Wednesday, 29 February 2012

And I thought we were doing well!

I spent a couple of hours on Wanstead Flats this morning before heading to the Salt Mines, and very pleasant it was too. The highlight was probably hearing, then seeing, Lesser Spot in South Copse - one of the copses that bore the brunt of some recent ire. I should probably apologise now for possibly being wrong, though it's still early days. The need to apologise increased when one Lesser Spot became two, and although there was no visible interaction, one was a male, and the other a female. This was around 7am I suppose, so filthy year-listers still requiring small Woodpeckers would be advised to get here early to stand the best chance of connecting.

As I continued my rounds, I bumped into Nick, and commented that it was all going rather splendidly this year, with many fine birds during the cold period, and now some encouraging signs of spring. His reply was shocking. We're doing really badly! Eh? Well, Nick, as I am, is a fan of patch stats. Who isn't really? Hours of fun.... Wheatear, he said, was species number 95 last year, and we're only on 81 at the moment. Gadzooks!

The Wheatears were very late last year, the first not being seen until March 30th, but nonetheless another 13 birds between now and then seems a tall order. We wondered aloud what we might be missing, especially after our run of rare waders and sawbills, but couldn't get anywhere near to 95, and thus descended into glum slience, and only really perked up when we found over 20 dead frogs in various states of both dessication and bloatedness near Cat and Dog pond. I had a little think at work, and even with the benefit of a post-it note and a pen couldn't work out where we were falling short. Happily, patch stats once again have the answer. On the other less-ranty blog, we recorded our collective 2011 year list, and cleverly put dates against migrants. Wheatear was indeed number 95, but where do we place now, and what was inbetween? I've never seen Tree Sparrow here, and didn't bag Stonechat until the autumn, but the Caspian Gull (#82 and still with the LNHS Stonkingly-rare Patch Birds Committee) was mine, and occurred very briefly on February 26th, until flushed not by a right-wing dog as you might think, but by a couple of footballers. The Red Kite was on March 14th, a full two weeks away, so with 2012's year list on 81, I'd say we were basically level.

But something is niggling. The cold snap produced seven amazing species, only one of which had been seen by this time last year, and indeed most were not seen at all. So even with these bonuses, we're still one behind. Oh dear, I see what Nick means. Last year those cold snap birds were replaced, numerically at least, with Tawny Owl, Rock Pipit, Waxwing, Treecreeper, Yellowhammer, Little Owl, and Yellow-legged Gull. To come between them and Wheatear were the pending CaspoTree Sparrow, Stonechat, Red Kite, LRP, Common Sand, Water Pipit, Pheasant, Goshawk, Lapwing, Shelduck, Buzzard and Sand Martin. We've already used up Lapwing and Buzzard this year, and a lot of the species I've mentioned are extremely scarce, so scarce in fact that I've not seen quite a few of them (Goshawk and both Pipits in case you were wondering, plus the aforementioned Sparrow). It looks like it really will be a tall order to compete with 2011, and we may not even come close. That'll teach me to feel chirpy and positive about the patch. It's actually rubbish!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Meet Occupy London

Not really! Hah! Just trying to wind [some of] you up! Can you imagine? Me, scum-of-the-earth dangerously intolerant right-wing fascist Osborne love-child nasty unpleasant financial worker bastard and single-handed perpetrator of massive social and economic injustice, publicly airing anything at all on people who feel so strongly about capitalism that they are prepared to live in a tent on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for months in order to make their point? Oh, except most of them go home at night. No no, it would be very very wrong of me to say anything at all on this [my] blog about anything that might be remotely controversial or have a whiff of soapbox about it. So I shan’t. And those of you whose comments were no doubt ready-formed the moment you saw the title of this post, well, perhaps you have something to say about birds?

No? Funny that. Not to worry though, I do. Lots. In fact that’s what I write about most of the time. Parakeets, Pigeons, Ducks, Woodpeckers, Wheatears, Skylarks, Sandpipers, Yellowthroats, Northern Waterthrushes, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Fea’s Petrels... Nice and safe, birds.  Guaranteed not to raise aaany hackles. I was a bit busy yesterday, so didn’t see any - this is the trouble with trying to write a bird blog. Of course I could just write nothing..... Aaaanyway, today the plan was to rectify that, but once again it didn’t happen. Actually I tell a lie – I left on the school run a little bit early so I could check the Basin on the way. Virtually nothing. And almost unbelievably it soon became less than virtually nothing as man was walking his dog across one of the fairways closest to the water and a bunch of them flew off. Is nothing sacred?! Pfffffffff.

Talking of dogs, I recently discovered that one of my Twitter acolytes is a beagle. No, really. Well, not actually really, obviously, but really enough in the same sense that a cat that wandered onto the pitch at Anfield a couple of weeks ago is also a Twitter user..... Yes, people with mouth-watering amounts of spare time are pretending to be animals on Twitter - and some say that Twitter is a complete waste of time. Honestly. I haven’t been through the whole list to discover if any of the others are animals, but assuming the rest are human, if you take me as a proxy - with approximately one third of a percent of my followers being dogs, and Twitter as a whole having half a billion users - that means that there are 1.6 million people pretending to be dogs online. If that isn’t a tragic statistic, I don’t know what is. Three thousand dogs set up new accounts every day, and Lady Gaga, Twitter's most-followed person, has over 60,000 canine chums – which goes a long way to explaining that meat dress she wore last year. It wasn’t a statement designed to provoke outrage, comment and discussion; no, it was simply for her adoring fans.

Woof woof!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Was that summer?

Two weeks ago arctic gear, thermal pants etc. This weekend, shirt sleeves and NO COAT. At all. Absolutely fabulous here in the smoke this weekend, blue skies, sunshine and warmth. I took the children out on Saturday to experience what will likely be summer 2012 (as I type it is cold and wet again), and their joyful shouts of freedom as they ran around Wanstead Flats were simply wonderful to behold. Bicycles were ridden, scooters were scooted, and flopping into the long grass - adults and children alike - was a must. This early in the year there is no pollen to ruin my enjoyment of long grass, and so whilst the kids expended pent-up energy, I relaxed and trained my eyes skywards.




It may have helped to have kept my eyes open, as the procession of large raptors across the inside of my eyelids was a tad disappointing. I remedied this on Sunday by managing to stay awake long enough to record two Common Buzzards going over, one north, the other, a darker bird, east. Neither had a hint of Rough-leggedness about them, but I live in hope, and one apparently went over Upminster - though I want to see a photo to prove it as I'm really really cynical.

The Buzzards, despite their commonness, were most pleasing, as almost exactly two hours earlier I had texted birding associates to say that it felt like a raptor day. The first one that came over was essentially in outer space. Any higher and it would have run out of oxygen, and dropped in a frozen lump to land somewhere near Long Wood. I had been watching kettling Common Gulls, themselves miles up, when a darker shape drifted through. Not a patch year tick, as I had one out of the window on a similarly lovely day back in January, but always a good bird here. The second one came through much lower only a short while later, and as such caught the attention of a selection of gulls who proceeded to give it a hard time as it made its way east. Still a little early for Red Kite, but a few more days as nice as this weekend in the last two weeks of March will see me do nothing but skywatch. Oh, and scan the ground for Wheatears. Choices, choices....

Earlier that morning, before I had flopped wearily into the long grass, I had actually been doing a bit of birding. Specifically I had been looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the usual copses, having been encouraged by one flying over my head on Saturday towards Esso Copse - which avoided the onslaught. So knowing that they are at least on the Flats again, and knowing that this is a good time of year to locate this local cracker, I was trying East and West Copses - the ones that did get health and safety'd. Sorry to say that in two hours I didn't get a sniff, though both other Woodpeckers were noisily present. This is hardly scientific though, I'll need to conduct a few more surveys before I can say either way whether the birds are interested in these places any more, or whether the extensive removal of dead wood has seen them off. Despite the absence of very small woodpeckers this time, the copses were brimming with bird-life. Not all of it good though....

When I moved here Ring-necked Parakeet constituted a rare local record. More recently they began living in the Park, particularly round the Ornamental Waters, but other than that were recorded only as flyovers on Wanstead Flats at the beginning (north) and end of the day (south again). I went several years before getting one on the garden list, but now get several every month. About a month ago I counted 67 or so in a single flock going south, and now it appears that they are living in the copses full-time, as I hear the screeches at all times of day. Yesterday I found this in West Copse. Note the hole in the top left corner.....


The science on whether Ring-necked Parakeets out-compete native birds for nest cavities is still underway, but it suggests that Nuthatch in particular is a species that declines when Parakeets move in. Wanstead has very few if any Nuthatches, but I'd argue this has been the case for longer than the Parakeets have been present, and that other factors are probably at play - but you would probably have to say that the increased number of Parakeets can't be doing the chances of a recolonisation many favours. Starling is another cavity nesting species, but these were present in the copses - for now - and the doe-eyed Stock Doves were also still present. Again, we'll need to watch what happens quite carefully now the Parakeets are in, and of course the recent tree-felling and associated loss of holes will no dount exacerbate whatever happens next. Fewer holes and ever more Parakeets is presumably a one-way street, but we shall see.



Green Hoopoe with uber-crest


Friday, 24 February 2012

Grebe Expectations

Every year, until about mid-December, we have Great Crested Grebes on the patch. As mid-December approaches, the Grebes can be seen consulting calendars and chatting amongst themselves. Every year the local patch-workers can also be found checking dates and chatting amongst themselves - will Great Crested Grebe get onto the January 1st list? The answer is always "no". As the Grebes see us getting ever more excited, they swim ever more nonchalantly around the Basin. And then with about a fortnight to go, they just disappear. And so it happened at the end of 2011, and despite me checking the Basin more or less daily - with excellent other results, it must be said - there has been no sign.

Yesterday was unseasonably warm. It seems ridiculous that less than two weeks ago the whole place was covered in snow and ice, but yesterday I could have walked to work in shirt sleeves. I very nearly did end up walking to work as it happens, but that is another story that would inevitably turn into a rant, so I shall leave it there. Anyway, it was glorious, it felt truly spring-like, and even though I was headed to the salt mines, I had a spring in my step as I did so. Perhaps this abrupt change in the weather caused wintering Great Crested Grebes to seek out their breeding lakes, and today when I checked the Basin on the way back from the school run, what should I see on my scan?

Then again, maybe the weather has nothing to with it. Checking some files I just happen to have lying around, I am able to see that in 2011 Great Crested Grebes first appeared on February 26th, in 2010 on January 21st, in 2009 on March 2nd, and in 2008 on January 26th. I could go on but it might be boring, whereas five years of someone else's patch Grebe arrival history still qualifies as extremely interesting.

Last year two pairs attempted nesting, but neither succeeded; we don't know why. One pair got as far as eggs, but nothing happened, and I'm not sure the second pair even managed that. They gave it a good go though. I'm very much hoping for a repeat performance, but one ending in small humbug-like chicks, which I have a hankering to photograph as they are extremely cute. They have it all to do, and I wish them the best of luck.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Americana

Even though I saw that Yellowthroat for a total of about ten seconds, it was a pretty special bird. The vividness of the yellow was very surprising, but maybe against a backdrop of damp hedge it just shone out? When I started out on the measured and sensible endeavour that is twitching, I never thought I'd see American birds. I'm not sure what I thought really, probably nothing - fledgling twitchers don't spend a great deal of time thinking and I'm sure I was no different. Yay, rare bird, let's go!

I've not seen a huge number now, they truly are very rare. My Yank passerines are confined to a couple of Sparrows, two Dark-eyed Juncos, a Black-and-White Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush, a Swainson's Thrush and of course the Yellowthroat - eight birds in a period of four years, encompassing three trips to Scilly and two to Shetland. Clearly it's something you have to work at! In twitching terms, they're some of the best and most enjoyable birds I've seen, and I was wondering why it is that I like Yanks better than I like Sibes?

I think the answer boils down to two things. The first is that I've been to America quite a few times and seen all of these birds in their native habitat. You might think that might diminish the enjoyment to had from glimpsing a lost wait, but actually it increases the wow factor. The second is that I'm American. No, really. Mom, as I like to call her, is from California. American birds are therefore my birds.

If you were ever fortunate enough to actually meet me, you would not be able to tell I am part Yank. I have no twang, no ten gallon hat. I do carry a gun though so y'all muggers had better watch out! Not really. I might have the odd peculiarity of expression that comes from growing up with an American parent, but that's about it. Perhaps this is a good thing, Americans are not universally popular right now. Having spent a lot of time there, you can see where the stereotypes come from, but let me say right now that pretty much every person I have ever met in America has kind, generous, honest and genuine. There is very little snideness, very little rudeness, people are just nice - plain and simple. When someone says "you have a good day now", as many of them do, you feel that they really mean it. In this country, the default stance would be to assume they were taking the piss. Admittedly my experience of America is a fairly narrow one - a college town in Ohio, and a few coastal settlements in California - but nonetheless I believe that Americans are just nice people, just like me.

I feel American enough to religiously celebrate Thanksgiving every year, and to feel twinges of pride on dates like July 4th, Obama's inauguration, and other momentous dates. And also to know that if I ever find myself in a sticky situation, the Marines are on the way. Where my American-ness really shines out though is in my tastes. I bet you didn't know that I'm a country music fan? I tend not to publicise this too much, but having subjected a carload to it on the way to Gwent and back, I might as well come clean. No doubt this comes from being brought up on a diet of Emmylou Harris, John Denver, and Kate & Anna McGarrigle (actually Canadian), but it is a source of constant exasperation to Mrs L that if it falls to me to pick a CD, I'll likely home in on something along these lines. Tim McGraw, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash - I could play them all for hours if I was allowed. Bob Harris Country on Thursday evenings is required listening, and A Prairie Home Companion is the best radio program ever, up there with Test Match Special as far as I'm concerned. If you've never heard the gentle strains of the Tishomingo Blues introducing the show, played by The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band and sung by Garrison Keillor, you're missing out. Like various UK radio shows, it's something of an institution, and has been going for nearly 40 years. Here's a short clip of the kind of thing you can expect from this amazing live variety show - there truly is nothing else like it.



Sadly it's not restricted to birds, music and radio. I'm also somewhat addicted to Ben & Jerry's and pancakes with maple syrup. But you really wouldn't be able to tell that.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Wet in Wales

I've said it before and I'll say it again - twitching is a mug's game. My immediate reaction on hearing about the Gwent Yellowthroat on Thursday was "FFS". Not that it was such an unlikely bird in such an unlikely place at such an unlikely time, and that it was therefore amazing. No, it was that I had no desire to go to Gwent. Or anywhere in fact. Wanstead was where I wanted to be. In my house. Specifically, in my bed. Warm. And dry.

The weekend, as usual, had two days. In Gwent, one of those days was windy and really really wet. The other was nice and sunny. Guess which one I was free on? FFS. Of course I could have stayed at home, not hooned it off twitching, but that would have involved restraint. I blow hot and cold when it comes to twitching. Right now, and since about September, I am red hot. Why this should be I have no idea - it could be connected to work and being able to afford petrol again (though perhaps not for long - 150.9 on the way back....) So no, I couldn't stay at home, I had to go for it, particularly as if I didn't go, Hawky couldn't get there as he was busy Sunday too. Saturday was the day of spectacularly glorious weather in South Wales.....

Standing in the muddy field at 7:30am, protected from the gusting winds by a portion of hedge, I as usual questioned my sanity. I also questioned the sanity of Hawky, Nick, and 196 other people in the field. Everyone apart from Adrian - I already know he's mental. Needless to say there was absolutely no sign of the bird. We did see just about every other species Gwent has to offer though, all happy as Larry feeding in the hedges despite the cruddy weather. After two hours the cruddy weather got even better and it started to rain, drizzle at first, but then firming up to real rain. Real heavy rain. We gave up. After thanking the parking marshals, who did an amazing job, not only standing around in the rain all day, but also pushing cars through mud and into a field, we decided that rather than just be dippers, we should go and see Dipper. This we did, and got even wetter. Next stop, Cosmeston Lakes, just south of Cardiff, for a drake Lesser Scaup, a tick for Nick.



The photograph above is amazing, and it isn't because it shows a Lesser Scaup, which is a very rare bird. Check out the massive raindrop to the left of the bird - it's about a pint. At the Dipper site, we thought it couldn't possibly rain any harder. We were wrong. My raingear did an amazing job. If anybody wants to know how I survived Glamorgan rain, the answer is Aigle wellies, Rab overtrousers and a Rohan anorak. I remained totally dry on the inside, but you would not have known to look at me, I appeared as the proverbial drowned rat.



As we sat down to a well-earned bite to eat at the convenient visitor centre, Paul's pager bleeped. Can you guess what it said? Five minutes previously a small olivey-green bird with a bright yellow throat and a black face mask had popped out of a hedge in a now sunny Gwent. Piss. We ate up. Now a dilemma though, for Nick needed Bonaparte's Gull, which was between us and the Warbler. It would have been selfish to drive straight past it, though perhaps that would have been sensible, as in the event finding the right part of Cardiff Docks took about forty minutes. Happily finding the bird took about forty seconds when Paul located it dip-feeding on a water treatment tank. A few photos through a meaty fence, and then a high-speed run back to Rhiwderyn. We parked up where directed, and headed back to the field of misery. Dozens of delighted faces greeted us, including Adrian's. It had been showing well up to about twenty seconds previously, but was now getting chased across a field by about eighty desperate birders. We followed, to find a pile of people pointing into a copse and shrugging. More people were in the next field staring into a bramble. I looked and saw nothing, and then people were pointing again, and running to the next hedge. I briefly saw some movement in this hedge, and then nothing. Meanwhile people next to me were hugging, high-fiving etc. Nice. As the crowd melted away, leaving about fifteen people disconsolantly wandering around, I mentioned to Paul that we were probably stuffed. "I've seen it", he said. Eh? When? "Just now. You were next to me, I thought you saw it?"

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhhhhhhhhh!

I joined Nick looking at what was presumably the last known hedge. There was quite a lot in it. A Robin came through, but the hedge was so dense you couldn't really get much on it. Another bird was following it, but I couldn't even detect colour. I went up the hedge a bit, about halfway, to a smallish gap, where I waited. I spent a long time looking, intensely scrutinising the hedge, but the Robin never arrived. Instead a Dunnock went the other way. I wandered back to Nick.
"Anything?"
"Nah"
"Did you see that Dunnock come past?"
"Nope"

The hedge clearly had black hole in it. This being the case I gave up and wandered to the next hedge, hoping for no cosmic phenomena. At this point we had about half an hour before we needed to leave. Then a shout! I shot back up to the previous hedge, to find some people staring intently into a dense bit of holly just up from where I had been staring. Nothing. No movement at all. I wandered down a bit, in case it should appear in the gap. Another shout! In the long grass! I went back up and did some serious peering. Nothing. And then there it was, in the open for about two thirds of second. A short break, and then it popped up to have a look about. About three seconds worth I reckon, and then it flew down the hedge about twenty metres. Needless to say my camera was safely tucked up in it's bag, my priorty being to see it. However thanks to a recent visit to New York and the magic of Photoshop I am able to share the spectacle. Note that I am so sad dedicated that just before we left I extracted my camera from it's bag to photograph the hedge specifically so I could create this.

Yes, the Warbler really did moult into adult summer plumage in the space of an afternoon...
So, another tick, the fourth this year, which for mid-Feb is ridiculous. Ratio of time in field to time looking at bird was very poor indeed, but what can you do? It was yesterday or nothing, and a tick is a tick, so all things considered we did rather well. So nearly a dip, but we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and the duck and gull are excellent birds in their own right. A happy car headed east back to London.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Book Review - Bird Sense

I am branching out – this post is a book review. Almost unbelievably a publisher got in touch and asked me if I would like to review a new book. Ooooh, free stuff, I thought! A book as it turns out, who would have thought? Why not? I am always seeking to ensure that this blog isn’t one-dimensional, and frankly the huge amount of bird content of late has been a bit embarrassing. I commented only recently that I was in desperate need of filler material, but more often than not those posts turn out to be rants. So this is just perfect. It’s a book about birds, so fits with the general theme of me being a birder, but isn’t just me talking boringly about what mega-birds I’ve seen on the patch that are common as muck just about everywhere else. Perhaps you’ve switched off already, perhaps you haven’t? I admit that reading an actual book made of paper is pretty radical these days - I found that people stared at me on the tube - but if you can handle the unwanted attention, this is well worth picking up. But guess what? It's available as an e-book, so you can download it to read and thus avoid all the shame and humiliation.

Anyway, to the book. Bird Sense - what it's like to be a bird. What a load of rubbish, how could we possibly hope to have an idea - that was my initial my thought. Is he going to try and describe the wind rushing through the feathers of a Swift as it zooms about? The author, Tim Birkhead, to his credit addresses this key question immediately, and in doing so persuades you to read on. And it turns out the book isn't anthropomorphic at all, it literally is about avian senses, and we can and do have an idea. Lots of ideas. The preface - possibly the longest preface in the world - is therefore largely to do with the scientific process that underpins what we know. Only academics, which Tim Birkhead is, could possibly find this interesting, but you soon get through it and onto the real book, and probably a lot of what’s in it needed to be stated at some point, so why not get it over with at the start? Indeed, throughout the book he references various studies and experiments, so you might as well know a bit about it.
In short I found it totally captivating. I am not remotely scientific, the last time I was in anything approaching a laboratory was when I was 16 and doing badly in my GCSEs. I just like looking at birds, and so as a total dunce beyond that (and possibly even including that....), this book was indulgently fascinating. In the same way that I watch Brian Cox with a child-like wonder that belies my nearly 40 years on this planet, so I read this book. I mentally said “really?” about a million times as I progressed through it. I reckon I learnt something about every three sentences. For while you may think you know a fair bit about various aspects of bird behaviour and what dictates that behaviour, in reality you know very little. When I next find a Guillemot on the patch I’ll look at it totally differently.

The book starts with Shrikes, which is always promising, and essentially the author goes through the senses one by one, starting with sight, detailing what we know, how we developed and refined that knowledge, and what's next to research and discover. I could not put it down, and devoured it over the course of only a few commutes. It could be that I am particularly ignorant, but I never knew how complex birds are. Did you know that some Owls have assymetric ears, ie one near the top of its head, the other nearer the bottom, in order to better triangulate invisible prey? I didn't. Did you know that birds can literally see the earth's magnetic field? I didn't, I thought they felt it. Sensed it. Used the Force. But no, if you cover one of a bird's eyes, and surround it by a massive electromagnet, it's stuffed and doesn't know which way to go. Change eyes and it's fine again. Who knew? Well it turns out that scientists are a pretty resourceful bunch, and a lot of the book is devoted to various pioneers in avian behaviour, from Darwin and earlier through to the present day. Apparently people devote their entire lives to finding out about one tiny aspect of a bird's life. Many you will never have heard of - most, in fact - but it's incredibly impressive and dedicated. Some of them turned out to be wrong of course, which is a shame after 40 years work, but that's the way it happens - the search for the truth is constantly evolving.

A minor niggle, and I’m perhaps being picky, is that the book as a whole contains about three times as many commas as strictly necessary, so I found reading it fluently a little tough, but the content more than makes up for any extravagances of punctuation. But hey, what do I know? Tim Birkhead has several books under his belt, which is several more than me. Overall a big thumbs up.



Anyway, here’s a video of the author talking about it. This isn’t as interesting as the actual book, but adds a nice multi-media touch - ie read the book, don't just watch the video and think you're done. So, thanks very much to Helen from Bloomsbury for sending me the book. I’m available for high-quality optics reviews also – certain post-review conditions apply – please get in touch if interested.....

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Back to Bird Blogging

Today I went to Canary Wharf. I saw some birds there. They were nice. They were some Great Crested Grebes, some Cormorants, a Heron, some Mallards, a Moorhen, some Coots, some Common Gulls, some Herring Gulls, some Black-headed Gulls, some Pigeons, a Wood Pigeon, a Magpie, and some Crows. The Magpie was the best one.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Meet Ben



Ben
My last post about the hardships of life was so popular (at both ends of the sympathy spectrum) that today we’re going to meet Ben. I don’t know Ben, but in the same way that Raymond found himself in the spotlight, so does he. In another piece of fearless journalism, the BBC has chosen Ben to represent a generation of young people with seemingly no hope and no prospects. Though I disagree, I actually have a great deal more sympathy with Ben than I do with Raymond – for starters I have kids, and I don’t want them to end up like Ben. And as you may recall, I had no sympathy with Raymond whatsoever. None. And anyway, Ben receives a tenth what Raymond does. Mind you, he could quit smoking....

Ben is 25 and last worked when he was about 21, though the jobs were essentially menial. If you listen to the accompanying audio clip, he sounds an OK kind of bloke, relatively articulate, relatively intelligent. For the last three or so years though, it appears he has sat at home playing video games, watching TV, and smoking. Note that this is not too different from Raymond....  The article unfortunately goes into no depth as to how Ben ended up where he is – this is a shame, it would have been far more insightful had we heard something about Ben’s family life as a teenager and even earlier, and what might have caused his premature exit from the job market, and seemingly, a fulfilling life.

Let me start by saying I am not a psychologist, I am making this up as I go along, but to me the issue seems one of being stuck in a rut and of having no confidence, and one probably feeds the other into an ever descending spiral.  People are born very different, and I believe that some people have a natural confidence. Ben has very little, or at least very little now. There is probably a nurture vs nature element here, hence why some life-history beyond poor exam grades would have been helpful, but I think that confident parents produce confident offspring, be it genetic inheritance or merely a function of what life is like growing up in a particular household. If I had to put money on it, I’d say it’s both - Darwin had nothing on me. Apart from me, my whole family is very confident....

Whether you are brimming with personality and a sense of self-worth or not, I am a firm believer that life is what you make it. Ben (and his flatmate) are, to my mind, not making the most of it. My personal experience is perhaps not ideal for being able to understand and empathise with feelings of complete despair, but Ben needs to get real and pull himself together. I’m sure he’d love to hear that from me, and would immediately go and do the washing up, and from that first squirt of Fairy his life would dramatically turn around. For that is all it would take, one thing would lead to another. Imagine the satisfaction of doing three weeks worth of washing up – he could even tackle it over a couple of days if he so chose, it’s not like he has anything else to do is it? He says he's unimaginably bored, but clearly not bored enough to do the dishes. Imagine looking at the now immaculate draining board and thinking “Wow, that was me!" - I get that feeling and I'm a happy kind of person, so imagine what it might do to Ben! He might then clean the whole kitchen, which is almost certainly totally disgusting. A quick 48 hour gaming stint, and then he might progress to the no doubt equally-horrible bathroom – in fact I just shuddered involuntarily as I envisaged what it might be like. And here’s the key, with the sink shining, and the mirror clean, would he shave off that scabby beard? A beard which shouts “loser”. A beard which totally precludes employment of any kind. A beard which totally defines the kind of individual that Ben currently is. He insists, of course, that he isn’t lazy. A large beard, three weeks worth of washing up in the sink, mould in his tea-cup and not leaving the house for days at a time, and that’s not lazy? What would you call it then, a life-style choice? Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for the guy, I can’t even begin to comprehend how miserable he feels, but at the same time, how difficult can it be?

A few tiny things – no, miniscule things –  and the sense of despair and hopelessness could be alleviated, however fractionally. Sitting at home in a filthy flat playing computer games isn’t going to help him meet people or help him get a job. Surely anyone can see that? The BBC doesn’t mention his IQ, other than to say that he didn’t do well in exams which isn’t correlated to intelligence. I didn't think he sounded stupid, but he must be if he can’t see that the future holds no promise for as long as he doesn’t sort himself out. I realise that this sounds supremely arrogant - I only wrote it to annoy the anonymous commentators. One thing I do know, and that I would hope everyone agrees with, is that to sit at home and play computer games and watch TV requires far less effort than getting up and at least attempting to do something else that might actually help. In other words, it’s a complete cop out.


One thing I do appreciate is his comment about the lack of feedback after job interviews. I wouldn’t employ him either, but I’d tell him why (see above), which might be highly discriminatory but would help propel him in the right direction. Or my view of the right direction anyway, which is generally known to pragmatic people as “real life”.  When I was trying to get a job last year after over two years out of paid work and thus diminished experience (note that I viewed what I did – childcare - as an alternative form of work; typically prospective employers did not...) I had several interviews. These were at big, multi-national companies, not small local businesses. One was at a quasi-government institution! Not one of these places ever gave me any feedback about why I hadn’t got the job. Two of the places I never heard from again – at all! That they didn’t want me is purely an assumption on my part after a couple weeks of silence! You would think that if you have washed yourself, dressed up nicely, presented yourself at their offices at the appointed time, in other words been thoroughly professional in all respects, that - irrespective of how you performed in the interview - at the very least you might get some constructive feedback. And if that is too much, too burdensome, at least an email or a phone call to say thanks but no thanks. If my experience is anything to go by - and I would like to think I am a damn sight more professional than Ben is when he turns up for a role – it is no wonder young people can quickly become disillusioned and jaded by what they would naturally perceive to be a rather nasty and unfair system where they have no visible worth. They end up blaming the damn system, and from there it is but a short step to burning Tottenham and swinging on the Cenotaph.
So – and you knew this was coming, right? - my advice to Ben. The fact that he’s not asked for any is irrelevant.

1) Clean your filthy flat, it will make you feel better about yourself, and that is half the battle.
2)     2) Clean yourself - ditto.
3)     3) Get rid of the beard, and get a haircut. You will be amazed at the prejudices that will melt away. People probably think you're a birder.
4)      4) Kick your flatmate into shape as well, you probably feed off each other.
5)      5) Quit smoking, it is a waste of what was once my money.
6)      6) Stop playing computer games and get your ass out of the house.
7)      7) Start with unpaid work. Do anything. It will get something current on your CV and potentially give you a sense of worth and of belonging.

Of these seven pearls, numbers one to three are the most important, and it’s crucial you start with these. They were probably the first things to slip as you started your slide into the cycle of failing and believing you are a failure, and their reversal could also be the springboard to climbing out of it. Please bear in mind I’m not a qualified self-help expert, though you would struggle to tell. I come from the “pull yourself together” school of advice. So Ben, I admit it might not work (though the chances are very slim), but how will you know unless you start to do something?  Because at the moment you’re doing nothing, and that definitely won’t work.

If it doesn’t, and in two months from now you still find yourself at a loose end, at least get some bins and go find a local patch. Migration should be in full swing, and finding a Wheatear cannot fail to lift your spirits.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Canary Wharf Update

Wanstead has been very quiet the last couple of days. Despite finally connecting with Lesserspot and Linnet, the passing of the cold weather means we're back to our Wheatear holding pattern. Although Goldeneye was the clear winner in the "Bird I'd really like Jono to find" poll, I fear that the return of spring has put paid to anything like that. When I checked the Basin this morning the ice had retreated markedly, and the story was the same on Heronry. And as if to properly prove things are back to normal, a Song Thrush was singing as I made my way across the Flats to the bus.

So, a filler then? Sadly not. Half an hour into my Canary Wharf route-march, with the species total on a paltry 15, I happened to glance at one of the docks almost right next to my building. I then almost fell into it when a Little Grebe appeared from behind a pillar that suspends part of a building above the water. It had a little swim around in the open water, and then disappeared back underneath the building. Gosh, I said. This is the second Little Grebe in 11 years, the other was right over the other side of the Wharf near that scout boat, and wouldn't be visible from my now reduced patch. Mega, as they say.

The next half an hour or so was, relatively speaking - and it's all about context - phenomenal. A Tufted Duck was asleep on a jetty thing, there were Magpies actually on the patch, and as I walked through the bit above the Jubilee Line station a male Blackbird made itself known. But then it got better still. Almost back out into full-on concrete, movement caught my eye to my left. I raised the bins and gasped. A magical bird, mind-blowingly colourful, glowed at me from a patch of soil. A Robin. A massive rarity, and on the patch, just staring back at me, with only me aware of it's presence. Amaaaazing - I soaked it up for at least two minutes and then headed back to my desk. I'm sorry to say that I told no-one (apart from Twitter). Yep, suppressed it. It was the right thing to do. With only two tube stations and one riverboat pier, Canary Wharf could not have handled a twitch of this magnitude. Arrangements may be made for the weekend if extra transport can be laid on, but this is entirely up to the estate management. So, for now, have a gripping picture.


What do you mean you can't see it?

I advise you to sit down before viewing this image

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Patch naming conventions

Do you give bits of your patch names? You know, names that are not the actual names as recognised on maps and so on? I do, and the genesis of this post comes from trudging around a few of them today and giving it a bit of thought as I did so. A lot of my trudging was actually outside the patch - the reason for this was that there were two Smew just south of us beyond the Old Sewage Works, presumably the bird from a few days ago plus another one. The boundary is marked by some large iron gates. These are the Gates of Mordor, and beyond them are the badlands. Very rarely do I go beyond these gates, there are nastly things like Orcs that live there - I know this as I sometimes see them whilst driving through Ilford. Today however I braved danger and death in an effort to gently shepherd the Smew back onto the patch, engaging in an elaborate flanking maneuvre on near the Golf Course before popping up on the river bank, but it was a heroic failure. They initially flew in the right direction, but then deliberately turned around, flew back over my head and landed even further away from the patch boundary, at which point I gave up and trudged back to safety.

The Gates of Mordor aren't really called that, that's just the name I have given them. They probably don't even have a real name, and are just one of these anonymous locations that when quizzed about a bird you end up saying "Oh yeah, er, it was by that bit, er you know, those gates near the big trees with the green grass...". So instead you can, as I have done, give somewhere a catchy name and thus be instantly understood - provided you have briefed people in advance about the stupid name you have given it. Otherwise they just stare at you blankly I find. The Gates of Mordor are now relatively well understood, but in the early days I remember calling Nick to find out about where something was, and he said whatever it was was underneath the stump by the Gates of Mordor. I dutifully trotted off there and on finding no stump, discovered that he called a totally different set of gates The Gates of Mordor - you can imagine how silly he felt when I told him.

Other good patch names are Motorbike Wood on Wanstead Flats, which in true urban fashion, for a period of time held a burnt out moped. This is long gone, but from now until eternity it will be called Motorbike Wood, and unless you birded the area in about 2008, you will have no idea why. The wood that surrounds the petrol station is called Esso Copse, and a very distinct part of the SSSI is called the Boggy Bit. Other bits of patch are named after memorable birds, so we now have a large patch of broom known as the Dartford patch, and of course "the bit near Alex where the Wryneck was". 

Today I learnt a new patch name from Steve - Dangerous Dog Ditch. I had wonderful visions of this being an infamous location where Steve had once been assaulted by a particularly vicious Pomeranian, but it turns out that it is a boggy depression near the Roding where once upon a time there had been a signpost that had warned of unstable ground, and that someone had graffitied it with a further warning that it was dangerous for dogs, which could sink. Although the sign now lies on the ground obscured by grass - one presumes felled by an irate person who had until recently owned a dog but had not read the sign in time - it will evermore be known, by Steve and now by me, as Dangerous Dog Ditch. Today there was a Woodcock in it - Steve didn't see it, he was too busy watching where he was treading....


Took me a long while to select this photo, had to make sure I hadn't mentioned of inferred Moorhen anywhere in my post....


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Wanstead and elsewhere

This post can be summed up as follows: Another weekend, hooray! Yet more cold weather, hooray! More birds, hooray!

But you're not getting away that lightly. I was looking at my stats the other day, and they dared to suggest that the average length of time people spend on this site is about five seconds. Wow, fast readers, I thought. Or maybe people just look at the pictures? I'm not sure, but there haven't really been many good ones recently - pictures that is. Indeed, some posts have had none at all, not even something totally spurious. Time is a big factor, it takes effort to select a photo that has nothing whatsoever to do the text, and I don't want to get it wrong and somehow give the impression that this is all well thought out and carefully considered. I've also not been out with the camera much, other than to bounce it off Southend Pier about a month ago. With no family duties today, it was a good opportunity to get a little amortisation in.

First stop, naturally, was the Basin. I know a few of you are rooting for Goldeneye, and I had high hopes, but after what must have been an extremely cold night, the open water had shrunk so much that any passing Goldeneye that had tried to land would have embedded itself in a Coot, of which there were at least a quarter of a million, all crowded into about a tennis courts worth. I moved on to the Heronry, where some kind soul at the Corporation has turned on the inflow - as such there was a lot more clear water than otherwise would have been the case, and though there were no Goldeneye, a pile of Pochard (is that the correct collective noun?) were enjoying an early morning preeing session. I busied myself getting ready for post-preening flaps, which were numerous and excellent, and while I was doing that noticed a very small Woodpecker fly to the trees at the end of the Perch pond. Yay! I wandered over but it had vanished - I thought I had heard one a few days ago, but it only called once, and good conscience prevented me from counting it in case it had been a Starling or something, which have been known to make a similar sound and bamboozle me before.




Once Crufts was fully underway, complete with entrants joyfully causing some duck angst, I mosied over to the Old Sewage Works, where literally the first birds I saw were two Linnet, another patch yeartick. For those of you keeping track, that's 78, which is loads and loads. Pleased with this minor success - in fact the first Linnets I've seen anywhere this year - I headed to the Roding for an extended Smew photography session. This went very badly, mainly caused by the total absence of Smew. I walked down into Mordor, ie off the patch, but there was no sign to the Aldersbrook, though 15 Teal, all on-patch, were quite nice. I went a similar distance upstream to about level with the Canal, but there were no birds at all that end, mainly due to dog. So I gave up and went for another cup of tea, and two bits of cake - one a late breakfast (the banana one), the second a mid-morning snack (the carrot one). Both were excellent, and fully justified by the cold weather that I'm sure I read is much more calorie-intensive.


South of the bridge


North of the bridge

Although it was great on the patch, lovely light and so on, the call of an Essex Woodlark, currently living it up in the picturesque Roding Valley Park (in a dog-shit strewn stretch of mud underneath the M11 flyover) proved too strong. I picked up Bradders kind of en route, and found the spot without any trouble at all. Mainly by smell. I can categorically say that I have never been anywhere, and this includes Cornwall and Grays, where I have seen quite so much dog muck concentrated in one spot. Whether this is the work of a single dog over a long period, or multiple dogs over a shorter period I cannot speculate. However, protected from the weather by the motorway above, it endures beyond its normal lifespan, and was EVERYWHERE and totally disgusting. And hopping around amonst the innumerable little curls of turd was a fantastic and congenitally anosmiac Woodlark.



Much as I enjoyed the bucolic appeal of the area, it was the only bird there, and once it been flushed by a horse, a bike, several dog-walkers, several dogs and a nameless photographer, we felt it was time to leave. With high tide approaching, we made for the river. Rainham, to be precise, which had the draw of warm food as well as birds. In the visitor centre I looked longingly at the homemade Bakewell slices, but then saw the price - £2.10. Seriously. Rainham food prices seemingly suffer from hyper-inflation. Every time I go there the price has risen again, the place makes Canary Wharf look cheap. I've not been keeping notes, that would be very petty, but last time I came the Bakewells were £1.80 or £1.90, and before that they were £1.40, and the sausage rolls were £2.00 - now they're £2.50. It is getting beyond unreasonable, and I don't mind saying so. I know they need to pay for the mega-hides somehow, but it's out of control. None of this matters as Bradders bought lunch, though in deference to his recently deceased boiler I skipped the cake. Just so you know RSPB, a piece of cake at the Tea Hut of Happiness costs 60p, and a cup of tea is 70p.

Perfect, no post would be complete without a good whinge.



Thursday, 9 February 2012

Sorry, no filler today, come back tomorrow...

I've been desperately trying to have a quiet day as this blog needs a good dose of filler, having become far too birdy. I have a filler post ready to go, but yet again I find that I am unable to use it. I know you are disappointed, but please struggle on through the bird rubbish - I am sure the weather will change and then I can revert back to my usual favourite subjects of moaning, being a self-righteous fuckwit, and so on.

Anyhow, the sad news is that I have just this morning added another patch year tick. I got up bright and early to do a quick round of the local water bodies. If there was a Smew on the river, God knows what must be on the various ponds? First stop the Basin. Quick scan left, quite a few Pochard and Tufties (all annoyingly with tufts), and a dodgy farmward-type Goose. Quick scan right, oh more Pochards, loads of Gadwall, a lot of Malla......Gaaaah!!!!!!!!!! Five Goosander! Hell's Bells! Four drakes and a redhead were brazenly swimming around the edge of the ice, happy as Larry. I very nearly whooped, but I was on a public road and so contained myself. I've seen one Goosander here before, a fly-over on Wanstead Flats a few years ago, so just one would have counted as mega, and instead I get five! This is all becoming too much. I nabbed a few shots just in case they buggered off, and then texted the news out to anyone interested, and quite a few who were probably not. Next time I looked round they were gone. How lucky was that? Not that they flew and I was the only one to have seen them, no no, not at all. I mean, how lucky that I chose to visit in the half hour that they were present? I usually check the Basin after the school run, a full two hours later. I didn't think it made any difference, my assumption being that birds arrive in the night and stay all day. Today I wasn't doing the morning school run, so I was there at first light instead. What a difference a day two hours makes!

Fiiiiive Goo-ooo sanders!


Needless to say this is the best start to any patch year I've ever had. At this stage in 2011 I had seen 64 species, and in 2010, 68. And there could still be more! No Linnet, no Great Crested Grebe, no Tawny Owl, no Lesserspot. And they're just the regulars - what about a Grey Plover (Nick had Wanstead's first today), or another Goldeneye? There is so much potential excitement that I've decided that you too can join in, via the poll at the top right. Choose which bird you would like me to see next, and I will do my best to make it happen.

As I type it's snowing again. What a shame.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Patch Tick! Yes, again.

Steve is a relative newcomer to the patch, and to birding in general. This means he is far more diligent than the rest of us when it comes to taking his time and observing things carefully. When he tells you he's seen something, it is wise to listen. I got a call from him this afternoon, and it went something like this:

Steve: "Oh hi Jono, I've got a funny Grebe on the Roding."

Me: "Oh, right."

Steve: "Yeah, it's not a Little Grebe, it's basically grey and white. Got quite a lot of white in the wing. A bit of white in the face."

Me: "Errr, hmmm. Does it have longish neck?"

Steve: "No."

Me: "Errr, does it have a black crown?"

Steve: "No the head is brown. It's about the size of a Teal."

Me (beginning to panic): "The only thing I can think of is Red-necked Grebe, but what would one of those be doing on the Roding?"

Steve: "It's quite wary, I tried to get a bit closer and it swam off."

Me (panic stations) "Is it still there?"

Steve: "Yes"

Me (Gaaaaaaah!!!!!!!!!): "I'm on my way."

Charged around the house trying to gather the necessary like coat, bins and camera, and in the process mislaid my phone. Spent a frantic five minutes trying to find it before relocating it in my pocket. Genius. Finally out of the house I drove down to the Old Sewage Works, commando-rolled out of the car, and then ran across to the sluice and Steve, who encouragingly had his binoculars trained upriver. Pausing to stuff my lung back inside my chest, I asked if it was still there. He nodded and pointed. And the next minute I was looking at a redhead Smew. Gobsmacked - another prediction bagged, and Steve is officially now a super-hero. What a year 2012 is turning out to be, I've had three patch ticks in four days now! The bird stuck fairly close to the bank, and was regularly catching very small silvery fish. After congratulating Steve once again - he awarded it 9 points on his scale that usually goes up to 3 - I texted out the happy news to a number of unhappy local patch-workers, all of whom were at work a long way away. We're not competing you understand -  Nick always wins anyway - but I felt it best they know straight away, and promised them photos... Hopefully it will depart in the night like the area enough to stick around for a few days and let the others catch up with it.



Tuesday, 7 February 2012

More Patch Goodness

Despite the snow, the patch is on fire. On the way back from celebratory beers on Sunday, Nick bumped into a Woodcock. Unfortunately he had just parted company with Tim and I - we retraced our steps, but presumably the bird had buried itself deep in cover, of which there is a lot. Still, I said to Tim, at least they're here. Somewhere.

With that thought in mind, I headed off eagerly to the bus stop this morning. When I am working at Canary Wharf, to avoid total depression I like to give a small portion of the Flats a bit of a go in the morning. This means that rather than jump on the bus quite near my house, I cut across the Flats to two stops further on. This takes me more or less diagonally through the SSSI, and includes what we all call the boggy bit - though do note that it is not remotely boggy at the moment. Still, earlier in the year it had a Snipe in it, so I still had some hope.

That hope was well and truly fulfilled when a Woodcock exploded from beneath a small tree and zoomed off west somewhere. I mean, what were the chances of that? I hadn't even set foot in the boggy bit, I was still on the path, and off it went. It wasn't even particularly early, but perhaps the cold weather meant I was the first person through there? The views weren't great, ie the rear end of a Woodcock disappearing very quickly, but that was good enough for me. My two previous sightings have been birds in broad daylight flying past my head in the broom fields, so this is probably a more typical view.

Whilst this was a most welcome addition to my patch year list, the real action was in the sky. I hadn't been on the Flats for more than about two minutes when an immense flock of about 300 Redwings went over. I say three hundred, really you have no hope whatsoever of actually counting them. One, two, three, four, oh, about three hundred I reckon. Very unscientific, but this is only the patch, it's hardly critical. Shortly after, exactly 250 more Redwing went over, again south-west. By the time I flushed the Woodcock, I'd reached around 700, and by the time I got on the bus a conservative estimate would have been 1,300 birds. And let's not forget the Fieldfare - never as numerous, but a flock of 60+ was exceptional, and I reckon my total in those 45 minutes was around 180. Needless to say I went to work with a spring in my step. Mind you, I always do....

Monday, 6 February 2012

Wanstead: Land of the Wader

I am still on a massive high from Sunday’s waderfest. As you may have gathered from the comments section, I went out for a few celebratory beers on Sunday night. When I got home I decided to write up the day, and inexplicably missed out the six Golden Plover that I had just spent several hours toasting, and also neglected to post a photo of the Jack Snipe. Funny old stuff, beer.  Anyway, as has been pointed out, days like Sunday are indeed the stuff that humble patch-workers live for, and that justify the very many days when they see nothing at all. When I first arrived in the bird mecca that is Wanstead, it quickly became apparent that waders were mythical. This was probably exacerbated by my also birding Rainham Marshes regularly, which, back when they had water, was wader central. Gradually though, my list of patch waders is increasing.

Better late than never


I know many readers enjoy nerdy bird stats, and though I detest them myself, for the sake of demonstrating how Wanstead is in fact excellent for Waders, I totted up how many different waders I’ve seen here. The answer? Twelve! That’s basically most of them though isn’t it? The most numerous in terms of sheer numbers is Lapwing – even before yesterday. In terms of numbers of sightings, it’s Snipe, who winter regularly. Then comes Common Sand, which is the most numerous of the passage waders, and is a banker every year. After that though, you’re talking about ones and twos at best - apart from Golden Plover, which now number six (woohoo!!). Two Wood Sandpipers, two Green Sandpipers, two Woodcocks, one Oystercatcher, one Dunlin, one Little Ringed Plover, one Jack Snipe, one Stone Curlew (wow), and that’s the sum of my wader sightings in six years here. Meagre, but improving. Since I’ve lived here, there have also been some Black-tailed Godwits, a few flyover Whimbrels, and a flyover Ringed Plover, none of which I’ve seen, but I tell myself that 12 out of 15 ain’t at all bad, and anyway, it builds expectation, which is crucial to patch birding.

Wanstead is in London’s zone 3; most of Wanstead Flats probably classifies as zone 2. We’re under two miles from the Olympic stadium, seven and half miles from Trafalgar Square, and four miles from the Thames at its closest point. That we get any waders at all is probably a miracle, especially such quality as Wood Sand and Stone Curlew. Then again, waders seem to move along defined flight paths that we do not understand, and it could be that Wanstead is on one. For instance, why did Wanstead Flats get all those Lapwings yesterday, whereas Wanstead Park got practically none? The two are less than half a mile apart. And why have I seen 450 Lapwings in the six years that I have lived here, whereas Paul H has seen only four at Mayesbrook Park, a mere three miles away as the Lapwing flies, and only a mile from the river, in twenty years? Perhaps he’s just rubbish?!

Waders are definitely the most challenging group of birds to see here. Apart from Divers. Oh, and Bee-eaters... OK, so amongst the most challenging to see here. Anyway, it makes them objects of intense desire. A Dunlin anywhere else holds no interest for me unless I can take its picture at point blank range; in Wanstead, I’d be running. Part of the challenge is getting to the ponds before our four-legged friends do, which given that people walk their dogs in the dark here, is often very difficult. Nonetheless I have high hopes this year of adding a couple more waders to my tally. Top of the list is probably Whimbrel, but Curlew and Grey Plover could happen. Or maybe I’m just a little giddy with excitement and need to go and have a lie down.

Wood Sandpiper, April 2011

Dunlin, April 2010

LRP, March 2011

Winter Waderland

Where do I start? Today has been one of the best days I've had on the patch ever. That includes autumn days with multiple Whinchats, Ring Ouzels and Pied Flycatchers - this is right up there. It has been monumental. As a measure of quite how stunning it has been, if I told you I had had two patch ticks, would you believe me?



The snow was far more impressive this morning that I had imagined that it would be. I didn't get up especially early, but the way the day was going to pan out was made fairly clear during family breakfast, when three Egyptian Geese flew over. Hurrah! Lucky I didn't tick those ones the other day eh?! I left the house with a broad smile on my face. Won't be long, I said, just going to check a few of the ponds for rare sawbills, and then I'll be right back. By the time I crawled sheepishly back in at about half three, I'd had an absolute stunner.

Started off at the Basin - heaving with ducks, though nothing out of the norm. Yesterday's Wigeon, present at dusk, had gone over night, but there were good numbers of Gadwall, Pochard and Tuftie. A greenkeeper was disappointingly present (why?), so the trespassing I had in mind had to be postponed, and instead I hastened to Heronry. There was a still a bit of open water, so I busied myself taking pictures of very cold birds. Whilst doing that a Grey Wag flew in, a Kingfisher flew past, and a Snipe flew over - all good birds. Steve then pitched up having walked the Roding, and so I suggested we head down to the Flats where we might get some wide horizons - Lapwing, I said confidently, could be on the cards.

We had been on the Flats perhaps ten minutes when a flock of 25 Lapwing flew over our heads going west. Win. About two minutes later another 58 went over, followed by another 43. In the space of five minutes my Wanstead Lapwing count had almost trebled. Walking to meet Nick over the other side, another 19 came by, and as we stood chewing the fat, another 13 came over, as well as two Snipe. My wader-lust sated, I headed for home. Two minutes later Nick called - 100+ Lapwings coming your way. Wanstead's biggest flock of Lapwings ever then flew across my bins, too many to count, I got to 120 before they were lost and was only 2/3rds of the way along the line. Trying to pick them up in the grey sky, another group of 40+ hove into view. What on earth was going on? That took my day total to 320 birds!

The bird has a metal ring on its left leg. Is the Ilford bird ringed?
"beep beep" - incoming from Crofty - Think I've got a Med Gull on Alex, not sure, bins rather steamed up. Steve and I turned around, Nick has an exceptionally good Med Gull record. To cut a long story short, it was one, and this piece of good fortune changed the course of the day. Whilst photographing the Med Gull, another Snipe flew in. It skittered over the ice and came to rest under the overhanging branches of the island. I grabbed a shot of it before a beligerent Coot flushed it out again, and it skittered around for a few seconds and then dived back in. I remarked that it looked quite small, and quickly looked at my photograph. Oh my God, Jack Snipe. By this time Tim had turned up on the other side of the water for the Med Gull, and attracted by our frantic waving and pointing, got on the bird as it had another flutter. He could see it clearly and confirmed that it was Wanstead's first Jack Snipe since 1979. We joined him on the other side and enjoyed excellent views as this diminutive mega-wader bounced up and down for all (well, most) comers. A number of other local birders turned up for this stonking bird, and as we were all looking at it, I happened to glance behind us and picked up six Golden Plover almost over our heads - I am reliably informed that my shout was heard in West Ham, and most of my fellow Snipe-watchers jumped out of their skins. I hadn't even considered Jack Snipe as a possibility, but I have been waiting for that Golden Plover moment for about five years. The only slight anti-climax was that they were headed for my house...

To further bore you with numbers, my Lapwing day count ended up at 373 - to think that a week ago it was 46 in six years. Both the Snipe and the Plover were patch ticks, and the Geese were, ahem, a garden tick. Yesterday saw the biggest group of Wigeon I've seen here, and two lifers down in Sussex. A staggering weekend by anyone's standards. What will tomorrow bring?

Oh, and I almost forgot to metion the Great White Egret on Heronry. I know they're getting commoner, but to get one in Wanstead was amazing.

Tall, slim, white, with a yellowish beak. Not sure what else it could be?