Tuesday 30 November 2010

Magical Mystery Tour

Well, I braved the snow and ice, saw almost no birds, but had a lot of fun. I can only apologise for what now follows. I forsee many more exciting posts, many future installments.... You can navigate away now using the "back" button on your browser. However, if you have four minutes and ten seconds of your life that you don't want to use for any meaningful purpose, then come on a snow-filled tour of a small part of Wanstead Flats.


Monday 29 November 2010

Back on the Patch

I rather felt I had missed out yesterday. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I went to see that Harrier, and it was a good day out, but my trouble is that I always want to be birding in about three places simultaeneously. This is not normally possible, though some people have apparently managed it in the past.

Anyhow, there was only one place I was going to be today, and that was Wanstead. Ferruginous Duck in south London for my London list? Pah! Mealy Redpoll at Thorndon for my London list? Pah! I told you, I'm done. Record-schmecord. I was done quite a few birds ago, pleased that I had got to 200, slightly miffed that I could have been on the cusp of breaking the record had I been just slightly less apathetic earlier on during the year. I soon got over it however, realising I've had quite an amazing birding year, and that I should be pleased, rather than always looking to the next bird. So, whilst in techno birding speak, I "need" Ferruginous Duck for the year (anywhere, not just London), actually I don't "need" it at all, and I'll survive not seeing it. I almost went actually, even had quick look at where it was on the map, but then realised that Wantead Park was much closer and involved no driving.

As I have mentioned before, the Park is quite exciting in cold weather, and I was not at all surprised to find five Teal tucked away on Heronry Pond. After the weekend it is probably about 60% frozen, so the ducks were concentrated down one end and much easier to count. You will be pleased to know that I bested, by one, my previous high count of Pochard, 53 on January 13th last year. For the less mathematically gifted, that's a whopping 54 Pochard. Wow. Here is that 54th and record-breaking bird.

Chuffed at my duck-counting prowess, I picked my way along the Perch pond via a Grey Heron and a Cormorant, and on to the Dell. There I watched a small dog leave a small deposit, and watched the owner watch the dog leave a small deposit. The two of them departed leaving the deposit carefully camouflaged amongst the leaves on the path. My sincere hope is that she treads in it on her way back, doesn't realise, and then forgets to take her shoes off when she gets home, just to see how she likes it. It would be counter-productive, no doubt, to name and shame, so I won't. I don't know her name.

When I had calmed down, I carried on towards the Grotto, hoping to catch up with Nick's Treecreeper. It took a while, but sure enough I gradually pinned down the source of some quiet trilling and piping. There may have been two birds, I'm not sure, but even if it is just the one, it's only the second I have ever seen in Wanstead, which is a travesty given the habitat we have here. So, a special moment. It was in with a large tit flock, and seems very faithful to this particular area. Patch year-tick #108, and to think I would have been happy with 100.
Pleased with this success, I retraced my steps homeward via Chalet Wood, where I noted two Crows hassling a Sparrowhawk. I counted the five Teal (3m, 2f) again on Heronry, and was surprised to then find another five (1m, 4f) on Shoulder Of Mutton pond. A ten Teal day! In Wanstead, this is about as exciting as it gets! Whilst watching them, I became aware of a small cloud of corvids very distantly towards Ilford. Amongst them was a larger bird, but I could honestly not tell what it was. Either Raven or a Common Buzzard I felt, hoping for the former. I snapped off a couple of shots, which when blown up at home confirmed Buzzard. Not the same significance that Raven would have been, but nonetheless a quality local bird.

It's due to snow tomorrow, which could bring in something else. I can barely contain my excitement, so tune in tomorrow for a fresh installment of what to me is amazingly exciting and what to you is probably really really dull. I'll do my best to liven it up. Eleven Teal perhaps?

Sunday 28 November 2010

No Ticks Today

An early start on a very cold morning had me wondering, yet again, what on earth I was thinking of. Not out on the patch, where my co-workers had a pretty good day, but up to Norfolk for some Harrier education. Not a tick on any list that I keep, but I went anyway, just to see what all the fuss was about. And in the hope that one day it will turn into a tick from the comfort of my warm armchair, hopefully on an extremely cold and wet winter day.

Arrived at Thornham Harbour at about half seven, down to zero remaining toes by about 8am, snowed on by about 10am, but we saw the presumed North American Hen Harrier, aka Northern Harrier, aka Marsh Hawk.  Who knows what to call it, but very clearly not like any juv Hen Harrier I have ever seen. So it must be one, as I have seen, er, loads. Kind of. Actually that is a lie. My spreadsheet of happiness tells me that I have seen fifteen Hen Harriers. Ever. I'm actually a bit surprised, I had thought that it would be more than that, but then again the spreadsheet never lies. For example, it tells me I've seen a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, which of course I have, and tells me I haven't see a European Bee-eater, which I haven't. This is just an example you understand, picked out of thin air, I was grasping at suitably illustrative straws to demonstrate the unerring accuracy of the spreadsheet. There were others I could have picked, no need to go through them, you know what they are...

I've actually never seen one in America either, so technically it is a new world bird for me, but somehow all the lists I keep on Bubolisting have the entire Hen Harrier complex down as one super-species, so very sadly no editing required. I will however keep this bird squirrelled away, ready to roll it out whenever the great and the good decide that the time is ripe, which could of course be never, and I will have lost all my toes for no good reason. A bit too distant for any kind of decent image so I didn't bother. Here, have a Black-tailed Godwit from the same location as a slightly less educational substitute.

By about ten-ish Bradders and I decided we'd had as good views as we were going to get, and headed off. The steadily-falling snow and lure of hot food at Titchwell had nothing to do with it. Immense bacon sarnie at the cafe followed by a quick trip down the footpath, culminating in impressive numbers of Common Scoter on the sea, with a few Velvets thrown in. By far the highlight though was a man wearing a Tilley Hat confidently identifying a Little Crested Grebe - a new bird for me actually - followed by saying something I very sadly I missed the first part of, but which ended in "....all jolly confusing!" Whoever said that stereotypes don't exist is of course quite correct, there is clearly no such thing.

A quick stop at Burham Norton a little later turned out to be a big mistake, as the worst possible event in birding occurred. As we were trying (and generally failing) to photograph a Barn Owl, Bradders saw a Phyllosc briefly in some reeds. We expected it to be a Chiffy, but it flew up a short while later and sat on a branch briefly, revealing itself to be a Yellow-browed Warbler. Cool, we thought, and then realised that it was fairly dull. Ah. Just as my poor old brain was processing this fact, and coming to the realisation that it was extremely important that I scrutinised the bill (it will perhaps surprise regular readers that I actually knew at least one thing to look for without reference to literature), it flew off, never to be seen again. I believe the word is "bugger". Never called. Bradders, after chatting with the good folk at the pager company, put it out as a possible Hume's, which we figured would entice people to come and help us look. This it did, and is of why this is the worst possible event in birding. You find something, probably something quite good, but you don't get good enough views. Circumstantially, it feels pretty good - good date, one trapped just up the road only a few days ago - but there is no way you're ever going to know. It does a runner, a permanent runner, and then people start to turn up. This being Norfolk, lots of people, some quite eminent in the world of birding, or indeed in the Birding World... And still there is no bird, and this continues up to and beyond the point where people start to leave, disillusioned, possibly muttering unfair comments. To be fair, no-one audibly said the word "string", but it's a tricky old situation, and you can't help feeling slightly self-conscious. Happily I was able to tell everyone that Bradders found it, that it was nothing to do with me, and that no I'd never seen him before in my life and couldn't vouch for his reliability. Had it been refound, and proved to be a Hume's, then I may have told a different story, but that of course would have been a different story...

One that got away, but that's birding for you. And I am of course joking about people muttering. But I'll be checking Bird Forum very carefully in the coming days....

Thursday 25 November 2010

Why I like Winter

I am in a relaxed birding frame of mind. Autumn is over, twitching is over, winter has begun. I can do as much or as little birding as I please, safe in the knowledge that I have ticked everything already and no longer need to bolt out of the house at the slightest hint of a rarity. In fact, I am so uninterested in twitching at the moment that last night I took the battery out of my pager and instead put it in my portable LW radio so I could listen to the cricket in bed. Turned out I would have been better served by going to sleep, but nonetheless I reckon I have my priorities right.

Whilst spring is my favourite season, mainly due to massive Wheatear anticipation (~110 days to go...), I think winter comes a close second. There is just something about flocks of winter thrushes and finches, something about large flocks of geese and waders. Hen Harriers floating above fields, Merlins tanking along the sea wall, Purple Sandpipers on the groynes. Clear crisp air, lovely mid-morning light.

Birding no longer entails abandoning the spouse and children. You can be out at first light and still have breakfast with the family. You can have full day out in the field, see loads of fantastic birds, and be back for afternoon tea and Brownie Point accumulation. Whilst in the spring and autumn, you felt you just had to be out, now you can peer out the window at the frozen puddles and fog and decide that you don't actually need to go birding. The importance of this cannot be stressed highly enough - you can gain BPs merely by staying at home in the warmth and drinking tea. "I'd really like to go out" you say, "but I reckon I'll do some things around the house. Any chance of a cup of tea?"

On the patch, a whole new suite of possibilities open up. Cold weather movements might bring an interesting duck to the Park, a rare Goose or Wader might fly over- Golden Plover is amongst my most-wanted. Stonechats come back to the Flats, as do Snipe. And whilst birds come back to the open areas of Wanstead, people forsake it. The denizens of Long Wood abandon their, err, liaisons, the joggers melt away, and even dog-walkers seem to reduce in number. Yup, there is something to be said for winter birding.

Having said all that, I've not been out this week yet, Pudding has been ill - a persistent cough, and it would not be fair to drag her across the Flats. Instead I've been watching the garden. As I wrote earlier in the week, I've been rewarded by the Coal Tit, and fabulous views of a Jay that has learnt where the peanut feeder is. I had a flock of Redwings in the big tree, and Great Tits and the like seem suddenly more visible. They say that the first proper cold spell is on the way. Hope it brings something good.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Titanium Squirrels

If you have been reading my Twitter feed you will have perhaps noticed that the squirrels are winning and wondered what on earth I am talking about? The battle has been a long one, I need to go right back to the beginning.

When we moved here, there were no squirrels. Sure, I saw a few in the Park, but there were none in the garden. I put out bird feeders straight away, and for a couple of years it stayed like that. Birds eating bird seed, happy observers. Then a squirrel arrived, and destroyed my plastic feeders. Undeterred, I bought metal feeders, which it also found to its liking. So if you can't beat it, I thought, perhaps provide an alternate food supply? I purchased and erected a dedicated squirrel feeder with squirrel food in it, right on the fence where it likes to sit. It gave this a brief go, soon working out how to access it, but on the whole it preferred the peanuts and bird seed. 

I bought a pole. I put the feeders at the top of the pole, and installed a cone designed to prevent the squirrel from climbing up the pole. It negotiated this with ease! One jump from the top of the fence straight onto the pole, above the cone baffle, and then upwards to the addictive peanuts. I moved the pole further away from the fence, the squirrel jumped from the roof of the conservatory....

I relocated the peanut feeder to the Monkey Puzzle tree. Genius, why hadn't I thought of this before?! For a while, it worked. I got to chuckle at the sight of a squirrel tentatively worming its way along a spiky branch before turning back, defeated. They mastered it within two weeks, and now trip gaily along the branches as if they were mere planks of wood.

For a while I stopped feeding the birds. I noted, with some satisfaction, that the garden no longer hosted a squirrel. I also noted that the number and diversity of birds plummeted. After a few months, I tentatively refilled the feeders. Within a day there were TWO squirrels, gorging themselves on my peanuts. In the summer months, I chased them off whenever I saw them. Initially all it took was for me to waggle the door handle and they were off, but gradually their fear has all but disappeared. Now I actually have to open the door and step onto the terrace, at which point the squirrel will climb down the pole in a leisurely fashion and saunter off down the garden. Insousiance fits the bill. I trained the children to chase them off, but these new and noisy squirrel deterrents were only effective for a short while. They grew bored, the squirrels became bolder still.

I started collecting stones from the garden and storing them in a pile on the terrace. When I saw a squirrel, I would leap forth onto the terrace, grab a stone, and fuzz it caribbean style at the squirrel sauntering down the garden. I used up all my stones, and became used to the sight of my peanut feeder swinging madly from side to side with a squirrel hanging off it.

It was one day when I looked out and couldn't even see my peanut feeder for the writhing mass of grey fur that I cracked. I began thinking dark thoughts. Lethal thoughts. Could I really do it though? I am an animal lover, certain dogs excepted. Could I kill a cute, fluffy, doe-eyed squirrel? I didn't know, but I determined to have a bloody good go.

This takes us to about two weeks ago. I borrowed a friend's air rifle. I won't name him in case the local Squirrel Defense League go after him as well as me, but he showed me how it loaded, handed me a tin of ammo, and off I went. Before I even fired a shot, I did some reaseach - I have been taking this very seriously. I first made sure that it was legal, and then read up on which bit of a squirrels anatomy is the most sensitive to airgun pellets. My brother-in-law, who has real guns, gave me a lesson in gun safety, and advised placing peanuts on the ground so that if I missed the pellet would embed in the grass and not a neighbour. I worked out how and where I would store it all away from the kids, and then played Call of Duty 4 constantly for about a week to hone my reactive skills. Happy that I could blow cyber-opponents away without flinching, I moved onto the real thing, and drew a target which I pinned on the lawn and fired out of the window at. Bullseye. I was ready.

I waited, sensitively, until the children were at school and nursery on Monday, and then, with a heavy heart, got to business. Sure enough, when I got back from the school run, there was the squirrel on the feeder. I opened the door - it didn't even look up - loaded the rifle, and took aim. I fired from about twenty feet, fully expecting the squirrel to drop off the feeder and onto the lawn below. It was somewhat surprising therefore to see the squirrel jump about four feet horizontally off the feeder, and bolt down the garden, up the big tree, and over the fence. Had the gun worked? I loaded another pellet and fired at top of the feeder. The pellet pinged off the metal lid and off into outer space. Hmmm. Had I perhaps missed?

The squirrel, or another, was soon back. This time the door was already open, and I was sat backwards on a chair, with my photography bean-bag as support for the rifle lying atop another chair. Fully steadied, I waited for clean shot, and fired again. The squirrel moved like greased lightening, I have never seen an animal move so fast. It scorched down the garden and over the fence. What the? I loaded another pellet and fired at the fence from about fifteen feet. I observed a neat round hole appear.

I had to wait much longer for a squirrel to come back this time. In fact this is when the Coal Tit came in. When eventually I did see the squirrel back in its customary position upside down on the peanut feeder, chowing down, there was no mucking about. I strode into the conservatory, picked up the gun, and the squirrel bolted. Quick learners. The same thing happened the next time as well. They had learned, in a matter of hours, that there was a new type of danger other than a man yelling from his terrace and flinging a stone down the garden in a rage.

I saw the squirrel again yesterday morning. This time I approached from the side of the house, peeking round a corner and firing from cover in true sniper style. It shot off down the garden like a grey cruise missile and disappeared. Dagnabit!!! 

Time for a change of tactics. I hung a blanket over the windows in the french doors, and moved the peanuts to directly in front. Fifteen feet away at most. Opening the door a crack, I made sure that the barrel could fit in the crack pointing straight at them, and put the beanbag on the floor for support. I retreated indoors with my binoculars, and observed from the upstairs window. An hour passed, and then there it was, creeping up the garden. I say creeping, really it was a swagger. It went straight for the peanuts. I ran downstairs, loaded the gun, and commando-crawled across the floor of the conservatory. Yes, it was still there! I laid the gun on the beanbag, and poked the barred through the crack. Still there. I lined up the sights, and fired right at the middle of the squirrel. Kapow!! The squirrel took off like an Ariane rocket down the garden and jumped over the fence.

Dejected, I took down the blanket, closed the door, broke down and stowed the rifle, and came in here to write this. The squirrels in Wanstead are clearly invincible. I have hit one or more of them at least ten times at approaching point-blank range, and the pellets appear to just bouce off. Do they have some kind of force-field? Or, as a correspondent has suggested, are they in fact made of titanium, with a furry outer layer? Don't forget, the pellets go through wood. Why won't they go though a squirrel? And even if, as now seems likely, the squirrels have some kind of unearthly protection going on, surely it must at least cause a bruise, or a mild stinging sensation perhaps? The speed at which they move suggests that they definitely feel it. I just don't understand it. I've been tempted to fire the gun at my foot just to check, but I know what would happen. I would get a neat circular hole in my foot with blood coming out of it. But then again, I'm not a peanut-fuelled invincible titanium furball.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The long long wait is over

The 9th November 2009 was a momentous day. I celebrated the anniversary a few days ago, and then wept. On that day, over a year ago now, I heard a Coal Tit calling from somewhere in a neighbour's garden. It was the 53rd species for the house list, but had to go down with a little "h" next to it for heard only. That "h" has wrankled ever since. I watch my garden a lot, and I've since added seventeen further species to the list, but I've never seen the Coal Tit. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard it. I've had the scope on my flat bit of roof pointed at likely pine trees while it was calling, but I've never been able to see it.

Today though, the long long wait is over. It visited my feeder. Words cannot describe how amazing this is. A bloody Coal Tit, THE bloody Coal Tit, on my feeder. Goodbye "h", welcome to the proper list! That it has taken over a year is astonishing. I've had the food out the whole time, yummy sunflower hearts and scrumptious peanuts, but never even a sniff. This morning I saw it a dozen times as it came in repeatedly for food. If the Squirrels will just leave off for a bit, it may become a regular visitor. I certainly hope so.

When I espied it out of the corner of my beady eye, it was for a moment just a regular sighting. You know how it goes, you're sitting there not doing a great deal, a sip of tea, a spot of contemplation, in my case this morning whether to get a job or not. Meanwhile the birding portion of your brain is as busy as ever - "Ah, Blue Tit. Great Tit. Oh, here's a Robin. Coal Tit. Oh, another Great Tit. Blue T... Gah!! COAL TIT!!!!!!!! WAKE UP REST OF BRAIN, COAL TIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! "  Mad scrabble for camera as it flies off, presumably not to be seen again until 2012, and then a prayer of thanks as it returns and you can confirm what your birding subconscious noted whilst the rest of you was dozing.

So long overdue, and possibly more exciting than it should have been, but that is a reflection only on me. I also got over-excited about a Jay visiting the feeders. I've been putting out some peanuts for it in the hope it might come in range. I've always found them to be very wary, but my benevolence/its greed has paid off. All in all, a fine mornings work. Better than being in an office, which is probably my next port of call....


Sunday 21 November 2010

Three Tick Day

Before you ask, no I wasn't scooting around the country. Who do you take me for? I went only as far as Rainham. Whilst I was there, a Rustic Bunting - a world lifer for me - was found in Kent, probably under an hour away, and yet I was unmoved. I could have gone, I had the time, but I had already said I was not going to go anywhere today, and I amazed myself by sticking to that. Another reason, of course, is that I am not a twitcher.

There will be other Rustic Buntings, of that I am sure. So what were the three ticks? Well, they were all a very confiding Black Redstart at Rainham. A Rainham tick, an Essex tick, and an Essex year-tick. I'm not doing an Essex year-list as it happens, but had I been, this would have been #200. Not any kind of record, but a nice round number and a personal milestone. I spent about two hours with the Black Redstart, and with patience came really rather nice photographic opportunities. The Rustic Bunting news came through as the Black Redstart had approached to within about fifteen feet. Having worked to get that close, I wasn't going anywhere. It could have been a mega, I wouldn't have cared.

Black Redstarts, and possibly Common Redstarts even more so, are amongst my favourite birds. This one, a first winter or female, was working its way along the fenceline between the new hide and the targets, hopping down and feeding before hopping back up on the next post along. It was a matter of positioning myself along the route and waiting. Sometimes it swapped fences, and other times it just came straight towards me and carried on past. I was utterly absorbed. A pair of Stonechats provided some distraction when the Black Redstart was elsewhere, and I took close to five hundred photos before reluctantly heading for home. The only slight issue was the very poor light, but a highish ISO and some lifting in post-processing has made the final images perfectly acceptable, to my eyes at least. I am my harshest critic, of course.

The question I now find myself asking is how many Black Redstart photos is too many? Three? Four? Not sure, so I'll start with three, and a Stonechat for balance. Remember, you're not allowed to nab these, reverse them, and then claim them as your own. That would be very wrong. Unless your name is egdirbhteL. J of course, in which case it would be entirely legitimate. I was amazed to see that this had happened to Gavin Haig's photo of the American Robin the other day. He remained fairly calm, I'm not sure I would have managed it. Not that you can do a lot about it mind you - if the person is totally unreasonable they can just ignore you from afar and there is probably nothing you can do about it other than spit. In an ideal world, I'd quite like to make a living from photography rather than going back to working in a bank, but so far nobody has decided they want to pay me for my photos, though whether this is because they're not good enough as opposed to a quick "right-click and they're yours" is open to debate. So far I've not found any ripped off anywhere, but if I do......

Friday 19 November 2010

Blogging Revolution II

Boy oh boy do I have a treat for you today, oh unfortunate ones, er I mean, oh lucky lucky people. I promised you those Egyptian Geese, and I am going to deliver on that promise. For the first time, and almost certainly not the last, WansteadBirder brings you movement and sound. Video, if you will.

Now before you go all "It's rubbish" on me, please bear in mind that whilst I am sometimes able to get a decent photo of a bird using a camera and lens more or less specifically designed for the task, I own no video equipment whatsoever. When I saw these two (yep, two, I know - wow) Geese, a patch rarity, I swept aside this small obstacle and whipped out my trusty phone, the one that has in the past brought you gloriously detailed high-resolution photos of 100% definite Caspian Gulls. Carefully I approached, full stealth mode engaged, and held the phone out toward the geese. This was it. This was the moment. I pressed the button.

From about two feet away, the wild and wary Geese looked blankly at me, and asked what I wanted. Did I have food, they asked. Bread. Specifically, Mother's Pride? No? Oh. Then they lost interest. The splashing footsteps you hear at the end of the video is a Mute Swan coming to investigate me, probably thinking about breaking my arm, which as all parents tell their children, they can do just like that. Not wishing to lose a limb, I abandoned my hopes of making a prize-winning film and retreated to the studio, there to edit my masterpiece. I say edit, what I really mean is figure out how to get it off my phone and onto the computer. This has taken me three days, but it has been absolutely worth it as I'm sure you'll agree.

I hear Cannes is nice in May.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Blogging Revolution

Blogging. Everyone's doing it. Not that I was at all original when I started a couple of years ago, far from it. I was years behind the trend, as I am with everything else from technology to haircuts. In fact, blogging is so passe these days that some bloggers have come full circle and stopped blogging. Some cite the pressure of continuing to remain fresh, some just can't be bothered any more. Some just run out of anything to say, although naturally I struggle to understand that particular reason.

As I say, I don't claim to have my finger on the pulse of the blogospehere, but I think I have detected a new trend in blogging, that of the multi-author blog. They seem to be cropping up a lot lately, or perhaps I have only just spotted them. Chief among them is of course 10,000 birds, but a number of others have been creeping out. I recently discovered this one, Birdingblogs.com, which hosts the ten best bird bloggers, though for obvious reasons that can't be quite true, can it?

Anyhow, whether you like the format or not, the welcome news is the return of Tom Mckinney. The name may or may not be familiar to you. He had a blog called Skills Bills, and gave it up, though I don't recall the reason. In summary it was pretty funny, featured appallingly bad language, and many people were sad when he stopped writing it. Despite the copious swearing, this new multi-author blog has let him in, uncensored, and his latest piece about a Pied-billed Grebe that is (allegedly, don't know, not seen it) in a Country Park near Rochdale is well worth a read. Never met the guy, wouldn't recognise him if I saw him, but his feelings on dogs and dog-walkers make him all right in my book.

I'm afraid the blogging revolution hasn't made it as far as Wanstead, though I do plan to subject treat you to a superb* phone-made video of some Egyptian Geese when I work out how to do it. Dedicated patch-worker and local birder that I undoubtedly am, I have as usual been sticking close to home. So once again I am able to feature the very best in boring birds from north-east London. Condensed, the Egyptian Geese were are as good as it got this week, and there were loads and loads of Goldcrests. There you go, patch report done.

I also took a little trip to Thordon Country Park, there to give Essex County Council two whole pounds for about thirty seconds-worth of forty unidentifiable Redpoll sp flying about, which was about as excellent as it sounds, and then sat in a hide at Warley Place EWT and watched common birds feeding, which was much better than it sounds. A superb little reserve, or at least the part I visited was. I had the hide - a modified shed - entirely to myself, and enjoyed my best ever views of Nuthatch and Coal Tit. I'm not a big fan of hides, I get bored, I like to be moving about, but sometimes I brave it and invariably enjoy myself a great deal. I think having the hide to yourself is probably key. No loud talking, shuffling about, creaking, or dropping stuff. And no dumb questions. Who exactly would I ask?

* might in reality be really really crappy

Monday 15 November 2010

Sunday 14 November 2010

In which I am most definitely not really really weak

Wanstead was great this weekend. First of all was a surprise American Robin in one of the Hawthorns on the Flats. Very convenient indeed. And then today I was out checking the Ornamental Waters and turned up a Pied-billed Grebe. What were the chances? Managed to get a couple of snaps as well - any similarity to birds currently residing at Exminster Marshes in Devon and at Hollingworth Lake in Rochdale is purely coincidental.

In other unrelated news, a few of us decided to pop to Devon yesterday to check out the new RSPB reserve at Labrador Bay which was specifically purchased for the resident Cirl Buntings. Very nice looking place I have to say, and sixteen Cirls was proof they haven't wasted their money. Then today after the welcome Grebe in the Park, Monkey and I decided we would nip up to Amwell, but took a wrong turn and instead of taking the A10, took the M1. It took a while to reaslise our mistake, and we couldn't find anywhere to do a U-turn, and subsequently ended up on the M6. We realised we had gone badly wrong when we found ourselves near Rochdale on the M62, but luckily then found a lake with a circular road round it so that we could finally get the car pointing back in the right direction.

That's about it for the weekend really. Mostly local birding with two stunning patch ticks, and a couple of quick trips a little further afield. And no twitching.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Twitching. Ugh.

I told you about Cornwall. Seven hundred miles for a thirty second flight view of the American Bittern. In the cold light of day, I wonder why I do it? Mrs L wonders why I do it. Presumably anyone who watched the "Twitchers, a very British Obsession" documentary the other day wonders why I do it?

Why do I do it would therefore seem the obvious question. Well, I like seeing rare birds. There is a small element of listing I'll admit, but largely it's about seeing the bird. I've seen plenty this year that don't contribute to any list whatsoever, and enjoyed them just as much. I'll never be one of the people that documentary followed, who can't sleep at night, for whom the nervous tension is unbearable, and whose entire life is dominated by the accumulation of ticks. Unlike them, I will never get to 500. I'm not competitive enough, not driven enough. As the distances become ever more absurd, I'll bow out gracefully. Give up, if you like. Perhaps go see the odd one or two, but charter a plane at a moments notice to fly me to some far-flung island so that my list can go from 480 to 481? I don't think so, or rather, I hope not. It's just a bird, there will be others. Or maybe there won't, but does it actually matter? I'd say it doesn't.

So why then am I fretting about the coming weekend? I don't have to go and see the Pied-billed Grebe near Manchester. Nobody is making me go. Likewise the American Robin in Devon. My rather meagre BOU list is 363. Will it be a huge disaster if it remains on 363 rather than advances to 364, or if totally crazy, 365? Will I be a different person, will I be able to hold my head that little bit higher? Will people look at me with that extra little bit of respect, and as I pass whisper to each other "See that Jonathan Lethbridge, he's seen a Pied-Billed Grebe you know"? I think I know the answer.

Funny old game isn't it? There are plenty of ex-twitchers out there. I wonder what their 'moment of clarity' was, when it was that they decided that they would jack it all in and just go birding for the pleasure of it, and leave the obsession behind? I reckon I've got a few more years of twitching left in me, but people who know me realise that I am becoming more and more fed up with it. The same people call me a filthy twitcher of course, but that's fair enough, these past few years have been pretty bad. Not so bad that a TV crew felt a burning need to follow me round the country for sound-bites to make me appear a luncatic though, for which I'm thankful. But bad enough that I recognised quite a few of the people, and had actually been present at some of the locations. And bad enough that Mrs L felt able to draw unfavourable comparisons...

I wonder if I could become a local twitcher, or set myself a maximum (and small!) range, and not travel outside of it? Apart from a few birds, everything turns up closer eventually. Take that Brown Shrike at Flamborough for example. I know more than a few people that went up for that, some of them got it, some of them didn't. Hours in the car, hours. I didn't go, perhaps back then the thought of that distance put me off? Perhaps it was midweek and I was, shock-horror, working? It doesn't matter, as guess what turned up on Staines Moor last year? Similarly I declined to go to Seaforth for the White-tailed Plover, I couldn't face the time travelling for the views I would likely get. There was space in a car, and I passed it up, wondering if I'd made a very bad call indeed for such a rare bird. A few weeks later I spent several hours scoping the same bird at Rainham, it was fantastic. The good things come to those who wait. Could I really do it, have I really got the patience and the will-power?

My weekend plans

Meanwhile Shaun, Bradders and the Monkey are all calling and emailing, discussing potential plans for the weekend involving Manchester, or perhaps Devon, or perhaps both. London to Manchester via Devon has an all too familiar (and unpleasant) ring to it.... Right now, I don't yet know what I'm going to do. Whatever the twitch is, it has the potential to either be horrible or be a fun day out with the boys in equal measure. It all depends on me, and my frame of mind. Latterly I have been approaching all twitches in a very negative manner, which is ridiculous, and I know it. Either accept what you're letting yourself in for, and approach it as positively as you can, or don't go. And if you do go, make a day out of it, make the bird in question just part of the trip.

And most importantly, don't dip.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Quality Control

With eight posts in nine days, my Quality Control Officer has stepped in for a review of recent activity. Warning lights are flashing, and he is apparently not happy. Standards are slipping, he says. Down to where, I replied?

Anyway, over to him.


Hypocrisy, 1st November
Well written, but overly pious. Too long. Despite protestations to the contrary, definitely attempting to justify a tick in poor circumstances. Pathetic. Also no picture of bird in question. You should have just kept quiet.

Back to Basics, 2nd November
Much better. Short, and to the point. Sets the scene nicely. Extra points for actually being about Wanstead, and for including a photo of a Siskin, even if you did take it on Shetland. A photo of your sky-watching vista would have been better.

Hurting Myself, 3rd November
Slighty tangential, but you do that a lot and people don't appear to mind, and four comments show that at least some people were interested. Did you get permission to use that picture of Mr Bump that you stole from the internet?

A Departure, 4th November
Nonsense. Not what people want at all. Faux ageing of photographs? Please. What do you mean three comments? One of them was from you, and another was from that Ross chap, so they don't count. Birds, that's what people come for, not absurd attempts at being clever with your camera. Don't do it again.

Singing a Song, 6th November
Nul points for the attempt at humour with the song lyrics. Grow up. Boring post, you could have just said "I saw a Yellowhammer" using that Twitter thing and spared us all the extra. And what was the Reed Bunting photo all about? Possibly the worst post this week, despite the strong competition.

Guests Hail Tidiness of House, 7th November
You didn't go birding did you, so this is what you offered your readers? Not impressed. They all know you're hopeless at domesticity, you tell them all the time. Yawn. Some before and after photos could have made this better, but on the whole it was a bit naff and unfortunately typical of the way this blog is going.

Changing Allegiances and the Perils of Autumn Birding, 8th November
The first bit about birds was OK, though not very funny. What are you trying to do, convince people you're a good birder? Ridiculous, they all know you're not, don't insult their intelligence. The final bit, about dog turds and baby sick, was unnecessary, and would have turned people off. Makes you look very juvenile. On the plus side, at least you didn't include a photo, which I know you've done before.

Cold at Rainham, 9th November
Well, better than yesterday at least, though that wouldn't have been difficult. It's good to include a people element now and again, makes a change from the drivel you usually produce. Thought you were a bit too rude, but then again, gushing adulation would have been too much. Somewhere in between would have been ideal, but it's too late now. Liked the fact it was about Rainham, and that you finally put some hours in there, rather than just twitch the place like you usually do.


Well it's clear that I need to stop by more often, you're clearly getting ahead of yourself, just writing for the sake of it. What do you mean you enjoy it? Enjoyment has nothing to do with it. You want to be a serious blog writer? Then start taking it more seriously. Remember, most people who read this are bored witless. They visit as an alternative to doing work. You have to entertain them. I know, it isn't easy, but you need to do better. The problem at the moment is that you largely have nothing to say. Frankly if I were a reader I'd be dreading the winter months.

Your best post this week was on November the 5th, your only hope of retaining readers is to make sure you have more days like that.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Cold at Rainham

The balcony at Rainham that looks out onto the Thames is London's premier sea-watching location. Grays Beach and Northfleet, both a little further out, probably get more quality and quantity, as the final bend and bridge likely act as a strong deterrent, but neither of those locations has shelter, or a warm cafe selling coffee and cake.

I've yet to fully work out quite what weather conditions bring good birds in, though clearly an easterly wind, a rising tide and poor visibility in the estuary are all very helpful. Whilst this is probably sound thinking, sometimes though the best birds turn up irrespective of the weather. Strong westerlies for example can push many birds east, and in the following days they may and try and head back west, some coming down the Thames instead of following the Kent coast round and back out through the Channel. This is what happened with the Manx Shearwater.

Yesterday, had I gone to Rainham, I would have got a faceful of water, as the wind was directly from the south. In these conditions, any rain, of which yesterday there was a lot, gets blown straight into the balcony. I weedily stayed away, and instead went today, as the wind had turned easterly. My hope was that the south-westerlies in the Channel may have blown stuff up, especially combined with southerlies in the estuary, and that today's easterlies would then blow the gross London rarities on the rising tide up to where I could see them from the balcony. If you got here after searching Google for the weather forecast, I apologise. Try here.

In the event we didn't get any amazing sea-bird reorientation, though a drake and redhead RB Mergansers, incidentally both heading out west, were pretty good. Fifteen Brent Geese went upriver during the morning too, again good birds for Rainham. Bird of the day award though went to a most unusual bird to get on a river watch, when Phil picked up a male Hen Harrier over Crayford Marsh. He clearly wasn't concentrating much on the river, but we'll forgive him. He has a uncanny habit of picking up raptors at a distance, and this was his second Hen Harrier in as many weeks. This was my first anywhere in London, and most welcome, though it could have had the good grace to fly into Essex airspace for reasons that I'm sure you are not interested in. Neither am I. No, not at all.

Phil is one third of a stalwart Rainham trio. The other two-thirds are Andy and Dave. Together they are responsible for many of the good birds at Rainham, and many that I have subsequently seen. In no particular order, these include Montagu's Harrier, Manx Shearwater, Gannet, and Red Kite, and no doubt others I have forgotten about. Today, after yet another good bird found, Andy felt they deserved a mention for their sterling work. Specifically, and if I heard him right, he wanted them to be referred to as leg-ends, which I am happy to do. And seeing as I didn't get a photo of the Harrier to maintain your interest, and though they were perhaps not expecting it it, I can go one better and show them in action.

Action is perhaps stretching it, but anyway, the first photo is of Phil and Andy. Luckily Andy is sitting down and you can't see his legs, which he inflicts on us every year from about May to September. Phil is shown in typical pose, which is searching through his pockets for a light. As you can see, they are both quite old, and need to carry chairs with them so they can take frequent rests. The second photo is Dave, out on the boardwalk, presumably wondering where he has left his chair.

Of course I'm just kidding. Usually they sit on the balcony chairs. They work the site most days, and mostly all day, and as a result have absolutely whooped Hawky, Dave Mo and I in the Rainham year-list competition this year. They're at least ten species ahead of us, probably more, and the margin is only that narrow because I'm flexible enough to keep on twitching the birds they find. I'm amazed they keep calling me, though after this, maybe they won't in future! Surely they didn't think I could just give them a quick mention in passing on this blog though? Where's the fun in that? At least I've been good enough not to mention their hovering Merlin. Oh, whoops.

Anyhow, quality birds and a memorable day, if rather cold. I stopped feeling my feet at about 11am, and seeing as the heater in my car is perpetually ineffectual, didn't get them back until I was at home with the kids five hours later. But any day with a London and Rainham tick means I can bear the discomfort. Cheers for the company guys, top day!

Monday 8 November 2010

Changing Allegiances and the Perils of Autumn Birding

It has been blowing a hoolie here. Strong winds laced with cold rain. Miserable. Our guests are still here, so rather than abandon them I stayed inside where it was warm. I wrote my next Birdwatch article, but by early afternoon I was climbing the walls, and decided to head out early on the school run to check the ponds in Wanstead Park.

At this time of year, I begin to change allegiances from the Flats to the Park. The Flats are excellent, and my Flats list has more birds on it than the Park, but it suffers from a lack of ponds. The Park on the other hand has five fairly substantial ponds, many with overgrown margins, and as winter approaches, I start thinking waterbirds.

So, braving the inclement conditions, I headed over to check them out. At about this time last year a female Goldeneye appeared in similar weather, and indeed Gary had found one this morning on the Hollow Ponds up in Leytonstone, a stone's throw away. As I got out of the car, my cap blew off; I felt confidenent. My confidence was increased further by a drake Teal on the Shoulder of Mutton Pond. The 22nd I have ever seen here in the six years I've been watching. Reliable, but far from common. On Heronry I espied another Teal, female this time. Hmmm, I wonder?

Sadly that was as good as the ducks got, but it's still early days, and those Teal could easily stick around. Bad thoughts of January 1st are entering my head at this point.... I continued my walk past Heronry and on towards the Ornamental Waters. I walked the southern arm in the hope of finding any sneaky wildfowl hiding there, but my attention was diverted by a decent-sized flock of Long-tailed Tits. I trailed them through the trees to the Grotto, where they began to mingle with some Goldcrests in the yews there. You'll struggle to believe that Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests are deafening, but I can tell you that underneath the shelter of the enclosing trees is felt pretty loud. Yet above it all I could hear snatches of a different call, an instistent piping, more breezy I thought. And sure enough, though it took twenty minutes as there were so many mobile birds to look through, a Firecrest popped up briefy. Not long enough to work out male or female, but long enough to see a bold white eye-stripe. A cracking bird (Firecrests are always cracking), and I always think that they're a proper patch-birders' bird.

For illustrative purposes only. This was taken in the Park last year. No camera today, too wet.

Cheered by this find, I left the park, for school beckoned, and headed up to the Basin. I parked carefully on the verge, and stepped down onto the leaf-covered grass. I hadn't gone more than about two steps when I became aware of that all too familiar squishy slipping sensation. I looked down, and sure enough, I had planted my boot firmly into a huge turd. Dog owners are truly the scum of the earth, unbelievable. Autumn is the worst season, as the fallen leaves obscure them from view, and seeing as I manage to unfailingly tread in them when they're in plain view, frankly I don't stand a chance.  I spent about five minutes scraping my boot against the curb, against long grass and so on, but when I got back in the car the whiff was unmistakeable. It took a puddle near the school, and even so I fear that a twig will still be necessary. After all the vomit from my neice earlier in the day, I couldn't face it, and so my boots are in the porch awaiting a hoped-for visit from the boot-cleaning fairy.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Guests hail tidiness of House

I love it when guests come to stay. All the mess that you didn't really mind, all of the out-of-place things that you had stopped noticing, all the junk strewn everywhere that you had learned to step over or weave around. All of a sudden you see it all again, but in a different light. It tells you that you are the slobbiest, dirtiest, laziest people on the face of the planet, that your guests are arriving in 45 minutes, that the house is a complete and utter TIP, and that hadn't you better do something about it??!! NOW!!


Cue mayhem. A flurry of cleaning and tidying activity that the house hasn't seen since the last time we had visitors. Mrs L & I were like whirlwinds this morning. Dervishes, but wielding cleaning products. It took about 40 minutes to transform our house from Beirut to Barratt. It was nothing short of sensational.

The desk upstairs that had been the convienent dumping ground for perfume, paper, some dead bath crystals, a plastic frog, old baby clothes, coat-hangers, broken handbags and goodness knows what else for at least the last four months all of a sudden revealed bare wood. The floor of our bedroom, initially a staging post for clean washing, but latterly a garment mountain that we picked through in the morning whilst getting dressed - razed to the ground, sorted into piles, put away. The upstairs wastepaper baskets, overflowing with old tights, dead leaves, receipts, toilet roll tubes and handfuls of hairbrush hair, emptied into bags, transported outside, binned.

Downstairs I cleaned the both toilets, made the sink all sparkly, got rid of the mouldy fruit from the kitchen, cleaned the veg-box in the fridge that had mummified avocado in it. Recycling out, did we really drink that much last week? Childrens coats hung up, gloves paired up, hats found, shoes retrieved from beneath sofas, lingering toys put away. A quick dust and hoover, washing up put away, dried pasta and a piece of yesterday's sausage from under the dining table spotted and collected.

We stood back to inspect our work, scarcely believing of what we had achieved in well under an hour. Had I had time to bake some bread (or known how to) I would have done, as that's the kind of house we now lived in. Just shows what is possible if you're not about birding or playing the piano endlessly. The house looked (relatively) amazing. I have no doubt that once our guests leave that we will gradually descend into chaos once more, or it may not even be gradual, but when they arrived we were of course able to glibly apologise for the state of the house, mention that we had meant to tidy it before they got here, and blame the children. Our guests meanwhile looked around at our beautiful home, sparkling in the sunlight, and no doubt felt inadequate. "How do you manage it, with three children? Jono, you truly are a domestic god, we thought you were just making it up." they might have said.

Actually it was just my sister, and I'm sure she saw straight though me.

No, I didn't go birding today.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Singing a Song

I don't waste no time at all
Don't hear the "cheese" but I do hear the call
It comes to me as to us all
I'm no longer waiting
For the Yellowhammer to fall

You may recognise the song, or you may not, but I believe these are the original lyrics that Brian May, a keen patch-birder, had in mind before the rest of the band convinced him to change them to the version that appeared on the album. I prefer the original version, and this morning I find myself singing it happily, for I have just had a patch tick, and as you know, that is one of the best things that can ever happen.

Overcoming a mild hangover, I was slightly later out onto the Flats than I would have liked, but no matter, it was a glorious morning. Woodpigeon passage was fairly strong, and in the hour and a half that I had out there I counted 364 going over, all south. But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Woodpigeons are dull.

Yellowhammers are not dull, and I'm here to talk about one that now resides happily on my Wanstead list. I've been unable to get out early mornings for some time now, and have been well and truly gripped by the almost constant reports for Yellowhammer from the area we call the broom fields. I came close the other day on a rare early visit when a Bunting-shaped bird flew over and gave a very suspicious and clipped "tsit", but disappeared high to the north without making any more noise. Bummer, as they say. Not quite good enough, and I moved on, weeping.

This morning, stood in exactly the same place, and at almost exactly the same time, it happened again. A Bunting came from behind and low to my right, gaining height, and flew in almost the same arc as the last one, but fortunately gave not only a number of "tsits", but also some slightly more drawn out "tseets". It was paler underneath, and with only a hint of yellow, so I am assuming an immature bird. Anyway, I am now convinced beyond doubt that there is a Yellowhammer on Wanstead Flats, though what it is doing here, and where it disappears off to in the mornings I cannot say. If all the reports refer to the same bird, as is likely, then it has been here quite some time, and my hope is that it will stay longer, and that like Tim and Nick, one day I will have it land in a tree near my head.

Not a Yellowhammer, but very nice nonetheless.

Thursday 4 November 2010

A Departure

Rather than more nonsense about birds, a little photographic experimentation. A small narcissistic exercise led me to a number or hitherto unknown websites that have found this one before I found them. As you might expect, many were fellow bird bloggers, some however were not. One of them was this. The photography caught my eye, particularly the vintage feel of many of the images. I very much enjoy creating bright and crisp images of birds, but my camera is capable of so much more. I was inspired to try something different. Location, Garden. Model, Pudding. Lens, 85mm. A lot of fun. As the opportunities for bird photography dry up over the coming months, expect more experiments. Provided I can still walk.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Hurting Myself

My toe you know about. It is mostly better, though about half-way through the healing process I stubbed it again on a chair and went back to square one. I don't expect I mentioned it though, I am not the complaining type.

Well, I've done it again. Not my toe, this time both knees. I am hobbling severely. About three weeks ago, or whenever it was that I was dipping the Bluethroat at Rainham, I tripped and smacked my right knee on the edge of the board-walk. Ouch. I could walk fine, but when I stretched the knee a certain way, by golly it hurt. Today, three weeks later, it's still hurting, the action which most aggravates it is picking things up off the floor. Lucky therefore that I don't have to spend my entire day picking up after children. I get a sharp, shooting pain, and if I poke the affected area it really hurts. I don't do that very often obviously, just every now and again to see if it still hurts. Which it does, a lot. I wonder what I have done such that three weeks on it is still so noticeable?

Anyhow, not content with continuing sharp pain from the right knee, yesterday I did the other one. En route from the conservatory to the bottom of the garden, there to dispose of some rapidly decomposing pumpkins, I walked straight into the edge of the door. Bang. Agony. By the school run I had a slight limp, and by the evening, a proper hobble. Getting up the stairs, in and out of the car, and particularly tying my shoe-laces are all a right royal pain. In the knee.

This morning, I've done something to the end of my middle finger, on my left hand since you ask. I was cleaning out the powder tray on the washing machine, slipped, and well, I've done something to it. I don't know what. No swelling, no bruise, just yet another area of me that now hurts.

I am clearly falling to pieces, and I want to know why. Please don't tell me that this is the ageing process. I'm 35 for God's sake, does it really start so soon? I'm noticing two things. The first is that I am definitely less spritely than I was before. My carefree bounding lollops go wrong, as per the toe, and my prior nimbleness that allowed me to safely negotiate tricky areas like doorways is letting me down. Are these signs of deteriorating coordination? Or is it just, er, the increased effects of gravity, which I hear has been getting stronger lately?

Secondly, when I do smack into something, the results seem a lot worse. I'd like to think that a few years ago when I bashed into a sharp corner, well it would hurt, but that I'd shake it off pretty quickly and get on with it. And certainly not blog about it ad infinitum. But I can't help noticing that these minor injuries are dragging, are taking much longer to disappear. Of course I am manly and tough, and just get on with it, no whining here, move on, but secretly it is beginning to niggle. What if I need to run for a patch tick? Would I make it? Time will no doubt tell.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Back to Basics

Well, after all the nonsense on the net about the goings on at American Bittern twitches, and then the expected response to the fabulously even-handed twitching documentary, I think it's high time to get back to basics. And it doesn't get much more basic than me birding in my garden.

The ritual is as follows. Get up, dress, stumble downstairs, make tea, source bins, hit terrace. Once there, I'm in a different place. I can hear the dull rumble of the A12, all those poor sods heading into the City. I can hear the odd clacking of a Central Line tube train going over points. Every now and again I can hear a plane taking off from City Airport. But I can also hear birds, and that's what I'm here for. The bins are in fact largely redundant, it's my ears that are all important.

After the ridiculousness of the weekend, twitching Cornwall (I mean, where will it end? Is nowhere too far?), this was where I wanted to be. One minute I'm seeing the first American Bittern since the early 1990s, the next, my heart's desire is one of our commonest finches. Siskin was the target, a long overdue garden tick. It's good to have a multi-faceted approach to birding. Patch-working exclusively could grind me down. I love it, but I need some variety. So I go off-patch too, be it a day on the coast, or a week on some islands. How else can I gain any familiarity with birds I just won't see in Wanstead? When a Yellow-browed Warbler eventually deigns to grace us with it's presence, I'll recognise it immediately. If I never left Wanstead, I wouldn't have a hope.

The morning was slow to get going. For the first twenty minutes very little happened. Perhaps I was too early? At seven-ish, somebody flicked a switch, and the sky came alive. Birds, heading north-west.

Groups of Fieldfares and Redwings, not earth-shattering numbers, but enough to later be able to say it was a good morning. Bouncing flocks of finches, some resolutely silent, others revealing their identity with chips and chimes. Surely there must be a Siskin about the place somewhere? First bird to get me excited was a Brambling, the wheezy call registering quickly, though just as the other day, I never saw it. A hundred and fifty Starlings went over in one group. No trillers. And then, there it was, that giveaway flutey squeak, and a small fork-tailed bird bombed over, never pausing, but enough to say that my garden, my tiny garden, has had a Siskin in it. Over it. On its list. A common bird, but a most welcome one. Cheered, I continued my vigil. Birding at its best. Basic, but satisfying.

Monday 1 November 2010


You knew I would go to Cornwall didn't you? It was a tough decision, and I had my fingers crossed for the American Bittern to depart overnight. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, and a nice morning on Wanstead Flats was brought to a premature close by news of its continued presence on Saturday.

It had to be done. Actually that's a lie. It didn't have to be done at all. I could have just stayed at home, like Shaun and Paul did, and had a nice weekend. But no, even though it felt foolish, by about ten thirty me, Dick, Bradders and Nick were in the car and on the M25, 360 miles of mind-numbing boredom and a likely dip ahead of us.

We arrived, and dipped. Oh what a surprise. We dipped with style though. We arrived in pouring rain to learn that the bird had been seen only once since we had left London, and that flying strongly away north and over a large hill. Rather than retreat immediately to the pub, we decided we would search for it in the valley (down a marked footpath, since you ask). We found a Goldcrest, and got soaked. In my case, to the skin. My waterproofs are apparently not what they once were, and the rain penetrated all four layers of clothing. To cap this fine afternoon off I stepped in a stream over my boots and got my socks wet as well. Brilliant.

Later at the pub, where we should have been all along, we made plans to return at first light. Zennor Mermaid is superb, by the way, lifted my dampened spirits very quickly.

We were up before the sun, and in the dark found a spot for the car well away from the bird and walked the remaining distance. Many lazy-ass birders decided to drive the entire way and park immediately adjacent to the pool. I don't know what resting Bitterns pick up on and what they don't, but headlights, reversing noises, slamming doors and flashing indicators and beeps as people lock their cars strikes me as none too subtle. If I were a Bittern I would be thinking very strongly about hunkering down and staying hidden rather than popping out to see what was going on. That said, over a hundred people stood just over a fence looking directly at your pool probably also isn't going to encourage you either, and that was inevitable. Parking issues aside, the initial behaviour at the twitch was exemplary. Over a hundred birders stood mostly silently in a long line on the road, the furthest away spot you could wait without encroaching on the moor, and waited patiently for the bird to show.

Which it didn't. Three hours passed, and nothing happened. As you would expect, people became a little restless, more conversation took over, but contrary to internet hub-bub there was no mass hysteria. I wasn't there Friday, and from what I had read, it seemed that people were crawling all over the moor and through the sedge, booting the bird from pillar to post. Actually, though it remains true that the bird was indeed flushed, it appears that the behaviour of birders on site was in no way what internet forums would have you believe, inconsiderate birders running amok, lighting fires to smoke the bird out. But I wasn't there, so who knows.


I saw nothing bad on Saturday, and on Sunday, though the bird was indeed flushed, if it was going to happen, as may well be inevitable in situations like this, it happened in the best possible circumstances. It could have been terrible. After three hours of nothing, many were convinced that the bird wasn't present, having been attacked by a Peregrine the previous day had probably been enough for it. A very brave birder walked the entire line of people, asking if any objected to him getting closer, and walking alongside the pools for a look from a different angle. I heard no objections - none - although I understood later that there had been a few from further down the line. I have no idea how this is supposed to work. Some may argue that one objector should be enough, others may say that no matter how many he heard, that birder was going to go closer regardless. Yet others may say he should not even have suggested it. As I say, I don't know, but it appears that the overwhelming majority of people were perfectly happy for this guy to go and have a look, mainly as that meant that they didn't have to, even though they probably really really wanted to. Nobody wants to be first; this applies to many things in life.

By this stage cows were encroaching on the pool, and nothing had happened. The guy hopped over a gate and into a field adjacent to the pool, ie he didn't even "go in". Nothing happened. He walked along the fenceline, peering in, and still nothing happened. I wasn't really looking, by now convinced that the bird wasn't there. All of a sudden a shout went up from the crowd, and the Bittern flew up from somewhere invisible that wasn't even particularly close to the guy, did a showy loop to the assembled crowd, and flew off to some pines nearby. I got excellent scope views. People applauded the bird (I assume), and for some reason the guy took a bow. Now clearly this is not ideal. Ideally everyone would have waited and waited, and had we been lucky, perhaps the bird would have plucked up the courage to feed in the open somewhere where it could be seen, as had happened when it had been found. I don't think that was ever going to happen. The first few days, with just the farmer, the finder and a few locals having a look, the Bittern was apparently extremely visible and pleasing on the eye. With 100+ birders streched in a long line only a few metres away, plus wacky races in the dark, any bird with a modicum of self-preservation was either going to bugger off, or if it chose to stay, adapt its behaviour accordingly.

I wasn't twitching in the halycon days reverently recalled by so many armchair critics, when all birders were stuffed so full of fieldcraft they could barely move, and when evil pagers (and the internet) didn't exist. Outrageously, these days any Johnny-come-lately can now find out where a rare bird is and drive there on a motorway. Pah! Modern twitching being what it is, that people waited even three hours strikes me as miraculous. Tick cravings are rarely kept in check for that long! No, people will be napalming any thick cover after about fifteen minutes in order to get their fix. So, adding a healthy dose of realism, if you take the line that there was simply no way on God's earth that in the year 2010 100+ rabid twitchers were going to patiently wait around all day and quite possibly go home without seeing it, then what transpired is essentially common sense. One guy sought the opinion of everyone else present, went with the overwhelming majority, and then very carefully walked nowhere near the bird, but where he might be able to see if it was still present or not. Unfortunately he was still too close, and the bird spooked. Is that really so bad? Does it harm the bird? Well, it's clearly not as good for the bird as leaving it alone, so in that respect, yes, it must, but charges of animal cruelty? Please. Does it really deserve pages of vitriol, mainly from people who weren't there? I'm not so sure. Had a bunch of people unrestrainedly hopped over the grassy bank and converged on the pool, kicking at clumps of sedge and bracken, I would have been livid. Had people gone looking with torches in the dark, that would have been selfish, and stupid. But it wasn't like that. I did not object, so am I a hypocrite? Yes, a bit. But then again I'm a hypocrite for even going. Am I trying to justify my tick? Not really. I'd be writing this if exactly the same behaviour had occured but the bird hadn't been seen. Having been sucked-in yet again into commenting on the net a couple of days ago, I felt I had to put the record straight as to what actually happened.

Personally I was on the point of leaving. I hate standing around, I was cold, and I was hungry. American Whatever, at that stage I was far more interested in breakfast. I would have walked away. As it was, all present (apart from the objectors who presumably closed their eyes) got excellent views as the bird flew off about 100m away. Nobody else then felt the need to trample anywhere, most people were happy, and many left the site (the quicker to get back home and bitch on the internet about bad behaviour at twitches...) hopefully allowing the bird to get back to doing whatever it was doing. Cowering in thick cover...

We couldn't see ourselves seeing the bird any better, so did not even attempt to refind it in the pines. Instead we went to Penzance for breakfast, and to find an internet cafe....

Green Heron, Heligan. It would have been rude not to.