Sunday 28 April 2013


Today I learned that I do not know what a Garden Warbler looks like. Given how much I've been pattering on about a) arrogance and b) having seen nearly 400 birds, this makes me look very foolish indeed. And as such it is well worth blogging about. I mean not extensively or anything, but enough to show at least some contrition. I have a funny feeling I've fallen foul of this particular ID conundrum before, but I cannot recall exactly when that was. I might be wrong, but if I'm right I can add "not learning from my mistakes" to my list of mistakes. And of course it was obvious, and had I got further than the head of the bird, then maybe I might have spotted it. Arguably the head was enough too. Oops. The internet though is pretty sharp, and before too long I had 'correspondence' from two independent sources wondering if I hadn't made a bit of a faux pas. Well, I had. Bugger. On the plus side, and we're clutching at straws here, it shows people read it. And they're actually birders by the looks of things!

Anyhow, just in case you missed it, it was on this post, which I have conviently rewritten with the wonderful benefit of hindsight. The joy of being editor in chief is that I could easily have subbed in a photo of a real Garden Warbler (assuming of course that I have one that isn't a Whitethroat) and looked really clever, but it's not critical that I be seen as absolutely perfect. I'd say that I generally get most things right though, for instance my excellent split second deduction of Stone-Curlew from the other day, and the Brown Thrasher I found on the Playing Fields eating worms this evening, but everybody, no matter how experienced, makes mistakes. The beauty of blogging means that everyone gets to see them almost in real time, and there's no way to sweep it all under the carpet, invoke the two bird theory and so on. That said, here's a tip for avoiding looking like a twerp - don't name your photos. In particular, don't make any reference to the species in question, and instead call them something entirely generic. "Wanstead" for example, or if you don't live here, what about just "bird" (assuming you haven't made a right whopper!). That way if you do get pulled up you can easily say that it was a simple case of uploading the wrong photo, mistakes do of course happen, and then conveniently 'forget' to ever replace it. If you write as much as I do, the offending post will soon drop off the bottom of the page and never see the light of day again. Reputation intact, you can carry on birding as if it never happened. Easy.

Brown Thrasher, Wanstead Flats, April 28th 2013

Saturday 27 April 2013

Sublime Subalp

Today was all about a nice little drive to Suffolk via Peterborough, easily the best route. With the best will in world it was a long shot that the Rock Thrush would stay to be my 400th UK tick, and so it proved. After and hour or so kicking back in some services off the M1, and the dreaded but not entirely unexpected "negative news" message, Rich B, Nick and I decided to cut our losses and head off to Landguard where the Subalpine Warbler from the previous day was still present. Except that yesterday after I had gone to sleep it was upgraded to the eastern race, which could well be an armchair tick for me in the future. I know nothing about these things, but it was showing down to about three feet, so who cares?

On site the paparazzi were massed - again, not entirely unexpected. The bird was a dream, one of the really good ones that care not a jot about people. Practically flew through peoples' legs in fact, so it was no surprise that the usual crap about getting too close was trotted out by those without cameras. Bird photographers can be right idiots of course, as can birders, but I'm continually amazed by the propensity of some people to essentially cry wolf the minute a long lens comes out. Naturally I ignored the moaning and got on with it, as did everyone else. To those who felt we got too close, frankly you'll never be happy and the sooner you move out of the south of England and to somewhere remote where you're the only one there, the better. Seriously, this is twitchland, just accept that a lot of birders have cameras and get on with it. By all means have a go if you see a complete twerp behaving poorly, but on those occasions where it is abundantly clear that the bird is under no stress whatsoever, just accept it and say nothing. Unless of course you're not really concerned with the welfare of the bird at all, but rather your own personal enjoyment of the bird, which if you ask me is actually the source of most of the agro. Whichever, don't attempt to make me feel like a bad person for the way I enjoy a bird. Rant over, and on to the results of my incredibly poor fieldcraft and continual flushing of an exhausted and near-to-death migrant.

Tiring of the bullshit, we wandered towards the point in search of other migrants. A Ring Ouzel was hiding in some brambles, so we continued on to the common, where at least 15 Wheatears, part of the same fall that brought the Subalp in, were still hanging around. Oddly enough nobody moaned when I crawled right up to one, seems it's only rare birds that deserve being protected from bloody photographers. Yes, I am annoyed. Annoyed as I knew exactly what it would be like before I even got there and it was 100% true to that vision. You might say that there's no smoke without fire, and clearly I am massively biased, but nonetheless it's a sad indictment on twitching down south. The Hebs are far better.

In other news, Rich's Green-winged Teal had relocated to Rainham, so he was of course enormously interested in seeing it there too, as was I, but first we called in at a Ring-necked Duck at Chigborough Lakes. Quite a rare bird in Essex I would imagine, and certainly a new county bird for me, as was the Teal. Neither proved obliging for the camera, but the RN Duck, a female, was really smart. So a pretty twitchy day with a fair few unnecessary miles, but all good fun, and things could have been very different. Next time. Cheers to Mr B for the driving and the early pick-up, a good little jaunt.

Friday 26 April 2013

Another Fall on Wanstead Flats

I had awoken at 5am and looked out at heavy rain, and so naturally went straight back to sleep. Who knows what I missed, but I remained warm and dry, which counts for a lot. I happily twitched a Reed Warbler that Tim had found on Alex just after the school run, and in the process found another. Satisfied with my five minutes, I went back home and continued my epic struggle with Regulatory Capital.

Approaching lunchtime, a text from Nick announced that he had found eight Wheatears on the Flats. Two minutes after that, another text proclaimed that the eight had become 16. It was clearly time for lunch, so I headed out. There were Wheatears everywhere. Steve and I counted somewhere between 22 and 29 just in the Broom fields. Scattered with them were four Whinchat, two male and two female, and a long-tailed Warbler had me very confused until I could snap it at long range and discover it was the patch's first Garden Warbler umpteenth Whitethroat of the year. I guess it's been a long time about five minutes since I saw one, and the Brooms isn't is the most obvious place for one to be - in fact it was perched on one of the logs next to a Wheatear when I first saw it - highly confusing.

I wish now I'd also twitched a Sedge Warbler over by Alex, but I didn't have time. Had I done so though, I would have seen eight seven species of Warbler on Wanstead Flats today, a record as far as we know. We've never had Sedge and Reed together before, and Garden was wasn't the icing on the cake. All the others (Willow, Chiff, Whitethroat, Lsr Whitethroat & Blackcap) are now back and in some numbers.

What I found interesting* was that these birds all arrived at around lunchtime. I was glued to the computer screen so don't know whether there was a shower or not, but reading reports from around London suggests that other places also had stuff just appear our of nowhere in the middle of the day. Are these night-flying migrants also travelling during the day in order to make up lost time?

The day got even better when Steve rang a little later with news of a Kite species flying west from Alex, i.e. towards me. He and Next Day Keith hadn't managed to get much colour on it and were contemplating Black. Wow! I dashed out of the house and started scanning, and I can only have been outside for a minute when a noticed a bird flying north and away, not much higher than roof height. I've seen stacks of Black Kites in Europe recently, and this unfortunately didn't fit the bill. It had a pretty deep fork, and whilst it wasn't a bright one, it was definitely rufous-tinged, especially on the head. Still, I thought I'd missed out on this species, the peak date for which round here is the final two weeks in March. Even better news was that with one foot on my front drive, it also counts as a house tick, and as it's the second Red Kite, means I can remove the little italics that denote single bird.

I must say it's been a pretty good fortnight. I've had about one patch tick per day on average, but in monster sessions. Four on one day, another five two days after that, and three more today. This takes me to 98 for the year, with silly things like Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch and Tawny Owl all missing, and stuff like Swift and Common Tern yet to come. In patchlisting terms, I'm hopeful that my so far abysmal performance in the "patchwork" competition will see a real boost come the end of April updates.

And so to the weekend, and my thoughts are turning towards Spurn and a funny-looking passerine. The high likelihood is the Friday night bunk, but we shall see. I've never been to Spurn, and it's been doing pretty well lately, so even without the star bird it could be an excellent day out.

* you may not

Thursday 25 April 2013

Eric Church

Another day, another gig. Counting Crows on Monday, Eric Church last night. I must remember not to book two in a week again, but trouble is I didn't know about the latter when booking the former. Had it been a straight choice, the Counting Crows wouldn't have got a look in. As regular readers may know, especially if they also read my twitter feed, my other cool hobby is country music - well, perhaps best to call it Americana. I guess people think of banjos and bandanas, but that couldn't really be further from the truth. The themes are country, for instance trucks and cold beer feature pretty heavily, but the actual music is rock and roll. And Eric Church rocked.

His last studio album "Chief" (he's only done three) won Album of the Year at both the CMA awards and the ACM awards, and is a blinder. Of all the people I wanted to go and see live, he topped the list, so when I found out he was doing his first UK concert there was no way I could miss it. Thoughtfully I bought Mrs L a ticket too, as somehow she knows all the songs, and begrudgingly admits he's a pretty damn good musician, even if he doesn't play enough Monteverdi for her liking.

What can I say, it was brilliant. The audience at the HMV Forum in Kentish Town knew every word to every song, not just "Springsteen" which was the single that got UK airplay. As a live act, he is superb. If you want to get an idea of how good it was, he's just released a live album called "Caught in the Act", and it pretty much sums up the show last night. And it was LOUD! My ears are still recovering, no chance of me picking up a Wood Warbler any time soon, though the insistent duh-duh-duh-duh-duh of a Lesser Whitethroat did make it through the slight tinnitus this morning. There, birds. Relevance.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Big One

To be on 399 BOU just as peak migration starts is pretty good planning on my part. On 395 at the start of the year, two daring twitches to remote Scottish islands for itinerant ducks, an armchair Hooded Merg, and the weekend dash to Lincolnshire for my long-awaited Subalp have put me in a perfect position .The key question, of course, and one that Mrs L asks me almost once a day, is what will it be? I'm so excited about it I can hardly tell you. Actually I can.

Through the magic of Bubo I can sample a massive population of 1000 diehard listers to see what they have seen that I have not. Theoretically, though you have to of course disount anomolies from the old days that everyone saw (all other birders are typically very old and doddery) but that have not reoccured since. Here's that list, or the very top bit of it anyway:

1) Laughing Gull - 36%
2) Broad-billed Sandpiper - 35%
3) Pied Wheatear - 34%
4) Roller - 33%
5) White-billed Diver - 32%
6) Rustic Bunting - 31%
7) Ross's Gull - 31%
8) Sora - 30%
9) Black Duck - 29%
10) Least Sandpiper - 29%

So, Laughing Gull, with 365 people having seen one, is top of the tree. A bloody Gull, it had to be didn't it? Well that's going to knock the shine off 400 isn't it? The happy news is that this is one of these birds that has "gone rare"; I can't really think of one that I could have gone for since I started this whole sorry tale. So what about BB Sand? Another one that has declined of late - I've missed one in Essex somewhere by being in Dorset. Again, would be I be massively excited? Is it worthy enough? No. Will I care? Probably not.

Number three is an obvious choice, being a Wheatear. Perfect in fact. Trouble is they're probably all dull juvs in autumn. A spanking Spring male though, and I would be off like a shot. Ditto for number four.....this should be on my list already, but isn't due to various complications involving a flat tyre and dipping. And so to number five, White-billed Diver. Were I so inclined, I could jump in the car this coming Saturday, and drive several hundred miles and see not one, but perhaps up to double figures, for the East coast of Scotland seems awash with them. Fatpaulscholes saw eight in one morning off Portsoy about a week ago, and there's no denying it's a great bird. But a thousand miles for one? Not a chance. It's just a number.

You see, there's a good chance that I'm already past the hurdle, for I have several birds waiting in the wings, so to speak. The first dates from almost three years ago, and is the Empidonax flycatcher from Blakeney Point. A hard-earned bird indeed, it's a shame the great and the good have yet to decide what it was, and may never do so! The balance of probablility, as I understand it, is that Alder Flycatcher is by far and away the likeliest vagrant, but that might not be good enough for the boffins. If they eventually go for it, then of course that Subalp last weekend becomes number 400. And a damp squib. But what about Dom's Slaty-backed Gull? That's a 2011 bird, and another that I caught up with. Questions remain about whether it's kosher or not. I didn't think birds were even religious. Anyhow, if it goes through as well, then the Harlequin becomes number 400. I could live with that I think, though something new to celebrate as it happens would be preferable.

Then there's all the splits and so on. American Black Tern, Northern Harrier, Desert Lesser Whitethroat. Who knows? If all three of those go on, then some crappy views of Pechora Pipit on Shetland get the nod, which is not ideal. In other words, I have no idea what I'm actually on at all. Being good about it, it's definitely 399, but it could be as high as 405 if they elevate Lesser Canada Goose. Then again, maybe they'll lump Redpolls.....

Sunday 21 April 2013

Wot I did at the weekend

Whilst Saturday was all about the patch - well the morning at least, today was all about twitching. Twitching is not something I do very often, but very occasionally I feel the need. Today I felt that need. Actually I felt it yesterday, but the bird in question, a Subalpine Warbler, was somewhere between five and six hours away. Bradders was in the area (i.e. the UK) and was kind enough to send me a photo of it, very smart, but this man's not for turning. Late yesterday news came out of another half the distance away, at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire. This is still a royal pain in the ass to get to, but I had the day free and I had the car. Rarely do the stars align such, so when it was still there this morning - I only go for shoe-ins remember - it was go go go! The journey took just under three hours, including a lorry fire closing a road and necessitating a detour through some fields, as well as a further road closure somewhere else in the flatlands. Having now tourned Lincolnshire extensively, I can report that is very flat, very dull, and very covered in vegetables.

The bird showed immediately upon arrival, a cracker. I've only ever seen one before, in Spain about a fortnight ago, so long views were the order of the day. It spent the entire time I was there hopping around the same clump of bushes, singing, and occasionally flycatching. Frustratingly it was against the light, and way out range for SLRs. This didn't stop a few of the long lens brigade from mercilessly papping it, but it's their shutters. Apparently it had also been just in front of the hide, and with the light, so somebody will have got something good on it. Just not me. Still, on the list, which was the whole point, and takes me to the amazingly high total of 399 BOU. Which if you are any good at maths means I have one to go, which is kind of why I went. The sooner I break through the 400 barrier I can relax a bit, perhaps even stop altogether hem hem. I've never really had much of a chance at Subalp. The one bird I can recall that was within range was at Holland Haven and I was away. I'm sure there have been more, but I'm pretty sure I've never even dipped one, so my supposition is that they're actually quite a hard one to catch up with, despite being the "easiest" I had left. That honour now falls to Laughing Gull - another bird I've never even had a chance of dipping. An easy journey home, and then a fine innings in the garden, with a half century up in record time before being clean-bowled by Muffin (who also has Subalp on his list btw, I am such a great dad...)

Anyway, back to yesterday, which until lunch beckoned I spent on Wanstead Flats. Two Wheatear and three Redstart were the pick of the birds, but I spent most of my time photographing a single Skylark and a couple of Meadow Pipits. These can be seen here. It was a lovely morning, the nicest, weather-wise, that I can remember for ages and ages. Shirt sleeves stuff, and really enjoyable. The Redstarts were all new, new to me I mean. On the awesome fall day last Monday I'd caught up with one, but the others were all found after I'd carried on to work. There isn't really much to top an adult male Redstart on a spring morning, though unfortunately both males remained hard to get close to. Here are a couple of record shots, the first of a juvenile or female (heat-hazed up, but better than nothing!) , the second of the male in the SSSI (twigged up...)

Before I went home Nick alerted me to a friendly Wheatear. I've been waiting all spring for a bird that doesn't run away when it sees me, and this was the one. I think the trouble is that we've been having too many at a time - birds in a flock are always more difficult to approach as one gets jittery and then the whole lot follow it. This one was alone though, and proved very confiding. My kind of bird, I just wish I'd found it a few hours earlier. Out again tomorrow morning, but sans camera as I am off to the Counting Crows at Hammersmith in the evening. I'm so hip it's not true.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Sunny Skylark morning

As I've been heading off the Flats each morning towards Forest Gate, I've noticed a Skylark on the same tussock. With no time left to do anything about it, I'd made a mental note of the location, and told myself that come Saturday, if the weather was nice, I'd "have it". It dawned bright, and I was out for half six. Sure enough, the bird was there, on exactly that tussock. With the sun behind me I got into position and waited, and sure enough, off it flew. I knew that would happen, so I simply waited. I estimate it took about four minutes for the bird to return....

More to come later, I am currently extremely busy drinking chilled wine in the garden. I have about a million more Skylark photos to process, as well as roughly the same number of Meadow Pipit, and several thousand of a very dumb Wheatear that was the friendliest yet.

Friday 19 April 2013

The early bird doesn't catch the worm

I have a problem, and it is called work. Work starts far too early. There is a second problem though, which is that migrant birds are very very lazy. They only get up at about the same time as I have to leave. Take this morning as an example - I had my alarm set for 5.15am, and was out of the house about 20 minutes later. Did any Wheatears and Redstarts have their alarms set that early? They most certainly did not. I trudged around the Flats for the best part of two hours and saw nothing. Not a sausage. I think a Fieldfare was the best bird, and I may have spent some time photographing a Mallard - it was that interesting out there. At around 7.30 I turned for home, secure in the knowledge I had completely and utterly wasted my time; time that could profitably have been spent in bed sleeping.

Just before I left I met Barry - the Barry that usually goes round with Harry and Larry (Stuart). I told him it was dead, wished him luck, and pottered off. Some five minutes later he texted me with news of six Wheatears on one of the logs. Huh? I dithered. Should I stay or should I go? I went. I mean went over there, i.e. I stayed. By the time I got there Nick had appeared, having enjoyed a long and pleasant night in bed, including having been asleep for much of the time I had been trudging round wondering what I was doing. The Wheatear count was now EIGHT. FFS. I had a quick look, found five of them, and then really did go home. Meanwhile Nick refound the male Redstart five minutes after arriving on the patch, and a little later had his now annual flyover Rock Pipit. What exactly am I doing wrong?

The answer is easy. Working. Or rather, working too early. I've known this for a long time, but many migrants tend to arrive after dawn rather than at or before dawn. Whilst dawn might be good for a wader or two, or a real patch mega (Osprey was very early morning for instance), it's simply too early for many of our commoner migrants. The same thing happened yesterday with Tree Pipit, and last year with our first Wheatears - I had concluded the patch was dead and gone to work in a huff, and only a short while later some poachers turned up and scored four exactly where I had been looking. Infuriating I can tell you. But what choice do I have? My job starts when it starts. The school run is when the school run is. Either I go out before those two events, or I don't go at all. So I go. Sometimes I get lucky, most of the time I bomb out.

This Fox was out early doors, but mostly stuff was asleep.
Tomorrow however is the weekend, and the weather is looking lovely. If I don't get a Red Kite over I'll be amazed, as I intend to spend the whole day on the Flats playing with Wheatears with half an eye on the sky. The Wheatears so far this year have been very uncooperative (particularly in their arrival time). I managed to get a little closer today, but still not close enough. Part of the problem is that there are too many of them, and I never thought I'd say that. If there's just one, I'm much more likely to be able to stalk it successfully, but whenever there is a group, one inevitably goes when I'm a long way out still, causing the rest to follow suit. The answer is that I need a bigger lens. Or perhaps one of those superzooms....

More Blue Tit action from my window

Thursday 18 April 2013

Me me me

I had intended to have a bit of a rant, but I have partially mellowed in the intervening 24 hours. The subject matter was going to have been arrogance, but on reflection, I am forced to concede that I myself have a fairly large arrogant streak. It doesn't always surface, but it is there, buried not too deeply, and I dare say that it has reared its ugly head on more than one occasion on this blog. That said, without this unfortunate part of my personality, I doubt I would survive my chosen career path, which does require a certain forcefulness of character.

I photographed this Lemur
So, what had irked me? Despite my own failings, I have to say that I intensely dislike people thinking that they are better than they actually are. Self deprecation is where it is at really. People that have massively high opinions of themselves, and entirely without irony, well frankly they deserve all they get. It's an easy line to cross, but the example I found the other day hadn't just strayed across the central reservation, but was essentially travelling down the other hard shoulder. Wow, what a great analogy. Or perhaps a graet analogy?

I also mentioned spelling. I hate poor spelling (see, arrogance again). Getting your and you're right is not difficult. Neither is their, they're or there. He's and his? They are in fact different words with entirely different meanings. OK, so graet is perhaps a typo, but to find it in the context of "another graet find by me" is almost too much to hope for. Actually, I think it was "yet another graet find by me", which I think you'll agree is a notch further up the scale. How high an opinion of yourself before it becomes distasteful? This was, of course, in the context of birds and lists thereof. Reading down this particular list of birds, I couldn't help but notice strong propensity for the use of the singular pronoun. I found these birds. I was the finder. The finder. Me me me.

This Lorikeet was seen by me
Most people don't do that. They might mention it in passing, but no more. If on the rare offchance that I find a good bird, what I write might make it reasonably clear that I was the first person that jammed in on it, but I certainly wouldn't go down the me me me route. Why? One, it's distasteful, and two, I don't deserve it. My birding skills don't stack up against that kind of self-importance. I don't know the person in question at all, but I doubt very much that they're the birding God they think they are. Few people are. And generally they can spell great, and are intelligent enough to realise that the me me me route is largely unappreciated. I hope I'm not in the minority when I say that my first reaction when seeing this type of thing is "what a prick", and not "what a demi-God". Perhaps it's just me though. Oh, and did I mention I went to a Zoo at the weekend?

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Notice of an upcoming rant, and a Blue Tit

Today I have worked like the proverbial dog. Respite came in the form of a Blue Tit singing outside my window, thus. Tonight's blog post was going to be about arrogance and spelling, following a superb comment I found on t'internet which read "another graet find by me", but instead I am going to go to the pub for a few beers, as three days in and thirty plus hours gone, I am seriously in need. I will come back to it though, oh yes, as it has irked me. A rant? It is possible. Very possible.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

CMJ, and out for a duck

I bounded out of the house today even earlier than yesterday, eagerness and anticipation coursing through my veins. Without a ton of camera, the feeling of liberation and hope was wonderful. And of course it was rubbish. Although two or three Redstarts made themselves known later in the day, during the 6-8am shift it was positively dire. Not a single Wheatear, and and only a couple of Whitethroats. A brief positive note of a Yellow Wag seeping its way eastward - our first of the year - but otherwise little to show for my efforts, so I went to work, from where, at 9.15pm, I have just returned.

No Nightingale breaks today, but succour was provided by attending CMJ's memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral. Mon Père, Chevalier, Commandeur etc, had swung a couple of tickets by virtue of his association with one of the late broadcaster's alma maters, and what tickets they turned out to be. Upon entering we were directed to the very middle, the dome. How did he swing this?! I feel compelled to name drop with abandon. Five seats to my right was Blowers, and eight seats to my left, Straussy. Aggers was sat basically opposite, close to Athers, and in front of me a few rows was Tuffers. Immediately to my right was a daughter of the late, great Johnners, and it wasn't long before I had to stand up to let Mark Nicholas get past. Oh, and Jim Rosenthal was behind me.

For readers not familiar with the game of cricket, or even if they are, who are not familiar with the institution that is TMS (Test Match Special), BBC Radio's ball-by-ball coverage of international cricket, most of the -ers are members past and present of that commentary team, men who I have listened to for my entire adult life. Pottering in the greenhouse, on long drives, sitting in the garden, often in bed and through the night when England are playing in the Antipodes. They're a part of who I am, a part of who many people are, as the packed cathedral demonstrated. I cannot conceive of life without TMS, of life without cricket. That TMS has lost both Bill Frindall, the Bearded Wonder, and now Christopher Martin-Jenkins in such a short space of time is very sad. CMJ was the straight man of the team, but described cricket with impeccable precision, and the broadcasts will never be the same. Old stalwarts remain of course, but Blowers is doing less and less these days, and the team isn't a large one. In some ways it's just not the program I listened to in my teens and early twenties, in other ways it's just as compelling as it ever was, and I always switch on. So it was amazing to see quite a few of the faces - the described and the describers - of the voices that have been a background murmur to a good many of my hours on this planet. And of course the service was uplifting, how could 2,300 people singing not be? Funny to think that Baroness Thatcher is up next, tomorrow in fact, but this was a much nicer occasion, and I'd pick CMJ over the Iron Lady any day of the week. Aggers gave one of the tributes, and during it played many a famous CMJ radio moment, the congregation enthralled.

Backing up a little (the flow of time has never really been of great importance on this blog), after my highly productive couple of hours on Wanstead Flats and Crossess, I spent most of the weekend in Sussex, staying with my sister and her family in a lovely farm cottage at Bodiam. A highly relaxing weekend, including some quality time in a deck chair, but birding options were fairly limited - it being felt that the cousins would gain more, somehow, from a visit to the zoo rather than a sky-watch, but I managed to slink out early morning on Sunday, and went for a poke around the castle grounds. Not much going on, but interestingly a male Mandarin, the only one there, had paired up with a female Mallard. I have no idea if successful procreation is even possible with this combo, but it would sure be interesting! 

Monday 15 April 2013

After the Flood

Today has been one of those glorious days that inland patch-workers live for. One of those days when it all comes together - birds, weather, birders and luck. It doesn't happen often, I can recall perhaps two other days as good in eight years, but when it is good it is very good. I'm not talking patch megas, or even rare London birds, simply a good variety - and crucially, quantity, of common migrants. It's all about quantity. London-wide, local patches have had an astonishing day - 260 Wheatears and 44 Common Redstarts. You could perhaps get that at Spurn on a good day, but in London it is exceptional. That said, it was always on the cards. Spring has been delayed for so long that in my mind it was always a question of when, and not if. As soon as the weather changed, I felt the flood gates would open, and all the birds that had been held up would come through en masse. Today was that day. I hope tomorrow is also that day!

Wanstead had its fair share. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we kicked ass. When I tell you that we broke our day count of Wheatears you'll perhaps see where I'm going with this. The day totals read as follows: 27 Wheatear, 5 Common Redstart, 3 Whinchat, Ring Ouzel, Sand Martin, Swallows, 3 Common Whitethroat, 5+ Willow Warbler and more Chiffchaff than you can shake a stick at. And crucially, I saw at least one of each....

It started well for me - out on the Flats at around 6.15am, the first birds I encountered were four Wheatear on one of the cut areas. I spied Dan up ahead, bins raised. He had more Wheatears, about a dozen. As I walked over to him a highly suspicious-looking dark thrush curved around me and dived into the broom. It had Ring Ouzel written all over it frankly, but it had been too quick for me. Dan had seen it too, and reached the same conclusion, but inconclusively. I put it out as a probable and carried on looking for Wheatears - the last Ouzel that had dived into the broom had taken about two hours to come out again, two hours that I didn't have. By the time the Wheatears were relocated near the small football pitch they had become 21, soon scaled back to a miserly 20 when one in fact turned out to be a Whinchat. Result!

Never one to miss out on the action, Nick turned up a short while later, and I commented to him that if someone later found a Ring Ouzel in the brooms, I was having it. We wandered over to the Alex to try and find a Redstart. A flick in the brambles near the water turned into the patch's first Whitethroat of the year, and sure enough, a female Common Redstart was in one of the Hawthorns in the pub scrub, with another Whitethroat for company. As we watched it the first Sand Martin buzzed overhead. By this point my time was up, but I didn't want to leave - it felt like a dangerous morning to go to work!

And indeed it was. The guys had an amazing morning, including Tony who pitched up a little later, and, surprise surprise, found a female Ring Ouzel in the brooms. Ker-ching, and thank you very much - a five year-tick day in the space of roughly two hours. It didn't end there for me though. As I headed out of the office briefly to buy cakes for the team (to 'celebrate' my recent holiday, a bizarre office tradition) I got a call from John A. Amazingly, and from my perspective, fortuitously, he had stumbled upon a singing Nightingale just outside Canary Wharf at Poplar Dock - about a ten minute walk. How could I not? So I did, and not only was it in fine voice at two in the afternoon, but I also saw it as it flitted from one bit of cover to another. Loads of Phylloscs and a Whitethroat in the a same scrub, and achingly close to CW - I checked all likely areas on the way back to the office, and they were of course bird free, exactly as they ought to be.

Apols for the crappy photos, today was all about the birding and no time to fart around being artistic. I'm not even going to bother with my pretetious watermark, and tomorrow I'm going one step further and am not even going to take a camera with me, which all but guarantees a Cuckoo or something.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Hello Kitty!

A monumental morning out on Wanstead Flats, one of gripping tales and mega grip backs. The title perhaps gives it away, but how about this then?!

Yup, that is an adult Kittiwake, and it was at Alexandra Lake this morning. Like I said, monumental. Most other patchworkers have seen one, and indeed I thought I had nailed it a few days ago, only to concede, sorrowfully, that I had not seen enough to eliminate Little Gull. In other words I was very good, so this is my just reward. I had been traipsing round with Josh and Nick, seeing very little. A Blackcap was my first this year, anywhere, and reasonably satisfied with that I was heading back across the Flats from Alex to see if I couldn't do something about a male Wheatear Bob had found. I'd left Nick and Josh - extremely dangerous - and was headed alongside the Alex when I happened to glance up at a Gull dancing above me. Holy Crap, black legs!! A quick scan through the bins, and yes that bill was that shape, and the eye was as lovely and large and dark as I wanted it to be. By this point Nick and Josh had emerged from the scrub, but were headed away. I screamed and I pointed. They looked and they saw. And were pleased for me. I sorted my camera out, got dialled in, and started recording this happy moment. Nick's seen at least two on the patch, but never managed a photo - didn't want that to happen again, but it lingered long enough to get some shots that dare I say it are actually better than just record shots.

Unfortunately for Bob it didn't stick around for an additional 30 seconds, but when he got there he divulged some interesting news regarding a Redstart sp that he had just got onto when news of our bird had forced him to abandon it and leg it over. Which leads me to last Thursday, an episode which if you read my Twitter feed you may be aware of, but which to all intents and purposes I had erased from my memory. At least I didn't come on here and bleat about it, but I was on the train into work when Nick found a Black Redstart where I had been not 20 minutes previously. The dedicated patch-worker would have turned around and come back, but I had a day stacked full of fun and ruefully carried on. The bird did one mid-afternoon, and later that evening the photos hit the web. As far as we know, it was the first Black Redstart for 42 years, i.e. the next one will be when I'm 80 and needing to be wheeled to the Alex. Meanwhile of course the world and his dog twitched it - even Tony's kids saw it! In other words mope mope mope, woe is me etc.

So it was with a mounting sense of excitement that we followed Bob back to East Copse. Of course it's a great date for Common Redstart , but maybe, just maybe, a two tick day was in the offing? It wasn't long before we got there and immediately a small bird popped up exactly where Bob said it would be. Bingo grip-back! Nick of course was very pleased for us all, two monster Wanstead birds that we'd all got back on him. Happy, happy days! A two tick day!!

It didn't really give itself up for photos, and in any event I had to get back home for another busy weekend, but rarely has a morning been so good. As I type, Bob has found a Yellowhammer, and Stu is back on the patch and has immediately found a male Common Redstart. Exactly in the area I carefully checked this morning.....

Friday 12 April 2013


I couldn't decide where to go in Spain, and ended up just booking tickets to Seville thinking I'd worry about it later. Later came and went, and with no clear plan I decided that I'd do both. A little rash, but it worked out OK. After two pretty good days in Extramadure, weather notwithstanding, Muffin and I had a lot of ground to cover to get down to Doñana. To maximise birding time, we left at 5am (it doesn't get light in Spain at the moment until about 8am) and made good time, arriving in the sandy frontier town of El Rocio just after sunrise. Scanning the lagoon, we quickly added loads of species to our trip list. I devised a little test for kiddo, and he passed with flying colours on what were very distant birds - Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Gadwall, Black-winged Stilt, Cattle Egret and Little Egret - faultless. I'm talking properly distant as well, scope dialled up to 50x, and he got them all.

After checking into our hotel we discovered we were at the completely wrong end of Doñana, and that to access the prime habitat we needed to drive in a massive loop around the entire Park and enter from the south-east. We found the right route entirely by chance, and soon found ourselves on a series of roads built on dykes leading us deeper into the wetland areas. Birds were everywhere, ticks galore for Muffin, and a new one for me (kind of) with Purple Swamphen.

To cut a long story short, we spent a fantastic afternoon slowly driving the tracks, and seeing heaps of birds. And I mean thousands. We ended up at the Centre Antonio Valverde to be confronted by an extraordinary sight. Litter! Litter everywhere, the trees were simply draped in plastic bags. Unbelievable that this should be allowed to happen. Disgusted, we left.

Shameful, honestly. The trail took us in a big loop back towards the fruit farms that border the park. I estimate that the whole route was around 70km, which when you're driving at walking speed and stopping a lot takes a very long time. Properly good though, with Spanish Wagtails all over the place, more Black-winged Stilts than you can shake a stick at, Flamingos galore.

And some thoroughly glorious Black-eared Wheatears..... more on these later. Much more - I just can't help myself, as far as I'm concerned 2013 has been all about Wheatears - after Morocco I wasn't sure it could get much better. OK, so perhaps there weren't as many, but can you beat an early Spring Black-eared Wheatear? I've seen the species before, but in mid summer, by which time the birds are so bleached that they appear to be black and white, so it was a real treat to see a peachy one. Several in fact - the latin name is hispanica, which figures. Beautiful. As with most of the birds on this trip, the tactic was to roll the car up, windows open and lenses at the ready, kill the engine at the critical point and hope that the bird didn't fly off. Many did, but this one did not. I have a heap of photos - I'll be posting them on in due course.... I estimate 80% of the photographs I've posted have been hand-held out of the car window, which explains why all the birds are on barbed wire fences...

Gradually making our way back to the main roads, we checked every single Coot for red knobs. Perverted or what? No doing, a reason to go back. Maybe. Wanting to add to our list, we dropped down to the beach imagining vast flocks of Terns and Gulls. In the event the beach was one of the typical Atlantic ones, miles of sand, dunes, a viscious wind and mountainous seas. Birds were limited to two Yellow-legged Gulls. Retracing our route, on a whim I decided to stop at another offshoot of the National Park at Acebuche. The intention had been to check the lagoon, but we immediately noticed that a large group of Azure-winged Magpies were feeding around the deserted picnic site. Decision made. I am happily able to tell you that Azure-winged Magpies very much like bread, but that they adore apples. A great session, and they'll be the subject of a separate post on the other website at some point. We stayed in the same spot for over two hours, wonderful birds - I could have stayed for another two hours I suspect, but a young man was becoming restless, which is fair enough, so we went off to explore different. Not much else to tell - we had a session photographing House Martins in El Rocio, as they were coming down to muddy puddles in the town square, and we jammed our only Roller of the trip just outside town.


Thursday 11 April 2013

Monfragüe National Park

Day two of my Spanish adventure was spent in Monfragüe National Park. We only had two days in Extramadura, and so reading previous trip reports it seemed that this was the most sensible option, both for Western Pal ticks and also photographic opportunities. Following heavy rain in the night, and sadly during a lot of the previous day, it actually dawned fine. Heading north though it became darker and darker, and as we hit the mountains it really closed in. Bugger. We soon reached our first destination, the impressive Pena Falcon cliff face, and considered our options. Easy! Despite the clag, we bailed from the car and went and stood admiring the amazing view of hundreds of damp Griffon Vultures sat on rocks! With them were two Black Vultures and two Egyptian Vultures, whilst a Cormorant on the river below was a trip tick. The weather seemed to be moving in from the south, and gradually it cleared, a little warmth appeared, and all of a sudden birds were on the move!

We spent over four hours here, until well past lunchtime, waiting for Vultures to fly within range - more on that here, but also enjoying the overall spectacle and all the other birds that were around. These included Serins, Goldfinches, Blue Tits, Red-rumped Swallows, Crag Martins, Blue Rock Thrushes, and an incredibly friendly Rock Bunting.

Driving onwards through the Park towards the next location at Portilla del Tietar took forever as we stopped continually, but it was worth it. Siskins, loads of Hawfinch, Black Kites and more. At the Portilla site were more Vultures and a miserable-looking Eagle Owl, for once again it was chucking it down. Muffin got great views of this new bird though, and I probably had better views that the birds I saw in Bulgaria. Retracing our steps, as I felt it looked clearer to the west, we found ourselves back at the Pena Falcon around mid-afternoon. A Subalpine Warbler was new, and embarrassingly a new bird for me, but again it was all about the sheer spectacle of what was taking place around us. Hundreds of Griffons were up, and more of them were at eye-level....

We probably explored only a fraction of the Park, and indeed most of the time were stationary at one of two spots. It would have been nice to have walked a few tracks, but with the weather slightly dicey, we didn't want to find ourselves stuck in a downpour so played it safe. Of all the locations in Spain I visited, this is where I'm going back to just as soon as I can.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Extramaduran Plains

I've just checked some key dates in respect of migrants I have generally seen on the patch by this time of year. It was as I had thought. Dire. No Swallow, no Redstart, no Ouzel, no Willow Warbler. In short, no nothing. I have little opportunity the rest of this week and I am away at the weekend. So, Spain then I guess, in the absence of anything meaninful to say about Wanstead, and not having needed to travel to another country today in order to perform any heroic deeds.

We arrived in Seville at around lunchtime, and made our way up towards Extramadura immediately. About 10km outside the city we stopped by the side of the motorway so that I could stick a teeshirt on, and promptly saw our one and only Bee-eater of the entire trip. Spotless Starlings and Corn Buntings were everywhere, and Swallows zipped about constantly. Made relatively good time up towards Merida, where we left the main roads and wiggled across country to the area around Madrigalejo. There were birds everywhere, including vast flocks of Spanish Sparrows, and in one location just north of the town we found a flock of perhaps 50 Collared Pratincoles. What brilliant birds they are! Cattle Egrets in groups of 20, White Storks all over the place - this was clearly going to be a fun trip!

What was unexpected however was the amount of water all over the place. After an incredibly wet winter and start to spring, many of the more interesting-looking tracks were completely impassable, and I very nearly got the car stuck on two occasions. Reaching tarmac again, I vowed not to push it in future, and we then drove north up to Trujillo, where we enjoyed the superb Lesser Kestrel colony at the Bullring.

We stayed at the lovely Casa Rural El Recuerdo, a birder-friendly guest house run by a British birder called Martin Kelsey. He and his wife Claudia have the patience of saints, and run a top class establishment. They also freely hand out bird gen and wine, both of which were eagerly received.

The next day we put the former to good use, and explored a number of circular loops that began and ended in Trujillo, via Santa Marta de Magasca. Our first stop produced Little Bustard, our second a flock of 64 Pin-tailed Sandgrouse and a Great Bustard. Our third stop produced five more Little Bustard, twenty more Great Bustard, four Griffon Vultures, Black-eared Wheatear, and trillions of Larks. Thereafter it was mainly passerines, but nonetheless we enjoyed a wonderful morning cruising slowly around the back roads, papping things of the car, and stopping and scanning at various points.

The afternoon was more trying, with absurdly heavy rain following us around everywhere we attempted to go, including one particularly viscious thunder storm which turned the sky black. So essentially a wash out, but it was nice to have some properly big long chats with Muffin - he has such an active (if currently one-track: Tolkein) mind, and I didn't try and turn him to birds. This is the first big trip he and I have done together, and it worked really well. Hopefully I can wangle many more to come, especially with my recent dollop of Brownie Points that I envisage lasting until about 2015.