Friday, 27 May 2011


On the way back home from an eight-hour Great Snipe dip over three sessions the other day, the topic of conversation turned to dipping. This is the art of not seeing a bird that you have travelled to see - twitched, if you like. There are many types of dipping, and though you can put a brave face on it, nobody likes any of them. Sometimes the bird has gone, nothing you can do about it, they have wings. But with diesel the price it is, many people prefer to wait on news, but this then allows for the possibility of the worst kind of dip, which is when the bird IS actually there, but you don't manage to see it. This was the case with the Great Snipe - it was there the whole time, and then as soon as we got home, felt able to parade around again in full view. Arse.

Anyhow, at the start of the conversation, I maintained that I hadn't dipped very many times, and that my picky twitching nature meant that more often than not I saw the bird. As the conversation progressed however, I started recalling more and more failures, and felt it might be cathartic to talk about them. I don't actually get too wound up about it now, it's just a bird, it comes with the territory, but back then it was terrible, and I am sure it must still eat some people up. Presumably, it is the long-distance ones that are the worst. Imagine driving from London to Scotland for a White-tailed Plover that wasn't there when you arrived - ouch! Imagine getting a flight to Shetland for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that died in the night. Or a long boat journey for an absent Albatross. All of these have happened, but not to me. For a start, I am not about to start twitching Scotland. The first rule of twitching is to realise that eventually there will be one closer, and you can dip that instead.

So what dips stick in my memory particularly, and why?

Wryneck, Wanstead, 2010
After thrashing Wanstead the previous few days, I decided I would instead head to Rainham as I was pursuing a year-list there as well. Did the school run, and went straight there. As I approached the slip-road off the A13, Nick phoned from approximately 500 yards away from my house. "Wryneck!" Bum. I exited the A13, went round the roundabout, and headed back the way I had come. I was unbelievably lucky with the traffic, and met Nick on the Flats about twenty minutes later. No sign, and not a sniff for the next three hours. I was despondent. Patch dips hurt way more than any other kind. The story had a happy ending though, as on the school run the following day he refound the bird, and this time it stayed put.

Marsh Sandpiper, Maldon, Essex, 2008
This is memorable not just for the dip, but for the whole goddamed day. On offer in a small cluster in eastern Essex were not only the Marsh Sandpiper, but also a Red-necked Phalarope and a Wryneck. Marsh Sandpiper and Wryneck would have been lifers, and I'd only seen one Red-necked Phalarope before. I spent the day in the car and dipped the lot.

Black-winged Praticole, Reculver, Kent, 2009
A lovely day with some old school friends and their kids was ruined by news of this mega from Kent. This is why twitching is ridiculous, and one of the reasons why I've gradually calmed down to the point where I can easily let a bird go with a shrug. Can't see 'em all. I was agitated the whole day, to the point of rudeness, and scooted home as soon as I could. Straight back in the car, picked up Vince, and down to Reculver. No sign, though we were greeted by several smiling faces that we knew. Vince immediately gave up, and I mean immediately. I suggested having a look at Grove Ferry just down the road, but he wasn't interested. We went anyway, and I had a quick scan from the viewing mound whilst he had a kip in the car. Back to London to an angry wife, always good. The story doesn't end there. I went back to Grove Ferry NNR the next day, and spent that dipping as well. Almost unbelievably, and a clear sign of my growing stupidity at that time, I set off for Kent the following morning as well. This time I got it, but I still remember it for all the wrong reasons.

Zitting Cisticola, Swalecliff, Kent, 2008
This is my worst dip EVER. Famille Lethbridge had a nice day out planned. Somehow I had swung going to Rainham for lunch (when you didn't need to be a multi-millionaire), so I was pretty happy. On the way to Rainham, the pager bleeped. Fan-tailed Warbler, Swalecliff. To universal disapproval, I drove past Rainham, over the bridge, and onwards to Swalecliff. A fuming Mrs L insisted that I drop the family off for lunch somewhere first. The closest place to the bird was an absolute hole of a pub, really really horrible. The menu was pure grease, I could not have found anywhere worse. I installed them on a quiet corner table, and before I left, took a child to the toilet, it only took a minute. Jumped in the car and off I went. Loads of cars, loads of birders. As I approached the crowd, a man shouted "Who hasn't seen it yet?" - I scurried over. "It's flying!". He vainly tried to get me on what was presumably a dot, but it was gone, never to be seen again. Thirty seconds earlier and I would have seen it - I prefer to dip by several hours. I returned to the pub in a filthy mood, to find the family penned the corner, a Premiership football match blaring out from every screen in the place, including from an overhead projector onto a screen right next to their table. The journey home passed in silence. I've seen one since, but I still smart at quite how badly I behaved that day.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Past Twitching Glories

I'm not sure if you should dwell too much on past successes, and certainly it is rare that you find me doing so on this blog, but every now and again I think a bit of reminiscing is good. And anyway, it's not like I've been birding lately and have any Wanstead news.

Anyhow, a few of my personal favourites. It is worth noting that all of these are eclipsed by some of the amazing mornings on Wanstead Flats. Good birds in a local context are far, far better, far more rewarding, but I reckon I've enthused more than enough about some of those, so the following tales will - mostly - be ones that you have not heard before. If there is one positive thing about twitching, you remember with absolute clarity the entire day. Where you were, what you did, who was with you, the weather, the location. I can transport myself back to any one of these as if it were yesterday.

Hume's Leaf Warbler, Beachy Head, Sussex, January 2008
At this point I wasn't really a twitcher, but at the start of the New Year I felt I needed a day out. I had read about this bird, didn't know anything about it, yet decided to go and have a look anyway as there were a couple of other things I could do down in Sussex at the same time. I did my research on the call, and arrived early in the morning to find I had the place entirely to myself, which is exactly how I like it. I could hear the bird calling from the car, so insistent was it, and soon located it flitting about low down in the small plantation. I lost it fairly frequently, but kept refinding it due to the call. I had it to myself for at least an hour before a single other birder turned up, and this form of twitching has appealed to me ever since. Only two days later, at Cley, I was one of perhaps 300 for the White-crowned Sparrow, and the two experiences could not have been more different. Give me the warbler any day.

Pallid Harrier, Haddenham, Cambs, September 2009
Just a great bird, probably my favourite from the whole of 2009. It was a monday, but I don't think I went up particularly early. Certainly I would have done the school run first, perhaps even returned home for a while. I was experiencing a quite amazing purple patch of scoring, everything I touched turned to twitching gold, so I fully expected to see the bird no matter what time I left. The fens are pretty bleak, but the power of prior research ensured I found the correct rutted road, some drove or other, with a familiar line of cars bunched up at one end. I had Pudding with me, poor thing, and we left the hardcore twitchers to scanning whilst we played near the car. After three hours, with all snack food consumed, and more importantly, all nappies used, there was still no sign. On the point of considering my options, the bird appeared, ghost-like, floating across the fens. It tried to catch a passerine, not sure if it did or not, and landed in a field out of view, but that minute or so whilst it cruised slowly by will remain with me for a long time. An adult male, or near enough as to make no difference, and absolutely mesmerising. So mesmerising I totally forgot I was holding a camera until the bird was miles away. Still...

Swainson's Thrush, Shetland Mainland, October 2010
My first trip and so far only trip to Shetland was pretty special. Before going I had learned that a fellow blogger, a Mr. John Hague aka the Drunkbirder, would be on the islands at the same time we were. I am happy to plug his blog here. We swapped phone numbers, just in case one or other group found something decent. I'd been on the islands about three hours and were driving south from a place called Channerwick when he called with news of a Swainson's Thrush he had just found in the quarry at Levenwick. Where were we, he asked? I didn't really know, nor did I know where Levenwick was. As I was trying to work this out, we passed a sign saying "Levenwick". Astonishing good fortune. The Monkey executed a power turn, and within about two minutes we were standing with John, Andy and Dave looking for the bird, which had temporarily done a runner. Not for long though, and I soon got some superb views of this very pretty bird in a nearby garden. That week on Shetland was fantastic, and as a result we were unfortunately too busy twitching things to be able to return the favour. I'll be back though, and possibly soon.

Sorry, no photo. Here is a different quarry.

Fea's Petrel, Porthgwarra, Cornwall, August 2009
No gloating twitching post would be complete without this quite amazing story of pure jaminess. I'd been to Porthgwarra only once before, the previous weekend. Then, I'd seen a decent number of Sooty Shearwaters, but that was about as good as it had got. My enthusiasm for this bizarre pasttime called seawatching undimmed, I had returned the following weekend with the Monkey and Stuart. We arrived at about 1am, the Monkey fired-up after drinking Stellas since about Exeter. Somehow we were on the cliff at 6am, and at around 11am, a guy called Martin, seen here on the left of the photo, picked up what he initially thought was a Great Shearwater to the left of the Runnelstone. I won't go through it all again, you can read about it here, but honestly, how jammy am I? The bird itself was excellent, and we had good views for three minutes as it passed slowly across the horizon, but my takeaway is the jam part. My second ever seawatching session in the southwest - the Monkey's first! - and one of the biggest pelagic prizes of all. I could spend a week down there every year for ten years and not see another one. Monumentally lucky, and whilst not a twitch, a trip I remember with nothing but broad grins (I have one now!) every time I think about it. More importantly than that though, it has ensured that I go down at least once a year on a really good forecast, just in case....

Tomorrow, my best dips. Far more entertaining.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Bonus Post!

I like to think that my blog appeals to a wide cross-section of society, but let's face it, it's probably mostly birders that read it, and that means men. If at this point you feel like writing in and asking if I've ever heard of political correctness, don't bother. I wasn't impressed then, and I won't be impressed now. The fact is I am right - most birders are men, you know it, and that's final.

Insects in fridges are likely to appeal to men, and make women go "eewwwww". The following however is likely to have the opposite effect. It will make women readers involuntarily go "awwwww". In fact, they are so cute that I defy any person, male or female, not to go "awwwwww" when looking at these Mandarin ducklings, especially the last one, where the expression is simply delightful.


More things to do in June: Moths

If you thought you were crap at small brown birds, wait until you try Moths. Really, most small brown birds in this country are do-able if you give it enough time. Dunnock or Sparrow, you'll get there. Linnet or Redpoll, there are a couple of differences. And really you only have a few hundred to learn. With Moths, a few hundred of them look identical, and there are thousands. About 800 or so are big ones, Macro Moths, that you at least stand a chance with, and then there are another couple of thousand tiny ones, Micros, that you stand almost no chance with. The average garden will likely have several hundred species present at different times of the year - do you like listing? And there you were thinking that there was just one really persistent one buzzing around your patio light.

For a modest outlay, in my case £65 I think, you can purchase a moth trap. Or you can make your own if you're feeling clever. A moth trap is essentially a light on top of a box. There are different types of light, and different types of boxes, but they all do essentially the same thing. The light draws the moths in, and they flutter into the box, get stuck in the labyrinth of egg-boxes you have put in there to baffle them, and then go to sleep until you potter along the following morning, stick them in little pots, and then cut their willies off to look at under a microscope. You don't have to do the last part. I never have, in fact it disturbs me a little. For the ones where supposedly you have to, I have come up with a brilliant solution. Just call it whichever one you have not seen before, and you thus get a tick out of it, and the moth can be released without harm. Win win.

I started mothing about a year ago now, and with the aid of a cheap little book have so far managed to identify a whopping 178 species. There are about 30 more that I have long since given up on. It is actually pretty straightforward. My trap has a long lead, and runs off mains electricity. It is on a timer, and so comes on and turns off without me needing to do anything other than adjust the timer now and again. I have a morning routine whereby I go and decant the trap into small pots, and then make a cup of tea and ponder over them. Many, it must be said, are brown. A few however make your heart leap.

Check out these stunners.

Respectively, Barred Yellow, Blotched Emerald, and the superb (and yet to be bettered) Scarce Silver Lines.

It is addictive, just like birding, except there is potential for something new and exciting in June. Or May. You can actually trap year-round, there are different moths all through the winter. Pickings are slim though, so I tend to start in April and give up by about October. You don't have to go anywhere, so no time in the car, and no outrageous fuel bill, it really is ideal. The only trouble is that as dusk gets later, and dawn earlier, sleep gets squeezed by mothing at one end and birding at the other, but if you can cope with that, this could be another feather to your all-round naturalists bow. And you can get the kids involved too - mine are fascinated by it. Sometimes I come down in the morning to find that Muffin has been out, emptied the trap and ID'd half of what is in there before I've really woken up, and put the rest in the fridge for me.

Yes, the moths go in the fridge for the day. It does them no harm, makes them dopey and thus easier to photograph, and means they remain calm until it is time to release them safely the following evening when the birds won't be around to pick them off. It also has the possibilty of pleasing your loved ones a great deal, especially those with a proprietal interest in the fridge.

So, mothing, an ideal summer activity for all the family. Ticks all the boxes - natural history, listing, photography, learning, child-entertaining, wife-pleasing. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

BirdTrack. Scientifical enlightenment for the bored birder.

As you may know, I have recently been beavering away on a taxonomic section of the 2008 London Bird Report. I was asked to contribute to the 2007 report, had the time, so said yes. I thought it would be a way give something back to the London birding community from whom I have learned a great deal over the past few years. Having spent many hours going through about seventy LBRs looking for historic records from Wanstead, I can appreciate the extraordinary amount of work that a small number of people put into this publication.

It took hours, far more work than I was expecting. No sooner had I submitted my section for 2007, 2008 appeared in my inbox. I procrastinated for ages, ignored it for longer, and finally started about a day before the deadline. It too took ages, several evenings of work, and then a day-long slog to break the back of it. I finally finished last week. No pressing of "send" has ever felt better. I have a dreadful feeling that 2009 is 'in the post', but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Being totally open and honest about it, it was not in any way enjoyable. In fact it was downright dull - it felt like I was back at work. I had a monster spreadsheet with thousands of records, and I had to write them up extrememly formulaicly, with little or no scope for individual expression. That which I managed to sneak in was ruthlessly edited out once I had sent it in; my contribution was as a number-cruncher and touch-typist. I am being extremely selfish I suppose, but it wasn't my kind of bird-related fun.

Nonetheless I did it. It would have been churlish to return the email marked "Sorry, too boring", and a slap in the face for the many hours spent submitting records by what I have to say is a very small number of extremely dedicated birders. My section has been Crests to Treecreeper. This includes Blue Tits.

Reader(s), do you count Blue Tits as you walk round your patch? I don't, or do so very rarely. Yet there are people who do, and do so religiously. As I worked through the data, I marvelled at the effort it must have taken, after every patch visit, to go online and submit counts. Real counts, counts of 13 singing males, or a pair with three fledged young. My kind of counts are "One, two, three, ten, 15, ah call it 40". Or, "'Cor, that looks like a lot. Er, 80 I reckon". These people have made much more effort.

I go birding on the patch most days of the week - except in June, and more recently, May - and I record my sightings on my own home-made spreadsheet that has now been going years and is extremely unwieldy. I also used to dutifully record the more interesting birds (ie not Blue Tits) on a web page of London Sightings. Were these somehow taken off for the LBR? A quick search of the data I had in front of me suggested not, so I got in touch with my local recorder to ask how it was done. The upshot of this was that I went through my spreadsheet for 2008 and 2009 cherry-picking interesting sightings, and sent them to him in the desired format. When I got my hands on the 2008 data Crests to Treecreeper, the first thing I did was to look for my name - obviously. Four records. Four lonely records, though these did include my gem of a Pied Flycatcher from near Alexandra Lake on a morning that will remain in my memory just about for ever. Still, four records is Pitiful, and with a capital P. I resolved to do something about it.

Enter Birdtrack. The patch workers who make up the bulk of the contributions for the LBR use Birdtrack. After each visit, they conscientiously log the details of their entire visit, and that data feeds not only the BTO's national database for the purposes of proper scientific stuff, but also the local recorders. It turned out I already had a user name and password from the BTO Altas tetrad stuff, so I put that in and off I went, starting from January 1st 2010. I'm on March now, and boy is it dull. Duller even than writing the LBR, and that is saying something. Were I starting from the present day, it would be easy though, a synch. The format is very straightforward, it would take five minutes a day if that. But I have over 150 site visits to enter, plus all my garden skywatching sessions. A quick calculation reveals that I have about sixteen hours of solid data entry ahead of me. Whoopee. I started yesterday, and am now on about mid-March for Wanstead Flats in 2010. It is a long road ahead...

Am I selling it to you? I doubt it. But look, forget about your past records, I am just being bloody-minded. If you start from today it will be easy, a piece of cake. As I was doing a few errands in Wanstead Village yesterday morning, I casually noted a recently fledged Pied Wagtail with an adult. It was the work of moments when I got home to enter it into Birdtrack. Confirmed Breeding! And very satisfying. And so Sean H, who may or may not still be writing Larks to Waxwing in 2011, will now get an additional line in his spreadsheet that I expect he will simply gloss over, as the smallest number of Pied Wagtails from the Essex sector that got a mention in 2007 was 46, and I am 44 short.... But I will have contributed to our national knowledge of Pied Wagtails in urban environments, and I am immensely proud of that. J Lethbridge, OBE, for services to science and stuff.  But if I can replicate that consistently going forward, then my contribution will keep growing and growing, and all the hours I put into patch-working will not just sit on my computer, but hopefully be of use to the wider birding community. So go on, give it a try. Come on, it's June, what else were you going to be doing?! I promise that it's really really easy. Athough you do have to actually count the Blue Tits first....

This juvenile Starling, the first I've seen this year, is now a scientific record.

Monday, 23 May 2011

May is the new June

The weather has been ace. Too ace. Never content with what is actually rather pleasant, particularly for layabouts such as my good self, most British birders are now moaning about how bad (ie good) the weather is. It is too nice, and all the good birds are simply flying straight over the top of frustrated inland patchworkers. The Norfolk coast is getting a few bits, Spurn and the East coast are getting a few bits. London however is dead, and Wanstead is at the lower end of the dead scale. Neither I nor any of the local birders have registered a new patch bird at all in May. We logged our first Swifts on the last day of April, and since then, the only things going through have been tumbleweeds.

That said we had an excellent April - too good, we commented at the time. It's going to be a long summer, we said. The first Wheatears arrived on March 30th, and then we had everything in the space of about three weeks, including almost all the birds we expected to see in the autumn. We're missing Spotted Flycatcher, which is nailed on in the last ten days of August, and Common Tern, which depending on the fortunes of birds in the Lea Valley, we may see feeding during the summer. Essentially, although June is a week away, it's actually been June for the last three weeks. This is why I have been uncharacteristically meandering somewhat off-topic of late - there is nothing to tell of birds in Wanstead. I went and checked for you to see if the Grebe chicks had hatched, they hadn't, and I am now sat at home waiting for autumn.

So, if you, like me, are struggling for inspiration, and the light at the end of the tunnel seems very very distant, here are a few things you can be getting on with - this is what I am currently doing. And seeing as this website is my life in html, all of these get to be future blog topics. Sorry.

1) Enter all your historic bird sightings into Birdtrack.
2) Catch moths in the garden.
3) Relive past twitching glories.
4) Taking the rough with the smooth, recall with fondness your best ever dips.
5) Dust the house. Damply.

Unless something extraordinary happens (which, being June, it won't), that's me done for a week in the blogging stakes; I'll do one a day (apart from number 5, which I have no intention of doing at all), so you can dip in as and when you like. If Birdtrack isn't your thing, come back on Wednesday. Similarly, if you don't want to hear about Fea's [type] Petrels and recent Audouin's Gulls, my advice would be to skip Thursday. Bet you I get loads of hits on Friday.

Friday, 20 May 2011

THE END is nigh. Apparently.

We're all doomed apparently. If you're of a certain demographic, right now you're likely to be doing a lot of praying. The reason? Well, tomorrow is Judgement Day. This is nothing to do with Skynet and Arnie, no this is for real. Yup, unfortunately the world is due to end on May 21st 2011. That's tomorrow, and although no time zone is specified, for me that's in about twelve hours. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

* Gulp *

So many things I wanted to do. So many birds I wanted to see. But it's too late, Judgement Day cometh. Oh, and something called The Rapture. Not sure what that is, but it sounds slightly more positive than the world ending, so I hope it happens first. Scary stuff. Make the most of tonight folks, it's gonna be your last.


But do you know what is more scary - much more scary - than the prospect of the world ending? The number of people who genuinely believe that the world really is going to end. There are thousands of them, nutcases one and all. Most of these people live in America, so in terms of cometh the hour, here in the UK we've probably got an additional five. I intend to enjoy them by being sound asleep exactly as normal. If you're reading in Vanuatu, well, you're not any more.

This whole thing is the brainchild of an evangelical Christian freakoid called Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, quality child-friendly broadcasting DOOM DOOM DOOM. He's 89, so this is probably his last chance, and despite the negative implications for the rest of humanity, he's absolutely desperate to be proved right this time. He previously predicted the end of the world in 1994, and when the date came and went, he blamed a mathematical error and came up with tomorrow instead. What a twat. Well I'll tell you what Harold, my prediction is that tomorrow will come and go, and that nothing whatsoever will happen. This is because you are a crazed religious lunatic, and I am a sane human being with no nutty tendencies other than the odd twitch. Of course the beauty of my prediction is that if Harold is right, I'm not going to get much comeback, whereas mucho kudos to me if, heaven forbid, I am right and we're all still here tomorrow.

The extent to which Judgement Day has permeated the US is frankly astonishing. When I was in New York recently there were billboards everywhere proclaiming THE END. People were preaching it on the streets. The subway had posters all over it. Jesus. What is wrong with these people? How can that one spaced-out old guy have brainwashed thousands of presumably at least partially rational and sane adults? They truly truly believe, it's extraordinary - a lady came up to me near Grand Central Station, all wide-eyed, and told me to start praying. I karate-chopped her to the ground immediately. Actually I didn't. I'm British, so I just mumbled that I was terribly busy, awfully sorry, and moved round her and out INTO THE LIGHT.
Anyhow, what would be best would be if Harold died tonight, preferably in a small but self-contained explosion. As the bright light came and went, in that millisecond he would feel nothing but rapturous joy, and we could all forget about him and get on with our lives, including the delusional lady at Grand Central who really needs to get out more. Anyway, chins up, and I'll see you all tomorrow. Maybe.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Darth Squirrel

"I find your lack of faith disturbing"

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Great Crested Grebes still at it.....

I had a pile of important things to do today. Rather than do any of them, I went to Wanstead Park to check how the Great Crested Grebes were doing. At Lakenheath at the weekend, there were quite a few stripey chicks, and I don't want to miss the local ones. No chicks yet, but the two eggs are still in the nest, and the female is still sitting. Any day now I expect. Or perhaps not, as while I was there the Grebes decided to have a quick mating session.

Mrs Grebe: Oi look, there's that bloke with the camera! Come on big boy!
Mr Grebe: Who are you talking to, me or the photographer?
Mrs Grebe: [edited out, was extremely crude]

I have no idea whether this indicates that there is a problem with the eggs and they are starting again, though as mentioned the two existing eggs are still there, or if Mrs Grebe is simply a camera-loving nymphomaniac **. Whichever, the nest is ideally positioned to get some cracking shots, although as this is a family-friendly blog I won't be posting any of them. If any kids are reading, Mr and Mrs Grebe love each other very much.

** Rather tragically for Anna Grebe, a professional actress of sorts, if you google "Grebe Porn", the top hit is this blog...

Monday, 16 May 2011

Shore Larks in Norfolk

A weekend in Norfolk with Dipper Bradnum resulted in eight hours of not seeing a Great Snipe. You win some, you lose some. Last week I won quite conclusively, this weekend I lost by a clear margin. Three attempts, one dawn, two dusk, resulted in precisely nothing. Still, it was nice to be up there, a great place to be birding, and there was plenty to see when we weren't freezing to death in Cley's Avocet hide.

A summer-plumaged Lesser Yellowlegs with a few Wood Sandpipers for company were extremely easy on the eye, but star bird status goes to a couple of Shorelarks on the shingle ridge that mostly separates North Norfolk from the North Sea. They took a while to find, but once pinned down, and once used to our presence, they made for very obliging subjects. Easily the best photos I've taken of this species, though I am sure you will believe me when I say I would ideally like to take many more. A sample below, with others here.

Elsewhere, at a very very secret Montagu's Harrier site, an equally posy Pied Wagtail made my shutter go into overdrive as it sang on a dirt mound only a few feet away. To keep the blog from being too photo-heavy, you can see a few more here.

Friday, 13 May 2011

A spot of Thrush

After four days in NY, I hadn't seen any thrush other than the ubiquitous American Robin, of which I'd seen several million. On our last morning in the city, Mrs L finally agreed to come to the Central Park Ramble with me to see what all the fuss was about. There were Thrushes everywhere! First up a dash of rufous that disappeared instantly but that I thought was probably a Veery, and then almost immediately afterwards, two fantastic Hermit Thrushes feeding on one of the paths.

The Veery gave itself up a little later, and a Swainson's Thrush also made an appearance but I was unable to get a photo. Best of all, and almost the last bird I saw, a Wood Thrush feeding in the scrubby understorey - such beautiful colours, but it vanished almost as soon as I picked it up (as in saw it, rather than grabbed it, else you would have a photo). Should I be so lucky as to find one of these one autumn, and provided Grey-cheeked doesn't throw a spanner in the works, I reckon I'd now be able to ID it straight off the bat. Field guides are great, especially the Sibley, my invaluable companion whilst birding on this trip, but there is no subsititute for actually having seen the things.

Hermit Thrush and a Veery

The birding that day was exceptionally good, culminating in the briefest glimpes of a Yellow-throated Warbler, another Canada Warbler, and the Chestnut-sided Warbler that I already posted a photo of. There were also two Northern Waterthrushes (actually classed as a Warbler), and a Louisiana Waterthrush, at one point side by side - most educational, but one for another post.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Garden helper

Now that I'm not twitching any more, and seeing that June appears to have arrived early in Wanstead this year, I have been doing a bit of gardening. With three children, the garden of Chateau L has never really been a gold medal candidate, but every now and again it starts looking so awful that I start hacking at it.

This week I have been trimming stuff back so that we get more garden, and removing all the brambles from the 'flower' beds that have been making retrieving cricket balls so painful of late. I've filled several sacks and generally been fairly pleased with my efforts. What has been even better though is the local Jedi Robin who can apparently sense me gardening from some distance. He is usually present within about thirty seconds of me starting, and is quite fearless, generally hopping around about a foot from where I am working, and perching on branches next to my head. He has not actually landed on me yet, but it is only a matter of time. He is clearly feeding a family, as as soon as he has a beakful he is off, and then straight back again. I am always very pleased to see him. Ideally he would also do the gardening, but you can't have everything.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Gull Interlude

This is not a gripping post about the incredibly smart adult Audouin's Gull that I managed to see at Minsmere yesterday. I'd be surprised if anyone wanted to hear about how lucky I was that I had a rare day without the school run and thus was able to scoot up there and get prolonged views of this mega-gull, recorded only five times in the UK, from the public hide on the beach before it flew off not to be seen again. So you'll be pleased to hear that I won't be talking about that at all.

No, the idea to talk about Gulls is totally unconnected with the awesome events of yesterday in Suffolk. Rather, I had pre-formed ideas to talk about Gulls I had seen in America, principally Laughing Gull and American Herring Gull, neither of which I have seen in this country (unlike Audouin's Gull of course), though they do occur from time to time. In fact, Laughing Gull, following the fall of White Stork on Sunday, is supposedly my most obvious UK tick. I can't say I'd go too far for a smithsonianus of any description, but adult Laughing Gulls are superb creatures (with blood-red bills roughly the same colour as....) and I'd be very keen to see one in this country.

In New York, I found a few Laughing Gulls on the jetties at Brooklyn, but there were many more at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and also out on the beach at Rockaway. These latter birds allowed a fairly close approach, though I did have to get covered in sand.


American Herring Gulls were present more or less everywhere, including in Central Park. They are best described as brutes. There is a huge breeding colony of them (and Great Black-backed) on the islands in the middle of Jamaica Bay, best viewed looking east from the subway south of Broad Channel station. If you want to get up close and personal - though I don't recommend it, take MACE and a baton if you do - the best place is the Wildlife Refuge itself. They look like UK Herring Gulls, but meaner. How on earth people find them over here is anyone's guess - they must just be good at Gulls I suppose. Just like me.

Monday, 9 May 2011

More horrible birds

Some more dull and uninteresting birds from New York guaranteed to bore your socks off. If you're in the market for something more interesting, have a quick peek at the Common Sandpiper I took at the weekend here in Wanstead, but I cannot be held responsible for any repercussions like heart attacks and so on brought on by sheer and uncontrollable excitement.

Birding in New York is a piece of [cheese]cake. You walk around; there are birds everywhere. Amazing ones, and many of them are only a few feet away. If like me you have not done a great deal of birding in America, you will be staggered. Even if you have done a stack of birding in America, I suggest that you should still be staggered, for the variety of colour on offer is mind-blowing.

Whilst New York is an immense concrete jungle, the city has a green heart - Central Park. The key area is the ramble, a relatively small area of oak-dominated woodland that acts like a magnet for migrating birds. A myriad of paths wind through, and the basic idea is that you wander around them with your head held vertically upwards looking for movement. You see movement, you raise your bins, and are astonished by a ridiculously colourful bird that looks like it should be in a tropical rainforest. It is entirely bright yellow, and so you pull out your field guide and scroll through. There it is! A Yellow Warbler! Wow! Then there is another. This one is entirely black and white - a quick thumb and you have it - Black and White Warbler! Superb! What about this one? It is basically blue with a black throat patch. Let's see....Ah-hah! Black-throated Blue Warbler! My tip for birding in America is when you see a bird you don't recognise, just pretend you are about five years old and give it the most obvious name imaginable. More than likely you will be right, and that's what the founding fathers called it too.

Anyway, enough exciting text. Here are some boring photos. In order (and this is mainly because Blogger has a horrible tendency to utterly stuff up pictures and text when in close proximity and jumble the entire blog post up) Cardinal, Tree Swallow, Red-eyed Vireo, White-throated Sparrow, Common Grackle.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Back to Brown (aka The Patch)

I was up and out by 5.30 this morning. Considering the somewhat beery previous evening, this was pretty miraculous. A good start immediately when I could hear a singing Whitethroat from the front door. Whitethroat is only a very recent addition to the garden list. I was going to blog about it and many other things last week but then suddenly lost the will to live. I'm ready now, so backtracking a little, I had gone out early morning, and as soon I hit the Flats there was a Whitethroat singing very loudly and insistently from the top of some broom. I had walked past it a little when that weird little (though possibly quite large) part of my brain responsible for lists of things kicked into action and told other parts of me like my legs that it might just be possible to hear it from the front of the house, and thus sneak it onto the garden list. Being the cool, sophisticated guy that I am, unruffled by such trivialities, I naturally hurried straight back home and was delighted to find out that my listing brain was quite correct, and that the scratchy notes of a Whitethroat could indeed be heard with one foot on my front drive. Kerching, as they say. I composed a blog post there and then in my head about this glorious triumph of idiocy over common sense, and then did nothing with it, but you were not to be denied it seems.

I digress. This morning I opened the front door, and heard it straight away as there was no traffic at all. Whilst this is not a tick for the reasons very recently outlined above, it is only the second time that Whitethroat has been recorded from the garden. If I were some kind of sad lister, that would mean that I could remove the italics from Whitethroat on my garden list.

Er, be right back....

Anyway, brown. Glorious, glorious brown, everywhere. Yellow, heh! Blue, heh! A Jedi UK Patch-worker craves not these things! The Whitethroat was happily browny. Then, on Alexandra Lake, there were two Reed Warblers. I couldn't see either of them, but I was content in the knowledge that they were dull brown birds. Mmmmm, brown. Some movement on the side of the lake, and a brown and white Common Sandpiper became two brown and white Common Sandpipers, raising the pulse but then immediately calming it with sensations of beige and bland. I sighed a sigh of pure satisfaction, and some plain brown Swifts screamed overhead. This is more like it! None of those fancy little exotic Dendroicas, wooing me with their gaudy cheap colours, appealing to my baser senses. No! Back to London patch-birding, with its insipid and non-descript birds. How soothing!

One of the Sandpipers was extremely confiding. If you have had an unusually exciting day for whatever reason, perhaps having looked at some Yellow Wagtails for far longer than is healthy, please gaze at it for a while until you feel normal again.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Would you drive to Devon for one of these?

Don't be stupid, of course not! Devon? Insanity! American Robins are the commonest visible passerine in New York by far, the numbers in Central Park must number in the trillions. Every lawn, every patch of scrub, every tree - you get the picture. And now you get the pictures, though I am being extremely restrained....

They have a slightly irritating habit of running away when they see a camera pointing at them, but occasionally they become distracted, which is when I grabbed these.

American Wood Warblers are very lovely

There is something about Wood Warblers, I just can't put my finger on it..... Mrs L and I have just returned from a brief trip to New York. In summary, she went shopping and did cultural stuff, and I went birding. Although there were lots of birds, the main draw at this time of year is the spring migration of the Wood Warblers in all their finery. Where Scilly disappointed two years ago, with a total lack of American passerines, New York delivered in spades. For all those of you yearning to see Hermit Thrushes and the like, rather than scour far-flung specks of land like Tiree and Coll, just go to the US. It's probably going to be cheaper, and the food is better too.

Most of them stay very high up in the trees, leading to a condition amongst birders commonly known as Warbler-neck, as you're craning your neck essentially straight up. A few however can be found lower down, and they all have to come down to drink. And sometimes you just get lucky...

In order, Canada Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler. All lovely.


The full list of Wood Warblers that I saw in the middle of the urban sprawl of New York City in a mere two days is below, and I missed at least eight other species that were there. What are you doing this weekend? Book your ticket now.

Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Black and White Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Canada Warbler