Monday, 31 October 2011

A new low is established. Or a new high.

Do you know where I was this weekend? Where I, the ardent patch-worker and anti-twitcher was? Scilly. I am disgusted with myself, I am so so weak. If I look back at this blog, I am certain to find post after post decrying twitching, promoting common sense, enobling patch-working, and generally sounding holier-than-thou. And then what do I go and do? I twitch Scilly. No, no, no, I'm not interested in twitching any more, stupid hobby, not for me.

Never, ever, believe anything I say.

Perhaps you didn't anyway? I do, it is true, have a love hate relationship with twitching. I think it comes and goes in phases. Earlier this year, certainly at the beginning of the year, my interest in twitching was at an all-time low. Ditto with year-listing. Gradually as the year has progressed I've been getting these urges that I have been finding increasingly difficult to suppress. This has culminated in hiring a car at Aberdeen airport and snaffling the Sandhill Crane, day-tripping Scilly for a Solitary Sandpiper that eluded me but coming away with a Black-and-White Warbler, and now this latest fraud, twitching Scilly again, this time for the Northern Waterthrush, a bird I saw about ten of in New York in April. What, exactly, is wrong with me? Why do I do it?

Because it was fun! Yes I spent a ton of money, yes I drove a stack of miles, yes I played no part in family life this weekend, but boy oh boy, what a great trip! And that's what it's all about. I spent a very pleasant two days strolling around St Mary's looking at mostly common birds, but with a bit of mad running around for the Waterthrush. I spent two evenings in two extremely nice pubs, drinking excellent beer and eating enormous quantities of delicious food. I had a great time taking photographs of highly obliging birds, some of which are the best I have ever taken, and I got loads of yearticks. Er I mean, I saw loads of birds I haven't seen for a long time*.

It's all the bird's fault. Why on earth has a Northern Waterthrush taken up permanent residence on Scilly? Back in September when I was last on, it had just arrived. I didn't see it, in fact made no effort to see it, putting what limited time I had into the Black-and-White Warbler, a brilliant Bee-eater, and the no-show Solitary Sand. I left the islands a very happy man, the Northern Waterthrush of no consequence. The next weekend it was still there, but I was on Shetland. Pah! The following weekend it was there again, but I was in Norfolk. As you can see, I hardly ever go birding... The next weekend it was still there. Pah! Not twitching Scilly again, lunacy! The next weekend it was there again. For God's sake just LEAVE!!!! It didn't, and was still there the following weekend. Fine, stay then, it doesn't bother me as I am DEFINITELY NOT GOING. Not now. Not ever.

By Tuesday of last week I was surreptitiously checking Scillonian sailing times and Skybus prices. By Wednesday, all pretence had gone and I was pricing it up and convincing Bradders that it was a really really good idea. Thursday, and I was packed and ready to go. Friday morning and I was actually on the boat. Berating myself, obviously. It was a glorious day. Hardly a breath of wind, blue skies and bright sunshine. There is something magical about birding in short sleeves on the cusp of November. The pace was relaxed for most of the day, and in truth we saw very little. The other target birds, Upland Sandpiper and Wilson's Snipe, had both contrived to disappear the day before, and Thursday's Red-eyed Vireo remained precisely that; Thursday's. At about 4.30, knowing the Waterthrush's likely movements, we strolled the ten minutes from Lower Moors to Higgo's Pool. Sidetracked by two Firecrests going bonkers at each other, we arrived about half an hour later to learn that the Waterthrush had been showing for the previous fifteen minutes but had disappeared five minutes ago.


A tense twenty minutes followed with no sign. Then a message came through to say it was at Lower Moors, about twenty seconds away as the Waterthrush flies, but about five minutes as the fat person runs. What to do? We ran. Bradders is much, much younger than I am, and so arrived much, much more quickly. He is also less fat. I kind of ran, but mostly panted, struggled for breath, and walked a bit. Finally in sight of the Shooter's Pool screen, I could just about see Bradders frantically waving me on. Arriving at the screen, someone made way, but in those last fifteen seconds.... "Just gone round the corner mate, far left" said one of the birders there. Gah!
And then suddenly there it was. I had ten seconds of it, perhaps not even that many, and then it disappeared and didn't come back. Magic, pure magic.

When I came to and could stand again, we decided that we would wander back to Higgo's Pool in case it came back. Ignoring the plaintive calls of the evil Firecrests, we arrived back there to learn that the bird had come in for two minutes and then zoomed off again. Higgo, pool-digging supremo, opined that that was that. We waited. We waited some more. Nothing. And then it was back! Calling at ASBO-inducing volumes, it came back in pursued by a Robin, and spent the next twenty minutes feeding in front of perhaps eight silent observers. Towards the end of the evening, there were only three of us watching it. What a bloody brilliant bird. The trip, the expense, justified in an instant. Forgive the photos, ISO 6400, though in one sense utterly miraculous, is relatively unforgiving.

That evening, thrift went out the window. Despite being sucked dry by the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company and Esso, we were on the kind of high that couldn't be dampened. Ridiculous as this sounds, particularly coming from me, sometimes twitching is really really good. This was one of those times. The previous evening I had been in an office in Canary Wharf. Less than twenty-four hours later I was in the Mermaid Pub in Hughtown on St Mary's, indulging in a vast and waist-expanding meal, and drinking Doom Bar, Scuppered, Betty Stoggs..... Twitching might be stupid, but sometimes, just sometimes, and if you can get past the meaningless tick aspect, it is superb.

* About a year...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

My new old home

I'm back at Canarius Wharfus Maximus. The very words are depressing. Canary Wharf, a place of shiny buildings and expensive suits. A place with pointless shops and more coffee and smoothie places than are needed in the whole of the UK. Three quid for a tall, skinny, soya caramel latte? Sign me up! In truth, I did not miss it at all. Neither the commute, nor the place. Give me Wanstead Flats any day. But this is irrelevant. I am back.

Home Sweet Home

Nothing has really changed. It is still a concrete jungle with a few pockets of habitat. The stories you read about Blyth's Reed Warblers hopping around in roses at the foot of tower may or may not be true, but take it from me, you struggle to find even a Robin on the estate. Search back through this blog for long enough and you'll find joyous posts about finding some Great Tits (take that Google engines!) and a Wren. Beyond Crow and Pigeon, I've not seen a passerine yet. The place is a desert. My gloom was momentarily lifted today when a Peregrine happened to fly past the very window I was sat at, a smallish male by the looks of it, but on the whole the place is bird free.

Not that I have to go birding anyway, as I am working my little cotton socks off, trying to get my childcare-dulled brain to comprehend securities lending and repo financing. It is a world away from plasticine and colouring-in fairies. It pays better though, which is why I'm doing it. Today, before I'd even had lunch, I had to go to a meeting in a different building. On the way I passed what is officially known as "habitat". Look, here it is.


It looks like someone has actually gone to Habitat, the shop, and bought some of those ridiculous bamboo stems of different heights in white china pots that were so fashionable several years ago, atatched them to a discarded doormat, and then chucked the whole lot over the side of the dock. I'm no ecologist, but what exactly is the point? Maybe they're in fact very very small Phragmites, and I'm as good at botany as I am ecology, and in six months time they'll be crawling with Sedgies. Time will tell. Today they held nothing, a few desultory Mallards avoiding them at the far edge. Highlights today on my walk were two Coots and a Moorhen.
Take that Shetland!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Binocular Confessional

I have a Binocular obsession. There, I’ve said it. Like most people I have two eyes. They are, again like most people, nicely positioned either side of the top of my nose. In other words my face, other than being a bit fat, is perfectly normal. With my two evenly-spaced eyes, I can use precisely one pair of binoculars. Any more than one, and I get into all sorts of difficulty.

Why then do I currently have six pairs of binoculars? Ok, so one of these was a freebie with a magazine subscription and lives in the car, and is about as technologically advanced as two smarty tubes with the lids popped off (and about as useful for seeing birds with) but the other ones are all proper ones, and at any one time, four of them are likely to be gathering dust. I could argue that I have one pair for each member of the family, but I put them all off birds years ago, and with the exception of muffin, they’re about as likely to pick up a pair of bins as they are to take Duivendijk to bed for some light perusing.

Once upon a time, I had one pair of binoculars. I’d saved up for them, they were my first really nice pair. I’d thought that the ones I’d inherited from my grandfather were amazing, then I picked up some Leica Ultravids and I saw the light. I watched out for my pennies, they turned into pounds, and after what seemed like an age I gathered them into a huge pile and dragged them to a Leica dealer in central London, emerging some time later with a very nice and shiny pair of my dream bins.

Do you know what happened to them? I’ve almost certainly mentioned it before, and it still chokes me up. On my way back home after a long, hard day of honest toil, four less-honest people jumped on me in Bush Wood because they wanted my mobile phone. Needless to say they took my mobile phone, and as an afterthought, my bag too. With it went my prized binoculars. What happened to them, who can say? Outwardly they look like a pair of bins, with nothing to suggest they were worth twenty times what my phone was worth. The ready currency of thugs and petty criminals generally being portable electronics with things like Nokia and Sony written on them, I suspect that my bins, with their quaint little red scripted dot on, ended up in a bin. Or a bush perhaps.  It doesn’t matter. They were gone, and from that point on binoculars ceased to be something special. With the insurance payout fortunately coinciding with the dealers looking to clear old stock in preparation for an updated model, I bought two replacement pairs, a 7x for general birding, and 10x for when I would be without a scope. And then for good measure, I bought a cheap(ish) pair of small second-hand roof-prisms to use on the patch that wouldn’t cause me much angst if I was robbed again. Needless to say I always used one of the other pairs instead.

For a year or two, this new status quo was maintained. To Mrs L, one pair of bins looks much like another, and no subterfuge was needed. Recently though, I bought a pair of porros out of curiosity, and they are so good that I can’t possibly sell them again, but unfortunately I can’t possibly go birding with them because they look so antiquated and rubbish. I have an image to maintain, dontchaknow? Not really. Though they are optically sensational, wide and bright, they are not waterproof, and as such, useless for birding. They now live on a windowsill at home, ready for the day when a distant raptor needs resolving into a Short-toed Eagle with an abysmally poor sense of direction. I’ve used them twice I think, and they were both Crows.

All was going well, and then for no reason at all other than that they were a “bargain”, I bought another pair last week. I really really like them. They could easily turn into the bins I use every day. So now I have a problem, a stupid problem entirely of my own making. What I really need to do is pull myself together, select one pair, two tops, that I will keep, and get rid of the rest. Any one of them will last a lifetime, and I only have about half of one of those to go. I can perhaps justify keeping one of the cheaper ones for the kids to use when they come out with me, or as a backup in case something bad should happen, but beyond that it is just plain stupid, not to mention greedy, to have any more than one pair. So I am going to man up, and get rid of some. It pains me, but I know it is the right thing to do and that I will feel better for it. Question is, which ones.....

Saturday, 22 October 2011


I was so bored today that I drove round the M25 (well, was driven round the M25 would be slightly more accurate) to see a Glossy Ibis. Yawn. I am told that Glossy Ibis is a real London blocker, that there hasn't been a twitchable one since Andrew M saw one in 1937. Well, perhaps there hasn't, but I could still derive very little pleasure from seeing it, and my mood only lifted slightly when it flew off. There was a time, only a few short years ago, when I looked at Glossy Ibis in my field guide and drooled a bit. What a massive rarity - look, three stars in the Collins! Bet I'll never see one of those, mega.

My chance came in October 2008 when I dashed to the Cambridgeshire fens and connected! It was my 274th UK bird (I very nearly got a Tshirt made up). So what has changed? Have I lost my birding innocence? No. The trouble is that I have now seen three in the last two weeks. Glossy Ibis are everywhere, almost pestilential. No watermeadow is safe, and rumour has it that DEFRA will have to be called in soon to start shooting them lest they start breeding with our native Cattle Egrets.

Still, the day could have been a lot worse. A LOT. At six in the evening yesterday I was on the point of packing my bags for Cornwall, and we all know what would have happened then.... Thankfully common sense prevailed, and I decided to stay at home. Wanstead was very quiet so Nick & I went to Rainham. This was once again packed to the rafters with waders and wildfowl, so after kicking a few stones by Aveley tip we decided the only thing for it was to circumnavigate the M25 for a Glossy Ibis. That is how bad it's been today. Roll on tomorrow...

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. This one was in Essex last weekend. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Thursday, 20 October 2011


I had intended not to blog today, but I have news. I was going to give you all a break, but I cannot help myself. I don't honestly don't believe in daily posting for the sake of it, as I'm sure you all know. Though how would you tell.....

Anyway, I have important news. Happy news. Played for and got news. The best kind of news really. I recently moaned, uncharacteristically, about not being able to get out on the patch for proper birding. This remains true, but I realised that there was an alternative, which was to engage in a spot of viz-migging from the garden. This is where you get up really early, stand getting really cold in the half-light, and neither see nor hear birds. Winner. That said, this is how I got Waxwing on the garden list last year. That was a fluke of course, but my thinking today was that there are a lot of finches about, including Crossbills...

It started slowly, as it always does. My warming mug of tea a distant memory, it took forty-five minutes for the first migrating birds to make it onto the list - some distant and invisible Redpolls. Things picked up at around half seven when I started to get decent numbers of Greenfinch and Chaffinch, as well as a rare Pied Wagtail. But the real played for and got birds appeared just before eight. Eight, possibly nine Crossbills flying north-east. Calling, and calling loudly. OMG.

Now it's all too easy when viz-migging to "hear" a bird you need for your some list or other, and Crossbill is not a bird I hear often. But there was no doubt - I had been listening to Crossbill calls on my phone only half an hour earlier. What surprised me was how loud they were. They probably passed over about six or eight houses down, but the calls positively rang out. The whole experience lasted about fifteen seconds, as the loose flock appeared over the big trees and then disappeared over the houses. Fifteen seconds, but still sensational. What I particularly enjoyed was the planning element. Just the inkling that I could strike lucky, and that tiny tiny thought meant I was there, and ready. I can't wait for tomorrow.

Crossbill is a patch tick, and the best place to get patch ticks from is of course from the garden. On the offchance that anyone is interested in the numbers, I feel it is my solemn duty as a birding dullard to lay them out. Here and now, you cannot escape. It is bird #126 for the patch, bird #76 for the garden, and bird #109 for the patch yearlist, which is of extra significance as my patch record is 108, achieved last year with a Treecreeper. There are still quite a few possibilities as well - Goosander, Goldeneye and Ruddy Duck, or perhaps winter Geese. Or Nuthatch, Brambling, Siberian Rubythroat, Firecrest....

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Coffee Break

Nick is finally back from ticking every bird under the sun on Scilly. This is great news, as between children and work I have had almost no chance to get out on the patch, and coverage has thus been almost non-existent. With the declining daylight, I can't get out in the mornings, and this work malarky has meant I can't get out in the daytime either, and to round it off nicely, the children and encroaching darkness preclude getting out in the evening. You have no idea how frustrating this is. When Mrs L was at home, I'd do a quick half-hour on the patch before going to work; it kept me going, made work that much easier. Now there's no chance.

Today, just before lunch, Nick found a Stonechat in the Broom on his way home. "Coffee break?" he enquired, sardonically. What perfect timing, you know what, I do feel like a coffee. Excellent. Leaving my extremely large and very interesting spreadsheet containing 50,000 rows of things, I grabbed some bins coffee and headed out to Wanstead Flats to look through them drink it. Two young ladies from somewhere east of here were unfortunately walking eleven dogs (yes, eleven) through the exact spot where the Stonechat had been, so there was no sign of it. Not that I was looking, I was drinking coffee, remember? Soon though the pack disappeared, and the Stonechat re-appeared. Hooray, a patch year tick, and equalling last year's total of 108! And coinciding with my coffee break too, what luck. I put my bins back in my pocket finished my coffee and went back home to continue looking at the extremely large spreadsheet, but with added elan and happiness. My first visit to the patch in five days, and although extremely brief, extremely pleasing.

I have no idea why I took my camera on my coffee break

Monday, 17 October 2011

Life lists are a load of crap

Yes, I’m sorry, yet another blog post on listing. The opportunities to waffle on about listing are many and varied, and frankly I’m amazed I don’t write about it more, for it affords an insight into the minds of many of this country’s finest birders. Or is that listers? The prompt for this post came yesterday at Landguard.
For those of you who have not been there, Landguard sits below Felixstowe on the very southern tip of the Suffolk coast. It is a short shingle spit, and like many shingle spits in this counrty, is covered in old concrete things designed to impede tanks, with yet more old concrete things that used to contain large guns with which to blast tanks as they attempted to negotiate old concrete things, or at that period in history, new concrete things. In the event I don’t think any tanks ever arrived, but that is by the by – this is not a history blog. In the middle of the spit there is a very large concrete thing that was once a fort, or something, and this is now home to the Landguard Bird Observatory. The Obs is surrounded by Holm Oaks and Tamarisks, and is somewhat of an obstacle course for small birds, being filled with mist nets and people with small bags. These people find a lot of birds, not only entangled in nets, but also in the bushes and brambles surrounding the fort. This is what happened yesterday, and Bradders and I were the happy recipients of news that either a Booted or Skyes’s Warbler had been found at Landguard. Being a mere twenty miles away, we decided, there and then, to go. Filth.

We arrived to find a lot of people already there, with more arriving all the time. The bird was remarkably obliging, feeding in the open, and sometimes just sitting around in the open doing nothing. Excellent and prolonged scope views were had by all, and the noise of camera shutters, had we been in the 1940s, would have had gunners in concrete things in a right old panic. Booted Warbler is a rare bird, but Skyes’s Warbler is even rarer. Much rarer. The two were previously considered conspecific, so nobody went to see Sykes’s Booted Warbler. Now that it is treated as full species there is a surprising amount of interest. More than a few 500+ listers still haven’t seen a Sykes’s Warbler. Oh dear, what a shame.
Can you guess what the favoured outcome of the identity debate on this bird was? Bet you can’t…..I shall put you out of your misery – amazingly, many people there wanted the bird to be a Skyes’s. Unbelievable, but true. Out of genuine interest? Not on your nelly. They wanted to be able to say that they had seen a new bird. Sykes’s would a be a tick, Booted, nothing. Nul points. At this point I should declare a vested interest. Being fairly new to this seeing vagrant bird malarkey, I had only seen a Sykes’s Warbler, and not a Booted. Booted was an outcome that suited my list particularly well. And although the bird was a challenging one, it didn’t take long for the backs of cameras to get scrutinised to the nth degree, and with Obs literature to hand, the bird quickly resolved into the one I wanted. But this was against a backdrop of very experienced birders trying to talk it into a Sykes’s Warbler, searching for tenuous things that might make it one, trying to convince others of the light. Surely this is a Sykes’s, one implored.  
My comments about teaching Nils (Van Duivendijk) everything he knows were obviously in jest. He spent some time with other people too. But even I, with my pathetic bird knowledge, my almost non-existent grasp of bird topography (I believe I got tertials and secondaries mixed up yesterday, but maybe not, that’s how clear I am), managed to look at it critically. And really, it was simple. The bird was browny-beige. The Sykes’s I had seen on Shetland had looked grey. Booted. End of. The ringers caught it a bit later and measured its eyelid or something. Guess what? Booted. Hurrah, so I get to tick it, and the legions of mega-listers came away disappointed. Not a new bird, just another bloody Booted Warbler. Wasted journey.

What amazed me is that it was obvious that some of the people there didn’t actually know the difference between the two birds. Granted that it is subtle, but the information is out there. If I can read (and mostly comprehend) Duivendijk, then trust me, anyone can. But when a bird is just a tick in box, it’s clear that being able to ID it for yourself is for some people irrelevant. I am guilty of this of course, as I am sure are many twitchers new to the glorious sport. In fact to begin with I was a hopeless tick and run machine, and my recent experience with a funny Greenshank served only to hammer the point home. But to continue to be guilty of it after twenty or more years and having seen in excess of 500 species is an exercise in the pointless.
I would not go far as to say that the size of someone’s BOU list is the inverse of their birding abilty or knowledge, but it raises the question as to exactly what the point of having a large life list is. Given that a tick is prized so highly, what exactly does it mean to have a lot of them? What does it measure exactly? Well, it is not totally without value. It measures your ability to read a map and drive somewhere. And it also takes in your ability to have a flexible working arrangement/low moral standards re work, or a large trust-fund? The UK400 club “list of lists” that causes so much furore is what then? Irrelevant? One-upmanship in tabular form? And Bubo, where I record my little-league list?

I like lists, I have no problem admitting that. I take regular medication to ensure the number of lists I keep remains sensible. I think I have about eight, if you exclude year-lists. The one that really matters to most people is their UK life list. This is the biggie, the one people brag about, the one people mistakenly think commands respect. My entry on the list of lists, were I to have one, would be 380, presumably a few more in UK400 terms. This is so lowly that I wouldn’t even get on the list. I am nothing, a birding nobody. And yet those pitiful 380 birds on my list tell people nothing about my field ability, but presumably the assumption would be that I’m not much good. That happens to be true, but the number of birds I’ve seen isn’t the reason. Isn’t that odd?  The fact that I’ve even seen as many as 380 birds is down to two things. I can read a map, and I can drive. Well jolly well done me I say. When I reach 400 I will slap myself on the back and offer myself hearty congratulations on my tenacity. But not on my skill. The two are not related. Pointless.
So what does mark a good birder out? The classic measure would presumably be a self-found list, but there is an argument to say that land-locked birders are at a severe disadvantage. Sure, they can drive to the coast, and I’m sure many do, but ultimately the guy who can be in the sueda ten-minutes after rolling out of bed will have a clear and distinct advantage. Still, I’m sure the measure has its uses, particularly as many many keen birders deliberately live on the coast. I would, and at the drop of a hat. I am however extremely tied to London, and have sworn on many occasions that I am Never. Moving. House. Again. Stamp tax is one reason. Packing and unpacking is the major one. Thus when I added up my self-found life list the other day, it came to a meagre 215. I can’t blame that on London though, a lot of it is time birding, and the relative inexperience that comes along with that. Oh, and that and I always go out birding with better birders, thus they nearly always call the birds first. Unless they happen to be on the phone, which is what happened the other day, and I was able to seize my chance. Perhaps I should distract them. “Look, what’s that behind you!”, and whilst they turn around quickly scan the juicy habitat they were about to get to. Might work. But I am thinking of a different measure. An unquantifiable one, or rather a series of unquantifiable measures. What about the birder who enthuses about common birds, the birder who can accurately draw a Blue Tit from memory? The birder who spends time counting breeding birds, observing regular activity like nest-building. How about the birder who carries and uses a notebook, an argument that gets touted again and again, and with some merit. The birder who instantly knows the calls of common birds and thus pauses when something out of the ordinary calls from a bush. The birder who can smell weather. The birder who questions facts that are known as standard knowledge, that push the boundaries. Surely these guys are the real gurus? The real masters of their craft.
Anyway, next time someone tells you they’ve seen over 500 birds in the UK, the approach is as follows. I dare you. Look amazed. Look stunned. Say “Wow” a lot. Say that you find them god-like, incredible. Then say that you are in awe of their driving skills, amazed by their ability to follow simple directions, and extremely jealous of the amount of free time they have. Do let me know what they say.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Filling my Boots

Just got in from a great day out, and I need to breathlessly tell you all about it. Except I'm too tired as I woke up at 5:30am, and have driven 360 miles whilst birding twitching in three counties, and now need to go sleep again as I have a lot to do tomorrow, starting with taking not three but five children to school.

Seven-striped Sprite. Mmmm mmmm.

In summary, I saw a lot of good birds, but the distances between them were not small. There were ticks of many kinds. A Booted Warbler at Landguard was an ever, anywhere tick. A Glossy Ibis and Pallas's Warbler in Essex were Essex ticks (obviously). Of these three birds, two were year ticks for the list I'm not keeping this year, as was a stunning adult Isabelline Shrike in Kent. Always go see Shrikes. At the moment I am more often than not sticking to this rule and it is proving extremely worthwhile.

The Booted Warbler was not obvious, even when showing extremely well. Many on site, no doubt desperate for it to be a Sykes's, were talking it into one. I never thought so, mainly because Booted was the one I needed. Need, who am I kidding? What a stupid use of the word need, birding terminology is rubbish sometimes. Anyway, the one I hadn't seen. Tertials this, primaries that. Nonsense. The bird was beigy-brown, which made it a Booted. The Sykes's I saw on Shetland was grey. Easy. I taught Nils all he knows.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


I thought of a really good* joke whilst walking round Wanstead Flats this morning. It came to me suddenly, at around 9am, after seeing some "no sign" messages on my phone. For the benefit of those of you fortunate enough not to get my inane tweets on your phone, here it is.

Q: Are Dippers rare in Norfolk?
A: Not this morning.

Ho, ho, ho. I can only imagine the scenes this morning, with five-hundred hopefuls looking fearfully at the clear dawn skies. Oh dear. Still, I had a great morning on Wanstead Flats, and that's what really matters right?

I had forgotton what a special place it can be on chilly autumn mornings. As is normal in these conditions, a heavy mist lay on the ground, rising to about six feet, and the grass was all frosty. Finches flew over south-west in small groups - Redpoll, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, a handful of Siskin. Gradually the sun came up, piercing the mist. The thin layer of ice on the grasses melted quickly, and suddenly everything was golden. I had the place to myself, more or less. I had seen a guy early on with some kind of parabolic reflector - nutter, I thought, as he disappeared back into the mist. Turns out it was Stuart, experimenting with an umbrella and a microphone. I met him a little later on when I could actually see, and noticed the umbrella sticking out of his rucksack. I didn't tell him my earlier thoughts about nutcases, it would have been rude. Far better to just write about it on my blog I felt.

As the mist cleared two Geese flew west. One was enormous, or the other was very small. The Canada was obvious, but the other.....ah a patch of sunlight and a perfect little Barnacle Goose was revealed. I set off to look for it, Jubilee the likely destination, and there it was, eyeing me warily from an island, and seeking the protection of bigger, tougher Geese. Looking back through my notes there is no mention of Barnacle Goose, though I would swear I have seen one on the patch before. No matter, here it was now, looking extremely lovely in the soft morning light. Wild? About as wild as the Red-breasted Goose I expect, possibly a shade wilder - there are a few at large in the Lea Valley.

Alexandra Lake had three drake Teal and a few returning Shoveler, and everywhere I went there were Song Thrushes. By now the footballers were invading, so I left the Flats and headed for the Old Sewage Works. It didn't hold the Great Grey Shrike I was hoping for, but yet more Siskin flew overhead and the big hedge was alive with small birds. Willow and Chiff, Dunnock and Robin, Song Thrush and Blackbird. At the Tea Hut of Happiness crufts was in full swing, and sitting by the water I could hear Wanstead's loudest man in the Dell - about three hundred yards away. This is how I always refer to him, it would be very wrong of me to say his name is Bernie. He could talk for Britain, or perhaps shout for Britain. A small child chased away the Egyptian Goose even before a dog could, and the ever increasing multitude of humanity caused me to seek calmer shores. This is the trouble when the sun shines. People come out to enjoy themselves. Far better that it be cold and miserable. Not long now I expect.

* really lame

Friday, 14 October 2011

And isn't it Ironic

MEGA: Rufous-tailed Robin, Norfolk. Previous British Records? One. A biggie then. Right, JL in the car tomorrow, tick and run? Sadly not. In a cruel twist of fate, having just worked a five day week for the first time in almost three years, I can't go.

Alanis Morisette sang about it, 

Mr. Stay-at-home Dad wasn't afraid to shirk
He put on his suit, took the tube, went to work

He slaved the whole damn week, then couldn't get out
And as the mega arrived, he thought
Well isn't this shite

Six days on Shetland, no biggies. Four days in Norfolk, no biggies birds. And finally, a breath of easterly wind, and the coast is instantly carpeted in great birds. None that I hadn't seen already, but I would definitely have been up for a Bluetail or an Isabelline Shrike. And I can't go, can you believe it? Ho hum, it's not like I haven't been anywhere recently is it? I had my shot, it's just that the weather has stymied me. Fortune vomits on my eiderdown once more, as someone once said.

Still, I am going to be out on the Wanstead Flats at dawn tomorrow, and I am greatly excited by the prospect. I have not birded Wanstead for approximately three weeks, and I have missed it. Nick is filthily on Scilly, and Tim is in Yorkshire. Mine, all mine. I wonder what I will find? A dog, probably.

What price one of these though?

Thursday, 13 October 2011

All work and no play makes Jonathan a dull boy

Egad, this working life is tough! I've been outside for about 0.2s seconds today and during that time I heard a Ring-necked Parakeet but didn't see it. OK, so I've actually been outside for a bit more than that as I had to do three school runs, but my point is that working and birding do not mix particularly well. Unless you're a bird guide of course, then the two would go together extremely well. Unfortunately I'm not a bird guide. I'm an office drone. Mind you at least I got to work from home. Most people don't even get that, and instead are cloistered in an air-conditioned cubicle for hours at a stretch.

Productivity at home today was quite remarkable. If you didn't think I had the will-power, think again! I very dutifully worked out some very boring things and told some people about them. The people then wrote back about them. One of them even called me, that was quite exciting. When I'd finished looking at this particular thing, I looked at another thing. Welcome to my new life.

A propos of nothing at all. I didn't even see one of these today.

Meanwhile, for I keep an eye on these things, the east coast got plastered with rarities. Red-flanked Bluetails everywhere with Great Grey Shrikes hunting them, Yellow-browed Warblers all over the shop, and even an Isabelline Wheatear roughly where the Woodchat Shrike was at the weekend. Had I not been otherwise engaged, I may have gone. Rats, as they say. I am not used to this, but no doubt the realisation will sink in with time.

Anyway, as you have probably gathered, I have nothing to say as I have done nothing. Whilst this does not usually hold me back, today I just can't spout forth. Blogger's block? No idea, it may be that my creative senses have been dulled by excel spreadsheets and the heady world of regulatory capital. Just a thought.

But fear not, for the weekend is close at hand. One more day of working to get through, and then two precious days are mine. All mine. Oh, apart from Saturday, when I'm busy with stuff. Children, that kind of thing. So Sunday then. Question is do I hit the patch, or do I go further afield? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Not enough hours in the day

Imagine for a moment that I have a wick coming out of the top of my head. I am a candle, and I am alight. My hair is gently being singed, my scalp getting hotter. There is also a wick coming out of my left foot. That too is alight, and causing some discomfort. I am a candle burning at both ends. Put without stupid references to candles, there is not enough time in the day. Last night I went to bed at 1am, the night before that, also 1am. With paid employment now taking up the vast majority of my normal waking hours, all the stuff that I used to do during the day while the kids were at school is getting pushed to either end, and I’m still not getting it all done.

This is exactly how I remember it before, but then that was without the comparative luxury of knowing that one didn’t have to live in complete chaos. Back then, living in a bombsite seemed normal. When I lost my job in 2009, I turned my not inconsiderable energy and drive to running the house and looking after the kids, with possibly a small amount of local birding thrown in. Now that I am back at work, I see everything I strived to sort out disintegrating, and disintegrating fast. This is naturally extremely irritating. My response has been to attempt to squeeze some of what I used to do during the day into the mornings and evenings.

Last night for instance I did a pile of cleaning in the kitchen, and this morning saw me hanging up washing, cleaning up the kitchen – again, moving the vacuum cleaner whose upturned plug I had trodden on several times in the last few days, and helping the kids with the arduous task of putting away socks. It didn’t help that I got up late, but that was because I had only gone to bed a matter of hours previously after all the stuff I had needed to do last night. And this is with help!! At the moment, I am not responsible for either the school run or feeding anyone. That thankless task is being done by a succession of exhausted relatives, without whom we would be up a certain creek missing a certain paddle, and we are very grateful.

Tomorrow, I’m in charge again. I’ve had over a week in the office now, sorting myself out and working out what exactly it is that I need to do, but with that bedding-in out of the way, I’m going to attempt to work from home. I won’t have time during the day to do much of what I used to, but I think that just by being present when the children are around I can perhaps keep a lid on quite how much devastation they can cause. Or that is the plan anyway. In reality I’m going to be hiding myself away and hoping that they don’t kill each other.

We always knew that this period would be difficult, and of course it didn’t help that I went to both Shetland and Norfolk in quick succession, but that’s October for you, and I'm already planning next year. We’re both working full-time, we have three kids at school, including one on a daft half-day schedule (which thankfully comes to an end quite soon), and the house does not clean itself, nor the clothes wash themselves. Neither does food cook itself, nor transport itself from the shop to our kitchen. And more is the pity, for soon something will have to give. I’m thinking specifically of the word “cleaner” at this point. Though it pains me to pay someone else to clean my house, it may have to happen. It would be one less thing to worry about, and would of course help the economy. The Lithuanian economy primarily.

Then there is the small matter of local birding, the thing that above all keeps me sane and balanced. Can you guess how much I’ve done in the last two weeks? Exactly. Right now, I’d need help finding my way to Wanstead Flats.  I’ve not been out once. Not that there has been much to see, the odd Ring Ouzel, a few Skylarks and a large Sparrowhawk ;-) , but that’s not the point. I just enjoy being out there, and that has been sacrificed. I’m not happy about it, but there is nothing I can do at the moment. The good times are over it seems.....

Unless.....have a Shrike! They always cheer me up, and they may cheer you up too having just read my big whinge. This juvenile Woodchat Shrike at Lowestoft in Suffolk was extremely approachable, though with many other birders there, and a recent article in Birdwatch Mag about photographers, I didn't want to push my luck. We popped in to pay it homage on the way back from birdless Norfolk last weekend, and it cheered us up no end, as did a Glossy Ibis just down the road at Minsmere, site of some of my finest smash and grab raids. And I finally connected with the Semipalmated Sandpiper in Essex as well, although my mate Lee, er I mean Bradders, thinks we're stringing it as he didn't see it earlier in the afternoon. I of course would never doubt any of my mates' sightings..... no no no, never.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Seeing no birds in Norfolk

A few of us had booked a birdy long weekend in Norfolk about six months ago. At peak time, we would surely be knee-deep in rarities, fighting Yellow-browed Warblers off with our bare hand, shooing Olive-backed Pipits off the pavements. The westerly winds had other ideas however, and as our long-awaited trip dawned, so too did the realisation that we were going to see almost nothing. Naturally, we turned to drink.

We had left on Thursday morning, and taken a circuitous route that involved dipping the Semipalmated Sandpiper at East Tilbury, spending eleven hours in the Hornchurch/Romford area picking the Monkey up, ticking the Sandhill Crane for the England list I don't keep, and finally arriving in West Norfolk late afternoon. Rather than go out birding, we made for the nearest pub.

Whereas my trip to Shetland was characterised by 8pm being thought of as a late night, this trip to Norfolk was the birding equivalent of Ibiza (though without any Mediterranean species). Wherry on draft and a rack of ribs, does it come any better? The boozing continued back at the accomodation, and about twenty minutes after we all went to bed, Dave Mo got up and started his morning routine with a shower. This was to become a feature of the holiday.

The following day, suitably refreshed after fifteen million gallons of beer and about an hour's sleep, we indecisively made our way to Hunstanton. There we saw no birds over the course of about half an hour, and then gave up and went to a cafe for breakfast. After more indecisiveness and ever-increasing numbers of Gadwall being released, we set upon a new plan which took us to Cley. Guess what? We saw no birds. Well, we saw a handful of Great Skuas and some Goldies, but the Richard's Pipits and Red-flanked Bluetails were sadly lacking. We couldn't even find the Lapland Buntings that had been reported from the Eye Field. This was not for want of trying though. I spent about an hour scanning and scanning, and in the process was nearly forced to kill about twenty other birders.

Perhaps this is unique to the type of birding gentry found only in Norfolk, or perhaps this is a sign of national malaise, but not a single other birder could be bothered to actually look for the Laps. This didn't stop all twenty of them coming up to Hawky and I, setting up their scopes, and then asking if we had them. When we answered no, they looked through their scopes for approximately eight seconds each, and then picked them up and walked off back to the beach, their car, their deckchair, whatever. To begin with I was fairly cheerful about it. Nope, hadn't seen them, but it was a big field and they were small birds. Then I started saying that only by looking could you hope to find. Then I became a little short, and asked them how many birders they could actually see looking for them. When this didn't faze them at all, and they walked off exactly as all the others had done before them, I snapped, and was possibly then overtly rude to the next lot that turned up and called them a bunch of of lazy goodfornothing wankers and that I was not there just to ensure that they could view a Lapland Bunting through my scope and that they could just piss off. At that point we too decided to leave, which was fortunate, as the next sixty-something well-kitted-out birding incompetent who had asked me if I had the Lapland Buntings for him would likely have been twatted with my extremely substantial tripod, and then battered to death whilst on the floor with the blunt end of my SLR.

Next stop Wells Wood, where we all wandered around disconsolently for ages, and on the point of leaving were extremely fortunate that my Shetland-trained ears picked out the Yellow-browed Warbler which then proceeded to utterly elude us, bar more brief calls, for a further hour. I forget what we did next, but it almost certainly didn't involved birds and almost certainly did involve beer in dramatic quantites whilst we waited for Dave Mo to get up and for the next day to start.

The next day was pretty fun it has to be said. We left the Mo and the Monkey watching some rugby game or other, and Shaun, Hawky, Redsy and me went off to Twitchwell to photograph waders. This we achieved, though at the cost of getting rather wet, particularly Shaun. It's all about fieldcraft. Position yourself correctly, don't move (unless a wave threatens to drown you), be patient, and the birds will come to you. This culminated in me being surrounded by Knot, Barwit and Turnstone literally feet away, it was superb. I rattled off some 850 frames in the two hours I was there, some of which you are privileged to see littering this post. Kind of. After some comedy antics from the orienteering team of Monkey and Mo, who tried to access Titchwell via Thornham saltmarsh, we attempted a Seawatch at Sheringham, saw nothing, and went home for - wait for it - some beers.

And that was it really. Norfolk in three days netted one Yellow-browed Warbler and a few Skuas. We decided we would cut our losses and so we all went home and back to work. Yes, even me. Happily we went via Suffolk, which actually had some birds. And you can see some of those... in the next program post.

PS  If you didn't read the last sentence in a David Attenborough voice you will have entirely missed out on what I was trying to achieve. Natch.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

When Technology Fails

Largely, I like the gadgets that living in the year 2011 means exist for my convenience and entertainment. For instance, I like having my entire music collection on a very small piece of electronic wizardry. I enjoy the fact that my camera can take ten frames a second, and continue to do so for ages. I also enjoy not having to change the film after 36 shots, and instead being able to take over 1000 images without even thinking about it. I like the instant gratification that having a small screen on the back allows. And histograms, well, where do I start? There is no praise high enough. I like having all the calls and songs of hundreds of European birds on my phone as an instant reference, and I like being able to call friends and family from just about anywhere with the same device, especially when it is to report the bagging of Sandhill Cranes in Aberdeenshire when they are all miles away. As far as I am concernced, these are excellent uses of technology, and they suit my needs very well.

Sometimes however technology oversteps the mark. This happened today, and predictably the device in question was a satnav. Now satnavs have their uses, don’t get me wrong, many is the time that mine has got me to an unfamiliar location, there to see some rare bird or other. I daresay that on occasion not having had a satnav might have caused me to miss a bird whilst I faffed about working out where I needed to go. Today though I could have lived without a satnav. When you are driving down a road in the Norfolk countryside, and the satnav comes out with “continue 400 yards , then board ferry”, you have to wonder if technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to to be.

A ferry?!  The four of us in the car looked at each other and wondered if we had heard it right. We had, for about a minute later the road ended abruptly at a river, and there, clanking towards us from the other side, was a small chain ferry. WTF? The lady in the satnav had announced the ferry-boarding with absolutely no change in intonation, it had all been very factual. “Proceed down the road, board the ferry”. I might have forgiven it had she been marginally excited. “Guys, carry on for just a bit longer, and then there’s a surprise! But no, monotone. Actually it was quite exciting. Until we saw the sign that said a car and passengers would be charged £3.90 for the 45 second crossing. For the distance travelled, that made it more expensive than the Scillonian, which is saying something. At least there wasn’t a long wait, but it would have been nice to have been asked. More human to have been asked.

The old codger operating the ferry did not fail to notice the evident surprise on our faces. Didn’t mean to come ‘ere did ya?,  he said. No, we admitted. Satnav, he pronounced, with an air of certainty. Yes, we said. That’ll be £3.90, he said.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Statistical Collective Boredom

I was recently shown the "Stats" feature of blogger, which, semi-luddite that I am, I had not realised existed. Way back in the distant past I had managed to enable something called "Statcounter", but, these things being what they are, it required a password, which, naturally, I forgot. Since then the only pointers I have had as to blog-popularity are the Fatbirder counter thingy that you see down the bottom, a pageview counter that I cannot remember ever putting on and thus distrust, and the how many comments get left. And given that half the time I can't even leave comments on my own blog, let alone anyone else, I've been largely igoring that guide, and worked solely off the Fatbirder thing. This usually sits at around 150, but peaked once at 88. How that gets worked out I have no idea, as it moves across a fairly wide range with surprising regularity. Right now I'm sitting between a Russian language site that might be about birds, and some kind of photographic encyclopaedia that quacks at you when you open the Ducks page, but this varies.

Now I have discovered blogger stats, and my what a load of fun they are! They tell me, for instance, and this is what has prompted this short post, that yesterday saw a staggering 1044 pageviews. And only about 800 of those were me checking to see if anyone left any comments.... Seriously, 1000 pageviews? Vous etes having a laugh, non? Checking to see if this was some horrible mistake, a thought which presumably went through the minds of roughly 1000 people at some point yesterday, I went back a bit further, and discovered that the day before saw 675, the day before that 825, and the day before that 748. I'm no statistician, but that would seem to indicate that it's not just a fluke. I checked to see if I had inadvertently written about Great Tits on any of the days, for we all know what the internet is primarily used for, but of these there was no mention. Clearly I am on a roll - shame I just started work again...

I think yesterday's sortie into four figures for the first time ever can be explained away by it being Monday, combined with the world being once again close to economic collapse, and having just had three Party Conferences in a row. People are bored. Very bored. Cameron this, Osbourne that. Please, anything but politics! How about a so-called bird blog that hasn't mentioned birds for three days? Yes internet, take me there now! Hallelujah! Oh, wait......

Sadly the stats page does not show the length of each visit, or at least not that I have found, and that of course may paint a different picture, and tell me that cumulatively the 1044 pageviews lasted about 32 seconds. We shall never know, and seeing as it may burst my proverbial bubble, I'm happy to remain in the dark. More interesting is that it tells you which pages have been visited the most. No matter what time period I look at, the top page is "Birding in New Delhi", which dates from May 2009, generally by a factor of ten over any other page. The next most popular is my map of Wanstead Flats, which is probably just people wanting directions to Long Wood. Nothing else even comes close. These two facts are very surprising, but it shows that there may be some mileage in writing about popular birding destinations like Wanstead Flats. And New Delhi.

Far and away the best bit of stats is of course the keyword searches that brought people here. "Hoopoe Bird" is quite a common one - I particularly like how specific people are being. Hoopoe Cow, for example, is never seen. "Birderdes" is another one that crops up fairly frequently. Perhaps there is a birder called Des somewhere, or perhaps, in the same way that I type Wheater instead of Wheatear around 96% of the time, it's just a cock up. This week more than one person searched for "boy otter costume", which is probably entirely innocent, and today someone searched for "ryanair monopod", no doubt wanting to know how a monopod might best be used to beat a hand-luggage-measuring Ryanair employee senseless next time around. Sadly the keyword search is capped at ten per time period, so some of the more obscure and highly perverted ones that are perhaps out there will have to remain a mystery, but the possibility of scoring a few now down the line now that I have discovered a way to view them may prompt me to insert some ambigious phrases in future posts. Not that I am that immature of course.....

Bird's bum wiggling in the air.

Monday, 3 October 2011

So how was it for me?

Monday morning commute. Other people's BO at 8am. Heat. Noise. All delights I was thrilled to become reacquainted with, and pay for the privilege. I quickly decided I hadn't missed them at all. Forty-five minutes later the system spat me out at Canary Wharf, my home from 1998 to 2009. I approached the familiar building with a spring in my step, no nervousness this time around. First up an HR induction, entirely predictable, entirely unnecessary. Was this my first time working there? Er, no. In fact I was working here while you were still doing your GCSEs. I didn't say this of course, but dutifully signed 12,235 forms in triplicate, promised not to send emails inciting racial hatred, and gave them my National Insurance number so that I could start funding bankrupt-Britain again.

All signed up, I progressed to security. There I queued, at vast expense, for forty-five minutes while a succession of dopey employees explained to the single man on duty on a Monday morning that they had lost their security passes over the weekend. Finally my turn, I was photographed, and a new shiny pass with the new me on it was issued. Through the turnstiles and into the lift.

I was back.

How strange it felt. People looked at me curiously, wondering if it really was (a thinner version of) me. Others, certain of my identity, came up immediately. I had the same conversation about a million times over the course of the day. What, you mean you've been doing nothing? Well, if you discount the childcare, the school runs, the shopping, the cleaning and general shite that comes with running a house, well yes, I've been doing nothing, just twiddling my thumbs really.

At my new desk, logged in, I looked myself up in the internal directory. There I was! But I was the old me again, the photo circa 2004. Big hair. More chins. And my old phone number too, and my old secretary. These I changed, but my email remains the same. I'm definitely back. I called a few people, just to see what would happen. Bloody Hell! What are you doing back here?! What have you been doing? Oh, nothing....

A short while later and I decided to tour my old floor. Same old same old, familiar faces, familiar voices. A real buzz - a trading floor - lots going on. More conversations, more envy. I tried the coffee machine. Cappucino awful, the espresso later was much better, though needed less sugar. Or more coffee. I had my old lunch. Not literally of course, but the same thing I used to eat more or less every day after wandering around the whole restaurant being unenthused by anything else. The BBQ sauce remains excellent, the salad dressing sub-standard and gloopy. Truly nothing has changed.

I've been out of the game, doing nothing, for over two and half years. I always said I would go back to work when Pudding started school, which was two weeks ago. Mrs L doubted my resolve, but I've done it. I hadn't meant go back to exactly the same place, but it was convenient. I'm very much a known quantity. They're prepared to let me transition back around my parental responsibilities, which is fantastic. I don't want to let go of that, I truly enjoy it. I'm part of my kids childhood, a real presence, rather than the dad they never see. It's important. Three years ago I failed to see that importance, it took getting made redundant and having it forced upon me to hammer it home. I was blind, but I soon saw. Money, useful but unimportant. Kids, wife (boss), family, home. That's what it's all about. Oh, and birds.

NB The views and opinions expressed in this blog are entirely my own and are not those of my employer, who are a fine, upstanding company, with moral standards far, far higher than my own.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Economics, by me

On the cusp of returning to the salt mines, it occured to me that we're all utterly screwed no matter what we do. No, really. I was wondering what happened to all the money that we don't have any more. I reasoned that money doesn't just disappear, so that must mean that someone else must have it. It isn't me. Nor is it anyone I know. A few Russian oligarchs have a shit-load of it, and China presumably has heaps in return for all the plastic shite we collectively buy, but surely that can't account for all of it.

The UK's national debt is currently £940 billion. We have bought almost £1,000 billion of crap from China. If you include the cost of all the bank bailouts, the debt number is £2,266 billion. That is two trillion quid. Maybe - I've never really understood trillions. Anyway, a staggeringly large amount. Money that we don't have, and therefore have to borrow from other people. It costs yet more billions in interest payments. There are three ways the country can get money. The first is taxes. I start paying them again tomorrow - don't say I never help. The second is by selling stuff, such as our entire national infrastructure. This was called privatisation, and we have nothing left to sell anymore. The third is the easiest, whereby we just print more money, and then say "Golly, look at that, where did that come from? Very handy." This is called quantative easing and is generally accepted as a bad thing as it devalues all the other money that we don't have.

So, add up those three things, and that's what we get coming in. Call it a salary if you will. But then come the outgoings. For you and me, it's food, the mortgage, binoculars, that kind of thing. For the country it's stuff like building hospitals and paying nurses to work in them, paying interest on our national debt, and ensuring that thousands of utter layabouts can continue to smoke, swill lager, and watch Sky TV with their benefit cheques.

And that's the problem. The cost of doing all of that far exceeds our salary, and has done for years. If you and I were to do this, we'd be out on the street living in cardboard boxes in shop doorways. For countries, you just call it a budget defecit, blame it on the previous governent, and sell some more gilts to fund it. The actual number this year is forecast to be about £170 billion. That number simply gets added to the £940 billion of money we don't have.

But worry ye not, there is a plan. It is called the goverment's economic strategy, or to use another well-used term, austerity measures. These measures are designed to save £81 billion over the next four years, but of course come at the expense of having policemen on our streets, or even police stations. Oh, and we're all going to have to continue working until we DIE, but on the plus side we are still going to have nice new shiny Aircraft Carrier.

It's a huge amount of money, and is going to be painful for a generation, perhaps longer (see below) But here's the rub. Even if the country does manage to save that £81 billion, some simple maths indicates that we're still screwed. Assuming the budget defecit stays stable at £170 billion a year for the next four years, rather than increase the national debt by £680 billion, we're dramatically slashing that number to only a £599 billion increase. What is the bloody use in that? To even shave £1 billion off the national debt, we need to save £171 billion a year! And even then it will take the best part of a millenium to even get back to zero! To get back to zero in a useful timeframe doesn't even bear thinking about. We're screwed. Utterly screwed. And we're in good shape! Look at Greece. Look at Ireland. Look at Spain, look at America. The western economic model, that of spending money you don't have (and will never have), is well and truly broken. The austerity measures are pie in the sky. What is the bloody point? We're doomed.

It's amazing what you can think of during a short car journey isn't it? All of the above came to me on the M11 between Cambridge and London this afternoon. I've never had any interest in economics whatsoever, apart from on a personal level. But the real worry is what actually is money? Is it a number I see online when I check my bank balance? Or is that ethereal? Is it the the bits of paper I have from time to time in my wallet that promise to pay the bearer on demand? Yeah, with what exactly? All the gold reserves we already sold? The UK ran out of "money", whatever that is, years ago. The situation is only getting worse, and the austerity measures only mean it's getting worse fractionally more slowly.

So the answer is........?

No idea. Just enjoy your birding before you have to sell your binoculars.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Jack Snipe wins Award

I got back today, just timed it so that I failed to get any new birds, the Grey-cheeked Thrush departing after I arrived, and a couple of Olive-backed Pipits turning up when I got home. That's birding for you, but an excellent week nonetheless, with a slew of decent birds and excellent views of most of them, included the erasure of the dreaded "bvd"* from Barred Warbler after years of getting only glimpses. I'm still swaying gently even twelve hours after disembarking MV Hrossey, but a night in a real bed should sort me out.

I stayed on the islands for a mere five nights, but managed to rack up the following in terms of goodies:

Surf Scoter
Pallid Harrier
Barred Warbler x 3
Yellow-browed Warbler x 5
Bluethroat x 2
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Little Bunting
Black-headed Bunting
Common Rosefinch
Arctic(-type) Redpoll
Lesser Grey Shrike
eastern form of Lesser Whitethroat

That strikes me as pretty good, especially when you plonk a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers and a Sandhill Crane at the beginning of the list that were scored in-transit.

The birding up there is intense. Intense and prolonged concentration, and also intensely difficult in inclement conditions. I have come back a better birder, all you can ask really (apart from half-a-dozen ticks of course). Glimpes of Phylloscs are now enough to separate Chiff from Willow from Yellow-browed. A shape zipping across a gap between vegetation is easily assigned to Blackcap and so on. Quite a lot of fun.

The best bird saved itself until my final afternoon. I forget where exactly we were, checking another plantation. A Jack Snipe flew past Howard at waist height and plonked down in the grass quite close to use. Empoying stealth and fieldcraft I inched the camera towards it as I lay flat on my stomach along a fenceline. The bird didn't move, so I fired away. It decided on a little wander, and walked through the wire fence and then through Bradder's legs. Eh?

It soon became apparent that the bird either had no concept of people, or was so shattered it didn't care. Or perhaps both. Bradders stuck out his hand to see if the bird would walk across it. It did. Then we all wanted a go. Extraordinary behaviour. Pretty amazing from the bird as well. It wandered around between us utterly unconcerned - talk about an opportunity for study.

If anything, this birding trip to Shetland has been about confiding birds. Not necessarily rare ones, but exceptionally good views of pretty much everything we came across. Even of a Barred Warbler, which takes some doing. But despite the awesomeness of the Lesser Grey Shrike, the spendidness of the Arctic Redpoll, and the chirpiness of the Little Bunting, the bird I will remember and smile about, when asked about Shetland 2011, will be the Jack Snipe that walked across my hand and nearly hid in my lens hood.

* better view desired.