Thursday, 25 June 2009

Birding in June rubbish after all. Maybe.

It has been put to me that in fact birding in June is still rubbish, but that twitching in June can be good. This I concede is a fair point, but nonethless, hoping to come back with a withering counter-argument, I went through all my June records for Wanstead. Ah.

I keep my records on an immense spreadsheet, which I usually fill in as soon as get home based on notes I have taken, or more likely, a mental list of what I have seen - generally not too taxing in Wanstead. I moved here about 4 years ago, but only began patching in 2007. Unfortunately for the stunning argument I was going to make, a quick look at my 2007 Wanstead sheet reveals no entries whatsoever. Moving on to 2008, it appears my argument is in deep trouble, as the spreadsheet shows only one outing, on June 8th, with one solitary species recorded, a Hobby. And bar my recent discovery of the local gay meeting point, I have not been out on the patch in June of this year either. Now I refuse to believe that in three years I have gone birding on the patch in June a sum total of twice, as that would be most undedicated and unlike me. I would wager that I have almost certainly been out more than that, and therefore that I have simply neglected to record what I have seen. Sadly this all leads back to the same place - which is that I have probably come back from the Flats so depressed at having spent two hours trudging round for a Greenfinch and a couple of Skylarks that I have just curled up in the foetal position in a corner, bemoaning how rubbish June is and resolving not to bother again until July. Or the latter half of August.

Wanstead Flats, June

So Gavin Haig is probably right that patch birding in June is rubbish. I mean if he finds June on the Devon coast a bit of a slog, what hope have I got on my inland patch that to my knowledge, has recorded one scarce bird in the last 35 years - a Red-rumped Swallow in the Park in 1975. JUNE 1975.

Having said that, if I were, say, a local birder in Orford, just returned from a June 21st patch session....

Birder's wife: See anything Dear?
Birder: Nah it was rubbish. Just a crappy old Woodchat Shrike. [Yawn]
Birder's wife: Never mind Dear, I'm sure it'll pick up in July.

Or perhaps if I lived in Hindolveston....

Birder's wife: Much about Dear?
Birder: Just those boring old Honey Buzzards displaying again. The sooner they piss off back to Africa and we get some proper birds again the better.

Or Cley...

Birder's wife: Any luck Dear?
Birder: Just another sodding Snow Bunting, seen hundreds this year. Bor-ing!

This latter example is probably distressingly accurate. But anyhow, you get the picture, which is that for at least some people, June clearly cannot be described as rubbish. Living and birding in Wanstead, I am unable to convincingly use this argument for myself, but let's just say if I ever find a Woodchat Shrike on the patch in June, or in fact any Shrike in any month, you would never hear the end of it.

So what has been happening on the patch recently? Well I did get a fly-over Kestrel for the garden list (#47 for the geeks out there), but apart from that it has been rubbish. It is June you know. Instead I turned to moths. If you are getting the impression reading this that I am an massive hypocrite capable of astonishing U-turns, then rest assured it is all a figment of your imagination.

Last night I got a text from Shaun saying he had found a Lime Hawkmoth in his garden. Naturally I had no idea what this was. He then sent a photo of it, which blew me away. "Flip!", I thought (or something like that).

Here is Shaun's moth:

And here is Shaun. There are some stones out of shot, being kicked. June? Nope, January.

I immediately resolved to construct a moth trap, and once the kids were in bed, set about my task. I am rubbish at anything DIY-related, I can't really even drill holes in things properly, but just look at this beauty!

1 wine box (need not be Grand Cru, but be prepared to catch less)
1 work light
1 4ft bamboo pole cut into three
1 top from a seed propagator
2 cable ties
3 egg-boxes
Gaffer tape

By the time I had finished, dusk was approaching. Mrs L was led outside for the grand "Switching on" ceremony. Click. I shit you not, but within 20 seconds, we heard an immense fluttering from the bushes, and out popped the largest moth I have ever seen - much bigger than Shaun's. No wonder there are no birds in Wanstead - they all get eaten by moths! I ran back to the house to fetch a container, faster than I have run in a long long time. How exciting is this! Turned out it was a Poplar Hawkmoth, and it was still there in the morning. And as it is depicted on the back of my moth book that Amazon must have delivered in error, I didn't even have to open it to ID it. This mothing lark is easy!


Mrs L is not enthusiastic about me looking at moths. "You are not interested in moths" she said, sternly, "But they're cool, did you see the size of that thing?!". Even more sternly: "I said, you are not interested in moths!". Apparently I have enough hobbies already. Taking this to heart I eagerly set the alarm for 5am so I could go switch off the light and examine what I imagined would be a trap overflowing with moths. In the event the trap was overlowing with just six moths, the largest and most interesting-looking of which flew away as soon I opened it, so no idea what that one was. Another one flew away shortly afterwards, so that too remains a mystery. The remaining four stayed put long enough for me to take some record shots, just like moth-ers are supposed to - following my stunning debut of Poplar Hawkmoth I am now an expert. One minor problem in that I have now been through the moth book three times and still cannot identify any of them. It's just like birding really, except you can do it in June.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Who says June is rubbish?

There is a common misconception that June marks the start of the rubbish season for birding. Most birders have bought into this myth, and so give up birding after May. Generally the BP counter is at a yearly low following spring, and so birders who want to go birding again in August start doing all the jobs they should have done in April and May. Cue a frenzy of decorating, trips to the dump, tree-surgery and so on. Once the counter is approaching zero again - remember, zero is the highest number possible, positive doesn't actually exist - more than a few start looking at insects instead, and people who have paid good money for pagers to tell them about good birds start wondering why they have got a message about a moth.

Bucking this trend and forsaking the dump, I went birding yesterday, and it was fantastic (so another post not about Wanstead then....). My partner in crime for the day was once again DB.

Destination #1: Amwell, Herts.
Another tick for JL with a brilliant Marsh Warbler in full song. About 15 songs in fact - much fun to be had if you treat it like a kind of quiz - we heard Blackbird, Great Tit, Sparrow, Buzzard, Common Tern, Swallow, Reed, Sedge, and half a dozen others - incredible. Slightly elusive, but managed a couple of record shots. Record shots generally occur following the inept use of expensive camera equipment.

Destination #2: Minsmere, Suffolk.
Just down the road from Amwell is the superb RSPB reserve at Minsmere, currently hosting some Roseate Terns. Two happy year-listers found and ticked three of these pinkish marvels, and were also wowed by about about 700 Sandwich Terns. Photo withheld so as not to upset somebody called Martin.

Destination #3: Swanton Novers, Norfolk.
Adjacent to Minsmere is the well-known Raptor Watch-point at Swanton Novers. Two even happier year-listers bowled up, tumbled out of the car, and were instantly treated to a stonking male Honey Buzzard "giving it all that" for about twenty minutes. More shots for my collection of "Raptors in 100 pixels" were obtained.

Destination #4; Cley, Norfolk.
A long drive saw us finally reach the hallowed East Bank at Cley. Two proper birders walked down to the shingle ridge and, alone, located the summer plumaged male Snow Bunting. Actually we were not quite alone - a local photographer turned up after we had been vainly searching for about half an hour. We explained that it had been seen earlier, and was indeed a summer male, but no sign since. His comment was a very matter of fact "we need to find that then". Too bloody right - a ridiculous record for Midsummers Day, and a fabulous bird to boot - why there weren't hoards of birders combing the shingle for this delight is beyond me. The three of us plodded up and down for an hour not finding it, and got diverted by confiding Oystercatchers. On the point of giving up, on what we had promised ourselves was our last trudge, I thought I saw it on the seaward side. Given all my previous excited shouts, without exception, had been for Ringed Plovers, I can forgive DB's scepticism, but this time it actually was the bunting. So we waved to Mr Bhalerao (btw, he took that photo of the Shrike on my scope last year), and spent a happy hour taking far too many photographs of this little stunner. Whilst the majority were obviously record shots, some actually worked, and are presented here. Far too many actually, but it was a great bird, inexplicably not seen by enough people, and has now gone, so I am performing a public service.

Destination #5: Orford, Suffolk.
On the way back to London from Cley lies the picturesque coastal village of Orford. Two year-listers, recently birders, had simultaeneously received a pager message about a Woodchat Shrike. Seeing as it was barely out of our way, we decided we might as well go and have a look, though we took the precaution of calling our wives in case we encountered heavy traffic and our journey home took several hours longer than expected. We arrived to find that the bird had recently been flushed some distance by a Barn Owl, so we went looking for it. Whilst I strung every kind of bird imaginable, except Canada Goose, into the Shrike, Bradders eventually found it back where it had been previously. Against the setting sun, in a wonderfully milky, hazy, soft light, with specks of backlit insects, the Shrike sat on a fence, dropping down to feed every now and again. A superb end to a cracking JUNE day.

So who says June is crap then? Not me. Marsh Warbler, 3 Roseate Terns, displaying Honey Buzzard, summer-plumaged Snow Bunting, Woodchat Shrike, and nary a butterfly seen. I call that a result.

NB. Despite the relative proximity of all the above destinations, we spent quite a lot of time in the car. This is easily explained however by the fact that it was Sunday, and that there were therefore loads of Honda Jazz's on the road. Shit cars for shit drivers.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

My poor children

As a birder, it is important to brainwash your children from an early age, so that they come to understand dashing out of the house with bins and scope in order to see a bird you have seen loads of before, but in a different place, is entirely normal, and not at all the behaviour of a obsessive weirdo-freak.
My kids are aged 5, 3 & 1, and the number of birds they can ID beggars belief. IF they stick at it, they will all be far better birders than me by about aged 8, possibly earlier. Of course the likeliest outcome is that they will all HATE BIRDS FOR EVER, so I should enjoy it while it lasts. Mrs L thinks that at least it is better than TV. We do have a TV, although I can't remember why, as we never watch it. So whilst my eldest does join in all the playground Spiderman (or whoever) games, he doesn't actually know who Spiderman (or whoever) is. But he does know what a Bald Eagle looks like. And a Lammergeier. Most birds of prey actually - he sits in the car reading the Collins on the way to school, and he regularly goes to bed clutching an RSPB Osprey (and cruelly, a cuddly salmon, just in case the Osprey should feel peckish in the night). The middle one, meanwhile, is obsessed by Lapwings, and more recently, Capercaillies. She can nail them on sound instantly, and is eargerly learning others. The youngest, who may yet turn out to be the one who follows in her father's footsteps, can ID Robin and Pigeon, and can say the names of many more. The current stand-out favourite is "Owol". This is not, as many of you will be thinking, Owl, but in fact Golden Oriole. Quality birds in the Lethbridge household. She can't go to bed without Owol now, and we hear lovely flutey calls emanating from upstairs well past 9pm on some evenings.

Does this constitute child abuse?

Hot news from the patch is that I have been sitting in the garden a lot. This has been most fruitful, as a Rook flew over last Sunday, followed by three Linnet on Tuesday. Both were garden ticks, and the Rook was a patch tick. If I were obsessed by listing like some birders, I could tell you that it was the 95th species I have seen in Wanstead, and the 46th for the garden. And that the Linnet, whilst not a patch tick, was a patch year tick, and at #84 is the bird that beats my 2008 total. But I am way cooler than that, so I won't.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A tale of two Es

The other day I went back to Canary Wharf, E14, to sign the final bit of "Goodbye" documentation. What an extraordinary place, did I really work here? In shorts and flip-flops, and with two children in tow, I was rendered miraculously invisible to the average Wharfer, and so was able to peer, unobserved, into their world, which used to be mine. Tall, blonde, athletic-looking men with swished-back hair talked a variant of Scandinavian at each other as they walked briskly by, no doubt it was highly highly important. A smartly dressed and very pretty lady clutched a three foot tall latte. A man marched by attempting simultaeneously to type on a Blackberry. The over-riding impression was one of a lack of time. Everyone seemed in a massive hurry. I knew my new life wasn't quite as pacy as before, but have I slowed down so much that it becomes that marked?

This scene contrasts sharply with Leytonstone, E11, today. As I walked to the Post Office, I passed a pub with some tables on the pavement. At one of these tables lounged a tatooed teenage bint, who, as I approached, took a large swig of lager, lit a fag, and then sauntered ahead of me to the Post Office. Laden with child, packages, and an additional 12-15 years, I ended up behind her in the queue. She proceeded to draw her benefits, in tens, and was back in the sun enjoying the remainder of her pint and a new cigarette by the time I passed by on my way back to the car. She didn't seem in too much of a hurry.

I have no point to make really, just that people adjust to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. I'd like to think I was never really one of the Canary Wharf crowd, but probably to an onlooker I would have appeared just like the people I saw the other day. Neither would I like to think that I have anything at all in common with the wastrel I saw today, but there are certain parallels. I haven't yet started boozing it up in the afternoons at the taxpayers' expense, but there are sunny days where I accomplish virtually nothing other than staring at the sky. Not today though. Today was a day of high achievement. Sainsburys, Beckton. The Biscuit Aisle, and a revelation:

Over the course of a year, the savings could be substantial. This packet also has "Scilly '09" written all over it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Look, is this Wanstead Birder blog-thing about Wanstead at all, or just holidays and twitching?

Err, good point. I have to admit that there hasn't been a great deal of patch-working lately. None this week in fact, and possibly none last week either. And the week before that I was in Scotland...

I preferred this, a cock-up, to the in-focus shots

After the thrills of Spring, never knowing what might turn up (basically nothing, but oh the anticipation), the slow summer months tend to dampen my enthusiasm. So tonight Mrs L came home and practically booted me out onto the Flats, which was exactly what I needed. Naturally I enjoyed it immensely. An abundance of small fat green caterpillars were being fed to small Skylarks, small Meadow Pipits, small Reed Buntings and small House Sparrows. Small monochromatic Blue Tits were feasting on them by themselves, and a family group of six Mistle Thrushes were feeding and whirring on the playing fields. Meanwhile loads of Swifts, the odd House Martin and a Swallow performed overhead, a Green Woodpecker yaffled, and two teenagers enjoyed a crafty spliff next to the Coronation Plantation whilst listening to the soothing trills of Skylarks. All very pleasant.

However the tone was lowered slightly by an unusually high concentration of old men hanging around Long Wood. Long Wood is a plantation of mature trees bordered with hawthorn, and is quite dense, dark and shady, but with a suprisingly open understorey. You can't see into it. In fact, given the structure of the wood, I think "loitering" should be used in place of "hanging around". A few of these loiterers disappeared into the wood, with, I suspect, intent. Despite my many hours birding on Wanstead Flats, this congregation is a phenomenon I have never before observed. Like all London patch-watchers, I have encountered detritus, but never before the presumed littering culprits. Perhaps it is unique to late Wednesday evenings in the summer months? I have no idea, but strange men following each other unsubtley into small dark woods and not emerging on the other side is not my idea of patch-watching, so I decided to count the Chiffchaff singing inside on heard-only, and carried on my way. It was no bother though, and in any event I expect that wellies, bins and a camera with neoprene camo don't mark me out as a player. The joys of the patch.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

"Pratincole Release Scheme going well" says UK director

From our Kent Correspondent

The Director of the UK Pratincole Release Scheme said yesterday that he was very pleased with the progress made so far. Richard Simpson briefed journalists in Kent yesterday evening, following the discovery of a third bird, an Oriental Pratincole Glareoloa maldivarum, earlier in the week.

"There is absolutely no reason why Pratincoles should not become established breeding birds in this country. There is plenty of suitable habitat, and we feel that we have a good chance of success. Thanks to generous support from our strategic partners Shell and British Petroleum, we were able to import a number of birds earlier this year, and keep them in large aviaries to acclimatise until the weather conditions allowed a controlled release. So far we have released single Black-winged, Collared, and Oriental Pratincoles from an undisclosed location in the South-east, and are closely monitoring their progress. We would however greatly appreciate the assistance of the public in the tracking of these birds, and should they spot one there is a hotline number to call."

The scheme is not without its critics though, perhaps most surprisingly from some elements of the bird-watching community, who fear that the release of captive-bred birds will add confusion to assessing sightings of genuinely wild birds. Other "twitchers", as they are known, don't necessarily share this view. Yesterday evening at Dungeness RSPB reserve, where the final bird was found, Martin, who declined to give his last name, of Hornchurch, Essex, there with his son said "Whatever, not really bothered, I'll tick anything." His son, Jamie, 10, added "Yeah, including Falcated Duck. Can we go now?"

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Year-listing, sponsored by ESSO

A number of blogs that I read have talked idly about listing and why people bother. A good subject I always think, and one that engenders a lot of debate in the Lethbridge household. To date I have not really mentioned how idiotically obsessive I can be in the pursuit of a totally meaningless collection of birds I have seen at X Y or Z during the periods A B & C. Time to start. Dearest to my heart of course is Mrs L's life list my BOU Life list. The total is so low as to not talk about. You might think - and certainly other members of the Lethbridge family do think this - that this one list would surely be enough? Oh no. Far from it. There is the patch-list for the garden, and also for Wanstead, which are borderline acceptable, and also for Rainham, and Amwell, and Walthamstow....which are not. Then there is the London Area list, defined by an arbitrary circle centred on St Pauls, thereby encompassing huge swathes of countryside and marshland, presumably so that London listers can feel good about themselves. I once legged it to Amwell for a Great Reed Warbler that turned out to be sat on a reed-stem about 90 yards outide this circle, which means it is not on my London list, and therefore I and several other people became quite pissed off about something utterly utterly pointless.

Then I have an Essex list. This is a good one, as a lot of London is in Essex, indeed Wanstead is in Essex, and so I sometimes get to add ticks to several lists if I see a new bird at Rainham or somewhere. I was once standing in Kent, within the good old London circle, watching a White-winged Black Tern flying about the river. I willed it to fly to the opposite bank so I could tick it for Essex, and it did! Hurrah! I have in the past stood one-legged on a fence in order to add a distant Redshank to a patch list......

I also have a list of the birds I have seen in Norfolk, in Suffolk, and in Kent, all which are vaguely nearby. I can also tell you how many birds I have seen in Cornwall and in Devon, which are not nearby........and handily my parents live in Scotland and we go there a lot, so that means I can legitimately have a Scotland list as well. And a Fife list, which is where they live. And for good measure I have a list for their garden and their village too. "All entirely useful and sensible" most birders will at this point be saying. "What a ridiculous hobby" most birders' wives will now be saying. "What a total fucking loser" everyone else will be saying....

But this is of course just the start. Year-listing. And Patch Year-listing This is where it becomes truly stupid. I recognise the futility and irrationality of it, and yet I can't stop doing it. This year I am already on 250 for the UK, a total I didn't reach until September in 2008. Thanks to the magic of the web, you can track my progress via that little box over on the right. I am about to undertake a trip to Norfolk in order to add Nightjar and ascend to the lofty heights of 251...check the box for success or failure. Talking of failure,
this week I did a round trip of 130 miles and gave the National Trust £5.50 in order to not see a Squacco Heron from what turned out to a public footpath not owned by the National Trust at all, for a total cost of roughly £19. Not ideal for the unemployed - in the new currency that's a child's shoe.

#310 BOU, Wood Warbler. Told you I was a low-lister.

In Scotland last week, I drove 514 miles in a day in order to boost my year-list. The last 188 miles of those only netted me a Black Guillemot, at a cost of roughy 20 quid. In fact the whole escapade was totally daft. I left Fife at about 7pm, via a convenient American Wigeon (#241) on the Tay, and the obligatory Osprey (#242) at Loch of the Lowes. I arrived at a Black Grouse site near Aviemore at 10pm, arising at 3.30am due to a text from an insomniac Hawkins. Actually waking up to the bubbling of Black Grouse (#243) is very nice, but probably not to everybody's taste. I then proceeded to Grantown on Spey for Capercaillie (#244), and a bonus Scotsbill (#245). Then back to Loch Garten for Crested Tit (#246) and over to Aviemore for Wood Warbler (#247). All ticked off by 10am, so up the Findhorn for no Golden Eagles, over to Loch Ruthven for a quick peek at summer plumaged Slavs, very nice, and then up to Wester Ross for more eagle disappointment and Black Guillemot (#248). My new hobby is buying diesel.

I arrived back in Fife at about 11.30pm after a 20 hour day on 5 hours sleep. You kind of get into a groove, I felt I could have driven back to London, I was on automatic pilot. My Mum thinks I am quite mad. Great day though, also saw Dipper, Red Grouse, breeding Common Sand and Red-breasted Merg, summer plumaged Divers. And the scenery was stunning, although it could have been considerably enhanced by an eagle flying through it....

Eagle(less) Country

<-insert crass comment about nuts here->

Monday, 1 June 2009

Technology. Just stop and think about it.

I did. And guess what? I don't understand it. Driving back from Scotland last weekend, Mrs L casually mentioned the path the music we were listening to had travelled to get to our ears. I was just humming away, then I had to stop and think. Uh-oh. But it is amazing. Recorded by musicians playing real instruments in a room somewhere, made of wood and metal etc, hooked up to microphones, the sounds travels as waves from the instruments and is picked up by microphones. Christ knows how but it is recorded onto a tape. Yes the music was old enough for a tape. The tape is digitalised into a series of zeroes and ones, and is somehow put onto a small shiny plastic disc. I then insert said disc into my computer, and those zeroes and ones go onto my hard disc, and from there are copied again onto the hard disc of my ipod. Don't get me started on hard discs - I have absolutely no idea, it just works ok? The ipod undertands the zeroes and ones, and so the digital signal is turned into an analogue signal and is broadcast in FM via a very small transmitter known as an itrip, and is picked up by the car radio which then transmits signals down a wire which wiggles a speaker cone in a very precise way which creates sound waves and hey presto we hear some music, and yours truly starts singing a bit. WTF??

For all I know. there are probably a number of gross inaccuracies in the above. If you spot some, rise above the urge to correct me, and just sit back and enjoy the music. As far as I am concerned, the world needs mystery.