box. Please note that comments confessing to ticking fewer than 8 will be deleted. Ditto with any comments suggesting the Crossbill photo depicts a Common Crossbill.

EDIT: I almost had an opportunity to add to the list this morning, when a Leach's Petrel was reported from Staines Reservoir. I need this for London, however the bird was on the South basin and it was a really bright day here. I've been over there in similar conditions for Scaup and Velvet Scoter, and it was most unsatisfactory. Trying to pick out a small petrel in such light would have been really tough. I'm sure I would have seen a petrel, but conclusive views? Tick!! Luckily I'm at home with both girls today, and Pie point-blank refused to go, so we didn't, thus avoiding the issue.

Monday 23 November 2009

Muffin vs Mrs L

An experiment this evening, in the shape of an ID challenge between parent and offspring, thoughtfully set up by the other parent and spouse. Who could identify the most birds from photographs? Given that Mrs L's reading list comprises various knitting tomes, and Thackeray's Vanity Fair (started in 2001, nearly there now!), whereas Muffin regularly peruses the Collins, the outcome was perhaps never in doubt, but I had hoped that being married to me for eight years might have counted for something.

Obviously this was not conducted under field conditions, where things might have been different, but I tried to be as neutral as possible and used a french language bird guide (160 common species) else they would both without question have cheated. Mrs L had the benefit of being vaguely able to read french, which, amongst others, gifted her Black Redstart (Rougequeue noir if you're interested), but I'll let that pass - she needs all the help she can get. On the other hand, Muffin had a chance at a few European birds that Mrs L wouldn't (and didn't) know from a bar of soap. I reckon the playing field is roughly level.

You've probably already guessed the result, but can you guess the margin?

Muffin: 115 (71%)

Mrs L: 88 (55%)

Yes, an absolute caning from a five year old. She almost didn't go through with it, knowing not only that she would probably lose, but also that it was likely to be good blogging material.... Well done Mrs L for being such a good sport and taking some time out from knitting. And not cheating too much.

Anyway, so what does this prove? That I am the greatest father ever, but a lousy husband? Possibly, to at least one of those. That small children are highly maleable? Yup. That perhaps some element of my nerdiness has travelled down the gene line? A preposterous suggestion. He got Peregrine in about a two-tenths of a nanosecond. Mrs L read the latin....

Some highlights (and lowlights):

Muffin got Nutcracker.
He also separated Goshawk and Sparrowhawk on eye-colour. Jesus.
Mrs L recognised a Tree Pipit.
She failed to recognise a Hawfinch but did remark that it had a really really big beak.
Neither of them know what a Chiffchaff looks like.

Friday 20 November 2009

Evolution at work

A month ago

Two weeks ago

30 minutes ago

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Just call me Nigella

No birding today, but check this out!

Oh. My. God.

Yes, I - that's me, moi - made a cake! I followed a recipe and everything. Measured stuff. Using scales, and tiny weeny spoons. From start to finish, I did it all. I used the beater thing as well, for the first time ever. I worked out how to insert the metal beaty things, and even went up to FULL POWER, whereupon bits of cake mixture went on the wall. A minor inconvenience, and fifty minutes later Chateau Lethbridge is permeated by the aroma of warm cake. And do you know what? It was easy! Piece of cake. And I did it without an apron.

This is proper domesticity. This is a level beyond vacuuming and emptying the bins. Washing, pah! Dusting, pah! No, it is all about HOME BAKING. I have been running this house, doing all manner of domestic rubbish, for over ten months now, and yet with a feeling of emptiness, of merely going through the motions. Repetitive tedium. This is what was missing. Baking.

I had been imagining earning in excess of two-trillion brownie points and going out birding from now until 2012. Turns out Mrs L does not like Banana and Walnut cake. Stands to reason really, as she doesn't like bananas. Don't know why I didn't think of that. Still, I expect the kids will eat it, and I have had three slices already. There is something about warm cake, can't quite put my finger on it...

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Aspersions and the casting thereof

Yesterday I found a Twite at Rainham. I had been on the Serin Mound, looking for Serin, when it flew over with Linnets. Not that Twite is a difficult bird to identify when it calls about 30ft above your head, but it is a description species for London; they are hard to come by here, and remember, I generally find nothing, so this was a red-letter day.

This morning the Twite was seen again, on the foreshore near the Tip. Thank You. And the Serin was seen again as well, so I went back to my vigil on the mound. I had been standing there for over an hour, perhaps two, not seeing a lot, when I thought I heard it, the classic bouncy trill, coming from the ridge. I strained to hear above the Goldfinches that had also started up, cupped my hands around my ears for assistance, and told those around me I could hear it. Could they? Yes, there it was again, and yes, at least one other bloke got it as well and agreed. That was it! If this is making me sound good, trust me, I have a very long way to go, but there are some things that I can do, and one of them is called research. If I'm on a Serin mission, one of the things I do is to read up on Serin before I go, and listen to the calls. Stands to reason really. I don't see Serin often enough to just inherently know it, so I have a resfresher. Genius. The Goldfinches showed themselves, the Serin did not. Bummer, but for dirty year-listing purposes, ker-ching. #314. Can't be too many more now.

A short while later, a well-known birder arrived. I'm not naming names. I told her or him (ok, well, him) that I had heard it. "What did it sound like?" Do I sense doubt? A hint of an aspersion? I described it, and played it on my phone for good measure. "Oh". About an hour after this, still with no sighting, the conversation had turned to bird records for Rainham. Aspersions were being well and truly cast now, though not in my direction. Yet. This well-known birder then accused somebody else of consistently not actually seeing things he was claiming, but in the same breath stated he was a truly excellent birder. Huh? How does that make sense? And this despite the fact that every single recent bird had been seen subsequently by several other people. Properly warmed-up now, they started coming thick and fast. A Greenfinch landed on top of the same bush that the Serin has been known to sit in, and called. "Did you hear that, that Greenfinch just gave a funny call, very like a Serin". KA-POW! Yep, that one was for me. Next up, Twite. "Twite is a London Mega, there haven't been any real London Twite for years. They used to winter regularly, not been any for ages now..." THWAPP!! Take that! Now, this birder has been birding for many years, and I'll be the first to admit that he knows a shed-load more about birds and birding than I do, and than I ever will, but is that really necessary? Rather than shit-stir and unsubtley attempt to discredit a young birder, errr, an up-and-coming birder someone relatively new to birding, wouldn't it be better to instead provide encouragement and advice? Nurture, as opposed to slap-down? That is the way the other person that was being talked about operates, and it works a whole lot better. Just my opinion.

I left after that. I should have stayed and vigourously told the caster to Piss Off, and that it was a Twite whether he liked the idea of it or not. But I'm not getting into a slanging match over a Twite, I'll save it for when it might really count. And anyway, Pudding needed lunch. She had been an absolute superstar all morning and a sausage-roll and a playground visit beckoned. But it makes me determined to formally submit the record. And if it gets rejected, well, it was still a Twite. Appearances can be deceptive, but I am not a total fool.

Monday 16 November 2009

A good weekend

If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed some subtle changes to the numbers in the 'Lists' section over on the right. Yes that's right, the 'Wanstead ever' and 'Wanstead 2009' lists have each moved up by one, and the 'BOU 2009' has increased by one as well. Well done if you noticed. You must be a sad, obsessive kind of person, perhaps a birder, and almost certainly a bloke. If you didn't notice, give yourself a pat on the back. You are a normal healthy individual.

So what, you ask, has been happening, for it must be greatly exciting and I for one cannot wait to find out?! Well, it has been exciting. Let's start with Saturday. Actually, let's start with Friday night, as there was an almighty storm that blew over one of my bamboos and dumped loads of rain while it was at it. Prime conditions for something unexpected to arrive in Wanstead, and with that thought I hastened to bed to be up early to find it.

The next morning was horrible, windy and wet. I elected to stay inside, eat bacon and drink tea. Casually checking my phone at around 11am, I was somewhat displeased to see a text from Stuart that had arrived at 9:20am whilst I had been fecklessly slumming around downstairs not even dressed. "Female goldeneye on heronry pond", it read. Why am I so bloody lazy? Why oh why oh why? Bugger. Stuart is hardy, tough and dedicated. I am soft and indolent. I wrapped up and headed out there, it had to be done. The bird was still present, totally indifferent to the weather. Tick and run. Then I drove home again. Yes, that's right, I drove to my local park. Pathetic.

The last one of these was in 1985. Mega!

Once home again, I berated myself at length for being so useless, and made some more tea. This must have had some impact, as on Sunday morning I managed to get out by 8:45, a mere hour and a half after first light. I did a full circuit of the Park, mainly for the purpose of taking photos for the Wanstead Park tour, but half in the hope of picking up something good. No chance, the best I got was a group of Fieldfare in the Old Sewage Work hedge. Still, it was a lovely morning, calm and with blue sky. I bumped into Stuart near Heronry, who had been unsucessfully looking for the Treecreeper in Reservoir Wood. I found that Treecreeper. Me! He told me that Paul was also in Reservoir wood, and so while he headed off for a mug of tea at the Tea Hut of Happiness, I headed over there to say hello, and also to look for the Firecrest that Stuart (yes, Stuart) had found last week. 200 yards from Reservoir Wood I got a text from Tim, in Reservoir Wood, to say that there was no sign of any Firecrests. 100 yards from Reservoir Wood, Tim called to say he was looking at a Firecrest! I quickened my pace, and soon found Tim and another birder I'd not met before called Nick looking at an empty holly bush. Despite a bit of searching none of us could relocate it, but the positive news is that it is still there and probably will be for some time. On an even more positive note, there were five birders in the Park on Sunday morning. This is amazing news. I think success breeds success, and encourages more people to get out there. Stuart has been at the forefront of the bird-finding this year, my input has been more modest (bar this blog devoted exclusively to Wanstead of course), and the goodies seem to be racking up at a rate of knots (not C canutus...). As you have seen in the recent "Map" posts, it is a vast area and deserving of much more coverage.

Just as it was going so well, my phone went. It was Bradders. I had been so into my patch that I hadn't checked the pager all morning. Spotted Sandpiper at Abberton, and he had precise directions from the finder! Tim's ears pricked up. And then there was one....

Yes, Tim and I shamefully abandoned the Firecrest, Nick, and the patch, and hurried off to fetch scopes, a car, and an OS map of Essex. Turns out Tim is something of a twitcher, and a year-lister to boot! He had kept it very quiet, but the secret is out - at least 14 people may now know! An hour and a small amount of EWT-approved fence-hopping later and we connected with ease. A very smart bird, # 313 for the year, only the second I have seen, and an Essex tick for good measure (#218 if you're counting, which I am).

Dear Shaunboy, this is the one I saw last year. Yesterday's one was too flighty to get a photo of, but I didn't want you to miss out.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Wanstead Park, part 2

So, continuing from where we left off yesterday, today, for your viewing pleasure, I walked around the other half of the Park. After the deluge yesterday, today was lovely, and armed with camera, I took a heap of photos of various scintillating locations. In fact, seeing as today was nice and yesterday was horrible, I retook a number of the vistas from yesterday. Now that they feature blue sky, I may go back and replace the ones in yesterday's post as I want to leave you with the lasting impression of Wanstead as a sunny, happy place.

The Basin, from Overton Drive

I started off at the Basin, which is enclosed within the Golf Course. Hah! To my mind, it is the most likely body of water to feature a winter Sawbill or other interesting duck, so is essential birding. It is a large circular lake with a small island in the middle, and it once formed the formal lake in front of Wanstead House. You can view almost the entire lake from the road, so no fence-hopping is required. Some people go and take a closer look anyway, and then walk through the rest of the Golf Course where there is a convenient exit near Warren Wood.

I don't know who took this photograph

Theoretically speaking, you would then exit the Golf Course near Warren Wood, and then have a choice. You could turn left and go through Warren Wood, which is extremely overgrown, and emerge almost at the northern end of the Ornamental Water, or you could walk straight down The Glade, a long green ride, and join the OW about half way along. Alternatively you could hang a right, go through Chalet Wood, and emerge at the end of Heronry Pond and the western end of The Plain. Best wait for the map.... Oh look, here is one I prepared earlier.

Some of Warren Wood

The Glade, looking east towards the Ornamental Water

The Ornamental Water is a long thin wiggly lake, with two sizeable islands at the northern end. It is for the most part heavily overgrown, and is in fact fairly difficult to observe. The exception is the central stretch, known as the Canal, which follows on from the Grove. This is neat and rectangular, and heavily populated by Coots. Nice. The smaller bits are the haunt of numerous Shoveler, and as many as 75 Gadwall in Winter. Kingfishers zoom about the least disturbed areas, and you can often find Teal in the area known as the Fortifications, a series of pointless eighteenth century islands arranged in a circle.

Looking north up the Ornamental Water. The right bank is in fact Rook and Lincoln Islands.

The Canal

Looking back up the Glade

You can walk around the entire Ornamental Water if you are feeling virtuous and in need of a Gadwall fix. Whichever way you walk around it, if heading south you end up at the Dell, and the entrance to the Old Sewage Works.

Looking south into the Old Sewage Works

This is a green field, an immense hedge, and an area of scrubland adjacent to the River Roding which runs parallel to the entire length of the OW, and then separates Wanstead Park from Ilford Golf Course and the North Circular. Despite the traffic noise and banal golfing chatter, this is by far the best place in the Park for small birds, in particular finches and thrushes. The hedge is monstrous, about 6 feet across, 12 feet high, and about 200 feet long. If you could empty the avian contents into a large box you would find you needed another box before you even got half way. Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Goldfinches, the odd Linnet and Bullfinch, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Dunnocks, and in winter, Fieldfares and Redwings. There is stacks of cover, and migrants have included Reed Warbler and Garden Warbler amongst others. The only thing that bothers me is that it is rather remote. I once passed two mean and nasty-looking blokes on bikes, who a short while later stopped to look back at me, and then had a suspicious chat, all the while glancing around furtively.

Bloke 1: Wots 'e doin' then?
Bloke 2: Dunno, shall we do 'im?
Bloke 1: Yeah, maybe. Yeah why not. We might get a few quid for that camera.
Bloke 2: Prob'ly got a phone too.
Bloke 1: Yeah, and a watch.
Bloke 2: We could sell his credit cards daaan the pub.
Bloke 1: Right, come on 'en, let's get 'im.
Bloke 2: Yeah let's.
Bloke 1: Oh, where'd 'e go?

I had in fact sidled up to the opposite hedge, then quickly through it whilst they were facing away - no doubt checking there was nobody coming who might rush to my aid. Fat chance, this is east London innit? I was now in the boggy and impassable-by-bike field next to the Roding, where I then back-tracked away from these characters, over an embankment to the relative safety of the Ornamental Water, and then around the Dell and back to civilization. Perhaps I was being overly dramatic, but for a second it didn't look good.

Looking back north. You can just see the hedge on the right. The green box inside the green fence is some kind of Thames Water pumping station. The Dell is through the distant trees on the left.

Anyhow, despite the constant fear of attack and death, or at the very least serious maiming and the loss of another pair of binoculars, the Old Sewage Works are brilliant for birds. I still go there, but I travel light, and I take a machine gun.

The Plain, west.

The Temple

Leaving the OSW (briskly) you go back through the Dell, and can then head across the Plain to the Temple and Chalet Wood, or you can track left alongside Perch Pond to the TEA HUT. This is what I did today, and amazingly it was open. One 60p mug of tea and one 50p cube of carrot cake later (may Starbucks never learn of this place) I was feeling refreshed and headed for home and domestic duties, and to type this up. I am also typing up hot news of another patch tick, but it was in the Park, so the post will have more meaning post this post, if you see what I mean. Stay tuned!

Saturday 14 November 2009

Wanstead Park, part 1

Right, I am on a roll. Today I'm going to do what I promised back in January when this whole blog thing started - a tour of Wanstead Park. This is only part 1 because it was a bit wet and windy today, and I was too much of a wuss to go round the whole park, so this is the southern and western bits. Part 2 will be the northern and eastern bits, including Warren Wood, the Old Sewage Works (catchy eh?), and the Ornamental Water.

One entrance to the Park is quite close to where I live. Nine times out of ten I go out onto the Flats, but when I do give the Park a bash, this is where I start.

The sign is a list of bylaws or something. "No Graffiti" is probably one of them.

Entering through the Blake Hall Road gate, you immediately go down a steep slope, and are in Reservoir Wood. The slope is what was the old bank - when you exit the wood from the eastern side, you pass through a kind of cutting, which was the other bank. I have no idea when it ceased to be a reservoir, but it must have been ages ago as the trees in the wood are massive. It is alive with Great Tits and Blue Tits, and is the site of my recent Treecreeper, a bird previously only known in Wanstead from the fossil record.

Reservoir Wood

Leaving Reservoir Wood from the east, the first pond you come to is the unusually-named Shoulder of Mutton Pond. This never has a great deal on it, but it does have the only patch of reeds in the entire park, which you can see on left-hand side of the photo below. So far this has remained steadfastly acro-free but I live in hope.

Shoulder of Mutton. I've not seen it from the air, but I'm sure it's close.

The Golf Course borders the northern edge of the park. It is out of bounds, ahem, and bordered by a sharp but slightly incomplete fence. Rumour has it that there are a few birds here, including quite a lot of Jays, good numbers of finches and Pied Wagtails, and best of all, a deep lake called The Basin, which will one day attract a Smew. I am told by a correspondent that the best time to look for birds on the Golf Course - from over the fence of course - is early in the morning when there is nobody else there. Later on in the morning various brightly-coloured oddballs walk all over it flushing everything in sight. Honestly, what a stupid hobby.

The next pond you come to is called the Heronry Pond. Though not the deepest, when it got really cold at the start of this year, this was the only water that remained open, and so all the waterfowl congregated here, including two displaced Iberian Red-Crested Pochard. That was an exciting morning, but I digress.

This is where the Little Egrets were earlier this year.

Heronry from the West, looking East towards the TEA HUT OF HAPPINESS.

Heronry starts off thin, and then fattens out into a fairly broad lake, with a concrete end. In fact it is concrete-sided all the way around, but mostly it is not obvious as there is a lot of overhanging vegetation. There are also a couple of islands, but no Heronry. This is Coot central, though pleasingly there were not many on here when I went round today. Several pairs of Little Grebe breed, and in winter there is a healthy population on Tufties, Gadwall, Pochard and Shoveler. I once had a Ruddy Duck on here until I shot it.


Ah, where to start. The Tea Hut. The opening hours are steeped in mystique, but when it is open, you can get a proper tea. In a mug. No styrofoam here, a proper chunky mug, which you are allowed to carry away from the hut to nearby benches to continue scanning Heronry for rare ducks. Or Coots. They also sell cake. Carrot Cake, Chocolate Cake, Coffee Cake, Bread Pudding. This is beyond wonderful, and it is often tempting to head straight there, forsaking the rest of the Park. You need to remain resolute, and carry on past it, as you don't deserve it yet. No, only when you have walked the entire circuit of the Ornamental Water and Perch Pond are you allowed tea and cake. What do you think this is, the Scillies?

Heronry, looking west from the Tea Hut.

Looking north from the edge of Heronry, past the Tea Hut, you see the western half of The Plain, and behind it, Chalet Wood. I saw my very first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the distant large tree directly above the right-hand litter bin.

The Plain is the part of the Park most like the Flats, that is to say, rough grassland with a few bits of broom. I have never seen Skylark here, though Meadow Pipit is a possibility. I think the proximity of the Tea Hut is to blame, as you get loads of fatties hanging around scoffing cake whilst their offspring run riot nearby.

The eastern half of The Plain, with the Temple and the keepers lodges in the background. The Temple is not a temple, it is just called that, I don't know why. I think it is one of the remaining outbuildings associated with Wanstead House. Sometimes they have dull exhibitions in there, arrowheads and old bits of farm stuff.

Perch Pond

Continuing east, you get to Perch Pond. This is the deepest pond in the park, and probably holds more Pochard than anywhere else. It is also the most likely to get Great Crested Grebe. It got a couple of Goosander last year. I didn't see them, so Perch Pond is pretty dull in my book. The western end, closest to the Tea Hut, is a network of small channels and boggy bits, and is the best place to find Water Rail. On the other side is a boggy depression known as the Dell. An overspill from Perch (the grate, above) creates a little stream which winds through here, under a bridge and into the southern tip of the Ornamental Water. Today though it was a raging torrent, and all the Woodcock I was certain would be there had been washed away.

The Dell

There is a little brick bridge between these two photos.

The start of the Ornamental Water

As you stand on the bridge, the Ornamental Water stretches north. It is a very thin wiggly bit of water, with one long rectangular vista roughly in the middle. At the top end are two large islands. To the west of these islands is some dense Woodland, Warren Wood. To the east is the North Circular. To the south is the Old Sewage Works. All of these goodies will feature in part 2, as well as a map.

Friday 13 November 2009

Map of Wanstead Flats & Wanstead Park


This is the patch, an overall area of about 200 hectares. We count anything we can see on or from the patch - though we'll mention it if in the fact the bird was miles and miles away. It's a moot point as to whether the residential streets that separate the Park and the Flats count or not, but we have to walk through them to get from one to the other, and you can't just switch off if you're a birder. A few of us actually live in these streets, and just you try and stop us counting anything we see from our gardens! We also annexed the Golf Course, but in reality this means that we view the Basin from Overton Drive.

Thursday 12 November 2009

Misty Morning Hop

No ticks today, I obviously need more lists. So with nothing to regale you with, I think a quick photo-essay on Wanstead Flats might be in order, so you can get to know the daily (hem hem) trudge. Some of my greatest finds have been here, including, on Monday, when I took these photos, such gems as Meadow Pipit, Skylark, and several Black-headed Gulls.

As you may know, the Flats are very close to my front door, so I go there often. They are also nice and wide and open, with good viewing angles and direct lines of sight. I can see people from a long way away, and nobody can sneak up on me, then hit me, and then run away with my binoculars. I find this very reassuring. What follows is mostly the route I take, the only difference being that I don't go through Long Wood.

Here is the bit closest to my front door. I have had Snipe in here a few times, and one day I am going to find a Richard's Pipit as well.

We have now crossed the road, and are facing what I call "The First Playing Fields that you get to". Mistle Thrushes and Jackdaws like this field. In the far right-hand corner is where all the Ring Ouzels hang out. It was quite murky this morning.

Long Wood. Motivations vary for going in here.

Long Wood. The Waiting Room... (on the trunk), and the path leading to, er, other rooms.

Don't go down this path. Especially not on Wednesday evenings in the summer.

Moving south a bit, this is the biggest area of rough acid grassland, and is where most of the Skylarks nest. It is also good for Meadow Pipits. Reed Buntings can be found here, and Stonechats inhabit the broom in Winter. The Dartford Warbler was in the central patch of broom you can see here, and the Coronation Plantation is in the background. This is one of several stands of now mature trees that were planted many years ago in order to break up the barren feel of the place.

Another view towards the Coronation Plantation, also known as the 1953 Plantation. I've had Ring Ouzel on here as well. And Kestrel.

The eastern side of the Flats are dominated by about a million football pitches. When not being used for football, which is in fact most of the time, they are used by Canada Geese and various Gulls to poo on and drop feathers on. For avid gull enthusiasts, the species list, from commonest to rarest, is: Common Gull (go figure), Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull (which I have seen twice). With so many Commons and Black-headed in winter I must be able to turn up a Ring-billed or a Med. Watch this space.

We are now approaching Alexandra Lake, parts of which are hidden in front of the large trees on the left. In the centre, through the goal posts, are the Sandhills, so named because a funny Crane with a bright red forehead appeared here at the beginning of October this year. Or maybe it's because they are hills made out of sand, I can't remember. I missed the Crane, but this is where I flushed a Wood Sandpiper in August, just left of the posts, behind the first substantial bush. And I've had Redstart in the obvious large Hawthorn on the extreme right. Twice.

In addition to the odd Wood Sand, there are many other interesting birds to be found here, often in large numbers. Beyond the far end of Alex is another area of Hawthorn Scrub which in the past has turned up Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and other good migrants like that. I didn't go there today as I needed to back for 8:15 else suffer the wrath of Mrs L, so there is no photo. After giving that a quick bash, most of the time I then walk back alongside the scrubby ditch (squelch squirch, squelch squirch) that borders the southern edge of the playing fields, and in which I have never found anything. Once that ends I can have a mosey through a couple of the other plantations (stumble trip, stumble trip) and then head back across the main rough grass bit (swishy swashy, swishy swashy), over the road and home (phew), but this time I hurried straight back the way I had come. Exemplary husband and father that I am, I was back at 8:15 on the nail. Mrs L then didn't leave for another fifteen minutes.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick

I have had so many ticks recently it is difficult to know where to start. As all birders know, ticks are very exciting. VERY. Given that you can create lists for almost any combination of location, time period and circumstance, if you're ridiculous dedicated enough, you can pretty much guarantee yourself ticks all the time, and thus go around with a happy and self-contented grin on your face on a permanent basis. Winner. As regular readers will know, I restrict myself to only a very few lists, but despite this restraint, there have been ticks galore.

The first was the Snow Goose in Norfolk at the weekend. The same goose that gave me the run-around on my trip up a couple of weeks ago with Muffin. Then, despite finding several enormous flocks of Pink-feet, and with the help of an RAF Hercules practising low-level flying over grazing pastures, I couldn't locate it. This time it was a piece of cake - a huge flock of geese was on Holkham Freshmarsh, and it was with them. Couldn't get it from the road, so we had to fork out £3.50 to the thieving so-and-sos guarding Lady Anne's Drive. Once down at the far end it was very straightforward. I have been accused of being slightly whippet-like in my approach, but I can assure you I was calm and relaxed even with the prospect of a nervous, flighty and hard-to-come-by year-tick taking off in an instant, hidden amongst thousands of other geese and being lost to view for ever and ever and ever. #311 for the year. A mature and sensible total. The rest of the day was spent dipping various things so I'll gloss over that, but Norfolk in late autumn is sensational. Eight Shorelarks at nearby Holkham Gap were the most I have ever seen, and just beautiful as they fed in the soft afternoon light. One even had vestigal horns. The day ended at Cley not seeing an AGP, but with a glorious sky, a quartering Barn Owl, three Marsh Harriers, two trillion Teal and a vocal Water Rail, it could not really have been more perfect.

The next tick was this Monday afternoon. Whilst chasing a pesky squirrel off my bird-feeders (again), a Coal Tit called from a garden a down the street somewhere. Given I only just got Coal Tit for the patch, this is either A) excellent or B) a damning indictment on my birding skills. I suspect the latter. Monday was to get better though. At about 1pm news came through of a Snow Bunting at Rainham, feeding on the old sea wall. This would be a Rainham tick and a London tick, though not an Essex tick (boooo!). I was expecting Redsy to come and take a look at our shower which has been leaking since 1824, and that I have been putting off getting fixed for almost as long, so couldn't go immediately and played it cool. Gnnnnnnnnnnrrr! Then it was time for the school run, no problem, the bird was still there, and a Brent Goose on Purfleet with the Canadas (remarkably another Rainham and London tick). I hadn't counted on an accident on the A13 which backed traffic up the North Circular. Four o'clock came and went, I idled near the Beckton Roundabout. Still there! Gnnnnnnrrrrr! 4:15 and I was steaming into the car-park, commando-rolling out of the car (no mean feat with two children). It was nearly dark. I rushed into the centre. "Get out there, get out there, what are you doing?!" screamed Howard, almost as excited as I was - the Brent Goose had just flown onto the river. I plopped Pudding under my arm and rushed out on to the sea wall. Yes! Still there! Tick. OK, where's the Bunting? Finally found it in near darkness, still feeding on the old sea wall, though further away than it had been previously. We were able to approach to within about six feet, the bird showed no fear at all. I think the kids were genuinely amazed. Pudding pointed at it and said " 'now buntin' ", that's my girl! So, by the skin of my teeth, two London ticks in twenty minutes, superb. I should really have seen Brent in London by now, but Snow Bunting is a quality London bird so I'm pleased I managed to connect with it and get such good views, even in the gloom.

Rainham had been so brilliant that I decided I would spend the whole of Tuesday there. Mrs L was working from home, and despite the opportunity this presented to feverishly dust and clean under her approving gaze, watching the BP counter rise and rise to perhaps close to zero, the lure of birding was too strong. And a good thing I succumbed too! First stop for Pudding and I was Aveley Tip, and loads of gulls. I am not a Gull-fiend, but in my quest for Caspian Gull - a life tick no less - I have been spending hours up there. This is not the greatest destination for small children, so my visits, though numerous, have been brief. Believe it or not the children do not shout "Daddy, can we go to the fragrant tip and look at Gulls again?" particularly often, so I have always combined it with something slightly more fun, like sausage rolls at the visitor centre followed by the playground. I had therefore repeatedly failed in my quest, whilst Andy, a Gull addict and Rainham regular able to spend hours up there has seen something like eight in the last two weeks. Plus he is good at Gulls, which helps. Today was to be my day though. It was bitterly cold, and having gone through the birds on the tip several times for a paltry two adult Yellow Legged Gulls (I would not be able to find a juv....), I turned my attention to the birds on Wennington. "Hello hello, what are you then?!" I found a bird immediately, an adult, that though distant looked really really good. Pure white, pear-shaped head, a beady black eye, very pale grey-yellow and parallel-sided long bill with no obvious gonydeal angle. I could not see the legs, but it was standing tall, and though large, appeared slim at the same time. Convinced I had nailed one, I excitedly called for reinforcements. Unfortunately H could not get away, so he listened to my description and said to take as many photos as possible. Ah, problem. Not to worry, I am world-class when it comes to phone-scoping, the quality has to be seen to be believed.

See what I mean?

Back in the centre, warming my numb hands, I nervously showed Howard my best effort, and it passed the Cachinnans test! I would have felt bad showing him a funny Herring Gull, but I knew I had a good one. Hurrah, and....tick! After a celebratory cheese toastie, Pudding and I were about to head out on the reserve when I noticed a number of Gulls go up. Bins ever at the ready, I picked a small dark falcon absolutely tanking it low across the reserve. It landed on a post and when scoped up there was nothing about it that didn't suggest female Merlin. Ker-ching! Yep, another London tick. And an Essex tick! And a Rainham tick! Good thing I keep lists for those three.....Amazingly I have racked up four for London in the last two days. I am still at the very bottom of the London "league table" but that is fine, I like it that way, and every new bird will be a small victory until I can finally move up to.... penultimate place. I can scarcely wait!

Today is Wednesday, and no birding was planned. But such is my amazing good fortune of late that whilst opening an upstairs window this morning a Pied Wagtail flew over the house calling, which was garden tick #54.

So, in summary, as I know you care:

Snow Goose = BOU 2009 #311
Coal Tit = Garden #53
Brent Goose
= London #202, Rainham #151
Snow Bunting = London #203, Rainham #152
Caspian Gull = BOU Life #338, BOU 2009 #312, London #204, Rainham #153, Essex #216
Merlin = London #205, Rainham #154, Essex #217
Pied Wagtail = Garden #54

By my reckoning that is fifteen ticks, that is to say, I have had to add fifteen new lines to various lists, and all since Sunday. Exciting stuff, I'm off to have a lie down.