Friday 31 December 2010

2010: The Year in Review

So here we are once again. That was quick wasn't it? Neeeeeowwwww! What was that? 2010, that's what. Over. Jeez. The years don't pass any slower do they? Anyway, no need to talk about my 2010 goals particularly. I blitzed them all, apart from the only properly important one which was to try and find a non-banking related job. I didn't find any job, so that isn't technically a fail just yet. And I have no idea why it was a 2010 goal anyway, the deadline was always 2011. Pfffff. Moving on, the natural place to start would seem to be.....

2011 Goals

Professional Goals
- Become gainfully employed. Doesn't matter where, beggars can't be choosers
- That's it.

Personal Goals
- None.
- How refreshing.

Nope, no birding goals this year. Having birding goals, especially ones that relate to adding numbers to lists, puts you on a hiding to nothing. You're always chasing the game, always fretting about missing something that is in fact insignificant. Far better to have no ambitions whatsoever, and just enjoy whatever comes your way. Take that, listing demons!!

Best Birding Moment
There are two contenders for the prize this year. The first was on March 20th when I decided it was high time that a Wheatear graced the Flats, and went out looking for one. All the normal spots were Wheatear-free zones, until at long last I walked into one of the plantations, and caught a glimpse of white zipping out the other side. Fabulous it was, and you can relive it here.

The other contender came only two days later, when I received news of an Alpine Swift on Leyton Flats, about 300 metres away from where I was sat in my car with binoculars to hand. I got there remarkably quickly, and then contrived to very nearly blow it. As is usual, I got bored after a while and went to look for it somewhere else, whereupon it naturally showed immediately. I came straight back, but was too late. As I was dragging myself away, weeping, I picked it up flying in from the west. It was one of those redemptive moments of pure relief.

Worst Birding Moment
Again, a number of contenders. I am undecided as to whether the accolade should go to deciding to twitch the Lesser Kestrel in Suffolk in a moment of pure madness, knowing I only had little over an hour in which to score, and which resulted in one of the most stressful days of the entire year, or if the title should be awarded to the two Locustella Warblers on Shetland, one of which I ticked as Lancy on Sunday evening, the other as PG Tips on Monday morning, and both of which were Grasshopper Warblers by Monday afternoon. Crushing, and properly hitting home that my bird observation skills were and are pathetic. Sucked into the age-old trap of getting too excited and going with the flow without being critical enough. Or at all. Oh, and then the following day doing a 180 degree U turn, pretending to be uber-critical, and turning a perfectly good Buff-bellied Pipit into a Mipit. Never have the words "You don't know what you're doing" been so apt. Yup, on reflection, this performance wins it. I'll save the Kestrel for Worst Bird.

Best Bird
Once again I'm going to have to split the award. Although the Dunlin on the Flats in April was fabulous, even spawning a magazine article, for sheer drop-dead awesomeness I am going to aim slightly higher, So, in joint top place, the birds are the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll on Unst in October, and the White-tailed Plover at Rainham in July. Although there have been loads of Hornemann's and only a very few White-tailed Plovers, the Redpoll was a stunner, just one of those mythical birds that I had always wanted to see. Stunning and uber-rare need not go hand in hand in all cases.

Although of course, the Plover was stunnning. And made all the sweeter by turning up on my doorstep after I had declined to twitch it at Seaforth. I spent several calm and enjoyable hours watching the Plover as it essentially did nothing on Aveley Pools. My car made light-speed on the A13 getting there, but that [very] brief moment of stress melted away within seconds when I saw the bird on the pools. No fence, no heat-haze, no hours in the car. Just me, a handful of the Rainham regulars including Sam, the finder, and the bird performing beautifully. Unbelievable, magical even.

Worst Bird
Guess what? Lesser Kestrel, Westleton Heath, 29th March 2010. An incredibly fraught day, most of which was spent in the car, culminating in the briefest glimpse of what should have been an immense bird to savour and enjoy. Rubbish. The Skyes's Warbler on Shetland was pretty uninspiring now I come to think of it, but for the overall shitiness of the experience, the Kestrel wins hands down.

Best UK Trip
Not being much of a twitcher, I have barely left Wanstead this year and so candidates for this category are few and far between. Despite the unquestionable excellence of Shetland, I still think the best trip was in January to Yorkshire for the Black-throated Thrush, recounted here and here. Shaun almost wee'd on me in the night, and I did have one of the worst hangovers in living memory after a night on £1.50 lagers in Bridlington, but it was still a great trip.

Worst UK Trip
Hmmm, a tough one, as there has been nothing really to compare with the Eastern Crowned Warbler twitch last year. There have been no major dips to speak of, and I've used the Kestrel already, as mentioned that was pretty bad. There is still however a clear winner, though I can't not mention a three tick day back in July which bags the runners-up spot. On the face of it, it was an excellent day out in Devon, with two quality birds bagged by about 9am, but as you can read in the original post, the day was rather ruined by a River Warbler in Norfolk. We drove the entire length of the M5 coming up with crap plan after crap plan as to how we would keep everyone happy, and in fact ended up annoying almost everybody. And then ended up going for it anyway. I blame Bradders. He was involved - heavily involved - in the ECW twitch as well. That said, he was also heavily involved in the Black-throated Thrush twitch as well. I think the moral of the story is that planned twitches that span a weekend are good, and that impulse day-trip twitches where you spend the entire day in the car are bad.

However, for a vision of pure Hell on Earth, there can only be one worthy winner - Blakeney Point. If I live to be a hundred, I hope I never have to walk the Point again. It was that bad.

Best Foreign Trip
Even more pointless than last year, as this year I went precisely nowhere. That, ladies and gentlemen, is unemployment.

Best Domestic Moment

Once again, almost too many to pick from, but I still have fond memories of entering a zen-like state and cleaning and tidying as if my life depended on it, emerging a mere 45 minutes later in a seemingly new house. How we managed it I will never know, and needless to say it lasted only as long as our guests stayed. Nonetheless, a peerless performance in style over substance.

Worst Domestic Moment

Oh God. The ones that immediately come to mind are ending up with twenty pints of milk and no tea-bags after a particularly unsuccessful shopping trip, and then there was the time when my youngest coloured her entire stomach purple with a felt-tip pen whilst I was keeping a close eye on her. Not forgetting of course my attempts at Squirrel purging, but I think the best heroic failure was using the top of the (plastic) sandpit as a barbeque rain guard which unfortunately only worked temporarily....

I may come back to this category - Mrs L has gone to sleep and it is just possible that she has some thoughts.

Most Amusing Photograph
This is essentially a category for taking the piss out of my mates. There was, for instance, the day when Howard turned into a Poodle at Rainham. I kid you not, one moment there was Howard, the next, a Poodle. The photos were taken literally moments apart.

But the one that makes me smile most is this, from the Ouse Washes. Four of us had gone up one evening in the hope of seeing a Corncrake. We started hearing them from the moment we got out of the car, but would we ever see one?

Least Amusing Photograph
Spoilt for choice after various unfortunate incidents....


So there you have it, another year gone. I'm sure there were plenty of other moments worthy of mention, but like last year, it's time to start afresh. Giddy with excitement? Moi?


Thursday 30 December 2010

Scottish Interlude

Hello everyone! The silence - believe me, five days counts as silence - has been due to a Christmas break up in Scotland, and very nice it was too. Having spent many many hours umm-ing and aah-ing about whether to go at all due to the snow and ice on the roads, we finally decided we would attempt the journey, and ended up breaking our record time by about half an hour. This is in part due to the outside temperature dropping to -13.5 celcius on our way up. Normally we stop and stretch our legs a couple of times, but as the car was a cosy +24 celcius, it was an easy decision to keep on driving.

Not too much time was spent birding, or at least, not by my normal standards, but I was able to add one last bird to my national year-list, the regular drake Surf Scoter in Largo Bay. Unless something extraordinary happens tomorrow, it's all over and I'm finishing on 306, something I really hadn't counted upon. A few other goodies as well, though nothing new, in the form of all three regular Divers, quite a few Grebes including a Red-necked, and loads of stunning Long-tailed Ducks. Got a few photos of them, but I'm saving them for a different purpose. Finding myself a few short of the London yearlist record at this late stage, I believe that it is traditional to get to the required total by submitting photos of birds taken elsewhere, so tomorrow expect to see my list augmented by a Red-throated Diver from the Girling, a flock of Long-tailed Duck at Rainham, and a Surf Scoter at Grays. Obviously don't waste any time looking for them, they will have all flown off, but you can see my photos in due course. Don't be put off by what appears to be the Bass Rock in the background of the Long-tailed Duck shot - you get all sorts of weird flotsam on the Thames these days....

Anyhow, I'm back now, and have just spent a rather unhappy morning at Rainham, somehow missing two Raven and a Gannet. It's one of those strage situations where had I been sat at home I would have been cursing myself for not going to Rainham, but in fact I was actually there and yet saw nothing! I'll try again tomorrow, last chance saloon. Right now though, birding is over for the day, and I am about to attack the spreadsheet of happiness in preparation for 2011. Always fun setting the counter back to zero, it must be the most eagerly anticipated day of the year for all birders. On January 1st this year I'll be out on Wanstead Flats, so if you're there, come and say hi.


Next up, the ubiquitous year-end round-up post. Best bird, worst bird, best twitch, worst twitch and so on. If you can't wait until tomorrow, why not have a read of last years?

Friday 24 December 2010

Wanstead Birding?

I am in seach of a title, a new blog is in the offing. You cannot have failed to notice that this blog very occasionally strays from being about birds and Wanstead. I like it that way, were I to restrict it to being solely about what I saw out of the window it would get pretty dull pretty quickly. You may argue that it is aleady pretty dull, and I would agree that yes, sometimes it is. Unbelievably, there are days when absolutely and precisely nothing occurs in my life. I wake up, nothing happens all day, and I go to bed again. And if you're very unlucky, I fail to follow my own advice (and that of Sir Humphrey) which is that if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Do not blog for the sake of it.

Anyhow, a new blog. A blog about birds in Wanstead. What has been seen, what can you expect to see, where is good. Birds, and only birds. But not only me, no. Multi-author - all the rage these days. Yes, the idea, and the hope, is that the birders in Wanstead, of which I am but one, will all contribute to this new blog. And let's face it. some of them go birding here a whole lot more than I do. I haven't mentioned it to all of them yet, but they make take it up or leave it entirely as they wish, but at least one of them thinks that it could be a good plan. The idea is also that it won't just be lists of sightings, as that would just be boring. "I went here and I saw this" becomes turgid very quickly, hence why my blog strays a bit. Hopefully it will be a place where patch-workers can express themselves, but where we can also all keep track of what is going on with the bird life of our area. Photos, good or bad, observations, important or banal, birds, common or monster. It can all go in.

This blog, the one you're reading now, won't stop, and won't change. You can continue to visit for the very latest tips in top-class parenting, for up-to-the-minute hypocrisy, and hints on how to attain domestic godliness. You can also continue to expect far more photos of birds than are necessary, boring anecdotes, my thoughts on hats, my physical well-being (or otherwise), and, heaven forbid, tales from the workplace. There is simply no way to stop me writing - unless you have a small mechanical digger and a penchant for copper.

What I need now is a name. It needs to be sufficiently distinct from Wanstead Birder so that people won't confuse the two and get upset when they can't find my latest thoughts on dusting,  and yet sufficiently inclusive of the terms Wanstead and Birds such that people who are genuinely interested in those two things in the same phrase will find it and read it. 

Anyone got any ideas? The 'postcard' is below.

Thursday 23 December 2010

A Lot of time at Rainham

In a last gasp attempt to get a few more ticks before the year comes to a close, I've basically been camping at Rainham for the last few days. This has proved moderately successful, with a new site tick in the form of a superb male Goldeneye on the river. Never a common bird out on the river, it's a bird I have been hoping to get there for some time, and I timed it just right.

We arrived on the sea-wall hoping for a Pale-bellied Brent Goose, but that had gone, and as we met up with the small group of hardy souls, Howard called the Goldeneye. Wow! What luck! As it happens, the PBBG wouldn't have been a tick as it is only a sub-species - I just wanted to see it anyway, it's not a taxon I see very often - and instead I came away with a real actual tick - my 183rd species at Rainham, and 164th this year. I'm still very much in the second division of Rainham listers, but another couple of years like this one, and I may crack the magic 200. I'm not setting that as any kind of goal, it will happen when it happens.

NB, as is customary when I have the kids, I don't carry a camera. It would be too much to concentrate on, and I prefer to make sure they're not falling into rivers and so on. However, I do wish to illustrate that drake Goldeneyes are nothing short of fabulous, so please note that this photo was taken last year at Hogganfield Loch near Glasgow. We simply don't do faked photos on this blog.

We all got a bit cold on the sea-wall, so retired to the Visitor Centre for some warm lunch. This was gratefully received by a gaggle of small people, and I spent the remaining time there being a wimpy birder and looking out of the window. This was a stunning success, with a group of 19 Bewick's Swans flying past down the river, and then 15-20 Waxwings landing in the bushes outside very briefly before whirling around and back over the centre, and thus making my bridge tactics from a couple of weeks ago look increasingly stupid. The Bewick's were especially welcome, as the two I had seen earlier in the year were basically silhouettes in the dark.

I spent today at the reserve today as well, and although the birding was much more subdued than yesterday, a Brambling visited the feeders. This is a fairly unusual event, and I was able to get a photograph which was especially pleasing, as this is one of the few species on my London yearlist that I have no concrete proof of having seen, despite having seen five this year - no photos, and no other observers. Not that this matters, I would hope people trust me, but after last year's shennanigans, and especially the role I played in helping to expose them, I've felt under pressure the whole way through to document what I've been seeing. So, I hereby present firm evidence that I, Jonathan Lethbridge, didst see a Brambling underneath the feeders at Rainham on December 23rd this year of our Lord 2010 at approximately 13:17 GMT, and that it was good.

Only a few more days to go, and then I can stop all this ridiculous listing nonsense. If you want to read more thoughts on listing, the latest edition of Birdwatch Magazine apparently has an excellent article in it, well worth the subscription price alone, and you can also get a free pair of trainers. Win win.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Trudge trudge slip trudge

Another few hours this morning on the patch seeing not a great deal. Snow still everywhere, and the ponds still don't know whether to freeze over or thaw. Shoulder of Mutton and the Basin have no clear water whatsoever, Jubilee and Alex are fast approaching that state, yet Heronry has more open water on it than at any time in the last week. Consequently it holds the bulk of the wildfowl, though as yet, nothing that I and the other local patch workers have had cause to go "ooh" and "aaah" about.

Oh, apart from the Black Duck that is. I'm pretty sure that's what it is. A teensy voice in my head is saying that American Black Duck shouldn't any white on the breast, and that it's actually a dodgy Mallard, but I reckon it's much more likely to be a genuine vagrant that's just had a bit of an accident with some fresh paint.

Our two semi-resident Egyptian Geese were also on Heronry, and what better way to keep warm than to get down to business? Honestly, poor Mrs Egyptian Goose. There she was, doing her best to keep out of the icy water, when suddenly Mr E G pushes her in, grabs her neck to pin her down, and then climbs on top of her and starts going for it. I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that Mrs L wouldn't stand for it, but maybe geese are different? Didn't last for more than about ten seconds, but happily for the loving couple a photographer was on hand to capture the moment. I don't think Mrs L would stand for that either...

Mrs is on the right. If only geese could talk..........

The park looks fantastic in the continuing snow, but it was actually pretty quiet on the bird front. The rest of London seems to be overflowing with Waxwings and grey geese.  Crayford had not only Waxwings, but also White-fronts, Beans and Pink-feet this morning, Kev must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. Mark at Stoke Newington got some more White-fronts, as did the guys at Wormwood Scrubs, and even Des got some out of his window several storeys up in central London, but so far none of them have reached Wanstead, or at least not that we have detected. For me, the best birds of the day were a group of six Tufted Duck very distantly from one of the upstairs windows. This is only the third house record, and at the time I thought it was only the second so got very excited. Still, it trebles the number seen up to this point, so is still worthy of mention.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring?


Monday 20 December 2010

And in third place....

I think I am due a Bronze Medal. My London year-list total is now 209, which I am reliably informed is the third highest total ever. Top of the leaderboard is a guy called Steve, who managed 216 in 2003. In second place is Dom, who has also been having a go this year - he is on 213, and is still holding out for a few more. Then comes me, and then comes Steve again, with 205 in a previous year. Then it's a guy called Rupert, who was the first to ever get to 200 (exactly 200) in London back in 1985, and behind him.... Steve again! There are a few others in the 190s I believe, and last year before the thought of having a go had ocurred to me, I managed 185.

The fact that the leaderboard only has a handful of people on it, most of them Steve, is in my opinion neither here nor there. When I started I felt that 200 was just about possible, and essentially I whooped it. What is perhaps a shame is that I missed out on the top spot. The long and short of it is that had I been very slightly more dedicated, said "sod it" slightly fewer times, and not utterly slacked off immediately after getting to 200, I would currently be sat on about 218. In most cases these are birds I couldn't be bothered to go for, a couple are ones that I dipped but that had I stayed on site longer I would have got.

That said, I never expressed an interest in being the record-holder. I always maintained I wanted to get to 200 and that anything after that was a bonus. I just didn't realise the potential I suppose. No matter. The number of people who care about London listing probably peaks at about 30, and London year-listing at about five, or possibly just three! There is no cash prize, and neither should there be - the skill is limited to be being available at short notice, and being able to drive. If I were to look at a self-found London list, and being very strict about it, this year my total would have been 168. In other words I twitched one out of about every five birds. My semi-decent self-finds have been limited to Brent Goose, Garganey, Scaup, Sanderling, Merlin, Glaucous Gull, Caspian Gull, Turtle Dove, Lesserspot, Woodlark, Redstart, Ring Ouzel and Waxwing. All of the other good birds this year were twitched. Someone else found them, I drove there and ticked them off.

Of course this isn't too important, and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't stand a chance of 200 unless you did twitch stuff, but it shows how silly most lists are. A self-found list would be much more meaningful. But enough of doing myself down - to get over 200 is good going, no matter how you get there, and I challenge anyone else to have a go, as if you do you'll realise quite how difficult it is - especially those of you that don't live in London. It has been mostly a lot of fun, and my London life list has moved forward rapidly with a pile of birds I thought I would never get - I've seen seven Eider for pity's sake! Seven! Just seeing one would have been incredible, you could almost say stellar, but that would just be a cheap gag. To drool at my full list, click here. Less fun moments included being in Scotland when a Black-winged Stilt appeared at Rainham, and then getting calls from EVERYONE about it, and then a couple of days later getting news of a Hoopoe in the same place whilst I was still in Scotland. But I was on holiday, and you can't let a year list get in the way of real life. The biggest challenge remains apathy. That and losing the will to live. At various points during the year, news of a needed bird brought not happiness and joy, but instead extreme irritation bordering on chronic depression. Which is why I won't be doing it again. Birding should be fun, and not a cause of anxiety. Next year, Wanstead, and only Wanstead, though no doubt there will be anxious moments there too.

PS Whilst Dom is Dom, and I am me, Steve is not Steve. I don't know Steve the record-holder, and needed a substitute Steve. I thought about Steve Waugh and Steve Bucknor, but thought they perhaps didn't have the crowd appeal that was necessary to identify a Steve. Instead I asked Mrs L, barometer to the masses, what Steve came immediately to mind if I said "name a famous Steve". She thought for a minute and said, "Wasn't there that snooker player?" "Yes", I said, "there was". "Have you heard of Steve Waugh or Steve Bucknor", I asked? "No", she replied. So Steve Davis it is.

Sunday 19 December 2010

The Big Picture on the Inner Thames

In cold weather, London birders seem to gravitate towards the river. It is usually even colder by the river, but there is a chance of good birds and that is why we do it. I had five layers on today at West Thurrock, which was just about sufficient. I don't know how cold it was, but my right little finger was the worst affected. I think I need to fatten it up.

As the snow was pretty extreme (by wussy London standards) I took the good ship Eco One, though in the event I reckon even a Honda Jazz could have made it - the problems may come later when a partial daytime thaw then gets frozen again overnight. Still, it was pretty fun to slip into low ratio and power down Coldharbour Lane at 20mph in fifth.

I picked up Nick from outside my house, which was extremely convenient, and then a short hop north for Bradders and we were on our way - destination the picturesque riverside at West Thurrock where we were taking part in a coordinated Inner Thames high tide wader count - basically checking all the known roosts to see "the big picture". I don't have the full results yet, but it seems that everyone got out despite the weather, so we will indeed know "the big picture". I have no idea if "the big picture" has any scientific merit, but it has been well over a year since I have been able to say "the big picture" quite so often in such a short space of time, and as I may be heading down that route again I thought I should start practising.

Highlights at West Thurrock were two female Scaup, and a flock of 59 Avocets that may or may not represent a record count for London. I'm reasonably interested to know if it is, but not so fascinated that I am going to wade (da-dah!) through a century of LBRs. They were all bunched up on the river and surprisingly difficult to count, and our multiple attempts ranged from 56 through to 62. We arrived at 59 three times when they were a little bit more strung out, so are calling it that. Bird recording is all about accuracy.

After getting properly cold we returned to the car, and this being West Thurrock, were pleased to see it still had all four wheels and a complete set of windows. A quick stop for heated comestibles was much needed, and we roared into Rainham at around 2ish hoping to connect with the three Smew that Kev had first seen from Crayford early morning, and that had then been seen from various locations on the north side. There was no sign, in fact the river was pretty dead, gulls notwithstanding. After about thirty minutes we were just about to pack it in when Nick exclaimed "There they are!", and sure enough, there they were. Three redhead Smew, drifting down on the falling tide. I managed one predictably awesome phone-scoped shot, and then they flew east down the river, appearing to drop down near the RSPB Visitor Centre, though it was rather murky and we could not relocate them. A superb Rainham ever tick, and my 163rd for the year, they were on view for all of about a minute. Jam jam jam.

I'm back home now after six and a half hours outdoors on the coldest day of the year. I've had two cups of tea and some noodle soup stuff (cheap oriental cuppasoup equivalent, six for a quid), and am feeling much better. The temperature is predicted to drop to minus eight tonight, and remain below freezing all of tomorrow. I think the children and I will stay home, play games, and watch DVDs.  Unless someone turns up a monster seabird, in which case I will drag them kicking and screaming to see it.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Let it Snow!

Every news bulletin headlines concerns the dreadful impact of the snow, the implosion of the transport infrastructure, and an obligatory interview with a poor distressed person stuck at Heathrow unable to get to that nice warm place they were hoping to go to. Pah!! I've been enjoying it, the Christmas season should have snow! The fact that this country can't cope with snow is getting very boring.

Wanstead has predictably ground to a halt. As I returned from my mornings birding on the Flats and in the Park, traffic was barely moving along the main road. I expect the buses will stop soon, and once people get home, or to wherever it is that they are going, the road will become impassable. To be fair, there is quite a lot for round here. Look, here's my terrace, with an unimpressed Palm Tree. I reckon that's a good 10-15cm, and there may be more to come.

The morning's tour produced a few goodies, though nothing spectacular. Best birds on offer were a couple of Wigeon, and five Teal, all on the Roding. The ponds are largely all frozen, and I got my highest ever count of Shoveler on Alex with 27. They too looked unimpressed with the weather, wusses. We're had quite a few Wigeon and Teal during this cold spell, but are still missing the biggie (in a local context). No Goosander, no Goldeneye, no Gyr. Still, there is always tomorrow.

Friday 17 December 2010

Birds wot I have seen recently

Well, one result of my lack of internet connection is that I have been birding. Not cyber-birding, actual birding. Outdoors, seeing birds, not photographs of birds. I don't know if any of you have ever tried this, but it's actually pretty over-rated.

For starters the birds are miles away and you struggle to get decent views. Far better to allow some of the long-lens brigade to employ some sensational fieldcraft and get frame-fillers that you can study from the comfort of your own home, with the added benefit that you get to flame them on internet forums.

Secondly, it's cold. Really cold. Far warmer indoors, tea and biscuits on hand. I got so cold at Grays on the Thames foreshore that I had to give up birding and take shelter in a pub. I had been dipping a Grey Phalarope for a whole hour, and couldn't feel my hands or feet. I noticed that I was outside a pub, and that there was a sign in the window saying "Hot Food Served All-day". It was an easy decision, and one immense All-day Breakfast later, I was feeling much fatter better. Warm and content, I left the pub with a spring in my step, found the Phalarope immediately, and thus was able to stop this birding nonsense and go home.

I suppose that theoretically I wasn't birding, I was twitching. Which brings me to my third point. If you go out twitching, you risk dipping. Dipping isn't nice. You get cold, as per point two, and get no views at all, kind of like point one but even worse. I dipped the Grey Phalarope once before I got it the second time. There was also a Shag on the Walthamstow Reservoirs, another bird needed for my London list, albeit a rather unpreposessing one. I dipped that too, before connecting a second time - #209 for the year since you ask. The point being, if you stay at home, you won't ever dip. Fact. You'll see everything, and depending on how stringent a lister you are, you can amass a huge life list.

For those with a low boredom threshold, it's the one on the left.

You may also be surprised to hear that I've also been birding locally. I heard a Tawny Owl on the way back from the pub on Tuesday night, and then a flock of 21 Redpolls dropped into a neighbour's garden and then into my tree whilst I was sat in the conservatory drinking tea. Local birding - superb. What, actually walk around Wanstead? Do people do that? Unfortunately I got excellent and prolonged views, allowing me to confirm that every single one was a Lesser Redpoll. Far better to get fleeting views, take a punt on one being a Mealy, and then hope that they fly off never to be seen again.

Talking of which, during the down-time I also went to Thorndon Country Park, home to 95% of the dogs in Essex, on a Redpoll hunt. I still need Mealy Redpoll for my London year-list, and had dipped them here before about a month ago. Then, they were in a few largish flocks, but were extremely flighty and never landed long enough for me to get a scope pointed at them, let alone look through it. This time the large flocks had dispersed into much smaller groups, but at least they were more settled. One of the first groups I scoped contained a very interesting-looking bird with good white wing-bars, somewhat of a prequistite for a Mealy Redpoll. It was also paler than its beigy-browny congeners, but didn't have the typical frosty appearance of a true good'un. I didn't notice any appreciable size difference, I forgot that criteria at the time, and having come a cropper with Redpolls early on in my birding career, I was loathe to commit. I know, a photo that I can ask for opinions on. Excellent idea, so out with the camera, but just I was lining it up for a shot (and indeed had pressed the shutter only to be stymied by a twig) the whole lot flew off. I saw the bird again, it was relatively easy to pick out - another good sign - but try as I might I couldn't get a clinching photograph. Then news of the Shag that I had dipped the previous day came up, and so I abandoned the Redpolls and went off twitching again. So far I have not counted it in the total as I'm planning to go back for another try. If I fail though, it's going to go on. Win win I believe the expression is.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Saeculum Obscurum

Hello Internet Acolytes, I am back. For the past five days I have been forcibly transported back in time to the Dark Ages. On Saturday afternoon, my phone died, and has remained dead until about two hours ago. I was sat on the sofa with everything crossed, praying that England would survive the last few overs of the cricket, when the phone rang. It took a while to register where the sound was coming from. I eventually traced it to a funny white thing with numbers on it in the front hall, and on picking it up my Mother's voice came out of one end. Amazing!! She was blissfully unaware that this was the first phone call I had received in a week, and carried on as if nothing was wrong. "Yes mum",  "Right mum", "Anything else mum?" "HANG UP NOW MUM!!"

The Renaissance has arrived in Wanstead. If the phone now worked, then...... I ran to the computer, switched it on, and THERE WAS LIGHT!! I threw away my chisel and stone, furled my semaphore flags, put out the fire, and got tapping.

Sweet sweet internet. Thank God. I can finally stop actually birding and instead sit in front of my computer. There is a Lesser White-fronted Goose in Norfolk that I have, from a hundred miles away, been itching to spout forth on. An Eastern Yellow Wagtail thread on Birdforum was looking like heading south very quickly, and I had perhaps missed the terminal slide. Gah! And my blog, this blog, what of my Fatbirder ranking?! It was all too much to bear.

The story goes thusly. On Saturday, some pretend workmen set up on the main road near my house, and pretended to do some work. Nobody batted an eyelid. Frankly if there were no cones or piles of rubble nearby, that's when we would start thinking things were amiss. The work they were pretending to do involved 1600 very thin strands of copper, all bundled into an immense cable 160 metres long. Copper is apparently quite expensive these days. If you need some, it is far cheaper to nick it, and two of those strands were mine....


In an instant, my life fell apart. A phone I can live without, what son ever phones their mother anyway? But broadband, whoa there! That's entirely different. A disaster. I was just perusing a popular birding site, clicked to the next page, and....nothing. Nothing at all. I pulled all the wires out and tried again. Nothing. Imagining what a help-desk would advise, I turned the computer off, and then on again. Still nothing. Eventually I made it to the white phone in the front hall. Ah-hah! I made an appointment with BT using my mobile phone. A lady in India said an engineer would visit in five days time. Five minutes did you say? What an excellent service, see you soon! No, five days. Oh, five hours, oh very well then. I'll um, watch some TV. Oh, I can't. Er, I'll, err, hmmm. Sorry, did you say five DAYS?! "Yes sir." Is the engineer coming from India?

Somehow I made it through Sunday, and on Monday morning on the school run noticed a large number of BT vans parked on the verge on the main road. They had a digger, lots of cables, and finally a little red and white tent over a hole in the ground, in which a cold and miserable-looking man was sat surrounded by 1600 little wires in a huge tangle....

Well, they weren't kidding, it has taken five days. I called up to cancel the engineer, but it was too late, his flight had already landed. I had about eighty emails, and was disappointed to see that the Eastern Yellow Wagtail thread had returned to being about an Eastern Yellow Wagtail. How boring.

So, has not having an internet connection been refreshing? Has it been a test of character? How have I coped? I was surprised how much I missed it. If somebody had said to me that I'd be without a functioning computer for a week, I'd have shrugged it off. Ah well, I'll do something else then, I would have said. The reality is much more illuminating. It is amazing how much we rely on the internet. And this is not just me wasting hours reading bird blogs and so on. I have wanted to look at weather maps, I have wanted to look at travel updates, I have wanted to do some Christmas shopping, I have wanted to see if I have any money, I've wanted to get in touch with my Aussie friends to crow.... It hasn't helped that it is December, with no daylight and crappy weather. In May it would have been a lot easier. We've been out quite a bit, but the children prefer to be indoors and warm, and anyway, I can't see birds in the dark.

So have I been productive? Have I done all those jobs for Mrs L that I've been putting off. No, of course not! I've just been moping about the place, trying the phone every hour on the hour. Having no internet has been terrible. After no blog updates for five days, one of my mates thought I'd gone and got a job, that's how bad it's been. I defy anyone reading this to not miss the internet, though the fact that you're reading this suggests that perhaps I have a more prone demographic....

Anyway, enough moaning about my bourgeois problems, I've got stuff to do. I'll be back later to talk about birds, as not having a computer means I've actually seen some real ones.

Saturday 11 December 2010

A million to one?

I've been outside twice today. The first time, I went shopping, buying, amongst other things, toilet paper and a Christmas Tree (don't get them the wrong way around, whatever you do). It was a boring trip, and despite having an emergency pair of bins in my pocket, there were no vast flocks of Waxwings at Tesco or Homebase.

The second time, I was on the terrace, waving the table cloth around to get the crumbs, dried pasta, cereal, carrot peel, glitter, pencil shavings, satsuma pith and assorted child detritus off it. I had no bins, it was a thirty second job. As I was nearing completeness, and beginning to fold the table cloth up, a smallish darkish duck flew over to the east of the garden. It felt very much like a Teal, and I decided to call it one, though this is in no way related to the fact that I need Teal as a garden tick. I texted out this happy news to a select few and was then assailed by doubt. I had seen no plumage detail, and though it had seemed small, a lone duck in an empty sky does not lend itself easily to judging size. Ah, what the hell, it's only the garden list, on it goes. Then I thought that I couldn't possibly add it. But I had texted! Gah!

And then an amazing thing happened. I had a text from Nick, asking if it had been going east. Kind of, I replied, as it had seemed to be following the line of Lake House Road, which runs south-west to north-east.  My phone bonged again; he had just had a Teal come over from the west. I phoned him immediately to find out where he was - critical. He was at Shoulder of Mutton pond in the Park, and a Teal had just come over him from the west, and continued on towards the Heronry pond. Shoulder of Mutton pond is the closest one to me, and lies almost due east of my house - you could plot the line the bird had taken.

So what were the chances? Despite the post title, I'm thinking gazillions to one. I was on the terrace for all of about a minute. Most of that time I was flicking small pieces of encrusted stuff off a table cloth. Towards the end of my minute, I glanced up at the sky to my left, and clocked a duck. "Teal!" I guessed thought. At that very moment, Nick was in the Park headed homewards, and perhaps a minute later also happened to glance up at some sky where he too clocked the same duck, though he had bins. "Teal!" he thought. Or perhaps shouted out loud, who knows?! I should start playing the lottery.

I had very low expectations for this weekend. Mrs L is away, selfishly pursuing her own hobbies, whatever they are - I'm sure she told me. I've done no birding, and have no birding planned. So to get a garden tick amidst the domesticity, and in the only ten seconds that I spent looking is amazing. And to have that tick more or less confirmed by a fellow birder who just happened to be standing on the exact flight path a moment later, well, that's even more amazing. In case you're not fully clear, I'm amazed. A Teal has made my day. Now you're amazed, right?

Friday 10 December 2010

In which I open my winter account with a solid 3-0

JL vs The Gulls of the Thames Estuary, always a thorny subject. Basically this is my attempt at getting better at Gulls. For a beginner birder, Gulls are scary. So scary that for many years you just avoid them. Far too difficult, oh look, a Mallard, I'll look at that instead. When eventually you do pluck up the courage to look at Gulls, you'll get relatively confident with the small ones, but hang on a minute, check out all those big ones! Whoa! You scurry back to the comfort and security of the Mallard...

Mallard looking at some white bird

Some more time passes, let's call it "the summer", and then, like some kind kind of guilty secret, you find yourself sneaking a look at those big Gulls. You pick through a pile of them, and count about 125 distinct species. Brown ones, brown ones with a bit of grey. Ones with flecking on the hood, ones with clean white heads, ones that are a bit in-betweeny. Consulting a field guide, you realise that despite the hundreds of species you just saw on the tip, there are actually only three large species of Gull you're likely to see, and then two others that you might possibly see. Oh, and then another two that are entirely made up as no-one, bar no-one, could hope to identify them. So what about the other 118?


The cock-ups come thick and fast, and before you know it, the score is 8-0 to the Gulls. This means that you have tentatively pinned an ID on a Caspian Gull, a decidedly tricky one, and everyone you have shown this to has instantaeneously called it a Lesser Black-backed. You retreat to the safety of Mallards.

But of course, you are irresistibly pulled back. You know Gulls are evil, you know that they are wrong, but like all forbidden fruit you cannot help yourself, and before you know it your nose is once again pressed up against the chain-link fence at the local tip, inhaling Gull. And other aromas. At the end of last winter, the score was 8-3 in favour of the Gulls. After all the myriad failures, I had somehow managed to chalk up three points by correctly identifying two Caspian Gulls, and then picking up a juvenile Glaucous Gull

I'm actually belittling myself, I've spent what must be a huge amount of time going through Gulls, trying to teach myself, trying to get to grips with them. I've spent time with people who are actually good at Gulls, and who have graciously helped a Gull novice and seemingly a hopeless cause. Gradually it is working, some of their skill is rubbing off.

Look at this beauty!

This takes us to earlier this week, and my first proper Gull-watch of the season. I had helpfully bumped into Dom (somewhat of a Gull expert) on the way to Aveley Bay at Rainham, and although I had planned to look for finches, the throng of large white-headed gulls proved too much to resist, especially in the company of someone who could identify them for me. We plonked ourselves on Mount Cachinnans, and started to pick through them. It hadn't been more than about fifteen minutes when my scope lingered on an interesting one. Hmmmm, could it be? Mostly clean white head, good bill length, parallel sided and lemony, a decent head profile and a smallish dark eye. Quick peek at the legs, which seemed long, and were an indistinct colour. I've known Dom long enough to not be afraid of cocking it up, so tentatively called his attention to a what I called a 'candidate' Caspo. Happy to report 8-4, and what's more, though somehow I hadn't noticed, it was colour-ringed.

We carried on going through the mass, and picked up three, possibly four more birds, one of which I again called. 8-5. We saw the colour-ringed bird again a few more times, and eventually I managed to read the ring, so awarded myself a bonus point. Early indications are that it comes from Poland, though if they get back to us and say it's a Lesser Black-backed I'll deduct the two points and add them both to the Gulls. For now though, it's 8-6, and I'm pretty pleased with myself. That said, I almost stuffed it up this afternoon, finding a very interesting* white-headed affair that I initially called as a Caspo but then talked myself out of it, and a good thing too as it probably wasn't one. Phew.

So, Gull season is upon us once more. Happy, happy days.

* yeah right

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Thank Goodness for Thermal Underwear

Thermal Underwear is a revelation. After very nearly freezing to death up in Norfolk waiting for the Northern Harrier, and knowing that Gull-watching season is starting, I finally succumbed and bought some the other day. It is amazing. Top tip, buy a size smaller than you actually are, it will be very skin-tight and thus keep you warmer. Just put on your other clothes as quickly as possible, as frankly it's not a good look. Or at least, not on me it isn't. Svelte is not a word that springs to mind...

Anyway, I've spent a lot of time in very cold birding locations in the last few days, and this stuff has paid for itself already in my opinion. Over the last few days I've probably spent about twelve hours at Rainham, and today it was about minus five with the wind-chill. I've been outside almost the whole time, and not only survived, but actually felt pretty warm.

So what I have seen then? Lots. Lots and lots. I wasn't able to get to Beddington for the Common Crane on Sunday, so instead went Monday morning. Another superb bird for Beddington, and a great find for T-Bros, and I understand that many London birders filled their boots. I was happy to fill mine, even though as usual it took HOURS to get there, but once I saw the bird the journey melted into insignificance. What a great bird, and after the disappointment of the "Tyttenhanger Three" a few years ago, a very pleasing London ever tick.

Yesterday, mission Merlin, after a number of recent sightings. It took approximately four minutes. Howard, Dom and I plonked ourselves on the Serin Mound and scanned Wennington. I quickly picked up a distant bird on a fencepost, and got the others on it. I wasn't sure what it was, my experience of distantly perched Merlins is minimal, but when it flew there was no doubt - a smart female. Wow! Another year tick for both Dom and I, putting me on 206, and him on 210.

Today, Rainham again, and mission Snow Bunting. I left yesterday about fifteen minutes after it was found, but was unable to return. This morning I had a nativity play to watch (Mary got stage fright and cried...), but once the performance was over I headed straight there. I missed it by about twenty minutes, but the good things come to those who wait. It was finally pinned down on the old sea wall at about three thirty, and the light was fabulous for photography. As is typical with the species, it was incredibly confiding and allowed those watching to do so from about ten feet away. Another London year tick, 207. I reckon I am almost done now, just a Mealy Redpoll to catch up with. Here, have some photos of it.

What a little beauty, and another quality London bird, only my second - the other one was at Rainham as well. Enjoy it while you can, as my next post will be about Gulls. You may have noticed that "JL vs The Gulls of the Thames Estuary" score has changed, with me the chief beneficiary, and that's what I want to tell you about. Bet you can't wait.

Monday 6 December 2010

They call me Mr Pitiful....

As the song goes, Baby, that's my name. Why, I hear you ask? Well it has to do with lists, need I go on? Probably not, but as you know, I am going to anyway. So, I have today plumbed new depths. I realise that I have said this very phrase on more than one occasion in my birding career, and no doubt will do so again, but let me just run you through the latest pathetic incident that has led me to claim the dredging title yet again.

It involves this:

Yes, very nice. Anyone who hasn't seen a Waxwing this year isn't really trying hard enough. But just seeing them isn't quite enough for a lister, it's about where you see them. I've already had some in Wanstead, over my garden in fact, the best possible location for a Waxwing. By default I must therefore have Waxwing on my London list, which leaves Rainham as the only Waxwing-less patch. This particular Waxwing was almost at Rainham. Very nearly at Rainham.  Not quite at Rainham. And therefore not quite on my list.

There are many ways of defining boundaries, and I find that patch boundaries are very often the most fluid. Now, I could hardly annex the A1306, but most if not all of the people that bird Rainham are quite happy to count birds on the other side of the river, if they themselves are on the reserve. This happened with the Hen Harrier just recently, it never came over the river, and thus is rather incongruously on my Rainham list but not on my Essex list - I have some standards. Could I therefore get to a spot where I could view the Waxwing from within the reserve? It took some doing, and is ever-so-slightly tenuous, but I feel satisfied that I have done enough for the record to stand. This next part is probably meaningless for those who have not visited the reserve, but it is accessed from New Tank Hill Road, which diverts off the A1306 and crosses the Eurostar tracks. The reserve boundary goes right up to the railway line. I was thus able to find a spot on the bridge which had the necessary height to allow me to view the Waxwing's tree of choice AND which abutted the reserve boundary. I scoped the tree and waited until the Waxwing popped into view, at which point I dangled my left arm off the bridge and into Rainham airspace.... I do believe that's a tick, how marvellous! And yes, I did take a photograph....

I recognise the absurdity, I am not proud. But I am also absolutely certain that any of you readers who are also patch-workers will have done something very similar, or considered what you might do if a bird appeared just outside the patch. I therefore feel that I acted entirely normally. Well, almost. Being a birder, in particular a birder who is fond of lists, generally redefines normal in one way or another. Generally in an "abnormal is the new normal" kind of way. Most everyplace I go.

Sunday 5 December 2010

The best patch in London?

At the London Birders drinks, a very serious affair where the conversation borders on the academic, and little or no alcolhol is consumed, I was able to congratulate Gary J on seeing 100 species at East India Dock Basin this year. It got me wondering if EIDB is in fact the best site in London. Obviously that can't be quite true - Wanstead is peerless after all - however it is also about a hundred times as large, and possibly more than that. EIDB is truly tiny, a few acres at most. Probably half of this is the old entrance to the docks, the basin. This is tidal, the lock gates don't work as they used to, and as the years pass becomes more and more silted up. The rest is dominated by a very small copse of mature trees, perhaps a couple of tennis courts worth, and then the lock gates themselves and some paving around the basin. Indescribably small, probably one of the smallest of all London's worked patches, if not the smallest.

So it is a minor miracle that Gary has seen 100 species there this year. That's what I got in Wanstead last year, and I haven't had that many more this year. A handful of dedicated patch-workers bird the site, and even have a blog where they maintain sightings and dream up red-top post titles like Rook and Roll. A hundred species? OK so they have a bit of river, which always helps, and they're at the bottom of the Lee Valley corridor, but nonetheless, square metre for square metre, it has to be the most productive patch in London by a country mile.

I used to work in Canary Wharf, and on the rare occasions where I actually got some time for lunch, I used to pop down to the dock for some much-needed anti-office R&R. It's minutes from Canary Wharf, the skyline is dominated by the shining glass towers, and just opposite is the Millenium Dome or whatever it is now called. I became a different person when I stepped through the gates. Work left behind, binoculars raised, I was a birder again. My site total is a paltry 67, and my best yearlist was 58 in 2008. I'd made three visits in 2009 by the time I got made redundant, and so bowed-out at 37. I'm ashamed to say I've only returned once since then, in search of Black Redstart for my London year-list this year. I spent an hour or so checking the copse and the yard adjacent to the dock where I'd seen them before but there was no sign. As I was on the point of giving up, I bumped into Nick T, who took me straight to the regular bird that was hanging around the Reuters building. Local knowledge.

Anyway, just thought I'd mention it. Depending on how the job-hunt goes, I could easily find myself back there for part two of my glorious career in finance, and to have it as a bolt-hole would be no bad thing.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Rainham again

After a few light beverages with fellow London Birders last night, and a Test Match to listen to instead of sleeping, when my alarm went off this morning I was less than enthused about getting up to go birding. But get up I did, and most worthwhile it was too. Luckily Hawky was coming to pick me up, as there was no way I could have driven anywhere, and so at about half seven I found myself standing on the river wall at Rainham, in conditions that after the last few days can only be described as balmy. I began to feel much better immediately, must have been the sea air.

After a short while Robert de NiMo joined us, just missing three Goosander heading west. Luckily another two went east a short while later. Excellent birds for the site, and a patch tick for Hawky and I. Despite this early success, the river delivered nothing else. Visibility was excellent unfortunately - the forecast had been for poor - and the big thaw had started. As quickly as the good birds arrive when the freeze comes, as quickly they disappear when it thaws out.

Rainham was not quite done for the day though. As Paul, Marco J and I wandered along next to Wennnigton, Paul wondered if he had seen a female Yellowhammer. I'd just seen Reed Bunting in exactly the spot he was indicating, so dismissed this as pure fabrication, snow blindness. As we were getting scopes lined up on the bird in question, a bright yellow male Yellowhammer hopped out from cover....

Sorry about crap photo. Was too hung-over to operate real camera, this is digiscoped...

An absolute stunner, and another new site bird for me. The pair stuck around long enough for Dom and others to see them, but unfortunately a Lapland Bunting that he and Dave C found a short while later did not reciprocate. There were also six Corn Bunting on the saltings, so a rather good day for Buntings on the reserve. Just need a Snow Bunting now, and with one at Beddington yesterday, there is every chance.

So with about four weeks to go until the end of the year, my London year-list effort stands at 204, with a perhaps a couple more to eke out. Rainham stands at 158, again with some winter birds still to come, and Wanstead is firmly in last place with 108. All is as it should be. Speaking to a few of the London birders last night, it appears that to their knowledge, only two other people have got to 200 in a year, so Dom and I have done very well. You can't see everything, you'll always miss birds due to real life taking precedence, so it needs to be a good bird-filled year, but seemingly the biggest barrier to success is getting fed up with it in about August. When I look back at the birds I've seen in London this year, the quality shines out. No doubt, it has been a great year. Almost done now, and I'm looking forward to having a rest in 2011. The best thing that could happen would be getting a job...