Monday 30 August 2010

Cory's will have to wait until next year

Unless something extraordinary happens in Wanstead, I'm resigned to not seeing Cory's Shearwater this year. This is a great shame, as I really wanted to see one. The main problem is that there don't appear to be many in British waters, so if I apply the same sea-watching dedication in a good Cory's year, I'm sure I'll score.

Yesterday and today were the last throw of the dice. The forecast for Norfolk looked great - can you tell where this might be leading? Yup, once again, and for the umpteenth time, what appeared to be a great forecast failed to deliver the goods. Perhaps my weather-forecast reading skills need sharpening, or perhaps my expectation of what constitutes a good sea-watch is sky-high. Either way, a howling force 8 northerly gale, strong enough to rock the car as I slept in it, didn't produce spectacular numbers of rare sea-birds.

I drove up yesterday night and gave it a quick go in the evening. Plenty of Skua action, but not a lot else. Today was the same story, except for six hours. Loads of Great and Arctic Skuas, a few Manxies and Sooties, and stacks of ducks on the move, including many Pintail. Bird of the morning was a Storm Petrel, by all accounts somewhat of a Norfolk biggie, which I somehow failed tio get on while all around me lapped it up. Not to worry, I thought, saw loads last week, and I don't want a Norfolk tick anyway as it will mean that Essex lags even further behind. I am somewhat touchy about the fact that the list of birds I have seen in Norfolk eclipses that of Essex, my home county. I should probably just accept it and move on, but it feels wrong. For the record, it's 238 plays 230. Little league.

Anyway, there I was congratulating myself on having been inept enough to miss it, when a full five minutes later an unmistakable Storm Petrel appeared in my scope. It promptly disappeared again, but it was too late, the damage was done. Rats. Gradually the weather cleared, and whilst it remained very windy, the sea-watch was over. I gave it until midday, by which time it was blue skies and sunshine, and then gave up. No Long-tailed Skua, or at least not one I am prepared to year-tick, and not a sniff of a Cory's. Maybe next time. I should probably go up on a day of southerly winds and bright sunshine. I expect I'd get several.

At this point I was at a loss what to do. Should I stay or should I go? I elected to have a nap in Cley, but was rudely awakened by news of a Red-backed Shrike about a mile away. Oh go on then. Rule number #162, always go and see Shrikes, remember? It was just a Red-backed Shrike, but they are always nice to see. Got a tolerable photo as well, before being shouted at by the anti-photographer brigade for crop-trampling, despite actually being on a track. An insignificant detail apparently. The Shrike was between me and him, so rather than shout back that in fact I was doing no such thing and risk scaring it off, I retreated so that he would stop shouting and not scare it off. Which he did, no doubt very pleased at having seen another photographer off, and the Shrike stayed put. Don't get me wrong, I think people should have words with photographers who overstep the mark - no point being all coy about it and then moaning (using a pseudonym) on Birdforum afterwards. But before you do, perhaps check where they're actually standing, rather than just guess? Anyway, to the guy who decided to 'have a go' in total ignorance, this is for you.

Sunday 29 August 2010

Catching-up with Spotted Flycatchers

Just a taster, more on the new shiny website, which is imaginatively called, but rarely have I enjoyed a photography session more. There were up to ten Spotted Flycatchers in the scrub just east of Alexandra Lake, and they were constantly on the move. Keeping up with them, wading through brambles, was extremely difficult. Luckily there was a stiff breeze blowing, so they were favouring the leeward sides of various bushes, else I wouldn't have stood a chance.

They are incredibly agile. Peering through my viewfinder, I could see their eyes tracking insects that were invisible to me, and all of a sudden they would flit off their perch and be back in seconds. One of them brought back a wasp at one point, and deftly got rid of the sting by repeated rubbing on a branch. Clever birds these. 12 gigabytes disappeared in an hour, and 729 photos later I retreated, knowing I might possibly have some good ones.

The weekend is going exactly as planned, with the exception of not finding a Pied Flycatcher in the Old Sewage Works, which was first on my list and the reason why I got up at 6am. It was pretty dead, so I went and did the SSSI instead, which was also pretty dead. The action only really kicked off at about 10am, when all of a sudden all the migrants appeared. In addition to the ten or so Spotflys, there was a Whinchat and a Redstart. Patch-birding rocks.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Sea-watch South-East

Whilst the good folk at Sea-watch South-west might fall over laughing at our "haul" yesterday, in a local context the river was phenomenal. And I missed half the birds and still thought it was amazing!

Thoughtful parent that I am, I considered that a visit to Rainham where I sat on the balcony and looked at the river for several hours would perhaps not appeal to the children. This ridiculous behaviour cost me 4 Sandwich Terns, 3 Little Terns, 4 Black Terns, a Great Skua and a Common Scoter. As soon as the 3 Little Terns came up mid-morning, that was it. I bundled the children into the car and off we went, hoping that I hadn't missed the action. The filthy weather was clearing; I figured I had probably buggered it up.

I needn't have worried. The tide was still rising and the passage of sea-birds still strong. I guess the theory is that provided the wind is right and the weather murky, the birds will be forced into the estuary at that point, and even it clears up later, once they're in, they're in, and struggle to reorient themselves eastwards. I cannot remember seeing so many Common Terns at Rainham before, probably my personal tally was around 200, and Dom, who had been there since the start, had more like 300.

Likewise I had seen a grand total of 2 Sandwich Terns in London ever, and saw a further 9 or so go past, and missed about 6 more. Bird of the day from my perspective was a superb juvenile Kittiwake that went by at around midday. An immense London bird by all accounts, and certainly a tick for me, and not one I had expected to get any time soon.

And the children I hear you ask? Well they were OK. Who I am kidding? They were brilliant, stunning children. We were there for five hours and only in the final hour did the cries of "when can we go home?" start to appear. I was helped by the fact that there is a small playground directly in front of the balcony, and and the ready availability of sausage rolls in the cafe. Nonetheless they were fantastically well behaved, hardly any disputes, and just played for five hours straight. The previous four days had been more or less constant rain, so perhaps they were just pleased to finally be outside and running around? They are now having a beach weekend on the Isle of Wight, which should heal the scars.

Meanwhile I have been birding. All day. A funny old day spent dashing between Rainham and various other Thames estuary sites, but ended up with two year ticks, two Essex ticks, and a bvd on my list converted to a seen properly. This latter bird was a very nice female Kentish Plover at East Tilbury. The only other I had ever seen was a distant dot off Canvey that perhaps I should not have counted, though it was the correct dot. I feel much better now.

There was also a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope conveniently at Vange, and I finished the day at Wakering Stairs where for the past week there has, and continues to be, an Osprey sat on a post. Despite lugging round a large and heavy camera for the entire day, I didn't use it once. Instead I am treating you to phone-scoping. Rarely will you see a better photograph of an Osprey I'll wager.

Friday 27 August 2010

Your taxes well spent

You will perhaps recall that I broke my toe. Do you remember which one it was? I do. Certain significant other people in the Lethbridge residence do not. Nice to see they care. To save you from going back and looking at photos of my well-pedicured feet, it was the LEFT big toe.

Imagine my astonishment yesterday when a follow-up letter from the NHS Fracture Clinic arrived, one copy for me, one copy for my doctor.

Dear Dr Sinha

Diagnosis: Evulsion type fracture proximal phalanx right big toe.

This 35 year old gentleman was walking down his garden when his right big toe was forcefully flexed when he hit something. It became very painful and swollen. This happened about 9 days ago. He came to casualty where x-rays showed the above fracture. Since then his symptoms have improved a lot. He hardly has any pain now and is walking without a limp.

On examination there was some swelling but no bruising. He was tender over the IP joint of the big toe but was able to actively extend the big toe without any problem. I do not think he needs any active treatment but he needs to avoid sporting activities for a while. I am not giving him any further clinic appointment.

Yours sincerely

A Doctor.

So what can we infer from this, other than that Mrs L is qualified to work as a Doctor and that "evulsive" must be medical-speak for "very serious"? Well, the first line is interesting, as Dr Sinha retired last year, but that is a mere record-keeping slip-up. They got the wrong bloody foot!! Did the doctor perhaps not notice that when looking at the x-ray that there were a number of other bones to the left of my big toe, but none to the right? Jeez, if I ever need something amputating I hope this guy isn't on duty!

And yes, I was just walking down my garden, minding my own business, perhaps casually whistling a tune, when ever-so-unfortunately my foot brushed against something forcefully. If this were the case, fully seventy-five percent of the population would have broken bones. Remember that I said my appointment lasted about 90 seconds, and then I limped out again? This is the proof.

However, all is forgiven, as the letter made me laugh. The doctor has inserted some genuine humour by suggesting that I avoid sporting activities for a while. Oh OK then, I will. Although this will mean a massive lifestyle makeover, for the sake of my toe, I'll give it all up.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Spectacular Jam

Rainham hosted a Cattle Egret today. Naturally I had to go and see it, despite having seen one no more than about a mile away less than a month ago. And naturally, it was only viewable from the most distant part of the reserve. And it was chucking it down. I very nearly pressed the "sod it" button, but wavered at the last minute and got out of the car. Hurrying round, I found it fairly quickly, looking miserable with eight Little Egrets for company. Seeing as I was soaked anyway I had a quick scan for rare waders, found only Dunlins and Ringed Plovers, and headed back the way I had come.

Entering the visitor centre doing my best impression of a drowned rat, Howard motioned me over to the window out of which he, Sam, Phil and Brenda were intently scanning. "There's a Skua out there!"

And there was, and I saw it! For all of about ten seconds, before it disappeared out of sight and into Aveley Bay where later Phil and I couldn't refind it. I missed an Arctic Skua at KGV Reservoir at the beginning of May by roughly the same margin that I got onto this one, and was highly annoyed about it, so this was pretty sweet . It was pretty disgusting out, so the bird could easily have gone round the corner without us noticing, or indeed up onto the tip like the bird that I missed last year did. As I type it is still chucking it down outside, so perhaps the bird will still be there tomorrow - hope so as I wouldn't mind a longer look.

Arctic Skua is a rare bird here in London, so to coincide with one at Rainham is spectacularly jammy. It brings my Rainham year list up to 142 (plus a Barnacle Goose which so far I haven't counted), and my London year list up to 192. Listing is fun.

In other news, I have almost completed that gallery website I may have mentioned some time ago. When this blog got to the stage earlier in the year where you got two photos for every one word, I knew it was time to find another outlet. It's now more or less done, and I will post a link soon. The challenge will be to try and find different photos for the two sites. I think I'll cope. By way of example, let me post some arty Wanstead scenes that won't be making it to the new website.

"When it all gets too much for Pigeons"

"Trolley Park"

"Toy arson"

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Patch Milestone

Cornwall was fairly gripping. I was out of mobile range for much of the time, and whenever I did momentarily get a signal, my phone was bombarded with a flurry of text messages. Most of them were from Wanstead, where the faithful were seemingly having a rather good weekend. Tree Pipits, Wheatears, Whinchats, Spotted Flycatchers and Redstarts were all on the menu, and languishing on 99, my Wanstead yearlist dearly needed the latter two.

Despite a marathon eight hour journey from Cornwall, including popping my offside front tyre on a sadistic and unnecessary curb, my first thoughts were to get out on the Flats to see if they were still there. I am ashamed to say I didn't even go home first.

Nick was still there, fiercely guarding the Hawthorn of Redstart happiness from all comers. I decided to have a quick look for the Spotted Flycatchers first, and was rewarded with two very close birds for a 2009-equalling 100 on the patch. Last year I didn't get there until December 22nd, so who knows where I'll end up. 101 perhaps?

I returned with my camera from the car, but the Flycatchers had relocated to a more distant area of bushes so I decided to concentrate on the Redstart instead. These are amongst my favourite of all birds, and seeing it was the work of moments. I stayed on one side of the bush, Nick walked towards the other side. He hadn't taken more than a few steps when a female-type Common Redstart hopped out into the low branches on my side. I whistled and gave the thumbs-up, Nick stopped, and the Redstart hopped back in. We had retreated and started chewing the fat when I noticed movement a bit further away. We moved round a bit for a better angle, and found a male Redstart sat low in some burnt brambles. Superb, and definitively 101.

I need to go back and re-read what my goals for 2010 were, but I think I'm right in saying that getting 100 on the patch was one of them, and possibly it was getting more than 100. Whichever, I'm an achiever, and anything else is a bonus. Osprey please.

Seeing as I'm done so early, I may add a late goal, which is to find an unfortunate photo of Bradders and post it up here in high-res. He has very cruelly taken advantage of my broken foot and associated reduced speed of camera-avoidance, and whilst on Blakeney Point a couple of weeks ago snapped me in a rather unflattering pose. I suppose I do need a haircut, but to compare me with a C-list celeb like Susan Boyle is most unkind, even if people do come up to me on Porthgwarra and ask how my toe is.

Kestrel hunting small mammals sheltering in my hair.

Monday 23 August 2010


Porthgwarra, Friday 21st

2:30am. Arrive. Sleep.
5:50am. Wake up after superbly long and comfortable sleep.
6:20am. See Brett Richards arriving and getting out his scope. Feel extremely positive about prospects.

4:30pm. Down scopes, retreat to public house with sore eye.

The view from Porthgwarra Cove.

Well what a day we had! Bradders, Hawky and I watched the sea for a little over 10 hours from Porthgwarra cove. The haul was 4 Great Shearwaters, 111 Balearic Shearwaters, 11 Sooty Shearwaters, 108 Manx Shearwater, 5 Storm Petrels and 153 Kittiwakes. We didn't count the Gannets and Fulmars that streamed past constantly. The Balearic Shearwater passage was remarkable. I had known that there were many more birds than normal in the Channel but to personally see over a hundred go past was astonishing. Brett stayed a further five hours and almost broke the day record of 160. The man is a legend. You can't name a sea bird that he hasn't found, well not without being incredibly pedantic. Three out of four times I have sea-watched from Porthgwarra he has been there, proving beyond doubt that I can read a weather forecast.

Balearic Shearwaters

Over the weekend we recorded another Great Shears, a further 43 Balearics, 98 Manxies, 2 Sooties and 17 Stormies. Note the abbreviations, I am a proper sea-watcher. To put this into context I had seen a sum total of 14 Balearic Shearwaters previously. Anywhere.

OK, so we didn't get the random mega we were hoping for, and Bradders was somewhat of a dissident when it came to assessing Paul and I's Wilson's Petrel sightings. We saw at least two, but he rubbished them both...Nonetheless it was a superb session and well worth the trip.

We watched the sea all Friday and Saturday, and whilst Saturday wasn't as good, there was still enough to keep me interested. Bradders on the other hand fell asleep and missed a Great Shearwater. Actually, so did Hawky and I, as we were otherwise engaged attempting to photograph Gannets as they went past - more difficult against the heaving sea than you might think.

Sea-watching is a funny old pasttime. Now I'm back home it seems very odd that I would sit immobile on a headland, through rain, wind, fog and drizzle, my eye glued to a scope with a section of drainpipe stuck on the end to repel water. But I did, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The junk food consumption was predictably insane, and combined with walking a total distance of about 200 metres and sitting on my backside all weekend, I have come back much fatter. Nevermind, there are always sacrifices, and if they involve pasties and Double Deckers I for one am happy to make them.

The tale was a familiar one. That of complete and utter incompetence to start with, especially during the first hour, followed by a gradual improvement in accuracy and speed of identification. I wouldn't go as far as to say that I'm very good at it yet, but by the end of the weekend I was calling more and more things with unerring confidence.


Quite literally a sight for sore eyes!

Wednesday 18 August 2010


I am very excited. Very. This coming weekend I am off to Cornwall, and the intention is to watch the sea for a bit. Then the plan is to get on a boat and bounce around on the sea for a bit, and once off, watch the sea again. Diversity is the spice of life. The watching the sea thing is called sea-watching, and you may recall that I am rather partial to a spot of it now and again. The forecast has been looking good, if not monster, all week, and the storm supposedly hits the south-west headlands on Thursday night and Friday morning. Which is where Hawky and I will be.

At almost exactly this time last year, I was writing of plans to go sea-watching. Flippantly I predicted that anyone joining me was guaranteed to see a Black-browed Albatross and a Fea's Petrel. As it happened, I didn't get either that weekend. But the following weekend......

Obviously I'm far too mature and considered to go on and on and on about the Fea's Petrel that I saw shear slowly west for over three minutes, and what an amazingly magnificent and extremely rare bird it is. If you really feel you need a good gripping, you can click here, as I for one won't be mentioning that Fea's Petrel again for at least the rest of this paragraph.

By God it was sensational! At the time I'm not sure that I appreciated quite how fortunate I was. Sitting here now, looking back, the chances of me seeing that bird, on only my second trip to Porthgwarra, were millions to one. There is jam, and then there is jam. This counts as the latter kind of jam. The very jammy kind.

The target bird that needs talking-up this time is Cory's Shearwater. A far more modest request to the Birding Gods I feel. We're booked to go on a small-boat pelagic on Saturday morning, but in all likelihood it will be cancelled due to the weather front coming through. If by some miracle it goes ahead, I'd like to petition for a Wilson's Petrel. And for not being sick.

I've not been on any kind of meaningful boat trip since the Scillonian III pelagic in 2008, which was before I inflicted this blog on the world. It would have been an impressive rant, as the trip was truly awful. I saw two Great Shearwaters and a stack of Storm Petrels, however I mainly remember the trip for different reasons. Carroty ones that I would rather not dwell on. As I staggered off, I fervently said that I wouldn't ever be going on a boat again. It has taken two years for the memories to fade, and even now I have serious doubts about the wisdom of Saturday's pelagic, especially when Pterodromas can so easily be seen from land. Ahem.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Patch Tick Day

Broken toe and all, vaguely recovered after the strain of the Point, I went out on the Flats this morning. It was raining when I left at 5:30, that's how committed I am. It soon cleared up, but too late for the dog-walkers. My theory is that the really early morning ones are the ones whose owners then have to go off to work, so they exercise the dog (and its bowels) first thing. This would also explain why there are far fewer dogs at the weekends. So when it rains at dog-walking hour, well bad luck pooch.

Not that it made a massive amount of difference to the birding, but I was rewarded with a smattering of new-in Phylloscs, and no fewer than five Lesser Whitethroats. Bird of the morning went to a patch tick though, as you might expect. Both Stuart and Nick had recently been lucky enough to see a Yellow-legged Gull hanging about with the Herrings and Lessers. I grasped the dog-free morning with both hands, and went to see if I could repeat the feat. I could! T'was tough though, the gulls are very wary, and a close approach is hard. It would have been a piece of cake with the scope, but I never carry that so I had to rely on stealth. Leg colour in bad light is incredibly difficult to discern, but I managed to pick it based on comparison with Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls that it was feeding with. The mantle on my chosen bird was also slightly darker grey but I wanted to be absolutely sure on the leg colour so started hiding behind trees and that sort of thing, hoping to get a bit closer, or that the bird would approach me. By about 6:15 I was satisfied beyond doubt, so I went off to bash some bushes with the results already described. My 116th bird in Wanstead, and 99th for the year. I'm in touching distance of the target.

I was bouncing around at home, full of the joys of spring autumn, thinking my day couldn't possibly get any better, when I got a call from Andy T, one of the Rainham regulars, to say that he was watching a White-winged Black Tern hawking over Aveley Pools. Still smarting from missing the Little Tern at the weekend, the kids and I were out of the house within four minutes, and the bird had the good grace to stay put. This is only the third I have seen, all in London funnily enough. I think it is also a first for the reserve, and long overdue. And incidentally it was another London year tick, #190. Getting to 200 is proving hard work, but I've still got a few easy ones like Common Redstart left.

I didn't take a camera on either trip. I figured this wouldn't be a problem as I still have a whole pile of wader pics from the weekend to use up.

Sunday 15 August 2010

What's the Point?

Limitations III

JL: "OK, so now what?"
Doctor: "It will take six to eight weeks to heal. You need to rest, and ideally keep your foot up."
JL: "Understood. How about getting up at 3am and walking Blakeney Point?"
Doctor: "Perfect."

Up to Norfolk with Hawky and Bradders on a good forecast. A smattering of autumn scarcities the previous day, and guess what? As with all previous trips to Norfolk on a good forecast, a dismal failure. Well, I can't in all good conscience call six Pied Flycatchers in Wells Wood a dismal failure, but it didn't live up to expectations, which were for an awesome sea-watch complete with Cory's, followed by mopping up a stack load of interesting vagrants along the lines of Greenish Warbler and Red-backed Shrike. And yes, we did walk Blakeney Point.

For two Willow Warblers and a Chiffchaff.

It wasn't all bad, though don't ask my toe what it thinks. Although the Point was a barren wasteland, and Sueda is the invention of the devil, we did see a decent number of Arctic Skuas on our various sessions looking at the sea, a few of them pretty close. Huge numbers of Terns feeding just beyond the surf, and therefore quite a few aerial battles. Also, Icterine Warblers do not exist. Fact. Your Field Guides are wrong, that's all I can say.

My favourite part of the day was a rather good photo session with some feeding peeps on the rising tide. Mainly Sanderling and Dunlin, provided you didn't move, they mostly ignored you and carried on feeding. Slight wariness as they passed, but that just made for some nice running shots. I won't get technical, but the majority of the following images (of which there are more than a few....) were made whilst flat on my stomach in the sand. Many real photographers swear that the resulting angle is more pleasing, who am I to disagree?

Saturday 14 August 2010

Limitations and lists

Limitations I

Whilst now mobile, my broken toe is slowing me down. I missed three Wood Sandpipers by minutes at Rainham today because of my restricted pace. Not that I would have run for a Wood Sandpiper of course, perish the thought.....This is not a London tick, or even a Rainham tick. Heck, it's not even a Wanstead tick. However it would have been a Rainham 2010 tick..... Pathetic, moi?

Talking of lists, I was reading a blog the other day, can't remember which one, and the author was talking about getting a loo tick. I scoffed, naturally. A loo tick, dear me. I wondered if this was a specific loo tick, in that it had to be his toilet, and was therefore a sub-set of his house list, or whether he could be on/in any toilet anywhere? I then forgot all about it, as I would obviously not stoop so low..... Then, as I was lying in bed ill last week I heard a Hobby.

A bed tick!

Limitations II

Children are limiting, just as broken toes are. Mrs L was out today with two of the kiddos, I had the other, and hence was at Rainham. As we finished our lunch, the tide was coming in and the wind shifted east. All the Rainham reprobates shifted onto the balcony to watch the river. I dearly wanted to join them, but watching dots on the river through a 'scope is not child-friendly. We went home, it was the right thing to do. It was also the wrong thing to do, for a Little Tern went past about an hour later. A Rainham tick! Not the end of the world, but fairly close. It would also have been an addition to my "birds seen from balconies" list, so I am particularly gutted.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

The Buzzing of Summer Terraces

We have a Hibiscus right next to the steps on our terrace. Our evil terrace. In fact is kind of in front of the steps, which it predates by many years. The plan was to dig it up, but five years on we have not got round to it. I think about it perhaps once a year, generally around now when it starts to flower profusely and I notice it again. It flowers for perhaps two months, continuously, and being so close to the terrace, a.k.a. the Wanstead Bird Observatory, the insects it attracts in turn attract me. This year I 'ave mostly been observing Hoverflies.

Tuesday 10 August 2010


Today has been wet. The kids and I have sheltered inside, and climbed walls. As I type, it is still raining, and Mrs L is out again. Pining, I am sitting here concocting plans to wantonly burn brownie points as soon as humanly possible. Largely these involve Cornwall and sea-watching. Sea-watching is poor in Wanstead, and so requires going somewhere else. Somewhere else is mostly far away and expensive to get to. As I sit day-dreaming about rows of Manxies, a child appears. "Daddy, [insert other child's name] did [something bad] to me". Porthgwarra becomes even more appealing.

So I forget about Shearwaters and Petrels for a while, and go and get on with my life, which today can be summed up as a being a referee who also gets to clean the pitch. Four weeks to go....
How can I occupy them, what will keep them quiet for half an hour? These thoughts obscure thoughts of seabirds perfectly, and I get busy entertaining and clearing up.

The phone rings. It is Bradders with the latest gripping installment. He is currently lapping up rare sea-birds on Scilly, and so I end up thinking about south-west headlands again. As I plot, fighting breaks out once more. I send them to their rooms, and the boredom that ensues gradually draws them out onto the landing where they start playing nicely. I can concentrate on Procellariiformes once more. Bradders has seen Wilson's Petrel, his main target. Played for and got, so well done him. And two Great Shearwaters no less, doubling the number he has ever seen. Stonking views apparently, I should expect good photos. He had better be careful with the gripping, lest I feel the need to bring up rare Petrels....

But nevermind all that, all I want right now is some dry weather so that the kids and I can get out and let off some steam. The longer we're stuck indoors, the more trivial the arguments become. We want to play cricket. And football. And fly kites and stuff. We do not want to sit indoors getting on each others' nerves watching the rain pour down.

Monday 9 August 2010

Much Ado about Nothing

Hot news since the last post:

Anyway, moving on, my toe still hurts, but not as much. On Friday I went up to the hospital to attend the fracture clinic. Astonishingly my appointment was delayed by an hour, so the kids and I passed the time hunting for wildlife in one of the out-patient courtyard gardens. This was a stunning success with a new moth species found, the Vapourer, which if handled correctly destroys tardy NHS staff with a powerful distintegration beam. When I was eventually called in, the doctor asked me to take my sock off, made me wiggle my toe, and then said there was nothing they could do and that it would take six to eight weeks to heal and not to do it again. Er, ok then, I won't. Ninety seconds later I was limping out into the fresh air.

Time spent at Whipps Cross as a result of patio step jumping out at me: 3 hours 50 minutes
Time spent with medical staff: 10.5 minutes.

Broken down as:

1 minute for the first nurse to look dispassionately at my foot and send me to the x-ray room
2 minutes to get x-rayed.
3 minutes with a doctor looking at the x-ray, declaring a fracture, and sending me to a nurse.
3 minutes for a nurse to bandage up the foot with tape
1.5 minutes for the fracture clinic doctor to tell me to go away

Other interesting statistics include approx 20 minutes booking in at casualty, including needing to provide the personal details of my entire extended family and the religion of each of my toes, another 5 minutes getting a fracture clinic appointment from the same man, £2.50 on parking, and about 8 miles walking to the x-ray room and back.

I ripped off the bandage they put on after about 3 hours as I felt it made my foot throb, so that was 3 wasted minutes, and I very nearly didn't bother attending the fracture clinic, guessing that they would do nothing. Maybe I should be a doctor next?

Hawky and I found this fly at Rainham. We didn't know what it was, but it looked funky. It was quite keen on following Hawky round, eventually posing for a photograph on his forehead. As I lined up the perfect shot, carefully selected the right aperture, asked him to turn a bit to the right for better lighting, re-framed the shot and so on, it proceeded to bite him, thus causing me to blur my shot at the crucial moment. Honestly, what an amateur. I looked it up when I got home. It's called a Twin-lobed Deerfly, a particularly malevolent type of Horsefly. Pretty cool huh?!

So, can I walk? Just about. And I have been. And naturally I've been overdoing it. Saturday Hawky and I did a full circuit of Rainham and the full sea-wall, laden with camera and scope. I got progressively slower on the return leg, and so strained my calf muscle which prevented me from going out yesterday. Today it felt sufficiently better to try Wanstead Flats in the morning and Rainham in the afternoon, so presumably tomorrow will also be a write-off. I just don't do sitting around doing nothing. Why couldn't this have happened in June?

Ultra-pro shot of a Lesser Whitethroat.

In between bouts of attempted birding I have played a lot of Lego, been to a Moth Night at Rainham (Jersey Tiger and Elephant Hawkmoth, thank you very much), been to the pub, watched Toy Story 3 (superb), listened to a lot of cricket, and drunk a fair bit of wine to help the healing process.

Common Lizard on the boardwalk at Rainham. Also on the "broardwalk" at Rainham today was a Wood Warbler. Awesome. I didn't see it, but it was in the sightings book so it must be true.

And that's it. The last four days encapsulated in a single blog post with some totally unrelated photographs that make for disjointed reading. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Why I live where I live

I live in my house because there is a Monkey Puzzle tree in the back garden. Fact. When the time came for us to move from where we used to live, I didn't want to, and was rather obstinate about it. After a day being dragged round houses that Mrs L had previously been to see by herself, we ended up at this one. She walked me straight through the house, out of the back door, and down to the bottom of the garden, where together we admired the Monkey Puzzle tree. I may even have stroked its branches.

We came back into the house, and I got shown each room. I don't expect I said much, a few grunts perhaps. In the car on the way back though, I very clearly expressed something along the lines of "You know, we could live there, in that house." "I kn-ow, that's why I took you there, dumb-ass!" replied Mrs L. And so we do, and I get to stroke the branches every day.

Another little-known fact is that the whilst an adult Monkey Puzzle tree might look spikey, in fact the branches are quite rubbery. It's still some way from being a tree you can hug, but they're not as sharp and pointy as you might expect. Young seedlings and juvenile plants on the other hand are not rubbery, they are as sharp and spikey as they look. Like many things, they mellow with age.

The biggest one is probably six years old, the middle one perhaps three years old. The teensy-weensy one on the left is one of last year's seeds. The first fork may develop later this year.

The Araucaria family is one of the most ancient on earth. The survive mainly as relict populations, living fossils. In common with ancient groups of plants, they are dioecious, the trees are either male or female. In Gymnosperms, like conifers and cycads, the females bear seed cones, and the males bear pollen cones.

The large browny cones at the top are mature and will disintegrate soon. The seeds are arranged in a whorl surrounding a central spike, which is left once the seeds have fallen. You can see one towards the bottom, on the right. Bottom left, small and bright green, is a new cone developing.

Our tree is a female, which makes me especially happy. In the wild, which is along the Andean ridge in central Chile and Argentina, they grow in dense stands, and are wind-pollinated. When I was in Argentina a few years ago, visiting one of these remant stands was one of the highlights of my visit. I drove twenty miles down an unpaved road due west towards the Chilean border to get to them. At a checkpoint I was stopped by a soldier with a gun who wanted to know where I was going. "Pehuen", I told him, the colloquial name for the tree, and he let me carry on, provided I promised I wouldn't go to Chile. The trees in these stands are truly ancient. As they age, the lower branches drop off, leading to the tall-stalked mushroom look you often see. I spent several hours just marvelling at the trees, and surreptitiously gathered and planted a few seeds. On the way back I scored a Des Murs's Wiretail. Win win.

Our tree is a mere baby still, the branches grow almost all the way to the ground. In the wild stands, the two sexes grow alongside each other, so the wind ensures high rates of pollination, and the seeds are then distributed by animals and birds. Here in Wanstead though, our tree is on her own. The nearest male tree that I am aware of is about 250m east-north-east of our tree, and this is not close enough. You can see I care.

The cones take a full year to develop, and each contains about 200 seeds. I've never counted how many cones we get each year, but it is probably between 20 and 30. The cones mature around now and disintegrate, the seeds falling to the ground where I sift through them.

For although the nearest male is some distance away, amazingly every year a few grains of pollen waft through the breeze and into one of the developing cones. And so amongst the shrivelled and twisted infertile seeds very occasionally there is a nice fat one. So far this year about half of the cones have disintegrated, and I have found six good seeds.

The four seeds in the top row are all bad. They range from being utterly dessicated and empty to having a bit of substance, but still soft. The four at the bottom are all good. Fat, and with no give when you squeeze them. You plant them pointy end down, with just the top ridge protruding.

Although this is only a miniscule pollination rate, it is enough. I collect and plant the good seeds every year, and thus have a potted forest in preparation. Several potted forests in fact. We will soon be overrun, but I can't throw out our own Monkey Puzzle's seeds can I? It would be like infanticide. So there you go, everything you ever wanted to know about Monkey Puzzles but were afraid to ask, lest someone actually told you. Don't say you never learn anything on this blog.

If you feel your life is lacking a Monkey Puzzle tree, get in touch!

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Holding Pattern 2

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. You will perhaps have gathered that there is nothing happening. Wanstead may be drowning in Wood Warblers, but as I have been stuck indoors, I wouldn't know. I am hoping that my fellow patch-workers have taken up the mantle. Actually to be honest, they probably had it already. The mantle that is. Having said that, I have heard no gripping reports of Wood Warbler, so I'm assuming it's all quiet on the Western Front.

My toe is much better, though as you may have gathered, not better enough to go out on the patch. Not that it matters, as Mrs L is still away, and even with three working feet I would still be confined to the house. This is momentous, for reasons I will now explain. The image above is my typical Brownie Point counter. You will note that it is negative. It is always negative. No matter how much I slave, how much I cook, dust, and vacuum, I always go birding more. In my language, half an hour of dusting equals a full day birding, perhaps two. Mrs L does not, as they say, speaka my language. What's more, I can't do DIY, which I understand is a useful BP accumulation strategy. Lay a parquet floor? Yeah right. If I were to try something, I would botch it, and lose another thousand or so. Even mentioning it would probably lose me a hundred. This is known as "with intent" I believe. So it came as a huge surprise when I tentatively raised the perennial question of the BP counter with Mrs L on the phone the other night, and received a positive number! This is unheard of! Happily ensconced on her choir trip or whatever it is (extra BPs for knowing!), without any prompting she said I was in the black, in positive territory. Well blow me down!

I should break my foot more often. Even though it was my own stupid fault, doing it at the very start of the school holidays and only a day before she left on a week-long musical extravaganza has proved to be a killer strategy. Sympathy in bucket-loads, she even went shopping for me before she left, and now the ultimate accolade, a positive BP counter. I didn't think it would ever happen. Here it is, in all it's glory.

The astute among you will note that it is still negative. I am hedging my bets. Half of me still doesn't really believe it, and the half that does assumes some kind of domestic screw-up before she gets back.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Big Garden Sky Watch

I am not particularly mobile at the moment for reasons I have moaned enough about. A quiet day therefore beckoned, and bar a quick dash up to Stansted to collect number one son, I deliberately made no plans. Even if I were fully fit, I could not be up and on the Flats early as Mrs L is away selfishly pursuing one of her hobbies. This left a choice between having a lie in, and doing a garden watch.

I am a birder, not some kind of layabout, so the garden watch was on. Alarm set, and I was on the terrace and manning the obs from about half five, and almost immediately I could tell it was going to be a good day. By 6am I was on about 15 species, and then two Hobbies went over together, really high, flapping quickly in the cold air before turning and gliding back down.

I had to pack it in at 8am to sort and breakfast followed by an airport run, but already on 27 species my personal best total of 31 was in sight. Back home by 11am, I was hard back at it from my deck chair again, and House Sparrow, Chaffinch and a single Swallow zinging south put me on the brink. And that unfortunately was how it stayed. No Dunnock, no Long-tailed Tit, and not a single Warbler. No Herring Gull or Heron, and no Song Thrush. Rats. I could go and stand in the garden in the dark, listening out for a Coot flying about or something, but life is too short, and I have another article to write. The topic this time is sea-watching, very seasonal I thought. Though obviously the real reason for writing it is that I get to mention the Fea's Petrel in a national magazine.