Friday, 29 June 2012

More Running. Well, limping.

Whatever the muscles in my legs between the knee and the hip are, I have somehow managed 37 years without them. I thought my main problem was going to be breathing, passing out from lack of oxygen in the blood and so on. Not so, though the breathing part was not without challenges. It's all about the legs. Jeez did they hurt on Wednesday. And on Thursday. And this morning. But I could delay no longer, I knew I had to get out there, so I was up nice and early and forced myself to do it. Despite the internet sniggering, the snide comments about tights and ankles, references to aged aunts, Sloths and search parties, I dragged my poor legs out there and repeated the routine from the other day. Nothing too strenuous, ten minutes of jogging interspersed with fifteen minutes of brisk walking.

On about my second minute in, I heard Lesser Whitethroat (see - this is a bird blog) in Long Wood. I didn't hear it on the way back, about minute eight. All I could hear by that point were my lungs attempting to exit my chest. I took my bins in one hand, and used them just once, to ensure that a Cormorant was just a Cormorant. It was. They have an open bridge design, and are pretty easy to grip whilst running, though the strap and rainguard were a pain. Many joggers have a little doughnut of water, I have Swarovskis ELs.The highlight of my run was probably a coconut on the main path. Swallows, no doubt. My legs don't know quite what to think at this point. They were kind of getting better, and I have gone and shafted them again. They must hate me. I came home, excellently timed as I hit my front door at about 9m 45s, had a shower and started work. The shoes now cost only £4.75 a minute; I am living the dream.

I'm not sure what the weekend holds. A monster bird hopefully, but please God, not on Blakeney.

For all the ankle admirers out there. Please let me know if you still find the socks troubling. Also please note I do not have clown feet, it's just the perspective of a wide angle lens up close.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gah! Running!

Desperate times friends, desperate times. Yesterday I bought some running shoes and went jogging. Today I can barely walk, and stairs are the invention of the devil. I have two thoughts on jogging.

1) It really really hurts
2) Running shoes cost a bomb, in hindsight it would be have been much cheaper to eat less food and drink less wine

It has been brewing for a while. The other day, a birding associate who shall remain nameless likened me to Jabba the Hutt. Jabba was my thin uncle. I've tried (in the weakest most pathetic possible sense of the word) eating less, but that only lasts for about five minutes, and maybe not even as long as that. I've not tried not drinking, but seriously, I mean come off it. Stop drinking? I can't. Couldn't. It is one of the great pleasures in life, and I have a wine lake to get through. I play no team sports, I don't go the gym. I do a lot of walking, including carrying heavy stuff, but that doesn't cut it. It does however mean that my shoulder and back are a twisted mass of knots. In fact yesterday I figured I might as well go running because it wasn't possible for my back to hurt any more than it already did. I failed to consider my legs though, which I can now barely lift.

I am very happy, chuffed to bits in fact, with many many aspects of my life. The one thing that I am really not happy with is my shape. Waist, gut, and the dreaded moobs.  I have done so little for so long that when I say that I never run for birds, there's a genuine reason why that's the case. I can hardly run for a bus! I thought about cycling, but for some reason I can cycle for miles without it really hurting. I've just discovered that running really hurts, so this has to be a good thing.

You might think from my tortured description that I ran a half-marathon or something. No. I am starting slowly. Incredibly slowly. I have no idea how far I ran, but I am following instructions. Given that I have done no running for about twenty-six years, when I gave up PE in favour of Latin, the suggestion is to run for one minute, and then walk for a while. I couldn't remember how long the while was supposed to be, so made it a minute and then ran for another minute, repeating this five times. Then I was forced to extend the one minute of walking to two minutes of walking, which I also repeated five times. So all told I was out 25 minutes, during which time I ran for 10 of them, and at the end of which I had a stich and was having trouble breathing. You have to start somewhere I suppose. There is no possible way that I can go out again today, what with not really being able to move, but I am hoping that perhaps tomorrow if I repeat the whole sorry saga it might be a bit easier. Then again it might not be, but according to Wise Internet, gradually it will, and then you can extend the minutes. I may never get that far, but I am painfully aware of the need to amortise the shoes, so watch this space. Or look out for the obituary in the Wanstead Village Directory.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Tripping out

I have finally made a “Trips” page. It's up there, on the right. I never really write genuine trip reports, though I do appreciate the efforts of birders who do. Drive 300 yards down the road and park at an obvious blue shed is not really my style, nor do I tend to make a note of who we hired a car from and how much it cost. Details, details, and very dull. Instead I distil what I saw as the best bits into a blog post, accompanied by far more photos than are necessary. Sometimes I write it up day by day, sometimes I do in one hit, it depends on my mood and what else is going on. Despite my reluctance to make a proper job of it, my Birding in New Delhi post remains – by a factor of ten – my most clicked-on blog post ever. I’m sure there’s a lesson there somewhere, but I am steadfastly refusing to learn it.

I saw this funny bird.....
Anyhow, this “Trips” page is essentially a collection of links to those individual blog posts, but with the chronology sorted out. My life is so unbearably exciting that trip chronology very often suffers, for instance when I decide that people absolutely must know about my latest exotically-coloured scrubbing brush before I tell them about the next day of birding in wherever. And sometimes I get so carried away with the here and now that I forget to finish a trip altogether, and just leave it hanging. So disorganised. This fixes that, although there are obviously times it doesn’t work, when for whatever reason I decided to report my travels by species, for instance a post entirely devoted to Puffins.

Maybe one day I’ll write some proper trip reports. I’m sure I did one for a flying visit to Ohio a few years ago, but I can’t find it any more [EDIT - yes I can]. I also wrote up something about the birding I managed on a wedding in Argentina and a funeral in Australia, and will attempt to put links up to them as well, so if you’re interested in either of those two places, or indeed in weddings and funerals, by all means visit again in a few days. And yes, this post is a total filler, I’ve seen nothing since the weekend.

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Full Weekend

If you had said to me on Friday that a two tick weekend was in the reckoning, I would have laughed until I dribbled, possibly until I was sick a little bit. Come off it, it’s June! Nothing happens in June, everyone knows that. The patch is dead, the whole country is in a birding stupor. Nothing  is moving, and frenetic twitchers are calming down, or at least I assume they are.

I had a very busy afternoon on Friday, and didn’t check my phone for rare bird news. I knew I wasn’t missing anything. So it came as some surprise that there was a Little Swift on the Wirral, and that it had been there all afternoon. Wow! Lucky so-and-sos was of course my first reaction, as I knew I wouldn’t be seeing it. Too far, I never twitch birds that are that far away. Later that evening news came through that it roosted, and that the roost spot was known. Ermmm. If I could get there for first light, it was in the bag. Suddenly Liverpool didn’t seem so far away. You see, twitching long-distances where there is a strong possibility of dipping is something I’m just not interested in. I don’t do dipping (except Rollers....) as mainly I am very picky about what I go for, which contrary to popular opinion is not everything. Anyone see me at the big Orphean Warbler DIP? Precisely. I’m not in it for the frisson and excitement of the “will it, won’t it”. I’m in it to see it, and long drives full of nervous tension are very unenjoyable, especially when you get regular messages regarding the bird’s presence only for the dreaded “flew off high and no further sign” message to pop up when you’re nearing the end. Driving up the M1 in the middle of the night was of course also unenjoyable, and driving back again was worse, but at least I knew I’d get it, and believe me when I say that is hugely helpful.

So, Little Swift safely in the bag, and a twelve hour sleep later, I woke up on Sunday morning to find a text message regarding the continued presence of a Pacific Golden Plover in full summer regalia at Cley in Norfolk. After Liverpool, North Norfolk is basically just down the road, and with the day basically free until about 5ish, though that wasn’t set in stone, I decided to go for it. Nick (the front seat of our car is moulding itself to his contours these days) and I met Monkey for a nice breakfast near Harlow, and after realising we had screwed up on timings, he went home again to start getting drunk. Again. Nick and I continued north to Cley, through fierce rain at Brandon, and on arrival walked right past the bird in the Eye Field before wondering what all the people on the path scoping back past us were looking at..... Sorry Monkey, it was inevitable, in the same way that had you come with us the bird would have remained resolutely hidden from view for the 90 minutes we would have had. After a short while it returned to the scrape, but never came close. In the meantime I got busy year-listing. I’ve hardly done any birding this year away from the patch, so Sandwich Tern, Little Gull and Spoonbill were all new, and take my total to a remarkable 220. One quick Sacred Ibis later – my second in Norfolk – and we hit the road again for my penultimate drive of the day. Another 120 miles zipped by, taking the weekend total to just over 700, and the spend to well over £100 in diesel. Excellent.

But I wasn’t done yet! I dropped Nick off in Wanstead and then got back on the M11 and M25, round to the fabulous Barnard’s Farm in Essex, site of my mate Hilbs’ uncle’s open day. It’s basically a lovely garden filled with sculptures and art, and being the culture vulture that I am, I was desperate to see it for myself. But not before seeing sweet baby James, which if I’m honest was the real purpose of my visit. It wasn’t long before I was left holding the baby, so to speak, and my practised nose detected immediately that not all was well in the bottom department. One of the great joys of being allowed to hold other people’s babies is that when the inevitable whiff makes itself known, you can just hand them back with a cheerful “Yours!” Which is exactly what I did, and then got taken on miniature train ride and was given a mountain of cake. There are not many ways to top a two tick weekend, but I’d argue that right there, with the ceremonial swapping of a pongy baby for a pile of cake and a train ride on a real steam engine, that was one of them.

Silva, Hilbs jr., and Hilbs

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Midnight Madness

After a full work at week, and a busy one at that, what better way to calm down and chill out than have no sleep, set off for Liverpool at midnight, see an extremely rare vagrant, continue to have no sleep, and come straight home again, arriving before lunch. I don't know about you, but I find this the perfect start to a lazy relaxed weekend. As I sit here typing this, I find myself thinking how bizarre it is that this morning I was on Merseyside, but such is the life of the occasional twitcher.

A normal 5am in Wallasey

The drive was fairly straightforward. Once news that the Little Swift had roosted, it was just a question of getting there for first light to be quids in - very little danger of dipping. When we arrived though, dipping was a distinct possibility. Although still pretty dark, some people were scoping a suspiciously dead-looking Swift-shaped lump in amongst the pigeon spikes on the roost building. Had I just driven through the night to discover that the object of my desires had karked it? I started scoping it too, just to make sure. Was that the wind fluttering the feathers, or was it breathing? Twitchers desparation began to set in. People began mumbling that it might be breathing. Was it the bird though? It must be, surely, how many other Swifts would have roosted on this random building? Oh dear. It was one of those awkward situations where you don't want to raise your suspicions that in fact you did dectect a hint of life, as it makes you look like a twitcher very much lacking in moral fibre.....gradually a few surreptitious conversations were had. The speakers weren't sure, and they weren't claiming it as definite, but the bird had moved. Ergo, tick.

Not looking good...
Then another bloke turned up and said, "What's that on that window ledge, it's got white on it". All scopes swung left - well blow me down. Sod whatever the dead bird was, the bloody Little Swift was in fact a few windows along, and definitely alive, though how alive we were not sure, as it continued to do nothing bar heavy breathing for the next two hours - meanwhile Common Swifts cruised around perkily. If anybody was wondering what time holidaying Little Swifts get up in the morning, the answer is shortly before 6am. It cocked its head a few times, and then was off. Hurrah!

Not looking especially comfortable

Perking up
Well thank god for that. It was definitely alive, but it would have been sad to have ticked a moribund bird. Nick and I watched it feeding with Common Swifts over the Mersey for an hour or so. It was easily picked out amongst the other birds, having shorter and wider wings and a much stubbier appearance. Other than when it left roost and flew over my head, it never showed particularly closely, but nonetheless excellent views. And the dead bird that panicked us all? In better light, it revealed itself to be a Common Swift, and about half an hour after the Little Swift woke up, it too woke up and flew off as if nothing were wrong at all. See, it was breathing, and had not been mere fantasy born out of the fear of dipping. This made me feel much better.

With nothing more to really add to this masterful twitch, we then headed straight back to London, as I had things to do. I hit the proverbial brick wall around Birmingham and pulled over for a power nap, but was safely back home by lunch, with most of the day stil ahead of me. I usefully spent it napping.

Tick and run

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Google ain't that smart!

If like me you use Blogger in order to pollute the internet with useless rubbish, you will have noticed a few months ago that various boxes kept popping up to do with privacy. Google, who own Blogger and most other things on the internet that are not owned by Microsoft or Apple, have been changing their privacy policy. I have no idea what this means, but the way notice of it was being plastered all over the place suggested an attempt to thwart criticism of their latest plan for world domination in advance of it happening.

It interests me very little, but nonethless I thought that I might have a quick look to see if I actually needed to do anything to prevent them selling my mother. The first thing I chanced upon was something about biscuits. A cookie to be precise. I do not understand cookies other than in the most general sense. I have no idea how they are created (baking?) but I do know that they store my passwords and mean that I can actually access websites that I want to use. Without the magic of cookies, I would be lost. You would probably never hear from me again. Every single website on the planet needs a password, and I do not have the excess mental capacity to remember them - cookies are therefore good. Sometimes, and I don't know why, all the websites start asking for user names and passwords again. I infer from this that someone in cyberspace has eaten the cookies, and it is incredibly annoying.

The first thing I looked at was called the "Ads Preference Manager". My preference would be for no Ads, but if it keeps it all free, so be it. I never click on them anyway - Google, you have failed. And in fact, it turns out that Google really has failed. Based on my cookie, they have prepared a summary of my interests, and inferred my demographic. I thought it worth sharing.

OK, so maybe they have a point with the cameras, but non-alcoholic beverages? I have never been so offended! Until the next bit about my age: 55-64? That's somewhere between two and three decades away from my actual age! They must think birding is the exclusive preserve of a few sad, old and decrepit wrinklies on the point of claiming their state pensions and bus passes, rather than the mainstream hotbed of dynamic young go-getters that it actually is. I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my whole short life! Pffff. This shows very clearly that Google is massively out of touch with real life. Totally unlike birders.

I clicked on the opt-out link, which took me to another web page where I could see which companies were targeting me via cookies. This revealed an astonishing 58 companies. Even more astonishing was that I'd heard of only three of them, and one was Google. I must be immune to the power of advertising. I could understand if the companies were ones like Leica, Canon, Fisher Price, Swarovski. But they're weren't. They were things like Batanga Network, which offers unrivalled exposure to the US Hispanic population, and Glam Media, which claims to be #1 in Women's Lifestyle. This is ridiculous, and ......and at this point I got bored. I'm sure there are gazillions of other snippets of 'useful' information that Google is harvesting from my computer every single minute of every day, but what you don't know can't hurt you, and as far as I'm concerned they can have it. Really, they should make a massive red button at the top of your Google account which says "TURN OFF EVERYTHING", but that would be too easy. So instead they rely on the fact that most people are as inept as I am, and have very low boredom thresholds. Whatever. Right, I'm off to browse some more burrito sites.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Bulgaria - day 3 continued

I just received a nice comment from Dancho, our guide in Bulgaria, who, as a birder, really quite enjoyed being out in the field all day with a bunch of similarly-enthusiastic people, and all the while getting paid to do so. What a great job! I had a quick scan back through the various posts that I had written on our trip to Bulgaria, and realised that I had moved straight from the morning of day three to day four. The afternoon of day three was perhaps some of the best birding we did, and I have unaccountably missed it off, wrapping up my post just as I was climbing into the front seat of the van....

Day Three, scene 2. A Van.

No matter how hard I had tried, I had not been able to get into the front seat. Dick generally got there first, muttering something about advanced old age and his back. More often than not I was sandwiched in the middle seat in the back, so when a bird appeared on the left I got a view of Mo’s head and sat on by Bradders, or if a bird appeared on the right I got a view of Bradders’ head, and was clubbed round the head by Mo’s telephoto. As I did my best to catch a glimpse/defend myself, stonking birds paraded themselves mere feet away outside the van to the furious sound of other people’s shutters. All this changed on Saturday afternoon, and I got the front seat. I was ready.

We had eaten another three tonne salad in Shabla, and were now headed back towards Kavarna. The habitat was steppe – flat, dry, many stones, sandy and scrubby. It was magnificent. I forget exactly where we went, but broadly speaking we were heading south from Durankulak to Cape Kaliakra, which is a sticky-out bit just north of Kavarna. One of the roads was called Shrike Alley – look it up on map. It had a pair of Red-backed Shrikes about every 25cms. Progess was slow.

Bee-eaters, Rollers on wires, Shrikes, Pied Wheatears, Short-toed and Calandra Larks, Stone Curlew, Eagles. Stupendous. Dancho drove, we drooled – that’s the most accurate summation of how the afternoon progressed. Endless quality birds, often really close, and this was just close to the road. Imagine this magnified across the countryside, where largely there are no roads. The numbers of Shrikes must be countless. Thousands. Millions. We ended up at Cape Kaliakra, but this time on the top, where there are some archaeological ruins and some kind of military installation. I ignored both, unless Pied Wheatears were sitting on them, when I took a keen interest. Basically you leave the car near the ruins bit, and gradually wend your way to the very tip of the peninsula. It can be quite busy as it’s a tourist attraction, but the birds largely don’t care. There were at least three pairs of Pied Wheatears here, several migrant Red-breasted Flycatchers, and an Icterine Warbler.  It was the Wheatears, as you might expect, that largely commanded my attention.

From the point we set up scopes and scanned the sea for Yelkouan Shearwaters. Although in reality a large lake, the Black Sea has its own population of Shearwaters which presumably never leave, and although very distant, we picked up loads in excellent light, and were ticks for all of us. Not sure how you would get a closer look other than going out on a boat, and so you certainly won’t be hearing me shout “Yelkouan!!” at Pendeen any time soon, even though I do have some sea-watching plans on the back burner for later this summer – if we ever get summer that is. Safer to say July perhaps?

Anyhow, we spent a very happy few hours on cape Kaliakra, sea-watching included. My personal highlight was a Squacco Heron flying across the water – I won’t be calling one of them at Pendeen either – mind you, it’s a pretty straightforward ID. We left near-enough at dusk, another excellent and really long day guided by Dancho. In the evening swapped guides as I mentioned in Day 4, and then stayed up half the night drinking outrageously cheap beer and watching the Champion’s League Final, which went Chelski’s way after both extra time and penalties.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Photography Envy

Just a short long-winded note to highlight a minor change to the links section. I keep coming across great bird photos on the net – there are some hugely talented people out there. Most invoke in me feelings of pure envy, and this is why up until now I have never linked to them. Artie Morris is the sole exception, as his level is stratospherically different and I know I will never even get close.

Casting humility aside for a moment (rare), I pride myself on taking a good photo (not that I can’t take a crappy one, of course I can. And I do, frequently. But I hardly ever put them up here, as I don’t want readers to think I’m a big numpty, you know, one of the “all the gear, no idea” brigade that you bump into frequently. So, generally, between here and my apparently useless photography website, you see the cream of the crop. Show me a photographer who would act any differently). I like to think that plastering good photos all over my blog helps to differentiate it from the many blogs out there that don’t do that. That and my elokwunt proze. Dispensing with humility altogether, I see very few blogs with photos that are as good as I think mine are. But there are some that I think are regularly top notch, and when I find them I seethe am very impressed, and I visit often. But I have arrogantly and selfishly not linked to them as by doing so I will expose my inadequacies and people will realise that actually I’m not that good. Well, goodbye pride. I have decided that you cannot get enough of a good thing and so I’m going to build up a little collection of links to highly impressive websites or blogs that showcase some of the unbelievably and annoyingly good birding photographers out there. Some do it for a living, some are just keen amateurs, but they have one thing in common; they're consistently good. If you know of others, send them my way!

Looking at other peoples’ photos, especially ones that are a lot better than yours, is one of the best ways to improve your own output. It’s not as important as being outdoors and pressing the shutter button a lot, but it’s certainly a better investment than going and buying the latest and greatest camera, or trading your car in for a large lens. It has often been said that a good photographer can take a good photo no matter what equipment he has. I’m sure that’s true ( although when we’re talking about birds as subjects, there is probably a minimum standard) and so most of us are limited by our skill and not by what we use. That doesn’t stop lens lust, but it’s a sobering though when contemplating parting with many thousands of pounds.

I spend a huge amount of time looking at other people’s photographs, probably more time that I actually spend taking my own, tragic though that sounds. As well as feelings of intense jealousy and irritation (eg Rebecca Nason’s second Roller photo....), I’m also very analytical. If I think something is good, what is it that makes it good? Is it the light or the exposure? Is it the bird’s pose? Is it the eye contact? Is it the position in the frame or is it the colours? Or is it just technically brilliant, ie really difficult to achieve, and thus the photographer has pulled a blinder? Where I can, and sadly not all websites allow this, I download the photo to look at the exif (the technical data). What lens was used? What shutter speed? What aperture setting? This can only tell you so much about what went into taking it, but it gives you an idea. But by putting all these things together I mostly work out what the person has done to get that shot, and inevitably I wonder if I have squandered a similar opportunity at some point. Often, I have. So I start to wonder if I could get a similar photo, or even do better - most the people I have linked to post photos up at one stage or another that I have looked at and considered substandard, at least relative to their usual output. I also start wondering where I might go, and what I might do. And then of course I just sit on my arse and browse birdforum, when really I ought to be out there, even if it’s just photographing Mallards on Alexandra Lake, or Starlings in the garden. At this time of year there is oodles of light after work, and yet I hardly ever go out. Why? Well, being perfectly honest, it’s because I’m knackered. I’ve likely spent nine hours at a desk, and I’m hungry (though a little starvation wouldn’t go amiss....). I want to see the kids, chat to them about their day. Sometimes I even want to talk to Mrs L! Do I forego all that, grab the camera and shoot straight out? Of course not.

The reality is that most birding photographers suffer from an intense lack of time in which to actually go birding OR take photographs. This means that during those few hours when they’re free from all other distractions or responsibilities, if a bird actually comes near enough to them to get a photo (or maybe it doesn’t even come near enough!), they’re going to, like me, be overcome with excitement and nerves, and likely stuff it up in their eagerness to get a shot. Getting great photos takes time with the bird, and it’s rare that you get that opportunity. The best photographers spend huge amounts of time creating those opportunities. The bowl up and shoot brigade, of which I am a fully signed-up member, get far fewer opportunities. Consequently, they take far fewer decent photos. The Mistle Thrush Little Bittern on Saturday was one of those rare occasions for the bowl up and shoot brigade, where if you knew what you were doing, you could get a killer shot. A close and confiding bird, decent light, lots of time in which to fine tune your exposure, very slow-moving and mostly predictable - and so when it finally came out in the open, you could have the shot composed in advance. In the shot I’m most pleased with, it literally walked into the frame - the correct focus point was already set, one click and I was all done. If I’m being ultra-critical, I know that I’ve taken slightly sharper shots in the past, and I wish that the water had been stiller for a more precise reflection, and that the two pale and vaguely horizontal reed stems in the foreground were not there - I may yet have a go at deleting them, but overall I’m very happy.

Which brings me to my final point in this excessively long post (and dull, if you’re not into taking pictures). The need to be self critical, and very strict, is huge. Why on earth did I post that photo of a Cuckoo the other day? It's washed out, small in the frame, and has branches all over it. Fail. Going much further back, what I felt was the best photo I had ever taken ever, a year ago, I would likely now bin without a second glance. I cringe when I look back at this blog last year or the year before, and despair at the rubbish I posted up. The verbal rubbish of course continues unabated, there is no curing that, but I hope you agree that the photos are mostly getting better.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Breckland birding

Today I went to the Brecks with Hawky and Hawky sr. for a crack at Golden Oriole and a few other things. Although we failed to see the Orioles, which is pretty much par for the course, we heard at least three, and possibly four or five. Depends how quickly they can move through the plantations really, and given we saw nothing, it's impossible to say. We did come across a very shy and elusive Jackdaw though, which more than made up for the lack of Oriole sightings. A birding lens was entirely useless in this situation, so instead I resorted to the macro. I've barely taken a photo of a bug this year, I didn't think I'd be using it on a bird! It took quite a liking to Hawky, as you can see. People talk about the great wildlife experiences, you know, herds of Wildebeest crossing the Mara river, millions of Monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico, that kind of thing, but rarely does 37 year old essex man feeding Jackdaw bits of apple from his lips get a mention, and I think that's a real shame. National Geographic are definitely missing a trick.

Passing the rictal bristle test with flying colours!

Several Bitterns, and gazillions of Cuckoos and Marsh Harriers jumped out at us as we wandered round, and the flutey calls of the Orioles carried far on the breeze. We finished our meander around eleven, and so headed for some well deserved breakfast at the roadside Cafe near the five ways roundabout. I had a coffee which I sprinkled lettuce in, delicious.

A few miles deeper into Breckland and we stopped to check out a Redstart site we had been told about. I could tell you but I'd have to kill you. The young had left the nest and were being fed by attentive parents. No idea how many young, but dad was feeding one, and possibly mum was feeding others. I've rarely seen Redstart so well, the odd passage bird on Wanstead Flats (Remember Wanstead Flats? This is a blog about Wanstead.) being the exception, and I didn't have my camera with me on the really memorable occasion. At this site, the adult rarely stayed put, and a two hour vigil resulted in few opportunities, and when they came I was often too slow. The one time where the bird landed close enough, in the right light, and stayed put long enough, the angle was such that I had to lift the lens with monopod attached up off the ground and take it handheld. Sharpness, I'm sad to say, suffered, and sharpness is everything. Or it's a start at any rate. Still, best Redstart photo I've ever taken by some distance, so I'll take it, ever so slightly soft though it unfortunately is. Lovely weather, and when the Redstart action became all too much, I fell asleep in the sunshine. You can't beat birding in June!

PS An explanation of yesterday's post about Mistle Thrushes, as it appears to have confused some. Desperate for a London tick, I dashed to Rickmansworth on Wednesday afternoon in order to see the Little Bittern. I saw it in flight for approximately 4 seconds, but it was it, and I sent a few tweets (what a great word, oh yes...) saying I'd seen it. Not one but two people texted or tweeted back asking me how I had ruled out Mistle Thrush. I mean, please. Whether they were being serious or not only they can say, I know what I think though - if I have maligned, then, er, too late. Anyhow, there are some things I might confuse, and some things I might not. Mistle Thrush and Little Bittern come into the latter category, and so I thought I might respond with some light sarcasm, and that's what you got yesterday. It's always tough when you know only a handful of people will know what you're talking about, but I enjoyed it, and as I've mentioned before, that counts for a lot on here. Nonethess, sorry if it appeared a little left field, as one correspondent put it. Now that you know, go back and read it again, as it will be a lot funnier.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Little Bittern at Stockers Lake was just a Mistle Thrush after all!

I returned to Herts today for another crack at the Mistle Thrush, as I had only seen it briefly in flight during the week and had unaccountably failed to rule out female Little Bittern. A number of people had suggested I may have been stringing it, so I endured a nervous couple of days of negative news, followed this morning by it being refound in almost exactly the same spot. Hah, I knew it was still there!

In company of Bradders, Hawky, and Muffin - a Mistle Thrush dipper earlier in the week - we glided around the M25 and arrived just after it had disappeared deep into some reeds, no doubt searching for some tasty worms. We didn't have too long to wait thankfully, as it was soon picked up in a willow close to the water. Although the whole bird was difficult to see, being mostly obscured by branches, glimpses of a black cap, stripy breast and large yellow bill pointed all too clearly to Mistle Thrush. Phew!

Frustrating views were had by all over the next half an hour as it skulked right at the bottom of the willow, occasionally darting forward to pull a wiggling worm out of the water. And then for no apparent reason it hopped up higher into the willow before flying out and down into some more favourable thrush habitat of reeds and sedge. We charted it's progress with snatches of movement, a bill here, an eye here, and then finally the moment we had all been waiting for! It crept out of the reeds into full view and showed brilliantly, allowing those present to see all the critical features and eliminate once and for all any thoughts of it merely being a Little Bittern.

The Mistle Thrush poses with a particularly rotund worm
They're an oft confused species it has to be said, and getting good views is essential before you tick any vagrant Mistle Thrush - many is the time I have been fooled by Little Bitterns on the Golf Course in Wanstead, or hopping around the football pitches, especially in mid-summer when they feed in family groups. I've very nearly put the news out on the pager several times, before realising that it was just another party of Little Bitterns and not the rare Thrushes I had initially thought them to be. Still, with experience you gradually get to work out what is what, and I see so many Little Bitterns every year on the patch that I'd always back myself to spot an out-of-context Mistle Thrush, especially if in its favoured habitat of reeds.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Attack of the Killer Bonxies

The last time I was on Mull, a weekend trip with Mrs L a deux, which if you are so inclined - and bored - you can read about here, we went for a walk on a nice headland. I took the scope with us, for I fancied that we might be able to see the sea, and generally the sea has seabirds on it. I felt certain I could get Mrs L to confidently see a Bonxie. It might be a dot in the scope, but it would be dark with white wing-flashes. I could brandish the Collins at her, and she could feel the happiness that only a tick could bring. In the event a Great Skua flew right over our heads as we walked along, which at the time felt quite unusual but I thought nothing further of it.

So when contemplating where to take Muffin for a boy's birding adventure, I idly wondered if a land-based Skua might not have been a breeding Skua. OK, so this is three years after the event but nothing ventured and all that. I vaguely remembered where this particular place was, so that's where we set off for. We dumped the car near a farmhouse, and set off for what looked like the headland I remembered, and bugger me if when we got to near the end there weren't a pair of Bonxies sat there. Whilst Muffin and I were extremely pleased to have stumbled upon them - exactly as per Mrs L's experience, what a great way to see a bird for the first time - the same could not be said of the Bonxies' feelings towards us. As we came over the brow, the male took off and circled around us, and as I tried to get the sun behind us, came straight for us before settling again. I nabbed a few photos, and we retreated to a safer distance.

Back in 2009, we must have been somewhere slightly different, as we only saw a bird in flight, and didn't get warned off. Consequently, although the views were superb, they were very brief. This time we got scope views that were nothing less than sensational. Up close, Bonxies are magnificent. Their beaks are pure evil, and rather than the usual impression of "dark", they proved to be very gingery and patterned. Great noises too, nasal grunts and cackles, decidedly wicked I thought. We watched for a while, during which time the Skuas did very little, and then went back the way we had come, at which point the male got up and attacked us again, despite the fact we were leaving. I very nearly regurgitated a litte piece of fish from the previous night's dinner, but the charge was half-hearted and so I am here and able to recount the tale and show you the photos - the bird sat down is the female, presumably on eggs, whereas the standing and in-flight ones are the male. I had no chance to see if the bird three years ago was ringed, but I expect it's the same pair, and that they breed on Mull every year. A brilliant experience.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Lunga is magnificent, a Puffin-lover's dream. Puffins are cool. Even the name is cool. The cruise company, Turus Mara, advertise it as Puffin therapy. I can see what they mean. The girls wanted to take one home with them. They couldn't believe that you could just sit, and have a Puffin walk around in front of you. An amazing family experience, I am so glad we went and that the weather was calm. And the minute you get on the island there are Puffins. More Puffins than you can count. And they are close Puffins. Lunga is a photographer's dream. 

Between us, Muffin and I had three cameras, and took 1500 photos. This is going to be an unashamedly nerdy post. I am going to talk about focal lengths, apertures, and everything. The ideal lens to have on Lunga would be a 300mm f2.8. I didn't have one, so resorted to the 500mm, which was complete overkill. My salvation was my 'family walk' 70-200 f2.8 zoom which I plonked on the other body - can you tell which took which?! And can you tell which camera took which? One has 16mp, the other 10. I can't, makes me wonder why I upgraded. Anyhow....Muffin used a 300mm f4 - I wish I had nabbed it off him, but it wouldn't have been fair really (except that I paid for it.....). Bright sunlight makes taking photos of black and white birds a real pain. How do you not blow whites, but keep detail in the black? The human eye is so much more sophisticated than a camera. The advantage was that the intense light raised shutter speeds to levels I can normally only dream of. 1/4000th was a common one. I know what you're thinking - Gah!

I was so thrilled to be seeing birds silly close that I started taking pictures straight away. I should have waited, and it only dawned on my whilst leaving the island that the best thing to have done would have been to find some birds in the shade. Next time. Nonetheless, my absolute favourite photo was taken in full sun, and works for me, so perhaps it isn't so bad after all. An overcast day would have been brilliant though, but that's life, and the family enjoyed the sunshine and calm seas. Here are few that I like, and that I hope inspire you to take a similar cruise one day, especially if you've got kids.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Black Guillemots in Oban Harbour

We came up via Glasgow and alongside the shores of Loch Lomond, a great drive. At certain points in the road it becomes single file, controlled by lights. At one of these points I commented that the habitat looked excellent for Wood Warbler, and wound down the windows just in case. A Wood Warbler sang virtually immediately, and then the light turned green and off we went. I love it when that kind of thing happens. I would have loved to have stopped and had a wander, but in the interests of not missing our ferry to Mull we pressed on, and arrived in Oban with a couple of hours to spare. Muffin has been getting the birding bug recently, and Black Guillemot would be new for him – I know of no better place than Oban Harbour.

We left the car at the ferry terminal and wandered along the harbour wall. Up by the church is the best spot, and sure enough at least six Black Guillewigs (as our youngest had called them in the car) were really close in. All five of us admired them, charmed by their squeaks, thrilled by their red gapes and matching feet.  Pudding was particularly charmed, which boded well for our planned Puffin trip once on Mull. I set to work with the camera; it would have been rude not to. Here's a small collection. Puffins tomorrow.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Doing nothing on Mull

My usual style of holiday blog post tends to be day by day. Were I to do this for my recent family holiday to Mull, each day you would get to read about how I sat on a bench consuming liquid calories and admiring a wonderful view. It was a magnificent view, but reading about it for six days on the trot might make this blog even duller than usual, so I propose a slight change. For starters though, here is the view. Horrible isn’t it.

Although not much happened, the odd boat, the odd Gannet, the odd Eagle or Hen Harrier, I found myself transfixed, and this largely accounted for a holiday spent not doing a lot.  This was perfect, just what the doctor ordered. Birding holidays are knackering, and after Norway and Bulgaria in relatively quick succession, I needed a break. This was a proper holiday, with a proper lack of ambition. I am brilliant at doing nothing, and spent the week proving it.

Beyond sitting around doing zip, there were three things I wanted to do

1)      Hear Black Guillemots squeaking in Oban Harbour
2)      Take the family to see Puffins
3)      Go to Iona for Corncrakes

So let’s deal with the sitting around doing nothing part. I had booked a cottage on the basis of a single photo and some vague knowledge of where it was, and the setting turned out to be perfect for a lazy family holiday.  It was on the northern shore of Loch Tuath, with a view over to the isle of Ulva, and out west towards the Treshnish Isles and Tiree. If I wandered down to the shore and looked left I could see Ben More, the highest peak on the island, and if I looked right, out towards the open sea. From the cottage itself, the panorama was sensational. I wasted hours.

There were sheep in the “garden”, and across the road (fifteen cars a day? twenty?) a field with iris beds and a stream sloped gently down the shoreline. For the children this was extremely liberating, and we were perfectly happy for them to cross over and explore, and with the added security of two-way radio contact (which was generally used for bird reports rather than to advise of near drownings) we sometimes didn’t see them from one drink to the next. I had bins obviously, and caught glimpses of them now and again, but we could never do this in London. This is a real shame, as it would be wonderful to just kick them out onto the Flats after school and have them come in for dinner, tired, scuffed and muddy, when they were ready. This is of course how children used to grow up, and even though I am very very young compared to most birders, I remember being allowed out to play for hours and hours. Partly the difference is that I lived in a cul-de-sac in Cambridge, rather than in London, but mostly it’s a sign of the times. The greatest fear is of abduction, but there were probably just as many freaks and weirdos out there when I was a child as there are today, but now each and every case of a child disappearing makes the headlines, and as a result parents are far more reticent to let children out of their sight, and I’m not going to be the one to buck the trend. So few children are allowed out and about by themselves these days that the pool of potential targets, for want of a better phrase, is much reduced; ergo any children that are allowed out are at higher risk than would have been the case when there were loads of children running around all over the place   – that at least is my logical conclusion. Still, far more dangerous is the increased traffic, especially where I live, and the tendency – not precisely where I live, but certainly in surrounding areas - for mindless violence, even amongst children. This I think is different to when I was growing up, even if Cambridge was relatively genteel.
Today kids carry knives. In my day people punched each other, kicked each other. I got punched on the way home from school once. Yep, in middle class Cambridge. I remember it well, and so I hope does Daniel whatever-his-name-was – it was unpleasant, but survivable.  If you get stabbed, the outcome is more uncertain....   It sounds unlikely still, and so I ask myself, who would stab an eight year-old? And then I read in the paper about ten-year olds carrying knives. And I also read in the paper about material acquisition being the dominating factor in most children’s lives – playstations, x-boxes, mp3 players, mobile phones, tablets and so on. And with life getting tougher, the ability to acquire these essential and kudos-enhancing items in a legal and earnest manner also gets tougher. I got mugged; the kids - for that’s what they were, likely no more than sixteen - wanted my phone. I gave it to them, but they hit me anyway. It confirmed what I already knew, more than a few kids don’t look up to their elders any more. Although my children don’t (and won’t) carry phones etc, that fact alone is so unlikely that they would likely be hit anyway, or worse.

I had not meant this to turn into a moan about a society in decline and the rapid degradation of moral fibre. But now that I’m back, it means my children are once again confined to the garden after school. Show me any responsible London parents who operate differently. It’s very sad, but that’s just the way it is. Kids, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry – the world is not the rosy and carefree place that you believe it to be, and I will shield you from the reality of it for as long as I can.  But when it comes to telling it like it is, I won’t hold back. Anyhow, the metropolis of Ballygown on Mull suffers from none of these problems (or none that have hit the national press!) and I was delighted that the kids could finally have the freedom to roam that is denied them at home. On Iona we met a local family whilst our children played together on the beach. They confirmed that their children basically had the run of the island. It’s small and everyone knows everyone; dangers of the sea aside, it’s a safe place. Whilst their children were having what seemed like a fantastic childhood involving sandy beaches and no constraints, was it too isolated perhaps? There was no secondary school, so once they reach that age they have to board in Oban during the week, and that sounded miserable. Maybe you enjoy it while you can, and move at that point?

So the kids did what kids should be doing. Crabs were discovered in rockpools; a dead one became a prized possession for a while. Shells were collected, and hills and trees were climbed. Injuries were remarkably few and minor - some grazes, a couple of bruises, nettle stings and midge bites. We took it all in our stride, and enjoyed what the bay had to offer. Wheatears and Rock Pipits bred on the rocky shoreline, Common Sandpipers bobbed. Swallows were nesting in the barn next door, but remained unseen as it was locked. Far better were the House Martins on the side of the cottage constructing a new nest, or perhaps repairing an earlier structure. We watched them fly into the field, collecting mud at the stream, and come back to add it on. I tried waiting by the stream, but they simply chose another. Most days we saw a ringtail Hen Harrier quartering the iris beds, and Buzzards (Gah! Somebody shoot them!) were usually overhead. The piping of Oystercatchers was a constant feature in the landscape below the house, whilst the chimes of Willow Warblers were ever-present above. With glorious weather every day, the place was the closest I have come to idyllic in a long while. It took thirteen hours door to door, but once you’re there you forget about that bit, especially when you see a White-tailed Eagle on the crossing, and come face to face with Black Guillemots squeaking at you in Oban Harbour.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bulgaria - day 4

In starting to write about our final day in Bulgaria, over three weeks ago now, I wondered briefly whether the moment had passed, and then yesterday happened. In essence, both days were all about driving and dipping - the two often go hand in hand, though I have had it happen on the patch as well. Walking and dipping doesn't sound as good though.

Gratuitous Shrike

In Bulgaria, we had swapped guides, Dancho having had enough of us, quite understandably. The new man, Simeon, had listened patiently to our remaining "wants", and declared that he had a cast-iron sites for most of them. Naturally, we dipped everything, starting with a nailed-on Levant Sparrowhawk very close to the hotel. We followed this up by dipping Grey-headed Woodpecker, and concluded by dipping Sombre Tit after Sombre Tit. Or I did anyway. Added to this was the need to travel the length of the country to catch our flight, and so given the excellence of the three previous days, it was inevitably somewhat of a disappointment.

Yesterday morning I was in Fife, having nipped across from Oban for a rare opportunity to get the entire Lethbridge clan together. In the back of my mind however, was an adult Roller in Yorkshire. A Roller that I considered twitching a week ago on the way up to Scotland but concluded was too out of the way. A Roller that then surpassed all expectations by staying in the same spot all week. A Roller that I was astonished remained one further day, the day which I would be driving past, and this time on the right side of the country. Throughout the morning, regular messages came through about its continued presence in the same field. My confidence was sky high, and mentally it was on the list already. The perspicaceous amongst you will know where this leading....

Two hours before I arrived at the spot that the Roller had been at for ten days, it vanished. I spent two hours tramping around some dark and wet countryside, seeing nothing turquoise, before reluctantly carrying on home to London. It gets better though, as I knew it would. First bird message this morning? Do you need a clue? Thought not.... To pretend I am not completely gutted would be a huge lie. To somehow shrug it off by saying I've seen loads really well in Europe would be equally lame. As I say, gutted. It had been there just about forever, and as I type, is still there. I'm not going back, even though I could. I've spent more than enough time in the car recently, and there will be another - which I am aware also sounds lame. And when there is, I'll probably dip that one too. Pure overconfidence was my undoing. If you ever think something is nailed on, and start celebrating early - Landguard excepted - you're doomed. Simeon learnt that lesson in Bulgaria, and I learnt it yesterday in Yorkshire. Bugger.

In Bulgaria. Whatever....

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Hello from Mull

I am on Mull*, and it is lovely. In contrast to festive London, it has been shirt sleeves up here, and I have seen eagles. It gets better though, as from our cottage I can see breeding Wheatears. Yes, from the window I can see the fledglings. There are also breeding Swallows and House Martins. These are actually on the cottage. I had no idea about any of this when I booked it. The booking decision was a) it was still available, and b) it didn't have a telly. These two facts are likely related, but if you had told me there were breeding Wheatears I would have paid at least double. Mull property tycoons take note.

It was an extremely long drive, but it was worth every one of the 538 miles between here and Wanstead. I was woken up this morning by some urgent shouting: "Hen Harrier!!!" "Female Hen Harrier!!!" Mrs L, a noted bird enthusiast, lay fast asleep next to me, so who could it be? Hah! It was of course Muffin, and naturally** he was spot on. I staggered out of bed, and could see nothing. Then he called it again, and sure enough, banking over the irises no more than fifty yards away was a spanking ringtail.

We're up to fifty species now, at the end of our first day. Tomorrow we're off to Lunga, a seabird colony to the west. There are Puffins, and I might take my camera.

* no point burgling me, I have all the good shit with me

** he has a great teacher