Monday, 30 April 2012

Peanut Challenge Update

I don't work in Canary Wharf every day, and even when I am there, there is no guarantee I'll actually be able to leave my desk. It was probably a rash decision to therefore stake a whole packet of peanuts on Canary Wharf being better (or rather, less awful) than Tower Bridge. To date this year, I've seen 33 species there. By way of comparison, on Saturday I saw 50 species on Wanstead Flats in approximately three hours. It is truly terrible, but the thought of the peanuts, or at least, not having to fork out for peanuts, keeps me going.

I managed to sneak out today, and whilst my favourite haunt of Westferry Circus produced nothing new, I was pleased to see both Greenfinch and Goldfinch, and to hear both Wren and Blackbird. The key to birding a patch like this is to set the bar very very low. Last week I was surprised to see fledged Blackbirds; today I was surprised to find Bluetits in a nestbox, and also obviously feeding young. There is also a Crow's nest there, it's all happening.

I went off to check on Doris and Stanley, and I'm afraid it's sad news. I can't remember when I first reported an egg, but Doris is still gamely sitting on them - there are four now - and nothing has happened, and my guess is that nothing will. In the next dock along I found an almost full-grown Grebe chick, so Doris' eggs are almost certainly addled. Doris and Stanley now have neighbours though; there is another sitting Grebe about forty feet away on the same bit of floating habitat. Here's hoping she has better luck.

I wandered onwards, past three delightful Coot chicks, to the eastern-most side of my self-defined patch. On the way I passed through Jubilee park, the bit of grass above the tube station. Being a nice day (for a change) it was absolutely heaving, but I'm afraid Wharfers have an inability to switch off. Lots of very earnest conversations entirely about work, and I must have heard "escalate to management" about eight times in twenty-five yards. Tragic really. Things improved a lot once I got the dockside, as I immediately clapped eyes on a couple of Terns at the far end. Far too far for my feeble ID skills, but one of them did the decent thing and flew much closer and revealed itself as a Common Tern. Not a Canary Wharf outright tick, but a new one for the year, and so I find myself only two behind Parus at Tower Bridge. I should imagine he is getting pretty worried now at the sheer brilliance of my patch. Mmmm, I do like peanuts.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Weekend Roundup

- Awake 5.15am with mild hangover following Friday night de-stressing.
- Note rain; go back to sleep until 7am
- Hit Flats, see 4th Ring Ouzel of the year, get wet
- Receive phone call from wife saying son extremely ill, screaming in pain, getting worse
- Run home (actual running), during which engage in frantic conversation re ambulance
- Son perks up on hearing word "ambulance"; nonetheless drive family to A&E
- Family return from A&E; son has pulled a muscle.
- Conclude son is a big girl, or NHS is going downhill. Go birding again, get wet again

- Go to Grays at 6am to view incredible seabird passage on filthy raging north-easterly.
- See nothing, get wet.
- Decide to move to Rainham balcony
- Stop at McDs for breakfast as neglected to bring the £10,000 needed to buy food at Rainham
- Whilst eating breakfast, learn of Arctic Skua at Rainham
- Mild Swearing
- Arrive Rainham, almost immediately jam in on Great Skua
- Sit at Rainham for a further 4 hours, Tern passage peaks at approx 2.5 per hour, get cold
- Return home, stuff face
- Make birthday card for wife (Ringed Plover), referee children (still have 3, muscle improved)
- Write blog, misuse word "write" 
- Consume alcoholic beverage(s)

Friday, 27 April 2012

Patch Quality

Once again a difficult choice this morning. Stay in my nice warm bed, or brave the wind and the rain. The title of this post is a dead giveaway - did I get up? Course I did! Warm beds and cups of tea do not a successful patch-worker make, and I have been hitting Wanstead Flats every morning now for weeks and weeks, for - as you know - little reward. So, once up and out, and with the first splashes of rain pinging in my bleary eyes, I hurried across the road to the Flats for a good soaking.

Mostly I avoided the soaking by sheltering in Long Wood. I figured that before 7am I was probably safe. A quick tour of the brooms produced nothing but Dan, and so increasingly despondent I headed for the Alex. Before I got there I noticed an Egyptian Goose circling over Manor Park. Hang on a minute..... YEEES! Shelduck, in fact two Shelduck! Patch goodness, and a welcome grip-back. A few weeks ago I had got up, looked out of the window at a large fog bank, and crawled back into bed. Within half and hour Nick had scored two Shelduck, disoriented by fog, mere yards from my house.... Boy did I feel stupid. And lazy! Not so today though. They're probably annual, but only as fly-overs, so it's entirely down to luck as to whether you get one or not. Fortune favours the early riser, as patch-workers say... I later learned that Paul H had had two Shelduck over Mayesbrook Park at around the same time, and had seen them fly North-west...towards Wanstead. A rare bird for him too, only his second sighting, and only my third. As soon as they'd flown off and out of sight I sent out a happy text to everyone that still needs Shelduck for the year - not really! No, really not really. I had thought I had sent a text, but when I later showed Nick (who, as I mentioned, doesn't need Shelduck), he said "you never mentioned them!" I did too, I said, and checked my phone. No message at all. Hmmm. Well, it had been my intent to let everyone know about two Shelduck they had no hope of seeing (they flew off east again), but I somehow I failed in this and so am now being labelled as a suppressor as opposed to a gripper.

Flush with success from a quality patch record, I turned for home and began to meander towards the copses. Between me and the copses were about twenty large gulls just sitting around doing nothing, as gulls do early morning. It can't hurt to have a quick scan through them can it? OK, so Lesser Black-back, Common and, oh, ooooh, hang on, what are you? Birders always talk to themselves like this when birding alone, particularly when picking through flocks of things. It was a large white-headed gull, and I had an inking already as to what it might be, but needed to get a lot closer to find out. I sidled up, the gulls did nothing, and to my great delight (far more delight than Gulls should create), I felt I was looking at a Yellow-legged Gull. Ageing large gulls is somewhat of a dark art - well, identifying them is as well now I come to think about it - but by my reckoning it was a third year bird, somewhere between a second winter and a second summer. Here are a few shoddy photos, so I look forward to all you Gull experts telling me I've made a massive screw-up. I managed a few on the deck before a dog entered stage right and they all flew off. Just after I'd sent a text would you believe. Excellent creatures dogs, I've always said so.

I continued my meandering homewards, noted a Swift barelling north, and close to Long Wood Nick texted with news of a probable Lesser Whitethroat in Long Wood. By the time I got there it was a definite one, and indeed I heard the familiar duh-duh-duh-duh-duh before I even got to him. Which made it a three tick day! In fact, it became a four tick day, as when I got home to work on the spreadsheet of bird-record happiness, I discovered that I was one out, and fifteen feverish minutes later worked out I had missed off Common Whitethroat from a couple of weeks ago. So, the scores on the doors, 94, a mere two behind this point last year. Much better.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Moaning and Migrants, by God.

I have migrancy to report, and lots of it. But first let's talk about God. Whether you believe in God - any God - or not, you cannot fail to have noticed the atrocious weather we have been having. A month's worth of rain fell in a day in some places, and it has been COLD! FFS, it's nearly May, and I'm cold. April has been colder than March, and there are a few stories circulating about how May is going to be the coldest on record. Can't wait. Anyhow, in various texts that I have not read, it is Gods that are responsible for weather. He is/they are the ones who send floods, storms, fires and general pestilence to wreak havoc upon weak and unrepentent sinners. Towards the end of March, I would suggest we did something really bad. Personally, I'm in the clear. I have been working very conscientiously, and at the end of March I was in Finland taking photos of birds, so it wasn't me. Somebody, however, has messed up in a big way. The result is the worst spring I can remember in my 275 years birding.

It is extremely fashionable to moan about how rubbish 2012 has been. You will recall, perhaps, how the very same people were in February saying what an extraordinary year 2012 had been, what with Yellowthroats safely tucked under belts, and Spanish Sparrows happily in bags. You will also perhaps that other non twitchers (like me) were waxing lyrical about what a brilliant year 2012 was, with Smew on every puddle, Goosanders by the fistfull, and gazillions of waders everywhere. Not now. No, 2012 is officially crap because some people haven't seen a Sand Martin yet.

I'm one of them. Until just yesterday, I could have said the same thing about House Martin, but happily that little gap on my patch year-list has now been filled. I had nipped up to the post office around lunchtime, and on the way back had decided to check the Basin in case any hirundines had been forced down by the celestial machinations. They had! The Basin was buzzing! Buzzing with Hirundines. It's basically impossible to get an accurate count when birds like this are zooming around all over the place, but a conservative estimate was 15 House Martins, 5 Swallows (ergo it must now be Summer, Jesus Christ), and 2 Swifts. The Swifts were the most surprising, and at the time I felt they were really early, in contrast to every other species this Spring. Checking my scrupulous records however, I discovered that Swifts had arrived in Wanstead, or at least been spotted by me in Wanstead, on exactly the same date in 2009 and 2010, and only in 2011 had they been later. Don't any of you ever complain that this blog isn't interesting.

So, two rapid patch ticks, and complemented only a short while later, when back home, by a Hobby out of the back window. This was a day earlier than last year, but was also a spot from my garden, which is clearly a bit of a Hobby mecca. It is actually - the birds breed relatively nearby, and in summer, Hobby comes only a close second to Goshawk Sparrowhawk in being the most likely raptor to be seen overhead. I hope that this bird is one of the residents returning, but it's too early to say, and I've not seen it since - mind you I've been at Canary Wharf. In some ways, this rubbish spring has some advantages, in that three tick days are a very strong possibility. I'm on 90 now, which is six behind this time last year. Of the regulars, I'm missing the afore-mentioned Sand Martin, as well as Tawny Owl, Common Sandpiper, Yellow Wagtail, WhinchatGarden Warbler, Reed Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. There are a few of the latter on the patch, I've just not lowered myself to twitching them yet. Perhaps tomorrow, if it stops bloody raining.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Professional Jealousy

"33 Whimbrel flew east over Wanstead Flats"

Today I was working at Canary Wharf. You can probably see where this post is heading. Yup, patch gold and not seen by me. Grrrrr. Still, I enjoyed my spreadsheets. Unless you're the only person working a patch, the likelihood is you will know all about today's scenario. It's not nice. I mean, it's great, long live the patch and all that, but seriously gripping. I'd kill for even one Whimbrel, but 33?!! Highly unfair. Patch-worker competitiveness is alive and well across the land. I actually think there isn't too much of it here in Wanstead, we're a relatively easy-going bunch. I mean, I like gripping people off as much as the next birder, but if I had to categorically state whether I was hugely competitive as regards to my patch list versus everyone else's, I'd have to say that really I wasn't, and that's probably the case for most of us. A few of the guys have an unhealthy obsession with outdoing Wormwood Scrubs in the migrant stakes, but apart from that, there isn't much angst. But with 33 Whimbrel flying east in a lovely V formation whilst I was sat four miles to the south-west seeing only rows and columns, I may have to reevaluate my feelings on patch competitiveness. Gah!

Naturally I was out on the patch this morning, once again seeing very little. The Willow Warblers were still singing - encouraging, and there are now more Whitethroats than before. Nonetheless I am feeling short-changed, and not just by some curvy-billed waders. Sand Martin, House Martin, Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow Wagtail - all continue to elude me, and it has not escaped my notice that this time last year I was nearly 10 species better off. The obvious difference is work I suppose, but this crappy spring has a lot to answer for. I know, moan moan moan. It has also not escaped my notice that I am a total whinge-bag at the moment. What is perhaps most irritating is that I'm trying really hard, there has been no slacking off. Admittedly I did not spend much time on the patch at the weekend, but I had heaps of other things to do, and in this game, timing is unfortunately everything. In some ways it is good that I don't live by the sea - it is one thing to be gripped-off by some regular migrants that I've not seen yet. Imagine being told about a stonking seabird going past that you hadn't seen? When seabirds fly past, that's it, they're gone and they're not coming back. A bit like fly-over waders on urban patches.


I might not have seen any migrants this year, but I don't care as I did see this and it was brilliant

Saturday, 21 April 2012

LondonMoWatch 2012

The acceptable face of birding
Just got back from LondonBirdWatch 2012 with the Mo, an excellent day out. OK, so I missed Lesser Whitethroat, Sand and House Martin on the patch, but there will be more. But this bird fair is only once a year - and I understand that it will be annual. Anyway, for an innaugural event it was pretty slick, with a good variety of exhibitors, and seeing as it was being held at Barnes WWT, a fantastic array of plastic ducks for the camera-toting masses. First up was a talk about Mo and Natalie M, presented by Simon King. It was pretty good, though strayed off-topic quite a bit with Peregrines and other wildlife - a shame, but got to keep the punters happy I suppose. Very engaging man Simon King, a genuinely nice guy. Whilst Dave was busy signing autographs outside, I made for the exhibitors tents...

In an unexpected diversion, Simon uses the force to lift an X-wing out of the Sheltered Lagoon
I lingered around one of the book stalls for a while, and so safely tucked in my bag for some bedtime reading is a short tome on Costa Rica. Make hay while the sun shines I say. Then I went upstairs to the optics tent. Waddamistakeatomakea. Leica was witlessly absent, but the other manufacturers were there in force. Oh dear. The various stall holders were only too happy to hand me pair after pair of sickeningly expensive binoculars, let me weigh and play with various enormous lenses, and generally encourage gross financial negligence. I was introduced to the MD of Swarovksi by Chris, the event's genial organiser, and had a great chat with him about the placement of decimal points, before trying out seemingly every pair of bins they make. I won't attempt a series of optics reviews here, suffice it to say the new SLC HD range are superb and I want a pair. If that decimal point could just move slightly to the left....

Mo attempts to hide from hysterical fans
Next up the Canon stall. Ah. They had the new series II telephotos on display. Ah. The new 500mm is a toy compared to the one I have. The new 600mm weighs less than 500mm I have. They are sharper (allegedly, this is perhaps spin, as how that is actually even possible I've no idea), they are much lighter, they have a more-effective image-stabiliser.... and they are available next month. They are also obscenely (and I really do mean that) expensive. They also had a 5D Mark III on display. I want one of those too.....

The Gitzo stand made me laugh. Or was it cry, I can't remember. I tackled them on the subject of my rusting tripod and how really it wasn't on, and how I was unimpressed that a 500 quid tripod had 5p bolts on it. What would they like to do about it, I innocently enquired.

"Did you use it near salt water?"
"Yes, I am a birder."
"Ah, that's not covered."
"What, using the tripod outdoors?"
"No. We can repair it, but it will cost you."
"It already cost me £500."
"Yes, but it will cost you more."
"Great, please let me buy more of your products!"
"Really? Well there is this new travel tripod which is very strong yet very compact, and only costs £800."
"What a great bargain! Can I use it near the sea?"

I would like to invite Swarovski to buy up Gitzo, and perhaps teach them a thing or two, or perhaps just something, about customer service. I'm thinking of writing a song.....

Although I had discussed with Dave one of us staying outside the optics tent with all our credit cards, and then swapping over, in the event we both went in together. However I am pleased to report that sheer will power meant my wallet remained firmly closed. There would have been some serious explaining to do back home. No Dear, we are not having any more famliy holidays until 2022, and I want you to start growing alfalfa in the back garden. Had I been weak (and filthy rich), I would have exited the other end of the tent with a bill in the range of fifteen grand. Add on a trip to South Georgia which took my fancy, a nice fleece and a bit of birdseed, and the total would have topped twenty. You can see why they decided to hold it in South-west London! Very dangerous indeed. How much is a kidney worth?

And finally, a visit to the Wetland Centre wouldn't be complete without a wander round the pens. My year list is now well over 250.

If anyone is wondering whether Canon's 70-200 II zooom with a 2x converter on it is sharp.....

And no visit to SW London would be complete without one of these.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Some Things

I just read this post by Emma Waffle. It is about nothing at all really (hope she does not me saying this) but is excellent nonetheless. That it contains a link to Peregrines helps perhaps - a closet birder if ever I saw one - but for a post that is essentially wittering on about stuff, well done. It probably helps if you have been reading the preceding waffle, which I have. Just as you have on here. So I am going to shamelessly copy the format, if not the style. Or the parts about lipstick, though I do have a skin tale to share. Oh yes.

Good things:

1. It is not raining, though this may change*. It has been raining almost non-stop for about the last week, and I am fed up with it. It was largely inevitable once Thames Water announced a hosepipe ban. The same Thames Water who lose a full 25% of all water they supply on a daily basis - this is used as a marketing tool, as in we only lose 25% of all our water every day. Before replacing however many miles of leaky pipes last year it was running at over 30%. Well done I say. Not that I need the hose now of course, as last time I looked a wader scrape was forming about half way down the garden. If the next time I look out I see a pair of courting Avocets I won't actually be that surprised. The rain has made birding all but impossible. Wanstead is sadly lacking in sea and south-west headlands. We have no alternative when the weather closes in. If I lived near the sea, I'd be down there like a shot. In fact, in good weather I'd probably be there too, but that's not the point. Constant rain equates to no birds. And to getting wet whilst not seeing them. All things being equal, I'd rather it were dry, though the downpours are helping the local ponds which are desperately low. And preventing the local youf from burning any more of the Flats.

2. This morning I saw a Ring Ouzel, or, I should say, another Ring Ouzel. That makes three this year so far, and is very pleasing. My Ring Ouzel cup overfloweth.  Verily. What great birds they are. This morning's was a female, and decided to plonk down in some broom only a few yards from Nick, Tim and I as we conversed about what a shit spring it had been. It then afforded us some of the best views of an Ouzel I've ever had for at least thirty seconds, before slipping into cover. Reaching for my ever-present camera, I discovered it had no battery left. Well that's excellent, what great planning. Honestly, my camera has one of the beefiest batteries I've ever seen - it's good for well over 2000 shots, even in sub-zero temperatures. I brag about it constantly, and then get caught short with a 2.5kg camera-shaped paperweight 500 yards from my house.

3. Chateau L has a cleaner again, though not a fairy, and will shortly have a gardener. This may sound somewhat decadent, but I view it as job creation, a responsible move for a more robust economy. When I lost my job a few years back, our cleaner lost hers the same day, which was very sad, both for her and for us, but particularly for her. Well, and for us equally now I come to think about it, and especially for me, as her responsibilities became mine. I did my best** but really my heart wasn't in it. Whilst the house looked superficially tidy, underneath the surface lurked terrifying amounts of grime. When I went back to work, I resisted getting help - I thought we could do it ourselves, and the novelty of actually having money coming in, rather than just going out, well, I wanted to keep as much of it as possible to spend on optics. The house began to look like Beirut on a bad day in the 1980s, and so I have now seen the error of my ways, and launched my very own economic stimulus plan. In any event, it is impossible to have a nice house when you have three children, as they are able to trash it far more quickly that you can clean it. They are of course also able to trash it far more quickly than a cleaner can clean it, but there is that fantastic period between the cleaner leaving and the children arriving home from school when it looks amazing. The one flaw in my plan is that I'm at work earning money to pay the cleaner, so I don't ever get to see it in this state.

4. I have more wine than I can possibly ever drink. I can't tell you how good a thing this is. Somehow I have managed to plan ahead, which is something I rarely do. I got one of those lovely emails the other day which said something along the lines of "Dear Mr L, the delicious, drinking-now-but-will-also-keep-for-a-couple-of-years White Burgundies that you ordered two years ago and have entirely forgotton about have arrived in the UK and are ready to be delivered to you in exchange for a moderately small amount of tax." It's lucky these wine merchants are honest folk, as I had entirely forgotton about them. Happy days.

Bad things

1. I am not well. Specifically, I have an unspecified stomach complaint. This started this morning, on Wanstead Flats, though as I was looking at a Ring Ouzel I made light of it. I did mean however that rather than dice with death - or worse - on public transport, I decided that working from home might be the safest and least disgusting option. My stomach has never really been the same since a trip to Thailand in the late nineties, when I experienced the worst case of the runs in my entire life, up to and including now. Somehow I survived a flight to Sydney, and sought help straight away. I'd encourage you to look at this link about bacillic dysentery, particularly the symptoms bit. One of the syptoms is apparently death, so I suppose I got off lightly, but every now and again, and I have no idea what causes it - inferior Burgundy perhaps? - I get a bout of dodgy tummy, and today was one of those days. I like to bare all on this blog.

2. Unconnected to the above, but equally pleasant to anyone who combines blog-reading with eating dinner, I have a large spot on the back of my neck which actually hurts when I turn my head. I cannot see it in order to be able to describe it to you, but I suspect it is bright red and throbbing. I have not been a greasy teenager for many years, and I would like to think that my hormones are so calm now as to be practically dead, so it is highly unfair that I should have a zit on my neck that a fifteen year-old would be embarrassed by. At least it is not on my nose.

3. There has been some kind of birders tiff in within the publications section of the London Natural History Society. I have no idea what has happened, a friend merely told me that some acrimony had occured. Highly strung these birder types. But why is this bad news? Well, for two years I compiled a section of the riveting read that is the London Bird Report. This tells you that on June 23rd eleven Blue Tits were seen in Hackney, and other important things of that nature. Whilst I wasn't working, I felt that I ought to put a little bit back into London birding, and volunteered to write a couple of sections. Rarely, and this includes work, have I been so bored, but I manfully struggled on and only delivered my sections a couple of months late. I had tried to make my accounts of Blue Tits in the capital a little more pithy than my predecessor, and was ruthlessly edited. I do not like being edited, and after two years, and finding myself working once again, decided I would pass on a third year. I thought nothing more of it until I heard about this spat, and very shortly afterwards received an email from someone drafted in as an emergency editor, with a neat little table showing who wrote which sections in 2008, and who was writing sections in 2009. There is a nasty little blank space in the 2009 list where you can see my name against it for 2008; the implication is clear. So I am currently agonising about whether I should volunteer again. On the one hand, my conscience tells me I probably should. On the other, birding is about enjoyment, and I know I will not enjoy it.

4. I keep on getting letters from the tax man. Whilst unemployed I did not seek a single penny from the public purse. Now that I am employed again, I am being instantly and relentlessly pursued. You already know my feelings on how my taxes will likely be spent. Anyway, I have a neat little pile of brown and very governmental envelopes sitting on my desk. None of the ones I have so far opened have contained good news. "Dear Mr Lethbridge, we are pleased to be able to tell you that you have been opted out of the tax system, and will no longer need to pay us anything. Please do not reply to this letter."**

That is all.

* Before I even finished this post, this happened. Stair rods.

** This might have been in a dream.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Piss Poor and Pissing Down

Last Sunday I was stood with Tim and Nick near the Broom Fields. The precise location isn't actually important, but that's where we were. Unsuprisingly, we were talking about birds. Specifically we were talking about migration. Slow, we remarked. Hasn't really started, we mused. This is the week, we surmised.

Oh how wrong we were. None of us have seen anything, with the exception of lots of water. Hard as it is to believe, none of us have seen a Sand Martin, and there has been one single House Martin. The patch list is miles behind where it should be, it is easily the poorest spring since records began*.  So, no birds, though I did take a very pleasing photo of a Greylag Goose, which you can see here. I hope to make loads of money out of it and retire, which is why I haven't put it on here to be downloaded at will. It does happen you know - I still see a photo I took of a plant in Naples over a decade ago being used regularly to sell seeds of the plant on Ebay. You can even see Mrs L in the background! I gave up trying to get people to desist long ago. In fact, to prove it's still happening, I had a quick search - took five seconds - and sure enough, my photo comes up on the fourth item down. Shameless.

Talking of Mrs L and photos, an interesting half hour a few nights ago resulted in this. Now before you say that some things should remain behind closed doors, this is perfectly safe, and frankly I think the world needs to know. This is Mrs L's latest handbag.

As you can see, it's broken. Again. All Mrs L's handbags break. The only type of handbag that wouldn't break would be made of reinforced steel, and would be so heavy as to be unportable. Why do they break? Because the non-metallic handbag that can safely hold 45,000 Tesco receipts, 36,000 used tissues, 14 broken pens, 5 lip balms, a purse, keys and a phone has yet to be designed, and nor will it ever be. Imagine if I had that little lot in my pockets?! In some ways men have it easy. There is simply not enough room in pockets to hold that amount of crap, so we throw it away. My simple suggestion of using a bigger handbag was met with all the scorn it deserved, as apparently a bigger handbag would suffer from exactly the same problem - ie bursting under the strain - but would just hold more and thus delay the inevitable "pop" that will one day come. How about throwing away receipts, I suggested? More scorn. I will check them against my bank statements (the ones in a pile three feet deep at the back of the wardrobe), she said. We sat on the sofa together, I eager to help, but not being allowed to, as carefully each scrunched-up receipt was flattened and read. In October 11 we bought 8 tins of Baked Beans and a new sponge. Fantastic! Happy memories! That one got binned. The next was from August - a scarf purchased in St Andrews - this one went into the keepers pile.

What?! Why on earth are you keeping that one dearest, I enquired. In case I want to take it back, came the 100% serious reply. You are kidding me? Do shopkeepers now rent scarves? Can you imagine going back to the shop in Fife, seven months later and just as it's getting warm again, and saying that you've changed your mind and you don't want it any more! You'd be chased down the street! Anyway we had a lot of fun, but there is now a problem. There is now not enough stuff in the handbag. Things move around now, it's all loose, and things could fall out. Any thumping noises you can hear are definitely not me banging my head against the wall repeatedly. Anyway, we must now begin the long, dark search for a new handbag. Do handbag review sites exist I asked, cautiously. The very notion! Reviews on the internet are for men exclusively it appears. Women do not write bag reviews for the consumption of other women. Women go to shops and poke at handbags, tut at handbags. So do I dare buy her a handbag for her birthday? Online? Not on your nelly! Plastic Bag anyone? Looks like we may have some Tesco ones.....

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Things we didn't see in Norway

The only bird we dipped on in Norway was Willow Grouse. There was no hint of them anywhere, we never even saw tracks. We floundered around in waist-deep snow near Willow scrub, we walked down deserted tracks lefts by snow-mobiles - nothing. Now Hawk-Owl and Gyr knock Willow Grouse into a cocked hat obviously, but it seems a shame to go so far and miss out. Given that we saw none at all, we wondered if they had all been predated, and if so, what the main predator of Willow Grouse might be - turns out the answer is taxidermists. Stuffed Willow Grouse were everywhere, in every imaginable pose. What should we have circling over our heads as we ate dinner at the Ivalo hotel on the first evening? Yup, Willow Grouse, in groups of five above every table. The population at Ivalo airport was particularly dense, with all sorts of displays. One of the baggage handlers must moonlight as a taxidermist, as in addition to the entire Finnish population of Willow Grouse, there were Capercaillie, Pine Marten, an Elk, Ermine, and most curiously, two European Jays.

Anyway, I can thoroughly recommend Ivalo airport as the easiest and best (and only) location in Finnmark to view Willow Grouse at really close range. Fantastic views with no effort at all, and nice and warm too. Slightly disturbing, but great fun. I walked round the small departure lounge several times, and found more and more on each circuit. There was also an empty log - either awaiting freshly stuffed residents, or some Finnair punters had snuck a few on board....

Monday, 16 April 2012

Birding Canary Wharf, but Exciting

Today I can put my hand on my heart and say that birding Canary Wharf was exciting. This might sound like the greatest contradiction ever, but it was fabulous. I had a pretty intense morning, one that finished at half two rather than the traditional midday. Feeling pretty fried, I headed outside for some air. And for some birds. Hopefully - this was Canary Wharf after all.

I made it as far as Westferry Circus, and being late, there was hardly anyone around. Some security people magically turned up shortly after I extracted a camera from my bag, but when they realised I was a sad weirdo they went away again. That left me and the shrubbery. And the shrubbery was alive! I found a male Blackbird feeding three almost fully grown chicks, I found about half a dozen Goldfinches, and I found a Wren sneaking around. I've never seen Wren there before, not in a decade of looking. Amazing. Or rather, I am amazingly rubbish. And where had the Blackbirds come from, with three young hopping around, it's not like they're fresh migrants is it? Good grief. I thought I'd better start looking harder. What if there was an undetected Warbler unobtrusively feeding somewhere? This became my mission, and I'll you what, it was pretty darn exciting. Especially when I got a tantalising glimpse of what surely must have been a phyllosc. Just a flit, but immediately I was in full-on birding mode, straining every sense. Except taste perhaps. Or smell.

Anyway, the closest feeling I can assosciate the next twenty minutes with was birding abroad, somewhere like India. You've got something, you have an idea of what it might be, but you don't know, and you NEED to know, for listing's sake. The choice, of course, was pretty much between Willow and Chiff, but I needed to see it well. Either would have been a Canary Wharf tick, and a tricky fifteen minutes followed before I nailed it as a Chiffy. I've been trying to recall when I last looked at a Chiffchaff so intently, and I reckon it was down in Cornwall about three years ago, at Helston Sewage works, when trying to find a Sibe in amongst twenty trillion collybita. Usually I just note the song, perhaps cock my ear towards a hoo-weet or a hooweet, but never actually look at them. I mean, why would I want to do that? Bo-ring!

Today I never even made it as far as the river, I spent my entire break in a tiny tiny area looking at a handful of birds, and loved every minute of it. Flocks of Terns probably went past, a Kittiwake or two, but I wouldn't have cared. Sensational birding about two minutes from my office. I'm still some way behind in the peanut stakes, but with dedication like this, those calories could be mine!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Finland & Norway: The Team

Lots of bird blogs focus 100% on birds, but the people are interesting too - sometimes very interesting. Obviously that's not the case here, but I thought it might make a change to show the people who get a lot of mention on this blog but rarely make an appearance - unless of course they are caught in an unfortunate pose somewhere and I am quick enough with the camera....

Anyway, I went to the Arctic Circle with Bradders Sr and Bradders Jr. Here they are by our hire car. I can't remember which is which.

Then of course there's me. I make an appearance on this blog even more rarely than other people - which is a good thing. Sometimes however it is fitting that I appear, and this is one of those unfortunate times. So, here I am on the Russian border up near Kirkenes. I was far too chicken to go and poke a toe over the line, much as I wanted to, but the signage looked pretty serious, and they do have lots of guns and things, so I played it safe.

And finally, here's Snuffi, critical to the success of the mission. Snuffi is a small panther, and he has seen the Northern Lights. How many panthers can say that? Mainly Snuffi came so that photos of Snuffi doing things could be sent back to the children, riding a snowmobile, that kind of thing. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Norway & Finland: Landscapes, Skyscapes

Norway and Finland is more than just birds - the landscape is amazing. I'm not saying I'd go there just to look at a few hills and a bit of snow, but it certainly adds to the drama. For starters we saw the Northern Lights, and you can't say that about many places you go to. As you may or may not be aware, I slept through an Aurora show on Shetland last year. I wasn't exactly staying in the party house (cheers guys!) and so was all tucked up by about 9pm, or was it 8.30? Anyway, with all our phones on silent for some quality beauty sleep, we missed a pile of calls and texts informing us of a light-show going on just outside the front door. It wasn't to be repeated for the rest of our stay - gutted. I wanted to put this to rights on this trip, but the forecast wasn't good - various websites track aurora activity, and all of them said minimal to nil.....but with one caveat: the further north you are, the greater chance you have of seeing something even on a poor forecast. And we were pretty far north....

I sent Bradders outside with a two-way radio to check and continued drinking beer. He came back with negative reports, so I sent him out again. This time he radioed back in to say there might be a hint. Huffing, I put down my beer and wandered out into the chilly air - where chilly equals fifteen below. He pointed at a cloud. I stared at a cloud. It stared back. And then, was it my imagination, or did there appear to be a very faint light arc across the sky ending where the cloud did? Whatever it was, it had definitely changed. We decided to go and wake Bradders Sr. up, and take a drive away from the lights of the motel. We drove less than a kilometer and stopped. The clear sky and snowy ground meant it wasn't actually dark at all, more a strange kind of half-light. Gazing northwards, the cloud had disappeared. Hmmmm. Nothing else happened for ten minutes, and then we got a hint of light behind some trees. Faint, but definitely there. And then it began to intensify - we were definitely onto something, but we weren't quite sure what. The arc in the sky appeared again, and then a column of light seemed to drop from one end of it, and move off to the right. Was this the Aurora? Twenty minutes later and there wasn't much doubt - lights shimmering all across the sky. Curtains, waterfalls, pulsating clouds. To our eyes it appeared a milky white, but the camera interpreted it as green, which I suppose is how we all instinctively know it. In the flesh, so to speak, it's a bit different. Tick and run!

We stayed out watching it until our bodies could stand the temperatures no longer
In Finland the landscape is pines and lakes, or in our case, pines and expanses of ice. Around the Norwegian coast it's rockier, and birch and willow scrub are the dominant cover (if there is any!) What was common to both was the snow, and loads of it. It's so cold that the snow is incredibly powdery and light versus what we are used to in Britain, ie wet sludge. This means that if you leave the ploughed road, you're immediately up to your waist, and essentially precluded any meaningful birding away from the car. Instead we took pictures of it - here are a few. Proper landscape photographers would have had a ball.

The hoar frosts in Finland were particularly impressive. This was just outside the Tuulen Tupa motel.

This is a typical Varangerfjord road and landscape.

Mist rising from the fjord.

Nesseby - Norway's most photographed church.


"Heading out"

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Common Redstart on Wanstead Flats

The news, in brief, is that spring may have started in Wanstead. Now it's early days, and I don't want to hex it, but this morning was a welcome change (Ring Ouzels aside) from the interminable mornings out there seeing nothing at all. I met Nick relatively early, and it wasn't at that stage looking good. Alex had been devoid of avian life, bar a probable Yellow Wag overhead somewhere that I was forced in good conscience to let go, and I was still no hirundines to the good. Things picked up with a Wheatear, then three, near the model aircraft field, and Nick's keen eyes picked up a Swallow heading north over the fair. By now homeward bound, I checked the SSSI and was pleased to hear the descending chimes of a Willow Warbler. All previous times that I thought I might have detected Willow Warbler, intense listening has only come up with snatches of Blackcap, I don't know whether this is a common problem?

I returned home on top of the world, and by 8am was happily working away. Massive spreadsheet fun. Then a text from Tim that he had found a male Common Redstart in Long Wood. Hurrah! Naturally I hustled over there, jogged in fact, didn't know I could. Redstart - magnificent - snaffled, and then back to work, with another Willow Warbler on the way. Birds don't come much better than male Redstarts really, and whilst annual, a spring bird is always a bonus. A full and productive day then ensued with no further bird disturbances, bar a large raptor over the park somewhere that anguished fellow patch-workers didn't see enough of, and I didn't see at all, despite looking longingly out of the window.

As my working day was nearing conclusion, Barry called - he who pillaged Wheatears in mid-March - with news of not one but two Common Redstarts now in Long Wood. Muffin and I grabbed a camera and hurried over there. Try as I might I could never quite get close enough, but you get the idea....


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Norway: Day Three - Kittiwakes in Vardo

Whilst waiting for the boat across to Hornoya Island I noticed Kittiwakes nesting right next to the street. You can probably tell already that this is destined to be yet another photo-heavy post. Sorry. What else am I supposed to do with them exactly? I suppose I could just not take them in the first place, pay my mortgage off by flogging the cameras, and save my shoulder a great deal of future pain. Worryingly - at least abroad - I am becoming more of a photographer than a birder. This is especially bad news with mickey mouse airlines with mickey mouse hand-baggage policies. Then again, they act as great memories, and Mrs L always enjoys the slide shows on my return....

United Breaks Guitars

This is my new favourite song, and perfect for all those depressed souls returning to work after a nice easter break. Especially if you flew somewhere and had any luggage issues. I am only the latest in a long line of people to jump on this bandwagon it seems (found it via one of my links, Birds as Art), but check out this musician's response to an airline who refused to compensate him for breaking his guitar. What a superb response, and above all, what a great song and video!!

Monday, 9 April 2012

A Funny Old Spring

It has been a funny old spring. I suppose by funny I mean slow. V-eee-rrr-y slow. It started well enough, with some fairly early Wheatears, almost the earliest ever in fact. And then it died a death. It's approaching mid-April, and I've not seen a Sand Martin anywhere. I've not seen a Swallow either. No Redstarts, no Yellow Wagtails. In short, no nothing. The Ring Ouzel really bucked the trend on Saturday, and so it was with a feelings of mild hopelessness that I set off into the rain this morning, ostensibly to twitch a Willow Warbler that had been reported. I could only finally find Blackcaps, but as soon as crossed Centre Road and hit the eastern Flats, what should I hear but "Chuck chuck chuck"! A Ring Ouzel launched out of some scrub and flew high south, appearing to land towards South Copse. Naturally it was never seen again. My impression of the bird as it went away was that it wasn't especially dark, so I put it out as a probable female. Later it occurred to me that it had come out of pretty much the same spot as the male bird on Saturday had flown into - could it have been the same bird that eluded us all on Saturday and Sunday? Despite the paucity of migrants, I'm sticking to my guns and saying it was a different one, but it certainly had me scratching my head. Not that it matters I suppose, but it was at least some compensation for six hours tramping around in the rain today. One Wheatear was the only other notable bird, and not a sniff of anything else. Four days on the patch and very little to show for it I'm afraid. Can I go back to Norway?

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Norway: Day Three - Hornoya

One of the things that we had wanted to do - indeed billed as a must-do - was to get over to the seabird colony on Hornoya Island. This is just off the most easterly town on Varangerfjord, Vardo, itself an island and reached from the mainland via a long tunnel. After a brief wait in the car for an intense blizzard to pass, we made contact with the harbourmaster's office, who confirmed that the boat would be leaving in around an hour. Just enough time for some Kittiwake photography - they nest on the ledges of buildings on the harbourside - more of them later.

As I looked out of the harbour to the north, with a vicious wind hammering through me, I wondered whether we were doing the right thing. Too late to change my mind however, the boatman was ready, and Bradders was just parting with an astonishing 900 Kroner (makes the St Mary's Boatmen's Association look like a charitable organisation....). I was hoping for a real boat, one with shelter and so on. No. This is the boat in question. The floating pier is icy, and bobbing up and down. The boat itself is icy, and bobbing up and down even more. And once you get on the boat you have to sit on something ressembling a motorcycle seat and hang on to a freezing metal hoop for dear life. Perhaps I'm just a wimp - you decide.

The boat whips along at about a hundred miles an hour, sometimes taking off then slapping the surface with a huge thump. Whilst in the harbour I spotted a Glaucous Gull, but once out into the Barents Sea (which is as cold as it sounds) it was all I could do to even keep one eye open. We were going directly into the wind, and large particles of sharpened snow were slamming horizontally into my poor soft face at three thousand miles an hour. I ended up pulling my hood entirely round my head, and the rest of the journey passed in darkness. Staggering off the boat, this fabulous sight awaited me.

A birders shelter, specially constructed by a birder for birders. Genius. It is open to the elements, and wind can pass through it (presumably the wind would otherwise just pick it up and smash it to smithereens on the rocks below), but no matter which direction the wind comes from, you can shelter from it. This we now did. With coffee.

What an extraordinary place. To put it into context, here's a map. The red "A" is where we were. Look how far north that is! That people actually live there is amazing. I thought Shetland was quite far north, but look at this place! Look where Moscow is! Look where St Petersburg is! It's exactly 2,250 miles by road from sunny Wanstead, but only another 1,300 miles or so separate it from the North Pole. Seriously far away from home in a cold direction.

There were birds all over the place. Once coffee had been gratefully consumed, we got down to the serious business of finding and ticking Brunnich's Guillemot, aka Thick-billed Murre. Scope up, point at Auk-raft, find bird. Find several birds actually - extremely distinctive, and after a few hours on the cliff you could easily pick them from Common Guillemot at some distance as they flew past. 

Sorry for the poncy new copyright mark. In my ongoing effort to become a better photographer I spent a lot of time looking at other people's work, and noticed that more than a few had similar ones. I felt my previous one was somewhat amateurish in comparison, and on a whim changed it to this. That's not really my signature by the way, that would be an illegible squiggle.

Sadly there were no auks on the cliff face, so we had to be content with either observing them on the sea, or watching them fly past. Mostly I did the latter, trying to pick out the Brunnich's as they came in. Many many gigabytes were deleted, it's incredibly difficult. I have no idea on the relative proportion of "bridled" Guilles to normal ones, but it struck me on Hornoya that I was seeing many more of the bridled ones that I was used to. I've decided that I find them much more pleasing than normal ones, especially against a bright sky.

It was whilst photographing incoming Auks that I noticed a different shape in the sky. Falcon-shaped......GYR! What an amazing bird - immense. Everytime it cruised past, 10,000 Kittiwakes collectively rose of the cliff and crapped themselves. It was the same size as the Ravens that harrassed it, think a Peregrine on extreme steroids - the Flo-jo of falcons. Not that it cared much about the attention it was getting - it was the master of the cliff and it knew it. We had seen it distantly from the mainland, but these views were incredible. Gyrfalcon is one of those birds whose name is almost whispered. This was a juvenile, so the streaking was distinctly brown - imagine seeing a white-morph from Greenland!

Our time on the island was up all to soon, but there was more birding to do on the mainland. A thrilling experience. Here's a short clip of what it was like.