Wednesday 31 October 2012

Rockaway & Jamaica Bay hammered by Hurricane Sandy

I've only been to New York a few times, but it's dreadful to see footage of what has happened there. Many of the photos that are coming out are places I've walked in happier times, now underwater. I've no doubt downtown Manhattan and areas like Brooklyn will quickly clean it all up and move on, but what about the lower-lying areas that don't have huge skyscrapers and the backing of big business? The area that stood out for me most of all prior to the storm hitting was Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways. These lie south-east of Manhattan, right next to the ocean, and it's completely different out there to downtown NYC. When I was over there last year, I spent a day out at the famous wildlife refuge, and also went out to Rockaway to look at the sea - and Gulls as it happens. You take the A train from Manhattan to get out there - a long ride that takes you all the way across Brooklyn, and then finally bends down south across Jamaica Bay itself. Broad Channel is the stop, and if like me it was Downtown you left from, you emerge into a completely different world of low wooden houses, many having seen better days. A lot of them actually sit out above the water, with part of the house, or indeed the whole house, on stilts. Never having been out this way before, I was amazed. One of the first birds I saw was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron fishing just underneath somebody's porch - a world lifer!

Looking east from Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge towards Broad Channel
The reserve itself is reached via a short hike from the station - it's designed for people with cars I think, as I had to pick my way along the side of a dual carriageway, but once you make it to the reserve, the only real clue you have to where you are is the iconic Manhattan skyline to the west. When I went there were practically no other visitors, it was just me and the birds, and I had a fantastic day out, culminating in photographing Laughing Gulls on the beach at Rockaway. So when I saw Hurricane Sandy's predicted path, and the likely storm surge that it would bring to the New York area, my mind was cast immediately back to that low-lying and vulnerable area, not the financial district - they'll all be fine - did you see the number of sandbags Goldman Sachs had deployed? Not that it helped their carpark....

Anyhow, when it was all over, and after first checking my Aunt in DC and a family friend in Brooklyn had survived unscathed (they had), I started looking online for what had happened at Jamaica Bay. As expected, it had unfortunately been pummelled. The huge fire that made the headlines was in the same area, on the southern tip of Rockaway Beach, Breezy Point. I've taken the liberty of nicking some photos off the net which show some of the extent of the destruction. It's possible I could have walked past the houses below....

Some bay-side houses at Jamaica Bay after Hurricane Sandy

The oceanfront boulevard at Rockaway Beach. I stood on here photographing Laughing Gulls in 2011.

To the right of this Laughing Gull you can see the corner of the same buildings in the "after Sandy" photo above. 

That said, and notwithstanding the awful damage to coastal towns in the state of New Jersey, the real damage has been in the Caribbean, and not just this time, but every time. The low lying islands get hit by hurricane after hurricane, and scores of people lose their lives every time. This particular storm came across there first, meriting few column inches. But as soon as it hits NYC, the 'Big Apple', it's blanket news coverage for days. I guess it's what the people want. I've never been to the Caribbean, I have no first-hand experience of life there, but the few short snippets of coverage on what hurricanes mean for people there is sobering vs people having no internet access and having to live on pretzels for a few days. Still, I wouldn't to be in either of the two places right now. London seems very nice and safe. Wind's picking up a bit tonight, but I'm pretty sure it isn't a hurricane.

Sunday 28 October 2012


I am very very young, especially in birding terms. Most birders are ancient and decrepit, and use their now defunct draw-telescopes as crutches. By contrast I am a ball of energy, dynamic, fun, youthful, decrepit. Oh dear. Yes dear readers, it is true, I am falling to bits. When I got home from Shetland I discovered a pain in my left side, a kind of dull ache. I assumed irreparable liver damage from the preceding week, and thought nothing of it. Three weeks later - Thursday - I decided it was annoying enough to go and see the doctor at work. I got asked a load of questions, mainly about whether everything 'down there' worked, and was asked to hop onto the examining table. However before I could be prodded and poked, the doctor discovered I wasn't a permanent member of staff and the consultation ended abruptly with something latin and horrible-sounding scribbled down on a piece of paper. I've thrown the bit of paper away, but it ended in 'itis'.

So on Friday I went to see a doctor where I live. We had the same chat as I'd had the previous day, and once again I hopped (in a very sprightly manner becoming of my extreme youthfulness) onto the examining table, whereupon I was prodded mercilessly. Does this hurt? "Aaargh!". How about here? "Ooof!". Here? "Gaaaaaaah!". The nerves in my left side and right side responded equally to forceful poking, with the doctor sensing that the left side was indeed marginally more agonising for me. Then came the truly fun bit. Could I take my pants off and stand up? Why yes, I'd love to. FFS. I'll spare you the grisly detail, and it's not like I was planning on having any more kids anyway, but I'm pleased to say everything in that particular department is just fine. An interesting experience, and one I'm not keen to repeat overly soon, but I suppose I can thank my lucky stars that a prostate examination was deemed unnecessary. This time.

So, with dangly bits confirmed in good order, the diagnosis firmed up a little. It wasn't 'itis' after all, rather it was likely that I had a hernia, but that I was too fat the doctor was too concerned about prodding me too hard to be able to feel it properly, and that the best thing to do would be to have an ultrasound scan of the area, and that if indeed, as seemed likely, a hernia was confirmed, the next step would be to have a friendly chat to a man with a sharp knife. Well whoopee, that is just what I needed. A hernia? I'm 37! My father gets hernias! Pah! What does this mean? That I have to bird the Scillies instead of Shetland from now on?

In other less graphic news, it's been rather a good weekend on Wanstead Flats, with spectacular vis-migging from the watchpoint. Fieldfares, Woodpigeons, and unseasonal Lapwings were the standout birds in terms of quantity, but I also got my very own Brambling and more Linnet than I can ever remember in one day. My hernia, if that is what it is, doesn't yet prevent me carrying a camera, so I can still pap slow-moving and dim-witted birds, like this lovely Fieldfare, one of over 600 that flew over my head in just a few hours this morning. Very few actually landed, but I was able to sneak up on a small party that lingered for a few minutes.

The only other interesting bird-related thing that happened this weekend occured over lunch today. As I sat contemplating a large plate of roast chicken, surrounded by adoring family members concerned for my health, a noticed a large white bird disappearing with big slow flaps over the treeline to my north-west. Ignoring the pain in my side I leapt to my feet, grabbed the nearest pair of bins and scrambled out onto the terrace. Too late! Whatever it was, it was gone and I wasn't going to see it again. It reminded me of a Heron......a large white Heron......I texted the Professor as he was kind of on the flight path, but whatever it was never reached him. However if a Great White Egret (or a Pelican!) is found in the Lea Valley in the next day or two I'm having it!

Thursday 25 October 2012


Finally, a breakthough! Approaching Long Wood this morning I learned I had missed another Brambling, a single bird that had called only once and disappeared northwards. I had seen a few silent finches heading that way on my approach, but even I decided that having one of them as a Brambling was a step too far. Happily another two birds zipped through a few minutes later; I was too busy talking to actually hear them, but they were helpfully pointed out as being Brambling by a couple of the guys - nice of them. Perhaps I'll get my own tomorrow? Not that I care anymore of course, Brambling hold no interest for me now until January - unless there is a particularly showy one of course, but even then the light levels need to improve significantly. I've barely picked up a camera since Shetland, there has been almost no point.

Apart from some Great Crested Grebes at Canary Wharf that is, which coincided with some rare sunshine and my lunch break which I could actually take. Most of them I have uploaded to my other website, but here are a couple just to break the monotony of text-only posts recently. It can be pretty bad when I not only have nothing to say, but also have nothing to upload.

I have nothing else to offer. My life since returning from Shetland has involved work, more work, and family stuff. Birding has not so much taken a back seat, as been left off the bus altogether. This is a great shame, but what can you do, there is only so much time in the day. The good news is that the clocks change this weekend, which should mean that I get an additional hour on the patch in the mornings. I expect that the birds will realise this however, and wait an extra hour before showing themselves....

Tuesday 23 October 2012

A New List

As is well known, I love lists. One can never have enough, and whilst I might not equal Professor Whiteman in the list of lists stakes, I've just realised that I have a key list missing. It has quite a catchy title: "List of birds that other people have seen on my patch that I will probably never see but that I will hear about for the next 27 years". Why I didn't think of this one before is a mystery, but recent events - particularly this morning - have brought it to the fore.

I worked out at some point this morning that I have been birding for about two hours since I returned from Shetland. It might stretch to two and a half hours, but no more. That I managed to snatch that Short-eared Owl is nothing short of miraculous, and aside from that, I've seen nothing. This morning was no exception. I managed approximately 20 minutes of birding as I walked across the Flats to the bus stop, during which I saw a Pied Wagtail. Safely parked at my desk in Canary Wharf, the remaining Wanstead Birders could now open their eyes and start seeing rare birds. First up a Hawfinch (last record 1985), possibly two, circling Esso Copse. A nice addition to my new list, and with the added bonus of also being seen by a bloke on his second visit or something - extra points. Then three Woodlark west over Long Wood. Excellent, ink that one in. Oh, a Brambling in with Chaffinches - that one at least only goes onto the "missing from my patch year-list list", and finally two Golden Plover. Not too fussed about those, but you can probably sense my building frustration. And this is just today, the actual list is much much longer, and there are some real gems on there.

Happily it does not stop there, no no! There is apparently an Olive-backed Pipit near Southend. Fantastic! What better way to heap more misery on me. It shows all afternoon, right up until dusk. Comments from various people that I am missing a lot of good birds are not well received. Tony suggests I ought to take the afternoon off and twitch it, a nice thought, but with meetings from 1pm through to 6.30pm, somewhat of an impossibility, and anyhow, if I don't work, I don't earn - this is of course entirely fair, but it also means that twitching is not the frivolous affair it once was. I returned home this evening in a foul mood. Magnanimity? Not in this house.

The one tiny tiny speck of good birding news is that I managed 15 minutes birding in Canary Wharf this lunchtime. In addition to most people in Wanstead gripping me off, Parus over at Tower Bridge has also been getting in on the action. Goldcrest yesterday and Chaffinch today, to take the lead in the peanut challenge. I couldn't let this stand. The words "good birding" and "Canary Wharf" rarely go hand in hand, but bugger me if I didn't find a Goldcrest in the first place I looked, which was the nearest bit of green to my office, and was thus able to get back to my desk extra-quickly. Happy days.

Sunday 21 October 2012


I'm currently hopping with sheer happiness. Why such stupidity? Well, my patch yearlist has crept up to 111. The eleventy-first tick was a full fat patch tick this morning, thanks to Nick's sharp eyes. I was actually at home enjoying a leisurely breakfast with my Aunt who is over from America, when I noticed I had a missed call from Nick. This is usually incredibly bad news, as it means something mega is happening on the patch in my absence. And so it nearly proved today, when he told me that with his mega-bins he had just had a Short-eared Owl over Jubilee. I was halfway down the street by the this time, and was not surprised to hear he could no longer see it. So close yet again, why had I not heard my phone!! Curses!

But wait, he had it again! An agonising five minutes of panic ensued whilst he vectored me in. It's actually a pretty difficult thing to do when one of you is stood in one place with the other somewhere else. Even when both of you have excellent patch knowledge and complete awareness of local landmarks, knowing which direction one of you is looking in from where he is, and therefore where you should look..... Got there in the end though, and there it was gloriously evading a Crow somewhere over Leytonstone. It occured to me at this point that it should be visible from my house, so I had to leg it back home. Pausing at the front door only to take off my wellies and resinsert my left lung, I dashed upstairs and out onto the roof, but to no avail. Nonetheless an awesome start to the day.

My Aunt now understands me a little better. Funnily enough we had been chatting about the delights of listing over breakfast and how things viewed from the garden also counted towards the patch, and how garden ticks were best as they not only went on the patchlist but could also (at times) be counted for London and possibly for Essex too. How wonderful for her therefore that she got to see real patch-tickery in action, I mean what were the chances of that - she visits perhaps every three years? Lucky doesn't even begin to decribe it, and I reckon she was almost as thrilled as I was.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Autumn, or Winter?

This morning out on the patch - a rare moment these days - I discovered a Firecrest in with about a million Goldcrests. Moments later Nick had discovered a Ring Ouzel - overdue, but a clear sign that autumn is nearly over. Ring Ouzels are the generally the last of the passage migrants in Wanstead, and so its arrival on the same day that the first Firecrest of the winter put in an appearance is telling. Even more telling is that earlier this week Dan discovered two Goldeneye in the Park. He's not been birding the area long, and so innocently enquired as to whether this was normal. When Nick and I had recovered from running all the way over there, we were able to tell him that no, this wasn't normal, and that these two were the fourth and fifth birds that we know about, and the first since the winter of 2009 when a female turned up after a storm. Gutting for Tim that they turned up the day after a WeBS count; he's currently trying to figure out a way to sneak them on......

In other news, there is no news. I've been at work, penance for a couple of weeks ago. The news I didn't want to hear is that Shetland is being crushed under the weight of Olive-backed Pipits (bastards), and that there are an additional six UK ticks available for me around the country if I had some kind of "Beam me up Scottie" type device. Which I don't.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Seeing no birds on Shetland

So, having spent the first two days effectively mopping up the previous week's finds, the mission changed. We were going to find our own birds, yes siree. Now I could be massively long-winded here, as per normal, or I could cut straight to the chase. Shetland is a funny old place. Although the locals say that the winds are irrelevant and the best birds arrive no matter what the weather, my experience is ever so slightly different. I am now a veteran thrice over - three weeks I've spent up there - so that makes me an expert. My view is that if the wind blows relentlessly from the south-west, you're going to find Piss All. You can flog as many plantations as you like, wade every Iris bed between Sumburgh and Hermaness, and check every garden in every hamlet. If you're lucky, you'll refind one of last week's Yellow-broweds. If you're unlucky, you might get a Mipit. Or a Blackbird. In between bouts of heavy drinking, we worked pretty hard. As usual, being wellied-up, I was sent in. When I tell you that the most exciting moment was a Reed Bunting in some boggy morass near Fladdibister....

L-R: Hawky, Matt, Monkey
On Tuesday we became momentarity excited as the south-westerlies died away for about forty-five minutes and were replaced by a light (0.2mph) easterly. This delivered precisely nothing, and the wind then swung round to the north-west and whipped up to 3,000mph. We birded the rest of the week with ever-increasing despondence, and needed ever-more alcohol to keep the motivation up. This was no bad thing - as well as a rare bird-finding expedition, it was also a holiday, which should not be forgotten. Birds is one thing, craic is another, and in the absence of the former, the latter came to the forefront.

 It is any wonder that we didn't find much?

Not really, no.

Whilst it would be wrong to say the whole thing descended into a drunken farce, with team members incapable even of buying essentials like toilet paper such was their fixation with buying crates of Stella, rarely have I eaten so badly and treated my liver so poorly. Six blokes in a house with mountains of take-away, gallons of booze and just one bathroom (complete only with kitchen roll at times....) is not a recipe for success. Nonetheless we had a good time, too good some might say. And when we finally did procure some toilet paper, person or persons unknown wasted most of it. The cause, however, was just....

The Bradders/Profmobile, which could so easily have been a vessel of salvation in our time of need....

In howling winds we continued birding, seeking the shelter of fish and chip shops and indian restaurants when the need arose. We found virtually nothing, not because we're crap (or were drunk), but because there was nothing to be found. Teams with greater dedication than ours found virtually nothing either, and for a while it looked the sweepstake might be won with nothing better than a Red-breasted Flycatcher, with a Barred Warbler as runner up. Not that RB Fly isn't a good bird, but it's hardly what you go to Shetland with dreams of coming across. However on the final day Matt came up trumps and saved our drunken blushes with a fine Great Reed Warbler at Rerwick. Initially spotted as 'an Acro' from the road at the top, we dived terrier-like into yet more Irises. Matt got it briefly on a fence and called it 99%, and definitely not a Thick-billed, leaving little room for doubt, whereupon the little sod gave us the slip for well over an hour before Hawky, having given up by this stage, came across it much further down the valley. It promptly vanished yet again before Bradders, having been drafted in and harbouring secret hopes of yet another ID faux-pas, relocated it in the reed bed (go figure) back up the valley. Rarer than many monster Sibes on Shetland in autumn, the bird only ever really showed in flight, but was enough to win Matt the coveted "bird-finder" sweepstake, with winnings being extracted at yet another Indian restaurant that evening. Sadly he declined to immediately spend them on three large bottles of Cobra, insisting instead that it was destined for his twitching fund. He's so filthy though that this is effectively bottomless, far better to have struck while the iron was hot and blown it on booze....

I had to find somewhere else to put my dead sheep. We found this very telling. Clearly so many islanders have in the past dumped their dead sheep in skips intended for dead fridges that the Island Council has felt the need to make them a specific exlucsion, right up there with Asbestos and Flares.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Pechora drama on Unst

Unst is possibly my favourite island in the Shetland archipelago. To get there requires a drive up a neverending hill to Toft on North Mainland, and then a short ferry across to the island of Yell. Poor Yell. I'm sure I've said it before, but nobody ever stops on Yell, they just drive straight across it to the ferry terminal on the northern side where they can escape to Unst. I've done exactly this three times now - in fact I'm not sure I've ever been stationary on Yell.

The target today was Pechora Pipit, found the previous evening in the village of Norwick, which is at almost the northern tip of Unst. In addition to the lure of the Pipit, Norwick also had the massive (quite literally) draw of a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, my second on the Shetlands. I'd seen the first in Norwick. On arrival we were greeted by a familiar face from Wanstead Flats, young Mr Croft, up on a Mattanganna special. The Redpoll, he said, was showing fabulously well just behind us, and the Pipit was probably down the road a bit. No prizes for guessing where I went first!

Yup, no contest. A massive, white, scary, CLOSE finch, or a skuly pipit thing.....The Redpoll was magnificent, flying around peoples' legs, perching on anything, totally unconcerned. At one point it disappeared off somewhere, and whilst chatting to a fellow birder, I noticed movement near my feet. The Redpoll had returned, and was about a foot from my foot. It looked hungry, so I moved away. The weather was unfortunately rather unkind, with lashing rain and really rather amazing wind, but the bird laughed in the face such trivialities. Not so the weak and feeble humans, who took shelter behind cabins and buildings. I spent a good hour, probably longer, as the bird - along with Greenland-type Redpolls, fed happily around a particular driveway, before reluctantly heading away for a small Blyth's Reed Warbler dip. Refreshed, it was time for the Pipit. The less said about this particular incident the better I suppose, but all present got to see it, if only in flight. Certainly not twitching's finest moment, but I can think of a great deal worse. Mixed messages about whether access to the field had been granted, denied, or somewhere in between, saw two go in and confirm the continued presence of the Pipit in a large patch of weeds. Did any of the 30-40 birders present on the road, including yours truly, object? Did they hell! Three more joined them in a dense patch of weeds, and lo the Pipit flew up, around them, and plonked down behind them again. Job done, the Pipit was left in peace, and the twitching mob departed. Meanwhile the field owner, apparently unimpressed and - depending on which version you have heard - probably rightly so, had to be bribed with flowers and chocolates. Or at least that is what I heard. It later transpired that she was concerned about a Ram on one side of the Pipit field getting in with the sheep on the other side of the Pipit field and causing lambs to appear much earlier than desired, and that the previous day a gate had been left open, presumably by a birder. This is all third or fourth hand, so I have no idea whether it's accurate or not. I think it all got sorted out in the end, but I heard a few people say that increased numbers of birders on the islands during October is creating a bit of pressure, and that a small number of locals would rather we all went to Scilly instead. I only met perfectly wonderful Shetlanders, mildly amused that southern softies would brave the weather to come and look at small brown birds, but I guess it's the same everywhere. Anyhow, crappo views, but Pechora on the list, and with no fence-hopping from me and only a teensy bit of silent acquiescence-induced guilt.

Back on the mainland, we went to look at a Spotted Sandpiper that Hawky had cocked up the previous day. It was of course blindingly obvious. Had he not being trying to explain the ID features to me in chinese, I might have pointed out his error. As it was, I thought he was saying "Look at this great Spotted Sandpiper I have just found, let's go get a Chicken Chow Mein and Special Fried Rice to celebrate." 

Sunday 7 October 2012

So, how was Shetland then?

Pretty good all things considered. Not mega by any means, but pretty good. Rare birds are common up there, on any winds it seems, though if it comes from the east, so much the better. During the week we were up there, it blew east - lightly - for about five hours. This delivered two Red-breasted Flycatchers, and almost nothing else. So much for the winds - one year I'll coincide my visit with a monster forecast. And probably see nothing at's just so random. Last week it blew almost exclusively from the south west. How a Pechora turned up and Fair Isle was carpeted in Lanceolated Warblers I have no idea.

As always the plan was to find stuff. And as always we spent the first couple of days mopping up the vagrants that had already been found. Day one, the day we arrived, saw us dip both OBP and Isabelline Shrike at Toab, but we did manage to dodge the showers and snaffle Little Bunting. The following days saw us mop up Siberian Stonechat, Buff-bellied Pipit, Pechora Pipit and Arctic Redpoll, but it really was slow going for the most part. Thankfully there is no shortage of alcohol on Shetland, and a series of increasingly heavy nights put rare birds out of our minds, and no doubt a great deal else besides. 

Team Shetland this year was Monkey, Hawky, Vince, Steve B and Matt E, the latter a keen twitcher and patch-worker from Sussex. He is foolishly attempting year list this year, and was thus keen to see anything he hadn't already seen, which including wanting to twitch a Red-breasted Flycatcher on Whalsay at the cost of £25 and an entire afternoon. Thankfully one turned up on mainland the next day. I think he ended the trip on 298, including a self-found Great Reed Warbler, so with quite a lot of autumn left to go, I'm sure he'll get there. The GRW won him the 'rarest bird' sweepstake, and rather than buy beer with it, he's decided to save it and spend it on petrol to Penzance in case he needs to twitch Scilly - an interesting combination of the sensible and the insane.

Talking of year-listing, I just added up my total for 2012, and I'm pleased to report that at 254, at this point it's comfortably the lowest that it's been since 2007, when I ended the year on a paltry 215 species. Last year I managed 271; I doubt very much if I'll come close to that this year. I've not seen Osprey, Monty's or Honey Buzzard, nor any Grouse, Quail, or even a Black-throated Diver. Pure sensibleness and discretion; I am very proud, especially given my feeble record, and I would be amazed if I even got to 260 (If I do, I won't be telling you....)

Despite the ridiculous evenings when committed rarity-hunters would have been tucked up in bed dreaming of Sibes, we managed to get out of the flat fairly early each morning, in varying states of fitness. Hawky for instance seemed completely immune to the ill-effects of curry, beer, and minimal sleep, whereas Vince was generally in a bad way and needed a great deal of cajoling to get him out the door. This was generally accomplished by stealing his phone and running away with it, whereupon he would have no choice but to follow, as he can't actually survive without looking at Facebook for more than about eight seconds. For my part I like to think I was relatively restrained, but there were definitely a couple of difficult mornings, no more so than the last one when we got up especially early for our flight having cleverly been out for a curry with 20-odd other birders the night before. This week I am on a complete detox (White Burgundy, which runs in my blood, does not count) and am determined to eat mostly fish and vegetables, neither of which I went anywhere near on Shetland. Such is the life of a autumn vagrant....

More tomorrow. Here, have a seal.

Saturday 6 October 2012

A few from Shetland

Just got back home after another mammoth journey back from Shetland - without incident thankfully, but I am going to stick to my promise to avoid Flybe like the plague in future. I've got about a million photographs to go through - it was a reasonably successful trip on that front. More to come later (much more....) but for now here are a couple of early favourites from the first few days of the trip.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Shetland Update

It's good up here, very good. Despite on the face of it poor winds, birds are still turning up. There is almost no point trying to analyse charts (though as I type this, I am salivating over easterlies tonight), you might as well just go out and see what you get. Since I've been on, which is three days now, I've seen stacks. I think it's time for a good old fashioned list. Siberian Stonechat and Pechora Pipit were both ticks, but this is just the start. Isabelline Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Buff-bellied Pipit, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Little Bunting, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, American Golden Plover, Spotted Sandpiper. And that's on a supposedly rubbish forecast. Good knows what happens on good forecast!

Despite the quality of Pechora, the best bird by a mile has yet again been the Redpoll. In order for a bird to score points on the JL scale, it only has to do one thing. Come close. Oh yes. I've condemned myself to hours of editing, but it is going to be hugely worthwhile. In the meantime, here is one off the back of the camera...