Monday, 28 September 2009

How to dip properly

This BH Gull was dipping. Quite productively actually.

How to dip foolishly

1) Turn up at the site the bird has been reported from some time previously.
2) Ensure you have no local knowledge whatsoever.
3) Stand around twiddling your thumbs where there are obviously no birds.
4) Make no attempt to go and look where birds obviously are.

Follow these four simple steps and you should easily dip most things you go for if they have moved more than about 50 metres from where they were first seen.

How to dip properly

1) As above...
2) ...but having done some research, you know, like printing a map of the area, noting tide times if applicable, contacting a few locals beforehand, generally genius things like that.
3) If you can't see 'the bird', or indeed many birds at all, from the previously reported location, leave and check out other likely spots.
4) For instance, if you can see a very distant flock of small waders, and the bird you are looking for is a small wader, work out where you can better see them from and GO THERE.

To cut a long story short, Bradders and I dipped a Semi-p(almated Sandpiper) at the weekend. But we gave it a bloody good go, and whilst ultimately we ended up disappointed, we felt we had given it our best shot, and that it simply wasn't there any more. When dipping, especially after 360 miles and 6 hours spent trudging over inter-tidal salt marsh, it is important to have something to vent your frustrations on. Luckily Avon provided this in spades, as we met useless birder after useless birder. No idea. They were able to get in a car and find where the bird had been, but when it wasn't there, that was it, they just gave up. Even though you could very obviously see a group of distant waders from the original site, not one person there thought of trying to get closer to them to see what they were. Hello? Is anyone there? It was pitiful. One of them ended up following us around. I mean, how little inspiration must you have if you think following me around is a good plan? You wonder how these people get life lists exceeding about 85. I won't bore you with the details of where we went, which bit of estuary and so forth, suffice it say we encountered numpty after numpty (although not wearing hats...), none of whom had the faintest clue how to actually LOOK FOR A BIRD. No, that is not the way it works. The bird is there, in front of you when you arrive. Somebody tells you where to point your scope (generally considered important for grilling waders, but amazingly one guy we met hadn't brought one), eventually, one presumes, you manage to get on it, you tick it, and you go home happy. Plan B? Forget it.

The day wasn't a complete wash-out. We did at least see the juvenile Long-billed Dowitcher at Chew Valley Lake before wasting six hours on the Severn Estuary. We arrived in heavy fog, a portent of things to come perhaps, but it soon lifted enough to easily pick out the Dowitcher feeding with Snipe, relatively close in. This is only the second one I have ever seen, so this justifies the mileage in itself. The Semi-p would just have been a bonus. Ahem.

So that was #295. Today I tried to up that to 296, but instead ended up dipping - a Wryneck at Holland Haven. This getting to 300 lark is becoming irritating. Perhaps I should move from BOU to UK400, as I'm actually on 301 using that species list. If I fork out £2.50, Lee will give me a certificate for my uber-valiant effort. I might just do it for Mrs L, as a reminder of 2009.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


Macro is so much fun!

Not many birds today, no.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Minor rant regarding standards

I was just reading a post about a badly behaved photographer on Birdforum. Mistake, I know. I even got sucked into commenting. Big mistake. It was the usual story of a photographer trying to get too close. The funny thing is that the [alleged - Ed.] resulting photograph was pretty ordinary. As I browsed this nameless [and alleged - Ed.] photographer's web-page, it struck me that many of the images were in fact pretty ordinary, sub-standard even. The trouble is that everyone is a wildlife photographer these days. Many of the posters on internet forums have links to webpages, which, surprise surprise, are generally "Fred Bloggs, Wildlife Photography", or "John Smith, Bird Images". Sometimes of course the link is to a rubbish blog, but at least there is no pretence about it.

So what is happening? Fundamentally, I think that the modern age has made it all too easy. Proper photographers in the pre-digital era had to build up a stock of transparencies, invest a stack load of money in glass, bear vast processing costs, make loads of dupes, work very hard at marketing once they were back from punishing hours in the field, and hope they got lucky. As a result, the quality needed to be very very high. Today, you fork out on a prosumer camera and a third party zoom, or if you're loaded, a pro body and a white monster, and you're done. There are no processing costs, you create a free website in five minutes, and hey presto you're a wildlife photographer. Except the photos are mostly all complete crap.

So here is a tip to anyone who has decided to speculatively set themself up as a "wildlife photographer". Browse this website, and re-evaluate every photograph of a bird you have ever taken. Then delete your crappy website from cyberspace and don't come back until you're much, much better. I don't mean to sound discouraging, but 99% of what is out there masquerading as wildlife photography is mediocre, and the sooner more people realise it the better.

I take photos, mostly of birds, and sometimes I post them up here. Usually they're my better efforts, but they are still mediocre versus what can be achieved. And I know it. That's why this is a blog, and I'm not contemplating wildlife photography as a career.

"And a good thing too!"

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Oh Sussex, Sussex by the Sea

A lovely day in East Sussex today, only marred slightly by what could have been a stonking day in Kent. Time will tell if the Booted Eagle was not in fact a Booted Eagle, but when I tell you that when I got up today I was undecided between Dungeness for a long-staying Wryneck, and Seaford Head for a Barred Warbler.... oh what might have been! I reckon I would have got to Dunge at around 11am, and been on the entrance track looking for the Wryneck when this bird was circling round. And even if I hadn't seen it then, when the pager message came up about it sitting in a field a couple of miles away, I reckon I might just have gone, Wryneck or no Wryneck.

But enough about what might have been. I went to East Sussex, which is a place that holds a lot of affection for me - my Grandparents lived only just down the road from Seaford Head, and many a happy week was spent there during my growing up. As I drove along the A27, I was hit by a wave of familiarity, one that grew stronger the closer I got to Litlington, which is where they lived. I turned the Sat-nav off, as it wasn't taking me that way, and amended the route, providing Pudding with a running commentary of where we were and what was there. We went past the Ellis' farm, past the church, past the tea rooms, past the pub, and finally past their house. Only being two, she's not really into tenses in a big way and got a bit confused as to what generation I was talking about. She was expecting to see her Grandparents, which would have been a big surprise given they are in Scotland, and as we walked down alongside the Cuckmere, she was asking if "Gwam-pa" was round each bend.

He wasn't, but the Barred Warbler was, and showed exceptionally well for at least eight seconds as it flew between some bushes and vanished. Photos? You have to be kidding. The weather was superb, shirt sleeves, and despite the lump on my back, the walk was exceptionally pleasant, even uphill. Heaps of Swallows and Sand Martins, and at least three Clouded Yellows. Hope Gap itself is a small valley with a wedge of dense Hawthorn and Elder dominated cover extending almost to the cliff edge, with a path running through the middle. What a patch! I recently mentioned a young guy I keep bumping into, the one that I now talk to semi-unawkwardly. Matt, for that is his name, is lucky enough to live close by, and diligently works this patch when he is not following me around the country. Indeed he had found the warbler the previous day, so all kudos to him as it was a right bugger. Anyway, he was there when I turned up, in a curious instance of reverse-stalking - and had rather unfortunately just arrived from Dunge where he had been looking at a Wryneck on the ground and not up at the sky. Despite a somewhat depressing pager Mega-alert from Kent, he cheered up when he heard where I had parked. Turns out my 30 minute slog up and down hills and along rivers could have been a five minute stroll down the hill from a conveniently-located barn with ample parking just out of sight at the top of the valley. I didn't tell my shoulders, hope they don't read this...

Back at Litlington, we did a bit of gravestone gardening, and had a peek inside the church, which is ever so much smaller than I remember it. A lady was cleaning it in preparation for a wedding this weekend, so I was able to catch up on a bit of village gossip, and not a great deal has changed really. Litlington was a huge part of my childhood, it was great to go back with one of my own kids, even though she didn't know where we were, or why we were trimming bits of grass from around a funny stone.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Done done done!

I survived the weekend, and am now back to normal weekday drudge. This evening has been particularly bad. I did the filing. All of it. And the concomitant shredding. I have only just finished, at 22:55, having started over three hours ago. Still, it was seven months worth, so I suppose I can't complain about six hours work per year. I'd prefer to get no post at all - as far as I am concerned, the postal workers can strike for as long as they want. Anyway, nothing to do now until 2010. The pile had completely taken over one side of the bedroom, it was shameful, but as a result of my good work the house now feels hugely roomy, light and airy. Fantastic. What an utter waste of time though, I didn't read a single piece of paper that I filed. Nor at any time in the last seven years did I refer to any of the statements and other crap that I have just pulled out of back of the files in order to fit the more recent stuff at the front. As far as futility goes, this is up there: I open post, I leave it lying on the floor for few months, I file it, I keep it for about six and a half years, and then I shred it.

I now feel a huge sense of accomplishement. This is very dangerous - I could easily rest on my newly earned laurels for the remainder of the week and let the house go to wrack and ruin. A glance to my left at the area around the kitchen sink confirms that this has already started. Rather than writing this I should be clearing up dinner, but there is a problem. The dishwasher is full, and clean. I love my dishwasher to bits, but one of the things I hate most about it is that it requires unstacking before you can fill it again - a clear design fault. I rarely remember that the cycle has finished. There are no words that adequately describe the sinking feeling I get when I open it up with a dirty plate in my other hand only to discover that it is full of clean stuff. "Nooooooooooo!" My parents' dishwasher beeps at them when it is done, calling out to them. My father in particular is compelled by the plaintive beeping to get up from whatever he is doing and unstack it. I can tell you that the urge to unstack a dishwasher is not genetically inherited...

I have done so much filing I can barely remember what else I did today. Pudding and I went to Rainham this morning and didn't see a great deal. I am pleased to be able to say that I went to Rainham a day either side of the Eleonora's Falcon. Brilliant. We saw a Hobby instead, which was almost as good. I took some photos, mainly for my own satisfaction, but also in the hope I might get a really rubbish one to put up here. They turned out a little better than I had hoped, but what the heck, here they are anyway. I'm feeling a little light-headed right now.

"Sod Off!"

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Oh, and Wanstead yesterday

"Don't go in the wood!"

Believe it or not, no twitching occured yesterday. Thoroughly hacked off with a dippy day in Suffolk earlier in the week, I stuck close to home. A shop at Tesco's which took just about forever, back for lunch, and then out on the Flats in the afternoon before the school run. It was pretty good actually, bar the gays in Long Wood (and it wasn't even Wednesday!), but a pair of Spotted Flycatchers meant I went in there anyway, and I actually drove them away (the men, not the Flycatchers) and so had the place to myself. I don't think they liked my camera - like I'm going to photograph THAT!

"If I were you I'd leave the wood!"

In addition to the Flycatchers there were 5 Whinchat in the broom and brambles just south of the wood, 4 Meadow Pipits and a Skylark in the long grass, and a Chiffchaff with a funny call in the copse close to Centre Road, which unfortunately was where the two men had relocated to - I don't think they were impressed. Obviously I like to remain non-judgemental in these matters, but I believe my educational and worthy hobby takes precedent over, err, a different kind of hobby that involves public indecency. Privacy in a leafy glade vs an odd-sounding Chiff, sorry guys, Chiff wins. I didn't unleash the camera this time for fear of really upsetting them, and it looked like an ordinary Chiff and indeed by then had started calling like one too, so I left the three of them to it. It is a shame that one of the best bird habitats on the Flats is also a popular local meeting point, but there you go. Winter soon, plus Long Wood is deciduous, so I expect the conflict of interest to diminish.

"You went in the wood didn't you? Tsk tsk...."

This weekend Mrs L has abandoned me with all three children. How unjust! All weekend! At least it means I won't be caning it round the country, which I am a bit fed up with of late. There is the Fayre at Rainham, we have already been swimming, and I am on my fifth load of washing, so there is plenty to do. If something REALLY good turns up, I have a problem, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, I need to start thinking about lunch. Adios.

"There's a funny Chiffchaff over there, but don't go and look for it..."

Friday, 18 September 2009

Happy Friday! Now what?

It is the end of the working week, offices have emptied, relieved young workers are in pubs the length and breadth of the land, and older workers are perhaps at home renewing acquaintance with their families. I never used to go out on Fridays, I always went straight home. Generally Mrs L & I would open a bottle of something nice, eat some extravagant food, and moan about work. I don't have any of that any more, so my contribution to the weekly "God what a shit week I had at work" conversation is pretty minimal. Instead I listen and nod, or switch off and think about birds instead.

"blah blah blah blah....and it will probably be a major comment, which won't go down well. What do you think I should do?" asks Mrs L, Audit Queen.

"The Arctic Warbler showed well", I say, brightly.

But I know exactly where she is coming from, it is virtually impossible to switch off from work entirely. Although I was pretty good at mostly forgetting all about it, it was always there in the background. Even on holiday, you don't really start to wind down until it is almost time to go back. Mind you, I don't think I can remember a holiday where the office didn't call me, no matter where I was or what I was doing. They called during all my paternity breaks as well; you are always available, they own you.
Now that I can look back at it rationally, I realise that none of it was of any importance whatsoever, yet it consumed my life for a decade. I remember being so pleased about making Vice President, it meant I was finally 'somebody'. I ordered 500 business cards with this valedictory title emblazoned below my name, and used about 10. These days we use them for shopping lists.

I was reminded about that period of my life twice today. Firstly, a guy over the road still works at the same place. He is on paternity leave, so I saw him today for the first time in ages. He looked shattered, unsurprisingly. We had a bit of chat, and naturally it turned to the office. He said it was mental, still, and that the whole place was crippled by a fear of screwing up, creating an odd atmosphere of frantic inertia. He is a Vice President too, or rather he is a Vice President, and I am not. I should invent a title for myself to use in the house. Standing there, talking about the daily grind, I was glad I wasn't there any more.

Later on, a good friend from the office called. How was I, and had I started looking for a job yet? He too described a manic environment of deadlines, bullshit, and fear. I remember it being a difficult place to work, and being highly stressful, but did I moan about it as plaintively? [yes - Ed.] Perhaps they are both being nice to me, exaggerating the horribleness of it to make me feel better for having been made redundant. I doubt it though, it was pretty nasty back in Feb, and probably hasn't changed much. But back to the job hunt question - a mum in the playground today also asked me if I was looking yet. Do I look like that much of a bum? Why is it expected that I should be looking to get back into a bank? Do people just look at the colour of my arms and think "Lazy bastard, he should be at work"? I'm quite happy at the moment thank you very much, I am very much enjoying being with the kids and not being in a highly-charged office. I also have extraordinary flexibility which allows me to twitch Bee-eaters and so on. Win win.

But I do have a constant nagging feeling, which is this: What am I going to do next? Looking after the kids is lovely. Being at home is lovely. Being outdoors and birding a lot is lovely. Right now, it works, but it is not exactly a long term solution. What am I going to do? How am I going to satisfy my intellectual curiosity? I have a number of ideas, and this is the big problem. I don't know which idea is best, or indeed if any of them are "right". And being 34 now, it has to be "right". I think it would be problematic to embark on one of these ideas only to find out a few years down the line I had made the wrong choice and that at roughly 40 I needed a third career. My favourite job of all time was driving a van round London one summer, delivering wine to rich people, but it paid something like £3.24 an hour, and seems a waste of my intellect. I am aware that that sounds (and is) highly pretentious, but I can't get away from the fact that I feel I would be wasting myself by doing something where I learn nothing and contribute nothing. But at the same time I don't want to learn any more about derivatives, equities, yield-curves, and theta-gamma. I'm all done on those things. It needs to be something new. At the moment - and you must understand that I have always been fickle, moving from one interest to another, but always most wholeheartedly - I am interested in birds, both in Wanstead and sometimes further afield. But actually it isn't just birds - being out and about looking for them brings me into close contact with many aspects of the natural world, and thinking back, this has been an undercurrent of my entire life, an interest in nature. As a child the books I enjoyed the most were the ones about natural history, be it real like Gerald Durrell and James Herriott, or fictional like Willard Price. I drew birds, I always remember drawing them, and I was a member of the YOC. When I lived in France as a kid I spent most of my time trying to catch lizards. My favourite TV programmes were the David Attenborough ones, and still are. As an adult my two main interests are birds and plants. I have devoured E. O. Wilson and Barry Lopez, I subscribed to National Geographic as soon as I had an address, and although my knowledge of many aspects of science is somewhat rudimentary, as each day passes I find myself wanting to know more about the world around me. I just find it all very very interesting. Maybe this happens to all thirty-somethings and there is a whole science devoted to it. Maybe I'm unique, I don't know. Whatever, can I make a second career out of it? I don't know. And this is the real problem, I just don't know. It is not a crime to not know what you want to do, I am sure many people don't know. But why on earth I took a degree in French, waffling about Picasso, Delaunay and Braque, and then spent ten years in an investment bank basically doing numbers all day long is anyone's guess. I suppose that when you make the initial choice of direction, you're 16 and clueless. You start applying for your first job aged about 20, and you're still clueless. When you think about it, the whole system is highly unfair on young people. I'm not young any more, but I still have to admit to being stumped, if not clueness like I was then. Mind you, listen to this song, also cleverly embedded below, a Wanstead Birder first. In fact, listen to it several times over, it is brilliant. Specifically take note for twelve seconds starting from 2:11. The song is 7 minutes of truth. You listen to it, and you nod, and you realise that every word applies to you one hundred percent. It should be on the national curriculum. Also, Bradders and other year-listers, listen out from 1:41 to 1:53 :-)

So, a serious and largely non-flippant post. Unusual. It has taken an hour to write. The frivolous ones are far quicker, and easier. I was hoping that by writing it down, it might help me work out THE PLAN, but it hasn't. Though perhaps it may allow the people who ask me "started looking yet?" to realise that one of the reasons that I haven't is because I don't know what to look for. All I know is what not to look for, which is a start of course, but hardly conclusive.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Get in the car NOW!


"Have you looked at your pager recently?!"

"No, why?"

So went the conversation between myself and Bradders at around 11:15 this morning. I think it ended with "Whatever you're doing, get in the car now!" So I did. Up until then I had been having quite a nice relaxed morning. Myself, Pudding and Pie were at Abberton Reservoir in Essex, and we had the Roy King hide to ourselves. The hide had been transformed into a field hospital for dollies, with me as the consultant trying to speculate on what ailments might be afflicting them, all the while trying to scope a very distant White-rumped Sandpiper on the island. I'd finally got the Sandpiper, after a few false starts, in with a small group of Dunlin and a Little Stint, and had been observing it for about 10 minutes, when my phone went off and the day went beserk. Tufted Puffin on the Swale at Oare Marshes. Holy Shit. I don't think I even knew what one really looked like. Could a bird from the Pacific North West really be in a muddy channel in Kent? Only one way to find out. We legged it out of the hide and back down the track. In the chaos Pudding dropped Baby Hat, which I then ran over with the buggy. Whereas in the hide we had never really got to the bottom of what was wrong with her, we now knew definitively...

To cut a long story short, Puffin schmuffin. We didn't see it, and neither did anyone else who wasn't there when it was found. The place was packed, and for a while my car was actually blocked in in the car-park as desperate twitchers abandoned vehicles just about anywhere in order to rush to the sea wall and look at some brown water for a bit. Still, at least I gave myself a chance, but the whole afternoon was rather fraught. This is what I hate about twitching - whether you get the bird or you don't, the feelings of angst and so on leading up to it are really irritating. It is supposed to be fun, but instead it turns into a hugely nerve-wracking and stressful experience, which is ludicrous. If it turns up tomorrow will I go for it? Possibly. I'd prefer to bird the patch though. If Kent can get a Tufted Puffin, Wanstead can get a Red-breasted Flycatcher or a Wryneck, either of which, for me, would knock some stubby black bird with a stupid orange beak into a cocked hat.

Monday, 14 September 2009

My eye hurts

My eye hurts. It is actually throbbing a bit. This is because for over 7 hours on Sunday it was pointing down an eyepiece, which in turn, was pointed at the sea. You're probably thinking that this post isn't going to contain a great deal of Wanstead. You're right. You see, Wanstead is not particularly noted for its Sabine's Gull records, whereas Norfolk is, and seeing as the wind was coming strongly and directly from the north, I felt I stood a better chance of Sabs and various Petrel sp at Sheringham, rather than from the shore of Alexandra Lake on the Flats. In the event, this proved a sage decision, as two very smart Sabine's Gulls and three Leach's Storm Petrels went east past Sheringham, whereas, to my knowledge, Wanstead remained a seabird-free zone all day.

As has been warned, I am becoming addicted to sea-watching. When I started birding, and read about this thing called sea-watching, I couldn't believe that people would willingly go out of their way to do it. "Pah!", I thought, "How ridiculous!" Then I tried it, off Sheringham as it happens. The first couple of times were not addictive, nothing of the sort in fact. As I watched speck after unidentifiable speck flit across the waves, whilst the people next to me confidently shouted out "Manxie going left at twelve o'clock, Bonxie going right just over the horizon!" I felt that this was an activity in which I had no place. But I went a few more times over the next couple of autumns, and gradually things are starting to fall into place. I'm still rubbish of course, that goes without saying, but I am mostly getting the families right now, and if a bird comes extremely close, and I have seen enough of them before, then sometimes I can actually ID one to species level. "Gannet going right, 50 yards, straight out!". I am very popular in sea-watching hides.

He didn't move for 7 hours, and continued to call out Kittiwakes on the A11 home.

Another punishingly early start saw us arrive at the shelters at 6:20am, just in time to get a seat. Hawky and I, and shortly after, Bradders, sat in a row on some uncomfortable benches for about 7 hours, and saw a lot of birds. We didn't count most of them, but the pager later said that 1,105 Manx Shearwaters went past, along with 31 Sooty Shearwaters, 97 Great Skua, 43 Arctic Skuas, and 27 Puffins. It also mentions 6 Leach's Storm Petrels, of which we saw three, and 2 Sabine's Gulls, which we saw both of. Paul, with his astonishing eye-sight, called both of these Sabs BEFORE any of the Norfolk regulars, as well as a third which nobody else could get on. There was also a very impressive movement of Kittiwakes, by my reckoning over 2000, the majority of which were juveniles, so this year at least has been good for some of our seabirds. 1 probable Black-throated Diver, 5+ definite Red-throated Divers, and an assortment of ducks and waders completed the day. At one point a very obliging Bar-tailed Godwit came and sat on the beach, and so I gave my poor eye a rest and went and took its picture. I'm actually quite pleased with the results, so the rest of this post will be a Barwit gallery. My blog, my rules.

My eye still hurts today. I tried it out on a Spotted Crake at Barnes WWT. It still works, but not as well as it did before the weekend. Not to worry, I'm sure I'll be resting it for the remainder of this week....

Friday, 11 September 2009

New, Shiny, Calm

The fridge-freezer died on Tuesday. It's Friday morning and the new one is in place and humming away nicely. I am focussed, efficient, and unemployed. The timing could not have been much worse, as we had both a dressed crab AND a particularly soft Camembert in there, which created a fairly unique aroma as they gently sweated away. Both the crab and the old fridge are now gone. The fridge to join the ever-growing EU fridge-mountain, and the crab, well to be honest it was pretty far gone anyway, so it got triple-wrapped and binned. Hopefully some grateful Larid will sniff it out in the next few days. We've kept the Camembert; it is much improved.

Actually I'm told that 85% of an old fridge is recycled. Shredded. That must be some shredder. Of course what they should actually do is build better fridges. It's another example of the world regressing as the culture of consumerism takes over. Years ago you would buy one fridge, and it would last your entire life, or perhaps longer than that. Manufacturers then realised that if they built really good stuff, then a) it cost more to build, and b) people only ever bought one and never came back. No, much better to build a nice plasticy fridge from the cheapest components known to man, pay some poor sod in the far-east 25p to assemble it, and with any luck it will conk out after the five minute manufacturers guarantee expires. At the same time, ensure that you price your engineer's visit (parts extra) at the exact point where by far the majority of people will go "Oh fuck it, let's just get a new one", and hey presto you have an order book with almost infinite longevity. Winner.

Anyway, it arrived yesterday afternoon, and in marked contrast to the other one, keeps food cold and frozen. The manufacturers guarantee ran out this morning at about 10am, but so far it is exceeding expectations. Look, here it is, neat, tidy, clean, and chilled.

If you're looking at this, and you're my mother, the vegetables are all at the bottom, and we're storing the beer for the neighbours.....

Thankfully, the run of rarities has temporarily ceased, so once again I have been able to get out on the patch. Three Meadow Pipits and a Jay has been my best effort. I think having two small children is largely prohibitive to finding migrants, though we did get a Spotted Flycatcher at the end of last week. Mostly I have been sorting stuff out at home. Usually at this point I trot out a long list of domestic tasks I have performed during the past few days in the vain hope that Mrs L will see fit to dish out a few BPs, but I'll skip that today. Suffice it to say I have done LOADS of things and I'll be out birding at the weekend, merci. In addition I have earmarked this afternoon for tidying. And admiring the fridge.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Dzip Dzip or Dip Dip?

When news of the Fan-tailed Warbler in Kent came up on Sunday, my heart sank. After the excesses of Saturday and the dire state of the BP account, Sunday was supposed to be a family day, with no mad dashes. Fan-tailed Warbler is already a bird remembered for the wrong reasons. Back in September last year, news of one of these broke at Swalecliffe in Kent. Famille Lethbridge was already in the car en route to Rainham for a nice relaxed walk. Unreasonable Dad drove straight past Rainham and on into Kent. Still showing as we entered Swalecliffe, get in! I dumped the family in a really grotty pub, garish carpets, Sky TV on 50 inch screens, the lot. As I was about to head off to the bird, Muffin needed a wee. I took him, I could hardly not, gave him back to Mum once done, and off I went. As I approached the crowd, someone beckoned me over. "Have you seen it? Quick mate, it's still in view, flying high west. In the white cloud, going over the white cloud now, in the blue...." I strained to see the dot, and couldn't. I had missed it by about 30 seconds, or half a wee. I dragged myself back to the pub, to find that football was now blaring out of all the screens. Mrs L and the kids were trying to eat some deep-fried muck surrounded by people stood up watching the game. She was not amused, as they say. The drive back home after our lovely family day out took a VERY long time.

This Sunday therefore brought back somewhat traumatic memories of a day ruined. Given I had been out all Saturday and had promised the kids a barbeque, there was no way. Nope, stuff it. Rubbish bird anyway - small, brown, and boring. "I care not, you can't get them all", I said, and started making plans for a trip to Kent on Monday. In the event I went to Cambridgeshire instead, with the happy result you have already read. So today when the pager kicked into life before 8am with the news that the Fan-tailed Warbler was still at Pegwell Bay CP and showing well, it seemed like I would have to go after all. I admit I was scared. FTW is as close to a bogey bird as I have, and my most agonising dip to date. Despite my recent run of extreme luck, if any bird was going to end it, it was going to be this one.

Throughout the drive, "showing well" messages popped up with pleasing regularity. Was I really going to get this? We arrived at Pegwell Bay at 10:31. People with bins I passed were all smiling. One of them said "Not been seen for 20 minutes, but they've got it pinned down in a bush". I was hoping for nailed or glued, but pinned would do. Pudding & I joined the crowd and looked at the bush. Nothing. 30 seconds the last time, and now 20 minutes, gah!!! 11am, nothing. 11:30, still nothing. At 11:45 I texted Paul "The run could be over". At 11:52 I texted Monkey "No sign for 2 hours..." "Persevere mate" he replied, with a somewhat alternative spelling of persevere. There was no way, the bird was gone. Another three minutes passed...


At 11:55 the Fan-tailed Warber zoomed over the path about 3 metres from where I was standing, having come from somewhere low in the scrub to my left, a matter of feet from where birders had been standing all morning, dzipped, and disappeared into a bush on the other side of the path. "That was it!", a number of us collectively gasped. "Wasn't it?" We all agreed that it was indeed "it". A few seconds later, as if to allay our fears, it flew out of the bush, flew over an apple tree, hovered briefly over a rose-hip, and dived into cover once again. I had it in the bins for about 10 seconds all told, but that was enough. Fan-tailed Warbler ON THE LIST, and my biggest dip consigned to history. It was all too brief to get a photo, so instead I'm offering this up, to at least prove I was there.

The machine made a kind of dzip-dzip-dzip noise as it printed this out.

I have now seen 9 lifers in 11 days, and if the truth be told I am knackered. The pace is getting ridiculous, and it all needs to slow down. I would not be disappointed if no rare birds were to be found tomorrow or indeed for the rest of the week. If this continues for much longer I am going to be a wreck by the time we all go to Scilly. Back to the patch tomorrow I think. Yes, that will be nice and calming. If there is an ideal tonic for a surfeit of rare birds, Wanstead is it.

Monday, 7 September 2009

#286, Pallid Harrier

Well, I have certainly turned over a new leaf since I last posted.....only another 261 miles have been covered. Critically though this takes me over the £1000 mark, another milestone. Today's mission was the Pallid Harrier in Cambridgeshire, my home county.

After dropping Muffin at school and Pie at Nursery, Pudding and I headed up to the fens. Things didn't start well with news on the M11 that the bird had not been since 9am, but I carried on. As Shaun puts it, I have trodden in Rocking-horse shit, and he would like some. Although a novel concept, I did some research on where I was going before I left, and this enabled me to find the site without any problem. Upon arrival, I was greeted by about 10 disconsolate birders. Or maybe twitchers. Dippers. After about an hour, with the sun on my face, and a warm wind blowing, I wasn't minding dipping one bit, it was most pleasant. Pudding was a superstar, and played with her dolly Bella in the car, ran around the car a lot, played under my tripod, and generally was an adorable child. She even got to see one of her old buddies in the form of "Jake", a large bearded birder she had met at the Breydon Water hide during a severe storm whilst dipping PGP. We don't know Jake's last name, but we like him, even though he eventually saw the PGP and we didn't. Anyway, after about 2 hours reading and rereading the Collins entry for Pallid Harrier, the bird duly appeared, like a ghostly shadow, and gave rather good views for about three minutes. Using my unique birding skills, gained from years in the field, I aged it as being very close to an adult, whereas I had been expecting a 2nd year bird. Gratifyingly the great and the good agreed. Smart is an understatement, it shone out against the dull background, and showed incredible agility as it plucked an unfortunate passerine out of the sky. Having just spent some time watching Arctic Skuas harrassing Sandwich Terns off Sheringham (yes, more miles), I'd put this bird in the same league. Unfortunately Pudding didn't see it. Bella had chosen that exact moment to do a poo, and the bird had landed by the time the nappy had been changed. Kids eh?

Luckily I had managed to grab some ultra-high quality images, putting previous raptor photos to shame, so she could relive the magic. And you can too!

What do you mean you can't see it?

Anyone thinking of entering the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2009 competition should admit defeat now.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The cutting edge of birding

1415hrs, Sunday. Command Centre, Wanstead


Operator: Hello?
Agent Monkey: [heavy breathing] I need help. I'm at Alexandra Palace [cough, pant] I'm lost. I've been here half an hour, walked round loads, can't find any birders. [wheeze] There's nobody with bins at all! I've asked loads of people, nobody knows where the filter beds are. [cough cough]
O: OK, Switching to satellite view. Coming
AM: [wheeze]
O: The filter beds are in the extreme south-east of the park. Where are you now? Describe your location.
AM: [cough] I'm at the Boating Lake, near a cafe [pant pant]
O: OK, I have the Boating Lake. Can you see the sun?
AM: [pant] God I'm knackered....[wheeze] its cloudy [cough]
O: Can you see the Antenna?
AM: Yes, it's behind me. [wheeze, splutter] Hang on, I can see a road. [pant] " 'scuse me mate, what road is this?" OK, I'm on Alexandra Park Road [pant pant]
O: OK. Can you see a carpark?
AM: [wheeze] No. Aaargh, I'm totally knackered.
(off-call, Jamie: "Dad, there's one over there")
O: Walk towards the carpark and the main buildings.
AM: OK, walking there now. [wheeze, pant pant] I can see a [cough] rose-garden.
O: Does it have a round fountain in the middle?
AM: Affirmative. Roger that. [wheeze]
O: OK, I have your location. Look to your left, you'll see a road.
AM: [wheeze, cough] I think I'm dying, aaaarghhhh!
O: Hang in there Monkey. You're going to be OK, you're going to be OK.
AM: [wheeze, splutter]
O: OK, cross the road, what can you see?
AM: A pitch [cough] and [wheeze] putt [cough] course.
O: OK, there are trees beyond that. Do you see trees?
AM: Y - [cough, splutter] - es.
O: OK, go towards the trees.
AM: OK, I'm going down the hill.[wheeze]
O: Can you see a green ride through the trees?
AM: No, I'm surrounded by trees now, I can't see a thing. Aaarghhhhhh!
O: Stay with me Monkey. I'll talk you through this. Everything's going to be fine. Through the other side of the trees should be another road.
AM: [cough] I can see an "H" painted [pant pant] on the ground, about 100m ahead [wheeze, pant]
O: OK, I have it. Stand on the "H" and face the Palace.
AM: [pant, wheeze] OK, [splutter] I'm [cough cough] on the "H", I can see a cricket pitch.
O: Turn 90 degrees clockwise, to your right, you should see a long stretch of grass.
AM: [wheeze]
O: Walk over the grass, keeping the houses and back gardens on your right.
AM: [pant] OK. [cough] Doing that now. [cough, wheeze]
O: Ahead of you should be some trees or bushes. What can you see?
AM: I think I see water! [pant pant, cough] Through the trees! [wheeze], water....
O: Right. That is the reservoir and filter beds. Carry straight on. Do you know what you're looking for?
AM: [pant pant, cough cough] Oh God, aaarghh. [splutter, wheeze]
O: Your target is a large swift with a white belly and white throat patch. Let me know when you have it.
AM: OK [wheeze], I'll let [cough] you [wheeze] know. Aaargh etc.

So there you go, birding these days is easy. All it takes is a nation-wide bird-rarity information service with hundreds of dedicated subscribers all phoning in news, a car, a sat-nav, a mobile phone network, on-demand satellite imagery of the twitch location, a dedicated command centre in Wanstead, and an understanding operator, also in Wanstead. Or you could do the tiniest modicum of research before you leave home ;-)

Thursday, 3 September 2009

In which, unbelievably, I go twitching

It has been fairly quiet since the dramatic fall of migrants at the weekend. Dedicated patch-birder that he is, Stuart has been out a couple of times and bagged another Tree Pipit and Redstart, as well as a Turtle Dove. I went out on Monday and found a very obliging Spotted Flycatcher to show Muffin. Having said we were off out to find Flycatchers, which are pretty few and far between in Wanstead, I confess to feeling a little smug when we actually found one. Muffin was of course amazed - I am now the greatest rarity-finder in the country as far as he is concerned. He is looking forward to finding a Bee-eater next.

Phone-scoping. Only very slightly better than nothing.

That was my sole visit to the patch this week, which is pretty poor. Largely I have been at home, earning Brownie Points in preparation for Autumn. Or possibly attempting to make up for two trips to Cornwall in ten days, followed by an afternoon in Hampshire for a Blue-winged Teal almost as soon as I got back. I'll let you decide which is the more likely. At any rate, our house has been a hive of activity. Today alone has seen a shopping trip, three loads of washing, the bin emptied, and the cleaning of the downstairs toilet. The entire ground floor, including the porch, has been hoovered, the table in the hall dusted, and our immense hat and glove pile sorted out. Yesterday morning, prior to a highly successful Arctic Warbler twitch, I damp-dusted (!) all the window-sills upstairs, as well as our dresser. And even more spectacularly than this, upon returning from Cornwall well past midnight and finding the front room looking like the Swat Valley, I tidied that up before going to bed. Mrs L was stunned when she came downstairs in the morning to find herself in a veritable Garden of Eden. Will it be enough? Doubt it - I am also considering going up to Norfolk on Saturday morning for yet another sea-watch - good chance of Sabs or Long-tailed Skua given the wind forecast. This will burn yet more BPs I probably don't have, but if I'm to get to 300, these are the bread and butter ticks I need. Ho hum.

Happy children. We love subtractive primary colours.

I bumped into Dick at Landguard. He had waited patiently for over two hours for the Arctic Warbler to show. He called me a jammy so-and-so for getting Fea's, and the kids learned a new word. He also suggested that, being a jammy so-and-so, I would probably get the warbler immediately, and indeed this is exactly what happened. I carried on down the path for a bit, abandoned the buggy near the crowd, and got straight onto it as it consumed a monumentally large insect on a horizontal branch in full view of all observers. Muffin came over and got it as well, Pie pretended to see it to make me happy, and then we went and had a look at the sea, ate bananas, collected pebbles, and played on WW2-era concrete things. On the way back we encountered a huge jam on the A12. Knowing that the Monkey and Hawky were on their way, I gave them a bell to suggest they navigate around it. They tried, but failed, which must have been very irritating for them. Still, Monkey can't really complain, he has had a stonking few days. Just not quite as stonking as mine.

I take my kids to all the nicest places.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Yesterday evening I sat down and worked out how far I have driven in the pursuit of birds this year. Yep, another slow evening in the Lethbridge household. Including the longer range dips I can remember, which include the Black-winged Pratincole twice (which I eventually saw) and a Squacco Heron twice (which I didn't), the answer is 10,626 miles. That is like driving to Fife and back eleven times. If I factor in lift-sharing, the number of miles paid for drops to 8,380. You can see where this is leading....Mrs L has oft asked how much I am spending on diesel. Well, the car does about 40mpg on a normal run, and I have taken an average cost per litre of 102.9p. So making some big assumptions, the total monetary cost of my birding so far this year has been about £970. This does not include the cost of double deckers, nor any of the other crap I consume on a day out. The emotional cost is of course far higher, as significant other people will tell you.

With my year list on 281, on a per bird basis this equates to £3.45 per bird. Year listing is very stupid, that much is clear. In fact you don't need to do any numerical analysis to discover this. Just think about it for a minute, and it becomes plain stupid. Seeing as I am never doing one again, this got me thinking. How far would I have travelled if I had just been for life ticks? Thanks to the magic of excel I can tell you that the answer would have been 5,998 miles, and with lift-sharing, 4,140 miles, for a total cost of £479. If we're splitting hairs, £479.31. Each new tick, and there have been 28 this year, has cost £17.11. And it appears that lift-sharing increases if year-listing is abandoned, which is a good thing. My incidental year list would be at 231, alternatively expressed as £2.07 per bird. This is a 50% decrease in cost, but only an 18% decrease in species diversity. Going only for new birds is clearly the way forward, and that is what I will do. Starting from next year. Anyone want a lift?

Actually, restricting myself to only birding in London would be the true path. This year that number is 164 species, for very little expediture whatsover, a couple of trips to Staines and Amwell, once to Beddington, 30-odd trips to Rainham, and the rest of the time on the patch. I wonder what Mrs L would say if I announced I was doing a London-only year list? She would probably explode. Obsessive listing is a bad thing, and it does not matter where it takes place. When she saw that my Wanstead patch list was at 97, and that this year it was 91, she said it worried her as both numbers were sufficiently close to 100 that I might start going a bit nutty trying to get there. As if. The cost of birding is not purely measured in GBP. What I have not measured is time not spent with the family, although my new life happily means I do now spend heaps of time with the children. NB, 4 days to go until the start of term! It also doesn't measure the number of hours other people have baby-sat, supported, put themselves out. This is not an Oscar-acceptance speech, but to all of you, Thank You, and I love you all; I could not have done it without you. See you in November!

The whole thing is lunacy. To make myself feel better I looked at someone much more obsessive than me. No, not Bradders. At the top of the listing site (that I use at least) this year is a guy called Chris. I have never met him. Nor have I met his wife and daughter, who take up slots #2 & #3. I might get upset about this being #4, but when you realise that only a fraction of UK birders use this particular site, and that if they all did, then in reality I would probably be at the lower end of any scale, it doesn't worry me. I'm using it to track my progress towards my personal - and stupid - target of 300 this year (after which I will stop) and that is it. Anyway, all of them are on about 300 for the year already. He/they goes/go for pretty much everything. I think (well, Google thinks...) he lives in a large city in the west country. Last week he drove to South Yorkshire for a Dotterel, via Portsmouth for a Blue-winged Teal. The previous day he had been to the far tip of Cornwall for a Citrine Wagtail. Who would do such a thing? Two days before that he went to Lancashire for a Wilson's Phalarope. By my calculations that is 1,300 miles for four birds in four days. Ridiculous. This pattern of absurd trips for minor rarities, and in some cases, dross, is repeated thoughout the year. I'm not going to do the full analysis, I have no idea what he drives, nor what he has dipped. Suffice it to say I feel much better and I hope Mrs L does too. He hasn't seen a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater or a Fea's Petrel either, what on earth has he been doing?

So, those are the numbers, or some of them at least. I could write about various other lists and numbers for a very long time, but that would be boring, unlike this post. Incidentally this is my 100th. One more target out of the way.