Monday 25 April 2011

Now you see it, now you don't

I had a lot of fun today taking photos of a Sedge Warbler. The singing bush of choice was a bramble, and brambles typically have a lot of branches, twigs, thorns, dead bits, leaves. In photography, these are called distracting elements. Anyway, whilst almost absurdly close, it never really posed in the perfect spot, that is to say, the perfect spot as far as I was concerned. As far as the perfect spot for Miss Sedge Warbler goes, it was probably spot on. There was no Miss Sedge Warbler however, there was just me. Now a Sedge Warbler is not a moth. You can't catch it, pop it in the fridge overnight, and then carefully position it on a nice bit of wood the next morning whilst it is comatose and snap away to your heart's content. You basically have to work with what you have got.

In the old days, what you saw is what you got. The slide was the slide, and that was it. These days it isn't so clear cut. If there is a branch, you can zap it. A stray twig? Kapow, and gone! It takes quite a lot of work, but essentially almost anything is possible. Photographers call this image optimization. Anyhow, back to the Sedgie. I managed to get a clear shot of it on occasion, but there were loads of distracting elements. A session in Photoshop however, and el Segdie is singing from a clean, distraction-free perch. Happy days.

But this poses a few questions, not least that having done all the hard work, do I actually prefer the image with the clean background or not?. Other more interesting questions might encompass whether it is right to do so or not? The image does not represent what actually occured. Or maybe it does, just not quite all of it. Have I messed with nature? (you know, moved a Shrike's larder for instance). No. Have I got out the secateurs and messed with a bird's bush? Euphemisms aside, only metaphorically. Does removing a few twigs fundamentally alter the image, which shows a Sedgie having a bit of a sing? Is the Sedge Warbler now somehow unnatural? Could I enter this in a competition, or would it be classed as cheating?

What do you think. In an html coding triumph, I have managed to work out mouse-hovering. Do please try it out. In theory, if you hover your mouse cursor over the photo below, you should see the original. Move it off again, you'll see my optimized version.

Anyhow, seeing as how everyone is a photographer these days, what do you think?

Sunday 24 April 2011

Dolly decadence

1). It is a nice sunny day, and Bella, relaxing in the garden, is enjoying a nice glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

2). Baby Hat gets involved.

3. It all goes wrong.

Saturday 23 April 2011


Blogging is a funny old thing. Collectively we must waste HOURS reading them. Some of us also waste hours writing them. Why do we do it? Why do we sit in front of glowing screens, staring blankly at words and looking at pictures, when we could be getting on with jobs round the house, or in my case, actually getting a job? Is this simply modern life?

I would like to think that someone, somewhere, bypasses all this, and just has their butler print out blog posts whilst they consult a weighty tome. Reclining in a creaky old leather armchair in their library, they ring a small bell.



"Perkins, bring me the latest from that chappy in Wanstead, wotsisname?"

"Lethbridge, Sir?"

"Ah yes, that's the fellow, Leftwidge. Splendid. Oh and Perkins?"


"About time for a large scotch, don't you think?"

"Indeed Sir"

A short while later the flunky appears bearing one of those small silver platters, upon which is a sheaf of paper and a tumbler.

*cough, splutter*

"Perkins! Have you read this?! Nonsense! Garbage! Not even about birds! Tripe I tell you, absolute tripe! Delete it from my favourites forthwith, and bring me something else. What about that, er, um, oh god, wotsisname, er, oh. Oh nevermind, just bring me another scotch, bloody internet, don't know why I waste my time reading such rubbish anyway, if wasn't for the downhill slide of the bloody wireless...."

At this point, and in the spirit of all that is blogging, I was going to go through the minutiae of my life from about last Tuesday onwards, but even I can't bear the thought, so you're spared until another post. In anticipation of what will surely be thoroughly scintillating, and a propos of nothing at all, here is sunset on Canvey Island yesterday whilst dipping a Savi's Warbler.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Lazy Birdless Days

I've barely lifted binoculars to my eyes these past few days, can you believe it? The best bird I've seen (and bearing in mind I've barely left the garden) has been a Swallow. Or maybe a Kestrel (which is good for the garden). This is the price of being ridiculously relaxed, and it still being the Easter holidays. The weather has been glorious, so glorious that all the good birds have continued to the Arctic Circle without stopping in Wanstead, so by schlepping around in the garden I've not really missed much. Of course I've been hoping for a flyover Honey Buzzard, but without kidnapping Mark P and installing him in a matola on the roof to attract migrating raptors, my chances are extremely slim.

In the absence of birds, the kids and I have been bumming about. The paddling pool is out - no waders yet, though there is now so much muck in it that it looks pretty a good bet - and we've been doing a serious amount of playing in the garden. A couple of short trips, a couple of parties, nothing ambitious whatsoever, and we're all extremely happy. Me particularly, as we now have beer...

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Patch overflowing with Waders

Wanstead is not known for Waders. Regular readers will recall that when a humble Dunlin visited the patch last year, it sparked a twitch of epic proportions. Local birders not able to drop everything at 0.2 seconds notice and hoon it down to Jubilee Pond were left squirming in their office chairs, producitivity diminishing to the point where their bosses said "oh just go then", but happily the bird stayed all day and we were all able to marvel at its, well, Dunlinness.

This year we're doing rather well. Though I doubt that the Stone Curlew will be topped, with a distinct lack of suitable habitat we've also had several Snipe, a Common Sandpiper, a Little Ringed Plover, and several Lapwings. We're basically up there with Rainham as the premier site in London for Waders. Today however we edged in front, with a stonking Wood Sandpiper on the Bandstand (Angel) pond. Wood Sand is basically annual, though more usually in summer, but they rarely show well, so it was a pleasure to finally see one properly on the patch. 

Look at that beauty! More importantly, look at that habitat! Appreciate its supreme attractiveness to Waders! Appreciate it while you can though, because it will soon be gone. Bandstand Pond is basically a very small and shallow depression at the southern end of the Flats, right next to the main road, and very disturbed. It is deep enough in winter to host dabbling ducks and gulls, but it typically evaporates completely by early summer. I'd estimate that this morning it was about 8cm deep in the very middle. It's been a glorious sunny day today, so it's probably now about 7cm, and with the fine weather set to continue, will likely be gone by the end of the week. But for now it is our very own (and very productive) wader scrape. 

Sunday 17 April 2011

London Marathon!

Before you ask, no I didn't. And no I couldn't. But it is a great day out, and a lot of fun. I opted to plonk myself at Canary Wharf, which is the 19 mile mark, and arrived early enough to see some of the elite athletes run past, and stayed long enough to see some of the fatties walking past. And of course everything in between, which is the real draw and makes the event what it is. Let's face it, nobody really cares that a running machine from Kenya finished in just over two hours. What people really want to see is Wombles and Pantomine Horses. Top marks to the policemen and firefighters doing it in their full work kit, to the bloke with a washing machine strapped to his back, and to the two guys carrying a surfboard....

Saturday 16 April 2011

In which I apologise for a flurry of needless year-ticks.

I need to apologise for seeing too many birds. Sorry. I didn't mean to, honest. It kind of just happened. I blogged what seems like only recently about only having seen 121 species. The new number is quite a few more than that, a disappointingly whopping 145. People more tragic than I would be able to tell you exactly what they were on last year at the same point, but obviously I have no idea at all. By the way, on a totally different subject, Muffin's homework over the holidays is to add 49 to 145. Pathetic isn't it? Would have thought the school would have set more for such a long break, but there you go.

Anyway, back to the year-listing that I'm not doing. I took the kids to see a Night Heron in Essex during the week; they needed it for their lists, just like they needed the Woodchat Shrike (which got eaten by a Sparrowhawk by the way). We found the bird no problem, and watched it for about half an hour, taking turns with the scope. During that time, the bird did absolutely nothing, and my childrens' lasting impression of Night Heron will be of a bird sat in a tree with no head. So, a year-tick, but one I think I have successfully argued away, oh, and I might have needed it for Essex as well. Unfortunately we heard both Gropper and Nightingale on the walk back, so two gratuitious and unneccessary ticks to add to the list.

Today, in a break with tradition, I twitched the Black Stork in the New Forest. I have been told several times in the past that the only way to see a Black Stork is to be in its path as it flies down a coast, or to be at a pin-pointed roost site before dawn. This was the latter, so filthy Hawkins and I were on the road at 3am, arriving at the appointed tree at about 5am. Unfortunately we got the wrong tree, and didn't find the right one (and then only with help from Lee Evans who had been there the previous evening) until about two hours after first light. Black Storks apparently get up about ten minutes before first light, so it was no surprise that the tree was empty. Luckily for us the bird was in the plantation right next to the roost site, as once these birds go, they really go, and for a huge bird they are remarkably elusive. Here is an ultra-pro photograph of it in flight.

A £10,000 usage fee applies for this shot.

So, all very nice, played for and got and so on, but rather unfortunately the New Forest is rather rich in birdlife, and we were treated to several male Redstarts, Tree Pipits, Woodlarks, Crossbills, Cuckoos and Goshawks over the course of the morning, and as if that were not enough, once back home I found a Lesser Whitethroat. Oops.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

The Easter Holidays so far

Number of disputes: 23,872
Cumulative minutes on Naughty Step: 425
Tears (litres): 152.2
Balls lost: 8
School Runs: 0

The last statistic is by far and away the most important. No School Run = A W E S O M E. Life without the school run is just so much more pleasurable. The School Run isn't just the fifteen minutes it takes to travel to the school, it's the whole shebang. Getting up. Getting them up. Breakfast. Clearing up breakfast. Finding clothes within Mt Garment and getting dressed. Remembering EVERY OBJECT KNOWN TO MAN that will  be needed at school that day. Coats on, shoes on, bags packed. OK, are we ready? Right, out the door. Alarm set (for all burglars reading). Oh, we have collectively forgotten: string, cardboard, flashcards, instrument, PE kit, a fish costume, book, random object. *sigh*. OK, unlock door. Turn alarm off. Disarm crossbow trap (for all burglars still reading) , find string, cardboard, flashcards, instrument, PE kit, fish costume, book, other stuff. Repeat several times. Ready? Seatbelts on, off we go.

The whole process takes about two hours and is the worst part of my day by a country mile. It can be done in less time, I think my record is about 52 minutes from waking up to depositing children, but we forgot the string, cardboard....

Not needing to get to school, indeed not even needing to get up at all, is nothing short of superb. This holiday is particularly long. We have the regular two weeks plus weekends. Then there is a Bank Holiday, then an utterly gratuitous "inset day", the nightmare of working parents everywhere, so that teachers can take advantage of cheaper return flights. Then we have a ridiculous two days back at school, when I predict that about fifty percent of children will mysteriously be ill, Friday off for the Royal Wedding, another weekend, another Bank Holiday, and then school starts again - by which time it will be about August I expect.

So to say that we (I) am having a rather relaxed time at the moment is understating it somewhat. The holiday can last for three months, you won't find me complaining. I may need to referee an almost infinite number of trvial arguments between offspring, but it's still preferable to the daily School Run. The children are enjoying it too, and are taking each day at their own pace. Middle child in particular is taking full advantage of not needing to get up, and is just not getting up. The days when I could sleep for thirteen hours straight are unfortunately long gone, I am quite envious.

So let me run you through today. We all managed to get up by about 8:30, and also managed to make the mid-morning dentist appointment without being interrupted by a rare Plover. After that we made a quick trip into deepest darkest Essex so that the kids could add Woodchat Shrike to their lists (always go see Shrikes, rule #162), and were home in time for lunch. Then we watched Fantasia, with top honours going to Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, following which we made a very cool Lego spaceship, and then played with it a lot. The kids amused themselves for a bit while I made dinner - stir-fry, well received - and then it was bed time. Easy.

Tomorrow, the plan is that there is no plan. Can't wait!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Glossy Ibis over Wanstead!

Happy Wanstead birders were yesterday able to add Glossy Ibis to their Greater Wanstead Lists. Gary J picked up a flock of eight flying west over Leytonstone, and using the theory of Reverse Migrancy Trajectory Prediction (Whiteman, 2011), we can confidently say that they graced Wanstead airspace, despite no birders seeing them do so.

Professor Whiteman is regarded by many as one of the last true pioneers in the study of avian listing science, and has a devoted following amongst patch-workers everywhere. His most recent work with Red Kites in north-east London has come to be regarded as seminal in the study of 'where birds might perhaps have been', and has gained him many new admirers, not least those of us in Wanstead who have been fortunate enough to encounter the Professor conducting experiments in the field, or not, as the case may be.

What started off as a simple back-calculation of a bird's trajectory, whereby a conical shape of indefinite length, but having a distal radial circumferance of strictly no more than 180 degrees, can be expanded outwards from the last known location of a bird, and in any event can be angled towards whatever patch is lacking that species from its yearlist (see figure 1), has in fact now spawned a whole new branch of scientific study.

In its rawest form, Reverse Migrancy Trajectory Prediction Theory takes the form of a thought experiment, and such is its breath-taking simplicity, is already known in some circles as 'Schrodinger's Kite'. Although this accolade is unofficial, it shows the high regard in which Professor Whiteman's work is held by listers everywhere. In a nutshell, you need not waste valuable time birding any more. Instead you can simply stay indoors and add the entire BOU List to your patch list whilst getting on with the housework.

Monday 11 April 2011

Kicking the Habit

If this is anything to go by, I am not doing so well. However, I would like to pat myself on the back for some highly intelligent twitching. First of all, I didn't drive to Slimbridge or Exminster several years ago, knowing that a Little Crake would turn up closer to home some day, so full marks there. More marks awarded for correctly deducing that the bird would hide in the reedbed all day and start becoming more active much later in the day, thus I didn't even leave London until late afternoon and was watching the bird a mere half an hour after arriving. Many people watching the bird at Arundel WWT were a funny shade of pink, having spent much of a blazing hot day staring at some reeds. And finally yet more marks for not adding Eider, Barrow's Goldeneye, Ferruginous DuckHooded Merganser or Bufflehead to my yearlist....

Friday 8 April 2011

The Garden Tick to end all Garden Ticks

Guess what flew over the garden today? Only a bloody Wheatear!! What an amazing garden tick! Surely the best ever, knocking those Waxwings from last year into a cocked hat. I had been out early, seen very little (a female Wheatear and a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in case you were wondering), and had returned to childcare duties. Sitting in the conservatory eating breakfast with the kids, I nearly choked on my toast as this Wheatear bombed past only about 15 feet up, heading across the gardens.

Regular readers will know I have a slight Wheatear fixation, but come on, this is stupendous! It was one of those blink and you'll miss it moments, and my brain only registered Wheatear once it was heading away, no time for bins, but the white rump and black tailband were there for all to see. Well, just me actually. The kids all face in and so missed it, whereas my seat faces strategically outwards...

I've been hoping for a garden Wheatear just about forever. No really. I've seen them on the Flats a mere 100 metres from my house, and often wondered if they flew over. I presumed they did, but at night. This was just before eight in the morning, where it was going (other than north with a tiny hint of west) I have no idea, but who cares. For some unknown reason it got up off the Flats and flew over my garden, and I was there to see it. Small pieces of toast and peanut were sprayed all over the table as I shrieked "Wheatear!" at my surprised offspring, who have often been told not to talk with their mouths full lest they scatter foot over a wide area. I jumped up, but it was too late, long gone.

I reckon Wheatear is a purdy darned good garden tick, the that fact that it is one of my favourite birds is neither here nor there. I refrained from telling you this, sensing that you had possibly had enough, but when I went out on the Flats the other day I saw seven Wheatears together. Seven! Happiness in avian form. I even managed a photo of five of them together, and now would seem like an opportune moment to wheel it out.

I've managed to use the word Wheatear ten times in this post.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Patch Tick, and a bloody good one!

I neglected to mention it yesterday as I was weeping too much, but a Stone Curlew flew over the Flats at about eight in the morning, and disappeared into the urban jungle of Forest Gate. At eight in the morning I am fully embroiled in the school run, therefore any Stone Curlews that fly over Wanstead Flats are going to completely pass me by.

There have been no records of Stone Curlew on Wanstead Flats since 1937. There may not have been any prior to 1937 either, but that's as far as the London Bird Reports go back so we will never know. The point is that even if you assume that there was one in 1936, a record every 75 years means I'll be 111 when the next one comes along, and likely not in very good shape. An urn or box shape perhaps.

So to miss one by a few hundred metres is rather gutting. This story ends happily though. I was out at dawn again, and enjoying Wheatears almost immediately. I met the ever-present Nick C in the Broom fields, and together we wandered over to Alex, seeing not a lot. At Alex I turned round and headed for home, as is normal. Towards the end of Long Wood my phone rang.

You are probably getting used to this now. Nick calls, I panic.

Nick: "Stone Curlew flying west past Alex!!!!!"

You are probably used to the next bit as well.

Me: "Gah!"

The next two minutes were awful. Basically me losing the plot, asking which way about ten times, Nick saying "west" about ten times, and me seeing nothing. Past the point at which a Stone Curlew by rights ought to have flown over me, I ran past Long Wood and over the small playing field to try and get a view of the big playing fields in case it had landed there. Movement to my right caught my attention and the Stone Curlew plonked down into the rough grass somewhere west of West Copse. Jesus H Christ.

And disappeared. I mean completely disappeared. Never seen again all day. Despite me roughly pinpointing the location and seeing nothing fly off, it never popped up. As it was in the Skylark area we couldn't really go looking for it, but quite a few small paths criss-cross the area, and we got within twenty metres of all points, and it never showed. Still, from my perspective, pretty damn awesome. Mega grip-back a mere twenty-four later. Quite incredible.

Needless to say, no photo, however the day got even better when a lady came past walking her pet duckling.  You couldn't make this stuff up could you?


Tuesday 5 April 2011

A Beak

First image with regular 912 URL

This image with amended 1000 URL

Sunday 3 April 2011

Hot Grebe Porn: Mrs Grebe does Wanstead IV

Mrs Grebe's nest has broken. What to do? Yes, that's right, invite a workman in to fix it. Let's call him Mr Grebe.

Here he comes now, looking muscle-bound yet sly.

Mrs Grebe answers the door. She is dressed wholly inappropriately. Oh dear, can you believe it, she appears to have dropped something. She bends down to pick it up. Provocatively.

Mr Grebe feigns no interest. He is here only to fix the nest remember.

Mrs Grebe reveals she is feeling really horny, despite not being Slavonian. Mr Grebe can resist no longer, and approaches Mrs Grebe. From behind, obviously.

The money shot.

Mrs Grebe pretends to be shocked at what has happened.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Really sorry...

...but look!

Someone commented at the pub last night that I might have a Wheatear fetish. I think that I might, but I think it's a good thing. Rarities are one thing, but utterly splendid common birds that you can get really really good views of, and see lots and lots of on a regular basis, that's what it's all about. There is a post about this very topic by Nick Moran on The Crow Council, go and read it. Now please. Then come back here.


So, did you enjoy it? Some good points, and whilst I know I do bang on about Wheatears quite a lot, if you stop and look at them, soon you'll feel as I do. This is known as brainwashing. We've now had a minimum of six birds across four consecutive days; the wait was worth it.

It hasn't all been about Wheatears mind, though if you only read this blog you might be forgiven for thinking that. Another superb migrant graced us today - a male Common Redstart. Like Firecrest, a bird that simply cannot be ignored. I was lucky enough to have one pop up in front of me today as a handful of us wandered round the outskirts of Long Wood looking for two Ring Ouzels that had just flown that way. Did I mention those? No? Common as muck see, not worth mentioning.

I know what you're thinking. What a bunch of stringers Wanstead Flats rocks. Yes it does, and never more so than during migration. Which is why I'll be out there again tomorrow morning having another go. And if I only see Wheatears, Common Redstarts and Ring Ouzels, well, I can tell you right now that I will be perfectly happy.

Friday 1 April 2011

More Wheatears

I was trying to think of a good April Fool post, but I couldn't. I think the problem is that I am just too mature and serious. I mean, this blog is not known for frivolity is it? No, that's not why all you readers visit. You come here for thought-provoking discussions on birds, and top parenting tips. So some kind of idiotic jape would probably go down like a lead balloon, am I right?

Far far better to bore you all senseless with some more Wheatear photos, taken this very afternoon on Wanstead Flats. As you may have gathered, I cannot get enough of Wheatears, they are just superb, etc. etc.