Monday 31 December 2012

2012: The Year in Review

2012 - The Year of the Pipit
2012 was a pretty good year for me, with 13 ticks, far more than I expected given I wasn't really going to go on many twitches. Some stonking megas in there for instance a Common Yellowthroat in Gwent? In Feb? With Gwent's reputation? Pretty bonkers. And a Short-billed Dowitcher? Hardly on my radar, nor was the Spanish Sparrow in mid-Jan. But when I'm asked about what bird I most associate 2012 with (a common question, most interviewers ask it....), my answer is Pipits.Three of the ticks were Pipits - first a Tawny at Landguard, then a Pechora on Shetland, and finally an OBP in Essex. But not only these - another Tawny in London at Barking Bay, two Buff-bellied Pipits, one of which was also in London, and then of course all the regular Pipits. The only real misses are Richard's, and Red-throated - I couldn't even invent one on call this year..... Anyhow, I thought rare Pipits were supposed to be difficult, but apparently not. I've never dipped a Tawny Pipit before, nor a Pechora. I once dipped an OBP in Norfolk, but that almost doesn't count as I it was ages ago and back then I didn't even know what one was - I just happened to turn up and missed it by five minutes. I wandered off completely unphased, not knowing that I wouldn't get another opportunity for years. Then of course I dipped one repeatedly on Shetland this year at Toab, and subsequently left the islands about a week before a major arrival when you could have seen five in a day and been completely sick of them. For my tick I simply drove out to Southend, had a bit of a poke around in Gunner's Park, saw it well if briefly, and drove home again - couldn't really have been much easier. It was my last tick of 2012, and now, almost unbelievably, we're about to start 2013. This means that my kids are that much bigger, and far more depressingly, I'm one year older. By the time (Mayans/any other nutters notwithstanding) I write this again next year I'll be 38. Ouch. Worryingly close to 40.

My 2012 goals were to be employed, boring as that sounds, and to win the coveted Golden Mallard, worth at least fifty quid. Well, I'm still employed, which is remarkable, but I'm afraid the Mallard is heading over to Cork. Gutted. I tried quite hard as well, equalling my best ever patch total, but it just wasn't enough. A number of conflicting priorities got in the way of course, work and mild apathy being two, and there were a few extremely near misses such as Wood Lark and Marsh Harrier that could have seen me be a contender. At least I got Waxwings though, in a moment of pure jam. Five patch ticks cannot be sniffed at though: Jack Snipe, Golden Plover, Smew, Mandarin Duck, and SEO, which takes my Wanstead list to 132.

2012 was also comfortably my lowest UK year list total since I started venturing outside of Wanstead. A meagre 258 species, with some stunning gaps - Osprey, Black-throated Diver, Black Tern, Bean Goose..... I guess the two years on the trot when I did 300+ have forever put me off year-listing. In other words, very pleasing news indeed, and good for my wallet and the planet  Everyone has to do it once, but I'm over it now and no longer need to hoon around all over the place completely pointlessly. In a rare moment of computing competence, I've decided to represent this graphically for you. Less competently, and I have no idea if this is even right, extrapolating the numbers since the peak of 2009 the hamsters inside the computer suggest that next year I'll see 236.5 birds. I'm looking forward to the half.....

2013 Goals
Professional Goals
- In order to continue to enjoy world birding and holidays in warm places with colourful birds and a plentitude of fruity drinks, I need to remain employed. I keep telling myself how wonderful it would be to have another long break, but let's face it, I've not yet been back even a year and a half. My previous break followed almost 11 years of slogging, so I'm nowhere near deserving enough. Once you have drunk at the fount of happiness though.....

Personal Goals
- I was going to put "go birding more", but that would likely be doomed to failure. This year has been pretty bad - I've been out on the patch less than ever before, and been on fewer trips further afield. I've been stuck at home as often as not when in fact I wanted to be out. I thought that by working and working and working, I might be able to spend weekends birding, and by and large this has not happened, and not by a long shot. I don't see this changing, so I need to think of something else. I may have mentioned a brief epiphany I had earlier this year, which was that nearing middle-age, I encapsulated into one sentence what I wanted from life - to have a happy family, to see lots of nice birds, and to take increasingly good photos of them. You can probably spot the slight conflict there.....hmmm? So I think that for 2013 I may have to limit myself slightly, and at this particular moment, it's all about the photos. Yup, stuff the kids and wife, just take more photos. You might not think that possible, but believe me it is. I use my camera once a week if I am lucky, and that has to change if I'm to improve, so let's hope that 2013 sees lots of nice light and obliging subjects.
- I also feel the need to be more specific about a goal, else I will just vacillitate and do nothing, but happily for 2013 there is the small matter of my BOU list being now very close to 400. It would be churlish to ignore it, yet I will remain mostly sensible in terms of what I twitch.
Best Birding Moment
I've seen some pretty good birds this year, but all the rarities were eclipsed by one particular day out on the Flats. It was freezing, covered in snow, but I was out there giving it my all - would that I could manage that all year. I had met Steve in the Park, and suggested we head to the Flats where we would have a nice clear view and might possibly see some Lapwings. I ended the day close to 400 Lapwings, almost ten times as many as I'd seen on the patch before, but it was all about a half-hour period by the Alex. With Nick, Steve and Tim, I was enjoying a Med Gull stood out on the ice when a Snipe flew in and disappeared under the overhanging branches. It was then chased out by a Moorhen or something, before skittering back in, during which I managed a brief photo. Looking at the back of the camera I was amazed to see a very very short bill. "Jack Snipe!" Tim could see it from round the other side, and confirmed that it was the first record for over 30 years. Wowzers. But it got better. Once round the other side and enjoying cracking views of it bouncing up and down slightly, I happened to look up and six Golden Plover flew over. Two patch ticks in short order, and a memorable day.

Best UK Trip
I am struggling this time around, for my twitching antics, and indeed birding trips more generally have been few and far between. There have been no silly dashes to Scilly for instance, and though my one sea-watching trip to the SW was a good'un, with plenty of big Shears, there was no particular 'wow' moment like last year. Shetland was a good laugh, but is slowly losing its mystique, so what does that leave? Can I count the family holiday to Mull? Of course I can! Hen Harrier whilst eating breakfast, House Martins nesting in the eaves, roadside Eagles and much much more. Seeing my youngest daughter marvelling at a Puffin sat looking back at her, no more than three feet between nose and bill, remains very special, and it was a fantastic week of wonderful weather, beautiful scenery, cricket in the garden, and setting ourselves very very modest goals. Opening various bottles of vino was perhaps the most difficult thing I did all week....

Best Bird
2012's best bird is brought to you by the letter "C" and the number "3".Three letters all the same. Three magic words and a little hyphen. Cream-coloured Courser, May 22nd, 2012. I knew even then that no bird would better this one, and that I would be writing about it in this section six months later. The timing was quite awkward, but I bravely took an afternoon off mid-week, and with Tim, Tony and Shaun enjoyed a successful and spectacular twitch - an amazing bird in amazing surroundings. Pretty poor ratio of time behind the wheel to time watching the bird, but for once I'll say that I didn't care!

Worst Bird
Pechora Pipit, Unst, Shetland. Possibly one of my worst views of a rarity ever. Incredibly skulky bird, with various issues surrounding access and the like, some I-really-want-to-see-the-bird-but-I'm-not-going-over-the-fence-oh-go-on-then-you-go-over-fantastic-seen-it-can't-believe-you-went-over-that-fence etc, some pissed-off locals - all things that contribute to a great birding moment, and best of all, crappy views of the bird as it flew away. Nice. Not surprisingly, there are no photos.

Worst UK Trip
Once again a very tough one this year, but ultimately a very easy choice. It concerns driving back from Scotland with the entire family in tow, taking a massive detour and not seeing a Roller that had been there for a week and was there again the next day. 'nuff said. No photos of this one either..... Dammit.
Best Foreign Trip
Easy-peasy. Finland and Norway were great, Bulgaria was a real eye-opener and fantastic, birding as it ought to be here. But none of those places have Collared Trogons. Tobago does have Collared Trogons, and so Tobago wins. And it doesn't just win, it blows them all away. What a place, one of the best holidays I can remember (sorry kids!). The beach was yards away from our room, it was warm every day, there were Hummingbirds, and the Rum Punch flowed freely. About the same price as Shetland as well.......

Best Domestic Moment
Hiring a cleaner. And a gardener. Inspired move on my part, but it has to be said that Brownie Point-earning possibilities have gone downhill since this happened. You would think that as the provider, ultimately, of said services, that all related glory would pass to me, but no. Still, I'd rather have no BPs that have to do cleaning or gardening, so there you go. I made a really good boeuf bourginon the other day, is that any use?

Worst Domestic Moment
As above really. I have been absolved of all responsibility, so the opportunities for massive screw-ups have all but vanished. When I tell you that the other day I sharpened every single pencil in the house and gave myself a blister, perhaps you'll agree that it's time to relegate this particular category to the annals of history, or at least until such time as I'm unemployed again?

Most Amusing Photograph
Sadly fewer candidates than last year. The photo of Lee at the Hornemann's is quite amusing, but I only posted it a couple of week ago. No, the funniest photo actually precedes the one I'm going to put up, but unfortunately nobody had the presence of mind to take it, and so here instead is the one from the following morning. I forget exactly what happened, but it was something along the lines of our entire flat on Shetland being incapable of shopping for anything other than beer. We very reasonably asked Bradders and the Prof, still out flogging deceased horses, to stop by a shop and souce some toilet paper for us, and content in the knowledge that our good friends would come through for us, carried on drinking. Unfortunately the feeling in the Bradders/Prof camp was that we could bloody well buy our own toilet paper, so they drove straight past two toilet paper specialists and an Andrex factory and came straight back. In town later that evening we purloined two whole rolls from somewhere, and despite our acute need, proceeded to waste one on their car, which was wrapped most pleasingly in pastel white. The weather on Shetland being what it is, the following morning mere shreds remained, but it was still extremely funny to think of the guys having to pick soggy toilet paper off the wipers and door handles before leaving for their next Yellow-browed Warbler session.

And that's it! Thanks for all the comments and stuff this year, I hope 2013 delivers for you in every way. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

Birding in Tobago

Birding in Tobago

Write-ups focussing on specific locations can be found at the following links:

Tobago - whetting the appetite part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6
Tobago - Blue Waters Inn
Tobago - Main Ridge
Tobago - round the island trip
Tobago - Little Tobago
Tobago - Hummingbirds
Tobago - Red-billed Tropicbird

Sunday 30 December 2012

L'Enfer de Mickey

I've just come back from Disneyland Paris, the most openly commercial enterprise on the planet. Pizza planet. TM. Hell's Bells, what a place! In cold murky weather, the park was nonetheless completely rammo, and 100% devoted to making money for Walt and his descendents. In addition to forking out to stay there, and getting in, we have come back with one plastic sword, one pistol, two holsters and a belt, a rifle, a cuddly alien called Bob, a jigsaw, and of course Mickey Mouse. Queues for some of the rides peaked at two hours, and the food in the park was uniformly grotesque and massively overpriced. A fast-food meal for five that would have made Maccy D's look like haute cuisine set me back fifty quid, and in one of the sit-down restaurants billed as an "exclusive dining experience" we experienced possibly the worst service in the entire world.

That said, if you can get over the rampant capitalism, and somehow plan your day such that you get the big rides over with outside of peak times, ie in the dark just before the park closes, you can convince yourself that it's quite fun. For famille L, it was about spending time together, rather than the setting - though of course (and this was the entire point) three small children found the experience pretty wonderous, especially Pudding, aged five and a half, for whom Fantasyland was the greatest thing EVER. As every parent will tell you, there is no price that can be put on watching their offsprings' eyes shine, though Walt perhaps comes closer than most....

We stayed in a "Woodland Cabin" at Disney's Davy Crockett Ranch. For Woodland, read Porta. Still, it was far more reasonable than the other hotels, and we did our own living space, though any cats we might have brought should consider themselves fortunate. It did have an excellent swimming pool, which we made full use of. Note to any fathers thinking of making this trip: swimming shorts ARE allowed, and you do NOT have to wear Speedos. Note to self: Fuck.

Pixar has been ruthlessly assimilated

We spent all day in the parks, which is totally exhausting, and spent many hours queueing. We wised-up pretty quickly though, and days two and three were much more worthwhile in terms of ratio stood around doing nothing to actually going on rides. Yesterday for instance I was able to get out of my It's a Small World boat, walk around to the front again and get straight back in for another session of musical torture. Ditto the Mad Hatter's Teacups, which had I spent any time in a queue for, I may actually have killed a cast member. The best ride was easily the Pirates of the Caribbean, though had I had the nerve to go on the Indiana Jones rollercoaster, that might have been a contender. As it was, Big Thunder Mountain was quite enough for my sensibilities.

One thing I will say is that Disney has Christmas down to a tee. I was hoping for this, and it didn't disappoint. The place was awesomely decked-out, there are almost no superlatives adequate. Superb in every respect, you could not help but feel buoyed and highly jolly - until you ate the food perhaps. Got home yesterday evening via a momumental shop in a french supermarket, on the basis that I have not yet consumed enough calories this Christmas season. Our fridge looks lovely, and we have a fabulous stock of extremely unhealthy cheeses, cold meats, apple pies etc that we absolutely have to eat up before January when the diets start.

We now have only two children

Sunday 23 December 2012

Insert Smutty Title Here

I went to Walthamstow today for a Shag. Had a Shag on West Warwick. A Shag in London is pretty rare. Hawky and I had a Shag round the back of the Reservoirs. Shagging in East London. Best Shag I've had in ages..... frankly the possibilities are endless. Suffice it to say it's only the second Shag I've had in London. Oh, there I go again, whoops. Anyway, the small Cormorant-like bird - somewhat of a rarity in London - showed quite well, and I managed a couple of high-ISO snaps of it in crappy light. If you want to see it, go sooner rather than later as I am told they all die eventually, though this one has been there nine days so far and still looks pretty chirpy to me. The last one I saw, indeed the first and until today only one, was on East Warwick, so my Warwick Reservoir Shag list is now complete. Happy days. That one was rubbish as it stayed on a raft right in the middle the whole time. This bird was a most obliging Shag, coming multiple times right up to the edge and giving great views. Or you could just say Fnarr fnarr and have done with it.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Little Tobago

Little Tobago is a small island off the coast of Big Tobago. It is very easy to get to, especially if you are staying at the Blue Waters Inn, as the boats that go there (known as Blue Boat and Yellow Boat) are both parked in Batteaux Bay, and both use the hotel pier. There are two reasons that people go - for the diving, rumoured to be pretty good, and for the birds, certified excellent.

On this day I was with the Yellow competition

I went for the birds, and I went twice, the second time as I wanted another crack at the Red-billed Tropicbirds from the viewing platform, the results of which are here. Boats leave at 10ish and 2ish - times are always -ish in Tobago, which suited me fine but may irritate those on a tight schedule. Go for the afternoon trip, as the birds return from fishing at this time and there will be many more birds present than in the morning. The crossing is only ten minutes, and costs $25, which included one of the boat guys giving you a "guided tour" - my advice would be to skip the guided tour and head straight on up to the very top (easier second time around of course!) where you can get the viewing platform to yourself - it could easily become very cramped, and one of the days I thought I might go over I ended up staying on the beach drinking cocktails as an enormous party of elderly American birders (Tilley-hatted to the max) turned up, and I may have been forced to throw them off the top had I also been there - that said I could probably have got to the top half an hour in front of them.... My best photos came from the day that I had the platform entirely to myself for a while, go figure. Once over there, it's a mildy strenuous climb to the top - the start is the worst section, lots of steps, but it becomes gentler once you get past the building thing. Take water -  I forgot both times. On the way back the boats will stop near Goat Island and let you do a bit of snorkelling (all gear provided) which is most refreshing after slogging it up the hill laden with cameras. Trips last about two and a half hours, with two hours on the island.

Target birds on the island are Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Booby, Red-footed Booby, and of course the Red-billed Tropicbirds - the reason why 99% of people go, including my own parents two weeks after me (my Dad ended up photographing the exact same nesting bird as I did!). Osprey is likely, as are many of the rainforest birds like Trinidad Motmot and Spectacled Thrush.

The viewing platform at the top is spectacular - thousands of Tropicbirds, many passing within a few feet, interspesed with piratical Frigatebirds who treat the Tropicbirds much like Skuas treat Terns - not very nicely! The established technique is to grab them by their elegant tails and dangle them until they let go of their fish, after which the Frigatebird will catch it in mid-air. We saw this many times, but each time too far out to get a decent photograph. The Boobies were far fewer, and nested much lower down - difficult to get close to and you will need a long lens - my not-very-good best effort is below. Anyway, a great trip that is not be missed if you ever find yourself on Tobago.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Birders Drinks and the birders who drink them

It was Christmas drinks recently. Well, pre-Christmas drinks really, as Christmas has yet to come, and if the Mayans have anything to say, never will. In the unlikely event we all make it through the night, I felt blog readers might enjoy an exclusive view into the world of birding on the East (and Buff-bellied Pipit not withstanding, best) side of London. Fortunately a camera was on hand to record the event, and especially fortunately for Shaun, it also takes video.

Every month I travel several hundred miles out to Hornchurch for an event known as Birders Drinks. Hornchurch is the chosen location as the pub is about two nanoseconds from Shaun's house, ten from the Mo's, and no more than a minute for practically everyone else apart from myself and Bradders. I am very fortunate that Mrs B enjoys coming out to Hornchurch to drive me back to Wanstead each month, with the happy consequence for Bradders that he also gets a lift home. In December, the usual monthly drinks are replaced with drinks and a Christmas meal. The cuisine at the Railway in Hornchurch is not to be over-estimated, but we keep going back - it's convenient for Shaun and Mo.

So, to the attendees (some of whom are lucky enough to get a blog link over to the right somewhere, though with my various blog width/resolution tribulations, I accept it's entirely possible you have never heard of any of them). Anyhow, in alphabetical order...

Steve B has been twitching for longer than he cares to remember, and his list is about to hit the magic 500. Mind you if you take away dodgy ducks he's only on about 380. He is a chemist, so plastic is indeed fantastic. There is nothing he has not twitched, but he swears he is going to stop twitching very soon. Just as soon as birds he needs stop arriving.
Patch: Fairlop

Seen here (on the right) deep in conversation with a slim and handsome birder who lives miles away from Hornchurch, Bradders likes nothing better than to jump in the car for a brief drive to South Shields. Via Exeter. Known for not yearlisting every year, for being extremely uncompetitive when it comes to lists of things, and for waiting at least three minutes after news breaks before setting off on a twitch.
Patch: The UK.

Another local patchworker of renown, Monkey is seen here departing to another social engagement. To be honest, we're lucky we see him at all such is his popularity. Known principally for preparing for twitches in the minutest detail, and for dipping repeatedly. A staunch teetotaler, Monkey nonetheless would prefer to be driven to rares so he can 'stay up late'. Or something.
Patch: Errr.....

Dave the Beard
Nobody knows how old Dave really is, but he is happy to live it up with all us young people as beer has no effect on him. Dave was the organisational brains behind this year's Christmas Bash, though the Ann Summers Party that he promised would be sharing the dining suite with us never turned up. Dave only goes birding three times a day, as the rest of the time he is abroad.
Patch: The Ingrebourne Valley.

Dick has been birding everyone else's patch in London well before they ever did. Pretends to be Irish. In his mid-seventies now, Dick prides himself on being much fitter than people 1/3rd his age. Like me. Works only one day a week, and so by the time the weekend comes has already seen all the birds the rest of us still need.
Patch: Yours.

Very shy and retiring, Hawky likes a quiet night in, and the thought of an all-night rave makes him physically sick. Magnetically attracted to rare birds, but likes to think of them as common. Has been birding since he was eight months old. It would be fair to say he likes a drink.
Patch: Barking Bay, The Mighty Masey.

 Gay Birders Club Shaun (L), Hawky (R)

A new recruit to the hallowed pumps (and kitchen) of the Railway, Lee has yet to take the dark path known as twitching. So far we have kept him away from Bradders, so he still thinks Rainham is the where all the good birds are. It won't last forever, but for now Lee remains as pure as the driven snow. 
Patch: The Ingrebourne Valley, Rainham.

Semi-retired, the Mo does not need sleep and can most often be found phoning and texting you in the middle of the night. Peregrine fan extraordinaire, there are no lengths to which Mo will not go in order to get as high as he possibly can up London's skyline. A keen photographer, Mo has an unparalled understanding of exposure theory, and of exactly how many pixels a bird must cover in a photo (twelve). Only snores when asleep.
Patch: Barking Bay, The Ingrebourne Valley, any man-made structure >30m above sea level.

Redsy works eight days a week, so doesn't really have much time for birding. That said, he usually only takes jobs that are right next door to rare birds, and so keeps his list ticking along nicely. Updates his blog at least twice a year.
Patch: North Weald.

Like Lee, Rob is a relatively new addition to Birders Drinks, but most welcome as he owns a taxi that can seat all of us. Has been birding a long time, but still needs Robin. Known for staying awake all the time, and definitely not falling asleep at all. Hates football, especially small local teams that he says are a complete waste of time.
Patch: The M25, Gatwick North Terminal.

Quietly-spoken Russ has never been absent from Birders Drinks, and his favourite tipple is whatever bitter is on tap. Most often found in the company of Dave the Beard, Russ's mission in life is to obliterate the shutters of as many DSLRs as possible while he can still move his index finger. So far he is doing very well, and the Nikon Corporation of Japan owes him it's continued existence.
Patch: The Ingrebourne Valley.

Yes. No. Yes. Maybe. No. The most decisive birder I know, Shaun rarely misses an opportunity to go on a twitch as he hates staying at home and being a good boy. Married to the lovely Jo, to whom he has given all his trousers. Known for being extremely messy, taking very good care of his binoculars, and never redecorating his house.
Patch: The Ingrebounre Valley.

Steve S
Another mammoth twitcher, Steve never misses a bird. Steve's body is a temple, and rare is it that any non-organic substance passes his lips. Fags don't count. And neither do kebabs. Best known for needing invasive surgery to remove pencil rubbers from his ear canal.
Patch: The Ingrebourne Valley.

And finally, everyone. Apart from me thankfully, one of the fringe benefits of always being behind the camera.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Waxwing idiocy at Lakeside

I've been waiting most of the week to get to Lakeside, and it's not often you can say that, especially at this time of year when it's full of pillocks (for those readers not from the Thames Estuary, Lakeside is an enormous and crappy retail park on the outskirts of London, highly 'Essex' in every way, including geographic location. I digress). Anyhow, neither the shopping opportunities nor the high-class clientele were the draw for me - instead it was a flock of Waxwings that had descended upon the fruiting shrubbery in the carpark of Costco, some kind of discount warehouse of awfulness. Arriving well before opening hours this morning, I was hoping to avoid the associated idiocy, only to find it in full swing around the Waxwings, with one of the most wonderful displays of twattery I've seen for a while. Can you tell I'm annoyed? I wait all week, work work work, and then my planned Waxwing photography extravaganza is ruined by some prize-chumpery.

I was going to post a photo of the gentleman in question, but on careful consideration it wouldn't be fair to publicly shame the short, fat, crass and clueless dickhead with glasses in the ill-fitting blue waistcoat who drove a small white car, who despite being politely asked to stay back so that the birds would come down from the trees and feed on the berries, continued to walk right up to every tree the beleagured birds flew to, pointing his camera directly skywards to take a series of what will be utterly pathetic, pitiful and 100% delete-worthy photos that my eight year old son would likely be ashamed of. So, whoever you are, I hate you, and when they finally flew off never to return, I cursed your lack of fieldcraft and your shite, under-exposed jpegs of Waxwing arses. I go back to work tomorrow, whereas you no doubt you will be at Lakeside again, wasting your shutter like there is no tomorrow. Hopefully it will break. Not that I've never flushed a bird in my over-eagerness to get a photo of it you understand, everyone has, but when there are a pile of people standing well behind you, telling you the current and likely future consequences of your actions, all of which soon came to pass, you would think that you might pay some heed. But no.

Glad I got that off my chest. For Christ's sake. Where can I go in this bloody country where I am not assailed by millions of people all intent on making my life as trying as possible? I can completely understand the mentality of people who get so pissed-off with 'birding' in the South-east that they sell up and fuck off to the Hebrides or wherever, and spit at any strangers they see. I can almost see eye-to-eye with that immensely unfriendly birder at Scatness (Shetland) who had a go at me a few years ago. Almost. Except he was a git of course. Not that I expected it to be just me and 24 Waxwings at Costco on a Sunday morning this close to Christmas, but it would have been nice..... I've posted the best I got in the few minutes I had before el-pricko marched up to the bushes and they all flew off into the trees and subsequently to Kent, but I could have done so much better. I was hoping to improve on my 2010 efforts in the same car-park, but it was a total failure on that score which I am finding remarkably hard to come to terms with.

Anyhow, ranting aside, I actually saw 36 Waxwings today. How so I hear you ask? Well, in a massively jammy and unjust episode for which I am very grateful, as I was putting the camera in the car this morning, some funny trilling caused me to look up..... 12 Waxwings flew straight down my street and over onto Wanstead Flats. As Chad du Clos would say, "unbelievable, to-tally unbelievable". I called Nick immediately. I got as far as saying "Wax....", and he said "11!".

"....wings!", I finished, "12!" He had been in the SSSI and had picked up on them flying south approximately on the line of Centre Road. What were the chances? Fabulous luck for both of us, especially me, as it was the first time I had poked my head out of doors all morning, and very peculiar that I was just off out to see exactly double that number of Waxwings being harried from pillar to post by a complete and utter.....

Saturday 15 December 2012

Devaluing Shetland

I may not go to Shetland again, there is no need - all the birds are turning up down south. After twitching a fabulous Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll last weekend in Suffolk, which shared all the same merits as the birds on Shetland but without the 2,500mph winds, today I found myself over in west London for a Buff-bellied Pipit - another species which up until now I had only seen in the far north. It showed down to about three feet, and took about fifty minutes to get to. Shetland, start to finish, takes about seven hours to get to, and that's by flying. I've also been on the boat; that takes an entire day and night.

I've been to Shetland three times. Each time the cost, once everything is factored in, approaches £700 - taxi, flights, accomodation, car hire, petrol, inter-island ferries, food and a small amount of beer, not to mention the astronomical cost in Brownie Points....... Perhaps I've been unlucky, but the number of ticks on Shetland over those three visits is only eight. Prior to getting back home this October, that was a Bagnall-esque £262.50 per bird. Almost as soon as I touched down at Gatwick, so too did several Siberian Stonechats. £300 a bird then. Last weekend the cost went up to £350, less a small amount of petrol, and this morning, £420, following a quick jaunt around the M25.

Bearing in mind that I went to Tobago (where it was 30 degrees every day, with Trogons) for the same cost as one of those trips to Shetland, those wet and windy weeks in October are looking less and less appealing. And it's not as if I've seen any particularly monster birds up there, a few specialties like Lanceolated Warbler, but nothing silly like a Sibe Rubythroat. In fact at £420 a bird, and rising, I could actually twitch Shetland for the really good stuff and still be ahead. And warm in the Caribbean. Still, there is always the craic and the non-stop alcoholism.

The bird today, just like the Redpoll last week, was fantastic, if a little frustrating as it refused to go near any sunshine for all but the briefest flashes. It steadfastly remained right on the bank below the sides of the reservoir, shielded from the sun by a low wall, and making pleasing angles all but impossible - this however is where the reach of the 800mm comes in very handy, you can negate quite a lot of the "looking down" effect that shorter lens cannot avoid if they want to get a decent-sized bird in the frame. There were also about three million twitchers there, and an astonishing number of tooled-up photographers. Every man and his dog seemingly has a 500mm prime these days. That's one of the positives for Shetland - very often it's just you and a handful of others, or at least it was on my first trip in 2010. This time around and I didn't dare try and get near the Buff-bellied Pipit at Rerwick as the beach had about 80 twitchers on it! Perhaps it's time to start going somewhere isolated and twitcher-free like North Ron? Or Scilly - apparently there were only two birders there this autumn, and both so decrepit that I could easily have outrun them....

Or, more likely, abroad. You see some fabulous birds up close, and mostly you're alone and left alone. "Oi mate, whatya lookin' at?!" The bird that just flew away.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Tobago - round the island trip

Southern Lapwing
Tobago is an island of two halves - the hilly north east, and the flat south-west. As previously mentioned Mrs L and I were staying in the hilly part, and in doing so were treated to gazillions of superb forest birds. But this was at the expense of all those species that lived in the flat bit. Once again I turned to Newton George and his trusty minibus (with an engine taken from a WW2 bomber). A day trip with Newton costs US$80, and is once again excellent value, plus he also buys lunch. Another early start, but no Mrs L this time - all birded out apparently - instead two additional passengers, David and Grete, fellow Blue Waters Inn residents, and mildly interested in birds.

Green Heron
The trip is literally around the island - clockwise. An early start is needed as we needed to get all the way down to Crown Point, where the airport is, and it's a drive of at least an hour. Our first stop was the Plantation Estate, a Wentworth wannabe, with a plush hotel, posh golf course, and then ridiculously affluent houses dotted around the place. We headed for the adjacent sewage ponds......


Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Wattled Jacana

I missed Masked Duck by mere seconds, not sure I can count the ripple, but the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were much more obliging. Plenty to look at here, including Wattled Jacana, Least Grebe, Moorhens, Purple Gallinules and Anhingas. On the drive down, now in full-on listing mode, I enquired of Newton whether Mangrove Cuckoo was a possibility. He said he hadn't seen one for a long while, and not on any recent visits, so we were all quite surprised when he pointed at a tree and started running. We ran too, or tried to, and there in the aforementioned tree was the most glorious obliging and stunning Mangrove Cuckoo, eagerly devouring monster caterpillars. My lens was less than ideal in this situation, with a fairly large bird hopping about in the branches right above my head, but I tried. Pretty awesome experience whatever.

This was probably the best birding area of the morning, with numerous Southern Lapwings, Cattle Egrets, Great White Egrets and Jacanas seen as we drove slowly around the golf course. Other places visited included the Bon Accord Sewage Ponds, unfortunately past their best - overrun with an invasive water weed. There were birds everywhere though, as we drove a series of small lanes with ditches at the side. Tri-coloured Heron, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpipers were the main inhabitants, but the trees also held a Brown-crested Flycatcher, lots of Green-rumped Parrotlets, and amazingly my first Blackpoll Warbler ever - yep, probably a dozen trips to the US and never seen one. A brief stop near the coast added Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican, and both Royal and Sandwich Terns sitting on a curiously-named boat, as well as White-winged Swallow on a football field, with numerous Short-tailed Swifts overhead.

Our next stop was the Grafton Sanctuary - habitat similar to the Main Ridge. The path was seriously degraded, a sign of neglect, and whilst there were many birds, including Cocoa Woodcreeper and several Blue-backed Manakins, we were unable to go to far and reluctantly turned back - Gilpin Trace was much better - we actually drove back though that area on our way back but didn't have time to stop. Plenty of mossies at Grafton, and a large population of Rufous-vented Chachalacas, sitting around like chickens, not really bothered by us at all. This was the height of the day though, and after fighting my way up and down the trail with the full set-up on a tripod I was exhausted and just needed to flop - photographic opportunities everywhere and I couldn't be bothered! Lunch was taken.

The west side of the island is very scenic, fabulous views out into the Caribbean Sea, and we slowly wound our way back towards Speyside before crossing the Main Ridge back to Roxborough as per the previous trip. Lots more birds en route, including Yellow-headed Caracara, Ruddy Ground Dove, Eared Dove and Carib Grackle. The best birding was undoubtedly the morning period though, everything quietens down significantly by mid-morning. We were back at the hotel by 4pm for a well-deserved swim and rum punch.

Englishman's Bay
Round the Island List
Rufous-vented Chachalaca
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Masked Duck ripple
Least Grebe
Brown Pelican
Magnificent Frigatebird
Brown Booby
Black-crowned Night Heron
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Green Heron
Cattle Egret
Little Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great White Egret
Tri-coloured Heron
Yellow-headed Caracara
Wattled Jacana
Purple Gallinule

Spotted Sandpiper
Southern Lapwing

Laughing Gull
Sandwich Tern
Royal Tern
Eared Dove
Pale-vented Pigeon
Ruddy Ground Dove
Green-rumped Parrotlet
Orange-winged Parrot
Mangrove Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Short-tailed Swift
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Copper-rumped Hummingbird

Trinidad Motmot
Belted Kingfisher
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Barred Antshrike
Tropical Kingbird
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Grey Kingbird
Blue-backed Manakin
Barn Swallow
White-winged Swallow
Tropical Mockingbird
Blue-grey Tanager
Blue-black Grassquit
Blackpoll Warbler
Crested Oropendola
Giant Cowbird
Carib Grackle