Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011: The Year in Review

So here we are once again, in a seemingly all too quick repeat of 2010

2012 Goals
Professional Goals
- I am employed, which is more than I was this time last year. What more can I ask for? Oh, perhaps that I remain employed. The climate is still treacherous in my chosen industry, but for now, I shall make hay while the sun shines.

Personal Goals
- To actually go birding. Just a bit. Pretty please.
- To win the coveted Golden Mallard, worth at least fifty quid. If I win it, I'm going to sell it.
This past year I had no birding goals at all. This resulted in me seeing a Short-toed Treecreeper, so a fat lot of use that was. Maybe I need to be more specific? I shall not twitch stupid birds just because they are ticks. How about that? Would I stick to it? What do you think?

Best Birding Moment
It has been a pretty fabulous year. I already gave best bird award to the Cory's Shearwater (here), so I need to choose something else. If you recall, there were a couple of contenders, so I think that day on Scilly, when we went over on a day trip expecting to see a Solitary Sandpiper (dull) and dipped it, but instead came away with a Black-and-White Warbler and a Bee-eater that showed so well that my photo of it made it into Birding World. Rounding the corner of one of those narrow Scilly lanes up near Maypole to ask a couple of guys what they were looking at... well, what can you say? Those that were with me can testify to the rapture. A great moment.

But was it better that the exhausted Jack Snipe on Shetland that was oblivious to our presence, so much so that it walked over my hand? A common bird perhaps, but certainly a moment that I will remember for a very long time indeed. I mean it walked over my hand. Not around my hand, or around me, but over me. I doubt I'll ever have anything like that happen again.

And let's not forget the Sandhill Crane that, with impeccable timing, decided to grace the area around Loch of Strathbeg for precisely the few days that I was on my way up to Shetland with an eight hour lay-off in Aberdeen. Arriving at the airport I hustled to a hire car and an hour later was stood on the edge of a field watching this stonking rarity, which of course was all the sweeter for knowing that my mates were either already on Shetland, grimacing, or stuck down in London. Boy did I feel smug, which is of course what birding is all about.

Best UK Trip
Hmmm, not like I've been anywhere, is it? The Waterthrush was ace, but it is the
previous trip to Scilly that I remember more. Yes, the Bee-eater one again. Oh, and the Black-and-White Warbler. Did I mention those already? Possibly. What about the Semi-P that came within six feet? No? Well, what about the incredible sea-watch off Pendeen with double figures of Sabine's Gulls and double figure of Grey Phalaropes? Somewhat of a glorious weekend by anybody's standards, including my very low ones. Yes, that gets my vote. Me, Bradders and Crofty on a fly-by-night expedition to the south-west, utterly exhausting, but top notch birding that makes Cornwall seem not too far away at all.....

Best Bird
Two words. Cory's and Shearwater. Magnificent. 

Worst Bird
Easy. Short-toed Treecreeper. A boring brown excuse for a bird that could not possibly have been worth the £25 of diesel that it cost me to twitch it. For day one of its stay I was adament - I was not going, end of story. I willed it to die overnight, but it didn't, and so by day three, or maybe even day two (I have no shame) I found myself tootling across to Landguard to place a meaningless tick against it. OK, so I saw it well, well enough to photograph the steps in the wingbar, but seriously, who am I kidding? Pathetic.

Worst UK Trip
Most pleasingly, a very tough one this year. No stupid single-day twitches to the north-east, no nightmare walks down Blakeney Point. So that being the case, it has to be said that Shetland was disappointing, especially given the highs of last year. It was good, lots of decent bird, but it couldn't live up to the previous year. The weather, almost constantly westerly, was never going to produce much; that any eastern birds got through at all was a miracle. There was far too much plantation-bashing for birds that were patently non-existent, and we should have cut our losses and gone to the pub, or at least not been quite so relentless. Self-finding rarities is all well and good, but in truth we didn't stand a chance on the forecast we had, and my desire for continued flogging of habitat that had no birds in it unfortunately did not match that of Bradders. I tried to talk sense into him, but he was having none of it; consequently it was extremely hard work. Then again, I think that to appreciate Shetland, you have to realise that it can't be like 2010 every year, and if you go, you're taking a big gamble. Mine did not pay off, and the good birds were literally either side of my trip. Some you win, some you lose. I'm definitely going back - when it's good it's phenomenal. 


Best Foreign Trip
Easy-peasy. Not that I have many trips to choose from, but the February trip to the Baltics was awesome. Cold, but awesome. I have never experienced cold like it, and my clearest memory, other than ending up at forty-five degrees with what was left of the car in a snow-drift, is of walking early one morning from the car to a ferry terminal. It was only about two-hundred yards, so I didn't bother with gloves. Oh. My. God. I felt my hands beginning to die after about twenty paces, it was the most extraordinary feeling. It was, I think, minus twenty-six centigrade, plus (or minus again) whatever the wind was doing. A superb trip, not huge numbers of birds, but most of the targets bagged in some stunning scenery. We felt truly pioneering.

Best Domestic Moment
An improved performance this year, but I was fairly proud of hosting a tea-party for all of Muffin's friends and mothers. I am almost the lone bloke in the playground, so this was quite a coup, or so it felt. I managed to get (and keep) the house tidy, and produce a passable meal of various bits and pieces. I deferred the cake-making to Mrs L, but other than that it was all my own work, and nobody died. Or at least not that I noticed.

Worst Domestic Moment
Usually I have more choice here that any other category. Let me pop downstairs and ask Mrs L what she thinks - I failed to ask this last year and possibly therefore denied you the full and awful truth.

Right, I'm back, and do you know what, the woman is stumped! Yup, for the first time ever, she can't think of anything that I have foulded up. Hah! How about that then? Mind you, I did ask her what the worst one was; presumably she could rattle off dozens of minor incidents, but nothing particularly stands out as being especially bad. So, can I think of anything?

No, I can't. This must mean that I am now, after three years, a fully-fledged Domestic God. Well thank goodness for that. A long winding road, a few hiccups, but we started at five, we're still five, and all four walls are still standing. Shame then that I am now back at work. The garden has gone to wrack and ruin, and the lawn is now an attractive mesh of mud and moss, but hey, I'm always looking at the sky, so what does it matter?

Most Amusing Photograph
This is a photo of Jos sea-watching in Estonia. The weather was so severe that we very nearly dipped the sea entirely, but when we finally managed to get to it, it was one of those great feelings. We had found the sea, it was time to sea-watch. From the sea.

No annual review should be without a pranged car it seems, so here is the offering from 2011. This was taken only a couple of hours after the sea-watching photograph above, and was most unfortunate. Our lovely Renault Laguna was never the same again, and though we made it back to our ferry, we then transferred to a Suzuki Shitter which was nowhere near as good. Though someone did manage to get caught speeding in it....

So, another year done. What will the next one bring?

Ooh the tourniquet!

I have cracked and bought a smart phone. It is considerably smarter than me. It has a special keyboard wave swipe your fingers around that is why the title of this piece is like a rubber band excitement. It also has voice recognition of assault. So get ready for many unintelligible future blog posts.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Wait for it......the Patch

A top-class hangover meant I needed to get out. Even though I risked potentially getting a patch year tick, there was nothing for it, I needed air. I figured Wanstead Flats was less likely to produce anything than the Park, whose lakes and ponds might have harboured some goodie like a Smew or a Goosander, so that's where I went. Happily I was quite correct in my assessment, and beyond twenty thousand Woodpigeons, there was nothing doing. Until I started looking through the Gulls. With no other birds to speak of, it was only a matter of time before my eyes were drawn to the large conglomoration of white-coloured things sat on the playing fields...

Hang on a minute - that one looks a bit odd. With only 7x bins on todays outing, I had a horrible feeling I was looking at a White Winger, albeit a small one. I shuffled closer. Still looking pretty white-winged. Closer still....Yes!!! Er, hmmm, er, yes, er very nice. Grrrrrr....

Definitely white-winged!

But that initial view was unfortunately about as exciting as it got

I eventually tracked it down to a goal post.


Hanging On!

Two pieces of good news. The first is that I survived Christmas without any kind of Mr Creosote incident, and am now back on the path of virtue and slimming. The second is that the Firecrests also survived, and are apparently very much looking forward to making an appearance on my January 1st day list. At least that's what I assume all the squeaking meant.

So how was Christmas for you? Whilst my children received veritable mountains of gifts, I received one solitary present - from my sister - a field guide to the birds of West Africa. Before you go thinking that she is some kind of genius (though she is, I must admit, fairly smart), this was at my suggestion. Not that I have any firm plans to visit Western Africa, but I am extremely partial to leafing through foreign field guides and dreaming of the day that I will at last visit. Also on the shelf at the moment are various tomes covering Trinidad and Tobago and the greater West Indies. One day, one day....

Birding abroad is brilliant, bloody brilliant. You can take nothing for granted, even your ears count for nothing. It is birding at its rawest, its most intimate. You rely on sight, and nothing else. I rarely go abroad purely for birding, there is more often than not an ulterior motive, so usually I don't even take a scope - luggage is at a premium, bins is all I have. So I have to get close. Very close. I take my time, there is no urgency. And so it is back to basics, how birding should be - no preconceptions, nothing taken for granted. It also helps that foreign birds simply love having cameras shoved in their faces, whereas British birds dive for cover at the slightest hint of a long lens. Now that I am gainfully employed once again, though for how long I cannot say, I am looking forward to being able to go on a few jaunts abroad. Whether it will be Western Africa, or whether I'll build up to that, I have no idea. But right now the mere thought of being somewhere warm and filled to the brim with colourful and extremely photogenic birds is getting me through the holiday season.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Patch List Challenge

I am a patch worker. I have always been a patch worker. Twitcher? Maybe a bit, maybe more than a bit lately. There is an undeniable thrill about seeing an extremely rare bird, especially one that your mates haven’t seen. The travelling part is what does my head in. As part of a longer trip, say a weekend away, I can cope with a bit of car time, but the mad dashes, rushed views and then piling back into the car I can do without. A weekend trip, albeit planned at very short notice, where you score the bird in question first thing and then have essentially two whole days of relaxed birding in front of you, they can be really good. Often though, that isn’t possible. Various commitments get in the way, and so if you’re going to see a bird, you’ve got a very limited window.

On the patch there is rarely that worry, and even a fifteen minute visit can be rewarding. I’m fortunate in that I live literally next to the patch – I can be counting birds on my patch list as soon as I’m out of the front door. This past year has seen me eclipse my previous best year by some margin. For a while I thought I might not make three figures, but I needn’t have worried. Some fine autumn migrants saw me slip past that particular hurdle, and before I knew it I had equalled my previous best of 108. A late flurry of winter quality, including garden Crossbill and Brambling, and then the memorable and invisible Oystercatcher, and I had chalked up a new record. Time to wheel out those laurels and have a well-deserved rest on them methinks.

Not so! Enter the Patch List Challenge! The theory is quite simple, thrash your patch day after day and you could win the coveted Golden Mallard, worth, I am told, at least fifty quid on Ebay. How could I resist, the thought of that gem of pure quality gracing my mantelpiece....I had to enter! In order to even things out between those lucky so and sos who bird blinding coastal patches, you’re competing only against yourself – you need to beat the average of your three previous yearlists. The patch worker who has the highest percentage versus that number wins the duck. It was unfortunate that this year’s patch total was my highest ever and thus bumped up the average, but as soon as I decided to enter I stopped going on the patch and closed my eyes whenever I went near a window. Not that I have had any time anyway, meagre daylight (though I enjoyed my extra minute yesterday) and work have essentially killed off any patch-working ambitions these past three months. But if I can get myself back into the groove of birding before work in the spring months, I could be a contender! Hopefully it will be a laugh, and though I have only actually met one of the entrants, they all seem eager to take the piss and generally muck about, which is one of the things I particularly enjoy about birding. Don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously.

I’m eagerly awaiting January 1st 2012. My spreadsheets are primed and ready, and my mental list of ticks is at the forefront of my mind. Last year Nick and I managed 56 species, this year I’m aiming for 60. The only thing that’s going to stop me is rain. Or if it’s a bit cold. Or windy. Or.....

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


The average UK glutton is set to consume somewhere around 6500 calories over the course of Christmas Day, or so I overheard on the radio. That’s the equivalent of 23 Mars Bars. Can you imagine that many Mars Bars on a plate in front of you? Can you imagine eating them all, even across several sittings? I couldn’t even do that with Doubledeckers. Grotesque, yet many of us will nonetheless eat and eat and eat on Christmas Day. A handful of peanuts here, an enormous portion of Turkey here, and don’t forget those delicious mini-sausages wrapped in bacon.....

I’ve been noticing that I have become slightly more rotund (than usual) of late. Pictures at some Christmas drinks showing approximately eighteen chins convinced me that I needed to know quite how bad it was. Shortly afterwards I bought some bathroom scales. We have not had any bathroom scales since the children broke them about two years ago. They denied it of course, blaming that perennial scamp Notme, responsible for most acts of destruction and vandalism at Chateau L. I stepped on the scales, and once I’d shifted my enormous gut to one side, peered down at the dial. Assuming some kind of mistake, I stepped off, confirmed it was at zero, and got on again. Then I got off again, and lay down on the floor to check it was level. It was. With a sense of dread I got on again. Modesty prevents me from sharing the number, but Notme has a lot to answer for. I am heavier than I have ever been.

Buying a set of scales two weeks before Christmas was perhaps very foolish, or perhaps very sensible. It opens up two very distinct avenues of thought. One is that I will take it easy over Christmas and refuse all delicacies, which would be very sad. The second is that I will gorge myself senseless as usual, and along with the rest of the population start a new regime at the beginning of January. This is known as the cop-out option. I’ve not yet decided what I’m going to do. The house is currently filled to the rafters with nice things. Cheese, cold meats, nuts, biscuits, and we are never short of something to drink. I am not sure I have the willpower, which is presumably what got me into this predicament in the first place.

Mrs L has also had a go on the scales. Self-preservation prevents me from divulging any details, but she too was shocked. Pregnancy saves her from the ignominy of a new personal best, but she has agreed that buying the scales, whilst sad, was a good thing.  The scales are the old fashioned sort with a dial, the primary measurement being Stones and Pounds, so it’s also helping the children get to grip with fractions. Muffin is particularly good at fractions, as he showed when Mrs L stepped off the scales looking miserable. “Well?”, I said. “Something and a half” she replied. “.....”and three-quarters!” a small voice chimed in. I know who I believe! Err, Mrs L, obviously.

Almost exactly a week after buying the scales, I have failed to shed a single pound, which is indicative of the cop-out route being taken. Hmmm. To add insult to injury, yesterday I had lunch with two former colleagues. We had not seen each other for a few years, and so naturally the conversation turned to how much fatter each one of us was than the other. Many years ago, when all working in the same team, we started a weight-loss competition. Inspired by another colleague’s tales of extreme weight-loss via means of a beetroot, tuna and egg diet which culminated in him collapsing on a train, we agreed to a weekly public weigh-in, and clubbed together to buy a set of scales which were kept under my desk. Any week-on-week rise was chargeable, with the proceeds going towards a bumper blow-out lunch when the competition was over. I remember that lunch to this day.

Being much younger than we are now, and far more immature hem hem, our weekly weigh-in was keenly contested, with all sorts of random chocolate items mysteriously appearing on co-competitors’ desks in the run up to the appointed time. The critical thing was not to go up. But as each week set the bar lower, you did not want to lose too much weight in a week that would then see you put some or all of it back on the following week, and thus have to cough up. This led to all sorts of shenanigans, such as tactical water-drinking immediately before the weigh-in, and on one occasion an emergency haircut. Being technically and analytically-minded, we kept a running spreadsheet, and I discovered yesterday that one of the guys still had it. It dates back to 2004, when I was still in my twenties, and very happily the password was still “domisfat”, Dom being one of the three competitors. Remarkably, he is still approximately the same weight as he ended up in 2007, which was when our competition finally ran out of steam, whereas I am in a different league. Perhaps the Sekitori league.... Anyway, he only ever gained weight over those three years, and was a major contributor to the lunch. He had some minor victories, but overall the line went only in one direction. Mine on the other hand was all over the place. Over those three years my weight varied by 23 pounds, but the start and end points are exactly the same, so an entirely pointless exercise. I can see that during the first week of March 2007 I lost 6lbs, and another 3lbs the week after that. The week after that required a pay-out!

We’re now talking about starting the spreadsheet again. The intervening four years have not been kind to me, to the extent that we would actually need to increase the range scale on the Y-axis. A large vertical line would ensue, and I would need to lose almost fully 3 stone to get back to my lowest ever point on the graph. Hugely embarrassing, and highly motivating. How I ever allowed myself to fall so comprehensively off the wagon I don’t know. Age plays a part, but I see plenty of people my age who are thin, so I am coming to the inescapable conclusion that I have a thyroid problem. This is hugely relieving, as no doubt it is for many fat people. Yup, that’s right, I have a medical condition. It’s definitely not related to the fact that I eat too much and do no exercise. Glad we cleared that up.

My timing is impeccable - look what I found today on the BBC!

I sent it to Mrs L. She replied that she loves me. Both of me.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The 2011 Year List that I didn't do

Regular readers will know I bang on about year-listing quite a lot. This year however I didn't bang on about it quite as much. Shocking though it may sound, I didn't do one. No, really. The year I really did one was 2009. It was fun at the beginning, awful close to the end, and then quite fun again at the very end. The angst of dipping my eighth-seventh Wryneck, not to mention the absurdity of the price of fuel, convinced me that it would be foolish to do another one, so in 2010 I took it nice and easy, and it was only when I returned from a monumental week on Shetland that I changed my mind, and drove some pointless miles to see birds I'd seen plenty of before. Three hundred, that magical number in the UK year-listing stakes, certificate-worthy no less (no, I didn't), fell just over two frenetic weeks later, and I breathed a long sigh of hypocrital relief. Then I went to Cornwall. And then Devon. And then Manchester....

This year, I was determined that there would be none of this stupidity, none of this weakness. As such, I started out with no goals, no predetermined targets. I will see what I see, I said. My love-hate relationship with twitching also started off at a new low, though a Lesser White-fronted Goose on Jan 2nd tells another story. Largely I have stuck true to my word, though why I deemed a trip to Landguard for a Short-toed Treecreeper necessary I really have no idea - the one trip, which despite the tick, I still feel embarrassed about. Rubbish, and then some. As the year progressed, I became progressively more twitchy, which culminated in not one but two trips to Scilly, finally paying me back for an entire week in 2009 where all I saw was a crappy Radde's Warbler.

I have of course, despite any protestations to the contrary, been keeping a year list all along. Well, not keeping one as such, but at any point in the year I could have told you how many. Does that count as not keeping one? I think it does. Anyhow, I reckon the year's birding is basically done, and so I am proud (er, maybe) to be able to announce that my 2011 year list is on a whopping 271. This strikes me as quite a lot, particularly given my stated intentions, for it puts my just outside the top ten on Bubo, and if you look at what I have not seen, I suspect I could very easily sneak in. I won't of course, I can't be bothered, but it does show that if you twitch a few things, and it doesn't have to be very many, your incidental count of birds will be surprisingly high.

I twitched about twenty birds this year, and dipped just one - an extremely uncooperative (though previously highly cooperative) Great Snipe at Cley. By the time I got there, it was bored of all the tape recordings and had buggered off to the far side of the marsh, where it remained until after I left. Such is life, but on the whole my approach to twitching is so tempered in sensibleness that I very rarely dip. This is great, as dipping sucks. It means I'll never have the enormous list that those who drop everything at the slightest hint of a possible have, but it ensures an almost one hundred percent happy outcome.

So, 271 birds, and very nice they were too. More interesting is what I didn't see. Birds you would think would be absolute gimmes that any birder worth his salt would see at least once a year. Here is the roll of shame.

Black-throated Diver, Little Auk, Long-eared Owl, Bewick's Swan, Scaup, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove, Little Owl, Dipper, Willow Tit, Water Pipit.

I mean how can you bird for an entire year and not see a Little Owl? Pfffff. There are oodles of them about. Wanstead is bracketed by them, with regular birds in Walthamstow and in the Ingrebourne Valley. Somehow I've managed to avoid seeing one all year, I'm not sure how. And I could go and see a Water Pipit tomorrow in all likelihood, less than 15 miles from home, but I just can't drum up the enthusiasm. Oh well. That little lot would have seen me clear 280. I've also not done my traditional dash around Scotland, so no Ptarmigan, Caper, Black Grouse, or Crested Tit. Also no Eagles. Approaching 290. Add in the Hoopoes, Rose-coloured Starlings and Wrynecks (!) of this world, things like Rough-legged Buzzard and Red-necked Grebe, Corncrake and Quail, and you're on the cusp of 300 yet again. There isn't really a great deal of difference between a normal year list, and a perceived big year list. I wonder what all the fuss is about?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

For the curious

Once upon a time I showed you the interior of my fridge. I have no idea why. I suspect that it had been a quiet day on the birding front, and so in another "filler" move, I picked something random, which at that point in time was a broken fridge and a nice shiny replacement. Today is another such quiet day.....but I have nothing quite as interesting as a new fridge. So in a truly barrel-scraping move, I'm blogging about where it all happens.

Here is my desk. This is where I sit for hours on end, blogging. Oh, and lately, working. In fact, it's mostly working. The computer used to be in the kitchen, so I sat there. With the need to lock myself away in order to concentrate on vast Regulatory Capital spreadsheets, I moved it upstairs. This necessitated turning the whole house upsidedown, and turfing my youngest daughter out of her bedroom under the guise that bunkbeds are really cool. Yes, that old chestnut. We're also calling it a guestroom, as in addition to the desk, we shoved a double bed in there. In fact, bar a personal toilet and the lack of Sky TV, it is remarkably like a prison cell: it is small and cramped, and I spend most of my daylight hours confined in there. Seeing as it is my new abode, in that I do literally live in there - here - I thought I would show you what it's like.

First of all, the desk, with my increasing ancient PC on it, complete with relevant advertising for the purposes of this post. You will note how squished the cushion is - the reason for that is peeking out from behind the monitor - a 150g bag (that's a big one) of Waitrose hand-cooked Texan BBQ flavour crisps. I opened them yesterday, but not even I could finish them in one sitting. I've put that right today of course, but this is very very bad. Crisps are my downfall. I am not a chocolate person, bar the very occasional Double-decker, but crisps, oh dear.  I could easily eat four packets of Walkers in one go, one after the other. I discovered this packet whilst looking for kitchen roll, a huge bonus. I think I completed whatever task the kitchen roll was destined for, but I can't be absolutely certain - it's entirely possible I just sat down on the floor immediately and got to work on the crisps. Also visible is what is left of breakfast - I really should eat breakfast in a nice and relaxed manner downstairs somewhere, but it's a habit I can't get out of. If I'm working, I'm also eating. I mean, not all the time (well, perhaps most of the time....), but I have this complusion to eat meals whilst tapping away. I was always like this in the office, and somehow it has come home too.

The next photo shows my view. Not that see it much, I am always pointed at the computer screen, but if I swivel to my right, this is what I see. Try and ignore the curtains, they're the previous owners'....So, I can see the tops of my neighbours' houses, and a small strip of sky. Sky! Sky-watching? Not really. So far the only birds I've seen from this fairly rubbish vantage point have been Pigeons, Jackdaws, Crows, Black-headed Gulls, Common Gulls, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Blue Tit - actually this is sounding rather another list...... Anyhow, listing aside, there is a pair of bins stashed strategically on the window sill - porros that are of no use whatsoever outside. They're placed there deliberately - out of reach. They are but a short leap across the bed if required, but it's best not to have the constant temptation. Next to them is my beloved radio, which I listen to constantly. Radio 2 is the station of choice, perfect for my middle-aged middle-of-the-road tastes. It's tuned in almost all of the time, except from 12-2pm, where if it was tuned to the Jeremy Vine show it would quickly get thrown out of the window in response to the biggoted dullards that phone in every day. I either flip to Radio 4 then, or if I have time, try and find an interesting SW station, ideally in a foreign language with some quality twangy regional music. If there's a test match on, it's on 198 LW. Obviously. In the corner is a nice plant. All rooms in this house have plants in, most more than one, and this one is called a Metallica Palm, Chamaedorea metallica, a relative of the Parlour Palm that the Victorians were besotted with, but more interesting and better able to live in a low-light, low-humidity atmosphere, in case you were interested. And finally, no room would be complete without a life-size King Penguin stuffed toy, so we've put one of those in there too.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Failure and Reflection

On Sunday, I was definitely going out birding. Definitely. After being stuck indoors all on Saturday, I was going out, end of. I woke up just before nine, and looked out of the window. A bit grey. Hmm. I was out by ten, but only as far as the car - destination Southend Pier to take lots of point blank photographs of Turnstones and stuff. By 10:30 I had got as far as Pitsea, by which time it was greyer still and raining. I abandoned the Southend Plan, and instead went shopping for outdoor gear that would be ideal in this kind of weather, and which is, as I type, still lying in a bag on my bed, as outside the rain lashes against the window and I feel nothing but happiness that I am inside, dry and warm.

I love buying outdoor stuff, I just go through periods when I have little or no inclination to go outdoors and actually use it. I'm in the middle of one right now, though the end of it is surely less than a few weeks away. Typically today has been nice and sunny again. I did look out of the window a couple of times and wish for my old life back, but then the phone rang or something and I had to get back to it. So instead of actual birding, let's just reflect on a couple of favourite moments from this past year. Yup, you got it, a filler, pure and simple. Usually I do this in one post on the cusp of the New Year; this year I may not get time, so perhaps best to spread it out a bit...

It has been a struggle to know what has been my favourite bird this year. There have been more than a few candidates: the magical moment as Bradders, Nick and I stood underneath the tangle of branches in Lower Moors looking up a Black-and-white Warbler mere feet away, it has to be said that was pretty special. We had come over for a Green Sandpiper lookalike, never dreaming that instead we would gazing at one of my favourite of all American wood warblers. Then, on the same island a few weeks later, the hectic sprint from Higgo's Project Pool to Shooters Pool, followed by twenty minutes of lapping up a Northern Waterthrush in the company of perhaps three other people. That too will live long in the memory. They might both be rare, but can they compete with rounding a corner to find a couple of guys looking over an old stone wall. What'ya looking at? Oh, just a Bee-eater. There is no such thing as just a Bee-eater. A Bee-eater!!!! And there it was, not an invisible call, not a distant flight view, not a soggy miserable-looking bird on a wire, but a glorious riot of colour sat in bright sunshine in a bare sapling about twenty feet away. A bird I had wanted to see for simply ages, falling in the best possible of circumstances. Utterly superb, but can it be trumped?

It can, by a far commoner bird, and another I had wanted to see for ages. Years, in fact. A bird which had dragged me down to Cornwall many times, but with which I had never connected. A bird which I had just seen six of, but distantly, and a bird which I thought probably only occured distantly. Then a shout from along the Lighthouse wall. "Cory's in the close Manx line!....coming over right!" And by golly it did, and by golly it was magnificent. None of this lolloping, lazy bowed-wing flight jizz, instead a Cory's that was serioulsy motoring. Dwarfing the Maxies, it absolutely sped past, leaving me and the rest of the crowd at Pendeen that day enthralled. God only knows quite how much I like sea-watching, and though I never spurn opportunities to mention Fea's Petrels, this was right up there..... but better. What a bird! What. A. Bird. In case I have not been clear, WHAT A BIRD!! If I had to vote for just one of these four top birding experiences, top moments of complete elation, I would have to hand it to that Cory's Shearwater. It, of course, has no idea quite how happy it made me, nor quite how often I think about it, wonder where in the vast ocean it now is, where it has been, and where it will go.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

More Not Birding in Wanstead Today

Today was Christmas Tree day. To say the children were over-excited was a bit of an understatement. They have been begging for one for weeks, roughly ever since Mrs L started playing Christmas carols in about mid-October. So yesterday, seeing as I was doing the school run in the good ship Eco One, we came back via Homebase, bought a tree and threw it on the roof-rack. Despite last year's disappointment, I found myself once again choosing a Nordmann Fir. I figure that seeing as it is a dead cert that it will scatter needles all over the place with every single minor vibration, I might as well get a tree whose needles don't jab painfully into your feet like tiny shards of glass. These ones are at least soft. I didn't really pay much attention to labels, other than scoffing at the trademarked "needlefast" bit. I just selected a tree that would look nice in the bay window, and hauled it to the till. The till rang up an eye-watering and wallet-busting £45. Surely some mistake, I only had one tree, not three. But no, Christmas in Norway comes earlier than elsewhere it seems, and Harald and his merry men must be laughing as they sup their £25 pints of festive Aquavit. I did not tell the children how much Lego they could have had instead of this tree, nor how that Lego would bring lasting satisfaction, unlike the tree, which is destined for the local tip in about three weeks. Upon arriving home, I stashed it carefully in the back garden for the night, and hoped that the foxes wouldn't piss on it like they do everything else. Everything was ready.

The foxes, I am happy to report, have not ruined Christmas, and our front room now smells of pine, rather than anything else. Rapt with delight, three small faces beamed up at me as I lugged it in from the garden. A few snips to release it from the netting, and there it was in all it's £45 magnificence. It is on the 6ft side of the 6-7ft quoted on the label, but the children are happy, and that is the main thing. The decorations were retrieved from the loft, and we were off. Joy of joys, the lights worked first time. This is about the tenth year in a row that this has been the case, and is nothing short of a miracle. When I was a child, the two weeks leading up to Christmas were spent unscrewing and screwing back in tiny little bulbs in a vain effort to find which of the 300,000 was causing the other 299,999 to fail. Not so with modern lights it appears, plug in and away you go. Christmas music on the stereo, and the scene is set.

As you can probably guess, I have not been birding today. I have to admit it did look nice outside, but I decided that I would prefer to stay indoors and drink tea. I need to be kicked out. This happens from time to time, my urge to bird the patch diminishes to nothing. Then, finally, I drag myself out and really really enjoy it. I'm almost there. Perhaps tomorrow. Sorry if you came here wanting birds, but don't despair, January the first is just around the corner. Then it will be hell for leather, with non-stop birdy talk, and the excitement that only a January Blue Tit can bring.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The End of Free Speech

I really enjoy blogging. For starters I like writing, pretty much a prerequisite (imagine if you didn't, and were made to blog daily?!) I also like taking photos and boring people with them. Perfect. What started as an unadvertised toe-dip has morphed into what sometimes feels like an obligation. I'm approaching three years behind the keyboard, and amazingly still have not run out of things to say, though I reckon some people wish that I had. Perhaps I have a very active mind, but I find myself mentally composing blog posts at almost any time of day. Driving, shopping, commuting, you name it. I get home, and it just trips out, just as this one is now doing, for I have been thinking about it on and off all day, as well as part of yesterday. Often I have several thoughts on the go, so sometimes they become one horribly rambling post. Sometimes they stay separate, but many times they just go nowhere. Something else catches my attention, and so a 90% formed blog post about some tiny and meaningless aspect of my life gets cast by the wayside. Drivel that never was. And then sometimes, just very occasionally, I decide that I just cannot be bothered to write anything at all. Sometimes reader, you don't realise just how lucky you are.

When this happens, I wonder whether people will be disappointed? Whether my inconsistency will put people off? I read somewhere that the most successful blogs always post at the same time of day. Regular readers know when that is, go and check it, and hey presto there is the next installment. I am all too aware that it must be horribly frustrating to keep coming back to a photo of a strange-looking Common Gull for days on end. But that's just the way it is. The Fatbirder counter, shrouded in mystique though it undoubtedly is, is a chronic nag. Anything below 150 and I realise I must pull my socks up. The dizzy heights of double digits and I am in a frenzy of wishing to keep my spot. All ridiculous, but then when you think about it, that's blogging. Ridiculous. There are some blogs out there that actually serve a purpose, where you can actually learn stuff, guru Mattanganna's Birding Frontiers perhaps being the best example, but by far the majority are waffle. Padding. This blog is padding par excellence. I am gratified that people continue to read it.

I've never been much good on the stats element, I just forget to keep track. Every now and again I remember that there are stats, but because it will have been a couple months since I looked at them, I never really build up a picture. Instead I judge the success or failure of a post on comments. All bloggers LOVE comments. Don't pretend you don't. They are valediction for our efforts, and we relish their leaving. There are some blogs I read that within half an hour of having been posted have attracted thirty or more comments. Mrs L reads a knitting blog that is guaranteed to get over a hundred every single time. A few days ago one post had 634!! Were it me, I would read each and every one of them. Twice, probably. Luckily I don't have that problem. My average number of comments is about three. If you take my replies out, probably about 0.3, but nevermind, I love each and every one of them. Almost.

Although bloggers live for comments, there are some that I would gladly do without. I deleted one such comment just yesterday. Zapped it, just like that, which is what made me write this post. Normally I'd say that for the sake of free speech, people should be allowed to say what they like, generally it works better like that. As such I've never moderated comments - I don't review them before they get posted, they just go straight on, easier all round. But this particular comment has made me change my mind. There was no swearing, no abusive language, but the comment was left with the sole intention of belittling, and of winding me up. On this last part it has succeeded admirably. Naturally it was left by "Anon", they usually are. I read it, and my immediate thought was "You swine". I devote a great deal of time and energy to writing this, to trying to make it vaguely entertaining. I do it because I enjoy it, I am not so grand as to think I am providing any kind of service to the birding community. I do it for my own sake, I don't ask that anyone read it, though I am pleased when they do. And Anon, whoever you are, you see fit to post a snide, rude, very clearly designed-to-insult comment. For what reason exactly? I wish now that I had kept it, as I am struggling to remember exactly what it said, and it would help explain, but it's too late. Zap, gone. There might have been an element of sarcasm buried within it, but no amount of smilies would have made it benign. So now there is a new policy on comments. Until I start getting 634 per day, I'm going to moderate them, and I am only going to publish glowingly positive, gushingly feel-good ones. 

Not really. I expect I'll wave most of them straight through, as many times the comments are far more interesting than the original post. They allow for discussion and the development of ideas, and they're often extremely amusing. But the anonymous 'grudge' ones like I got yesterday will be going precisely nowhere. I am currently preparing my vast ego for the inevitable decline in the number of comments that this will unfortunately result in. I suspect I'll cope.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Go West, Young Man!

I had been sincerely hoping that no good birds would turn up this side of Christmas. Then "Just another Semi-p" at Cley turned into a Western Sandpiper. Bugger. I thought about it on Saturday morning, but elected to give it a miss, and then cracked that same evening. I am a fool. Plans, as they say, were hatched. These involved getting up very much in the dark, and driving there in a semi-broken car with Hawky. The car very nearly failed at Lakenheath, but we nursed it there, and nursed it back. Muffin came too. Presented yesterday afternoon with the choice of going birding with Daddy, or going to listen to Mummy sing, he chose the lesser of the two evils. Talk about presenting a kid with an impossible choice. So, he is now the proud ticker of a Western Sandpiper, something like the eighth for Britain. I figured that the next one would probably be further away than Norfolk, so that makes it almost a certainty for London. He also ticked the drake Green-winged Teal, a distinction he shared with Hawky, who, birding for a quarter of a century, has finally put his all-time bogey bird well and truly behind him. It was my fifth....

So, what did I think? You are no doubt itching to know, to be enlightened. Ah. Well, I've seen a couple of Semi-ps this year, and this I thought was different. Clearly a challenging bird, but it did not strike me a crouchy and creepy like the Drift bird. In fact, the Collins description of miniature Dunlin I thought was spot on. Only when it faced me directly did I get any hint of rufous in the scapulars, but then again it was a dull morning. Having read internet "chat", I was on the fence, but there is no substitute for actually seeing it. Having done so, and not just because it's the rarer one (that I need), I would be voting for Western. Tick and run.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Long-tailed Duck in London

There is a Long-tailed Duck in Bromley, which is in Kent. Generally when it comes to Long-tailed Ducks in Kent, I could not care less. However Bromley, whilst in Kent, is also in London. Suddenly, I find that I do care. Not that much, as the bird has been there for over a week now, but every now and again I wonder if I should go see it. Then I think of the Blackwall Tunnel, and care less again. When it came up this morning, I decided it was now or never, and so piled the children into the car after lunch (Mrs L was out selfishly pursuing her own hobbies again rather than staying at home so that I can go look at birds, pah!)

I take my kids to all the nicest places....

London traffic being what it is, the 16 miles took just over an hour, and when we parked up we could see a muddy lane heading off into the trees. My research had been somewhat minimal, but seeing as it was the most likely option, and we had passed no ponds, we sauntered down there. Plenty of muddy puddles for one and all, including for a dumb son who had decided to wear trainers but did not want to be left out. They're drying on the radiator.

The path did indeed lead to a small pond, and on that pond, surrounded by Mallards, Coots, Little Grebes and a few Tufties was a very fine female Long-tailed Duck. Where it came from and what it is doing there, who can say? It passed the bread test, and in fact stayed right at the far end of the pond. This is of course the acid test with wildfowl. Nobody will actually ever know where it came from, so punters like me make up rules that can fairly easily be satisfied. We throw one tiny lump of bread in towards the nearest Mallard, which naturally snaffles it instantly, thus ensuring the target bird does not get a look in, and we make sure that we view from as far away as possible, and move if it swims towards us. Well, it behaved like a wild bird, we then say indignantly. Didn't show the slightest interest in bread..... And then we whack it on our lists. Triumphantly.

Which is what I have just done, and in doing so discovered that not only is it a London tick, but a Kent tick too! Double whammy. Actually, triple whammy, as unbelievably it gets better - a year tick! Good gracious, what a haul, what a tick-fest! Good thing I'm not year-listing!  Well worth the two hours in the car. That's the trouble with London birding, small distances take forever. I don't mind going out to Rainham, or popping up to the Lea Valley Reservoirs, but as soon as a bird turns up south of the river, or, heaven forbid, south-west London, an involuntary groan escapes me. Why do I do it, I ask myself. It's stupid, I tell myself. Never was that worse than last year, when I was trying a London year list, but even now when the pressure is off, it's still a pain. Should I, shouldn't I, and so on. Anyway, 'tis done, and it's another one I won't have to schlep round to Staines or Wraysbury for. Local listing, for people with no concept of perspective.

They will thank me in years to come

Friday, 2 December 2011


As expected, my memorable post about the heavily-streaked Common Gull went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Whether people are just too polite these days to point out my glaring lack of Gull skills, or whether they are too scared to offer even a heavily-caveated opinion on any Gull, well, who can say? It’s not like this blog is Birdforum is it? For starters it’s rarely about birds, despite the title conning you into thinking it might be. Actually you could say the same thing about Birdforum, which has a tendency to stray away from birds and instead be mainly about people and their diverse personalities.

Since I last spouted forth, I have been birding precisely once – a swift lunchtime visit to Bush Wood to help Hawky find the Firecrests. As it was, and entirely predictably, I was no help whatsoever - he found them himself, so I went back to work. Excellent. We saw four, which is really rather exciting. I remember twitching Bloomsbury Square in Central London early one morning before work to see my first Firecrest, one of those fond recollections of my youthful exuberance and general stupidity. Similar expeditions away from Wanstead were undertaken for Ring Ouzel, where I drove all the way to Hertfordshire, and also for Redstart, both of which we get every year without fail approximately five hundred yard from my front door. Mind you, I don’t suppose there is a birder out there who does not have similar tales from when they were first starting out, and that now induce a wry smile and spot of self-ridicule. It’s all about the journey, and for me, the silly moments rank right up there with past glories. Despite the oodles of Ring Ouzels present on the Flats since that date, I still treasure my mobile phone-scoped shot of that bird at the famous layby in Batford. I had driven at least an hour, and by some miracle found exactly the right spot. As I scanned down the hedge that separated two paddocks, it suddenly hopped out and began feeding on the grass. My heart skipped a beat, all my Christmases had come at once. A Ring Ouzel, a perfect, perfect male Ring Ouzel. Despite their relative frequency so close to home, they’re still a special bird for me. I’ve yet to get a decent photo of one though, they are some of the scarediest, sneakiest, flightiest birds I’ve ever come across. I’d planned to put that particular omission to bed this autumn, but there weren’t any, or at least not that I saw, as I had started work on exactly the date they tend to start coming through.

There was some internet speculation about whether it was true that I was now working. I can confirm that, sadly, it is indeed true. This blog started up in January 2009 as a hastily conceived “Oh a lot of people are doing that, I wonder if I can too?” kind of thing. About six weeks later I lost my job, so people who have read this or the column in Birdwatch will only ever have done so in the context of me being an unemployed layabout, home dad etc. Actually I worked extremely hard for many years, over ten in fact, in a large grey building in Canary Wharf. As of about eight weeks ago, I’m back in that same building. Birding opportunities have thus dropped off a cliff, and will only recover in Spring, when we get some morning daylight again, or when Greece and Italy collapse, whichever comes sooner. For the sake of my mortgage and desire to start shopping in Waitrose again, I’m hoping it’s the former.

I am finding that work is extremely tiring. It does not help, of course, that my domestic responsibilities remain unchanged. I’m still doing the school runs, still doing the domestic stuff, but the fact is that I am not twenty five any more, when I revelled in fourteen hour days, survived on about five hours sleep, and generally bounced around. I am now old. Old and tired. Two nights ago I had dinner with a friend after work, drank two very meagrely-sized beers, and arrived home at approximately 8pm. By 9pm I was tucked up in bed, and I was probably asleep before 10pm. Rock and Roll. I woke up at 7am. Nine hours sleep is almost unprecedented, but I yawned my way through the entire day at work, and at one point seriously considered taking a day off next week purely in order to stay in bed with my eyes closed. Then I realised that with children that’s basically impossible. There is no respite in sight until after Christmas, itself a shattering affair; by then I may have curled up and died. On the plus side, my new endeavours are bringing crusts to the family table, and buying an increasing number of bricks in the four walls that surround us, which after all is the whole point of human existence, isn't it? Maybe that's just what it seems like sometimes. I am consoling myself with thoughts of birding opportunities that with renewed financial health are now possible. Extramadura seems a likely spring destination, and there are fairly firm rumblings regarding Arctic Finland and Norway. A family expedition to somewhere warm in the New Year is also looking good, so who knows, maybe I will have something interesting to blog about in the not too distant future.

I wouldn’t count on it though.