Monday, 31 January 2011

Taking Off

Whilst I am in contact with numerous recruitment consultants, for the time being I am continuing to live the dream. Today the dream was of a Goosander still being on Perch Pond, and a sadly dream it remained. Nevermind. I had a very nice walk around Wanstead Park in some weak winter sunshine, and whilst I saw nothing new for the yearlist, it was good to be on the patch.

One of the benefits of being into photography is that if the birding is quiet, you can instead concentrate on looking through the lens, and today I did just that. I spent most of my time knelt on the bank of the Ornamental Water trying to get decent images (sorry Gav et al) of whatever came close enough. The principal attraction was Swan Wars - a single adult Mute Swan had made the mistake of landing in the territory of the resident pair who were having none of it. They would chase the interloper who would then fly off to the far end of the water, whereupon the pair would swim over to it, through ice if necessary, and cause it to fly back to where they had all started. Repeat almost ad infinitum - it took over an hour for the new bird to get the message and depart high to the south in search of pastures new. Good luck, as all the ponds here are spoken for and he'll get the same treatment on any of them.

The struggle today was exposure. Pure white on a dark background is a situation I hate. All the reading suggests exposing such that you don't blow the whites, but to do that the image looks really dull. And of course, as the bird gets larger in the frame, so the amount of white influencing the meter increases. It took me a while to work out that manual mode was the only way to go, but with the sun coming in and going out, ir was somehow unsatisfying and also didn't work when a non-white bird came into view. I tinkered with what seemed like countless variations, but when it came to processing I have made adjustments to almost all the images. Supposedly in all but sky situations, the maximum amount of compensation needed when working in evaluative is 2/3rds in either direction. Sorry if this is boring you, I could witter on about photography for just about forever. Bottom line, I think I need to read the exposure chapter in the Art of Bird Photography again. And then again.

The assumption is that anyone with a fancy camera and large lens just points it at a distant bird and an amazing high-definition photograph results. Wrong. If you point it at a distant bird and just press the button you will get an ill-exposed and probably fuzzy speck of what might be a bird. See, I'm wittering again. I'll stop. Suffice it to say that it is not straightforward at all and despite having owned an SLR since 1997 I am still learning every day, and sometimes feel like I am going backwards.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Flocking in Essex

Flock flock flock flock flock. Every January I try and make a winter visit to the Essex coast for some winter birding. Last year I went at the beginning of the month, where if you remember I knelt in a turd. No such poor luck today, but the birds were equally good. Once again Bradders took his rally car, and our chief scarecrow-spotter Hawky made up the team. Today was all about flocks.

Started on the Blackwater estuary, where we could find no interesting Grebes or Divers, but a flock of over two hundred Golden Plover were extremely nice, and the sound of their wings as they flew in tight formation was pretty damn cool. Heaps of Brents here too, and some flocks of Goldeneye in mid-channel.

A quick stop at Braxted Park where the regular flock of Hawfinches were seen, or at least some of them - we counted ten in the tall trees just within the golf course. A great bird to see, and an Essex tick for me, but a real shame they are so scarce. Our next flocks were near the Strood, at the causeway across [to] Mersea. Masses of Dunlin on the falling tide, but best of all a wintering flock of Lapland Buntings in a weedy field. We counted around 30 birds, and bins etc were unnecessary as the flock wheeled around overhead giving the classic "peew" and "brrrrrrrrr" calls. Easily the largest number I've ever seen together, including Shetland, and another Essex tick. I was on fire!

We tried the estuary from Mersea for Divers again, but all I could do was string a Cormorant until Bradders noticed. Boring!  We gave up on the sea and headed to Abberton, where we encountered eight distant Smew, but much nearer six each of Tundra Bean and Pink-footed Geese. I can never recall either seeing birds this close, or seeing them swimming on the water, and I can only think of one time when I've seen them together, so this was very instructive. In a nutshell, Brown and Orange vs Silver and Pink. Goose identification, done.

A distant Ringtail Hen Harrier at the same site was a bonus Essex Tick, and we also twitched a burger van with notable success. Meanwhile I missed a Goosander on the Perch Pond back in Wanstead which was a bit gripping, but I did have an unlikely drake flying across the Flats a couple of years ago so I am not too gutted, and I can spend tomorrow looking for it.

A quick note on not year listing

Going really really well. I'm on 111, which I'd reached by 3rd of January in both 2009 and 2010. So far then, this is easily my worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) performance in recent years. I have not caved into adding it onto Bubo, which might induce competitive urges, and I only added it up for the purposes of this post (after having read the one I linked to above, and got curious). So far, so good.

Friday, 28 January 2011

The King of First-World Problems

I bought it for the kids at Halloween, not realising that my mother had bought them one each. These were duly carved, and about three days later had started growing fuzz and collapsing. Three months on and this one is still in perfect nick. Totally firm, no soft spots. Given that it cost a quid from Tescos, this is pretty good going. Could it possibly last another nine months?

Probably not, so the question is, what am I supposed to do with it? The major sticking point is that none of us like the taste of pumpkin, yet it seems wasteful to chuck it away. Today is the three month anniversary of it sitting on the kitchen counter. It's lived on the right hand side near the fridge, and has also travelled down to near the toaster. I put it in the fruit bowl, but then there was no room for fruit. Perhaps we should just have another Halloween and then chuck the festering mass away in a few days? Or buy a sniper rifle and reenact The Day of the Jackal?  I just don't know what to do.

Honestly, my life is so stressful.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Imagine if one of these turned up in your garden. Apart from a cartwheel, what would you do? Have a good old think and I'll be back later with the answer. Ta-ra.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Patch birding normality

Another day, another walk round the patch. Guess what I saw! Go on, guess! Need a clue?! Well, the clue is in the title, patch normality. Patch normality means I saw very little. Well, very little to get the blood racing that is. In fact, nothing to get the blood racing now I think about it, and that is the reality of birding a patch. Days upon days of mostly nothing, and then the occasional goody that makes it all worth while.

"What are these funny letters?"

Not every patch is like this of course. Some patches have sea to look at, or a river for added interest. Some patches are migrant traps, and some have thousands upon thousands of wintering Geese. Wanstead has none of these things. It's pretty good, as far as urban sites go, and we get plenty of stuff to cheer about during migration season, but right now a walk round will get you the standard suite of British waterfowl and woodland birds, and nothing else.

It can be a little disheartening, until you realise that the first Wheatear is potentially only 49 days away. Yes, I meant to post this yesterday, and forgot. 49 days! Boy oh boy I'm looking forward to that flash of white bum! Wheatears, in the birding calendar, are a sure sign that the happy days have started again, but I think I've detected a few spring-like things this week. Today, I noticed that Coots were playing with sticks, and a few pairs of Mallard were doing their head-bobbing display at each other. There were also some flowers in Reservoir Wood by the Wayleave. Spring is on the way.

My photosensory instrustments are picking up on it too. On the school run the other day I noticed that it was still really light. Where did that come from? I checked the sun-calculator link I have saved, and it's true, we're on the way out. At the start of January the sun rose at 8:06am, and set at 4:02pm. Not a very long day. Today though, it rose at 7:49am, and set at 4:37pm. I have no idea why you only get 17 minutes at the start of the day yet 35 at the end, but I am not complaining. The difference is noticable. By the time the Wheatears arrive on March 15th (they're booked), that 52 minute increase will have risen to 3 hours and 52 minutes, and that will truly be noticeable. We're gaining almost exactly three minutes a day at the moment, and by Wheatear time, it will be maxed out almost exactly four minutes. Four minutes a day! Why, in a week that's half an hour! I have little clue about why this should be. Something to do with the tilt of the earth and the sun-pixies I think, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that it's brilliant, and that a whole pile of Wheatears in Africa are currently thinking about Wanstead.

Monday, 24 January 2011

I'd a Problem Resisting

Errrm, how best to couch this moment of weakness? Weeeeeell, you see, it was like this, guv'nor. I had to wait in all day because BT were coming to 'fix' my broadband which is currently extremely slow. I had one of these all-day appointment slots whereby you put your entire life on hold and they turn up whenever the hell they choose. This is called 'customer service' by businesses, and a 'bloody cheek' by customers. As it happened I could have spent the entire morning on the patch, but by the time BT had been and gone, I had about an hour and a bit before I needed to go and do the school run. So rather than rush round Wanstead and not do it justice, I went and had a look at someone else's patch. Walthamstow to be precise. Oh yes, and I needed petrol, which is why I went in the car. Aaaanyway, I ended up on Coppermill Lane with my nose pressed up against the fence that borders number 5 Reservoir, and there was an Eider there, and I saw it. I don't need Eider for London, having seen seven last year, and I don't keep a list for Walthamstow either. Frankly I can get better views of an Eider just about any time I choose up in Fife, so why I went remains a complete mystery. I could think of nothing better to do in the hour or so of freedom that remained, so I just did, OK?

Anyway, the BT guy came, pottered about a bit, made a couple of phone calls, and then left again. He said it would be better in two hours, and went off to his next cup of tea. About two hours after he had left, a nice lady in India called and said that they had fixed the problem but that I now needed to wait between 24 and 48 hours for the line to get back to normal. To stabilise, she said. I pointed out that my line was already nice and stable, at 0.35 Mb/s, roughly 1/25th of the speed I should be getting, and that if there was a choice between really really slow stabililty and really really quick instability, I'd prefer the latter. She said she would call back in 24 hours. In the meantime I am sitting here wondering what a 'ping' is, and why for £20 a month I might as well be using a couple of plastic cups and some string? Cruel irony as far as you readers are concerned is that my upload speed is somehow much faster than my download speed, so I am able to pollute the webosphere with my ramblings almost unimpeded.

Waxwing, anyone?

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Lazy Days

I said at the start of this year that I wanted to adopt a more relaxed approach to birding, and I really think I'm getting somewhere. Today, rather than thrash the patch, I elected to lie in until about half nine. Then I toddled downstairs and ate pancakes for a bit, and then I went back to bed until lunchtime. That's the spirit! My year list is barely over a hundred, and I've left London once. Top drawer dedication to enjoyable birding!

That said, I've been somewhat too relaxed for my own good this weekend, with only three hours proper birding yesterday, during which I saw very little. Couldn't even find a Siskin. Today was little better, a family walk in the Park netted Coal Tit, the first away from the garden, but little else. Other Wanstead birders didn't fare much better, so I feel justified in having stayed in bed for most of the day. I thought about going for the Eider at Walthamstow, but having seen quite a few at the end of last year I realised it was unnecessary, and had a spot of lunch instead.

January is often like this on the patch. You go ballistic for the first few days and see almost everything, and then spend the rest of the month tramping around in the doldrums wondering why you're seeing nothing new. But that is listing talking again, the desire to add things up, to write something in a little book. Seeing as that was proving impossible, yesterday I spent some time watching Goldcrests. There were three by the bridge at the Dell working themselves into a frenzy of excitement, crests raised. A male and two females by the looks of it, chasing each other round the holly and yew, calling constantly. I hadn't brought my camera due to the drizzle - mistake, they were incredibly close and I might have got some decent shots. Superb little birds. I held one once, up at Holme NNR in Norfolk. I was helping the ringers bring the bagged birds back to the hut, and whilst they were processing them, I was allowed to hold and release one, using the classic ringer grip. It weighed nothing, absolutely nothing. Tiny, perfectly still, yet warm and alert. I released it though a kind of slot in the side of the hut, and it flew off, no doubt wondering what had just happened, but none the worse for the experience.

On a completely unrelated but entirely expected note, have a Waxwing. I've entitled this photo "Waxwing #2". They don't do a great deal of chewing do they?

Friday, 21 January 2011

A Young Environmentalist

A quick tour of a small part of Wanstead Park today, namely the Dell and the southern end of the Ornamental Water - this area has been the most productive of late - Lesser Spot, Siskins and Chiffchaff amongst others. Target - puddles. Muddy ones. Muddy puddle walks, or sometimes muddle puddle walks (if you get into a muddy) are de rigeur in this household, and are often used as a pretext to go birding. The kids seek out puddles to jump in, I seek the birds. 

As we were on the point of leaving the house, a text from Nick C alerted me to a Treecreeper in the Dell. Interesting news - I had recently been looking for the bird from near the Grotto in November without success, and was afraid that the cold snap had killed it. Seems that along with our Turaco, Wanstead's Treecreeper(s) is(are) also pretty hardy.

The Dell held a few Siskins but not much else. I gave it a bit of time, but the puddles were substandard so we left in search of the real deal. We found some decent ones down near the Ornamental Water, and some trees to hug. Before you ask, this was spontaneous. Pudding found a tree just the right size, and proceeded to wrap her arms around it - I have no idea why. Next time I'm at Dunge I expect she'll chain herself to the Power Station. As I captured the moment, some insistent piping and soft trilling caught my attention. Could it be? It took me about fifteen minutes to pin it down, but Tree-hugging had indeed located Tree-creeping. The bird was in precisely the same spot as in November, wouldn't you know it? The same bird that was in the Dell perhaps? We found some more puddles, and then went home for tea. I love my life. When I get a job, weekdays just won't be the same....

The Turaco Lives!

Sitting drinking tea this morning, with the kids munching on cereal in unison around the table, my eyes were attracted to movement off to the right, and a familiar shape landed in next door’s tree. The brief flash of red was all I needed – the Turaco was back. I have not seen or heard it for months, perhaps August or September, and had assumed it had gone to the big fruit tree in the sky. Certainly when there no sign after the latest big freeze, that had to be it, surely? But no, it lives!!

I have no idea where it has been, or why I have not seen it. Perhaps someone captured it, and it has only just managed to escape again? Perhaps it has been staying close to the keeper’s cottage in Bush Wood for a steady supply of grapes? Who knows, but it landed in next door’s tree this morning at about 8 O’clock, flew through our garden, landed in another tree and then disappeared again.

I managed a blurry photo through the window just as it landed for the final time. When I it showed Pie, who had missed it flying through due to attaching more importance to Weetabix, she pointed out that it was rubbish and really blurry. I take pride in still being able to take terrible photos, despite all the time I spend behind a lens, so here it is in all its glory. Rubbish perhaps – well, definitely in fact – but irrefutable proof that the Turaco lives, and this makes me happy.

Certain birds just cause happiness, fact. Kingfishers fall firmly into this category. All you need is that flash of aquamarine and all of sudden your mood is lifted. You can’t help but be impressed and gladdened by that jewel-like dart as it rockets past. Blue and/or red birds also cause happiness, but unfortunately we don’t get many of those here. Jays do it, not sure why when Magpies don’t, and yet inexplicably Pied Flycatchers also do it. And finally, and the astute amongst you will realise where I am going with this, Waxwings do it too. And as luck would have it, I just happen to have seen some recently…..

PS. I noticed on my grandparent's computer that on this blog many photos had their right hand edges cut off. I have a widescreen monitor and therefore get the whole thing. Then a couple of other people mentioned it too, so in response I have made the photos smaller (600px, from 800px previously) as they display within the text. Hopefully you will see the whole thing now, though if not, let me know. You can still click on any photo to get it bigger, though I wouldn't bother with the Turaco.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Dave D-L reported 86 Waxwings at Lakeside shopping centre this morning. Waxwings have been cropping up in metropolitan Essex for ages now, and thus far I have resisted the urge to go and see them. Not this morning - I drove straight there after the school run, armed with camera. As soon as I got there it was clear that Dave's birds had been joined by some more, a lot more. Counting them whilst there proved impossible, so I did a twenty second pan of all occupied trees and bushes that I could see and counted them later on the screen - a whopping 225 birds, and it's perfectly possible that I missed some. The air was full of the sound of trilling, and there were so many birds that there was a near constant stream of them coming down to feed in the berry-laden hedges of the parking lot, before wheeling back up to the trees again, perhaps via a puddle for a refreshing drink. Even Pudding was silenced, a sure sign of being over-awed.

The burning question is of course how many Waxwing photos is too many Waxwing photos? I took 472 in the space of about an hour and a half, of which I kept 77. Ideally I'd like to post all 77, but even I realise that that might be overkill. Perhaps if I started with five, and then added a few random ones in the coming posts? Would that be OK?

For anyone interested in the techy stuff, all of these were taken out of the car window at either 500mm or 700mm, with a heavy-duty beanbag for support, and the engine switched off. A car is by far and away the best mobile hide out there, and I was able to get so close that most of these photos are uncropped. I would have preferred to be out of the car using a tripod, but the birds would have flown off, as they did when the car-park litter cleaner deliberately spent five minutes picking up every tiny scrap right where the birds were feeding in a deliberate effort to piss me right off. He did, but I remained calm, and he was forced to wander off somewhere else. So, from within the car, most of these are full frame at about 15 feet. You can probably guess that I had a great time.

An afternoon in Ohio

In amongst my last minute rushing around trying to get ready to leave, I managed to remember to get in touch with a birder in the town my Grandparents live in, on the offchance that I might have a chance to get out for few hours. As it happened, what with one thing and another, that opportunity didn't come until the day before I was going to leave, but Marty was free, and picked me up right on time.

White-breasted Nuthatch

I had last seen him in the spring of 2008, so pre this blog, when on another family visit. That time I had managed to blag my way onto his local Audubon chapter's annual visit to Magee Marsh on the shores of Lake Erie. Somewhat fantastic birding, and if you haven't read enough of me recently, a trip report can be found here. Pickings in mid-January are somewhat slimmer, but Marty was the man with local gen, and so he put together a simple itinerary that would hopefully get us some good birds, which started with an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in the duck boxes in Oberlin Cemetery.

Our first proper stop was the feeders at Carlisle Reservation, the largest and most popular of the Lorain County metroparks. The birds come in really close, and despite shooting through glass, I managed some OK shots of common species that I had not managed to obtain at my Grandparent's house. Mega after mega came in, it was superb. Birding abroad, especially if you are a twitcher (which I'm not, obviously) can invoke strange feelings. The Dark-eyed Juncos had me thinking about Dunge, the American Robins, Devon, and the Blue Jay, well, I'm sure Dom will find one at Rainham soon!

Our next stop was Sandy Ridge, only a short distance away and another Metro Park. Again Marty had excellent gen, and we were able to pick out the exact field being favoured by a Northern Harrier. After two looks at the bird currently in north-west Norfolk, I was extremely keen to see one of these in the USA, and happily it was also a juvenile. Same underbelly colour and density of colour, same dark back and contrasty hood, same hunting style as well. Makes the Thornham bird look pretty good doesn't it?

We enjoyed this close-range spectacle for a while before heading off to find a funny bird with a white head. Took ages to find as it was absolutely tiny, but we finally nailed it perched in a small line of bushes. I've been searching the passerine section of my Sibley without success..... 

Moving into the reserve proper, our target was a Great Horned Owl that had been reported as having a day-roost in a certain section of the forest, and if we were lucky, viewable from the path. We were lucky! We walked the path one way with no joy, but on the return leg I picked out a lump that wouldn't have been visible coming the other way. Describing where it was (in the tree next to that other tree!) was the stuff of nightmares, but I got there in the end. Massive. Smaller in height than Great Grey Owl, but about twice as heavy - a bulky and substantial bird, second only to Snowy Owl in this region. It eats Buffalo.

Time was against us, the light was now noticeably dimming, so we hurried on to Avon Lake, photos of which I posted a couple fo days ago. The power station keeps a small section of water open, but otherwise it is ice as far as the eye can see. Very impressive, and a reminder that it is truly cold up here. The free water had attracted a lot of waterfowl, and amongst 80+ each of Lesser Scaup and Canvasback were several Redheads, upwards of twenty Bufflehead, a few Common Goldeneye, and an out of place Pintail.

Satisfied we had seen all we were going to see, Marty turned his car for home in the gathering gloom before we froze to the pier. So an excellent afternoon where we saw pretty much everything we were looking for. Marty, if you're reading, thanks a lot for taking me out, it was great. If you ever come to England it could be quite manic!

Next up, Waxwings. Oh yeah!

Three for the Price of One.

I am somewhat behind in blogging terms, so today will see a mammoth effort designed to get me back on track. It will also be somewhat photo heavy, but I will attempt to blather on as much as possible so that it looks wordier than it otherwise might be.

So first off, Wanstead. I was pretty shattered at the weekend and Mrs L was away - unfortunate, but booked well before me heading off to the States became a priority. As such, we didn't do much. I got reacquainted with the kids, had lots of cuddles, and did a lot of unpacking, cooking and tidying. All well and good. On the bird front, I persuaded them that walking to the Tea Hut of Happiness on Sunday afternoon would be worth their while, and that cake awaited them. Three bits of cake were £1.30 - you just can't beat the Tea Hut of Happiness. Didn't see too many birds, but a check under the covered banks of Shoulder of Mutton pond revealed two drake and three female Teal, which were new for the year for my Wanstead list. Ace. I later learned that Tim had seen a three drake and two female, so I am surmising that, barring dramatic and quick surgery, there were six birds in total, which is an excellent count for a single location in these parts.

Mallard x Black-headed Gull hybrid

Monday passed in a blur, and with the kids safely despatched to various educational establishments on Tuesday, I had my first proper foray into the Park since the start of the year. Fab weather, cold but clear, I spent five happy hours wandering round, and counted 192 Coots which was pretty fun. The full list of what I saw is on the Wanstead Birding blog (how confusing), but the undoubted highlight was a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that flew over my head near the Dell, arousing deep and immediate suspicion as to its identity, which I was able to confirm once it landed. Given that I was going to the Dell expressly to try for Lesserspot, this brought about feelings of deep satisfaction of the type that sometimes accompany patch birding scores. A flock of perhaps 40 Siskin in the Dell only served to brighten my mood. With a Kestrel in the Old Sewage Works, and a surprise Chiffchaff near the Ornamental Waters, my Wanstead list for this year is now at 63. My best ever start is 67 by the end of January, something to think about perhaps, though I am putting myself under no pressure. What happens, happens.

On the way back home, I got a patch tick: Paganism. Or at least some kind of semi-religious ritual that I have no clue about. Perhaps a more rounded and culturally aware person can tell me? I came across a man standing next to Shoulder of Mutton Pond with his eyes closed, facing north. As I approached, he rotated 180 degrees, and stood for several minutes now facing south. Then he did a bit of clapping, three times I think, and then I don't know as I ran for my life before I got turned into a frog or something.

It is probably highly disrespectful to post this photo, and this guy is probably a seventh dan arch-druid and my house will now collapse into a pit of fire, but I was sufficiently interested to wonder what on earth was going on, and it beats dog walkers gesticulating at me. Any ideas?

So, that's Wanstead up to date. Next post will attempt to get America done, and then a highly original post on..... Waxwings!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Cardinals at the Feeders

We decided to leave my Grandad's feeder at the nursing home. He shared the room with another man, and he is now getting all excited by the Cardinals that are coming in, and we thought that he should continue to enjoy them. So one of the very first things I did when off on some errands in town was to buy another feeder and a bag of mixed seed. Ten bucks and half an hour later, we were in business. And only very shortly after that, the birds discovered it. Whilst I said that there were not many species in northern Ohio, those that do remain are pretty easy to spot against a mainly white background, viz:

I could look at Cardinals just about for ever I think. Cardinalis cardinalis is the State bird (but so good that a bunch of other States picked it too), and they are abundant. At one stage there were five coming in to the small feeder I had purchased. They prefer to feed on the ground, and so were making the most of the seed knocked out by the Song Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows, but when that wasn't enough, they were able to cling on whilst flapping for a quick feed, which generally set the feeder a-swinging and knocked more onto the floor.

I placed it right outside the kitchen window so that my Grandma can see them whilst there, and was very pleased by how many birds are now using it. In addition to the birds aready mentioned, there were at least six Eastern Bluebirds, three Dark-eyed Juncos, three Blue Jays, a pair of Mourning Doves, and countless American Robins. Standard fare perhaps, but pretty mega from my perspective. More on these in a subsequent post, I'm off to look for Siskins on the patch.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Relaxed, of Wanstead

Well what a to do there has been over this apparent Slaty-backed Gull at Rainham. Cars queing pre-dawn, people from hundreds of miles away. A thousand of them, desperately trying to look through the chain link fence that normally has one or two people at best. A rubbish tip surrounded.

I've yet to go to Rainham this year, and after stepping off a transatlantic flight on Saturday morning, going straight there to join the throngs came low on the list of things I wanted to do. This isn't some faux cool as I haven't seen the bird, it is part of my new philosophy of birding relaxation. Kudos extraordinaire to the finder - it looks pretty good doesn't it -  not many people have a first for Britain to their names, but I can't get too excited about it. Bloody gulls.

I had an opportunity to go today, but it was tipping it down. As well as relaxing, birding needs to be fun. Getting soaked through at a rubbish tip didn't tick many of the boxes, so I stayed home and farted about with paperwork and stuff that I hadn't been able to do in America.

I have to say the scenes at Rainham from the weekend were pretty funny. A thousand people, dipping on Coldharbour Lane. Just the thought of it makes me giggle - sorry if you were one of them. Naturally there are a few claims of sightings. I wasn't there so have no valid comment to make, but the mantle has been well and truly taken up on the web, where a couple of pages of intelligent discussion on the wing formula of a potential first for Britain has now swelled to a further eight pages of drivel and diatribe, mainly from disgruntled dippers who, having not seen it, are trying their hardest to discredit anyone who says they did. I am getting to the point where I can predict exactly what the next person will say, which also makes me giggle, yet they just don't see it, or don't care. I am sure it will rumble on for days, and I will get many more laughs.

Anyhow, when I'm good and ready, and when the skiving masses have departed, I'll get over there. And as is usual at this time of year, I'll probably have a scan through the gulls. The first slightly dodgy Lesser Black-back that appears, I'm having it, no questions asked, which should be good for another eight pages.

More on my American trip a bit later, with plenty of photos of red and blue birds that knock weird gulls into a cocked hat!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter

Northern Ohio is bleak at this time of year. Southern Ohio may well also be bleak, but I only visited the north, by the shore of Lake Erie. On the other side is Canada, which I imagine is properly bleak and only gets bleaker, but what I experienced was enough for me. The temperature ranged from a low of -12.5C to the dizzy heights of -4C when the sun came out during the day. Properly cold. People here who complain about the terrible weather are just kidding themselves. In Ohio, it's a fact of life.

From what I can gather, the lake began to freeze in early December, and the ice has been steadily expanding and thickening since then. You might be able to walk to Canada, I don't know, but there is ice as far as the eye can see and it's a relatively shallow lake if that makes any difference. Some of you may have seen this in the press, and although I didn't go to Cleveland, a few miles west at Avon, I saw much the same thing, though on a smaller scale. The clear water in the second photo is explained by the presence of a power station at Avon. Practically the only waterfowl I saw had congregated there in this small ice-free zone, but everywhere else was frozen solid.

It was on the flight over that I realised I probably wasn't going to see many birds. Idly flicking through the Sibley, and looking at the range maps, it was clear that most birds do the sensible thing and head south. I'm not talking about the wood warblers and others that undertake the vast migration across the Gulf of Mexico, I'm talking about normal birds like Wood Duck and Red-winged Blackbird that you associate with being resident in America. They all leave too, and that doesn't leave much.

Why all the birds leave is a mystery. Hint: it isn't the cat.

But I wasn't going for the birding. As seems increasingly the case these days, I travel longhaul only for weddings and funerals, and this time it was for the latter. I may not have said, but actually I'm half American, and I have a lot of family in the US. In fact as the American branch are largely Mormon, it means I have a LOT of family over there, probably more than here if it came to counting. My Grandfather had died at the start of January, and so those of us in England hastily made travel arrangements and got on planes. He was extremely old and had been declining recently, so it wasn't unexpected, and I had made a last visit a couple of years ago when he was still himself. I've yet to go to a funeral that I've truly enjoyed, but this one was pretty good - he would have been proud.

Naturally I packed my binoculars and field guide, I could hardly call myself a birder and not, but I knew I wouldn't be seeing much as realistically there would be no time. I hadn't expected that in conjunction with this there would also be almost no birds to see anyway! Although I've lived in America as a kid, and been over there many times, my ABA list is around 120, which is a total you might expect to surpass on a decent spring day at a New Jersey watchpoint! I've just never been there with the sole aim of birding, and mostly birding has come very low on my list of priorities. Nevermind, my time will come I'm sure.

As this photo from Chicago O'Hare shows, I'm not a Mormon

Saturday, 15 January 2011

American Teaser

Got back this morning after a seamless trip, the only annoyance being a screaming baby two seats back on the overnight flight. And it was a real annoyance. Funnily enough it stopped when the stewardess picked it up, but started again once handed back. Wish she would have kept it, perhaps popped it one of the trolleys and wheeled it somewhere a long way from me, like First Class, or even better, the cockpit. Sadly not. I am thus shattered, but manfully staying awake in order to have a proper sleep tonight and hopefully beat the jetlag.

Not having seen the family for a week, I didn't bother going to Rainham today. I'm rather glad I didn't, as despite claims the bird was there I doubt I would have seen it or indeed been overly thrilled with it. Gulls = boring. And anyway, I only like birds that are blue or red now. Or both.

Friday, 7 January 2011

777 to the USA

An obscure Knopfler lyric of the type I adore referencing, tomorrow I will be doing America. There is a family gathering in Ohio that I need to go to. By the shores of Lake Erie, I expect to be experiencing proper cold by this time tomorrow. There is apparently snow on the ground, and the current temperature is around minus 9c, although I will need to adjust to Fahrenheit to fit in. Whatever scale you use though, that's still bloody cold.

So my Wanstead list is going to stall momentarily, though on the plus side I will be hoovering up American Robins. I can't remember ever birding in winter in the northern States, so I have no idea what to expect. Although I've been to America countless times to visit family, and even lived over there for six months when I was a kid, my ABA list is only 124 species. I was either not interested in birds, or just didn't get any time in the field. I suspect that the latter will apply this time as well. If I've gone that far to see family, that's what I'm going to do, and birding comes a distant second. I may take some time out for some of these though:

Red pointy-headed Bird

Needless to say I'm taking my bins just in case- these days I take them almost everywhere, including Tescos. Also Sibley and my camera are packed. I remember the last time I was there I arrived in the dark, and at breakfast the next morning almost having a heart attack as a White-Crowned Sparrow flew down in front of the bay window. It had only been a few months since I had been knocked off my feet at Cley by a surge of desperate birders. Everything is relative, and twitching is a fool's errand.

I love birding abroad, and not being able to do much of it is one of the great disadvantages of not having a job. Hope to rectify that this year. We'll see. In the meantime, enjoy your birding wherever you are, and look out for stateside updates.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Writer's Block?

This afternoon I started two Birdwatch articles. I got to about 300 words on each and then abandoned them. They were OK, but fundamentally I had nothing to say, which after 300 words became problematic. I am aware that having nothing to say is not normally prohibitive to me saying something, but this is for a paying audience, and I feel bound to produce something good. Here, you take what you're given.

Regular readers will know that I am unaccustomed to having difficulty spouting forth, so this is very unusual. What could be the matter? Admittedly, various things mean that my mind is elsewhere, and I won't trouble you with that, but normally I can find something to write about under any circumstances. Look, here I am writing about having trouble writing. See?

I wondered if I had too many projects on the go? There is this blog, my first love, but then there is the Crow Council thing I am involved in, and more recently I started a new Wanstead Birding blog. All of these take time, and at least a bit of effort. So far I have been proud of most things I have written, including all of my Birdwatch articles, and I want that to continue. I won't attempt to deceive you by saying that each one is a masterpiece that took days, nay weeks, to produce, but at the same time, a little care is necessary. The initial draft is usually bashed out pretty quickly - most of it is in my head anyway - but the editing process is what takes up the time. Finding the best way to say things, making sure it flows, making sure I don't repeat words close to each other, that kind of stuff. Reading and rereading it until I am convinced that it sounds right, and that it works. Perhaps that is what editors are for, and I should send it through as is? "I red a articel about bird sthe othther day an dthort I wood rite somthing very similar for you. Hear it is. Please send the chek to the ushul adress, ta."

The first 300 words of each of my attempts this afternoon flowed fairly nicely, and one of them may yet have what it takes to become March's column, but for now I'm leaving them to one side and wondering what to write about. I have many ideas, many topics, enough to last for YEARS, but I am having trouble crystalising my thoughts on any of them today. Perhaps sleeping on it listening to TMS all night and starting again in the morning will have the desired result? If any of you subscribe, make sure you don't miss the March issue, it is sure to be totally awesome.

In other news I managed a patch year tick today. It was remarkably straightforward. Make tea, stand on terrace for 30 seconds, hear Coal Tit, go indoors, update spreadsheet, finish tea. Bosh.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Slinking guiltily back to the Patch

A slight lie in the morning on account of being awake most of the night listening to Aggers talking about rain, but nonetheless out on the patch by 8ish. Two steps onto the patch and two Goldcrests were chasing each other about, followed closely by a Dunnock, neither of which I saw on the Flats yesterday. Funny how it goes. That was about as good as it got though, and despite a good tramp around both the Flats and the Park, I was unable to add any patch yearticks. Where have all the Siskin gone?

As promised, I was back home by eleven, and straight back into family life. Family life today meant disposing of the Christmas Tree. This is almost as ritualistic as decorating it in the first place, with sombre children each choosing a decoration to take down, before passing it to Mrs L for wrapping and stashing. My role was to tangle up the lights, and get rid of the actual tree. This was achieved by picking it up and shoving it through the front window. Last year I dragged it out through the front door, resulting in about an hour of vacuuming, and I continued to find the odd needle in every single month of the following year. So today I was pretty pleased with myself - minimum mess elsewhere, and a tree neatly plonked on what passes for our front lawn. That was until I discovered that I had turned into a porcupine. When disposing of Christmas Trees, I am here to tell you that it is inadvisable to wear a woolly jumper. Rookie Error. I ended up vacuuming myself, and still had pine needles falling into my lunch.

When that was all done, I took Muffin out onto the Flats to play football. This was not a pretext to go birding in any way. We had bought him a new football for Christmas, and he has been wanting to take it out for a kickabout for ages, but the playing fields have either been covered with snow, or really muddy. Yesterday was about the first day we could contemplate going, but I ended up going to Norfolk instead. Poor parenting. So today was the day, and to say he was eager is somewhat of an understatement. We played goal to goal, which basically means we take penalties at each other non-stop until he gets bored and asks to go home. I lost 16-11, mainly a measure of his warped thinking on what constitutes a goal or not, but also because about half way through I noticed an adult Great Black-backed Gull flying east over Capel Point , and he took this opportunity to fire several past me whilst I was excitedly following it through my bins. You knew I took bins, right? Anyhow, GBB was a new one for the year, and they are not an easy one to get by any means. A quick look at the stat counter shows I have seen just eight in six years. Almost mega.

Alexandra Lake was very choppy today.....

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Local Birding

Local to someone, just not me unfortunately. Unable to resist a trip to Norfolk today, mainly to see the Lesser White-fronted Goose in the Yare Valley. Of unknown origin at the moment, with two distinct camps in terms of thoughts of authenticity, split very closely along the lines of those who have seen it, and those that haven't. Having seen it, I'm a believer...

I didn't mean to go to Norfolk - an interesting Arthur Ransome parallel - but I have been resisting the Goose for quite a while. And of course, gradually more and more people have gone to see it, and the groundswell of positive opinion has mysteriously been growing. Who would have thought it. There was a carload going with a space, so I called up Paul and said I wasn't interested, and that I was doing the patch. An hour later, I called him back asking when they were leaving, and so found myself awake at an unhealthy hour this morning.

The Goose gave us the runaround in a big way - the Yare Valley is not easily worked. It even turned into a hybrid at one point before the real one was found, and of course all this time I was racking up year-ticks. A pair of Peregrines, a Buzzard and several Marsh Harriers were all new, as were a pile of waders and other geese. Can't be helped I suppose, but I am painfully aware that where last year I had seen 86 species by January the 2nd, this year the total stands at 98, though I am of course not keeping track of my total in 2011. Had I stayed in Wanstead, I would not have seen a single new bird, and would be feeling very virtuous for my lack of skill/success.

Once we were done chasing wild geese, Paul and the Monkey had plans to go to Thornham for the Northern Harrier/Marsh Hawk thing. I'd seen it back in November so hadn't planned on going, but the coast is always a good place in winter. Whilst they dipped the Harrier, I scanned the marsh for year ticks interesting birds. After an hour or so the Harrier turned up, and I got much better views than the first time around. The bird now appears to have a foot injury, but this didn't stop it catching a small wader which it made short work of, back in the air again after only twenty minutes. It behaves much more like a Marsh Harrier than a Hen Harrier I have to say.

So a fine day out marred only by a stack of year-ticks, but I'm back on the Flats tomorrow and can almost guarantee that I won't see a thing. See ya.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

First bite at the Cherry

For me, January the first is more exciting for Christmas. For my kids, it's less exciting than Christmas. There are no presents, and Daddy is nowhere to be seen.

This morning, Daddy was out on Wanstead Flats in the dark. My Woodcock ticking ambitions were thwarted by a large Greyhound thing - also in the dark. It just isn't fair. Anyway, giving up on that idea, I joined Nick in the Broom fields, and we started THE LIST. There is a write up on the new Multi-author Wanstead Birders do Blogging Blog here, so I won't go over it all again, suffice it to say that I am knackered.

Patch birding is hard! You have to walk everywhere! I am used to driving to places, getting out of the car and toddling off to see the bird, and then getting back in the car. Today I must have walked about a thousand miles, possibly more. Wanstead is immense, and there was no inch of it that we didn't cover. Nick is a walking machine. I mean, he walks to Dungeness and places like that. Not drives to Dungeness and then goes for a walk. Walks to Dungeness. I'm not sure I will last the course.

Before I freeze up altogether, just time for a few photos from the patch. I ended up on 56 species, Nick on 55. There is a Pigeon on my list - Nick needs to lower his standards. I reckon that's a par score for day one. Before I started I said 55-60, and there were a stack of birds we didn't get. Siskin should have been nailed on, but was inexplicably absent, and every single one of the 20,000 Teal that have been living in Wanstead since about November chose to depart yesterday. No Lesser Spot, no Kingfisher, no Grey Wag. Still, plenty of time.

Bird of the day: Wigeon on the Flats, a Flats tick.
Interesting* Fact of the Day: In 2010 Song Thrush was my 40th bird. In 2011 it was also my 40th bird. How amazing is that?!


* Not really

New Venture

A very brief post to advertise a new blogging venture. Wanstead Birders do Blogging. Hopefully.