Friday, 29 October 2010

All Done!

All done. 300th bird in the bag yesterday. All done, no more hooning it round the country, I'm staying local from now on. American Bittern?! Where, where!!?

I've been resisting the Glossy Ibis at Welney all week, as yesterday I had plans to go to Cambridge with the kids anyway, there to leave them with Grandma for the afternoon. As it happened, by 10am there was no news on the Ibis, just my luck that it appeared to have gone. However there was news on two Grey Phalaropes and an American Golden Plover at Cley. Both filthy year ticks. I felt I probably had the time.....

Predictably as soon as I was committed to the North Norfolk coast route, positive news on the Ibis came out......Not to worry, get it on the way back, I was sure I'd still have the time. I'd MAKE the time!

Got to Cley with no fuss, payed my subs (in case you were wondering), and started looking for the Plover. Loads of European Goldies, but I could not pick out the AGP. Being strong of will and sound of mind, I gave up and trekked out to north hide for the Phalaropes. The first thing I saw when I entered the hide was a West Ham hat. The hat turned round, and it was Marco, a familiar site from Wanstead Flats. What were the chances? Had I known.... Anyway, we had a bit of a chat whilst I looked at the Phals (#298) - the two feeding together in the same scope view - and then I went off for a second crack at the Plover.

I gave it another hour or so, possibly not even that long, at which point the entire flock got up and flew west. If the past few days were anything to go by, they were off to feed on the freshly-exposed mud in Blakeney harbour, so naturally I followed them. I was about to sling the car in the harbour carpark when I noticed that a man wanted £3 from me. To park my car in a puddle. I found alternate (yet considerate) parking.

Tell you what, if you did a days birding on the North Norfolk coast and birded all the traditional sites, and paid for parking everywhere you went, you'd end up with very little change out of a twenty. Cley Coastguards, Blakeney, Lady Anne's Drive, and worst of all, Wells Woods - rip-off merchants the bloody lot of them. I hate paying for parking. I'd pay 50p, or perhaps even £1, but when every single place wants £3 or more, well they can take a collective hike. Thieves.

Pleased with my success at avoiding funding whoever owns the carpark, I trotted out along the beach path. I soon found the flock of Goldies, stretched out in a long line along the mud, and started scanning from one end. Fifth bird in I found it. I kid you not, it took perhaps thirty seconds. I wasn't entirely sure, my experience of this species being one adult in Kent a couple of years ago, so I kept on it and compared other nearby Plovers, Grey and Golden. Continued grilling convinced me I had struck gold, so to speak, but once some other birders turned up I still sought a second opinion. Happily I was right. Better than looking like a muppet I always think, of which I have extensive experience. #299.

Next stop Welney. Not a lot to say really. I had looked up the spot on the satellite view, so stopped by the exact field and there it was. Bins not even needed. Twitching isn't really overly skillful is it? I know that diminishes my achievement - if indeed you can call it that - of seeing 300 birds in a year, but I'm afraid it's true. Twitching is basically being able to read a map, and drive somewhere.

Whilst I was getting my fill of Ibis, a man in a truck pulled up and cast his critical eye over the field. At first I though he was an interested passer-by, but when he said "I'm here to pick up that dead cow." I realised that probably wasn't the case. "What dead cow?" I replied? "That black and white one!" he indicated. I had been bird-watching rather than cow-watching, but he did have a point, it wasn't looking too great. How exciting, a dead cow! We could watch, morbidly fascinated, as he somehow winched it into his truck! Gosh, isn't twitching fun! Where, I wondered, would he attach the rope? I scoped up the cow, looking for holes, hooks etc.

It was breathing.

Dead cows don't normally breathe do they? No, thought not. Much as it would have been hugely funny to watch the man drive his truck up to a perfectly alive cow, attempt to winch it into a truck, and then jump back in considerable surprise as it sprung up and attempted to gore him or something, I felt it was best to tell him.

"Er, it's not dead."
"That cow, it's not dead, it's breathing."
"No, it's dead."

I invited him to look in my scope, at which point it raised its head and had a bit of a look about.

"Ah, so it is. Must have the wrong field."

So he got into his truck and drove off, the cow went back to sleep, and we continued looking at the Ibis. Anyway, any Ibis twitchers that saw the bird today have me to thank, as I prevented it being flushed by a man in a truck driving round the field and molesting sleeping cows until he chanced upon one a dead one.

So, #300. Hurrah! No more twitching for me! See you in Cornwall! Er, I mean, have a nice time in Cornwall, losers!!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Damp Squib

On Viz-migging

I literally skipped down the stairs this morning. Giddy with excitement I made cup of tea. Coat on, hat on, bins round neck, camera over shoulder. I was ready! The time was 07:32. Let it begin!!

A blank sky.

Not to worry, it will all kick off any minute.

07:53. The first Wren wakes up. In turn, it wakes up a Blue Tit. Hmm, this is not going exactly to plan. 8am comes and goes, and I have seen literally nothing in the sky. Nothing at all. Predictably though I have heard Goldcrest and Green Woodpecker, and seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a Jay, all four of which eluded me throughout yesterday and would have beaten the day record. Natch.

08:02. A Chaffinch!!! A single bird, moving from tree to tree in the gardens. Vizzed, but probably not migging. I conclude that something is wrong.

I heard a Redwing a few minutes later, but the sky remained resolutely blank. I glanced down at the enormous dollop of cat-shit on the terrace and realised it probably wasn't going to be my day. Shortly after that the first child appeared, looking hungry, and viz-migging was over.


I've been saving this one for a rainy day

On Writing
I realised whilst writing this that I composed most of it whilst looking at the sky this morning. Do any other bloggers do this? Whilst I've not written down exactly what I mentally went through outside, it is fairly close, and indeed some sentences are word for word. Is this normal? A sign perhaps that I am taking blogging too seriously?

I actually stand there, typing it in my head during quiet moments, of which a patch worker has many. Ideally there would be some kind of neural link to the PC, and I would return indoors to find it ready to go, but I don't think we're quite there yet. Are you listening Bill? I could use a dictaphone, but it's a bit 1980s, and would be truly a sign of over-exaggeration of blog-importance. I also don't have a dictaphone. This is probably a good thing. A secretary perhaps......a scribe......

Nonetheless, as I stand there constructing paragraphs, I wonder what on earth I am doing. I mean, why bother? Perhaps in need of mental stimulation beyond that offered by loads of washing, pouring cereal, and watching Pixar films?

It's the same with my Birdwatch articles; they're mostly written before I even sit down in front of the computer. Sometimes I'll have noted a few themes down, points I want to make, examples I might forget, but mostly when I actually start typing it just flows out. Unfortunately the same thing happens on BirdForum.....

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Waxwing Lyrical about Garden Viz-migging

Well well, only a couple of days ago I was bleating on here about having missed a patch Waxwing due to not actually being on the patch. Again. I surprised myself by being fairly relaxed about it, thinking that there were loads about and no doubt I would get one soon. Well, soon turned out to be very soon. This morning in fact. And best of all? From the garden - get in!

I'd been having a fairly good morning. No ticks, but some quality garden sightings. A juv Mute Swan had gone over (second garden record in six years), as well as two Skylarks, and the sky was filled with Fieldfare and Redwing. Starlings had been much in evidence, and when another small group appeared I didn't really look at them. Until they started trilling, that is. Oh. My. God.

Waxwings!! I could scarcely believe it, but they had trilled hadn't they? I quickly swung the camera up and predictably it hunted for focus. When it eventually snapped in the birds were a little way past, but peering at the screen it was clear I was right. Waxwing on the garden list! And indeed the Wanstead list, superb! Somewhere between six and eight birds - this from counting blurry blobs across several different photographs.

Perhaps not my best photograph ever, but certainly one of the most pleasing, and allowed me to rule out Cedar Waxwing as well. Phew. Shame that they were only a fly-over, but who knows, perhaps there will be more, it seems the invasion has only just started?

Flush with success, I carried on. Heaps of finches, many frustratingly silent. Those that didn't call I attempted to photograph, but looking at these tiny monochrome blobs on my screen I am none the wiser and tomorrow won't bother. Counted over eighty Chaffinches and at least thirty Greenfinches, but it took until about 9:30 before I heard a lone Brambling call. I scanned the sky but couldn't see any birds at all, I guess sometimes you manage to look all around a bird. This was another patch and garden tick. Winter, you can't beat it.

A few more big flocks of Fieldfare went over, peaking at about 65, as well as a lone Mistle Thrush. I've just come back in as the rain has become more persistent, but my mornings work has netted 28 species and two patch ticks. The record, if you have been paying attention, is only 32 species, so I may make another cup of tea and get out there again. Still need Jay, Long-tailed Tit, Dunnock and all the Woodpeckers. But it will mean getting wet, and I am more than satisfied with what I already have, so I doubt I'll bother. But if I do, you'll hear about it here. Lucky, lucky you.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Onset of Winter Birding

There has been a lot of net chat about the death of autumn and the early onset of winter, as demonstrated by the early invasion of Waxwings and northerly winds. Generally people seem upset, but I am not one of them. I've been looking forward to a change of scene for some time. Of course, come February I'll be moaning about the everlasting winter and getting excited about my first Wheatear, but right now, the change in the weather strikes me as just about perfect.

In terms of the patch, I reckon I've seen just about all I'm likely to see in terms of autumn specialities. As each week passes, that Yellow-browed Warbler or Red-breasted Flycatcher becomes increasingly unlikely, and my thoughts start turning to interesting Ducks and rare Finches. That said, since Shetland it's been difficult to get out there and do it justice. My early morning jaunts are no longer possible due to it being dark, and weekends have been spent birding on the coast - my choice. I've managed a couple of mornings on the Flats, and a few viz-mig sessions from the garden, which whilst relatively productive, have lacked anything new.

This week is half-term, so no serious birding is planned. Today, for example, has mostly been spent playing Snakes and Ladders, building Lego, and shopping. Live the dream. In between these activities I looked at the sky for about half an hour. This short stint produced only the second Skylark to actually enter garden airspace, and yet another Pied Wagtail, the fifth garden record. The wonders of listing. If Nick's reports from the Flats are anything to go by, Pied Wags are everywhere at the moment, which would explain why I've had three in the last fortnight.  Pretty exciting I can tell you, though you probably needed to be here....

Slightly further afield, my London list has stalled, mainly due to my apathy at continuing to press forward with it. I've added Lapland Bunting and Penduline Tit to reach the dizzy heights of 202. Whoopee. I passed up on a couple of Great Grey Shrikes due to not wanting to drive anywhere, and I missed yet another Spoonbill and Hen Harrier this weekend, which had I been camped out on the sea-wall at Rainham....

Nevermind, it's not important. I've very much enjoyed birding the capital this year, I've discovered several new sites, and added a pile of species to my London list, which is important. Very. And anyway, the year isn't over yet, though a couple of days ago I caught myself thinking about January 1st 2011, and was forced to give myself a very severe dressing down....

Sunday, 24 October 2010


After a disappointing morning in Wanstead yesterday, the opportunity to get closer to the magic* number proved too strong to resist, so I went to Suffolk with a few of the boys. Little did I know this would cost me a Waxwing on the patch, Long Wood coming up trumps again, but nevermind. I am fairly sanguine about it actually, whereas I thought I would be spitting. Much as I love the patch, the experience of birding on the coast at this time of year is hard to beat, and combined with the inevitable banter, we had a rather fun day.

First up we gave DB another chance at the oh-so-dull Red-flanked Bluetail in Lowestoft, which we duly bagged not too long after arriving. I remember my first one a couple of years ago, and the elation of connecting with this cryptic mega. Even then it was rapidly declining in rarity status, but to get one at the first attempt, on Muckleburgh hill in Norfolk, well, wow. Yet another bird I thought I would never see, and although this year seems to have broken all records, the day I tire of Bluetails will be the day I sell my binoculars.

ISO 2000. Awesome.

After a long stake out for distant views of a Rough-legged Buzzard near Reydon, we then decided that the best thing to do would be to walk several miles on horrible shingle for an incredibly rare American vagrant. Errr, did I say American and vagrant? I meant Shore and Lark. Leaving it late to get a Shore Lark, I felt I had to go. Last year, Shore Lark was bird #310, this year it's #297. This is not an interesting fact (no, really), but shows fairly clearly that they're not easy birds to connect with. Although ten had been reported, I could only find three - two more than I needed, but they're smart birds and I'm happy to see lots of them.

This coming week is half term, so I'm at home with the kids. As such you should expect many more photos of them rather than of birds. Although I will attempt to avoid it, cleaning may also feature. The house is horribly dirty, as most domestic jobs simply got ignored during the excitement of October, and I need to forget birds for a while and just knuckle down to it. I started this evening on the shower, and to my horror, the Pink Brush of Unhappiness appears top be on the way out. Disaster!


Shaun and Paul think they can hide behind a car and thus escape my trigger finger.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


Not a lot doing today. Went out today on the Flats to gorge myself on flyover local scarcities. Came back licking my wounds despite a candidate for Yellowhammer that initially sounded really good, a brief "Tsip" as it went over, but I found I could not confidently rule out a funny Reed Bunting. Such is life. Either I need the full bread and cheese, or to see something bright yellow. A brief "Tsip", whilst encouraging, is ultimately a bit frustrating. On balance, I prefer Shetland.

I've spent the rest of the day so far at home with the kids, who have put on a play for me. Something about trolls and a bear. Nod and smile, nod and smile. It's been a while since you were treated to photos of the kids, it's just been birds birds birds, yawn, so time for a bit of a change. My prerogative. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Penduline Tits, Rainham Marshes

Apologies for the pithy title, it is designed to appeal to search engines, not blog readers....

Anyhow, as you may have gathered, guess what turned up at Rainham today? No idea? Oh, well I'll tell you then - Penduline Tits. They're basically annual here now, and this is a good Reed Mace year - there are heads everywhere. Whilst dipping the Bluethroat last weekend I commented that we were bound to get Pendulines again this winter, and it is nice to have my faith repaid.

Typically they had flown off just before I got there, and after half an hour I started to think of my experience last year, when I missed them by minutes four times before finally connecting. Above the noise of the wind and gassing birders though, came a thin reedy call that no-one else heard. I made this known, which got people concentrating again, and this time we all heard it. And suddenly, there they were, a pair, contact calling constantly, windborne reed-fluff everywhere.

Superb little birds, we are truly lucky to get them. Hopefully they will be around all winter, and will attract more in. I think that a few years ago there were six. I expect the weekend will be fairly busy. For those that don't know, the Dragonfly Pool (so named because there is a sculpture of a dragonfly in it) is along the boardwalk clockwise from the visitor centre, just underneath the Targets (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 on brickwork), in the extreme south-west of the reserve.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Smash and Grab

Another rather manic day in the pursuit of birds, but timed to perfection. After a morning of sorting a few non-birding bits out, 11am was perhaps a little late to start thinking about the Lesser Yellowlegs in Oxford. I went for it anyway, and although I didn't know where I was going, found it easily enough on a superb bit of flooded meadowland near the Thames. Waders galore, including a Ruff, some Lapwing, a couple of Dunlin, and a large flock of Golden Plover, and all only a few hundred metres from the dreamy spires. Oxford may seem a long way to drive for something relatively common like a Lesserlegs, and no doubt one will turn up closer, but I am an idiot as previously proven, and the sooner I get 300, the sooner I can stop being an idiot. Or something like that. Actually I'm willing to bet I can get 300 and still be an idiot. Not sure what I'm trying to get at here, let's move on.

Anyway, Yellowlegs tick and run (#294), time to head back to London. Did I have time for the Lapland Bunting at Staines Reservoirs on the way back? Unlikely, by this time the school pick up was only two and a half hours away, and the Bunting was at the far eastern end of the causeway. I could probably get to the Reservoir, but not walk all the way across the causeway and back. So despite it being a new London bird, I decided I couldn't risk it, and resolved to go straight home.
Somewhere near High Wycombe, genius struck. If the bird was at the eastern end, rather than park at the western end and walk across, why not park at the eastern end and be right next to the bird? Eureka! The only slight flaw in my plan was that I wasn't sure if you could do that? Surely the causeway must lead somewhere, right? I called mission control aka DB, who not only confirmed that the causeway did lead somewhere, but where exactly that somewhere was and how to get to it. Game on.
With an hour and a half to the school pick-up, and half the M25 to negotiate, I slung the car close to the start (or finish?) of the causeway and legged it up there. In the distance, perhaps halfway across, I could see other birders scoping my way. I scoped back, but couldn't see anything between me and them. Hmmm. I picked up my scope and continued on, and then a small brown bird with a pinky beak and familiar head pattern flew from the side of the fence and right into the middle of the path. Hurrah! Tick and run. It started to rain quite heavily so I nabbed a glorious portrait of the Lap, shown below, and beat a hasty retreat back to the car.
I advise squinting
Back to the M25, praying fervently for a clear run, and got it. Made it to the school with eight whole minutes to spare! Slightly fraught, but nowhere near as bad as some previous escapades. There was potential for abject failure I'll admit, but it all worked out fine. Tomorrow, bar something unprecedented occuring, I'm staying local. My youngest has already indicated a desire for play-dough, so I guess I'm staying very very local indeed. And after the last two days, I'm very happy with that.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Childhood Memories

Last week one of my uncles died. People dying is always sad, but this was particularly so as he was simply the nicest man imaginable. But cancer is not picky. Cancer doesn't care. I saw him for the last time at his son's - my cousin's - wedding, a little over a month ago. He had aged beyond his years, and looked frail, but chatting to him he was the same man I knew and looked up to. The wedding was simply fantastic, and to see him there, beating his initial prognosis by a considerable margin in order to be there, made it even more special.

My Grandparents lived in Sussex, in a small village near Seaford. That was where my sister and I and my eight cousins and their families generally spent Christmas and other holidays. Many of my clearest childhood memories come from those rolling chalk hills and flint cottages. When I heard that he had finally lost his long battle with cancer, I had an immediate yearning to go back there before the funeral. He was the fun uncle, the one who took us on long walks up steep tracks and over high stiles. I can still easily picture the landscape with him in it, a walking stick and a cap, and a gaggle of children slogging it up a large hill and then down again. We did big walks, once all the way up and over to Jevington, and small walks just down the snicket in Litlington, over the white bridge where we played pooh-sticks, and on up towards the youth hostel at Alfriston, perhaps completing a circuit through the village and then back over the other bridge near the church.

I went back today to see if it was how I remembered it. Although I've been back several times in recent years, I've only been to look at the house and go up to the churchyard. Today I went back to be somehow recall the good times, to walk as if with my uncle down some of those same tracks and narrow paths. I didn't have the time to go to Jevington, that had taken all day, so instead I went through the valley, starting close to the house in the village. The garden went all the way to the river, and usually we just went straight down and over the gate. Today I couldn't do that, so instead took the path that leads from the street down to the Cuckmere and up to the Alfriston road. As I walked down it, every house brought back memories. I can no longer recall the names of some of the people who lived in these cottages, but I have clear memories of old people leaning over stone walls, inviting me into their gardens, having a chat with Grandma and remarking how much I'd grown. The old folk are long gone of course, but I nonetheless paused by nearly every gate, parcels of images forming in my mind, a fragment here, a fragment there. One garden brought back strong images of dogs, another of vegetables and sweet-peas. Nothing concrete, more intriguing than interesting, but I realised that I was going back most likely over twenty years.

My Grandpa died in 1988, my Grandma in 2000, having moved out of the village a few years earlier. In those final years I was at university, and had then started work, grown up, or so I thought. I had my own house, and no longer went every holiday. The few visits at the new house in a different place were not the same. When she moved, a period in my life ended, and it is a period that I still wish had not. That was my childhood. Looking at my Grandparent’s cottage, I know it will be the same for my children one day. Their Litlington is up in Fife, and they love it there, in the same way that I loved, and still love, Sussex. One day they too may be making similar pilgrimages to places steeped in childhood memory.

When I was small, the track I was walking down seemed incredibly long. I’d not walked it for years, and actually it’s barely half a mile, though the bit at the end is perhaps steeper than my childhood legs remember it to be. It starts off fairly wide as it passes between neat cottages, and then as it nears the Cuckmere the trees start to lean in. A sharp turn and you’re on the riverbank and up onto the bridge. Then you plunge into cover again, a cave of branches, and then you’re walking down a much narrower path with hawthorn and bramble hedge on either side and a small overgrown ditch. It was exactly as I remembered it, though today it was filled with the calls of birds that had no place in my memories. Robins ticked, Blackbirds chacked, a Pied Wagtail flew overhead and somewhere a pair of Goldcrests piped. These are new images to add to the old. I pressed on and then the climb began. It seemed to go on for ever, was it always like this? At the end I remember a yard, a rough parking lot, and then the road. Something has changed, the open space as you emerge from the path is nowhere near as big as I remember it. It doesn’t look like it has been built on, the flint walls look like they’ve been there for years. I suspect that the answer is that I’m bigger, and hence the yard is smaller. I paused for breath and looked down the valley. The day that had started with rain during the school run was now warm and sunny. It felt right.
I walked briskly back the way I had come, pausing only for blackberries and a soo-weeing Chiffchaff. Over the bridge again I had a quick peek over my grandparent’s back gate and up to the house. Very little has changed, the Yew tree is still a perfect egg shape, and there is a much lawn as there ever was. Twenty years ago, as the eldest grandchild most trusted with a petrol-driven mower, I got to mow it, up and down, up and down. It took hours, but I didn’t mind. When it was done I got to survey my neat lines from the terrace with a mug of ribena and a home-made brownie.

On my way out of the village I paused at the churchyard and did a spot of gardening. Someone else’s mower has been over the horizontal stone; one of the 0s from my Grandma’s 2000 is missing, and the 8s in Grandpa’s 1988 are badly scratched. I recognised many of the names on the other stones. I can’t put faces to them, but it’s possible that these are some of the inhabitants of those cottages that I was taken to all those years ago. Ellis. Jones. Guthrie.

Life goes so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that the whole family gathered in Litlington in the aftermath of the great storm in 1987. Many of you reading will remember it from finding Sabine’s Gulls on your local ponds and Gannets on your roof, but I remember it for the huge trees that fell horizontally across my Grandparent’s garden. We all went down to help with the clean up. It was exactly twenty-three years ago. I was twelve, and my job was to cut smaller twigs and branches off the fallen trees, and drag them clear, and to strip ivy from the trunks. With all of us swarming around, it only took a day or so, and bar the gaps, the new sections of wooden fence, and enormous new firewood store, you could hardly tell it had happened.

I’m thirty-five now, Litlington seems a world and a lifetime away, but as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, perhaps in the context of birds, perhaps not, visual imagery is immensely powerful. Seeing the house and garden today, and walking that track, I was transported back to my childhood, back to my Grandparents, and to my uncle as I truly remember him, leading an excited bunch of children along narrow paths, over small bridges, and up hills to viewpoints none of us then appreciated.

Neither, I suspect, did I appreciate that my Grandparents lived next door to a pub

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Yawning and Year-listing

Another day, another Red-flanked Bluetail. Officially now the bird UK birders least want to see. Secretly the finders are hoping for Robins, but no, another sodding Bluetail. Bedgrudgingly, and knowing they are going to be made fun of by their peers, they put the news out....

Half a day in Suffolk today with Bradders, following another morning dipping Bluethroat at Rainham. Continued this fine form by dipping Ferruginous Duck at Lackford, but managed some excellent if brief views of the Bluetail at Lowestoft. The experience did not compare with that of ten days ago at Geosetter. There, the bird was in full view most of the time, and came within fifteen feet of the few observers present. At Lowestoft the cover was incredibly dense, and viewing was extrememly difficult. Despite their newfound common-as-muck status, the bird today attracted upwards of fifty people, and was seen sporadically by only a few of those. I was one of the lucky ones, it just appeared in my bins for a moment or two, and then vanished again. Very smart, but not even a useful year-tick....

Having seen it I abandoned the crowded paths, went and sat in the sunshine by the sea, ate a Double-decker, and hoped for a Little Auk. Miraculously I was soon treated to one drifting south very close inshore (#290). Unbelievable, and superb! It was only the second I have ever seen. I've seen three Bluetails......

The day, or what was left of it, for it was now close to 4pm, became a blantant quest for year ticks. I'm so close to 300 that I might as well. I know I said I wouldn't, but I'm hopeless. I'm not feeling too guilty, this is genuinely the first time this year I have been chasing stuff for no reason whatsoever.

First up the King Eider at Dunwich, which I found at extreme range, but in excellent light was still identifiable, at least well-enough for a mere year-tick (#291). We then dipped a Pallas's Warbler just down the road at Sizewell, before retracing our steps to Westleton Heath where we were just in time to get the Great Grey Shrike before it went to roost (#292).  That out of the way, we spent a bit of time looking at Red Deer on the heath, including two rather magnificent Stags braying and snorting.

So, eight to go for 300, and I haven't even seen a Puffin, and likely nor will I. That's how laissez-faire I've been, but it appears to have happened anyway. I must remember to not year-list again in 2011, it appears to be an incredibly effective way in which to see a shed-load of birds.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Bracketing a Bluethroat

A rather impressive hangover this morning precluded a swift exit and dash to Rainham for a Bluethroat. I missed it by about two minutes. I stuck around for as long as I could, but needed to be back so that Mrs L could selfishly pursue her hobbies. Naturally the Bluethroat popped up again just after I had left, and showed on and off for two hours.

Approximately two hours and five minutes later I arrived back at the same spot, and despite giving it another couple of hours, dipped again. Nicely done I felt. I'm going to give it a try tomorrow morning before the reserve opens, hopefully it will a) be there, and b) may feed in the open without the hordes.

In the meantime, here is one I prepared earlier.

So why am I bothered? Strange, isn't it? Here is a bird that I saw beyond excellently only a week ago, and yet I'm fretting over dipping this near-identical one. Let's just call it the joys of county listing and leave it at that, as there is no rational explanation. Oh wait, yes, I'm a sad loser with a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Yes, just mild. Believe me, there are some absolute fruitcakes out there.

The day was rescued by a very smart Tree Sparrow on the feeders outside the visitor centre, my first for the reserve, and also an Essex tick. Like you wanted to know that.

Friday, 15 October 2010


Anyone who clicks to make this bigger is a fool.

And Lo, internet acolytes, there was a new Washing Basket of Unhappiness, purchased from the great Blue and Yellow Warehouse of Doom. It is either full of dirty clothes, which is no good, as I have to wash them, or full of clean wet ones, which is also no good as I have to hang them up. It can also be full of clean dry clothes, the final phase, which, depending on the content, can also be no good if it contains loads of socks to pair up, or, if it is 'big' things, good, as Mrs L does all the ironing round here.

My life revolves around the washing basket, not birds, as some of you may have supposed. To say I was heartbroken when the old one broke (of over-use) is perhaps a little strong, but I persevered with it for as long as possible, until finally, on my return from Shetland, and struggling under a veritable mountain of dirty birding clobber, the handle snapped off and its time had finally come. "Hard Plastics", the container said, so in it went as I shed a tear, not for the loss of my constant companion these last few years, but due to fact that I now had to go to Ikea.
In case you had not guessed, birding in Wanstead is dull beyond belief. Initially of course it was all mega, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Green Woodpeckers and so on, but the excitement is dying down, or rather, has died completely, and I find myself in need of a Bluetail or similar. A flock of about eighty Redwings flew over the garden this afternoon, easily the biggest flock I've had, yet I could muster no enthusiasm for them. Does this happen to everyone who goes to Shetland or Scilly to feast on rare birds?

I think I need a holiday.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Shetland: Day 9: Mainland and home

Sunday October 10th
Not a great deal to say about today you'll no doubt be pleased to read. We were under pressure from the word go to be on a flight, and though we never strayed far from the airport, the looming deadline nagged.

We birded a few sites in South Mainland, found very little in increasingly poor weather, and eventually called it a day and went back to Sumburgh. The trip was over, and though the weather looked promising for a new batch of rare vagrants, we could have no complaints. What a week! Last year on Scilly I saw a Radde's Warbler, a Rosefinch, a Wryneck, an RB Fly, and a few Yellow-broweds. Though not a competition, Shetland wins comprehensively. I only get one birding holiday a year and I'd like to see as much as possible, so I lucked out this time. I hope Scilly's time comes again; it is a much nicer place to be birding, with nice weather, excellent cake and good pubs, none of which Shetland has. But on the basis of my two trips, there is clearly no comparison on the bird front.


Having said that, luck and weather systems play their part, and as I sit here typing this, Scilly is getting a nice crop of rare Wheatears, and hot off the press, a Red-eyed Vireo. The weather could have been bad up on Shetland; Northern gales and I could have seen literally nothing. So I may yet go to Scilly again, it is a lovely place, and I don't want the St Mary's Boatmen to starve.

Back to Wanstead next, bet you can't wait. I've bought a new washing basket...

Final Bird count, ticks underlined: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Red-flanked Bluetail, Bluethroat, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Sykes's Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Pallas's Warbler x 2, Yellow-browed Warbler x 11, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 8: Mainland

Saturday October 9th

Refound the Pallas's Warbler first thing in company with yet another Yellow-browed Warbler at Sumburgh Farm. Pallas's Warblers are living, breathing gems. Yellow-broweds are pretty smart, but a Pallas's has that little bit of extra pizazz. They're both tiny, yet to get here they have travelled thousands of miles - some of the longest distance vagrants that we get, and YBW in particular is way commoner in the autumn than many birds that live considerably closer. Why that should be I have no idea, but I'll take every one that comes, super little birds.

Yellow-browed Warbler was once a dream bird for me, almost mythical in status. I finally got to see one in Norfolk a couple of years ago, and that kind of broke the mystique. Since then I've seen loads - this holiday alone I think I saw eleven, of which I found three. And if I can find one, that means there is definitely no mystique!

I called the others over to see the Pallas's, and we all enjoyed some great views. Last year, in my quest to get to 300, I never came close to getting a Pallas's Warbler. I guess some years are bad, and some are good.

The rest of the day was spent birding various sites around South Mainland. We got stonking views of a 1w Bluethroat at Noss of Spiggie, and then Vince did us proud by finding another Pallas's Warbler near Geosetter in a tiny fragment of habitat. This bird showed amazingly well, but it was incredibly gloomy in the geo making for high ISO and grainy pics. We ended the day at Channerwick where I finally caught up with a Red-breasted Flycatcher, a bird which had managed to elude me all trip, though saying that there was one on Skerries I couldn't be bothered to go and see which I now regret seeing as it had one wing and could be stroked.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Red-flanked Bluetail, Bluethroat, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Pallas's Warbler x 2, Yellow-browed Warbler x 11, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 7: Mainland

Friday October 8th

Once again started at Sumburgh, and it seemed that yesterday's birds were still in residence, with almost identical numbers of Spotted Flycatchers and Wheatears seen. Not much else so we headed to Scatness, there to encounter an extremely friendly local birder, all too happy to share his patch with visitors. He didn't in any way patrol his patch like an arrogant bulldog and shout a lot at all and sundry, no not at all, that would be way off the mark and completely wrong. I look forward to welcoming him in Wanstead.

We left. Wanker.

We were birding Quendale again when news of a Red-flanked Bluetail at Geosetter filtered through. BLUETAIL! Sweet baby moses! Although no longer a mega following a run of birds in recent years, it still classifies as a must-see bird. I saw one in Norfolk a couple of years ago, and have been itching to see another ever since.

The bird did not disappoint, and showed at pretty much point-blank range. Phenomenal is all I can say, and it almost knocked the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll off top spot. Almost, but not quite - the Redpoll was that good.

What more can you say about a Red-flanked Bluetail? Dream bird, and to get one as showy as this, well, wonderful. The bird was in feeding mode, constantly on the move, behaving like a Flycatcher quite a lot of the time, swooping from fences to feed and then landing again. We watched it for probably two hours, and also picked up another two Yellow-browed Warblers, a Spotted Flycatcher, and our first Pied Flycatcher of the trip.

We eventually tore ourselves away and checked out a couple more sites on the way back home. Channerwick had a Red-breasted Flycatcher that I missed, and another Yellow-browed Warbler, and at Sumburgh I located yet another Yellow-browed whilst looking for a Pallas's Warbler that had been reported. The area was carpeted with Goldcrests, clearly there had been some kind of afternoon fall.

Tomorrow was shaping up nicely.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Red-flanked Bluetail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 10, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Shetland: Day 6: Unst again

Thursday October 7th

The plan was to bash Sumburgh for as long as it took to find a White's Thrush. It looked promising, with the wall running down from the farm to the hotel hosting three Spotted Flycatchers and five Wheatears. Meanwhile a skein of thirteen Pink-footed Geese flew over.

Then the pager went off with positive news of the Lanceolated Warbler at Skaw on Unst. Although this was a mere five minutes from the Arctic Redpoll yesterday, news travels slowly on Shetland, and we had been unaware of it. Hoping it was a real one, we decided to go. The birding up there is great anyway, and we could enjoy the Redpoll all over again. Any excuse...

We met the Drunks at Toft; they too had caved and were in twitching mode. In fact all the cars on the Yell-Unst ferry were birders, and all of them were headed for the Lancy, so we drove in a convoy to the most northerly settlement in Britain. Once there we found a few other birders scratching their heads, but they were looking in the wrong place. Vince and Steve, already on Unst, had given me very good directions for the bird which I disseminated, and soon enough a line of birders stretched across the favoured field. The bird duly popped up, flew into the next field and disappeared. I followed it, and almost trod on it. Literally in front of my foot, it dived like a mouse into a hole in the grass and emerged about fifteen metres to my right a short while later, never having left cover - astonishing.

Gradually we managed to marshall ourselves into some semblance of order, and eventually the bird came right out into the open as it fed along a fence-line. The sound of camera motor-drives was insane, like a press conference. The bird was untroubled by the commotion, and looking at it, it was very apparent that the bird on Skerries had never in a million years been a Lancy. Live and learn.

We left the bird in peace, exchanged high fives etc with the Drunks who now had to head home, and went back to Norwick for the Redpoll, which in contrast to yesterday we found in under five minutes. You win some, you lose some. It never posed as well as before, but it was a great bird to watch. Here is what I reckon is a Greenland Redpoll (form rostrata) for comparison.

Not a lot more to tell really. Paul and Monkey went off to try and refind the Little Bunting and see what else they could dig up, and I plonked myself on the beach and took photos of waders. Everyone happy.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 5, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 5: Unst

Wednesday October 6th

The wind was still strong today, and after the trials of yesterday we decided to go up to Unst, the most northerly of all the islands, where a long-staying Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was still doing the business.

To get to Unst you have to drive north past Lerwick, and then take two ferries, the first of which goes to Yell. Poor Yell, it seems most people only go there to get to Unst. You have to drive the length of the island to another ferry terminal, and from there a short crossing takes you to Unst. The Redpoll was at the northern end, in Norwick, which is less than 200 miles from Norway. By contrast Google Maps suggests it is 808 miles from Wanstead.

In increasingly poor weather, the Redpoll was incredibly difficult to find. Unusually, I employed caution when looking at candidate birds. We found a number of excitingly white-looking ones, which back home I would have called cast-iron Mealies, but I knew that my quarry was unlike any Redpoll I had seen before. Redpolls are very confusing birds, as I know from bitter experience. Basically they range from small and browny to large and white. Where one species ends and the next begins is anyone's guess, but Hornemann's sits at the very far end of the scale. Think Polar Bear, but with a beak.

We caught up with a Little Bunting in a weedy field at the top of the village, and I found a Redstart feeding with some Robins, but there was no sign of the Redpoll. We tried another site and came up with another Yellow-browed Warbler and a flock of over a hundred Brambling, but still no Arctic Roll. Five and a half hours later, and just as we were about to leave empty-handed (and totally gutted), we noticed a bird fly into a rose bush. Looking through the foliage, all we could see was white. Yes! It finished eating the Seal it had caught and then went and had a bath in a ditch, before briefly having a preen on a fence right in front of us. Hard work, but well worth the effort. Probably the bird of the trip.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 5, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 4: Mainland

Tuesday October 5th
A hard day in near gale-force winds made for poor birding. We tried a number of sites on South Mainland but saw very little. The best bird was another Yellow-browed Warbler found after over two hours of slogging through iris beds at Quendale. Overall scant reward for many hours of effort, but I imagine that this is the norm on Shetland.

Seeing as there are no birding highlights, let me introduce the team. First, Paul and The Monkey. They both adore junk food and like to wash it down with Nelson Mandelas. On this trip, malt whisky chasers also featured rather heavily. It is amazing that they actually got out in the mornings.

The other two are Steve and Vince. Both big-time listers, they were stunned to get a tick in the form of the Sykes's Warbler.

In the background is one of our hire cars. It had a 0.35L engine and had to be pushed up hills. If you look close to Vince's leg you can see a hole that he put in the bumper by reversing into a sharp piece of farm machinery at Quendale Mill. Unfortunately I was not there to see this happen, but having spent the last two days birding with them after the others had gone, I expect the atmosphere was somewhat lively! Although both cars were naff beyond description, they did their job and got us to all the places we wanted to go. Throughout our trip we listened to Sibe FM.

The Sumburgh Hotel. The only place to go in the evenings, although the Gurka Curry House in Lerwick featured more than once. My diet was terrible, grease and alcohol. I came out in spots and felt awful most mornings. Once home, I attacked the vegetable box in the fridge, and a steady intake of White Burgundy is restoring my natural balance.

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 3, Black-headed Bunting.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Shetland: Day 3: Mainland

Monday October 4th
Late yesterday evening, too late to do anything about it, news broke of a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler at Southpunds, found by the Drunkbirders. Birders were cordially invited to partake in an organised walk of the iris beds this morning in the hope of refinding it.

Disappointed at having had to cross Lancy off our lists, we were happy that instead we had a chance at the rarer relative. So that's what we did. Probably about 50 birders turned up, and we duly managed to kick the bird out. It had fairly obvious pale tips to the outer tail feathers visible in flight, but never landed. Tick and run!

I should have known better. Despite being a very careful and critical observer, ahem, this bird also later turned out to be a Gropper, albeit it one with very abraided tail feathers. Still, at least the fine people of birdforum had the good grace not to mention it. Oh, wait....

From here we moved onto Eshaness, home of the long-staying American Buff-bellied Pipit. A couple of birders inadvertently flushed it about ten seconds before we arrived, and then told us about the "PG Tips" reidentification. Thanks lads!

The bird took a fair amount of time to refind amongst the numerous other Pipits, and then only showed distantly before disappearing again. Eventually we relocated it much closer, took a pile of photos, but then in an inexplicable fit of remorse at our Locustella ID behaviour, reclassified it as a Meadow Pipit. My fellow basket-cases deleted all their photos in disgust. I was happy to have some half decent photos of a Mipit, so kept them. The following evening, going through them, we realised we did in fact have the right bird.... Yes, we're shit, and we know we are.

Meadow Pipit Buff-bellied Pipit
In deep despair at our seemingly fast-evaporating birding skills, we headed for the Lighthouse to see if we could relocate the Buff-breasted Sandpipers that had been knocking about. It was no suprise to me that there was no sign, and at a low ebb I almost gave my bins away to a passing farmer.

Our spirits were however lifted when the birds flew in from wherever they had been hiding and treated us to point-blank views as they fed on the grass.

Having drunk our fill so to speak, and also found a large flock of Snow Buntings with a couple of Lapland Buntings, we birded our way back down to Sumburgh in increasingly strong winds. I managed to find a Yellow-browed Warbler in the plantation at Sullom, and Paul picked out an adult Glaucous Gull at Lerwick harbour.

Back home, the Channerwick Booted Warbler was reidentified as a Sykes's Warbler.....

Running Bird count: Buff-breasted Sandpiper x 2, Glaucous Gull, Short-toed Lark, Buff-bellied Pipit, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler Sykes Warbler, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler x 2, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 2: Out Skerries

Sunday October 3rd
From first light we worked Sumburgh for a bit, but the only bird of note was the Radde's Warbler from a few days ago still hopping about in the same patch of nettles. Not much else going on, but seeing as it was our first proper day on the Islands, we were nonetheless pleased to be out and giving it a go.

We had decided that we would not twitch stuff, and instead find our own birds on South Mainland, so with today the only ferry to Out Skerries before next Friday, and a small easily workable island already hosting a stack of rarities, we immediately caved-in and went. Paul pretended to be pissed off at the divergence from "the plan", but secretly he was looking forward to seeing his first Citrine Wagtail.

We arrived at Vidlin in plenty of time, and had a poke around the only notable plantation. Paul refound the Barred Warbler, meanwhile Bradders found three Otters (in the loch, not the plantation). I ditched the bird in favour of the mammal, and we had an amazing loch-side encounter. One of them swam right up to us, came out of water, had a quick look, and then swam away. An incredible experience for someone from London. I've seen Otters before, but never like this.

The ferry ride was bumpy to say the least, but within five minutes of arrival the Citrine Wagtail was on display. We savoured it for a moment before moving swiftly on to the Black-headed Bunting which showed very well by the roadside and later in a field. Yet another new bird and I hadn't been on Shetland for even 24 hours.

We were now able to calm down a bit and actually bird the island. This netted a handful of Lapland Buntings near the airfield, a large flock of Snow Buntings flying over, never to be seen again, and some good views of the Short-toed Lark on the runway, which erased yet another 'bvd' from my notebook - last year's flight only views at West Runton.

We hadn't planned on going to Skerries on setting out in the morning, and so had no provisions. The bustling metropolis of Skerries has a population of 76 people, so we were surprised not to find a Tescos. We did find a village shop, open from 2-4pm, so at 2:01 we emptied it of food, possibly at the expense of the local population. If the next census reveals fewer than 76 people, you'll know why.

On the point of leaving news broke of a Lanceolated Warbler back where the Bunting had been, and with only thirty minutes until the boat left, we were somewhat pushed for time. We legged it back there and refound the bird, which appeared tiny, though somewhat plain. Of course when it comes to rare Locustella Warblers I am an expert, and being a tick, I had no difficulty in confirming it as a Lancy immediately. After all, it was tiny, what other feature do you need? On my list!

Photographs later showed it to be a small Gropper. Off my list...

Paul is pleased to add Citrine Wagtail to his UK list

Running Bird count: Short-toed Lark, Citrine Wagtail, Swainson's Thrush, Radde's Warbler, Booted Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Black-headed Bunting.

Shetland: Day 1: Arrival and Mainland

Saturday October 2nd
The trip did not start well. After an early start, we arrived at Gatwick to be told our plane was broken and that there was no way we could get on to Shetland today. You are having a laugh, right? Sadly not, the first leg was delayed, we would therefore miss the flight to Sumburgh, unless....

Two taxis booked to Birmingham, where we made an alternative flight to Edinburgh on a working plane, and on to Shetland only an hour or so later than originally planned. Not ideal, but at least we were there. Collect suitcases, chuck them in the Lighthouse, and get birding. Sounds like a plan.

Er, where's my suitcase? The one with all my clothes and my tripod in it. And my Double Deckers. Genius. Sod it, deal with it later, we needed to get birding. A timely text from Bradders, already on holiday for a couple of weeks, contained news of a possible Booted or Sykes's Warbler at Channerwick. Seeing as I didn't have any unpacking to do, we went straight there.

Crap views of a pale warbler, mostly in flight, though perched a couple of times, left me none the wiser. It was definitely one of the two, and seeing as either was a new bird for me, happy days. The general concensus was that it was a Booted, the most likely in any event, and as it appeared we weren't going to get any better views, we decided to head for Quendale where there was another Booted Warbler that might perform more satisfactorily.

About a mile down the road south I got a call from John H of the Drunkbirders, to say that they had just flushed a Swainson's Thrush from the quarry at Levenwick. Would that be the Levenwick about a mile ahead? It would. Cue some outrageous driving from the Monkey and we were on site literally moments later. The Thrush had flipped over the top of the quarry and been lost, so after a few introductions we split up to look for it. A distant Song Thrush had us going, but happily the bird was located in a nearby garden and showed superbly on a dry stone wall. Well done John, Dave and Andy, what a start!

Goldcrests are rare on Shetland, I was lucky to get this shot

Two new birds in about two hours. At this rate I'll be on 500 by the end of the week, possibly sooner. It was basically dark at this point so we headed back to the lighthouse. I unpacked, oh no my mistake, Flybe had lost my suitcase. I must have done something else instead. Wept maybe. Not to worry, I had the camera, and amazingly had had the foresight to strap a monopod onto the side of the bag in the incredibly unlikely event that a two-bit budget airline might misplace a large blue suitcase with my tripod in it. No chance of that surely? 

We ate dinner at the Sumburgh hotel, had a couple of beers (where couple = 20), and I went to sleep in my clothes.

Bird count: Swainson's Thrush, Booted Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler.