Wednesday, 28 January 2009

How to get excited by Great Tits

1) Go to the same place every day for 10 years
2) During that time, don't do any birding, and specifically don't see or hear any Great Tits
3) Once the 10 years are up, go birding and find a Great Tit
4) Do a little jig

"I was expecting some kind of smutty witicism"

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Kingfisher! Yay!

Well, a quiet week and not much birding. Going to work all day doesn’t help of course. And neither does being ill. I spent the first two days at home feeling cruddy, though did score a presumed Lesser Redpoll on the way back from nursery on Tuesday morning. Classic call somewhere above my head as I entered Bush Wood. Redpoll ID is a funny old thing, tends to get a bit emotional. Following the Thordon CP controversy recently, I spent a bit of time reading up on Redpoll ID, in my continuing effort to become a better birder. Fat chance. Four hours or more of reading leads me to believe that trying to pin a concrete ID on a Redpoll is a hopeless task, and that you are on a hiding to nothing. Safer to call anything you see away from Shetland a probable Lesser and be done with it. It seems just a sliding scale from small and browny to massive and white, and whilst certain races are likely to be found within certain areas of that scale, getting definitive is dangerous. As the Punks say, if they are likely to stick around and be seen by others, call them Lesser, if they disappear into the distance, feel free to claim a few unimpeachable Mealy.

I digress. A quick jaunt to East India Dock on Friday picked up a wintering Black Redstart – one of the best sites in London, if not the country, for reliable sightings - and there was a Common Sandpiper in Bow Creek with the Redshank at the high-tide roost, which was a year tick. All in all a very profitable lunch hour. It needed to be, as today was almost bird-free, bar an aquamarine dart across the Heronry Pond this morning. I was out looking for the 5 Egyptian Geese that would have been a site tick for me, seen by Paul F yesterday. They were gone, but there isn't much that beats an early-morning Kingfisher really. Bee-eater perhaps? I was under strict orders from Management to be out for no longer than 20 minutes, but returned after 15 for extra brownie points.
Fair enough given I buggered off to Cornwall last weekend. The life of a birder is one long balancing act.

Friday, 23 January 2009

January 23rd, one year ago - A day of Infamy

Jan 23rd 2008 started out ordinarily enough. I had no child duties, so I spent some time in Bush Wood early doors, and had some simply brilliant views of a male Sparrowhawk sat up in the morning sunshine. Happy, and with the glow only early morning birding can bring, I put my bins in my bag and went to work. The day was no doubt fun-filled and enthralling.

On the way home I walked back through Bush Wood without a care in the world, and with dinner in my bag for me & Mrs L. What happened next is a bit of a blur, but in the passage between the wood and Belgrave Road, a bloke ran up behind me, pinned my arms behind my back and then a second guy punched me in the face and I was wrestled to the ground. A further two, in conjunction with the second guy, continued to punch my head shouting "What you got, what you got, where's your phone you pussy, where's your phone?", or something along those lines, until I indicated which pocket my phone was in. Somewhat amazingly, that was the only pocket they went through, so they missed out on an ipod filled with 60's classics, a blackberry, and my wallet. Losers. However, as an afterthought whilst making off, one took my bag, which had my treasured bins in it. I tried to pull it back - who was I kidding - cue another totally unnecessary punch in the face - and another one then took a huge running kick at my upper thigh, and then they all ran off into the wood. So 90 seconds and I was down 1 phone, 1 pair of 8x42 Ultravids, and 2 steaks - having said that, my appetite had diminished slightly. Scum - 100 yards from my front door, and on MY PATCH. I am still outraged a year later. The police came very quickly, but there was nothing to be done. My description of the assailants matched 95% of East London's youth, so nothing ever came of it, and I never got anything back. On the plus side, Leica had just introduced the HDs, so with the insurance payout I was able to get a replacement pair of the non HDs at a large discount and chose the 7x instead, which are phenomenally good.

This unfortunate encounter has had a number of repercussions beyond the passing physical ones.

1) For a while I was very jumpy. About 3 weeks later a jogger frightened the living daylights out of me on my own street just by running past me. I am never quite at ease whilst out birding solo now.
2) I don't bird Bush Wood very much any more, preferring the security offered by the wide-open spaces of the Flats.
3) I feel compelled to use secondary bins for all my local birding, and I don't ever take my scope. The viewing pleasure is diminished, and I have missed some distant birds.
4) I had to pay the insurance excess and my premium went up, whilst the muggers probably sold my phone for a fiver and tossed my bins into a bush.

I am officially a victim of crime. HR at work even offered me counseling, said I should take as much time off as I needed, "Thanks, see you in June" I replied. I didn't really. I did allow myself one day though, and went to Rainham, so I could look through lots of different peoples' bins.

Anyway a year has now passed, and I have never had a problem since. However if any potential muggers are reading this, they should be aware that my replacement phone is also obsolete rubbish, and that my bins have a large scratch on the left objective. And that I shoot to kill.

Here it is, the snicket where the evil deed was done.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Coot habits

"You should have listened to Sir Humphrey. Has anyone seen my fags?"

Monday, 19 January 2009

A weekend in Cornwall

4am pick-up. With Paul, Shaun and myself in the back, it is somewhat snug. Bradders is driving, Bradders sr. to his left, pointing out speed cameras. Once light, somewhere in Devon I think, it is immediately apparent that Hawky is on fire. Carrots perhaps? No Buzzard goes unnoticed, and a 1 second glimpse of a dark shape over the A303 is all that is needed to nail Raven. Even though some members of the party find the Goosander a bit stringy, he is clearly seeing things very well. We continue our cuddle in the back until we finally arrive at Zennor. Upon getting out of the car and being blown over by a 60mph gust, I remark to the boys that it is perhaps a tad windy. The Snowy Owl thinks so too, and has flown off out of view to seek shelter about a mile south from the summit of Trendrine hill. As always on tough twitches it pays to scan for birders. Are they standing about not viewing a major rarity (just like us), or are they in fact “on it”? In this instance, we decide that a handful of birders a few miles away have the owl in view, so there is nothing for it but to trudge over there. The pager message did not indicate that pot-holing gear would be needed to traverse the moor, and we were fairly fortunate not to lose any party-members in the tough conditions. A helpful chap we met about halfway said that there was a 10ft stretch of path/stream where one could occasionally see the top of the owl’s head. After about another two days slogging over the terrain, we finally arrived at the said stretch, and sure enough, there it was about half a mile away. Not quite the crippling views we were all hoping for, but the risk of confusion is low, so it gets ticked. If you want to recreate the approximate experience at home, add a bucket of soil to a cold bath, stand in it for a couple of hours, and then squint at the below photo whilst constantly shaking your head from side to side to mimic the wind.

Crippling views

At one point a large cow, absent-mindedly grazing along the wall-line where the owl was sheltering, got to within about 4 feet. Cue an ears-up, “what the f*ck” bovine-moment. Despite the small line of birders intensely willing this cow onwards (and of course fully intending to flame it on bird-forum the next day) the owl won the stare-down contest and the cow(ard) retreated.


Three hours in the freezing cold has done nothing to diminish Paul’s razor-sharp eye; at Sennen he has been out of the car for roughly 0.5 seconds before he has called a GND in the bay; a speck on the horizon is a Purple Sand which duly lands on the harbour wall; a Med Gull is found bobbing with a group of BH Gulls, and barely have I got onto this when an Iceland Gull flies across his scope. Whatever he has been eating (or more likely drinking) we need to find more of it to sustain this performance. I contribute a Rock Pipit.

"Got any carrots?"

It is clear that the weather is deteriorating, so after a male Hen Harrier courtesy of Bradders jr. (Paul must have been poking Shaun or something), and a pastie stop, we head to Marazion for a spot of sand-blasting. Retreating to Penzance harbour, we meet the same birder we had met on the moor, and learn he has twitched the Owl from Luton ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT. Train to Penzance, and then a local bus to the foot of Trendrine Hill. Amazing. There are another 2 GNDs here, not remotely bothered by the vile conditions, supremely adapted to shit weather. Unlike us - we are more adapted to the pub, which is where we were now headed.

Paul: “Should I put on waterproofs?”
David: “No, its hardly raining at all”

Three inches of rain then fell in about ten minutes. Roads became rivers, drainpipes became waterfalls, steps became rapids. Unbelievable. Members of the team who had not bothered to put on waterproofs, or who had been badly advised re the need for waterproofs, got completely soaked. You could only laugh really, especially if like me you were wearing waterproofs. Luckily, the Turk’s Head has good beer, good food, and a FIRE for drying out wet people. A short but lively evening then ensued, but the general consensus was that we were all tired, and indeed despite my usual impervion to disease, I was feeling slightly under the weather, so it was not the raucous night that it might have been. Back at the B&B Shaun and I were unsure whether our room had windows or not. There appeared to be some sort of glass structure where you would expect windows to be, but the curtains flapping about horizontally raised serious doubts as to their physical reality.

The following day is breezy, but nothing like the previous night. We are drooling in anticipation of the rafts of Grey Phals we will see littering the Cornish beaches. In the event there is only one thing littering Cornwall, more on that later.

We spend the morning gently birding the sea between Newlyn and Marazion, and find stacks of GNDs, a BT Diver, a BN Grebe, and another Iceland Gull. 2 seconds out of the car at Long Rock, Paul calls a Black Redstart; none of us believe him. The Sanderlings keep me occupied for a bit, and another Med Gull flies past. A juv Cornish bird gets out of a neighbouring car with seemingly the sole intention of showing these rugged binocular-toting lads her very short skirt-cum-belt, but we give her short thrift so she gets back in and drives off; had she been able to point out a Phal we would have been all ears. Apparently only a couple of us actually noticed her at all, and are accused of blatant suppression by the others. On next to Helston for the long-staying Ring-billed Gull. As we leave, a Black Redstart pops up onto the sea wall….

The Ringer is not at Helston, but Shaun sniffs out a small sewage farm, and we are soon delighted by approximately 4000 wintering Chiffchaffs, a couple of which are outrageously pale. Discussions involving complicated and unknown words like “tristis” and “abietinus” then follow. I am just impressed that there should be this many Chiffies here in mid-Jan at all. My role is limited to the taking of photographs, some good, some bad (very bad). A Raven goes over with a BH Gull, allowing an excellent size comparison.

Candidate Sibe #1

Candidate Sibe #2

Home via Dawlish Warren, and potential Surf Scoter. Paul has been sharing his secret supply of carrots with David, who finds it in about 5 seconds. I need to go birding with these guys more often, it is sensational! Honestly there are 3 birds in 10 square miles of sea, and we’re straight on them. It could be something exclusive to Surfies though, a magnetic scope-attraction feature. When Surf Scoter was a lifer for me (I spit at them now), I went to find one off Ruddon’s Point in Fife, set up my scope, looked through it, focused, and almost fell over – drake Surf Scoter bang in the middle of the circle. This bird is a female, and is with a female Velvet Scoter, with a male Common Scoter not far away, affording good comparison. Discounting the yellow bill on the CS, we concentrate on the other two. The SS & VS are about the same size, but it is actually quite difficult to see the white flank stripe on the VS. However the bill structure is a dead giveaway, the VS has more distinct white on the head, and the SS has a habit of the raising its tail, like a Ruddy Duck. After that excellent and succinct comparative analysis, you would expect a photo. Bad luck.

A couple of common-as-muck Cattle Egrets are about 5 minutes down the road, in the company of 3 Little Egrets and a flock of fancy sheep. Again, for comparative purposes - and believe it or not they do get confused, in fact a pager message this very weekend read “Reported Cattle Egret at blah blah blah is a Little Egret” - Cattle Egret has a shortish yellow bill and pale legs, Little Egret has long black bill and dark legs. There are things that Little Egret can be confused with, but Cattle Egret is not one of them. This time there is a photo for your elucidation.

So, a top weekend in the South-west, and some brilliant birds, including a Snowy Owl’s head. I never thought I would ever see any part of a Snowy Owl, and that it was one of these mythical birds that appeared on Benbecula every now and again, and that took 2 days and several ferries and light aircraft to get to, so I am very pleased. I am genuinely ill now, so took the day off and wrote this.

A footnote: A plea to the dog-owners of Cornwall.

Fucking well clean up after your dogs. It is disgusting.

In English, this says "You may be fined if you don't clean up after your dog"

You are privileged to live in an amazingly beautiful part of the world, why spoil it? 60% of our party stepped in something, and we think less of Cornwall for it.

"Welcome to Turd County"

Friday, 16 January 2009

Possible Snowy Owl in Wanstead

Well it has been a quiet week in Wanstead, my home town, out on the edge of the North Circular. The Red-crested Pochard have stayed all week, and have retained their credibility by refusing bread and sticking to the far side of the Heronry Pond. I've been out birding, ooh, twice I think, and seen very little.

The tedium was lifted slightly by a possible Snowy Owl sighting in the borough, which would be an unusual record if confirmed. Opinions are currently split as to whether this is the real thing, or an escape of some sort. I'll let you make up your own minds. I can't reveal where the photograph was taken as it may influence your decision. In the meantime, I am off to Cornwall at 4am tomorrow for a crack at the other lingering mainland bird. I'll let you know how I get on.

Possible scandiaca, undisclosed location, Wanstead, Jan 2009.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Blogging advice from Sir Humphrey Appleby

"If you have nothing to say, say nothing"

Sunday, 11 January 2009


Beautiful sunrise over Wanstead Flats this morning. Padded out and got some of it, though the full impact had passed a few minutes earlier. It was also remarkably mild. The cold had just dissipated overnight - it almost felt like spring. Bet that bloke I saw on the tube trying to haul a De Longhi heater home in the Friday rushhour is pretty pissed off.

Today was a much better day than yesterday. By 9.30am I was watching the Great Grey Shrike as it sat serenely about a mile and a half away, and I was able to get to Rainham for 10.30 in order to dip the Pendulines again. Home for lunch with the Mother in Law, which in fact went off very nicely. The wine was superb. Luckily I held back, as just prior to the lemon mousse I happened to glance at the pager to see if any Penduline Tits were showing well.... Mrs L and Hitler Woman were kind enough to let me scoot off, and despite a somewhat tense drive taking 90 minutes rather than the usual 20 due to a series of accidents, I finally connected with these superb little birds. Took me while to actually get on them, but once I realised you just had to see where reed-fluff was being dispensed from, good views (and crappy photos) were obtained.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Double Dip Day. Damn.

I wasn't really supposed to be birding today, as I may have mentioned. As it was I managed to sneak out of the house - albeit with a baby on my back, so Mrs L probably did notice. I was resolute, I was going round the Flats, and that was it, Pendulines be damned. I had just seen a Stonechat, and one of the Reed Buntings had just zoomed over, when.... "beep beep"....

"2 PENDULINE TITS Rainham Marshes RSPB......"


Resolutions went out the window, and about 45 minutes later, I found myself on the boardwalk, looking at some recently vacated reeds, and being gripped off by a bunch of birders who had had:
"excellent views"
"just in front of where you are now"
"no, about two minutes before you arrived"
"yes, they just flew off high NW"
"really high, doesn't look like they'll be back for a while"
"when they did this last time they weren't seen for about two days"

Lack of avian subject matter promotes art

Back at home, Kids Corner was looming, but oh look, a Great Grey Shrike, within the LNHS area, about 8 miles away, and showing well. You can see where this is leading so I'll cut to the chase - dropped wife and kids off at this party, went off to Potter's Bar where I met Vince, dipped the Shrike, got very cold, drove back, picked up kids, wife and balloons, went home, sulked.

Oh, and about an hour in to the Shrike dip, phone goes off, and it's Blowmonkey, who has apparently been enjoying excellent views of the Snowy Owl in Cornwall. Superb he tells me, really really good. I'm looking forward to the photos.

Vince dipping a Shrike in London

Friday, 9 January 2009

Just one more day...

Come on the Rainham Pendulines! They are back! These little buggers eluded me by about 3 hours on Jan 2nd. I suppose I would have been on the A1 nr Peterborough when they flew off for the last time. Didn't stop me and Vince freezing our nuts off on the Rainham boardwalk later that day though. Anyway, they are back, and showing well again. I know exactly what to look for as several mates have kindly sent me cracking close-range photos of them. This is of course Rainham's second Penduline visitation, following the birds in 2006. Back then I was not interested in birds as much, so I missed them. And the Sociable Plover. And a Blyth's Reed Warbler at the base of Canary Wharf Tower whilst I was sat a mere 400 yds away bored out of my skull. GAAAH! And these are just the birds people have told me about. - I am too scared to actually go back and check the records in I find any more.

Despite the ludicrous January quality up and down the land, this is weekend has limited twitching opportunities. Saturday is the kids swimming lesson, followed by one of my son's friends' birthday parties at the hell-hole that is "Kid's Corner" in Epping Forest. The plan is that I drop Maman, son & middle daughter off there, and then take the youngest off somewhere whilst the party rages. If I have long enough (and if the Phragmites at Aveley have been limed according to my instructions) I may go for the Pendulines, which will be a new bird for both of us. If the party is only an hour, then I'll just go round Connaught Water for the Mandarins, and maybe a Smew.

Sunday is the real killer though. Hitler Woman's Birthday. At our house. And I am expected to be present. And pleasant. And to cough up some vintage Burgundy. And all this whilst the East London Massive are in Cornwall ticking Snowy Owl. It is not going to be easy.

Oh, and a site tick this morning in Wanstead Park, with a pair of Red-crested Pochard on the Heronry Pond. Provenance unknown but I am ticking them anyway. #90. Sorry, make that #90. Was counting throught the regular Pochards (43 in case you were wondering) and there they were, a male and female. An uncouth word may have passed my lips. Obviously there are large feral populations, but these were hanging about at the far side of the pond (because I had a camera), and the hard weather is clearly causing movements of wildfowl. Smew next please. Or a RN Grebe. Also, following a tip-off from a visiting birder from Fairlop, heard Nuthatch in a Churchyard just north of Wanstead Park. Unfortunately outside my patch boundaries, might have to annex it.....

"¿dónde estamos?"

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Wanstead Flats Threat Assessment Guide

Let me introduce you to the Flats. They are wonderful. I can be out seeing birds in less than a minute. This is TFL zone 3 don't forget, but I've booted Snipe out in under two minutes from the front door. Skylark are also a mere two minutes away, and Reed Bunting and Stonechat are under five minutes. The Flats are my favourite bit of the patch. Since my unfortunate encounter with four hooded gentlemen in Bush Wood almost a year ago, I have birded the Flats probably 80% of the time. You can see a long way in all directions, and carry out threat assessments with 8x32s. I tend to bird early morning, when f*ckwits are likely passed out in bed, but you can never be too careful. Here is a guide to potential encounters you may have on the Flats.

- Dog walker. Annoying and useful in equal measure. If no dog obviously present, such as hidden by long grass, check person for lead or small plastic bag. This is the most likely early-morning encounter. Threat Level: GREEN
- Joggers. Threat Level: GREEN (especially if they look like they are hating it)
- Kids in School Uniform. Threat Level: GREEN. Also, don't linger with the bins.
- Amorous Asian couples avoiding friends and family. Threat Level: GREEN
- People with bibs playing footie. Threat Level: GREEN
- People flying model aeroplanes. Sodding annoying, they should get a hobby that is fun and cool. Like birding. Threat Level: GREEN
- Loitering youths in hoodies. Threat Level: AMBER. Circumvent, or retreat.
- Significant Relative out looking for you, perhaps also with bins. Threat Level: RED. Go home immediately and unstack the dishwasher.

This morning was GREEN, and I spent 30 happy minutes meandering to the bus and got 6 Skylark, 2 Mipit, a Pied Wagtail, whilst a Grey Heron flew over Centre Road. The bush of Reed Bunting potential had a Crow in it, and I couldn't find any Stonechats, maybe tomorrow. Patch year list now 41.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Patch Boundaries explained

No birding in Wanstead today. Instead here is a an aerial view of the patch, with my self-appointed boundaries in red (the Park) and blue (the Flats). The un-named round pond at the western end of the Park is Shoulder of Mutton, and the thin wiggly one is the Ornamental Water. The northern tip of the Flats is Bush Wood, and the small pond in the south-western corner labelled JP is the Jubilee, and Alexandra Lake is labelled AL.

The Patch

Patch rules: Either I or the bird have to be in or over the patch for it to count. If either one of these is true, on it goes. If both I and the bird are outside the boundary, to count it I would have to leg it over the nearest boundart and hope I could still see it. Clearly I would never do that, no way.

This rule came in handy today at Canary Wharf. I was on the way to East India Dock NR to try and get Black Redstart for the yearlist, and whilst waiting on the platform at Poplar DLR station I picked up a raptor over the east of the estate. Quick-draw on the trusty bins and I confirm it as Peregrine. Sparrowhawk and Kestrel are both possibilities here but there is no mistaking this profile, even with my meagre abilities. I'm outside the patch, but the bird is over it, so on it goes at #18. 3rd Peregrine of 2009 actually, after 2 at Rainham on the 2nd whilst dipping the Pendulines. I didn't get the Black Redstart by the way, but I did get a drake Shoveler, which was a patch tick. Not doing East India this year, too far to go, spend more time travelling than birding.

Another day in Paradise

After dropping the kids off at nursery I did a quick tour of Bush Wood before heading to work. I expected to find Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest and duly did, but did not expect cracking views of the male Sparrowhawk perched out on an open branch in the sun. He must have been quite aware of my presence, but didn't move. Perhaps he is trying to tell me something? I'll take the bus home tonight. Also saw the female circling.

It is January the 6th and it is my second day at work, so today I once again birded the avian desert that is Canary Wharf. Moved the total up to 13 with a Herring Gull on the DLR supports before I had even take 2 strides out of the station, and then to a stunning 17 with an afternoon walk that netted GBB Gull at Billingsgate, a Moorhen and GC Grebe in Blackwall Basin, and a fly-over Woodpigeon. This puts me 27th (out of 30) in the 2009 London League table. Kudos.

January 5th and back to work

It is cold. Very cold, and the street has a decent covering of snow, at least 1/2 a centimetre. Time to really get the patchlist going, and get out there, where all the birds are. Leaving before sunrise, Reservoir Wood is a bit scary, but I make it out into the glorious open having heard a few bits. The first pond, Shoulder of Mutton, is 100% frozen, not surprising as it is the smallest body of water in the park. Consequently almost devoid of birds, but a Moorhen gets ticked pecking about at the margins. On to the next pond as I skirt the bottom of the golf course, and the thin end of that is frozen solid as well. Oh dear, have all my ducks gone perhaps? Luckily the wide end of Heronry Pond is still clear near the Cafe, and the ducks are concentrated there. A rush of ticks follows, the only absentees are the regular Shoveler. Really good numbers of Pochard today, and all quite close in as well as the edges are frozen and they usually hang around at the far side. On to the Perch Pond behind the Cafe, and I get the regular Water Rail in the corner immediately. However the rest of the pond is 95% frozen and produces only a few Gadwall. Paul, another local birder, picked up 2 Goosander on here only a few days ago, but I was in Scotland so he sent me a gripping photo. Excellent record though, in so far as a bird I did not see can be classed as excellent.

Interesting Fact: Wanstead Park is one of the best sites in East London for wintering Gadwall. If you had visited today you would have gone home thinking it was rubbish though. That is what this blog is for. Scooted up to the station picking up a few more bits, and whilst sat on the Central Line tot the list up which comes to 32. Rock on. Bit of a photo-essay on the park later. Today you'll just have to imagine what it looks like.

I work at Canary Wharf. The photos below show the bird-filled dock just outside my office. Take careful note of all the greenery, and all those habitat hotspots. For some dumb reason, hatred of the international financial markets probably, I have decided to do a 2009 CW list. Between the Jubilee line and the Office I kick it off with a fine adult Pigeon. It even has two complete feet. Superb.

Top habo

And here is the view from my desk if I look to my right and ignore Simon, Matt & Chris. I have nailed Peregrine from here without even getting up. Today however I got a LBB, 27 Cormorants, 2 Crow & a Common Gull.

Look at all the birds I can see from my desk

Over lunch I give two fingers to dedicated patch-working, and get on the DLR to tick the wintering Ring-billed Gull on the Isle of Dogs. One other birder today, who says he has seen it. Maybe he has, maybe he hasn't. A few people I have met here ticked 2w Common Gull and went away happy. I didn't do that, and dipped it for days on end as a result. Today though it is actually here and I pick it up very quickly. Once you see it you can't possibly be confused, though I'll admit that this bird is the same size as a Common, so prob a female. I am not much of a Gull-watcher, but the dark band is thicker, darker, and more clear-cut, the the bill itself thicker and chunkier, more like a Med Gull, and if it comes close enough, which it does today, the yellow iris is very easy to pick out. It also looks more dangerous, if that can be described as an ID feature. Year tick #122.

A quick afternoon walk round the estate brings the total up to 12 with 3 Mallard, 11 Greenfinch, 2 Blackbird, a Magpie and a site mega. Robin (a patch-tick, I am stunned). My record-keeping must be dreadful. I have worked here for 10 years and never seen a Robin? How can that be? I am deeply grateful for this gem of a site tick, and head back to my desk with a spring in my step to rush the news out and earn some more money. A Robin, well I never. Maybe this patch has promise after all.

Back on the Patch 4th Jan

After a bit of intense year listing in Essex [total as of Jan 3rd = 111], I finally got on the patch properly for the first time on Jan 4th. I'm not counting my annual night-time expedition to annoy Tawny Owls, which this year happened on the 2nd. One duly-annoyed Tawny flew over my head and went off to be somewhere else.Took a small boy for a bike-ride in Bush Wood, and got the expected Stock Doves and a Great Spot. A few other bits and bobs and the list is up to about 8. After five minutes of bike riding, he is bored and wishes to return home. "Not even once round the block?" I plead, "If we go back this early Mummy will just assume my desire to go to Abberton has trounced your cycling ambitions and get all stroppy". I make him promise to say it is his decision and his alone. The mountain of lego probably has something to do with it - his Y-wing is amazing I have to say. Might get an X-wing to go with it for my birthday.

Bush Wood is the southern tip of Epping Forest. Mainly Oak and Hornbeam, understory primarily dense Holly. Criss-crossed by a network of paths - not a big area but has produced 36 species over the couple of years I have been watching it. Used to a go a lot, not so much these days - the Flats has somewhat taken over - more on that later. As well as the Tawny Owls, Sparrowhawk is resident, and Hobby is a summer visitor. Other than that, just the usual array of woodland species with particular emphasis on Blue, Great and Long-tailed tits, and no emphasis whatsover on Treecreeper or Nuthatch, which is a big omission. There is a dried up pond in the middle which used to have a few birds on it, but there has been no appreciable water now for at least 18 months. I once saw a Mallard in an oak tree here.

Anyway, off to Abberton, to disapproving looks, where I get 3 Smew, 4 Red-crested Pochards, a Cattle Egret, a Slav, and about a gazillion ducks. And also a very showy Bittern, which is my 200th species for Essex, and is extremely satisfying, way beyond what seeing a Bittern should do for you. This whole blog is just a cry for help.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

I love New Year's Day

Having just waxed lyrical about the merits of local patchlisting, Jan 1st 2009 found me in Fife visiting the parentals. They are not impressed with birding as a hobby. Or any of my previous hobbies really. Maybe they would like me to be some kind of junkie drop-out rather than a sucessful career man cum provider of grandchildren? Niggle niggle niggle. It always happens, according to a strict formula (X=Y-(Y/Z)), where Y is the number of days you initially plan to stay, X is the days you actually stay as your parenting skills and all-consuming hobby are relentlessly criticized,and Z is the level & intensity of that criticism. X might also be the number of days you cut your intended stay short by, maths was never my strong point, but generally we always end up leaving before we had planned to. In this instance X = 12,.... or maybe 1. What I mean to say is X is always less than Y.

But it was worth it for the birding. My temporary local patch for this jaunt, long in the planning phase, was the East Neuk of Fife, a succession of picturesque fishing villages on the northern side of the Firth of Forth.

Largo boat. Note nicely judged horizon.

I won't bore you with all of the birds I saw, but the plan was to get as many as possible, obviously. Decided to start at Earlsferry where there was a King Eider. The little chap took over an hour to find, possibly because it was low tide and he was hanging about on rocks I couldn't see, or possibly because I was so exicted by the slate being wiped clean (2008, 284) that I started in the dark. I probably did get it early on actually, on profile, but conscientious birder that I am, I waited to see it properly. When it did eventually get light (around lunchtime I think) the bird was nowhere to be found, but after repeated scanning eventually picked him up, tick #21 for the day. Other highlights were Purple Sandpiper, Velvet Scoter & Long-tailed Duck, all scarce in Wanstead.

My 2nd King Eider. Many people have not seen one at all.

The sea was impossibly calm, I could not have hoped for better conditions (other than perhaps high tide) and there were stacks of divers and grebes at Ruddon's Point. The regular drake Surf Scoter got himself on the list as well. Tried to turn a flock of Linnets into Twite, and a Snipe into a Jack Snipe, but had to admit defeat. What is it with Twite? The habo was perfectemundo. I only ever see Linnet in excellent Twite habitat, pisses me off. Next up Anstruther for a fine juvvy Iceland Gull, totally unafraid of people. Just sat there posing. Managed a smug "oh I am such a serious and experienced birder" moment as well, doesn't happen often so best mention it. Got out of the car and a elderly-ish couple saw the bins and the serious "I am here, bird where are you!" look and asked if I was here for the Gull - note how the word Iceland is utterly superflous here - I confirmed that I was and that I expected it to be on the west harbour wall (where it had been when I saw it a few days earlier, but they don't know that, and think this is just innate birding knowledge, Iceland Gulls never EVER sit on the east side of a harbour) and that the west harbour wall was over there. Anyway, off I stomped whilst they lit up some of those horrible thin brown cigars things - you know the sort - there is something dreadfully unappealing about women lighting up those things, kind of makes you shudder. I digress. I went off, found the bird in about 2 seconds right at the end of the wall, about 2 feet away from where it has been all week, and stomped back. I meet this couple again at the start of the harbour wall, scanning all the gulls on the beach. Eagerly they ask if I have seen the gull. "Yes its that one on the harbour wall in line with the Bass Rock", and point at it, 50 yards away, and walk off. Bloody novices. I scoff at them as I drive off, as I was never like that.

Iceland Gull doing a bit of a jig

Ticked off Dipper at a previously scouted site a few miles away, and then Red Grouse on the West Lomond, a recent discovery. Grouse, being really really stupid, fly into the air towards you if you imitate their call. Even a really crap "GOBACKBackbackbackbkbkbkbkbkbk" seems to do the trick. No wonder they are a favoured game bird. A lot of people were out walking though, so I had to wait a bit so as not to appear a weirdo. Managed it though, and then ran off down the hill for the next tick, scope bouncing over my shoulder and camera flapping against my thigh, and hat folded-up exposing my ears.

Sailed past a brilliant field full of Fieldfare and Redwing, luckily the tick-radar kicked in and I stopped and had a look. Both new species for Fife and neither had formed part of my Jan 1st plans. Result. Onwards to Loch Leven for PF Goose, Goosander and a guaranteed Coal Tit on the feeders, all of which obliged, and then wasted a precious hour of daylight driving to Hogganfield Loch in daylight for the Lesser Scaup, which had selfishly buggered off. At the approximate time I arrived in Glasgow a visiting London birder found a Little Bunting (lifer for me) at Ceres back in Fife, about 15 minutes away from my Dipper site. Why wasn't he on his London patch rather than gripping me off. And due to the equation mentioned above we were leaving tomorrow rather than staying an extra day. And can you guess if it was seen on Jan 2nd? Can you?!

The beginning

I have been dead impressed with some of the blogs I have come across about birds. Where do these people find the time? Actually, its dark and miserable outside, there are no birds to look at, the wife and kids are in bed, and I've already taken the bin out. Two days ago in fact, and still no sign of the Rubbish Operatives. Anyway, the plan is to regale you (I am pretending someone may at some point find and read this) with heady tales of birding Wanstead Flats, NE London, which is my local patch, and when I'm bored of that, other stuff. I like writing, I am generally bored of reading about Redpoll identification now, so this will be a nice filler.

So, where to start? About moi seems to be customary. Well, I'm still youngish, but a boring old git nonetheless. I have a job that very much restricts birding, and that makes my head hurt. I am not interested in it much, but it pays for optics, diesel and double-deckers. I have to keep doing it so I can keep living in Wanstead. If any reader would like to pay off my mortgage and set up a slush-fund so I can just go birding all the time, please get in contact via the link that is undoubtedly somewhere on this page, but I can't see it in edit mode. As I child I very much liked birds. As a teenager I very much didn't do any birding at all and just sat about a lot, which I now regret immensely. Fool. I got back into it about 10 years ago, but only as a holiday activity, not realising the potential on my doorstep. More recently it has become addictive, perhaps a previous hobby waned or something, and birding became, initially, another outlet for the mild obsessive compulsive disorder many men seem to have. I began to collect birds, in the tick sense. Feverishly I searched out all the various lists on postcards, scraps of paper etc that I might have kept, and it has got worse from there really. I still can't find the California list from 2002 which is real shame as my World list is 699 and I reckon I am in reality well over 700. Did I mention obsessive? Fairly bad actually. But working my patch is helping to overcome to needless urge to tick. Yearlisting is slightly addictive as well, Hopefully I'll do really badly this year and be able to give it up.

The header photo is of a Stonechat on a chilly morning on Wanstead Flats. I was seriously delighted when I found Stonechats on Wanstead Flats, I think the bird you now see before you is the one that kicked off my patch-working. I was just on the way to the bus, and bingo, el stoney. Within but a short time I had found Reed Bunting and Snipe as well. Holy cow, what a place! Then I discovered a whole network of London birders finding ridiculous quality birds in unlikely places, and realised 1) how pitiful my finds were in comparison, and 2) what "dedicated patch-worker" really means.

Some stats. In case any birders with obsessive geeky tendecies are reading this. In 2007 when I first started getting out on the patch properly, I found 70 species. In 2008 found 83. This is a combination of getting out more, getting better at ID, and becoming more savvy about what turns up where when. My patch list is 89. Reaching 100 will be a seriously large event likely marked by large font, capital letters, and stuff like that. In fact, reaching 90 will be pretty damn pleasing, and could see some bolding.

So, on to Wanstead 2009.