Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Sharing is caring

Two photos, one much more exciting than the other. If moths are your cup of tea, you will like the first one - it is called an Early Grey, and is the first I have ever caught. The second shows that drunkeness on the Flats is reaching increasingly decadent proportions, and was very nearly a London mega. The real prize is of course Champagne Razorinbill. We live in hope.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The dark rise of cynicism

Once upon a time, I was a young inexperienced birder. I birded with childlike wonder, and believed everything I was told. Birding was fantastic, everything was rosy. If somebody had told me that they had seen a Northern Parula in the carr next to Shoulder of Mutton pond I would have believed them without question and offered my hearty congratulations. In a similar vein, there was a report from Gwent today about a Short-toed Eagle flying over the Yellowthroat field at Rhiwderin. Was my initial thought “Wow! What a great record, what lucky so-and-sos those birders must have been! I have to confess that it was not. In fact, my first thought was a most uncharitable “Bollocks” Note that although I have been to Rhiwderin, today I am sat approximately 150 miles away. I have absolutely no knowledge of any events on the ground (or in the sky!) and am thus totally unable to offer any credible criticism. Except to say that it was a Buzzard.

Here’s one I took in France. When I get bored in June, I believe the done thing is to change the exif and claim it for my local patch.
I am not an experienced birder, or at least not very. I came quite late to the game really, and in some quarters I would be very firmly mid-apprenticeship. This is no bar to being a cynic I’m afraid. But why am I so cynical? Is it simply jealousy, or is it something else? Obviously I’d like to see a Short-toed Eagle, who wouldn’t? So is it that it’s a spectacularly rare bird, a stunning tick? But what about birds that are closer to home? This is the dilemma that most people are more likely to be faced with. The dreaded single-observer local record!

This, for me, is the one I spend most time thinking about. The fact that a random birder in south Wales may have confused a Buzzard with a Short-toed Eagle is of very little consequence to me. If the same thing happened somewhere in London, I’d probably get a bit more excited, but I think that in order to truly get wound up, it would have to be on the patch. Shall I end this post here? Of course not!

These are, of course, difficult issues, but what to do? You cannot see everything, no matter how hard you try, and in common with many other patches, there are birds on the patch list that I have not seen. The other local birders all have similar lists to mine, but theirs will have birds on that I’ve seen. For instance I’m the only one to have seen an Osprey. I didn’t have my camera on that landmark day, a fact which still niggles. Perhaps it was a Short-toed Eagle? Every time I think about this, I think how fabulous (and even more gripping!) it would have been to have got a shot of it. But am I worried that people don’t believe me? Is that part of the reason I wish I had had a camera, to silence the critics had there been any? Surely that’s not how local birding (or any birding) is supposed to work? And so it is the other way around - the fact that I have not seen various birds on the patch, and am jealous of those who have, does it give me the right to dismiss these sightings out of hand? Of course not. Can you imagine the patch camaraderie if we all dissed each others records all the time? I feel like a shit for even thinking about it. No, there has to be some pragmatism. Some give, some take. But at the same time, in order to retain some credibility, including to myself, I can’t say I believe all the records genuinely refer to the species in question, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. No birder is perfect, and I’m not stupid. And neither are the other local birders.

There will be those that say that local birders should be more rigourous with each other, and that local sightings form the basis of the scientific record. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are not. On the one hand, does it really matter if a few dodgy calls slip through? Is environmental and conservation policy really going to be impacted by a few outliers?  On the other hand, will data like this, mirrored country-wide, falsely represent the decline (or increase!!) of rare and at-risk species? It truly is a difficult question, I do not know the answer. For the sake of patch harmony, I'd prefer to let the occasional bold call lie. Then again, do I want my patch - and by association, me - to garner a reputation for stringiness? Of course not. Tough, isn't it? I'd imagine similar musings are occuring in Gwent tonight. Rare birds are exactly that - rare. And knowing what turns up where, and when, cannot be learned from a book. So should I distance myself from records I don't have 100% faith in? How do I strike a balance? I know, blog about it....

What I do know is that we have a great little patch here in east London with some great guys and dedicated observers, and so even if I am a little sceptical about certain sightings, or if people are a perhaps a little sceptical of some of mine (though of course I like to think I keep a pretty clean sheet), then that's the way it's going to be. And so if I don't see birds that others have put on their lists, so be it. But I find myself dearly wishing that the Short-toed Eagle in Gwent isn't a Buzzard. It would cause perhaps a small retreat of the cynic in me that I wish I was not, and would be a triumph for the observers concerned.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

An unexpected tick!

Yesterday morning, before I visited Woodpecker central, I stopped off at Shoulder of Mutton pond. It was extremely misty, but through the clag I thought I detected a rare duck. How rare, I could not possibly have known. I phoned Tim, even though it was only just gone seven in the morning, as he had missed the pair a week or so ago. I think he was already awake....  "Tim, there's a female Mandarin on Shoulder of Mutton!" I'd like to think he jumped out of bed!

About thirty seconds later the fog parted a little, and I got a quick look at more of it. Seemed pretty pale, paler than being in fog could make it. Sure enough, another thirty seconds and for some bizarre reason the pond became almost completely clear, and there she was, in all her leucistic beauty. Something was not quite right - I snapped off a couple of frames before she vanished into the overhanging carr - talk about wary! Examining the back of the camera, as championed by ID gurus everywhere, I wondered if this wasn't actually a Wood Duck. To be honest though, my knowledge of the ins and outs of female Aix identification is fairly sketchy at best, and given that it has something to do with the extent of white around the eye, a leucistic bird was always going to be challenge too far on a three inch screen.

Woop Woop!

Once home later in the evening, I blew up the photos and sent one to Tim, who had managed to put a coat on over his jimjams to come and see it. His conclusion? Wood Duck. The great and the good, spread far and wide in weboland, agreed. What fantastic news! A mega on the patch, and so unexpected! As you can imagine, I hurried straight down there this morning, hoping against hope that it wasn't now consorting with Mallards and gobbling down bread. There was no sign! None at all! It had done a bunk in the night, almost certainly continuing it's northerly migration.

Vagrant Wood Duck on the patch! Wow! There was some considerable excitement recently when a female Hooded Merganser appeared in Kent. I learned with some amazement that if it didn't do anything daft, like hang around for three years underneath a bridge eating bread, it would soon find it's way onto the official British list. And guess what? Just like my Wood Duck, the Kent Hoodie has gone! I have just measured how far Wanstead is from Kent - 4.3 miles. So I almost live in Kent, and three weeks later a wary Wood Duck has just spent less than 24 hours on my patch and disappeared without trace. Does it come much better than that?! I very much doubt it! Get in!!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Happiness is a Dendrocopos called minor

A couple of weeks ago during an admittedly quiet morning, having just had some great views of a Lesser Spot, I spent some time making up advertising slogans that would appeal to Woodpeckers. As I thought of them, so I put them on Twitter, which is the best place for inane rubbish that I know. It all started with "Love Woodpeckers, Love Wanstead" as I walked across the Flats. "To Drum, to serve" was swiftly followed by "Just peck it!", and it all spiralled out of control from there. It continued on my bus, with "Vorsprung durch Pechnik" when I saw an Audi, and then you got involved too. In case you don't use Twitter (@wansteadbirder if you feel you don't have enough stupid witterings in your life), here are some of them.

Probably the best pecker in the world (@Mikeebateman)

Keep calm and peck on (@AdrianLuscombe)

Peck! And the dirt is gone! (@fst0pped)

Snap, crackle and drum (@Brownstonecow - also the title)

A pecker a day helps you work, rest and play (@dbradnum, @Idoruknits, @alantilmouth)

A beak is for life, not just for Christmas (@jonnybirder)

Veni, vidi, pecci. I came, I saw, I pecked (@Dorsetdipper)

The future's bright. The future's black and white with a bit of red (@Wansteadbirder)

Friday, 23 March 2012

Day Off

Decided that today, in common with this day in other years, including one a very long time ago, would be a day off. No work, hip hip hooray. And what a pleasure it was. Although my return to work is only a few months old, I am sorry to say that I had forgotten quite how nice it is to be able to do absolutely nothing. Wonderful. Had it been raining, I may have caved and gone into the office, but it wasn't. In fact it was the hottest day of the year so far, and with apologies to all the Mums on the school run, the shorts and flip flops came out. If you're going to have a day off, you might as well do it properly.

Unsurprisingly I didn't do much. A potter around Wanstead was lovely, but the weather was too nice for anything to be about, and no Wheatears proved the final straw and spurred me on to Rainham. This year, of all years, is Iceland Gull year, and to not see one would just be ridiculous. The Stone Barges seems to be the spot at the moment, and on arrival I was dismayed to see about a gazillion large gulls bobbing about on the river in truly awful light. Despite being on my day off, I was going to have to work at it, and as Gav from NQS says, Iceland Gulls have a horrible habit of seamlessly blending in. Luckily though, I'm shit hot at this birding lark, and I only had to go through the several thousand gulls about four times before I found one. It showed really rather well, until it got barged out of the way by a flat-bottomed boat and disappeared into the haze. Job done, I headed for home where a boozy lunch awaited.

This did not disappoint, and amazingly despite almost an entire bottle of Rosé disappearing down my gullet, I was still able to jump up and shout "Buzzard!" very loudly when I glanced up through the conservatory roof. Buzzards are in serious danger of becoming a dross bird - today's was the fourth 2012 garden bird, and eighth patch bird. This one was one of the best yet, and even though a teensy bit tipsy, I still managed to stick a telephoto lens on the camera and point it at the bird. I guess there are some things that you never lose the ability to do.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Wheatears Daily

Since they arrived last Friday, Wheatears have been a daily feature on the patch. I know what you're thinking - that I don't blog enough about Wheatears at this time of year. Undoubtedly true, and the proof is that I didn't see one yesterday. One was out on the Flats somewhere, but I chose to spend the precious time I had staking out Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers elsewhere. As I've worked this patch for longer, I've gradually worked out individual trees and drumming sites that seem to get used by Woodpeckers (of both drumming types) on a relatively consistent basis year after year (until they're chopped down....) I'm determined that one of these days I'll get a decent photo of one.

I'm still waiting. In the hour and half that I spent, finger poised, the Woodpecker came close three times, but each time chose a different tree to the one I had lined up. Clearly intelligent birds, far more so than me. It drummed briefly, and then flew off before I could even think about changing position. Instead I turned my attention to other birds, including the humble and under-appreciated Blue Tit. If you came from a country where there were no Blue Tits, and then came here and saw one at close range, you would fall over yourself to get an even better look. I'm hopeful of being able to spend a lot more time observing Blue Tits at close range, because a few years ago I put up a Sparrow nest box. Sparrows have never gone near it, but last year it was used by Blue Tits and I've just discovered that it's being used by them again. I deliberately put it in an extremely awkward place for predators, and unfortunately the same level of awkwardness also applies to photographers, which is shame as I'd otherwise get some killer opportunities. But as I sit at my desk working I am immensely cheered by the comings and goings of these little stunners. When you get down to the nitty gritty of it, not many birds are as brilliantly colourful, nor as plentiful and confiding, so I intend to talk them up a lot. Until a family of Bee-eaters move in.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Making money out of birds

You need only look at the back few pages of any birding magazine to realise that there is money in birding, and a lot of it. Heaps of kit, foreign trips to go on, books, and lately smartphone apps. I suspect however that very few people actually make it work - professional ecologists, bird news service providers, publishers, tour operators perhaps. For most of us, making the hobby pay is pure fantasy. And anyway, to succeed you probably need to approach it with a business-like attitude that for me at least would severely curtail the enjoyment. I've made almost no money out of birding, indeed most of what I contribute - and I'm not including this blog as a 'contribution', I would not be so bold! - has been entirely charitable and taken heaps of time I didn't really have. I'm talking about penning articles for local rags, local WeBS and wader counts, photographs for local reserve signage, writing sections of bird reports - that kind of thing. Yes I get a modest fee for magazine articles and sometimes photos, but overall I am down several hundred unpaid hours. I once thought about signing up for Google Ads, but determined that I was being greedy, and for the sake of a few quid here and there I would rather have complete control of what readers see. If there is going to be rubbish and nonsense, I want to be the one putting it there. So no, there will be no selling out here.

So it always leaves a slightly sour taste when I see a website that, at least on the face of it, seems to be set up purely to make money. A few have popped up recently, and in common with other things I'm not vastly keen on, I'm going to refrain from donating a free link. I'm not really into naming and shaming anyway, or at least, not unless the BBC has done it first....

The websites I have particularly in mind purport to offer local bird news. Actually they probably do, but I wouldn't know as I'm not signed up. Now I may be doing them a disservice, and the administrators of any site who feel they may have been maligned are welcome to comment unanonymously below, but in my opinion local birding websites and local bird news should be free. Indeed, here in London it is free, and many people put a lot of time into making it free. For instance I tweeted about a Sparrowhawk over Columbia Wharf today - free bird news. Better even than that though, there is a wiki site where lots of local London birders spend their free time, for free, dutifully typing in all their local sightings, including their names IN FULL, so that other birders may get a feel for what is going on in the capital. When not abused by disgruntled and bitchy anonymous commentators, it is a brilliant resource, and indeed I may go back to posting info there again one day; in the meantime other Wanstead birders have it covered. Then there is the BirdingEtc twitter feed, again entirely free. Various people text Dom with news, or he picks it up from their Twitter feeds, and anyone who is interested can get it as a text message on their mobile phone. For free. OK so Dom is not a full time operator, but then he's not trying to compete with Rare Bird Alert. It's a great resource, and if you're into London listing (I'm not, obviously), I suggest you follow it and work out how to do the phone bit.

So I seriously question the need for, and motivation of, members only sites that purport to offer local bird news as a primary reason for their existence, and to charge a fee for it. They're having a laugh, surely? Especially when a fair amount of news is just lifted straight off the wiki site. So without wishing to destroy someone's carefully thought-out business model, don't get sucked in and pay for something you don't have to. All you really need to pay for is a pair of bins and you're all set. Or you could just mug me in Bush Wood and get a nice set of Leicas.

Here, have a Rat photo. It's free.

Any reader wishing to procure a free Rat may come and select their very own specimen from the borders of Alexandra Lake, where they are extremely plentiful, free, ridiculously tame, and free. Act now to avoid missing out!

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Patch

You could not have dragged me from the patch this weekend for love nor money. Nor a Greater Yellowlegs in Aberdeen, nor a Laughing Gull in Cumbria. With the arrival of the first Wheatears on Friday, the big question was would we get any more? We did! Three yesterday and three today - the Wheatear tap has been turned on. But that's not all - there have been other migrants too, two yearticks no less.

I was idly chatting to Tim, Steve and a visitor called Alan near the tea hut. Can't remember what we were talking about - the economy, probably - when I spotted a speck. I expected it to be a Sparrowhawk, and then when I got bins on it, expected it to be a Buzzard. Then it banked a bit, showing a long and forked tail, and so I expected it to be a Red Kite. And it was! Like clockwork - this was my fourth Red Kite in Wanstead, and all four have been in the last two weeks of March. For whatever reason, that's when Red Kites go a'wandering, and so this counts as a migrant. Not an easy bird to get over here, though my recent success shows that they're increasing. Mid-morning and I had to be back so I shuffled off home. A quick glance at Shoulder of Mutton and what should be on there but a pair of Mandarin. Presumably the same pair as last weekend, and so a great sign that they are still around. They didn't hang about and within about ten seconds were winging their way over to the Basin or the Ornamental Water.

Extra-good photo, extra-big copyright mark....

Today I was once again out relatively early, though with Wheatear safely under the belt I am not rising quite as early any more. A couple of Wheatears were showing nicely near the Model Aircraft Field, and so when Stu called me from near the road I excitedly told him about them. No, really. That's nice he said, I'll come and have a look. Have you seen this Stonechat over here? Gah! I hadn't, but I had within about thirty seconds. Another migrant, and another welcome year tick!

Garden Buzzard action

Friday, 16 March 2012

The inevitable post...

Well, it has finally happened. The Wheatears have arrived. Before I get onto that though, and am really going to go to town, there are some patch rules that need clearing up.

1) Non-patch birders are not allowed to find Wheatears before patch birders, and especially not before me.
2) Non-patch birders are not allowed to twitch Wheatears found by other non-patch birders before patch-birders have seen then, and especially not before I have seen them.
3) In the event that rules 1 and/or 2 are contravened, the perpetrators must not under any circumstances blog about the Wheatears, tweet about the Wheatears, and especially not text me about the Wheatears.

Rule #3 was well and truly broken this morning, but luckily I didn't look at my phone much beyond 9am and so didn't find out about it until about five minutes before I saw the Wheatears myself. I could link to the offending blog post, but it is entirely undeserving of any publicity as I am sure you will agree.

This morning was a sorry tale. I had an inkling that today was Wheatear day, and so once again I was out very early. I wandered round all the likely spots for half an hour, checked some of the copses, and by about 7ish decided that I was wasting my time and so headed off to work, thinking that with such an early start I could be sat back at home enjoying a large gin by about four-thirty. So, sat at my desk staring at a mind-numbing spreadsheet at about a quarter past eight, I was most displeased when a text message informed me that some visiting birders had just found a Wheatear. And then found three more. They're obviously banned from ever visiting again, but the rest of the day at work was one of mild depression. I countered this by sacking off at THREE-thirty and immediately finding a Canary Wharf patch tick right outside my office as I walked towards the tube. A pair of Greylag Geese were using "habitat" - good thing I had my rare radar switched on as on the way into the office there had been two Canadas in exactly the same spot, and a lesser mortal could have walked straight past them. But even from 50 metres away something made my head turn, and so I stopped (and you must never stop in Canary Wharf) and whipped out the trusty bins to confirm these crippling megas. Wow! I rushed to take a photograph, and luckily they didn't fly away.


I have to admit to not spending as much time with them as I should have. I mean, a full blown Canary Wharf patch tick and everything, but as I am sure you have guessed, something else was on my mind. Rather than go home the normal way I went to Forest Gate - the nearest station (from CW) to Wanstead Flats, and the same station that I had prematurely departed from this morning. Five minutes later I was on the Flats, and decided to check my phone, which I then threw into Angel Pond in disgust. No matter though, as a couple minutes later I was looking at my first Wheatear. The model aircraft field was always the most likely spot, and so it proved to be. Here's what I saw. Lap it up.

Perhaps not the greatest photo of a Wheatear I've ever taken, but an accurate representation of that wonderous moment that occurs every March without fail. There is just something unfathomably wonderful about looking at your first patch Wheatear of the year. It signals a positive change, the goodness that is to come, and they're just so smart. It's like they never left. A long journey awaits them still, but for me, they're already home. And they're early too - only a day later than my earliest Wanstead ones ever, and they beat the counter by almost four days. All four of the birds found this morning were on the model aircraft field, consorting with Mipits and Skylarks. I'd seen the Skylarks first from some distance away, and then seen the smaller, darker and more upright bird a little behind. I didn't need to raise my bins, I knew what it was, and was already smiling.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Fogged in

I got lost on Wanstead Flats this morning - this has never happened before, and I became very confused. Somehow I took a wrong turning in dense fog, and ended up at a different copse to the one I was expecting. As the trees loomed out, the small group of willows or birches or whatever they are that should have been just in front of the copse were gone. I was apoplectic - another act of wanton vandalism. But then, I reasoned, where were all the twigs etc that surely would have been in evidence after all the chopping? In fact I couldn't even see any stumps. That's when I realised I was lost, and I didn't know which was home was. It was like being four years old again.

Shall I tell you how I got out of this extremely tricky situation? OK, I will. I followed my nose. I literally smelled my way out of trouble. There is a large Hovis bakery on Chaucer Road in Forest Gate. When the wind blows from the south, the lower half of the Flats is permeated with the smell of freshly baked bread, and very nice it is too. Difficult though it was, I turned away from the fragrant breeze and thus found my way home. Scary stuff.

No, I didn't find a Wheatear. Despite the southerly breeze, no migrants. No birds in fact, or none that I could see. It was of those desperate mornings where you set the alarm early and manage somehow to haul yourself out of bed. By the time your eyes start to work you're downstairs and peering out of the window at the likely conditions, and your heart sinks as you notice the fog. By then of course it's too late to go back to bed, and even though you know you'll see nothing, there is a nagging feeling of "what if". Especially in mid-March I find. If it was mid Feb - well, I wouldn't even have been awake. So I went out, just on the offchance. A futile gesture, and indeed it turned out to be a total and utter waste of time, with some mild panic thrown in.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A Wansteadian Tragedy or How a Dog-walker Made My Morning

Act I, Scene I:

An overcast Wanstead Flats; early morning.

A handsome birder is walking across the bit with the barrage hitches towards East Copse. Occasionally he raises his binoculars, scanning for non-existent Wheatears. He is silent, cooly surveying his surroundings, massively alert to both movement and sound.

Birder: -

[Enter Fuquittus, a dog-walker, stage left, and his large dog Romeo]

Romeo: Woof! Woof woof!

[Romeo runs miles away, straight across Skylark breeding habitat]

Fuquittus: Romeo! Romeo! F’kin come ‘ere Romeo!

Romeo: Woof Woof! Woof!

Birder: Hahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahaha


Monday, 12 March 2012

I need a Hero(n)!

For the first time that I can ever recall, yesterday I found a Heron that didn’t fly away when I looked at it. Now this may just be me, or it may be something that also happens to other birders, but when I see a Heron on the patch I can guarantee that one of two things will happen. If I continue walking and merely look at it out of the corner of my eye as I pass, the Heron will not move. If however I stop, or even slow down momentarily, the Heron will noisily take flight and disappear to the far side of whatever pond it was on. This explains why despite Herons being large, obvious, slow-moving birds, I have never taken a satisfactory photo of one.

If I can be ultra-modest for a moment, yesterday that changed. After I had had my emergency haircut (you should have seen it, honestly) I crossed the road over to Alexandra Lake and was presented with a Heron in good light on the other side of the pond. I stopped to take a photograph of it, as it’s actually fairly narrow at this point. Naturally the Heron took flight. Over to my side of the pond. And it landed not between me and the sun, but the other side of me, ie the nicely lit side. I mean, come on! With 700mm of focal length, I actually had to back away to get the whole bird in. It didn’t mind this movement at all, and in fact I changed position very frequently in order to avoid litter in the background, and throughout the Heron simply ignored me. The dark background and contrasting bright bird proved challenging, but I had plenty of time to check histograms, and determined that minus 2/3 of a stop gave the most pleasing combination of darkish background and a bird that stood out but wasn’t blown out. It’s a setting I should try and remember.

So, may I plaster your screens with Grey Heron for a moment please? Thank You. And please note that Picasa is one of the most horrible image-hosting platforms on this planet, and that razor sharp photos are generally reduced to stained glass impressions of their former selves. So on this site, my somewhat over-ambitious photo gallery, they look a lot better, and you can’t “right click ‘n’ steal” either.

I have no ambitions at making a living out of photography, it’s purely a hobby that sucks up money, hence why I am back working in a bank, but I have to say I am purdy darn pleased with these. I took about 160 shots in ten minutes, before a pleasant middle-aged couple walked right past where I was crouched with my camera and directly towards the Heron, which, tolerant though it undoubtedly was, flew off back to the other side and landed, obscured, in a tree, whereupon this couple proceeded to stand exactly where it had been and point at it. I don’t know who they were, and I am not a violent person, but if you spot a woman in Wanstead with a monopod sticking out from between her shoulder blades, and a man with a Canon SLR embedded in the side of his head, that’ll be them.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Pretty much a perfect day

1. Have a lie-in
2. Eat a bagel for breakfast
3. Hit Flats
4. Receive text message about patch tick in Park
5. Power march to Park
6. Patch tick Mandarin Duck
7. Celebrate with cup of tea and slice of cake at Tea Shop of Happiness
8. Celebrate some more with cheap haircut
9. Celebrate even more by lying in grass looking at sky for a bit
10. Celebrate yet more in Pub

Now days don't come much better than that do they? After the dippiness of yesterday and utter lack of migrants, what a way to bounce back! Steve is once again the king of the Park - we didn't think he could top the two Smew on the Roding, but he has pulled yet another one out of the bag. Two actually, a pair of Mandarin Duck. I hope he didn't actually pull them out of a bag. I've long said that the Ornamental Waters are crying out for Mandarin, the trouble is I never go there to see if any have turned up. Steve does though, luckily for me. There is a small population of Mandarin in Epping Forest, but they tend not to wander very much, so the bird today were a welcome addition to my patch list.

I was just staking out a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming tree when my phone went off with the happy news. Gah! I radioed Nick - yes, very tragically I have invested in a couple of two-way radios in order to make migrant hunting more efficient and generally enhance the magic - to tell him we needed to leg it over to the Park, but he couldn't answer as he had a coffee in one hand and a bacon buttie in the other. He eventually turned up (at least 45 seconds, and a patch tick, unbelievable!) and off we went. The Mandarin had vanished into the Fortifications, a tangled area of small islets on the Ornamental Water, some kind of Victorian folly. There are a couple of viewing angles into a couple of bits, but largely it's a dead zone. Had Steve walked by five minutes earlier or later they likely wouldn't have been in view, but that's patch birding for you. He hadn't realised the significance of the birds - only the second record ever a far as we know - had sent a quick low-key text, and carried on. Meanwhile Nick was inhaling bits of bacon and spilling coffee all over himself, and I was regretting my choice of camera equipment for the day as we both tried to get over to the Park as quickly as possible. "Stay on them!" was my rather desperate-sounding text, but by then it was too late - he retraced his steps but they were gone.

So we staked it out, radios in hand, at different points around the Fortifications. "Can you see a Mute Swan coming towards to you?" "No, but there are two Gadwall with a Coot to their left coming your way". "Can't see anything. Can you see a log?" Nothing beats a bit of walkie-talkie chit-chat...... We soon established that there was a good area we couldn't see at all, and surmised that the Mandarin were likely in there somewhere. Meanwhile Steve did two entire circuits of the OW in a bid to discover if they had snuck out. Really we needed a boat, a punt would have been ideal. I did consider wading over, but thought the better of it - I still have some pride. Two hours in though, and things were looking bad. A noise behind me and Nick appeared, bored with his stakeout. I pointed out that my stakeout was equally as interesting. He then pointed out two Mandarin trying to sneak off down the channel I had been watching whilst I was busy looking the other way. Get in!!!

Steve returned and we told him the good news, which was that he didn't have to go in after them to ensure we saw them. Next stop the Tea Hut, where we scored a Buzzard, a couple of Sprawks, and some cake. An emergency haircut then proceeded a short skywatch, followed by watching the rugby in the pub, which we decorated with various optics. I'm not a huge fan of rugby, but the right team won, and it was good seeing quite how miserable Sarkozy looked in the stands. Suspect he has a lot on his mind....

So, a quality day. Still no migrants, or not that we saw, but any day now surely?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

No Migrants

I find it very very difficult to get up early. This is because I find it very difficult to go to bed early, or at least at a time befitting of a man of my extreme age. There is just too much to do. In an ideal world, every day would be about 36 hours long - this would just about be enough to squeeze in all the things that I want to do. Nonethless, today the alarm was set for 5:40am in anticipation of hordes of Migrants all over Wanstead Flats - Mrs L wasn't happy, but I was resolute. In an effort to appease I made her a cup of tea, and then snuck out. For once I had the Flats completely to myself, and I mean completely. No joggers, no dogs, no birders. Whilst the going was good I hastened to Alex for the waderfest that no doubt awaited.

Leaving Alex I went back to the broom fields and waited for the Wheatears to wake up and make themselves known, and for the Sand Martins to start flicking overhead. I waited quite a long time. Instead I took more than a few photographs of Skylarks as we need some for a new web-page on them. A couple of small woodpecker seekers turned up a little while later, and one of them got their arm twisted to take me to Shoebury for an Essex Shorelark tick which would be absolutely nailed on.

Note the Shorelark consorting happily with these Sanderling
Leaving Shoebury, the next stop was Southend for some Med Gull action. A single Med Gull was present, and to describe anything it did as "action" would be stretching it somewhat. It showed a brief interest in a chip that I threw for it, but when this was instead snaffled by a Black-headed Gull, it buggered off down the sea-front in disgust and I couldn't be bothered to go after it. And that was my day.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Doris and Stanley

Meet Doris. It's not what you think. Doris is my Great Crested Grebe. She lives just next to my office in Canary Wharf, and I have adopted her. The fact that she lives at Canary Wharf might be viewed as slightly masochistic, but it may be a very clever strategy. For Doris has laid an egg. Just one for the moment, but she looks very proud. Stanley, Doris' husband, or perhaps I should say partner, isn't that bothered. For now, his work done, he is just loafing around in the dock, but his time will come.


I counted an amazing 17 Great Crested Grebes on my patch in Canary Wharf earlier this week. Quite a few of them were pairing up, doing the facing each other thing, but I have no idea where they might nest. Doris and Stanley seem to have stolen a march, and nabbed the best available spot, which is on some floating reed structure, which I have in the past dismissed in an offhand way as "Habitat". "Habitat" seems to be doing the job though, as a pair of Canada Geese were also in situ, as were a pair of Mallard, a pair of Coot, and a pair of Moorhen. That they will all nest in such a confined space seems inconceivable, but I will keep you updated.


I have a vague recollection of seeing young Great Crested Grebes in this dock before, some time in the dim and distant past. Although it looks very unpreposessing, especially from my point of view which is generally at a desk, it may in fact be rather good. There are no mammal predators for starters, animal lfe is banned in Canary Wharf. The docks are steep sided and very deep, and unlikely to harbour things like Mink, and any rubbish that accumulates is quickly fished out with nets by estate staff in a small skiff. The area is very busy night and day, which probably also keeps things at bay, yet despite this constant traffic, ninety-nine percent of the people here have probably not noticed them, and fewer than that probably even care. And to top it all off the nest is right next to a security hut, so any human trash that might have more than a passing interest in eggs isn't likely to risk it.

I spent a very happy half hour just taking in all that I have just described at lunchtime today. I had the sun on my back, and although I could see my office, all seemed well with the world. A lady saw me photographing the Cormorant - I brought a proper camera today, in case I found a Wheatear on the Flats in the morning (I didn't) - and asked what a bird with long legs that looked like a dinosaur might be outside her house in Sussex. It's been a while since I watched Jurassic Park, but I think I remember the killer Herons. She then asked what the Cormorant was, and so I told her. Sadly I had forgotten my protractor and compass and so was unable to fill her in on the finer details of gular-pouch morphology, but for someone who thinks a Heron looks like a dinosaur, I suspect that simply Cormorant was good enough. It was, I have to say, a particularly fine Cormorant.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Today can be summed up in one word. Rain. But you're not getting away that lightly, especially as tomorrow I might find a Wheatear. There was one at Portland today, and it might be in Wanstead tomorrow. LIke it, I know all the best places, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be out there looking. Unless it's raining. Or is a bit cold. Or windy. If I do make it out, I'm keen to see if two days of almost solid rain have had any impact on Alexandra Lake. Since I last moaned about it, on here or on Twitter, I have discovered that there is no way to fill it up other than rainfall. There is no standpipe, no river running into it, no run-off from distant mountain ranges. It's going to have to rain a lot. Which, frankly, it has. It felt like Gwent at times today.

Yesterday it also rained, though perhaps not as much. A brief break in the weather coincided with my passing of the Basin on the way back from school. I was fairly surprised to find four Wigeon on there - these take me into double figures this year. It's the little things. Unfortunately they were only really interested in chasing each other around, and so departed to who knows where before Steve could get over there - it's a bird he still needs for the patch. At this rate he'll get one soon though, perhaps several.

So, in the absence of any exciting bird news, where exciting = Wheatear, I'll wrap up with the moon which was pretty impressive this evening. It was right above the Flats, so hopefully small passerines from distant lands will be using it to navigate by.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fill Flash Fun

Fun, ohhhh yes. The more I read about it, the more convinced I become that using a flash for nature photography, even with a telephoto lens, is the way forward. For a start it's an excuse for to buy lots more camera crap - not really. From a variety of largely unsuccessful experiments last year I happen to have a flash already, and an extender, and an off-camera flash cord, and a funny flash bracket thing for macro. I just don't ever use them. Time to change all that, as at the weekend I did something that I've been threatening to do for a long time, and booked a holiday to the Caribbean. There are birds there, pretty ones - or so I've been told - and lots of them live in forests, and forests are dark. It would be remiss of me to go there and just laze around a pool, Mrs L wouldn't want that, no siree. If the bird rumours are true (and my heavily-thumbed copy of the Helm field guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago that I bought last year appears to confirm this), then they will want photographing.

There is one problem - I don't know how to use a flash. Usually I am very scornful of people who have camera equipment they have no clue how to use - most birders these days lug digital SLRs around with them, and from the output that subsequently appears all over the web, it's clear that the vast majority of them fall into the unfortunately clueless bracket. All the gear, no idea, as the saying goes. I am ashamed to say that as far as flash photography goes, that pretty much sums me up. The good news is lots of expert people say that it's easy. I am not so sure, but in a bit of a departure from my planned regime of having no goals whatsoever, this year I am going to learn how to use a flash. And not just learn how to use it - I am going to become damned good at using it. All I require is a neverending supply of AAs......

A Hornbill in the garden recently provided the perfect opportunity to start trying to figure it out. The theory behind fill-flash is that you expose the scene normally, and add just a little bit of flash to lift the shadows. If the flash fails to go off, you should still get a properly exposed shot. Depending on your distance to the subject, you will need to reduce your flash output. There is probably a lot more to it than that in practice, but that at least is the theory.

There was no flash used here. Exposure was 1/400 @ f5.6, EV metering minus 1 2/3 stops.
The same exposure was used here, but this time the flash was on, but with minus 3 stops of flash exposure compensation.

The Hornbill then flew to a tree near the fence, and sat against a light background. A photographer's nightmare, and one that happens all the time. 1/400 @ f5.6. No flash. Look how dark the eye is!
Luckily the Hornbill stayed put whilst I fiddled with the flash. The exposure is the same, but the flash fired with minus 1 stop of flash exposure compensation. Minus 2 would have been better.

The Hornbill flew off, presumably to join the Turaco. Instead I concentrated on this palm leaf. Exposure was a mere 1/80s @ f5.6, which with 700mm of focal length is always going to be problematic. It's dull, and it isn't sharp.

This time I used the flash, with minus 1 1/3 stops of flash exposure compensation. You can see that the leaf and the brickwork are a little bit brighter, but the flash isn't really noticeable. An added bonus of flash is increased sharpness.
Obviously, these are illustrations that more or less worked. There were plenty of horror images as I struggled with compensation issues related (I think) to distance from the subject. How real photographers get it consistently right is beyond me. But hopefully much more practice will demystify it. The other question is is it worth the effort? Rather than wander around with a monopod and a lens, snapping a photograph as and when, this will require proper dedication. Unwieldy doesn't even begin to describe it - definitely for locations where you don't plan on moving around much! Like a bar stool in Tobago perhaps?