Monday, 29 August 2011

Getting Closer...

Regular readers may have gathered that I attach some minor importance to lists. Lists of birds, lists of moths, lists of anything really. My favourite one is my garden list, followed closely by either my life list or my patch list, not sure, it ebbs and flows. Obviously I would never do anything as ridiculous as year-listing on a national scale, but when it concerns the patch, year-listing costs nothing, requires no travelling time, and is quite good fun.

Four or five of these today

When I first moved to Wanstead I'd never heard of year-listing, and so I didn't count up anything. Later, as I became more plugged-in to the birding grapevine, somehow the idea lodged itself in my head. In 2007 I got about 70 species. Wow! Does birding get much better, I sincerely doubted it. 70 is, like, loads and loads. The following year I managed 83. Sweet Baby Moses, 83!! What a patch! Content that 83 could never be beaten, I awarded myself the coveted "Birder of the Year" trophy.

In 2009 I scraped to 100 on December 22nd with a Woodcock, still the only one I've seen here. 100 is, like, three figures, a seriously big number. I retained the birder of the year trophy. In 2010, not really, this time, believing the previous year could be beaten, I got to 100 by August 22nd, with Spotted Flycatcher. About five minutes later a Common Redstart became number 101. Gah! The long-staying Wryneck was 102, and by the time the year was up, the patch had netted me 108 species. Like Brazil, I've been given the trophy permanently.

OK, so this isn't Rainham, Crayford or Beddington, but seriously, this is amazing. Or is it? Well unfortunately, not really, as a quick check of the London Birding pages on the web reveals that an additional five patches - Brent Reservoir, Fairlop, Ally Pally, the Ingrebourne Valley and Tyttenhanger - all got more than that, and by some margin. There was also a guy counting the Lee Valley. As in the whole of the Valley, why restrict yourself eh? I've binned his total for the purpose of this analysis, grossly unfair. It matters not, my point is that local patches reward hard work and there are lots of birders working seemingly dreary and unproductive patches very hard, and seeing loads as a result. My efforts in Wanstead, in context, are nothing special, but they do make my lists in 2007 and 2008 look rather paltry. Very paltry.

Why, Hello There!

So, to this year, 2011. How am I doing? Well, I languished on 99 for ages and ages, over two months (June and June), but now they are coming thick and fast. I've just returned from a sporting/birding expedition, and in addition to scoring a quick-fire century on the playing fields north of Long Wood against some frankly rank bowling, I've also seen a Sedge Warbler on the Roding, found by Nick C at around lunchtime. This is number 106, and it's still August! There are a few differences with last year, the biggest of which is that I've already seen all the birds, bar one, that I got in September and subsequent months last year, but nonetheless I am hopeful of, if not beating last year, at least equalling it.

Possible birds that would do it, and that are not outrageous, are Brambling, Woodcock, Goosander and Firecrest. I'd prefer to get there with Red-backed Shrike, Osprey and Honey Buzzard though.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Dark Skies, Bright Birds

Criminally, a day away from the patch yesterday, but remember that variety is the spice of life, and of course that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And anyway, how many Greenish Warblers and Bonelli's Warblers are there in Wanstead? Precisely.

So, a day-trip to Norfolk with a few of the usual suspects in order to take in this enviable Phyllosc combo. We arrived two hours early, and had to sit out two hours of rain, but once the sun came out, eventually so did the birds. In Derbyshire only a few weeks ago I had decided to tick a Western Bonelli's Warbler on the basis of a burst of song, a few dismal snatched views of a clean bird, and a long drive. On it went, but with the dreaded "bvd". Better views desired. I have largely cleaned up my list, and very few bvd's remain, so to add another was a bit crap, but there was no doubt I had at least heard the bird. Happily the one in Cromer was ever so much more obliging, and even allowed scope views. Bright white underparts sparkled in the sun, with extremely greeny and yellowy upperparts with a plain face. And about thirty other people all looking at it, which helps. The Greenish had showed briefly in the same area moments before, but had slunk away, and we only heard it after that. A shame, but a couple of the guys got tolerable photos of the Bonelli's, so if you're interested, go and have a look at their blogs. I had elected to leave my camera in the boot, which was a shame, but it meant I got really good views, which sometimes you forget to get if you're toting a camera.

The morning had vanished in a flash, so after a hearty lunch of junk from Morrison's we paid brief homage to the Red-backed Shrike at Walsey Hills, and then spent a couple of hours at Cley with waders coming out of our ears. As well as the Red-necked Phalarope, over twenty Curlew Sandpipers were enjoying the expertly-managed water levels. Other waders included numerous Ruff, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, and a single Little Stint. In context, prior to yesterday I had seen just over twenty Curlew Sandpipers in my whole life, so to have twenty in a single scope sweep was pretty special. Oh yeah, and there were eight Spoonbills as well, even though they're dross birds these days. They had a brief and exciting fly around, and then as is typical with Spoonbills, fell asleep.

A scout around Warham Greens produced about a million Lesser Whitethroats near the Whirlygig, and a single Pied Flycatcher in an area called the Pit. Somehow we dodged intense thunder storms to our north and south, and so finished our day warm and dry at the Red Lion in Stiffkey drinking Wherry. I had missed Wanstead, but had had an enjoyable day out. Full of no remorse whatsoever, I was out there nice and early this morning and bagged two Whinchat, two Wheatear, and another calling Tree Pipit buzzed south. Happy days.

Golden Plover wheeling against a forboding sky.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Le Fairy Magique de Chateau L

For the last two and a half years, there has been a Magic Fairy residing at Chateau L. No really. She arrived at around the same time that I was made redundant, and has been a huge boon for my family and I. I'm not sure we would have coped without the Fairy, she is amazing, and does everything. Washing, cooking, cleaning, shopping, copious dusting, and somehow also manages to operate a free taxi service. In short, a blessing, and we are privileged.

However, all is not well, the Fairy has been getting fidgety. You see, I have been looking for a job, and incredibly, I might actually get one. Back in the world of finance, and the Fairy is not pleased. She has announced her intention to leave. This is devastating news frankly, we cannot imagine surviving without her. All the things she does to keep us afloat, to keep us from drowning in dirty dishes and dust. All the meals, the freshly laundered clothes, the sparkling stainless steel. But her decision is final, she says. If I go back to work, she leaves, and there is no pleading with her, no convincing her. The lady's not for turning. And so, like Mary Poppins when her work is done, she will leave, and this family will be much the poorer for her departure.

We will miss her terribly, of course. More than just a domestic slave, she has become almost one of the family. But she has said that there are others in need, other families that she can assist, and so she'll go, and somewhere, in a quiet suburban street, a little bit of magic will light up fresh, grateful eyes. There's a voice that keeps on calling her, she says, and so she has to move on. We don't know where, and she won't tell us. Cryptically she says she'll always be just down the road.

So the day is coming soon, maybe tomorrow, when we will have to bid goodbye to our Fairy. There will be tears, but perhaps it is for the best.

Le Fairy magique de Chateau L

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Summer is over!

June has been exceedingly long this year, at around 85 days, but it is finally, and very thankfully, over. The last four days has seen more migrants than you can shake a stick at. Redstarts abound, Whinchats are everywhere, there have even been some Wheatears. I like Wheatears.

It started, predictably, as soon as I left for Scotland, with the local birders feasting on Whinchat, although I don't believe they attempted a salad. Spotted Flycatchers began to be seen, and from four-hundred miles away I bemoaned my poor timing and had another look through my scope at the Black Scoter. On Sunday, during the drive home, somewhere near Liverpool if I remember correctly, Nick and Tim found a Pied Flycatcher in Long Wood. Wow! Easily one of our rarer migrants, I crossed my fingers that it would stick until I got back, you just can't beat Pied Flycatchers and I wanted to see it. Happily it played ball, though I had to, er, penetrate deep into Long Wood in order to see it. It being a warm Sunday afternoon, my blundering about in Long Wood with binoculars caused some upset to activities already occuring, and soon various men could be seen emerging from the various gaps in the understorey. I didn't linger any longer than was necessary to get decent views of the bird. It is a real shame that the primary gay sex hangout on Wanstead Flats is also extremely attractive to migrants. You never quite know what you're going to get over there, it could be a Redstart or it could be a ...  Nevermind. 

Anyway, with a Spotted Flycatcher earlier in the week, some returning Teal, and a handful of flyover Yellow Wagtails, I was out relatively early this morning. It was damp and dank, and had migrancy written all over it. It turned out to be superb, and although no biggie like a Wryneck, was easily up there with the best mornings ever.

A Spotted Flycatcher in Long Wood and a possible (non-calling) Tree Pipit over heralded the start. There was a Redstart at the eastern end, and stacks of Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Whitethroat. One Whinchat in the Broomfields turned into three, and a definite Tree Pipit flew over east calling. Most surprising of all was a juvenile Pied Flycatcher in the broom, calling its head off. I didn't recognise the call, and when I got on the source of it I couldn't believe what I was seeing. What was it doing in the broom? Autumn flycatchers are usually totally silent for starters, but when I played the call on my phone to confirm I wasn't going bonkers, it all fell into place. It could be the same bird as Sunday, which was also a juvenile, but equally, given the numbers of migrants around, it could be a new one. It flew off low east towards more suitable habitat, and I couldn't refind it.

A quick stint at Alex netted a Common Sandpiper, a flyover Yellow Wag, two Teal, and Tony found another Redstart in the scrub, which also held a pile of Whitethroats, a Lesser Whitethroat, and a Willow Warbler. I've got a good feeling about the next few days, it's really rather good out there!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Mega Map

Welcome to my megamap, not at all ripped off Birdguides. As a measure of quite what a genius sad tit I am, I waited until midnight, when the day ticks over and the map becomes blank again, so I could (allegedly) perform my little screen-nab. I crossed my fingers that nobody would report a Tengmalm's at one minute past, and that if they did, all Birdguides employees would be asleep, or at the very least, out owling. Luckily it whatever random map page I might have used was resolutely blank.

Having been to a couple of new places last week, I marvelled again how this absurd thing called twitching does at least come with the side benefit of increasing one's knowledge of the British Isles. That sounds extremely pompous and wholesome does it not? Probably, but visiting new places is not always a good thing, for instance I would quite happily never go to the utter dump that is Minsmere again, but mostly it has been a real treat. Places like Aveley Landfill and Staines Moor are absolutely stunning and were it not for the great birds that have been there I doubt I would ever have gone and thus missed out on some superb scenery.

I thought it would be a really really cool* idea to create a map showing just where I have been for various birds, and rather than colour in the entire map, I thought I'd stick with megas (the really really rare ones). Whilst I weep at the mileage, and lament the kidney I had to sell, I've been to a fair few places in just a few short years**, and am very pleased to bring you the Mega Map (TM, don't even think about copying it).

This shows all the megas I've seen, if they were megas when I saw them, or possibly mega whenever it was that I downloaded all the species - things change, today's White-throated Robin is tomorrow's Red-flanked Bluetail. They are not labelled, but it's easy to see that the one and only Welsh rare bit is that Marmora's Warbler, the only Scottish one is last week's Black Scoter, and that I have never been to Ireland. Scilly is notable by its absence (horrible, bird-free, blood-sucking place, where a ten minute boat ride would cost me my other kidney), whereas Shetland, with it's Buff-bellied Pipit, Swainson's Thrush etc, shines like an irresistible beacon. Closer to home, Kent is winning hands down, though Norfolk isn't doing badly, and London boasts three, the Brown Shrike, the White-tailed Plover, and whether it gets accepted or not, the Slaty-backed Gull.

So now you know what I do with my weekends. ***

* pathetic
** I am a lunatic
*** dialysis

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Scotering and Loitering

I cannot think of a more satisfying days birding in recent memory, however long that goes back. I've been staying with family in Scotland, part of my holiday-busting plans, and as is my wont, and especially as I have willing child-minders, I usually take a day and bugger off birding somwhere. Last year I spent 24 hours cleaning up in the Highlands with Muffin, and the year before that I had a superb day in Wester Ross. This time I decided that the Aberdeenshire coast was deserving of discovery, particularly as it held a long-staying Black Scoter, which whilst not a huge blocker (one has been living in Wales since 1853) is still an extremely rare bird. The thought of combing through thousands of sea-duck looking for this one vagrant got the juices flowing I can tell you!

I arrived at Girdle Ness in Aberdeen for pretty much first light, and met up with Fat Paul Scholes, aka Mark L, for this was his patch and he was going to show me it. This brilliant plan (and it gets brilliant-er, let me tell you) had been hatched the previous evening via Birdforum, which for all its faults, is an incredible resource if you can work out how to use it properly (hint: do not get sucked-in to contributing to the, er, discussion, on rare bird threads). A quick missive on the Aberdeen birding thread and I had gen flowing out of my ears and running down my neck, eventually pooling in my shoes. It was that good.

Our sea-watch was a fairly quiet affair, or so I thought, with a handful of Bonxie and Manx, but from my perspective enlivened by the hundreds of Eider and Guillemot sitting close inshore, and a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins at the harbour mouth. I hadn't counted on being present for a mega, but I've always been a fairly lucky birder. A cry of "Patch Gold!" from Mark, and soon I was taking in the thrill of three Canada Geese flying by. They were close enough in to be able to see plumage detail and everything. It was one of those exhilarating moments that only birding can produce, a real treat!

This is one of the reasons why patch-working is so interesting and varied. No two patches are alike, and exploring somebody else's patch is like peering into a forbidden world. For instance I would happily swap all 250 of Wanstead's Canada Geese, for ever, for just one of Mark's Eider, for one day. And I suspect he might give up all his Eider, and the rest of Scotland's, for just one of our Lesserspots, and maybe for just a couple of hours... Of course he wouldn't! Eiders are too cool, superb ducks that I love watching, and I've watched a few...

Girdle Ness also produced a Wheatear, a very smart drake Velvet Scoter, and a lone Purple Sandpiper, but these were all trumped by the offering from a smaller patch only a short distance away. Mark's flat came up with a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie, both day-ticks and extremely welcome after a 4am start - this is what I mean when I say Birdforum is a wonderful resource. And Mark is of course a top bloke, which is why I've offered to return the favour whenever he next finds himself in London and in need of a Canada Goose fix.

Onwards. I zipped through the centre of Aberdeen, which is not a big place, and took the coast road that goes up to the north-east tip of this lump of Scotland. For me this was uncharted territory. The furthest I had previously been was to Montrose for a Lesser Yellowlegs, and Arbroath for a Richard's Pipit, back when I was a twitcher. And even then it was only from Fife - I mean, who would drive from London to Aberdeen for a bird? When the Black Scoter had first been reported months ago, it had been a mere afterthought, the "big bird" had been a White-winged Scoter. That didn't linger, but I noted reports of the Black Scoter (think Common Scoter with an Apricot accessory) periodically and hoped that it might stay until I was in Scotland anyway. Yesterday was Wednesday, and it had been reported as recently as Monday.

Although the light was against me this early in the morning, and the tide was out, I could not resist having a little look off Murcar Golf Course. I parked outside the clubhouse and walked across the fairways to the sea (note to club secretary, put "beach access" signs where I can see them) and began seeing innumerable Common Scoter almost immediately. The scale of the challenge was enormous - the Scoters were distributed, fairly evenly it seemed, along a five mile stretch of coastline that has few access points. And I was looking for just one bird! I gave up quite quickly, the light from the east made viewing impossible, but at least the flock was still here. Every now and again one would rise up and flap what was left of its wings; I decided that barring a disaster they would all be here in the afternoon, and headed off to the Ythan estuary instead.

What a superb place! Teeming with birds, more Curlews than you can shake a stick at. I drove through Newburgh and parked up alongside the estuary, noting a large Kestrel hovering above the water as I got out. Hang on a minute....Osprey!! I shouted for it to fly over Wanstead on its way back, and noticed a second bird, a juvenile, having a bath mid-estuary. Scotland is just ace for birds. There may not be too many species, but the lack of diversity is more than made up for by the sheer number of individuals. Heaps of Knot, Lapwing and Redshank, gazillions of Curlew. Teeming would be a good word. At the estuary mouth I grilled the Eider flock hoping for the King Eider, and scoped three distant Arctic Skua resting on the beach on the edge of the Forvie Sands tern colony. One, a pale-morph adult, was standing up, and constituted the first skua legs I have ever seen. Very nice they were too. Also on the beach were a fair few seals, hauled up and enjoying a well-earned rest. Every now and again the wind would carry a waft of braying up to my position in the high dunes at the south of the estuary. With warm sunshine on my face (it does occasionally happen in Aberdeenshire!) I contemplated quite how nice a time I was having. I was utterly alone. No dog-walkers, no joggers, no people at all. Sunshine, blue sky, a gentle breeze, and birds everywhere. Life was good. Reluctantly my thoughts turned to the Black Scoter. The sun was now well round, and on a rising tide, viewing conditions should be ideal.

At Murcar the Scoters had seemed to be drifting north, so I decided to start my search at Blackdog a little further north, and walk south to intercept them. A quick scan northwards revealed quite a few birds that direction too, and not wanting to miss any out, I headed up the beach that way to get closer. My progress was impeded by a stream running into the sea, but not before I had picked out a very nice drake Surf Scoter. I had heard that there were up to five in with the flock, but I had not expected to find one quite so quickly. I debated somehow crossing the stream, but the Scoters seemed to peter out quite quickly, so I just went through them a couple of times from where I was before heading south.

I hadn't counted on there being quite so many birds. As well as thousands of Common Scoter, there were thousands of Eider and Guillemot, perhaps a hundred Velvet Scoter, and scores of Red-throated Diver, many still looking extremely smart. As with sea-watching though, the Common Scoter were mostly in a distinct line offshore, sandwiched between two lines of Eider. I felt sure that if I looked at every single Common Scoter, soon enough I would find 'the boy'. Having looked at photos, the bill on the American bird was incredibly bright and orange compared to the European versions. It should stand out easily, or that was the theory. Three miles and thousands of birds later, I still had no viable candidate. My Surf Scoter count was up to four, all adult drakes, including two together which was very pleasing as they are stonkers, but the lack of Black Scoter was nagging me. I told myself to forget about it, the birding was great anyway, and I had just scored an unseasonal Merlin (I later learned that there has been an early one knocking about). A swell had got up, and scoping the line of Scoters was becoming ever more difficult. The sun, having had a short break, was out again, and as the birds preened their flanks, their bills angled towards me and flashed in the sun, which had my heart in my mouth every time until I learned to deal with it. The view I really needed was a full side on profile, where the bill of a Common Scoter would look largely dark, but the bill of the Black Scoter would look like an apricot.

As I turned north to make my way back, scanning all the while, I became aware of a voice drifting towards me from the dunes. "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves, and Britons never never NE-VER shall be slaves!", delivered with some gusto towards the end. I turned around to see where this was coming from. The answer was both amusing and worrying in equal measure. A naked (full-frontal naked) man was watching me from the top of the dunes. Wtf? As I looked at him, he sang even louder, and started waving his arms around. Potentially, I had a problem. I gripped my tripod in my hands (oo-err), it felt pretty solid (more oo-err), the ball-head in particular (even more oo-err), capable of holding 40kg rock steady (just err I think), would do the most damage. Still, I hoped to avoid that, so instead picked up my stuff and headed north.

He followed. Oh for Christs sake. What had I done to deserve this? I had barely seen another Human Being all day, and here, on a deserted beach miles from anywhere, the one person that I do bump into is a stark-naked raving lunatic. That said, he seemed to be sticking to the dunes, whereas I was on the beach,and provided he did not descend to the beach, I felt we could probably co-exist happily. Any easterly movement on his part though, and Mr Gitzo would be getting involved. Fortunately it never came to this, and I made it back to Blackdog, still scanning Scoter, without incident. Texting Mark, he is apparently a Murcar beach regular, and means no harm. The Last Night of the Proms will never be the same again though.

I returned to the car and contemplated my next move. I had been scotering for about four and a half hours, and although still 'empty-handed', was pretty pleased with my Surfie count. Black Scoter schmoter. But I was so close! I dumped a lot of my stuff in the car, and with only scope and bins (and defensive tripod), headed north into the dunes, thus bypassing the stream that had stopped me earlier. I soon found quite a lot more Common Scoter, as well as what I presumed was my first Surf Scoter again. A small group of Scoter a bit further out, and still well north of my position, caught my eye. Was I dreaming it or did one of them seem to have a very bright bill? I could detect no colour at all on the bills of the birds it was with, itself a good sign I felt, as all the males closer in had some element of plainly-visible colour. I carried on north to get closer, energized as only a whiff of potential success can bring. It was by no means a cert, and I had read that there were several Common Scoter in the flock that had particularly striking bills, but nonethless I at last had a viable candidate.

I walked about another mile, well into the Blackdog firing range, which thankfully was not in operation, before I got level with the birds I had been looking at. I had stopped every hundred yards or so, and been able to pick this bird every time despite the distance, and was feeling pretty good. Nothing I could do now but wait and cross my fingers that they came in, despite the fact the tide was receding. However come in they did, joining the closer line, and finally, after seven hours of scanning, I had the views that I wanted, and that confirmed the presence of an American Black Scoter nestling, happily and taxonomically, on my list between Common Scoter and Surf Scoter. I texted the good news out to all my mates who hadn't seen Black Scoter, and who I knew would be happy for me, and although I no longer have a pager, to them too, so that I could bask in the large scoter-shaped squares on the birdguides map that would be entirely my doing. If ever I deserved to see a bird, and see it well, this was it - probably the hardest I have ever had to work, a far cry from tick and run, but ever so much more satisfying. It barely counts as twitching - I had to do all the work myself. Heroic sums it up nicely.

On cloud nine, I headed for home. Fish and Chips from a place in Stonehaven that claims to have brought the deep-fried Mars bar to the world, and some mega-distant Spoonbill scoped all the way across Montrose Basin for a cheeky Scottish tick (for the list I don't keep), and I was worn out. Birding days like yesterday don't come around often, but that's what makes them so special.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Forth Bridges

If you are unfortunate/dim-witted enough to also follow my twitter feed, you may have seen a message yesterday which combined a popular Christmas ditty with news of a neutral density filter. You probably wondered what I was going on about and promptly unsubscribed. Here is a link to resubscribe, re-follow, re-gret..... 

So what is a neutral density filter anyway? It is a filter which doesn't really do anything other than reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, ie no colour casts, no warming, no chilling, no polarising, or at least that is the theory. Bored yet? You will be. They come in several different strengths, measured in stops of light. One stop, two stops, six stops, ten stops. A one stop will look a bit grey. A two stop version also grey, but darker, and so on. Like sunglasses I suppose. A ten stop one looks black, you can barely see through it. Supposedly used to photograph people welding and so on, industrial forging. Yawn. A far better use is to be able to create long exposures in broad daylight without burning out. In the normal course of things, even if you set your aperture to something really tiny like f22, and reduced your ISO to the lowest it will go, any long exposure measured in seconds is going to allow so much light to hit the sensor that you will get an almost totally white image. Every wondered how people do those chocolate box waterfall pics where the water is all creamy and soft? I reckon they use very strong neutral density filters. I have no idea how the maths works, and I have yet to find a waterfall, but supposedly a ten stop ND filter reduces the light throughput by 1000x. You can happily have a thirty second exposure at midday, and this is the oneI went for.

I decided to try it out on the Firth of Forth Bridges, the theory being that the bridges would stay still, and that the Firth would go all creamy. In position, filter on, I had a look through the viewfinder to compose the shot. Ah, first issue encountered. Black. I took off the filter so I could actually see what I was taking, and then flipped the lens to manual focus (I think of everything!) and put the filter back on. Click. Would it work?

Well, it does, and there is a huge amount of potential, but I think it is going to take a lot of work to have a successful chocolate box-illustrating career. It is basically trial and error as to what happens, almost entirely guesswork with the camera in manual mode, fiddling with different apertures and shutter speeds. If I head up to the hills, I will try and find a suitable waterfall, but for now, the sea will have to do. What I can say it that it is jolly good fun, very much like this blog post. Ahem.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Hello! I'm in Fife for a week with the kids, one more way in which to get through the summer holidays, and gives Mrs L a week off. We came up on Friday, an eight hour marathon up the A1, but once here it seems no distance at all. Being here presents a supreme opportunity to be very lazy; willing grandparents to amuse the children, cook the food, read stories. My role: drinking gin.

So far, I haven't seen many birds. A walk at Elie netted plenty of Eider, a few Sandwich Terns and the like, but this part of Scotland doesn't really have any of the special birds associated with the country. There are a few Red Grouse on one of the local hills, but given that we are now August 13th, all that may remain are a few feathers. I'll have a quick look tomorrow. More exciting is that my visit coincides with the release of 16 Norwegian-imported White-tailed Eagles. I have no idea where they are, though Fife is not a large place. Presumably they will be hanging around their secret aviaries for a while, but I may get lucky. My best guess is somewhere remote like Tentsmuir, but if they do choose to fly they can cover ground pretty quickly. Likely as not I'll see nothing, but it will be worth keeping half an eye on the sky during my stay.

Another thing I'll be keeping half an eye on is any news on the Black Scoter that has been loafing off Aberdeen. Although I am not a twitcher in any way, shape or form, it's only two hours away,  rather than the normal ten, and so a teensy bit tempting. Although I can't get too excited about a Common Scoter with a brighter bill, it would be an excellent one with which to grip people off, so probably justifies a trip. It would also place me fairly close to the Highlands and all the exciting birds there. And to Speyside....

Thursday, 11 August 2011

London's Burning

In a huge surprise there was almost no trouble in the capital last night. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, all the disaffected school teachers and Blackberry-wielding pre-pubescent children now have that new pair of Nike trainers they always wanted, and are busy playing games on their newly acquired Sony Playstations (and flat-screen TVs if they were quick enough). Secondly, there are now about a million Police Officers in London, no doubt to the detriment of the rest of the country, and so going out on the rob is now somewhat riskier. News that over 1000 people have been arrested, and that there is room for ALL of them within the prison system, will perhaps have made a few people more circumspect, especially when they realise that CCTV is alive and well, and that bragging about it on youtube is not the act of genius that they may have thought it was. And thirdly, and most importantly, it was a bit cold last night. It is much nicer to riot and loot on a pleasant summer evening, a warm breeze gently fanning you as you run down the street clutching an armful of stolen goods. It appears that our petty criminals are wusses; a bit chilly, a bit windy, and they're not interested.

The genteel boudaries of Wanstead have not been breached. Persons unknown did manage to set fire to a small part of the SSSI yesterday lunchtime, but that is an almost annual event, and in any event is just in time for Redstarts, so I have no real complaints. The soundscape of sirens and helicopters has been quite impressive though, at points yesterday afternoon it was an almost constant backdrop. I guess we are on the way to more exciting places. Despite the two million Police Officers now in London, we have only seen two, standing guard at that little snicket where I got mugged, and where the thieving so-and-sos abandoned Mrs L's bike a few weeks ago. It has been identified as a crime hotspot, and clearly the Met are taking no chances. For my part, and as if I were not paranoid enough already, Chateau L is now at DefCon 2. This new state of readiness includes having one of my hard drive backups in my pocket and ready to go, which Mrs L thinks is absurd. She will apparently be grabbing the children first. Depending on what happens in the next few days, we may be able to relax slightly, but I'll tell you what, those new Lions I bought after the bike incident are looking pretty mean.

What is most worrying is how quickly things boiled over, how little it takes for mob-culture to take-over, and for seemingly responsible people to embrace lawlessness. I am not out to be a social commentator, but surely this is a sign of deep malaise? Times are indeed tough, everything costs a fortune and prices are moving in only one direction. Heaps of people are out of work, with little prospect of getting work, especially now that their photos are in the Daily Mirror. My supplies of Burgundy have been sufficient to see me through redundancy and subsequent unemployment, so perhaps I am ill-equipped to identify with the problems being faced by many people, but even if I were a fiver away from total destitution, I would not stick on a balaclava and head for the Argos in Leytonstone town centre. It is a simple difference between what is right and what is wrong. Those imbeciles who were interviewed by the BBC and claimed that their looting was a way to get back at the Government are deluded.

I blame the parents. If you can't teach your children basic morality, and instead reinforce in them that their situation is entirely somebody else's fault, what do you expect? In the same way that we have driving tests to judge whether or not you are competent to drive a car, perhaps we should also have parenting tests, to make sure you are not an utter fuckwit who is going to raise children totally lacking in values and respect? Before you accuse me of being more right-wing than Hitler, and Margaret Thatcher's rightful heir, this is of course not a serious suggestion, but when eleven year-olds with Blackberries head off to their local shops for a spot of looting and arson, you have to think that it isn't really their fault and that their home-life is basically screwed. And why on earth have their parents given them Blackberries? My kids are never going to have phones nicer than mine, and given that I am likely to always have a cruddy one, they can kiss their flash-riot ambitions goodbye.

Post-apocalyptic birding

Monday, 8 August 2011

Alco-Seawatchers Anonymous

Could you drink heavily from 1pm in the afternoon all the way through to 3am the next day, have about an hours sleep, and then go sea-watching? Personally (if I hadn't died at some point during the night), even assuming that someone was propping me up, and that staring at choppy waves didn't finish me off, I doubt very much if I would be able to identify a single bird.

Barking, 5am. A rather chipper Bradders and I are looking forward to a day birding in Kent, starting at Dungeness for a seawatch. We have both exercised caution and restraint in our booze intake the previous evening. The car is fragrant and clean-smelling. A light comes on in a nearby hallway, and a dark shape shuffles out. It staggers toward the car, fumbles with the boot momentarily, and then opens the door and essentially falls into the car. It is bright red, hairy, and stinks of raw alcohol. It is Hawky, and he has had, by his own admission, "a big night".

We get going, the car now smelling like a vat of gin. An alcoholic fug permeates the interior. I am trying not to breathe, but I feel myself getting tipsy. Bradders is concerned about getting breathalyzed, and slows down. Gradually we learn that a few beers were had indoors, and when that supply ran out, a pub was sought. The pub sounds like heavy going, and was soon replaced by a curry house. The word "Cobra" is mentioned. Curry intake concluded, a new pub was found, and when that closed, more booze was procured and drinking recommenced at home. As the pick-up time approached, he sensibly stopped drinking, and had a short kip so as to be refreshed and ready for an early seawatch. Sixty minutes later we arrived outside, and remarkably he is awake and ready with all his stuff. His scope looks a little suspect, a stay-on case with a bottle of Smirnoff inside, but we let it pass.

At Dungeness, Hawky confesses to not feeling totally wonderful, but says he will give it a go. We pull up, and I take a grateful breath of cold, clear air. Amazed he can even speak, let alone move, we head for the beach. It is clearly a struggle getting up the shingle bank, but he makes it. We set up, and before I have even focussed on the area of sea below the horizon he is calling birds. I'm not sure how he does it, but do it he does. Perhaps he has four livers?

It is a strong westerly, and there are gazillions of Terns going past, and every now and again a Skua, including an adult pale-phase Pomarine. No spoons, I thought it was an Arctic at first before the boys put me right. I've seen more Cattle Egrets than I have Poms, so a real treat. Then the Jalfrezi from last night begins to make itself known. Strong southerlies... Bradders and I, sensing what was to come, had carefully made sure to sit upwind. The juvenile Glaucous Gull, present for weeks near the fishing boats, was not so lucky, and it was never seen again. After one particularly resplendent release, the Dunge warden threatens to throw us out of the seawatching hide, and we realise that our time is up. Still, good while it lasted.

Outside, Hawky is looking decidedly worse for wear. We have a quick scout around for the Glauc, but it has been vapourised; we cannot even find any feathers. Nevermind, we say, the cafe will be open in about half an hour. A couple of ruuny fried eggs and a deep-fried sausage will sort you right out. A delicate shade of green momentarily overcomes the bright red. He is apparently not hungry. Knowing that there is no hangover a fried breakfast cannot cure, I place myself in the queue ahead of him and order two. Hawky disappears, in the American parlance, for a rest. I've almost finished my breakfast by the time he reappears. Sitting down in front of the huge plate, I detect a quick shudder, but he manfully tucks in, and then proceeds to splodge my bins strap in the baked beans. Nice. Amazingly he finishes nearly all of it without further incident, and whilst I wouldn't say he looked any better particularly, things could have been a lot worse.

We had a quick look for some rare Dragonfly or other near the Long Pits, in reality an excuse for Hawky to sweat a bit more booze out before he got back in the car, as it was blowing a gale and to have found one would have been nothing short of miraculous. Other insects were pretty good though, with a Stag Beetle larvae, a Buff-tip Caterpiller, and best of all a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Paul breathed on it before we could get photos though, and we watched it cartwheel away helplessly. And that, basically, was our day. Although we carried on birding elsewhere, we didn't get much in the strong winds, and dipped everything we went for. Still, I got a couple of year-ticks, including Stonechat, which is a good measure of quite how little I've seen this year. Maybe I should drink more?

I've seen both Dark-eyed Junco AND Icterine Warbler in this Dunge garden.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Hotting Up or Cooling Off?

August has arrived after an exceptionally dull July. As far as Wanstead is concerned, it is still mostly June, however the first returning Wheatear was seen earlier in the week, which you would think would spur me into action?

So far it has not though. What is wrong? This probably happens every year and I have just forgotten about it, but my desire to bird the patch is at what appears to be an all-time low. I just cannot be bothered, or that's how it feels. I know that as soon as I get out there for several mornings on the trot, all the love will come flooding back and it will be all systems go again, but that first step is exceptionally difficult. I tried last week, managed an hour or so, and since then have sunk back into a stupor. A Wheatear would undoubtedly help, but in order to find one I need to be out there, and I just cannot overcome my front door.

I have not, to be clear, fallen out of love with birding. Absolutely not. But I have fallen out of love with getting up at 5am and seeing only dogs. On my foray last week, I was at Alexandra Lake for about quarter to six in the morning. Waiting for me were a man and a dog around the south side, another man staring at the west side, and a jogger. Somehow I managed to kick up a Snipe, but that's not the point. I want to be out there alone, just me and the habitat, and hopefully, the birds.

 So quit whining and get up earlier, I hear you say. Well yes, but it is difficult. Too difficult. How many of you regularly get up at 4am? If I get up at 4am, that's me done for the day. It is the summer holidays, and lots of coffee notwithstanding, I can't look after the kids properly on that little sleep. I will be shattered, grumpy, and will not give them the care and attention they deserve. Stack that up against the possibility of a Wheatear, and it's a pretty thin argument for birding the patch at the crack of dawn day after day.

Nationally though, it's hotting-up, and when it reaches boiling point, no doubt I will drag myself back onto the patch, and hopefully score heavily. There are good waders everywhere, and last week an evening jaunt to Canvey Island netted a couple of Cattle Egrets, one a full summer adult, and the other, intriguingly, a juvenile. So there are good birds around, and it's just going to get better and better. Incentive enough you might think? Well yes, and if that were not enough for some reason, I am quite close to going back to work (although someone will need to offer me a job first), at which point my local birding options decrease markedly.

Before I go, I have a photographic offering. On the trip to the East Coast last weekend, whilst nursing Bradders' semi-stricken car home with mineral water in lieu of engine coolant, he expressed surprise that a photograph demonstrating the exceptional versatility of said car had not yet been published. I had, I confess, forgotten all about it, but given that car nearly became about as useful (for birding) as a tea-tray, the time is perhaps right. Subaru, taking care of all your beverage needs.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Weekend, part deux.

Somewhat tired, we didn't get up the next morning until about 7am, and then hit Flamborough Head for a spot of sea-watching. This was not entirely successful, in part because it was a clear sunny day with visibility of around 20 miles, but also because we could not find Brett anywhere. Turns out he was there, somewhere, but he too could not conjure anything decent up. A few Terns went past, including one I felt was a Little, but too far out, and we added Guillemot and Razorbill to the trip list.

As nine o'clock approached, breakfast beckoned. Our landlady, in common with most people in Bridlington, enjoys a good Saturday night out, and told us in no uncertain terms that the earliest breakfast she would do would be at nine. For a lady of sixty-five if she was a day, she had clearly enjoyed herself a great deal, and confessed to being rather frail when we saw her a short while later. This did not stop her producing tea and coffee on demand though, followed by the world's largest breakfast. I ate the lot. To be fair I did not then eat again until about eight that evening, but I did spent a great deal of the morning groaning slightly, and clutching my enormous stomach. I may even have dropped off in the car....

Although it was tempting to return to Bempton, the car had a large puddle of coolant/Evian underneath it, so we decided it might be best to head South. Via Nottinghamshire for a well known Honey Buzzard site. Although the birds only showed between ten and twelve, they also showed almost constantly all the way through to about half-past one when we left, and more than likely continued showing. So much for local gen. As I know you are interested, this was indeed a filthy year-tick, which when I counted them up back at home, turned out to be #198. In context, at the same point last year, whilst not year-listing, I was on 245, so I am doing even better at not year-listing this year. Or I was just in denial last year perhaps? And in 2009, when I was year-listing, I had reached 269. Very pleasing indeed.

From Welbeck, we realised that it was only a detour of roughly forty miles to take in Frampton Marshes RSPB, which held a host of ticks for Nick. We decided to go for it and topped up the reserves of Evian. Another superb reserve awaited us, perfect water levels, heaps of waders. Slightly too much vegetation out in the middle, but what can you do? Finding whole and complete waders was the stuff of nightmares, but eventually we pieced together Ruff, Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, and best of all, Pectoral Sandpiper (199). The Red-necked Phalarope from the previous day had departed, and the Spotted Crake was hiding, so that was our lot, and with the thirsty car demanding more mineral water, we called it a day and nursed the car home at eighty.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A Weekend on the East Coast

If you can somehow ignore the mileage, somehow get over the obscene cost of petrol, then there is nothing like birding to show you different parts of the country, to give you a real appreciation for our diverse and beautiful landscape. If like me you live in a city, and you leave in the dark, then as day breaks you can be somewhere completely fabulous, a million miles away from the concrete and the mass of humanity. A couple of weeks ago I was on a Cornish headland at breakfast time on Saturday. Feeling, admittedly, like absolute shit, having driven through the night, but nonetheless thrilled at the scenery, the colour of the sea, the wet smell in the air, and the promise of what was to come, the journey behind me.

This Saturday at around the same time of day, I found myself in an entirely different landscape. Steep hills, wooded valleys, rolling moorland - the Peak District. Green everywhere, dotted with sheep, calm. But also forboding, hints of menace - snow fencing to protect the road, and signs that told you which routes were open. In winter I suspect it could be fairly unfriendly. Not today though, shirt sleeves weather, blue skies as we approached Arnfield Reservoir in the village of Tintwistle. I know what you're going to say. I said that I wouldn't, that it was too far. Well it is a long way, of that there is no argument, and for a day trip, simply there and back, I would not have gone. But as part of a weekend away, with hours of birding planned at gems of sites on the east coast, then it becomes a mere detour, and a pleasant one at that.

There were plenty of people stood about "looking", as you would expect. We left them standing on the path and carried on over a bridge and around the north side of the reservoir. Not too much going on, a few Phylloscs to check out, and with cover the south-east Asian rainforests would be proud of, it was very hard work. Fortunately the bird, a Western Bonelli's Warbler in case I had not mentioned it, gave a brief burst of song relatively close to our position which Bradders picked up on straight away, which is why Nick C and I had brought him (and his car). Frustratingly though we could not find it, and during the next three hours it didn't sing again, and one very fleeting view aside, during which I saw parts of the bird in the dense canopy that more or less added up to the whole, we never saw it. I gather it sang again in the afternoon, and showed briefly, but it is a tricky little sod, and on reflection we were pretty lucky to get anything. Another entry for the "bvd" column, extremely irritating as I had been doing very well at erasing them. I could of course just not have ticked it, but after three hours in the car and two hundred miles, that was never really an option was it?

So after three hours of Willow Warblers and Chiffs we gave up, after all there was a master plan to follow. The Bonelli's Warbler was merely the appetiser, the real point of the weekend lay east. So next stop Blacktoft Sands RSPB in East Yorkshire, where the long-staying Marsh Sandpiper showed very well and was a tick for Nick, and only my second. The reserve is fantastic, brilliant water levels, a magnet for waders. A summer-plumaged Blackwit was stunning, and several Greater Yellowlegs Greenshank allowed close scrutiny and a good opportunity for some retrospective self-flagellation. The Spotted Redshank were unfortunately well past their best, but a great supporting cast of Dunlin, Green Sandpipers,Water Rail, Redshank, Lapwing, Yellow Wagtail and Bearded Tit. We came away marvelling at the quality of the habitat management and the potential for birds.

By now mid-afternoon, we pointed the car at Bridlington, our watering hole for the evening. Before we could leave though, it started bonging at us. It was unhappy, it said, about its levels of engine coolant. This did not bode well. We flipped the bonnet, and it was quite right, the coolant reservoir was extremely low, well below the minimum mark. The car instructions were most unhelpful. "Do not drive the car! Take it straight to an approved Subaru dealership! Take it now, I don't care what else you are doing! You will damage the car beyond repair if you touch it! Only add G12abcXYZ mk4 coolant, the mk3 is no good! PS, if you can't get to a dealership, and are not carrying fresh supplies of mk4 G12abcAYZ coolant, top it up with Evian and pretend nothing is wrong". So we did. It stopped bonging and we drove to Bridlington.

 Ah sweet Bridlington, scene of £1.50 a pint lager and a lady with no teeth and an interesting tattoo on our expedition for the Black-throated Thrush last year. That excitement was for later though, for first we were off to Bempton Cliffs RSPB to photograph seabirds in the fantastic evening light. It became clear quite quickly that my tripod and gimbal were going to be mostly useless, and my arms are still aching as I type this, but for an awesome two hours I hand-held my 500mm lens and rattled-off close to a thousand frames as Gannets and Kittiwakes swirled around the cliffs below us. I could have stayed for four hours, perhaps six, but we lost the light and it became quite cold. On a high we packed up and headed for Bridlington, pausing only briefly to hear a lady tell us of the Long-Eared Owls she was hoping to see emerge from their burrows at dusk. I don't think she heard me suggest Rabbit as a confusion species.....

Bridlington did not disappoint. If you have a peculiar fascination with very fat and inappropriately-dressed people, it is THE place to be on a Saturday night. The pub we had visited last time had seen an inflation-busting price-rise to an obscene £1.85 a pint, so we forsook our tatooed friend and instead went to the Wetherspoons, where we were accosted by a young lady as good-looking as she was charming. Thankfully she left, and we were able to enjoy an evening drinking nice beer in peace, and watch Herring Gulls strut down the street looking for drunk people to attack. We ended the day on 90-something species, and made plans to be at Flamborough Head in the morning.