Thursday 28 July 2011

Yes I would

Dear Canon,

Yes, this image was taken hand-held with a shutter speed of only 1/80th of a second. And yes, I was using the amazing Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens, with my trained Grasshopper balancing on one of the fingers of my left hand, and the camera clutched in my right hand. In this most wobby of shaky situations, I felt this would be a proper test of your new hybrid image stabliser, and I am pleased to report that it has done rather well. And yes, if there are any samples of the new Canon 600mm f4.0L IS II lens that need checking out, I would be happy to give it a proper run through its paces for you, on the understanding, naturally, that I get to keep the lens afterwards.

Kind Regards,


Tuesday 26 July 2011

Birding Blogs are for Saddos

As is my wont, I was perusing various birdy blogs the other day. I came across one that had no lists, yet the author had just been writing about his new garden list. I'm sorry, but in order to for a blog to be classified as a saddo dweeby birding blog it has to have visible lists of birds. Garden lists, house lists, patch lists, that kind of thing. You will note that my blog has these lists very prominently displayed right at the top, and that I update them assiduously. I would not want my blog to be known as non-nerdy, thank you very much. I pointed out this glaring ommission to the author, and happily he remedied the appaling situation very quickly, and now has a couple of sad bird lists for all to see. With totals - this is important - as nobody cares what you have seen, only how many. So good on him, we would not want anyone thinking that birding can in some way be a normal pastime undertaken by normal people. We must continue to present ourselves as a bunch of pathetic weirdos so that the general public can laugh at us on regional news programs as we queue up to see a bird, all dressed identically. Similarly with blogs, should an unsuspecting member of the non-birding fraternity stumble upon one, he or she must immediately be directed to a list with a number at the bottom of it. They will quickly realise that they would be better off elsewhere, and go and click on a website that shows which crackpot drug-addled musicians died age 27 (and there are lots apparently).

Back to this particular blog I was reading, exciting times are ahead. The author has moved to Grays, and whilst I do not envy him living in Grays, mainly due to the legions of utter morons he will encounter walking their illegal breeds of dog along the seawall, he faces the Thames, and as such has already had such gems as Black Tern from a position of extreme comfort, rather than from a position of extreme wind and rain. Were I him, I doubt I would ever leave the flat, and not just for fear of getting mugged or treading in mountains of dogshit, perhaps simultaeneously. I expect many gripping posts about gratuitous river-watches.

But why, you wonder, would I want to read about what birds some bloke sees out of his window and writes down on a list? It is a good question - well done for posing it - and one I have attempted to answer many times. I'm talking about bird blogs in general now, rather than this one particular blog. This question, even if unanswered, leads to another question, which is why do I write this blog? And why, of course, do people read it (other than to appreciate the magic of blinding prose)? I have an answer, for this would be a pointless post if I didn't.

The answer is that I am performing a vital service to the birding community. By writing, drearily, about exactly the same things that they think about day in, day out, even if they don't write about it, I am normalising their sad hobby. As they read this blog, or indeed the one now being written from Grays, they realise that there are people out there just as pathetic and uncool as they are, and this makes them feel better. For a brief moment, I allow them to experience feeling normal. The effect may even last after turning the computer off, and they can pass an evening thinking happy thoughts, adding numbers up, that sort of thing. As soon as they leave their houses the next day they will of course be shunned, and rightly so for they are a bunch of maladjusted weirdos, but for that short period they can feel happy. Bird-bloggers are basically the Mother Theresas of the birding world. Selfless, thoughtful, in many ways... Saintly.

Sorry, I appear to have wandered off topic. I was intending to write a post about what a fulfilling and complex hobby birding is, how lists are actually cool, how birding blogs are incredibly interesting, and how birders are (by and large) in fact just everyday people. I seem to have strayed slightly, but I'm sure you get the point.

PS If you don't have beard, please consider growing one. I might when I grow up.

Saturday 23 July 2011

More Patch Tales

Like buses, patch yearticks come in twos. Having not seen a new species since May, my cup now truly overfloweth. Common Tern has been frustrating me for a while now. Never particularly straightforward to see, they breed over on the Walthamstow Reservoirs in small numbers, as well as on the Thames at Barking. I don't know where our ones come from, but they never linger for more than about five minutes. You wonder really if it is worth their effort to fly all the way here, catch the tiniest fish ever, and then fly all the way back again.

For the last few days a bird has been seen feeding on the Heronry Pond at 9:10am sharp. At this time I am always on the way back from the school run. I've attempted to connect, but by the time I am at Heronry, the bird has inevitably flown north. Yesterday I decided on a new approach - rather than drive south to Heronry as the bird flies north to the Basin, I just waited at the Basin. Genius, no? And it only went and worked didn't it!! I parked up at the Basin and hopped out of the car. I sauntered confidently over the road and started looking over the fence (it's part of the Golf Course you see, and you must never ever trespass on the Golf Course, that would be totally wrong...). And there it was! One Common Tern, probably the same one that is being seen daily. It hovered, dived, flew round the islands, and then lifted off....south (the little tyke!)....and was joined by a second bird that I hadn't spotted. Cool! Patch yeartick #101. My phone then bonged. It was Tim, stood by the Shoulder of Mutton Pond, and he was looking at one of the Terns, now feeding there. So despite my clever use of tactics and reasoning, I probably could have seen a Common Tern from just about anywhere yesterday, but I am not complaining. Common Tern is definitely getting scarcer. I remember it being regular, and even getting it as a garden tick a few years ago. Then they dried up, and I didn't see one for over two years until 2010. I could list all my sightings if you like...

Thursday 21 July 2011

Patch Tales

Today I did not get up and do the patch. Ever since I the guys got a couple of Green Sandpipers a couple of weeks ago, I have been getting up before 5am and going out to find my own. Guess how much success I've had? Exactly. But I have persevered, day after day, and found nothing better than, er. You know what? I don't recall having found a single interesting bird, it has been quite depressing. In other words, regular patch birding. You go out, you see nothing, you come back, you weep. Well not nothing I suppose, you see the regular denizens, but no surprises, and patch birders like surprises. That's not to say that I have not been pleased with a few things, but whether they constitute exciting is highly debatable. I'll mention two, and let you decide.

The first was when I discovered that unbeknownst to all of us who work the patch, a Tufted Duck had managed to hatch eight ducklings on the Jubilee Pond. At its widest, the Jubilee Pond measures about 25cm, and it plunges to depths of at least 10cm, so Mrs Tuftie is either very very clever, or we're all really really stupid. I've always said the ducks round here are pretty smart. These are either the first or second brood of Tufties we've had, I honestly can't recall, so this is very pleasing, as as recently as yesterday all eight were still present and correct, and had grown substantially.

Secondly, and it doesn't come much more exciting than this, I was wandering across the Flats having checked both Jubilee and Alex for non-existent Green Sandpipers, when I espied a Greylag Goose in a group of Geese on the playing fields. Are you sitting down? I casually raised my bins, and they were all Greylags, sixteen of them! Wow! Added to the family of nine I had just seen on Alex, unless my maths is very shaky, that makes 25 Greylag, easily a new patch record. This is what patch-working is all about.

Yesterday, tramping round the Flats, I saw nothing unusual. I had the place to myself from about 5am. No joggers, no dogs, no dog-walkers, and no doggers. It was very pleasant. Six Greylag flew east at about 5:30am. I had dismissed them as Cormorants moments earlier, as this is exactly what Cormorants do at this time of day. Then one of them honked, exactly like Cormorants don't. Moving on to the Park, I sat on a bench near the Tea Hut, and observed no birds on the Heronry Pond. On the way back home, the Reed Warbler was singing again on the Shoulder of Mutton Pond, raising hopes of a second brood. Later on in the day, back at the Tea Hut, three Sand Martins and two Swift fed above the lake. Everything very much tickety-boo.

This morning I stayed in bed. I deserved it, and was knackered, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of my Cornish extravaganza. I was woken by a tweet at 5:40am, someone thanking me for recently following them. Good. You can guess what is coming. I went back to sleep until 6:15am when another "bong" from my phone woke me up. "Green Sandpiper being flushed by dogs on Alex!" or words to that effect. But of course. I moved very quickly, quickly enough to be at Alex in under five minutes and to just catch not one, but two Green Sandpipers disappearing into the far distance as a large brown dog looked happily on. Luckily one called as it went, the Green Sand equivalent of "Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off", and they were never seen again. I checked the Bandstand Pond just in case they had dropped in, but when I got there a small brown and white dog was gambolling in the shallows....

Still, a patch ever tick, and my 100th this year, so I can relax now, and thereby miss more of them. The general rule for seeing waders in Wanstead is to ask yourself if I am in bed or not. If I am, get out there quick is my advice.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

A Review of the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro

A bit of a departure today with a review of some photographic kit. I have a bit of a lens fetish, and have recently bought the new Canon 100mm macro. I like it a lot, and wanted to tell people about it. I know, I thought, why not use the blog? There are plenty of birders who read it in the vain hope that one day it might be about birds. Many birders also take photos of birds, and many of them use Canon equipment. In the summer there are no birds to take photos of, and many birders turn their attention to butterflies, dragonflies, and anything else that will alleviate the tedium of June. Although it is July now, it is worryingly similar to June. Do they have a macro lens already? Are they thinking of buying one? Maybe yes, maybe no. Shall I do a review just in case? Ok then, I will. If this is even more boring than normal, I apologise. I will revert to moths and domestic triumphs tomorrow. So off we go then.

Canon 100mm f2.8L IS USM Review

Anyone who has tried Macro Photography knows that it is a right old pain. First you have to find an insect. Then the insect has to stay still, and the wind has to stop moving the grass stem or whatever. That miraculous combination achieved, you crouch down to take a shot. Wide open aperture for a fast shutter speed and a fraction of the insect is in focus. You try again. This time you stop down to increase your depth of field, and oh dear, the shutter speed wasn't fast enough, and your photo is blurry. The solution? A tripod. Yes, a tripod will make getting good images much much easier. Except you won't have any images because you hate going round with your tripod so much that you would rather give up photography altogether. It is a common problem, and one not easily solved. Until now that is.
Canon have released a new Macro lens with an image stabiliser. Many of Canon's lenses have had image stabilisers added for some time, but this is the first time a true Macro lens has been the lucky recipient. Enter the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens. Lying on my sofa, it looks like this:

Although Canon already make a 100mm Macro lens, this one is an entirely new design, rather than the old lens with an image stabliser tacked on. 100mm is probably the most popular macro focal length, being capable of life-size reproduction on the sensor, so it's no surprise that it got the treatment first. Expect the venerable 180mm Macro lens to get a similar update at some point in the future. Like that beast, this one is also an L lens, where "L" stands for luxury. Special glass or something, and a red ring to show off. As with many macro lenses, the old lens was no slouch, so this is merely an opportunity for Canon to up the price tag. That said, you get a lot of lens for your money.

When you first pick it up, it has to be said it feels a little plasticky. This is good plastic though, and while I am loathe to test it this early on, I bet it can stand up to some fair old abuse. And the good thing about plastic is that it weighs less than metal, and so even with the addition of an image stabiliser and a load of pixies to operate it, this lens weighs in at a mere 625g. This is a fraction more than the older 100mm macro, and if you are used to toting a birding lens like the Canon 300mm f4 IS around, or the 100-400mm zoom, this will seem like a toy in comparison. Plastic or not, construction appears to be extremely solid, exactly what you would expect from an L lens. It is weather sealed with a rubber O ring around the lens mount, and weather sealing is completed by screwing in a 67mm filter at the other end. If you want to take advantage of this, do not under any circumstances buy a cheapo five quid filter from Hong Kong off Ebay. You might as well rub water-repelling grease on the front element for all the good it will do your pictures. Buy a really expensive filter from a reputable dealer. You will only buy it once, and you will not notice it is there. Personally I use a B+W UV Haze 010 MRC filter, which in the 67mm variety costs about fifty quid, but there are other equally good ones out there. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

The lens comes with a deep hood which is excellent, and that I recommend you use all the time (apart from in some circumstances of course, which I'll come to later. Obtuse? Moi?). Using the hood makes removing and fitting the lens cap a pain, but you will be pleased when you bash the lens hood and not your expensive filter. What do you mean you didn't buy a filter?! The lens also comes with a useless grey bag which Canon will try and tell you is a lens case. Throw it away immediately.

The lens's minimum focussing distance is 30cm. Those 30cms are measured from the film plane, or whatever the digital equivalent is. The sensor probably. The lens is about 12cm long, so this means that it can still focus when your front element is about 15cm from the subject. This means that you will sometimes want to remove the lens hood, as it is 8cm long. Insects get scared when large black things approach them. With the hood in place, the large scary black thing approaches to within 7cm. Gah!! If you're working tight, the hood can also bump into close branches and stems, the movement of which will cause the insect to scarper. With the hood off, you can stay that bit further away, but of course you have exposed your front element to the elements. Hope you bought a filter.

The focussing ring is wide and smooth, and with a USM motor, full-time manual focussing is available, extremely useful for macro. The lens does not change length when focussing, it all happens inside. The lens takes an optional tripod collar, sold by Canon for an additional two trillion pounds. The whole point of this review is that you can use this lens without needing a tripod, so don't buy it. On the side of the lens are three recessed switches. AF on or off, a focus limiter, and a switch to have IS on or off. I don't think I have moved them since I got the lens, and my settings are AF on, IS on, and the full focal range. But it's nice to know that they are there if you need them. Why the hell would you turn the IS off though? It's the only real reason for buying the new lens over the old one, and why you're paying a premium of 70%.

IS is great. I mean really great. Canon's latest inception of IS is worth 4 stops of light. That means that in the normal course of taking photographs, you can use a shutter speed a full sixteen times slower than you might otherwise without the benefit of IS. I think that's right, but you might want to go and check. Whichever, it's a lot. Yes, I know what you're thinking. Wow. For the uninitiated, an F stop is either the halving or doubling of light hitting the sensor. One stop down is the halving, one stop up, the doubling. Two stops and you halve it again. A quarter the light. Three, and it's an eighth. And so on. In practical terms, an exposure of 1/1600s at f2.8 on a lens with no image stabliser can be reproduced at 1/100s at f16 with no apparent camera shake on a lens with a four stop image stabiliser. In macro photography, stopping down to increase your depth of field is pretty important. Very important in fact. But without IS, you get shutter speeds so slow you cannot possibly hand-hold the camera and take a sharp photograph. So you need a tripod to keep the camera steady. By the time you have set up your tripod, the insect has probably moved off or been eaten. With the new IS lens, this isn't a problem any more. You can leave your pain-in-the-ass tripod at home and have a much better time out and about.

With IS on. 1/640s @ f7.1, Evaluative metering -1/3rd.

With IS off. Please note that I may have faked this test.

The IS system in this new lens is a little bit different. Canon calls it hybrid IS. This combines correction not only for normal angular movement like all previous IS systems -  ie you wobbling the camera up and down a bit - but also side to side movement which can be extremely noticeable when you are close to your subject. Little tiny pixies inside the lens detect which way you're wobbling, and move the lens elements the other way so that the wobble, or most of it at least, is eliminated. When you engage focus, you can actually hear the pixies, they kind of hum. Move the lens a bit more rapidly, and they begin to whine. No really. Does it work? Yes it does. You actually see the image in the viewfinder steady and then become still. Of course there is a limit to what you can get away with, but it is pretty miraculous. Canon say that at 1:1 Macro distances the hybrid IS system only gives you two stops of correction. I'll take those two stops. I have no way of testing it, and it's far too boring anyway, but my at my personal level of shakiness, I can take a sharp handheld macro pic at 1/15th of a second with this lens. They're not all sharp at this speed, and of course IS has absolutely no bearing on subject movement which is often the real killer, but being able to rely on this very slow shutter speed with a still subject pleases me a great deal, and it will please you too. Please note that all people wobble differently. You may wobble more than me, or you may wobble less than me. I have no way of knowing. Anyway, a macro lens with IS means you can simply wander around and expect to take decent hand-held photos of insects with no messing about. For a birder on the move, this is brilliant.

1/200s @ f10, evaulative metering -1/3rd.

Anything else you need to know? Well yes actually. The lens is sharp even at f2.8. Normally, lenses reach optimum sharpness when you stop down the aperture a bit. Not so with this one, and it is sharp all the way to the corners. I actually tested this, but the resulting test shots don't fall into the "interesting" category. And anyway, mostly it doesn't matter, the centre of the lens is largely what is important in a macro lens. Colours are vibrant and contrasty, just as you would expect from an L lens, and the out-of-focus blur at f2.8 is excellent. Focussing is quick, and accurate. Moving from minimum to maximum is really really fast, not something I was expecting at all. This makes the lens much more versatile. Imagine, there you are taking photos of a small bug. All of a sudden your mate ten metres away pulls a funny face. You quickly recompose, the lens snaps into focus on his mug, IS means the resulting image is sharp, and you have some excellent blog material. You couldn't do that with many macro lenses. 100mm is an excellent portrait length, which is another use for this lens. I use it on my kids all the time.

So there you are, it ain't just birds. A tedious review of the Canon 100mm f2.8L IS Macro lens. The quality is assured, so the question most people will ask is is it worth the price premium over the older lens, which takes excellent photos, and can be snapped up for around £300 on the second-hand market? Well, I can only speak for me, but the IS system, even if the hybrid thingy is less effective at macro distances, means I can use this without a tripod almost all of the time. If I'm out birding, I just bung it in my pocket and off I go. Brilliant. So that is extra cash that I am willing, if not wildly happy, to pay. Its versatility means it sits on my camera a large percentage of the time.

Vital statistics
Focal Length: 100mm
Aperture: f2.8 to f32
Minimum focussing distance: 30cm
Minimum working distance: 15cm
Weight: 625g
Length: 12.3cm
Width: 7.7cm
Filter thread: 67mm
Cost: £725 new, s/h £600ish if you can find one. I did.

Monday 18 July 2011

Thray Emmets goe Seawaaatchin'

On the strength of a good-looking forecast, three intrepid birders from the south-east made their way south-west. Destination Porthgwarra and Pendeen for what would hopefully turn out to be some stonkingly amazing seawatching. A big low in the mid-Atlantic was heading with some speed towards the Cornish Coast, and I hoped that it might be pushing some displaced Cory's Shearwaters in front of it. Or Albatrosses, I'm not fussy. Nick C, Mark R, and yours truly decided to take the gamble. And a gamble it truly is, for forecasts can be wrong, and seawatches can be crap.

A floating vomit-bucket sails past the Runnelstone.

Saturday 3:30am, Porthgwarra Carpark. Rather than the carpark being full of excited birders that had travelled the length and breadth of the land to be at this once-in-a-generation pelagic spectacle, there was just us. Two hours of non-sleep later there was still only us. Hmmm. On the clifftop, a similar story. Us. Had we got it wrong? The winds seemed lighter than predicted but we set up nonetheless, scopes pointed at the Runnelstone buoy. It certainly seemed pretty rough out there, and a few birds were passing.  Not a lot happened for an hour or so, and then finally we were joined by a local birder, who had decided that the two minute journey was worth his while, and that he would have a quick look. It had taken us six hours, a serious committment.

At around this point things became mildly exciting. I picked up a large bird some way behind the Runnelstone. It seemed to be a Shearwater, but I hadn't really ruled out Gannet. It had long bowed wings though, and wasn't flying like a Gannet, so I was mildly hopeful. Not having seen Cory's before, anywhere, reading about flight jizz isn't really the same as experiencing flight jizz, so I gave directions, hoping that the local guy, Linton I think his name was, would deliver the verdict I was hoping for.

He did! One Cory's Shearwater, albeit disappointingly distantly. Not that I cared of course, as you know, I'll tick anything. We carried on scanning, but despite our best intentions, we never got another one. A single Sooty Shearwater was the next best thing, and a handful of Balearic Shearwater with a few hundred Manxies were the only other tubenoses seen. Four Chough - a family group with two youngsters - livened the spirits, but by about lunchtime we were beginning to realise that it wasn't going to pick up. By this point I was asleep in the long grass, and soaked. Exhausted I had picked a cosy spot out the wind and stretched out, and some heavy rain had utterly failed to wake me up. The boys woke me up with the news that the winds were shifting and that we were going to try Pendeen, just the other side of the Lands End peninsula. The theory is that if the winds are from the South-west, you watch from Porthgwarra, which is on the south of the pensinsula, and that if they're from the West, you watch from Pendeen. North-west and you go to St Ives's Island a bit further round.

Although the winds were more north-westerly, we chose Pendeen, as you can park for free whereas in St Ives you need to remortage your house to park the car. We wondered whether being miserly might have been a mistake, as Pendeen, wasn't much livelier, though I did manage to add Storm Petrel to the day list. By early evening, having been on the go for approximately forty hours without any significant sleep, we packed it in, sourced a fish supper from St Just, and headed for the B&B in Penzance. Too tired to even drink much beer, we hit the sack hoping for better fortunes in the morning. Would we justify our trip, or would we have made the long journey for nothing? I know we had seen a Cory's, my target bird, but 700 miles for a single, distant Cory's and not a lot else is not the stuff legends are made of. Pendeen needed to be good.

Very sadly, I was unable to drink much of this

We arrived more or less at dawn, having slept for what seemed like only five minutes. We were again surprised to see just one guy there. He was called Royston, and seemed to know what he was doing, moreso than us at any rate. I suspect his total hours spent at either Pendeen or Porthgwarra adds up a wife-pleasingly high amount. Anyway, the action was non-stop. At Pendeen you face north towards a group of rocks, and typically the birds fly east to west in distinct lines that take them inside or outside of these rocks. The close Manx line today was split into two, one taking the inside line, the other passing just outside, and it was sensational. Between about 9am and 1:30pm, the Manx line never stopped. Birds passed at between 50 and 120 a minute for over four hours. Outside of this period the passage was slower, an average of perhaps 25 birds a minute, but this is just the close line, there were several others further out. Being completely scientific about it, I reckon I saw somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 Manx Shearwaters, and thousands more would have gone uncounted. This doesn't happen on Wanstead Flats, and was completely captivating. We stayed for about twelve hours before reluctantly pointing the car east.

I don't generally like posting lists of birds on this blog, as it may excite my readers too much. If you are of a fragile disposition, or have a heart condition, look away now!

25,000-50,000 Manx Shearwater
2 Balearic Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
40+ Sooty Shearwater
60+ Storm Petrel
5 Bonxie
1 Common Tern
3 Sandwich Tern
6+ Puffin

Wowzers! Note the number seven next to Cory's Shearwater. I found one of those, and saw six. One, the last I think, was rather special, for rather than hugging the Cork coastline like all the others, it was in the close Manx line. One of the experienced Cornish sea-watchers called it, and bar one very unfortunate guy in a green Tilley hat who managed to see nothing all day, we all got on it. Glorious, you could actually percieve plumage detail and see the bill colour. It motored along with the Manxies giving stunning views before disappearing around the corner. Mission well and truly accomplished.

As I type this from home on Monday, it appears that over forty Cory's have gone past Porthgwarra this morning. Perhaps they come in behind weather fronts, perhaps they were futher out in the open ocean that I had imagined they could get in the week after the large movement from the South, who knows? I could feel short-changed, but that last bird made the trip worthwhile. I don't really get on with boats, so I'm unlikely to ever see one better than that, and I am extremely pleased. An excellent weekend, totally knackering, but some proper birding. And the lack of Albatross means I need to go back.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Greenshank Twitch!

Just how good am I at birding? I've just driven 180 miles, jeopardising the school run, for a Greenshank. The best bit? I discovered it was a Greenshank on the 180th mile of my journey, just as I was getting out of the car at the school, congratulating myself on a superb bit of twitching, an immense rarity safely snaffled...

Brilliant. At 11am, having cleaned the fridge, thrown out all the 'best before 2009' jars of god knows what, and hung up yet another load of washing, I had a quick look at the web to check for birding goodies. Greater Yellowlegs in Northants! Could I get there and back before the school pick up? A quick look at the distances involved, and it looked pretty doable. Less than a hundred miles, which would give me an hour window, and waders generally stay out in the open and very visible on inland reservoirs. The twitch was on! Pudding, get your shoes on!!

Picked up Hawky en-route, and despite the best efforts of the M1, made good time up there. A short stroll from the carpark and there it was in all its glory. Tick and run! Made a couple of facetious comments about it looking remarkably similar to a Greenshank, and how the legs looked less intensely yellow than I was expecting, and continued to look at it uncritically for about half an hour, like you do. Time was up, had to leave. Tick and run, what a superb bird, a great addition to my list, hope it flies away now, etc.

Made good time on the way back, and was looking forward to updating Bubo and gripping all my mates off, who incidentally were all busy hatching plans to twitch it after work. Arrived at the school with ten minutes to spare, feeling pretty good. A successful twitch! Then my phone went off....

I stared at the message in disbelief. It can't be! Can it? No, it can't be, there were loads of people there and I didn't hear anyone mention anything. A standard twitch then. Turn up, see what you are expecting to see, and leave again. Genius. I am of course guilty as hell. I left fully satisfied, as you do. Apparently after we left it had a bit of a fly around, revealing a rather lovely white vee up the back. Who knew that Greenshanks can have funny legs? The whole of Birdforum apparently. A few distant fuzzy shots of the bird on the deck are now in circulation, and the internet birding community are falling over themselves to say how obvious a Greenshank it is etc etc. As everyone knows, the best birders are the ones who never actually leave their houses.

Anyway, a great way to spend the day, and an excellent use of £30 of diesel. I am of course having a bit of laugh at my own foolishness, it would be churlish not to. I could be pissed off, and I suppose partly I am, but it's actually pretty funny when you think about it, and I'm sure none of my mates will rib me at all. It does of course reinforce my belief that twitching is a mug's game. And that I am one of the finest mugs there is.

For ID purposes.....

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Hard work

The patch is hard work at the moment. After having been bracketed by Green Sands, I've been out at five in the morning two days on the trot. The rewards have been scant to say the least. I picked up what is probably a record count of Greylags, when a flock of 16 landed on the playing fields, and thus added themselves to the family of nine on Alexandra Lake, but the mere fact I am mentioning Greylags is an indication of the slimness of the pickings.

There has been little time for much else. Towards the end of the school year about a million and one events take place, so I have been to two sports days, one parents evening, two ballet classes, one cricket session and a lot more besides. Happy news today from the latest sporting extravaganza is that Muffin is officially the fastest kiddo in Year 2, or at least he was today. Fastest boy I should add, he didn't race against any of girls, but some of them looked pretty speedy. It's all down to me of course. Not the DNA I hasten to add, that wouldn't help him, but we have watched Chariots of Fire seven times in the last two days, and I've been giving him Mr Mussabini pep talks, including one right before the race about not looking at the other kids during the race. Not all of this is true by the way. He did win though, attaboy!

Here, have a Grasshopper. I once saw a totally amazing photo of a Grasshopper in this pose. I can't remember where, but I remember being dead impressed and wanting to try and recreate it. This does not come close to the perfection of the particular photo I have in mind, but it's a start, and seeing as Wanstead Flats is Grasshopper Central at the moment, I should have many opportunities to have another go.

Sunday 10 July 2011


I am calm. Om. I have exorcised the listing demons. Om. This does not mean that I have had a tick, I have not. I did not go to Derbyshire. Om. Too far, too boring. Om. Instead I missed two Green Sandpipers in Wanstead, and found two Common Sandpipers in Wanstead. Om. Bonelli's Warbler eat your heart out. I care not. I weighed it up I admit, but ultimately it was just too far. Four hundred miles, sixty quid, and seven hours in a car. Thanks but no thanks.

If only I'd got up that little bit earlier. I was awake and drinking tea when Stuart found the first Green Sandpiper on Jubilee, blissfully unaware. When I heard the news I was straight out, but it had gone. As I was walking towards Jubilee to dip it, the guys texted me about another Green Sandpiper that had just flown over Alexandra Lake. Fortune vomits on my eiderdown once more, as someone once said. I hastened there, but was too late once again. A Common Sandpiper tried to cheer me up, and didn't do a bad job actually, spiralling so high above the lake that it went above the Swifts, themselves high up, and disappeared into outer space to rendezvous with the Shuttle. Later in the Park, drinking a reflective cup of coffee from the Tea Hut of Happiness, I spied another two at the end of Heronry, so somewhat of a landmark day. There is clearly some wader passage occuring. If I can drag my sorry ass out of bed early enough, hopefully I can cash in. Mind you, I tried that on Thursday, up and out at 4:45am and saw diddly squat.

The day, predictably, turned to insects. Butterflies were out in force. Small Skipper, Essex Skipper, Peacock, Red Admiral, Gatekeeper, Small Copper, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, and best of all, Marbled White. There you go, a list of butterflies that I saw. Blogging is great.

Not just butterflies though, insects galore. Cinnabar caterpillars on almost every clumps of Ragwort, as well as about twelve billion Soldier Beetles, possibly more. I had more fun than I thought possible with a macro lens, there were subjects everywhere. For the technophobes amongst you, my latest toy is Canon's 100mm macro lens with image stabilisation, and I have to say it works a treat. No tripod, no mucking about, just wash and go. Or something. Makes a great portrait lens too, which is a bit of a problem actually as I find myself using it more than my actual portrait lens as it's already on the camera most of time. Tack sharp, light, and fun. Doesn't take the extenders unfortunately, so I still break out the 180mm macro quite a lot for the extra magnification and working distance it allows, but this newer lens is definitely easier to use. I should be a salesman. Or a sleep consultant.

Solider Beetle. Clearly German.

Friday 8 July 2011

Failed Twitcher

Friday evening and I find myself fervently hoping that a small Warbler currently enjoying itself in Derbyshire falls off its perch tonight. I've never seen a Bonelli's Warbler, of any variety, it would be a world lifer. Wow. I refused to go last Sunday, but it looks like I could be heading that way Sunday unless the bird does the decent thing between now and then and buggers off. Why does twitching have to be like this?

I have silly conversations with myself:

"It's only a bird, forget about it."

"Yes, but it's pretty rare."

"So what?"

"Bradders has seen it, he went straight away. Now he doesn't have to worry about it."

"Pffff. I stand by my previous "so what?""

It" would be a good tick. One closer to 400."

"Don't care. It's only a number."

"But it's the first one you've even been able to go for."

"Go away, you're annoying me."

"How am I supposed to go away exactly? Anyway, it's only 200 miles."

"Gah! 200 miles!"

"Motorway the whole way, you could be back for lunch. Look, you went for the Pied-billed Grebe in roughly the same place didn't you?"

"That was stupid too. Anyway, Pied-billed Grebe is much rarer."

"What else are you going to do instead?"

"Oh piss off"


This is precisely the reason that twitching, or at least the thought or mere possibility of twitching annoys me. Your tick-hungry side keeps niggling at you, and won't let up. That said, my change in stance on twitching is still quite recent. I'm a raw convert to "not caring", and will I hope gradually recover and be able to cope better when rare birds turn up. The pager is gone, that was hard, but really I've barely missed it. There was a moment of sheer filth with the Audouin's Gull when I basically dropped everything and legged it to Minsmere, but apart from that my aquisition of new birds in 2011 has been fairly restrained and carefully targeted. I'll let you know how I get on on Sunday.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Sad but True

The ultimate Birdforum thread seems to have petered out. This is entirely my fault, and I apologise. I had been attempting to stoke the fires with snide comments about quite how pitiful it all was, to no effect whatsoever, and so had even gone so far as to suggest that they were in with a chance of beating the Slender-billed Curlew thread, which rolled for months and months and topped 1000 posts. This appears to have been the last straw, and there hasn't been a new post since Sunday. Oops. Perhaps I should create an anonymous username, "shitstirrer2127" springs to mind, though it might already be taken, and write "Lee Evans/Steve Webb (delete as appropriate) you are a big girl's blouse!" or "Has anyone on this list seen a Southern Pochard?" and see if it miraculously springs back to life. Or perhaps not, and the fact that it is sinking into the depths of the web is in fact A GOOD THING.

And anyway, I feel that this blog has been sailing a little close to the birding wind of late, you know, talking about current affairs and stuff, not really what I'm aiming at. What am I aiming at? Er, other than total weboland domination, not much really. Write a bit of nonsense here, write a bit of rubbish there, get paid in Swarovski binoculars on a per-post basis, that kind of thing. With precious little to say, I'm feeling a weekly roundup coming on, what do you reckon? Scintillating? Almost.....

Saturday afternoon
School Summer Fete. Yours truly mans a "Name the Fluffy Owl" stand, whilst simultaeneoulsy running a "Find your own bug and have it identified!" stand. Total sales of name the owl tickets, £2,132,092.50. Total sales of bug-pots, £6. Or maybe £5. And three of those were my own son and two of his friends. Total bugs found, two 22-Spot Ladybirds, a beetle whose name I forgot, an aphid, and an unidentied tiny fly. Sorry no refunds. I spent most of my time admiring the real owls on the stall next door, as did everyone else. And I still don't know what the fluffy owl was called.

Saturday evening
Howard's BBQ for friends, Rainham volunteers and bird bloggers. An entirely sober affair, much jollity is had with an ex-RSPB collection Robin, and Howard definitely does not stick Christmas Tree lights up his nose. Devastating news of an ID faux-pas, and that my Lesser White-fronted Goose photo shows a Pink-footed Goose. I attempt to explain it away. Later on, we do a spot of mothing, and Muffin outclasses us all in the ID stakes. Top moth award goes to the six Swallowtail Moths. Sorry, five Swallowtail Moths, as I accidentally crushed one whilst losing my balance fairly late on.....

Sunday morning
Arise with immense headache; blame beer. The morning passes slowly to say the least.

Sunday afternoon
Still feeling like shit, I assess how many beers I drank, conclude not enough, and decide that I am ill. We watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Birdforum en famille, and then with a temperature of 2,345 farenheit I go to bed at 6pm.

My headache has gone, and the fever has reduced fractionally to 98.6 farenheit. However I have god-awful stomach cramps and lower back pain like I am 39 weeks pregnant. It is all I can do to take the children to school, then I come home and collapse. But only for a moment, as I then have to spruce the house up as we have a visitor. The list of Brownie point-earning tasks is long and varied, and I even clean up the desk that Mrs L has been promising to clear up for approximately fifty-thousand years. It takes me fifteen minutes, but blogging about it loses me all my Brownie Points.

Tuesday morning
As the sharper amongst you will have noticed, that's today. I'm feeling a lot better, and have done some shopping, repotted Pie's sunflowers, done a couple loads of washing, and photographed some Hoverflies. I'm guessing you're sick of insects, so instead.....

Saturday 2 July 2011

From the Armchair

The other day I was moaning to Mrs L that I hadn't any ticks for, like, ages and ages. What a terrible terrible shame she agreed [note that this is not necessarily a true depiction of events - Ed.]. Two hours later I was sat in my armchair when Nigel Hudson alerted the world to the availability latest BBRC Work-in-Progress file. Hurrah!

For those that don't know, the BBRC is the committee of birding bods/gods that adjudicate on whether rare birds in this country were real or not. First of all they have to decide whether the bird in question was the bird in question; was the ID correct, and was the bird a figment of the observer's imagination (heaven forbid) or not? In the case of the bird that roused me from my armchair, was the bird actually a Lesser White-fronted Goose, and not some dodgy bread-guzzling hybrid? Yes it was a Lesser White-fronted Goose, and yes it really existed as loads of people saw it. That hurdle passed, they move on to the difficult stuff. Where was it? When did it turn up? What birds did it arrive with? What birds did it leave with? When did it leave? What did it do while it was here? What did it eat? Did it say anything? All crucial questions, the sum of which are used to come to an informed decision about the wild provenance of the bird. Assuming the majority of the committee then call the toss correctly, the bird is accepted as a record onto the almighty British List.

Or one of the British Lists. There are several, maintained by different people, and you can follow whichever one you want. I can't remember the real name of the one I use, but it now has the Goose on it, whereas the one I don't use doesn't have the Goose on it. Although you will find this hard to believe, the various list-keepers can come to entirely different conclusions when presented with the same facts. You could argue about this all day long, and it's just possible that some of that does go on. Thankfully though it happens behind closed doors where the public can't see what a bunch of socially inept losers birders really are.

Moving swiftly on before this post takes a large downhill turn, every quarter the BBRC tells the world how they're getting on with rare bird records they have been tasked with judging. Rabid twitchers everywhere open the file and eagerly scan down the list of birds, which is presented taxonomically.

"Ooooh, Black Scoter, did I see that?!"
"What about that Blue-winged Teal with a ring on it from Cambs somewhere?"
"Oh, I wonder if they've accepted that Goose?


The specific entry you are looking for is "OK". OK means it has passed all the tests and is adjudged to be a real non-fictitious bird. There are other entries as well. "IC" is a popular one, and means in "In Circulation", ie they're still looking at it. They can sometimes look at it for a very long time. For example, they're still looking at a Great Reed Warbler from Dorset in May 1961. I'm all for being careful, however fifty years on, with the observer almost certainly (and unfortunately) in Green Italics, it's time to make your mind up. I suggest that a quick "NP" here would be ideal, as there is likely nobody left to chunter about it. NP stands for "Not Proven", which is a nice way of saying you were wrong, and you didn't see a real bird. Personally I'd prefer to see "Bollocks" next to an improbable record, as that is what most sceptic birders would say when they first got the news, but I'm not on the committee. And possibly never will be.

Anyhow, Goosy-Lucy is no longer in circulation, she is "OK". Back in January, when I saw this wild, wary, pure and unringed bird consorting with a classic carrier species in a historically plausible location, I was extremely restrained. Usually I speed home, there to open Bubo and bung the bird on immediately. In this instance I waited, just in case the powers that be decided in their wisdom that the bird was plastic. Happily it has been given the benefit of the doubt, and so, feeling virtuous from the comfort of my armchair, I have been able to tick it off my little bird-spotting list, and need never look at one again. Phew.

Here is the first Lesser White-front I ever saw. It didn't cut the mustard for some reason.