Wednesday, 31 March 2010
It is FREEZING again. I was assaulted by a bitter wind on the school run, and the rain came at me sideways. The amber "It's quite cold" warning light came on in the car. It seems to have got worse since I got back, so perhaps on the pick-up the red "It's really cold" one will come on?
Honestly, this is intolerable. We have just had the longest, coldest, darkest and most miserable winter that I can remember for a very very long time, and as soon as the clocks go forward, it's like January all over again. Cold, dark, wet mornings. I'm sitting here in a fleece with a steaming mug of tea. I've had a look out of the window at my poor plants. I have an Araucaria tree from Brazil, a relative of the Monkey Puzzle, that spent the whole winter in hibernation in the greenhouse at the end of the garden. I put it back on the terrace about ten days ago, but at this rate I might have to lug it back there down again. I didn't think I was being premature, I honestly thought we were all done.
Needless to say I have not seen any more Swallows today. If they have any sense, they will have turned tail and headed back south.
Monday, 29 March 2010
"I don't like big sausages, I only like little ones"
"I hate milk"
"The table is dirty"
"The bed upstairs is dirty"
and my favourite
"Why is this house so messy?"
The answer to this last one is easy. It is that I am in charge, and I have very clear priorities. Clean the house or twitch a Lesser Kestrel? Sorry kiddo, you'll have to somehow cope for a couple of hours before you can return to domestic paradise. And you can eat the sausages or go hungry.
Suffolk it was then. I arrived at Westleton at around 11am, to learn that the bird had disappeared from view some twenty minutes previously. For all of the previous three hours it had been happily perched on a fence. You could have written it I suppose. I gave it an hour and a half in the drizzle, but there was no sign, and then a thick mist descended as it warmed up a bit. Pudding and I headed back to the car for lunch, and wondered what the plan was. Though it pained me, we decided to cut our losses and go home. Have I ever mentioned how much I loathe dipping?
In a black mood, I turned the car around and headed for London. This was always the risk with a twitch so far away - a very slim window of opportunity, and a non-negotiable deadline to be back in London for. I knew this before I started, so I have no-one to blame but myself. I had to leave by 1:15 at the very latest in order to make the school run. At five past one my phone rang. It was John A, and the bird was back, exactly where it had been before.... Then Bradders rang with the same news. So much for my [blank-screened] pager....
I turned around, and screamed back to the site. I legged it the few hundred yards up the track to the ridge where you could scope the bird from, and before collapsing in an immense coughing fit, had a peek through a kind man's scope. Whoever you are, thanks very much. I find that twitchers are always willing to let a newly arrived and clearly panicking birder to have a look through their scope for the initial "tick" view, just in case the target vanishes whilst a tripod is being set up. I was in agony, but managed to set up my own scope and get a decent view of the bird. In my brief look at it - a stunning adult male - I was amazed at how bright it seemed versus our own Kestrel. I had enough time to note the salient pattern on the back, wings and head, and that was it, I had to go back to the car. I never even saw it fly. Tick and run. My only feelings were of relief, not elation. Rubbish. Of course, I'd rather have had this brief view than nothing at all, but the absurdity and futility of what I had just done was not lost on me. Twitching is total crap sometimes. Sometimes it's great, but today, and despite the successful outcome, I didn't enjoy it one little bit.
I made it back to school with five minutes to spare, and was thus able to be insulted by a six year old for the remainder of the afternoon. Sweet.
One of these next please.
Sunday, 28 March 2010
I'd finished doing the patch by about 10am. Willow Warbler, yee-hah!! Soon after I got in, my favourite Pallid Swift reappeared at Kessingland. What great news! Shaun rang, would I like to try again? Hmmm, whilst lunch with Hilbs and co had been booked up for several weeks, I did have the rather antisocial option of ducking out it if a rare bird turned up. Naturally I decided I would go, and called Shaun back. I got my stuff together, and as I was about to leave, I had a change of heart. There will be another Pallid Swift, and it is basically a washed out Common Swift and thus boring. Nope, I was going to have lunch with my friends, as planned. I called Shaun back, hoping I hadn't delayed him by too much.
Lunch was great, and until the inevitable text came through, I didn't think very much about the Swift. Oh well, you can't get them all. Off to the playground just next door to Hilbs, and then the mega alert. From Suffolk. Lesser Kestrel. Fourteen miles and twenty minutes from the Pallid Swift. Noooooooooo!!!!!! Shaun and the guys turned around, made it back, and got the bird. A two tick day, and the Kestrel is a real mega, only sixteen records, and the last twitchable one was on Scilly in 2002. Most of them are fly throughs or one-dayers. I am sitting here gutted, which is ridiculous. You can't see them all, but I was so nearly in that car. And as for being magnanimous? Hah! Magnanimous is not in a twitcher's lexicon! "Well done lads, great bird!" Gah!! No, this is the stuff true grips are made of, and the next birders drinks are not far away! I fear I shall be forced to pull out my Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater again. Can't use the Fea's Petrel as Monkey was with me for that one...
There is no adequate or rational way to describe my feelings this afternoon. It's difficult to just shrug the shoulders and move on, though I am going to have to grow up and do just that. But before I do, I should mention the Lesser Kestrel that very fortunately dropped in to Wanstead just as I got home from lunch. What were the chances?!
On the small side perhaps, but I can't think what else it could be.
Saturday, 27 March 2010
All was not in vain though, for on the way to Rainham, news of a male Ring Ouzel on the sea wall reached me. Despite the possibility of an Alpine Swift from Rainham, I went straight to the Aveley Bay carpark and following some top "it's in that bush there" gen from Steve B, picked it up more or less straight away. All thoughts of Alpine Swift were forgotten, Ring Ouzels, especially immaculate males like this, are stunning, and I can't get enough of them. And it was a site tick....
Bradders arrived soon afterwards, and there was a comedy moment when I turned round to wave and point at the bush, and whilst my back was turned it flew out and down the sea wall another 100 yards. I continued on towards what I thought was the bush, and was puzzled when I couldn't see it, and only discovered what had happened when Bradders turned up. Impossible to get any decent shots of it, an extremely flighty and nervous bird. Then the news of the Alpine Swift flying high east came through and all thoughts of Ring Ouzel were forgotten....
The afternoon was less glorious. Bradders, the Monkey and I attempted to twitch the Pallid Swift at Kessingland. We didn't get it - the Dipmonkey strikes again. We only called him to save a bit of petrol money, next time I'm paying the full fare. In addition to not seeing the Pallid Swift, we basically failed to see anything at all, it was dead. Until just after we left of course, when all the Pallid dippers had an Alpine Swift go over their heads, apparently only the 854th record this month.
Subsequent photos of Monkey may look happier....
Friday, 26 March 2010
Today I spent a bit of time between cleaning jobs having a bit of look. I saw very little. At around 2:20 it began to rain heavily, so I gave up and climbed back inside to make a cup of tea. Mid-boil, the phone rang - it was Paul W, stuck in traffic on the way to Tesco in Leytonstone. He had seen what he thought was a large raptor drifting overhead, and it looked like it could come my way. Still on the phone I dashed upstairs and flung open the window. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I saw a large bird distantly over Bush Wood Flats. Up until that point Paul and I had been having a relatively normal conversation, well as normal as it gets with one birder sat in a car and another stood on his roof with binoculars. Then I lost the plot. "RED KITE!!!! RED KITE!!!!" Where was the camera? Downstairs. Gah!!! I hurridly said I'd call Paul back, who I think assumed I had fallen off the roof in my excitement, and galloped downstairs. My camera habitually lives on the sofa, but it wasn't there. Instead there was a vision of loveliness with plumped up cushions. Aargh!! What had I been I thinking! I had put it away! In a bag! In the cupboard! This is the first time that the camera had not been sat on the sofa in WEEKS, for God's sake! Struggling with the zip I rushed upstairs and back out of the window, the rain forgotten. It was still there, with fourteen local Crows in attendance. Of course the camera wouldn't focus on it, but despite my haggard state I managed to remember to flip it to manual and got a few record shots before it disappeared south.
Now, I have twitched Wanstead Park before, for Little Egret and Garganey, but this is plumbing new depths. I have just twitched my own Garden. OK, so Paul didn't call me up and say "If you look outside now there is a Red Kite sat on your lawn", it was a little more tenuous than that, but that's the general gist. Do I care? No, of course not! What an absurd suggestion! Red Kite is not only a garden tick, which is the best kind of tick there is, but also a Wanstead tick. And it doesn't stop there either - it is also an Essex tick! Yes, a three tick day! Superb. Red Kite, along with Osprey, is, or should I say, was, my most-wanted bird locally. I came so close only a few days ago, so to get the chance again, well, wow. The weekend starts now!
Wednesday, 24 March 2010
I didn't move for about an hour and a half, and had a some great close up opportunities. As always, you can click on the photos for a bigger version. I've been meaning to set something similar up in the garden for ages and ages, I've even got the primary perch - a log hauled out of Reservoir Wood last autumn, but I've been too lazy to sort it all. Tomorrow, all that will change!
Greenfinch and Goldfinch
Tuesday, 23 March 2010
The message related to a sighting about half an hour previously, but I went anyway. No sign, and no birders. I felt sure it was probably the fine work of Gary, and sure enough he turned up shortly afterwards, having been without a phone. Old school, he had dashed to a mate's house to get the news out, but the bird had disappeared in the interim. Gradually more melba twitchers turned up, but an hour and twenty-eight minutes later there had still been no sign, so I left to check a few other local areas. Can you see where this is leading? I am nothing if not dependable. An hour and a half after the first sighting, and two minutes after I had departed, the Swift returned. I turned around and raced back, and was met with a sea of smiling birders, all of course bemoaning my bad fortune, and certainly not crowing. I always do this, I am an idiot. I crack after a certain amount of time stood around doing diddly squat, and rush off to look for the bird. Everybody knows that the best chance of seeing a rare bird is to stand around and have a bit of a chat, upon which it invariably turns up. And if I leave a site, it will definitely turn up. I nonchalantly pretended it was all part and parcel of birding and I wasn't fussed, but I'm sure they saw through me. I was of course seething, having likely missed a London mega through sheer impatience.
An hour later, Pudding needed a banana. We headed to the banana storage vehicle in company with Lol, he of Dusky Warbler fame. As we strolled along, I picked up the Swift coming in over Whipps Cross Hospital. It gave us a showy 45 seconds, and then disappeared, never to be seen again. My 150th species in London this year.
All's well that ends well. The camera was with the bananas.
Monday, 22 March 2010
I also went to Dungeness yesterday! All becomes clear, the title makes perfect sense! Hawky, Bradders and I went on an early migrant hunt, but it was fairly quiet. Actually, perhaps it wasn't. First up were two smart Wheatear, that despite being nearly asleep, I picked up whilst driving along the approach road. These were then eagerly twitched by the other two, albeit from the car. A quick look at the sea gave us a few Sandwich Terns, and a couple of Red-throated Diver and Common Scoter. Back on the shingle, it wasn't long before Paul picked up the first of about four Black Redstart, and the bushes in the moat produced a minimum of three Firecrest. The various pits held four Slav Grebes, two Black-necked Grebes, a Redhead Smew, and several unmentionable ducks. Near the humming toilet block, a Willow Warbler sang. That put me on 177 for the year. When did I say I would hit 200?
Although this was a fine haul, the birds were easily eclipsed by Breakfast at the cafe. Rarely have I seen such a huge breakfast, but after my early (and nourishment free) start I probably could have eaten two of them. Look at this! I feel fat just looking at it.
Back in London mid-afternoon, Bradders and I hit Rainham. 'Hit' in the lazy amble around not trying too hard sense. We probably missed a fly-over Spoonbill, such is life, but early evening sunshine and a smart adult male Wheatear made it easier to bear. I was so knackered when I finally got home I couldn't even write this. I tried, but it didn't read at all well, whereas now of course it is perfect. Hem hem.
Sunday, 21 March 2010
Saturday, 20 March 2010
I was out on the Flats again this morning, more in hope than expectation, and as I approached the Coronation Plantation, I thought I saw a white flash through the trees. Then another! I called the news out to local birders, and then the pager, and then started looking for them. At this point I wondered if I hadn't done all that in the wrong order, as all I could see were two Skylarks. Had my Wheatear-addled brain somehow contrived to string their white outer tail feathers into white rumps? A nervous few minutes followed. Then a few more, they were nowhere to be seen! NB This is my attempt at dramatic technique. I'm not sure it's working, so you'll just have to take my word for quite how exciting it was. And anyway, I probably blew it by posting a photo before this paragraph. So, as you may have grasped, it was all OK in the end, there were indeed two Wheatears, though they unhelpfully vanished again before Paul and Stuart turned up. Not for long though, and soon they were showing very well on the old Barrage Balloon hitches.
I can't really put into words quite how happy I am. It is a mixture of elation and relief I think. Finally, they're back. Only stopping off of course, but to see them here at this time of year is somehow life-affirming. Many things change, not too many things are certain, but the return of spring Wheatears is one constant that I can always look forward to. I might have a lie-in tomorrow.
And one more....
Friday, 19 March 2010
It never came. Hrrrmph. It was probably just a shade too far north to be visible from the garden. So close, yet so far. To add insult to injury, as I was scanning north I became aware of movement to my right, and just saw the shape of a duck zipping over the roof. A silent dark duck, and I didn't think it was a Mallard. In terms of garden duck needs, it's basically everything except Mallard and Shoveler, and it whilst it definitely wasn't a Shoveler, I wasn't getting Mallard in my brief view. Maybe it was a Mallard, in fact that would be best really.
But back to the Red Kite. Along with Osprey, Red Kite is my most wanted bird for Wanstead. They're just about annual I reckon. I spent hours looking at the sky at this time last year, and didn't get one. Today, with all three kids at home, we spent the day playing and watching DVDs, and the sky got ignored. Unforgiveable.
Tonight's post wouldn't be complete without a short word on my continuing failure to find a Wheatear on the Flats. So, I didn't find any Wheatears this morning. Again. OK?
Moving away from this painful subject, the results of the latest Poll were as follows.
1) More Gulls please - 58%
2) A new blog, just for Gulls - 12%
3) I hate Gulls, and will soon hate you - 29%
A quick spot of maths shows this to be 70% in favour of Gulls, and 29% not. And 1% vanished into thin air by the looks of things. So, have some Gulls, it has been far too long.
Thursday, 18 March 2010
I took the rather more portable 400mm lense round today, and had a bit of a play. I do like it rather a lot. Much as the other one rocks, this is my ideal birding lense on a nice day. Seeing as there is nothing much else to say, I'll just post a few photos instead.
And last but not least, I can't not share this. Howard somehow managed to colour-coordinate with a Poodle. Having said that, we never saw them at the same time.....
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Mrs L offered me some of her hand cream, but I'd smell like a boutique. Does hand cream for men exist? I didn't know, but I do now. The kind lady from Belgian Waffling is a Beauty Products expert, as well as being a secret Gull afficionado - the two do not often go hand in hand. She tends to go for the more lipsticky, deep soak, black eye paint stuff, but was pleased to be able to pass on a recommendation for something called Norwegian Formula. It apparently contains Norwegian children, which explains the price. I have forked out £3.69 for a miniscule tube of this stuff, and though I'm not intending to become a part-time hand balm commentator, so far it is truly excellent, and a tiny tiny amount has brought life back to my tortured skin. I am going to keep putting it on, if I remember, and see what happens after a week. Then I might move on to my knees, which are also quite sore because 89% of my day is spent crawling around the floor picking things up.
Three pieces of news since the last post. One most excellent, one pretty excellent, one not so excellent.
First the excellent: The Police have arrested two men in Forest Gate (1/2 mile south of Alexandra Lake) on suspicion of something having to do with poison. Breaching pesticide control rules, that was it. Eh? Is that some kind of legal euphemism for poisoning wildlife and a dog? I don't actually understand what is happening here, or how they found them. The test results on the birds are not back yet, so presumably that means they can't be charged with poisoning them, so perhaps this is a lesser charge until they can be slapped with the actual killing of birds. A bit like charging someone with posession of a firearm as well as shooting someone with it, or something?
The mildly excellent: The good ship ECO 1 is back in full working order with a new brake light and screen-wash squirter, and passed the MOT first time despite "chassis and body mounts in advance corroded state", whatever that means. Hopefully it doesn't mean that next time I apply the brakes the top of the car will just slide gracefully off the bottom with considerable forward momentum. This rates as only mildly excellent because it cost me £370, and took all day.
The not-so-excellent: I'm in The Sun today. Me, and Danni from Coventry. She's on page 3, and I'm on page 36, in case you were wondering. There is quite a large picture of her for some reason, but thankfully there is no picture of me at all. Almost unbelievably, the bird deaths on the Flats have made it to the red-top gutter press. I'm a birdwatcher this time, and I think "the whole thing is horrible" apparently. Which it is, so full marks to Rupert Murdoch for some gritty journalism.
What else? Well the Pheasant this morning was pretty exciting! I didn't see it, and all of a sudden it exploded from under my feet and flew off. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and it would have taken more than extract of Norwegian children to sort that out! I had no idea it was still there, as I had only seen it the once on Feb 9th. Amazing that it can go unnoticed in an area as disturbed as Wanstead Flats.
Oh yes, and no Wheatears, for the 129th day in a row (this is true, I checked....) We went to the playground on the Flats today, and the route over there just happens to pass through some suitable habitat, but there was nothing doing. I had the camera just in case, but was forced to point it at the girls and some Tufted Ducks instead. In the continuing pursuit I'm meeting Tim on the Flats tomorrow morning at first light. The winds have changed over today, and there is now a more southerly bias which should see stuff arrive, though whether Wanstead gets any of it is another matter. Rainham had the first Little Ringed Plovers today, and Crossness got a Wheatear, so I live in hope.
So does she
Tuesday, 16 March 2010
Another dead bird at Alexandra Lake, some three days after the last one, is fairly worrying. A Coot this time, died with its eyes open. I find it difficult to become emotional over a Coot I have to admit, but it did make me spend a lot more time looking at them today that I would normally. They are so demure, socially tolerant and easy-going. Softly softly, friendly, passive and calm.
Suitably soothed after watching the Coots go about their business, I turned my attention to the other denizens of the Heronry Pond. A Mute Swan looked very pretty, and then to get my attention started doing it's best Coot impression. A Canada Goose played the part of the other Coot.
I sat in the sunshine with Pudding for about two hours, simply watching the few birds in front of me being affectionate. We were warm, and happy. And from behind the Tea Hut of Happiness, a Chiffchaff sang, my first of the year. Spring has started. Somebody tell the Wheatears!
"Could you drop a line my way?"
Monday, 15 March 2010
Wanstead is still grabbing the news for all the wrong reasons. My patch has become a crime scene, and is also described as an East London Beauty Spot. Hmmmm. And I am a birdspotter, who likes to look at birds in trees, but doesn't like to watch them fall out. I suppose this is true, but birdspotter sound rather naff. Mind you, I should be thankful I've not yet been labelled as a twitcher. That would be quite wrong.
No more birds have died since Saturday. That unfortunate Pigeon on the ITN broadcast was the last one. I spoke to Keith from the Epping Forest dept again today, and it actually died there and then. I had only pointed it out some fifteen minutes previously as one that didn't look too good, so to have it die that quickly, well, that says poison to me, and a pretty potent one at that. The corpses are all still being analysed, so we still don't know. But at least it has stopped.
The pond remains taped off, and will stay that way until the results are known and the area is deemed safe again. Personally, I'd be happy if the car park never re-opened. Actually I'd probably go a step further and ban everybody from the Flats. Forever. Apart from me and the other local birders. Then I could go birding in peace. I wouldn't miss the insomniac dog-walkers walking straight through the Skylark nesting habitat. I wouldn't miss the Model Aircraft flying low across the acid grassland. I wouldn't miss all the empty drinks bottles that the footballers leave everywhere every weekend, and I wouldn't miss the shenanigans in Long Wood. I'd also happily never have someone stop me and tell me about a funny bird they saw again, or ask if I'd seen any of those green Parrots. When the BBC man asked me today what I was hoping would happen now, I had to grit my teeth and say I was looking forward to it all being open again. I'm afraid that when I'm out birding, I'm actually rather antisocial. Not that you'd know it. I nod and smile, and I am friendly. But deep down I am wishing you would go away and leave me alone. I might just be joking though. But how would you tell?
Actually I think I would like it all to go back to normal. It would be better if Wanstead were not in the news. I suppose it's been interesting to find out how the media works behind the scenes, quite how many people (loads) are involved in getting a story into the news, and stuff like that, but the most exciting time of year is upon us, and that's what I need to concentrate on. Before the press turned up again, that is exactly what I was doing. However, apart from a fresh Comma, nothing doing.