Thursday 29 November 2012


I am still in full-on photo-editing mode, so here's another very photo-heavy post over at Normal service about seeing nothing on Wanstead Flats should be resumed shortly, though there is a whiff of Scaup in the air, and Waxwing is surely on the cards before too long. Tobago was wonderful, magical, and I am going to do a full trip report in due course. I've put a Steel Band CD on my iPod, and this makes the Central Line a little more bearable, but essentially I cannot believe that the trip is over and that the warm turquoise sea is now but a memory. This lay about ten feet from my hotel bedroom door - about the distance I sit from a lady called Michele in the office. She too recently returned from a holiday that she would still much rather be on, though I don't know how far away warm water was for her. But if you ever find yourself booking a holiday to Tobago, do go stay at the Blue Waters Inn. Barring any serious incidents, the sea I'm talking about should still be there, and you will have Hummingbirds and Bananaquits quarraling over the feeders two feet from you all day long, and be woken up by Tropical Mockingbirds and Rufous-vented Chachalacas while it is still dark.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Red-billed Tropicbirds

No visit to Tobago would be complete (for a birder, or a birder's wife) without a visit to the tiny island of Little Tobago just off the coast from the village of Speyside. This is where the Red-billed Tropicbirds nest, and it's a fabulous experience. If you have not tried walking up a steep hill carrying a ton of gear in temperatures of 30 degrees and around 85% humidity, then frankly you haven't lived. It's all worthwhile once you get to the top is all I can say. Here is a taster, with a lot more here.

Sunday 25 November 2012

I finally understand flash too late

I had a eureka moment earlier on today. Exciting for me, boring for you. Yes, I realised that I had finally cracked flash. Or perhaps just finally cracked? Anyhow, I have been jumping up and down very enthusiastically for most of the day - knowledge is power, as they say. Why it has taken this long, i.e. many many years, is anyone's guess, but I finally understand how it works and how to use it. Shame that this revelation only took place on the penultimate day of my holiday, and that I had already visited the rainforest - where let me tell you, that Blue-backed Manakin would have been toast - but such is life. The secret lies in manual everything. Manual flash, manual exposure. None of this fill-flash crap, manual all the way. The specific revelation was realising that if you reduce the power of the flash, what you're actually doing is reducing the duration of the flash - the actual light output remains the same. I just hadn't grasped that before. So if, say, you reduce your flash power to 1/32 of full power, it illuminates for a split second, a much faster split second than your camera shutter is capable of. Thus in a dark place, for instance a rainforest, the shutter speed you set on your camera is completely irrelevant, as the light that hits the sensor is all driven by the flash, and not from ambient light. So your shutter can be open for ages, say 1/200th of a second, but if your flash is set to 1/32nd of full power, then that lights up for only 1/20,000th of a second (or so), and the rest of the time it's just dark and nothing is recorded. With me so far? So you can safely set your camera to manual, dial in 1/200 or similar, set a nice small aperture that will ensure lots of stuff in focus, and fire away safe in the knowledge that in Aperture Priority mode you would get a black image and the flash does everything else. This also means you can handhold, and leave the pain-in-the-arse tripod at home for ever. As the distance changes between you and the bird, so the relative power of the flash increases, so you can keep your exposure constant by moving ISO down as you get closer(sensor less sensitive to light), up as you move further away (more sensitive), or your aperture down as you get closer (make hole smaller, less light hits sensor in available time), or up as you get further away (bigger hole, more light hits). The only issue with this is that, for me at least, at the beginning of this voyage of discovery, it's all a bit trial and error, with a high likelihood of either not enough or too much with the first attempt, after which the bird zooms off. Nonetheless it's a miracle, and I am really really dense for not discovering this earlier. This is how people freeze the wings of hummingbirds - by using 100% flash which gives bonkers shutter speeds far in excess of what the camera is capable of. Genius. All of the above came to me in a flash, so to speak, when I was wandering round the gardens of the hotel early this morning . There were plenty of birds, but they were impossible to photograph. I idly wondered whether the Hummingbird technique might not work on other birds, birds in dark places.....bugger me if it didn't. Look at this Barred Antshrike - perhaps not the natural-looking image we all strive for, but given the choice between impressionistic blur and pin-sharp albeit flash-lit, I'm going for the latter every time.

1/300s, f8, ISO 640, FLASH 1/32 power


Saturday 24 November 2012

Still warm

I'm typing this from the bar of the Blue Waters Inn on Tobago. For the first time this week the rain is hammering down, and it lends a certain ambience. A Caribbean bar right on the beach is the place to be right now, and that is an undeniable fact. To properly enjoy this scene, I've just ordered a Planters Punch. I expect that it will be rather good. Here, have a Motmot. There are loads of them here, so I can spare one.

9000 to go

My world bird list has just surpassed 1000. Just in case you are confused, this is of course very exciting, and not really sad and boring. I can't remember which bird it was, but I'm kind of hoping that it was the Collared Trogon, and not the frankly very dull Plain-brown Woodcreeper. Not that it matters, I'm not really much of a world lister anyhow - which is a good thing as it would be the job of several lifetimes. Didn't do much today, a bit of swimming and some light drinking, followed by an extended Hummingbird photography session. Apparently the technique is to shoot on very limited flash power, which is the equivalent of an extremely fast shutter speed (when you reduce flash power what you are actually doing is reducing the illumination time), but to be honest I'm struggling. My rudimentary technique is to instead crank up both flash and shutter speed, wait for some direct sunlight and hope for the best on the focussing front. Consequently my hit rate is very very low indeed, but when I get lucky the results can be quite pleasing.

Copper-rumped Hummingbird
Rufous-breated Hermit

Thursday 22 November 2012


I cannot begin to describe how much I like the Caribbean. My last post, in case any confusion lingers, was mere jest. It's bloody brilliant here. I mean, Canary Wharf is excellent, but this is even better. Today Mrs L and I got up early and went to the main rainforesty bit of Tobago. I could post a long list of birds, birds that would knock your socks off, but I won't, as that would just provoke unfair feelings of jealousy. Instead I'll post a single photo, which should be fine. Apologies for the lack of words, I'm a bit busy.


Wednesday 21 November 2012

Don't come here

What can I say? Amazing. Fantastic. Superb. All words I definitely wouldn't use to describe Tobago. No, no, no. It's awful. Horrible. Disgusting. You wouldn't like it, best not to come. Every day, these things spend a great deal of time outside our room. Insufferable, I can't wait to come home. Not long now....

Definitely DO NOT click on this to view it full size

Sunday 18 November 2012

Dip, Breakfast, Dip

A two tdp day! Not had one of those for a long while, but no matter, the sun was out, the camera was humming nicely. I probably deserve a dippy day, I see far too much far too easily, bring back the days of receiving postcards with rare bird news I say. These days you just bowl up and there it is, hence my rapid rise towards the heady heights of 400. These days I am far more interested in seeing birds well than creeping up a list of lists I doubt I will ever feature on.

Dunno, Shaun, Monkey (uncouth), Bradders

So, an early start with DB, Shaun and the Monkey, and an easy ride down to Dungeness for a recently-departed Pallas's Warbler. I gave this all of about ten minutes before sacking it off and having a good old chat to Mick S about Hungary next year. Specifically I learned that if you want reflections in the drinking pool hide in the Hortobagy National Park, then 500mm is too long. Frankly you can't find this out from books, and is consequently very useful gen indeed for someone of my geeky ilk. Forgoeing the Warbler altogether, we headed off hunting for Glaucous Gull via a beach strewn with dead fish. Mick collected a few for Gull fodder, but in the event they were completely unnecessary and the bird - a regular - showed magnificently, although it steadfastly refused to use its wings - no bad thing as I am hopeless at flight photography.

An ill-timed stop for breakfast at a greasy spoon, with quite possibly the longest waiting time on the planet, and Bradders' dreaded mega alert wail went off. Happily not South Shields this time, but a Desert Warbler conveniently round the corner at Samphire Hoe, though if you have been paying attention to the title, you will see it was completely fruitless. Lovely to be out though, and when I got bored of kicking stones I had a pop at some Rock Pipits on the shoreline, of which there were many. A fine day out despite the dippage, and a reminder that trudging round the Flats seeing nothing is not always the best policy.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Top birding destinations for adrenalin junkies

A week ago, perhaps ten days but certainly no longer than that, I was very seriously contemplating going to Israel next February. The dates were picked, the flights were picked, and I was just waiting on a few others to see if they wanted to come too. Surprisingly nobody has yet replied saying that yes, they would love to come on what promised to be a superb birding rocket-dodging trip.

One day before I was going to book the flight, one bunch of people that live there decided to blow up one of another bunch that people that also live there. This caused friends of the blown-up person to launch a series of rockets that they happened to have lying around towards random areas where the first lot of people lived. Some of them have now been blown up too, and that cannot stand, so they are now blowing up more people in retaliation. Looking at the map of my potential birding sites, and the range of the rockets, I have concluded that booking a trip that requires passing through a war zone where both sides have what some may conclude are "irreconcilable differences" is a bad idea. I make no comment on the rights or wrongs of it, my knowledge of history, politics and religion in the area is negligible. But it reminds me yet again how much I hate organised fundamentalism, of which both sides are massively guilty. Religion has a lot to answer for.

A great shame, as though I am not hugely into Western Palearctic listing, there are apparently in excess of 50 new birds that live there. Or maybe it's now 49 and a bunch of feathers? Anyway, for now I'm going to leave the lunatics to it and take my Shekels elsewhere. Morocco is the likeliest destination. I'm sure there are problems there too, but to my knowledge they don't involve airstrikes and missiles. If anybody knows different, please let me know. There are lots of very good birds in Morocco, including lots of Wheatears. Some of them are very approachable by the sounds of things, especially Desert Wheatears, which will be nice as I've not had decent views of one of them for, like, ages....

Sunday 11 November 2012


It's almost unprecedented in recent times, but today I hit the patch for a monster five hour session. The highlight was a Fieldfare. It was one of those days where after the first fifteen minutes you knew, deep down, that nothing wass going to happen. So it proved, but nonetheless I would not have been anywhere else. Glorious sunshine, and a fabulous father son bonding session. The long and short of it is that I am a hero, as many fathers are to small boys. He will soon realise, but for now it's great, and we had a lovely time, culminating at the Tea Shop of Happiness, both us with cake and a cuppa. The poor boy learnt a lot about various boring things, and took some pretty passable shots of Mallards and the like, and, as is his wont, he wittered on happily for the full five hours, secure in the knowledge that no SISTERS were going to get in on the act.

We met Paul D on his weekly round, but more of a surprise was the Drunkbirder, resplendent in bright green, down visiting some friends who have wisely chosen to come and live in Wanstead, the centre of the birding and known universe. I'm not sure they were birders, but you never know, they might be tempted when they see how bloody wonderful it is, slow days with only one Fieldfare aside....

In order to better help teach young master L photographic technique, or that small part that I know about anyway, I took my camera along too. It is somewhat hernia-busting as cameras go, but with bugger all to see, it does at least give me something to do other than kick stones. And frankly I needed to take it out lest I completely forget how it works prior to hitting Tobago. Don't want to be faced with a Motmot and not know what end to point at it.

Saturday 10 November 2012


Typical. My one morning out on the patch and it's raining. Raining quite hard in fact. Yep, though it pains me to admit it, I am a fair-weather birder. Especially in mid-November when there is little chance of seeing anything new, and little chance of getting a photograph that will please me. I woke up fairly early with thoughts of noble patch-working in mind, and padded softly to the window to peer out. My eyes take at least two minutes to actually work first thing, presumably another sign of ageing, and so I struggled at first to see what was going on. Was that a puddle I could discern on the other side of the road? Yes, I think so. Hmm, but was the surface of that puddle still..... some rubbing, some squinting, and yes, there were raindrops. Dammit! Still, every cloud..... I padded softly back the way I had come, and into the still-warm dent (crevasse!) in the mattress.

This is a great shame, especially as I was hoping to snaffle a Waxwing on the patch today and thus advance up the Patch List Challenge leaderboard, despite the devasting news of the loss of the main prize. Flocks up north are numbering into three figures now, and gradually a few are coming down south. London has had a handful, and surely will get more, so I need not worry unduly. It isn't all about patch ticks of course, it's about being at one with the birds joggers, dog-walkers, footballers, drunks, litter.....

Wanstead managed a flock of around 40 birds last year, and, most spectacularly of all, a small flock flew over my garden one morning while I was sky-watching - I couldn't stop grinning for days. But as everyone knows, it's all about taking photos of them as they are lovely and bright, and generally fearless. The best opportunity last year was at Lakeside Shopping Centre, somewhere I would never normally willingly go. I counted 225 there in January last year, and the carpark hedges were teeming with them just at car-window height. Perfect.

So what have you been eating then? 

Wednesday 7 November 2012

How much birding have I done this week?

Hmm, let me think about that for a short while. I know! Twenty minutes, perhaps twenty-five. Yup, I have given up birding. Since the Desert Wheatear twitch I've picked up my bins twice. Once on Monday as I walked across the Flats to catch a train to work, and once today, as I scanned the Basin for non-existent scarce waterfowl on the way back from the school run. My scan took approximately one minute, and I saw diddly squat of note.

The Desert Wheatear twitch was of course rather fun, but I have to say the bird behaved very poorly indeed. I'm noticing this more and more at twitches, these rare birds just seem to have no fieldcraft whatsoever. It was incredibly self-centered, strutting about like it owned the place. Why couldn't it realise what it was doing? While I was there it was just walking up to birders and photogaphers and deliberately flushing them. I personally saw it flush two photographers simultaenously, causing them to step back from their chosen locations and move away. One was so shocked I think he got back in his car and drove home. I can't believe nobody spoke up at the time, shouted at it to stay still and not get too close to people, but there you go. It won't change, these Desert Wheatears are all the same, selfish bastards without a clue as to how to behave around birders. The only thing left to do is to complain about it on Birdforum, but it's gone now and probably doesn't even use the internet anyway, so that would be a complete waste of time.

Yes, I am bored. On the plus side a trip to Tobago is looming, my reward for over a year back at the salt mines. I can't wait, it is going to be amazing. I've told Mrs L that there are no birds there at all, but I don't think she's buying it. There are of course lots of birds there, including loads of selfish Bananaquits so lacking in fieldcraft that they apparently land on peoples' breakfast tables at our hotel! If they do, I'm going to complain to the manager. But only because I won't have internet access....

Flusher - name and shame is the name of the game

Saturday 3 November 2012

Desert Wheatear - just one more......

I've put a very heavy photo post here, but I can't help posting just one more here. What a brilliant bird. Down the pub last night all the slackers I was having a drink with had been for it in the week, and to a man described a distant dot on the causeway somewhere. Working diligently all week and unable to go, I pitched up this morning to see it before I'd even parked the car. I got to work immediately!

Desert Wheatear at Abberton

I've been crossing my fingers for two things this week as I've been sat mulling the difficulties of Basle 3 Capital and other exciting diversions.

1) That the Desert Wheatear at Abberton would stay until this morning.

It did. And...

2) That it would show well.

It didn't.

It didn't show well. Rather it showed amazingly. Superbly. Superlatively. I didn't exactly have it to myself, it has to be said, but it was one of those ridiculous birds that hops between people, walks within your minimum focus distance, and generally wonders what all the fuss is about. I love birds like this. And that it should be a type of Wheatear, well, from my perspective it doesn't get much better really. Actually it does, as it's an Essex tick for me, and a pretty monster one at that, with only three in the last hundred years or something.
Mmmmm, Wheatears....There could easily be Wheatear overload today, but I will refrain here, and instead post a wider selection on a little later on. And finally, some of you may have noticed that the little counter at the bottom of this page just notched over a minor landmark. Maybe you didn't notice? I did, as all blog authors do. A stat! A visitor! Somebody read what I wrote! A quarter of a million? Even discounting me logging on fifty times a day to see what the statcounter says, that's an awful lot of people. Many of them disappointed I expect. "What the? I clicked on 'Tits' dammit!!!"