Saturday, 26 November 2011


Been a bit busy of late. The week can be summarised in one word. Work. On the birding front there has been very little - one mid-week patch visit to see the Firecrests (all four of them), and a quick jaunt this morning out onto Wanstead Flats. You will be pleased to hear that Gull numbers are building up nicely - almost entirely Common and Black-headed, in about equal number. I have, of course, been forced to look at them. More fool me.

The other day this one caught my beady eye. It is clearly a Common Gull, but I think it's an Azorean Common Gull. Just look at that streaking! Any Azorean Y-L Gull would be proud to have streaking like that. The bird caught my eye from some way away, and immediately looked exciting. Being a closet Larophile (or should that be phobe?) I remembered having read about an eastern race of Common Gull, one field mark of which was extensive dark streaking on the head. Naturally I couldn't remember anything else about it, or even what is was called. No matter, that's what cameras are for right? Note what?

It would be ambitious of me to mention heinei this early in my Gull career (and remember that the Gulls are still winning by some margin), but all I can say is that it stood out by a wide margin whilst still being just a Common Gull. I've also read that the occasional normal canus Common Gull can show streaking this extensive, but this is the first I can recall seeing. I had a look for it this morning in the flock, but it wasn't there. Nevermind. Note that it was a very foggy day, so the photo has come out a bit odd, at least there's another bird in there for comparison though.

Gulls - stay well away!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Understanding the Internet

The internet is a difficult place in which to be understood. Two people may read the same sentence and come away thinking two entirely different things. To ensure that you get your message across to one and all, it is suggested that you use emoticons. There are almost endless variations upon the now-ubiquitous smiley face, the following short guide is intended to help people who can actually read english, and thus don't know what emoticons mean. And if, like me, you are an avid consumer of rare bird threads, you had better know how to use them.

biggrin This one is really easy. It means that you are happy. And have had a good dentist.
sad Again easy. It means that you are sad about something.
confused Not quite as easy. Let's just say you are enigmatic, but it all depends on how the reader views the emoticon.
surprised I honestly can't believe it, I am so surprised.
eek You have been browsing a rare bird thread for too long.
cool You need to adjust your monitor brightness settings.
mrgreen You're blessed with good teeth and a great dentist, and you've just been on the Scillonian for the first time. I can't see this one getting used a lot.
razz The badge recently came off your Leicas.
neutral You are confused. Or a muppet.
wink Everyone's favourite. Use this when you are being deliberately rude or obstreperous - it softens the impact and helps you get away with it more often. Also useful for hinting at sarcasm or humour for people who have trouble recognising either.
evil If you are a twitcher who believes you have a god-given right to see all rare birds, you could use this when talking about Needs Ore Point, East Norfolk, or North Cornwall.

twisted If you are a birder from Needs Ore Point, East Norfolk or North Cornwall and are using the internet to gloat about rare birds, this would be ideal.

rolleyes Should have gone to Specsavers.

Of course, you can use combinations of emoticons as well. Take the following sentence, of the type that I might contribute to a rare bird thread:

"Gosh, I could not possibly have predicted that people would start bitching about Lee Evans on this thread that has actually got nothing to do with him."

What would you use here? You could use the wink one to indicate the use of sarcasm and frivolity. Or you could use the surprised one instead to indicate surprise and thus increase the amount of sarcasm that you wanted to convey. But why not use both? The more emoticons you use the better people will be able to understand you.

How about this:

"It is a shame cry that I could not see the xxxxxxx bird that was shamelessly supressed evil by those bastards in North Cornwall wink, but I respect everyone's right to do as they please confused and accept that because I am sat behind a computer reading rare bird threads all day long eek I cannot see every bird that turns up mrgreen. However I will exercise my right to nonetheless whinge massively lol wink in the interests of utterly ruining what might otherwise have been a sensible and mature discussion twisted wink wink. By the way, my bins recently broke razz."

Monday, 21 November 2011

Another Firecrest

Well, the same Firecrest, or one of the same ones anyway. I couldn't resist going back for another look at the weekend. Well, actually, apart from today, I think I've been to see them every day since whatever day it was I first saw them. They're that good. I saw three again on Sunday; what's better then three Firecrests eh? How about four Firecrests? Yup, there could be four according to a report from another of the local birders. Hopefully they will stay all winter - likely - and I'll get to see even more of them. Snow rarely penetrates into the lower story of Bush Wood, but it's a photo I find myself dreaming of from time to time.

Photographing them is rather challenging. Slow and predictable they are not, and the Holly plays havoc with the autofocus system. You can forget about a tripod, no way is that quick enough, you have to hand hold. It's pretty dark in there, so that nice high shutter speed you wanted isn't going to happen. Nonetheless, modern technology is there to offer a helping hand. Hello image stabilisation, and hello high ISO. I took this next photo at 1/320s at ISO 1250. The focal length is 650mm equivalent, so you can see IS in operation here - I've managed a sharp shot (Picasa, my host, tends to muller my photos, the one on my screen is a lot nicer) with an extremely heavy lens which I would expect to wobble like a good'un. And the only reason I even scraped 1/320s is because I had 1250 available and knew it would be OK - you can see some grain but isn't troublesome. You won't be able to tell from the photo, but I also underexposed it by 2/3rds of a stop, the metered exposure was only 1/200s. The overall scene tended to dark, thus likely fooling the camera's metering, which is exposing for mid-tones. I felt that -2/3rds was a more accurate reflection of what I was seeing, and it also gave me that extra bit of speed. I probably could have taken it down even more and brought it back up in post-processing, a useful trick if you're really struggling with available light.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Essex Birds

Wanstead is in Essex, and that's where I started today. Nick and I were nice and early on the patch, but no goodies were produced. I had palpitations early on when I saw two distant flying waterfowl and immediately issued the joyful shout of "Brent Geese!", a long-awaited patch tick. My initial joy turned to consternation though, when after some proper squinting I felt that the rear-most bird was definitely lighter in tone that the lead bird. Although I'd been certain that the first bird was a Brent, the apparent difference between the two raised all sorts of questions, and very sadly I've binned them. Although generally very low, I do have some standards.

Thinking about it, Brent Goose is a good candidate for my most-wanted bird for the patch. It's entirely possible, is big and easy to spot, which is always a plus, and now is the right time of year. That said, there are many others. Marsh Harrier and Short-eared Owl both rank highly, as do Smew and Bewick's Swan. I've decided on my most-wanted for the garden. That's going to be Little Egret from now until I get one. It's still a hard bird away from the Roding, but I'm close enough to the Walthamstow-Thames flight path to be in with a chance. Other possibilities for the garden are Firecrests on an away day, and perhaps also one of the seven Egyptian Geese which seem to have taken up residence on the Basin, just a short flight away.

Why is Alexandra Lake filled with algal blooms and infested with rats? No idea.

Wanstead held little else, six Teal on Alex probably the highlight. A quick grill of the gulls produced nothing remarkable, though I still think that with the number of Common Gulls we get, Ring-billed has to be a serious possibility. I suppose that could be the new most-wanted... A group of Long-tailed Tits did not want their photograph taken, and an out-of-control dog jumped all over me. The second time it jumped all over me, I nudged it away with my leg. Oh dear, in the eyes of the owner that counted as kicking the dog, and that was well out of order. It's great isn't it? A dog jumps all over me and all of a sudden it's my problem. Yes, that sounds fair to me. Here's an alternative suggestion though, dog-owner. Keep your stupid f***ing dog under control or on a f***ing lead, or don't f***ing bring it to Wanstead f***ing Flats. Or am I out of order again? I tell you, the day I get a sincere apology from a dog-owner, or even just an apology, will be the day I..., the day I..., well I just don't know. It's so massively unlikely it will never ever happen.

Moving on, we moved on. To real Essex, with additional passengers in the shape of Paul W and Muffin. Fingringhoe to be precise, where we spent an hour not seeing a Glossy Ibis for Paul's Essex list that he does now keep (it would be a great deal quicker to list the counties for which Paul does not keep a list. Herefordshire I think.), which was in fact there all along. The next stop was Mersea, where I quickly added a perfectly genuine and acceptable Red-breasted Goose to the Essex List I definitely don't keep, and added Black Brant for the day when that becomes tickable.This was a life tick for Muffin, and he was so delighted that he made some patterns in the mud with his trainers. A Wigeon we had been watching and thinking was a little odd then died in front of us, a nice lesson in the natural way of things for junior. This air of finality caused us to surmise that the day was basically over, so we went home.

What do you mean you can't see it?

Friday, 18 November 2011


Another five days of toil, another five days of columns and rows. To celebrate the impending two days of relative freedom, I made myself a cheeky Mojito whilst preparing yet another family meal. Where is that fairy when you need her? I didn't take an awful lot of care, I measured nothing. In fact I didn't even crush the ice, but the result was mind-blowingly stupendous. So stupendous that before I even allowed myself a sip I just had to take a photograph of it. Just so we're all clear, it tasted even better than it looks. Wow. Forget Wanstead, Havana here I come.

Just look at it! Just the photo is making me feel thirsty!. I'm seriously considering another, although I'd have to make two as Mrs L is now home. It all bodes well for the weekend, and I have no plans whatsoever. This is how I like weekends to be. No stressing about rare Sandpipers in Somerset, no stressing about funny Greenshanks in Northumberland. I am going to take it easy. I am harbouring vague thoughts about a Red-breasted Goose in Essex, but that's as far as it goes. Whatever you end up doing, have a good one.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Racking them up

Last year I got to the then incredible total of 108 species on the patch. Untouchable, I thought, if I make a hundred I'll be lucky. I know I mentioned this only a couple of days ago but I've gone and added another one!

Firecrest in Bush Wood. The tick actually happened yesterday, but I was busy. I nipped into Bush Wood following a tip-off, not really expecting to find anything, it being a big wood and they being small birds, but it look less than two minutes. Did I have a camera with me? Ah. So today, in need of some air after wrestling with a recalcitrant regulatory capital system, I set off, armed, to Bush Wood. With some trepidation of course, it being the site of previous maltreatment, but it was a nice sunny day, and I felt pretty safe.

As before, I located the birds within five minutes, given away almost immediately by a host of squeaky dog-toy calls. Soon I had three birds flitting around my head between two large holly bushes. Bush Wood is mostly large holly bushes, so I'm not giving away much. Snappity snappity snap. It's relatively dark, and the birds are extremely active, so a high ISO was needed, in this case 1250. Can you tell, because I certainly couldn't? I reckon it's as good as ISO 400 on my last camera, which for most of you is an utterly meaningless comparison. Suffice to say it is amazing. Two years hence and I'll be moaning how awful the dark days of 2011 were, but for now, it's affording me opportunities that didn't exist even two years ago. Loving it. This is what coffee breaks are made for, though I think I actually ascribed it as a late lunch, which I ended up sacrificing in favour of these little beauties. Glad I did, as is my less-than-washboard-like tummy.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Once I get to work, I'm generally fine. I act totally professionally, and get on with the job in hand. I do not complain or whimper (whilst there), I suck it up. Getting there is another matter entirely. I LOATHE it. Hate it. Detest it. At the moment I am largely working from home. The commute from bed to study takes approximately ten seconds, involves very little angst, and costs nothing. Some days, however, I go into the office, which is at Canary Wharf. Today was one of those days. Let me describe it for you.

The first half hour was extremely pleasant. Then I finished birding my way across the Flats and, as acid grassland turned to concrete, I found myself in the wilderness of Forest Gate. Descending the stairs at the train station, I waited with about two-hundred other merry commuters. Standing on the platform, watching depressed-looking travellers rattling into Liverpool Street, I casually wondered how many of them were happy. My conclusion, few. Finally a stopping-train came in. It was reasonably full, but plenty of space inside the carriage if people moved down and away from the doors. The doors opened. People, including me, stood on the platform waiting to get on. However people inside the train didn’t move. They kept reading their papers, tapping their smart phones, avoiding eye-contact. The doors closed without a single person where I was stood getting on, and the train moved off. As it did so I could see a man leisurely stretching his legs inside the far end of the carriage. Well thanks very much Essex commuters, you selfish so-and-sos. Perhaps it is merely a mechanism for survival? Don’t speak, don’t give an inch. These are presumably sociable people with families, who enjoy an evening down the pub, who communicate with colleagues now and again. Yet on a train they are silent automatons. This is what I hate about London and about commuting. Part of it is physical, being crammed into small spaces and being uncomfortably close to the smelly parts of other human beings. But part of it is the sheer unfriendliness of it all. You’re all in it together, all hating every minute of it, but yet there is a massive lack of empathy which you would expect to be present in spades in such a horrible environment. Instead it is cold, silent, and forboding. I managed to get onto the second train, where a number of people mistook me for a large sack of potatoes. It did nothing to improve my mood.

Grassy intermission. This is on the Flats, and I have no idea why.

At Stratford station I was ejected, almost literally, onto another heaving platform, and traipsed over to the Docklands Light Railway. Again I found myself sharing other peoples' personal space a little too cozily, but there is nothing you can do. It's have an enforced cuddle with four or five strangers, one of whom will be really scummy, or walk to work. At Canary Wharf, you have to move swiftly. If you don't fall into line and elegantly synchronise your movements with a thousand other people, you are liable to be trampled to death. People at Canary Wharf do not stop, everything is fluid. If you're not moving, you don't exist. There are no barriers, so sometimes I forget to bleep out at the Oystercard reader. Turning back, against the flow, can be suicidal, which brings me neatly to the other thing I hate about commuting in London.

I have a very keen sense of self-preservation. I am not the kind of person who needs regular adrenalin rushes. I have never harboured any desire to go bungy-jumping, sky-diving, or swimming with Great White Sharks, I very much prefer tamer activities. Like sitting down on sofas. I was on the tube on 7th July 2005. Luckily, working in a bank that believed in taking its pound of flesh, I was at my desk well before four crazies from Leeds blew themselves and fifty-two other people up. I am sure I speak for many when I say that travelling by tube has never really been the same since. I remember walking home that day, and the following day I actually got off a train because a man with a bag and a beard got on. Pathetic and predjudiced perhaps, but perfectly understandable. As time passes, the memory fades, but never completely, and always at the back of mind is the thought that some brain-washed freako may jump up and shout "Allahu Akbar!" or some such and then attempt to kill as many people as possible in the hope of being granted 72 Siberian Rubythroats and a Wallcreeper in paradise. Now before anyone passes a fatwah on me, I mention this not as an attack on Islam, which I know nothing about (it might be Siberian Blue Robins, not Rubythroats, I have not really researched it), but because in this day and age lunatics of all creed and race are something you have to be genuinely concerned about. Look at that bloke in Norway, an extreme example perhaps, but there are plenty of other less sensational attacks we all forget about. Just last month in Bexleyheath of all places a woman ran amok with a carving knife and killed a lady on her way to work. An innocent commuter, just like me.

And then of course, assuming I survive all that twice, there and back, I have to run the gauntlet of Bush Wood, over whose 100m distance I now look behind me about forty times. It's easily dark by the time I come through. To say I am paranoid is the understatement of the century, but if you had been pinned to the ground by four blokes, punched in the face ten times entirely unnecessarily and had your Leicas stolen I reckon you'd be pretty paranoid as well. Yeah, I reckon commuting is vastly overrated.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Listing Angst

Mrs L was doing the school run this morning, so I snuck out on the patch before work. Or rather, she kicked me out onto the patch - it is quite possible I would have just lazed around in bed. I am very glad that she did, or at least I think I am. It was extremely misty on the Flats, not the low mist that hangs between three and six feet in the air, but a consistent bank of mist that restricted any kind of view of the sky. Perhaps best to call it extremely low cloud, as horizontal visibility was fine. I had stopped to photograph a large mushroom when an Oystercatcher called. Wah!! Then it called again, a whole series of "kleeps". I strained to see it, I wanted a glimpse, fleeting would have been sufficient. It seemed to have come from south of my position in the Broom Fields, but try as I might one final, faint kleep and that was it. Dagnabit!

I was immediately overcome with self-doubt and introspective cynicism. When I had heard the call, I had immediately and automatically gone "Oystercatcher!" to myself. It is a highly distinctive call. I had looked up expecting to see an Oystercatcher, but the fog had prevented me seeing it. Ten seconds later and I was trying to talk myself out of it. Why? I should have been doing cartwheels, for Oystercatcher was my number one most-wanted patch tick. And this is the problem. It is too convenient. What is my most-wanted patch tick? An Oystercatcher? Right, that's what I'll go out and hear then. SImple. It's another version of seeing what you expect to see, the little cynical voice inside me said. I hung around for a while, listening out for a particularly talented Starling. I strained to turn Ring-neked Parakeets into distant Oystercatchers but could not. I could only conclude that I had been correct. I didn't really need any more convincing, but I was still plagued with small amounts of self-doubt, and so played it on my phone. Yup, Oystercatcher. My suspicion is that it had been feeding on the playing fields south of South Copse, and had been disturbed and taken flight eastwards, as I had heard nothing from the west. Shame then that I had stopped to photograph a mushroom.

For many years, Osprey was my number one target bird. I dispensed with that this September, when I was lucky enough to coincide with one flying lazily south over Alexandra Lake early in the morning. That out of the way, I needed a new target bird. I ended up choosing Oystercatcher, and, after this morning the reason why seems pretty clear. At the time I hadn't given it much thought, but now that I am bashing out the minutae, it's because it was easy with high probability of success. A common bird on the Thames estuary, large, generally not elusive, with a call that even I can recognise, with the added bonus that I could find no historical records. Brilliant, an ideal choice for a top target. I was kidding no-one but myself.

So, I need a new one, but clearly something a bit more challenging, but at the same time, it has to be at least a possibility. I might start a poll thing, it has been a while. Alternatively, please suggest something juicy in the comments box. You can see my Wanstead list here, and the Wanstead historical sitelist here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Lonely Husband

Mrs L went out today. To do music. This is her hobby, we must not begrudge it. I have, afterall, been known to go out birding from time to time. Not often, but nonetheless those few days of absenteeism are felt. And noted. So today it was her turn. She would only be gone for a few hours, she said. Back mid-afternoon, she said. Mrs L's mid-afternoon is 5:30pm. My mid-afternoon is about 1pm, perhaps 1:30. I pined.

So, no birding today. Well, I could have gone out on the patch this morning, I had a very slim window of opportunity, but I elected to stay in my nice warm bed and make soft snoring noises. This is another rare event, and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder, one I am hopeful of repeating. It has been a very pleasant weekend of low achievement. Precisely, had we had need of a doctor, what he would have ordered. My birding has been restricted to a very brief foray yesterday before lunch. This was enough to relocate the long-staying female Wigeon on Alexandra Lake, and not relocate the six Teal that have been hanging around. In fact the whole sortie could easily have been in vain had a Woodcock not flown past me whilst I was in the Broom Fields on the way back. Naturally there is no photo. I merely looked blankly at it as it flew past, and as it inclined it's head fractionally in my direction, I recalled the camera hanging off my shoulder, but of course it was too late. It nipped over the trees of Long Wood, and appeared to drop in. Even though it is November now, I decided not to go and look for it. The statistician I employ to count birds for me notes that this is only the second ever Woodcock that I have seen in Wanstead, and its sighting exactly mirrors the first, which also flew past my very surprised head in the Broom Fields and plopped into Long Wood. He also mentioned that this is patch year-tick 111, the dreaded Nelson, and that I had to hop home. This I dutifully did, and when I eventually arrived at Chateau L, further good news awaited me - the Woodcock was in fact an actual year tick, new for 2011 anywhere. I shan't tell you the number, it would be embarrassing.

The rest of the weekend has, as I mentioned, been binocular-free. A Greater Yellowlegs annoyed me briefy by being in Northumberland for the entire weekend, but once I realised that even contemplating twitching such a distance was utter madness, it ceased to rankle, and I busied myself doing nothing. Doing nothing, as any good interviewer will tell you, involves playing with children, stopping them fighting, cooking them food, and cleaning up after them. I did a great deal of nothing today, and am rather tired. And when, finally, Mrs L arrived back home, I flopped gratefully into an armchair with a vodka tonic enhanced by passion-fruit syrup, the handover complete. A little later on, I noticed she had left her laptop unguarded on the kitchen worktop. I snuck up to it, got up Google, and searched for "lovely husband", aiming to leave it on that page, just so she knew. Google is a marvellous thing sometimes. Do you know what it said? Try it at home and see if it works for you of if it's a phenomenon unique to Chateau L. Here, at any rate, a search for "lovely husband" brings up "did you mean to search for lonely husband?" Quite.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Funny Story Ruined by Mathematicians

I use the word funny in the loosest possible sense of the word. It's not really funny at all, but I have spent most of the day thinking about it so it's only fair that you too should share in the wonder. It is not about birds at all, if any of you nerdy types want to quit while you're marginally ahead. This is a good thing of course. I am well aware that for a supposedly birdy blog, I stray very frequently, and very often, but were it to be only about birds, it would be very short, very turgid, and often very blank. I have an extremely active mind, especially now that I am back at work and daydreaming is firmly back on the agenda, and so you should expect more of these tangential musings.

So, this all started yesterday. No, I'm wrong, it was Tuesday, though that makes no difference at all to the story. I was sitting at my desk in Canary Wharf thinking about smartphones. I have been resisting smart phones for an extremely long time. I don't need a smartphone, and am perfectly happy with my normal phone, whose capabilities are far beyond anything I could comprehend. I use it for speaking to people, for sending bird-related text messages to people, and for splurging nonsense on Twitter to 250 poor misguided souls. I have also loaded up the songs and calls of all European species of bird, and those of you that actually know me will know that when it rings it is a Corncrake, which has led, in certain situations, to mild panic from birders that don't know me. Having all these on the phone is extremely useful in the field, for reminding oneself of unfamiliar calls, a la Crossbill over my garden the other day, or for those "ooooh, was that a......?" moments that we all have from time to time, and of course for attempting to persuade recalcitrant birds to reveal themselves from time to time, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. I am too primitive to even have voicemail. But I digress. I don't need a smartphone, but the guy who sits opposite me just got himself a shiny new iPhone 4S, the latest model. This got me thinking about smartphones, and before I knew it I was on the line to Vodafone inquiring when my contract was up for renewal.

Three weeks.

Bored yet? I'm not. I decided that were I to get a smartphone in three weeks, then it would be rather useful to have email on it. I seem to have collected quite a few email addresses over the years, one for this, one for that, but apart from the home one, none of them are actually my name though. Though I know nothing about smartphones, I felt that their email functionality might work best with a web-based gmail account. So rather than wansteadbirder, wansteadbirding etc, yesterday I decided that my actual name at was the way to go, so I tried to set it up. I filled in all the boxes, and then it told me that the address I wanted was taken. Eh? I tried it again. No, sorry, taken. Oh. Had I perhaps created it some time ago and then forgotten about it? So I tried to log into it. I tried every password I have ever used, all the silly little variations, and nothing worked. OK, not to worry, this happens very frequently. With every website ever wanting a username and password, there is no possible way for any normal human being to be able to remember them all, so the "forgotten your password?" link that appears on most websites is very often my only recourse. I clicked on it, and it had two secure retrieval options. One was to send the password to an alternative email address, the other was to send it via text message. To help you with that they provided clues, revealing a small portion of the address and number. Hey presto, the last two digits of the phone number were mine! Account retrieval seconds away, I eagerly tapped my number in and hit send. Not recognised. I tried it with +44. I tried it without the zero. I tried it with brackets around the zero. I tried it with more zeros. Then it froze, saying I had tried too many times. Surely this is my email account? I mean, with the last two digits of my phone number, it has to be my account? Am I the victim of identity fraud here? The probability of there being another Jonathan Lethbridge somewhere with a ten digit phone number with the final two digits the same as mine - infinitessimally small.

But remember that post a few days ago where I noted that there were now seven billion people on the planet? I wonder.... I banged off a quick email. It read thus: "Is this my email, or is there another J Lethbridge?" Then I went to bed, which is critical to the story.

In the morning there was a reply. Remember, I was asleep, so it wasn't from me. Like I said, critical. I have to say it is rather strange having an email in my inbox that is from me but isn't from me. Turns out that Jonathan Lethbridge, who has my email address - well, his email address, lives in Montreal in Canada, though was born here in the UK. He pointed me in the direction of some kind of geneaology website, whereby I learned that there are Lethbridges everywhere. This isn't a huge surprise. In fact, when I was on Scilly for some reason or other a couple of weeks ago I noticed that Carreg Dhu Gardens, of tame Song Thrush fame, is maintained by a Mary Lethbridge. This website seemed to indicate that the hub of Lethbridgedom is the south-west, particularly south Devon. I know virtually nothing about my ancestry, but I do know that my Grandfather was from Devon, and drove a train from Exeter to London (regularly, not just once). That's about all I can tell you, though I have been to Devon. Mainly I drive through it to get to Cornwall (and beyond....), but a King Eider at Appledore once provided a spurious reason for a family weekend break, and I did twitch an American Robin at Exminster as recently as last year. Anyway, ancestry is for old people; not surprisingly my Dad told me at Christmas he was thinking of researching the family tree and creating some kind of archive. Good for him - I'll revive it in thirty years time. Er where was I? Oh yes, Canadian Jonathan Lethbridge. By return of email I quizzed him about his phone number. It does indeed end in the same two digits as mine. Sweet Baby Moses, it is just too bizarre to even contemplate.

This, you will be relieved to hear, is where this particular story ends. But there is a postscript. For the purposes of blog accuracy I asked a mathmo geek I know to compute the answer for me. I was expecting it to be about a zillion zillion to one, or something with about forty-five decimal places. This mathmo geek was in the pub with five other mathmo geeks, so I had immense brain power at my disposal for this colossal sum. Their answer? 100/1. No, really. Talk about pissing on a parade. Get this - probablility of there being a person in Canada with my exact name? Very close to one, ie a dead cert. Canada being a developed nation, the probablity of that person owning a mobile phone in the year 2011 AD - again, almost certain. So the probability of that ten digit number having the final two numbers the same as mine? One in a hundred. This proves beyond any doubt that mathematicians only exist in order to suck all joy out of the world. And that's the real point of this story.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

What I didn't write

In my haste to bash out yet another ill-conceived and boring blog post yesterday, I forgot a critical, nay crucial piece of information. It was about that Brambling. It was a year tick! A patch year-tick I mean, I don't go in for all this national year-listing nonsense. Never have, never will. So yes, a patch year-tick, coming in at a rather splendid 110. This a whole two more than last year - a year I thought would never be broken, which, now I come to think of it, is probably exactly what I said the year before that. No matter. I am pleased, which, when it comes to patch-working, is the entire point. You'd have to be pretty stupid to wander round an inland patch year after year whilst hating every minute of it.

Yes it would be nice to have a coastal patch, yes it would be nice to have a patch capable of producing a right stonker, but then things like Dunlin would lose their appeal, and we can't be having that. There's an argument that suggests that at a coastal patch the bar is simply higher, and that's true of course, but ultimately there would be far fewer birds with that "wow" factor that is so important in patch-birding and keeps us all going. "Oystercatcher, whatever" is not something you'll hear uttered in Wanstead anytime soon.

So what's new? Nothing. All work and no tidying makes Jonathan a dull boy. With the absence of the Magic Fairy, who true to her word departed for pastures new about a month ago, Chateau L is gradually falling apart. Mount Garment grows ever higher, and items now largely lie where they fall. Weekends, so useful for staying more-or-less afloat, are dedicated to having fun rather than domestic trivialities, and so slowly but surely we're descending to a new level of slovenliness. I may or may not engage a cleaner, we'll see how bad it gets before I crack. However if you're local, and bored (really bored), do pop round. The hoover is in the cupboard under the stairs, the dusters are under the sink. Marigolds are provided.

On the plus side, and coinciding nicely with my return to banking hell, my writing career is really taking off. Forget Birdwatch, I have now penned a piece in the nationally-distributed and globally-read Wanstead Village Directory. Any misconceptions you may have about this publication being merely a vehicle for local businesses to advertise their services should be totally banished. Any thoughts that over 95% of the pages relate to hairdressing, kitchen design and local restaurants should be similarly cast aside. It's only 90%, and so this month there is room for an article on Ducks. Yes, Ducks. I am fed up of seeing people point at Tufted Ducks and Pochards and call them Ducks. Or worse, Mallards. So when polled by this august institution for a future article on wildlife in a winter issue, I thought "Right, let's sort it out once and for all, and get people involved in Ducks", or words to that effect. The lavishly-illustrated result is now in quality newsagents everywhere, or you can pick one up in the Co-Op on the high street. Or, as Muffin did today, at the community centre where Ballet takes place, where he then proceeded to wave it in the faces of a few of my fellow Mums [sic] so now they all know what a sad bird-nerd loser I am, which obviously I had been trying to conceal. Excellent. Anyway, now that the secret is out, if you're too late in the mad scramble for printed copies, you can see it online here. Note the huge amount of reaction and comment....

Monday, 7 November 2011

It's all about timing

Finally back to a bit of local birding, and Saturday morning saw me hit the Flats, albeit it only briefly as kiddy duties called. But even my short wander was worth it, adding the female Wigeon that has been tempting me all week, ditto the Med Gull, and as a bonus, four Teal and seven Egyptian Geese, a record-breaking count. All of these birds were on Alexandra Lake, so I suppose you could say that the rest of the Flats didn't get a look-in. Still, it was excellent to be out and about, as the onset of winter is really quite excting.

This is one of the great things about birding a patch solidly, you get to see the seaons change before your very eyes. It's the same every year. Warblers suddenly get scarcer, until one day they're gone. Meanwhile the strong passage of Hirundines peaks and then declines to odd stragglers, and the winter Ducks begin to arrive. Small numbers of winter Thrushes also appear, a couple here, a couple there, until one day you realise that there are thirty Redwings flying around. Finches start moving strongly west, mostly Chaffinches it seems, but Siskin and Redpoll too.

At the moment it's the turn of Woodpigeons and Lapwings. I've been outside for all of about twenty-five minutes today, two opportune cups of tea, but in that short time I counted about four-hundred Woodpigeons in large flocks, all heading west. They were mostly this morning, after dawn, but cup of tea number two made headlines, at least for the garden, when mid-morning twenty Lapwing went over North, seen moments before by Nick out on the Flats somewhere. In context, I've seen exactly two Lapwing over the garden before. That makes a flock of twenty remarkable - though over eighty were seen yesterday on the patch, possibly some of them went over my house too, but I wasn't at home to see them. Shortly after the Lapwing went through, two Redpoll buzzed over before wheeling back. I'd seen two in my early morning stint, so assumed the same birds still knocking about. All of a sudden the whole sky was filled with buzzing and chirping, and from nowhere, a flock of perhaps fifty were wheeling around overhead. Nick, still on the Flats, had counted 38 a short while earlier, but I think there were more than that. The biggest garden count previously was 21 birds, back in December last year. To say I was stunned is understating things. Even more remarkably, from somewhere within the tumbling flock a Brambling made itself known. I've never known them assosciate with Redpoll before, or at least not that I recall, but I'm certain of the call. Nick picked up a larger finch in with the flock when they went back onto the Flats, but couldn't get anything on it.

I finished my tea and went inside, rather chuffed that I had got my timings spot on. Of course, who knows what went over when I was back indoors staring at the computer screen. Presumably a large flock of Golden Plover, a few dozen Brent Geese, and a couple of pale Swift sp, but you can't waste time thinking about what might have been. I'm more than happy with my haul. It's an exciting time of year. I need to think of a way to move my desk outside....

Friday, 4 November 2011

Fantastic Mr Fox

I have perhaps blogged before on foxes, and their perception of my garden versus my perception of my garden. Whilst I am not a big gardener, I nonetheless view my garden as a tranquil haven in which to drink cool glasses of Rosé on warm summer evenings. A peaceful oasis of overgrown flowerbeds, weeds, and various spiky plants in pots. A place for children to run, to play, to shout and make merry.

The foxes? They view my garden primarily as a toilet, though they also enjoy using it as a place to scatter rubbish from neighbouring bins and gardens. Previous items that I have had to go round and pick up have included several shredded used disposable nappies, various plastic bottles, sachets of catfood, crisp packets, plastic bags, a bag of frozen oven chips, and, tantalisingly, a size 12 purple and white thong. Foxes have a particular smell, a scent that they seem able to leave on anything they have touched. A smell that lingers on one's hands, and one's moth trap, even after washing several time. It's not a nice smell. Fed up with it, and the likely hygiene issues, I bought one of those litter picker claw things that you see people doing community service using, so now, once a week or so, I trapse round the garden delicately pincering rubbish and women's underwear and placing it in a bin bag.

Lately my mind has been wandering to prevention. The air rifle which was so ineffectual against squirrels has gone back to Shaun, and in any event I'd imagine that Wanstead foxes are equally bomb-proof, so instead I've invested in two things. The first are some kind of chemical granules that you scatter round the garden, but I've been unable to use them as they just wash away in the rain. Genius. The second is one of those ultrasonic infra-red scarers. It looks like one of those PIRs that would activate a security light, but instead sits on a spike in the lawn. It looks mean, and so it should for the price. When a fox (or cat or squirrel, it isn't fussy, and neither am I) comes into the area of coverage, it begins to emit a sound that is to Foxes what Metallica is to humans, a sound so intensely painful that you have to leave immediately or die. I placed this near the end of of the terrace, its arc of deterrent covering most of the what used to be called a lawn before we moved in and my children ruined it. Hah!, I thought, this will fox them, they won't know what's hit them! Goodbye fox turds and rubbish, hello pristine grassy surface of happiness!

It turns out that I have underestimated the foxes of Wanstead. I have attempted to show this in the following diagram. Simply hover your mouse over it to discover what I discovered this afternoon. If you have any suggestions, I am all ears.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


That’s me that is. On this glorious planet on which we blog, tweet and snipe on Birdforum, I am the 4 billionth, 54 millionth, four-hundred and fifty-eight thousandth and forty-seventh person to have been born. Whoa. How s about that for mind-boggling thought eh? Hope you were sitting down. How do I know this? It was on the BBC website, so it must be true. You can play too:
The reason that this little gem of a stat exists is that the population of planet earth recently passed the seven billion mark. That is a serious number of people, imagine the queue at the post office, it would go on for ever and ever. I mean when I get up in the morning and catch the tube, I think that’s a lot of people, but seven billion! They wouldn’t even fit in an extra-long train!  Seven billion is like, loads. The other interesting stat is that, in the history of the universe and space, there have been 78,404,690,760 sentient human beings. And then add some birders. With seven billion alive (if not all well, necessarily) that means a lot of dead people. 71 billion to be imprecise. Where did they all go? Jeez. I’m alive though, one of the seven billion, and able to blog, tweet, and post inanities on Birdforum. Talking of which, I’m actually having a little love-in with Lee Evans on there at the moment, or rather he is, as for some reason he believes me to be on his side. I’m not on his side, nor am I on the opposing Lee-bashing side, but it didn’t prevent him declaring his adoring and eternal gratitude for something he perceived me to have done. Had there been a “hugs” emoticon thing, I would have used it in reply. Except emoticons are a load of crap, and I refuse to use them; they are a poor substitute for intelligent writing, and only exist so that stupid people can grasp simple sentences and get a vague understanding of their likely meaning. I didn’t reply, I couldn’t think of anything both cutting, witty, and genuinely inoffensive.
This bird is largely responsible for global warning. I hope it goes south via Malta.
Er, where was I? Oh yes, over-population. Not quite as important as which UK twitchers have seen the most birds and which grown men hate which other grown men, but worthy of mention nonetheless.  I read somewhere that by 2050 – this could be wrong, I refuse to actually conduct research - we will need two earths to feed the population, which by that time will be ten billion people. The trouble is we don’t have two earths, we only have one. Better hope somebody thinks of something, and fast. The good news is that by 2050 I’ll be on the way out, so won’t have to worry too much about, except perhaps over where to get buried alongside 71 billion other people, but it will be a genuine problem for my kids and my kid’s kids. I mean, what if they have to knock down Waitrose and grow turmips there instead? Where will they buy their imported green beans in December, or their Malaysian jumbo king tiger prawns? Like I said, genuine problems. Forget about where they might live, that’s blindingly obvious. They’re all going to be living with me and Mrs L until their early forties, possibly beyond. We will make weekly attempts to throw them out of course, but ultimately with starter houses by then costing a million quid, and starter salaries remaining exactly as they are today, and perhaps even less, what choice are they really going to have? I'm already resigned to it, but I suppose it will be nice to be looked after in my old age.
Seriously worrying statistics though, the cost of the weekly shop is only going in one direction. That said, it is a very clear case of SEP (someone else's problem), and I don't expect anyone reading the BBC website to do a damn thing except moan about the increasing cost of bread. In case you were wondering my preferred loaf has risen from £1.65 to £2.09. Yet another interesting stat. I am sure I can find more. Sorry this hasn't been about birds. I was going to go on the patch at the weekend and get the blog back on track, but instead I'm going to be planting spuds in the front garden and stocking up on canned food.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Back at school

Today I shouted at one of the teaching assistants at my kids’ school. I am officially nasty me again. Thanks banking. I didn’t actually shout, but after needing to knock on the window at middle child's classroom five minutes after the bell had rung with no effect, when the door finally opened around 3:37pm, I was in no mood for mucking about. Sorry we’re a few minutes late was the feeble statement on opening the door.  It’s a bit annoying actually, I stated matter of factly, I have three children to pick up in three different places. Well we’re only just after half past, came the tart response. The classroom clock said otherwise, but I said nothing. I felt like I was getting told off. We’re working very hard, we’re doing the best we can. Again I said nothing. It was for the best, as whatever I might have said would not have gone down well, and with the rest of the parents standing behind me, no doubt aghast at my bluntness, I was already Captain Bastard.
What the dopey assistant failed to realise is that to be seven minutes late letting the children out wastes 210 minutes of thirty parents time. That’s three and a half hours for the mathematically challenged. Parents’ time is extremely precious, and teachers, as a rule, seem not to recognise this. It’s OK for them though, the school day runs from 9 to 3:30, and they get about 13 weeks holiday a year, and then a further week’s worth of gratuitous inset days that, per class, each time use up an entire month of parents' holiday.  In my current job I get five weeks of unpaid holiday and zero inset days. I am trying to juggle a full-time job around the daily school runs, and I have three kids to pick up, and when one kid is released late, I am thus late for the other two. And so it was today, and Pudding was the last in her class to be picked up, and I only had fifteen minutes to get to the girls’ Ballet lessons and get them changed into their fetching pink and white checked leotards and frilly dress things, rather than the more realistic twenty plus. I just don’t have slack time any more, every minute counts.

I am surprised how quickly my demeanour has changed. A month ago I was nice me, relaxed me.  Now…oh hang on, now what? I am being shouted at by a deaf old woman. FFS. I am in the local community centre, where the afore-mentioned ballet is taking place. The car park is ingeniously laid out, two spaces deep. This being London, you park where you can park, and it seems that my Land Rover is blocking this old woman’s 1983 Fiesta. I was a little tardy to realise what she was asking the assembled room, so peeved am I that I have become a shit again, so didn’t answer straight away. More fool me. “Well will you move it, you are blocking me in”. Yes, I’ll move it, I replied meekly, repect your elders and all that. “Yes, move it now, you’re in my way, come on, come on.” Right. As I followed her to the carpark, two paces behind her, she was loudly telling her equally deaf friend about how awful it was that she had been blocked in, how she had asked several times, and weren’t people terrible these days. She probably doesn’t realise how close she came to having her Fiesta crushed. It would have been so simple. "Oops, was that reverse? Sorry about that. Shall I put it in the recycling for you?"
Today is clearly just one of these days where it all goes wrong. I’ve just looked up and seen a sign posted to the wall, two foot square, addressed to “BALLET PARENTS”. It reads thus, and the capital letters are important: PLEASE DO NOT BRING RAISINS FOR CHILDREN TO EAT HERE. IF THEY ARE EATING OTHER SNACKS, PLEASE ASK THEM TO SIT DOWN THUS, HOPEFULLY REDUCING THE MESS”. Grammar aside, it is the kind of officious notice that makes my blood boil. Especially today. I’ve just looked for raisins in my bag of kid paraphernalia, and am irrationally annoyed that we don’t have any, as I would like to wantonly scatter some all over the room. I’ve totally forgotten what I was saying now. Oh yes, my new, unimproved self. It makes me unhappy. I liked being calm, relaxed, and in control. Trying to also fit nine hours of work into a day and something has to give. In my case it seems to be calmness, relaxedness, if that is even a word, and being in control. I felt bad about having a go at the teaching assistant. She probably was doing her best, and while it wasn't good enough, I should have just rolled with it, and accepted the additional stress this caused me. Much as I want my life to be stress-free, and this is what I particularly enjoyed about the last two and a half years, I think I just need to accept the fact that it isn’t going to be like that any more. Reality is biting. I should remember to try and not bite back.