Sunday 30 June 2013

Red-footed Falcons

There is no putting it off, no exercising self-control. No, I am compelled, forced against my will, to post up a whole pile of photos of these fantastic birds from Hungary. In a hide 30 feet in the air, you're level with about four nest boxes, and you can watch their every move. Forget the photography, I'd do it even without a camera, the views - the whole experience - is simply brilliant - through bins, these birds literally sparkle. No other views of Red-footed Falcon will ever be good enough ever again, and barring an adult male in my garden, or perhaps on Wanstead Flats if we're stretching it, I doubt I will twitch a bird in the UK again as it will only be a let down. I spent a morning and an afternoon on two separate days in here - baking hot but you forget about that. For the morning session we faced west, the afternoon east, as there are windows on both sides and this allowed us to study two different pairs. Unfortunately the female on the west side had a gammy eye, so unless she faced right, which she rarely did, there were not photos of her as it was all a bit icky, and the female on the east spent almost the whole time in the nest box. However the male bird on the east side was simply gorgeous and so got most of the attention. He is the fussiest creature I think I've ever seen (apart from Mick S perhaps!), nothing was ever perfect, his feathers never exactly as he wanted them. He spent approximately 95% of the time preening, and even the simple act of grasshopper delivery for the female to then rip it up and feed it to the four chicks was enough to send him to his perch for a good ten minutes of recuperation and self-grooming. I too became fairly fussy, looking for nice backgrounds, particular poses and so on, getting a bit arty with the composition. I mean why not?

Anyhow, enough words, I know that's not why you visit any more......there are about three billion more of these starting here if these are still insufficient. Little crackers.

Friday 28 June 2013

Possibly my favourite photo from the whole trip....

Unexpected visitor to Debrecen Great Wood. Or perhaps, given this is me we're talking about, entirely expected.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Toughing it out

Reedbed hide. 6.30am to 6.30pm. Greylag Goose. Mallard. [pause] Coot. We should have called for help, but felt compelled to stay all day. A Squacco Heron visited three times, a Night Heron, once. And they hadn't been informed about where to land for their paying guests - not good. Of a five day photography trip, I've spent two of those days in essentially birdless hides all day long, which is mildly annoying. The other days made up for it, and anyhow, you make the most of what there is, and so here is what there was.

Last day tomorrow, going back to the drinking pool hide for more of those lovely reflections. Or at least I hope so. The trip list is up to 90, with a fair proportion captured on film, but relatively few species absolutely smashed. Always a reason to come back. Just not to the Reedbed hide....


Tuesday 25 June 2013

Boring Bee-eaters

Bee-eaters are horrible. Anybody not wanting to see Bee-eater photos should definitely not click here. Personally I don't like them, and it was a right pain to have been stuck in a small wooden shed about 15 feet from some perches that they frequented. Frankly, I felt like I was taking one for the team.

So, as you may have gathered, I'm in Hungary on a dedicated photography tour. I booked it on a whim many months ago, and as there was only one place left, I didn't know the other people on it. There are six of us in total, four Brits, and two Germans. I'm with the Germans - Nikon shooters with their filthy (lovely) 36mp D800s. Pah! The three Brits know each other already, so they go off an do their thing. The routine is pretty simple. Sakertours, the tour operators, have a network of photography hides in the Hortobagy National Park. They range from hides built into reedbeds, to towers specifically for Red-footed Falcons, to drinking pools with mirror-lie surfaces, to simple mobile sheds plonked in front of nest sites. The whole thing is a marvel; we meet downstairs for breakfast somewhere between five and six in the morning, and after a swift coffee, head off in two 4x4s for whatever the chosen hide for that session is - either just the morning with a switch and a rest at lunchtime, or for the whole day. Each hide is built with the sun in mind, so you have ones that are suitable only for the morning, some for the afternoon, and some that face two directions. The downside is that they're extremely hot and uncomfortable, but in this regard you pays yer money and you takes yer choice. I'd rather spend a few days sweating buckets and doing bizarre things with my legs to get these shots than go without, so I'm happy to just grin and bear it.

Some of the hides are extremely successful as there are constantly birds coming and going. Others are harder work, and there are many hours without much happening at all. In this respect it's like birding, and indeed I've brought my bins with me so that in those moments where the birds are more than 15 feet away, I simply start birding. And there's a stack to see and hear. My German companions are called Jan and Jurgen. Jan is also a birder, and so is completely in tune to all the calls and songs, whereas Jurgen is only a photographer, and so is unaware of the little snippets that keep coming our way. As with Bulgaria last year, the birding here is superb. The Hortobagy is stuffed - grasslands and meadows, reedbeds and fishponds, canals and woodlands - almost every type of habitat is present, and so the variety is fabulous. I've yet to do the complete list, but it's well over 70 with a couple of days to go, and the views have mostly been incredible.

I'll be attempting to write a comprehensive day-by-day blow at some point, but this will be on my dedicated photo blog, as I need to keep this blog free for ranting and so on. Lord only knows that trying to get back into UK birding will provoke some sort of reaction - I've not had a bird flushed by a dog all week.... 

Monday 24 June 2013

Rollers and Red-feet - Phoarrrr!!

The less said about yesterday the better, but today was magnificent. Much as I hate hides, I have to say that Sakertours' Red-footed Falcon hide is incredible. At one point I put the camera to one side and enjoyed a female Red-foot at about 6ft range. What a contrast to how you usually see them in the UK! I'd even go so far as to say that they're cute....

30+ degrees in airless box though, and you have to piss in a bottle (and there are two bottles between three...), that's the price you pay. Is it worth it? Only you can can say. For my part, it was easily worth the hardship, even if I did have to hang on for over five hours. I am very sorry that this is unashamedly photographic. It's one of the things that makes me tick. When this place is good, it's really really good! Loads to come once I am back home and have a proper computer and proper internet access. For now, here is a small part of what I am experiencing, minus the extreme discomfort.

Sunday 23 June 2013

First few from Hungary

Yeah yeah, I know. One long holiday... No point in denying it I suppose, but I can only say that I deserve it. This one has been planned for a long time - photography pure and simple. Many of my trips certainly involve a camera, but it's rare that it completely dominates. This trip is the exception to that rule. It involves sitting in hides, not my thing at really, but it does force the issue somewhat. So, here are a few that I've processed from my hotel room in Balmazujvaros in eastern Hungary, right on the edge of the Hortobagy National Park. My laptop doesn't have the greatest screen in the world, but I'm hoping they're OK. Tomorrow I'm off to a Bee-eater hide. I expect I'll hate it.



Saturday 22 June 2013

Birding through the night

We had arranged to sleep from 6pm to midnight, and barring an 11pm fire alarm I believe I actually slept right through. If I listened carefully I reckon I could hear some snoring next door, but these Gulags are pretty solidly built and I'm extremely grateful to the foresight of some true comrades for a quality night's sleep despite the mattress being only 1.5cm thick. We left just as some new prisoners were being checked in, with the warder hesitantly wishing us a pleasant night. He probably thought we were mad, but he did let us out, so good for him. It was probably the darkest we had experienced - still perfectly adequate for reading Gosney's guide to finding birds in southern Finland though. Our targets were the genuine night singers - River Warbler, Corncrake and in particular Blyth's Reed Warbler. The next few hours were surreal and wonderful. We birded a series of roads and tracks close to the border town of Vartsilya. No Great Snipe, but three River Warblers, multiple Corncrakes, and approaching double figures of Blyth's Reed. I've always dismissed this latter as being mind-bogglingly dull, and indeed have passed up two cast-iron opportunities to add it to my BOU list in case I died of boredom whilst watching them. Singing birds are an entirely different proposition however, and entirely worthwhile. Got some amazing views of a couple of birds properly going for it, and got to grips with the Lesser Whitethroat-like "Tek" call note. Maybe my next sojourn on Shetland will see one of these wanderers arrive, but will I go and see it? The trouble with European birding, indeed birding abroad anywhere, is that it makes twitching in the UK even sillier that it already is. Why schlep halfway across the country to see a stray waif in the company of several hundred sweaty green-clad weirdos, when you've seen the real deal in habitat? Mind you, didn't stop me twitching Shetland for Pine Grosbeak did it? Idiot.

Whinchats sing through the night too. So do Yellowhammers. So do Rosefinches, Curlews and pretty much everything else. It's a crazy place, yet totally wonderful. The south-east of the country is particularly rich, and we had a long list of sites to visit as recommended by Gosney. The first of these was a place called Kitee, site of another large lake and where we found our first Pochards of the trip, as well as getting some great views of Black-throated Divers. A track through some fields close to Punkaharju netted Hen Harrier and invisible Ortolan Bunting. The best was yet to come though; Punkaharju Arboretum. As if Finland doesn't have enough trees.....when the good councillors of Punkaharju were wondering what civic amenity might best serve the local community, I wonder what their thought process was? Swimming Pool? Nah. Go-karting track? Nah. I know, what about an Arboretum where we can grow loads of pine trees! Winner, they'll love it! The birding was ace. Every type of bird imaginable has been forced to live in a conifer, including stupid things like Lesser Whitethroat. I mean what kind of habitat is that for a Lesser Whitethroat? Nutcracker I can understand, but......hang on a minute! Yes I did day that, and what a great bird! When we were planning the trip the three of scored our potential targets to see if any of them were either missable or not to be missed. I scored Nutcracker the highest, the same the Owls.

We spent most of the morning birding here, hoping against hope for Hazel Grouse, but again drawing a blank. A quick tour around a bird lake whose name escapes me but was something like Siikalahti netted us three species of Grebe, as well as Osprey and Thrush Nightingale for the trip list, and were basically done. Just time for a celebratory meal in Lahti, another night of torture from the Prof, and back to London early next morning. Frazzles, I rather heroically went straight to work, allowing my colleagues to see a side of me that had hitherto remained unknown. The one where I stagger unshaven and red-eyed into the office, weighed down by optics and looking like I've spent the last three days without any sleep in a mosquito-ridden forest. Nothing of course could have been further from the truth.

Friday 21 June 2013

Staying awake for longer than is good for a person

We finished Owling at around 1pm, and after we had bled Antti dry for local gen, had a meal and cleaned ourselves up, it was probably about 3ish. Finally, a bed, probably the thing I had been most keen on seeing other than owls. The plan was to get up at around 9pm, and go birding locally, before dropping down towards the Russian border about four hours away so as to be in position for yet more spectacular birding during the best period, which is 2-6am. With info on singing Red-flanked Bluetails, we were well prepared to go the extra mile, so to speak.

What we were in no way prepared for was the volume nor the persistence of the snoring that was to come from the Prof. Quite unbelievable, an unholy mating of a Walrus and the Flying Scotsman. A correspondent suggested a flight of Lancaster bombers, but no raid over Germany ever emitted this sound. This was seismic in scale and scope. He would start off slowly before settling into a steady rhythm. At this point I estimated perhaps 110 decibels, or Concorde taking off. Gradually though it would build, to the point the walls began to shake, and then would come the climactic snort. Enormous. Devastating. Epic. Like Krakatoa blowing up. Nearby lakes probably experienced Tsunamis. This would have the effect of actually semi-rousing the Prof momentarily from his beatific state, and was sometimes accompanied by a small noise of fright, but never quite waking him though, at which point it would start all over again. I had considered myself so tired that nothing could possibly have stopped me falling into the world's deepest sleep. I could not have been more wrong. I got up, paced around, videoed the monstrous performance for posterity (which could yet find its way to a worldwide audience!), and after finding no cushions with which to smother him, retreated wearily to bed, there to lie wide awake despite something like 33 hours on the go. Needless to say our planned lengthy restorative sleep never really came to fruition, and so after four hours of torture, we pulled the plug and got up to carry on birding.

It's still broad daylight at 7pm in mid-Finland. Our base was the Liminganlahti Nature Reserve, Finnature's base in the area. It's a superb place, brilliantly functional (bar sound-proofing) and situated at the southern tip of an estuary. We made our way to the birding tower for a look around, and started adding to our already extensive trip list immediately. Flights of Wood Sandpipers, Ruff, summer plumaged Blackwits and heaps of stunning Little Gulls. Glorious, but we were unable to tarry with a full agenda planned, even with the extra hours granted to us by the Prof's malfunctioning airways.

Our next stop was the port area at Oulu, wader central. More Wood Sandpipers, breeding Redshank and LRP, a small colony of Arctic Terns. The main target was Terek Sandpiper, but in my zombie-like state I missed the only brief flight view. Maybe I saw it, maybe I didn't, but not matter, one day this blocker will fall, hopefully back in the UK if I can ever manage to be free when one pitches up. Woodcock overhead, Merg and Goosander in the bay, and our first and I think only Starlings of the trip. Great birding, and slightly surreal given the time of day, but it to was get even weirder when close by we twitched a breeding pair of Citrine Wagtail at around midnight in full daylight. The darkest period is probably around 1am, but it wouldn't even count as half light. It basically a bit dull, like the UK in about November, and then about ten minutes later the sun starts to rise again and it brightens up. What I want to know is when the birds sleep? We spent most "nights" birding, and the Fieldfares and many others would go straight through. Similarly I located the Citrine Wags on call, and they seemed very much awake. I thought living organisms died if they didn't sleep - certainly that's what I was beginning to feel like!  We added Shelduck here, also wide awake and flying around.

A quick 'bargain' burger stop in a services and we headed south-east-ish towards a couple of sites where some last-minute gen courtesy of some mates of Rich B told of Willow Grouse, Greenish Warbler and several singing Bluetails (more accurately called Orange-flanked Bluetails by the Finns). We didn't manage the Willow Grouse but did find an early morning Black Grouse perched up, as well as Golden Plover and a noisy Wood Sandpiper by the side of the road. The next area led us to the singing Greenish almost immediately, where we got great views of it perched atop the highest tree belting it out - a great sound and one that I might stand a chance of remembering. No sign of the Bluetails, but we get massively confused by singing Redwing - they sounded mega and had us really excited until we espied one actually making the wonderful sounds we had been hearing and were thus crushed. Our final site of the morning was an area called Losonvaara, an area of old growth taiga forest. It delivered immediately, even before we'd had a chance to break out the coffee, with the zippy song of what could only be a Bluetail. OK, so they're not as rare as they once were - even I have seen three in the UK, but they're still mind-blowingly brilliant. We eventually found three birds singing from prominent perches, including two blue adult males - something I've not seen before. Also here were at least two Greenish Warblers, and evidence of Hazel Grouse if not the birds themselves. We walked a recommended track, inhaling the pine frangranced air and generally feeling at peace with the world. I would like Chateau L to smell strongly of pine, so may go and source some pine-emitting diodes or whatever. I'd also like it to have resident Bluetails but that may prove more difficult.

Once we were done here, we realised it was only nine in the morning and yet we'd been birding for about 14 hours. This is what I mean when I say that Finland fucks you up. The place is so nice, the birding so good, and the light so constant that the temptation to continue birding is too strong to resist. It's still light, the birds are still singing, so you just find yourself carrying on, kidding yourself that you're actually feeling OK. Ish. You begin to get the shakes after a while, and feel incredibly light-headed, or alternately like your head weighs several hundred kilos. And yet you plod on, you keep pushing. I'm not sure I would have gone to bed at all if Bradders hadn't insisted we stop mid-afternoon at a town near the Russian border called Tohmajarvi. And anyway, what was the point in trying to go to sleep with Mount Whiteman erupting in the corner? This latter problem was solved by our next hotel having been a Soviet Interrogation Centre in a previous era, and as such had the option of separate cells which we gratefully accepted. This time I slept, and a good thing too as the ratio of hours working/travelling/birding to sleeping was a rather worrying 56:4.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Owling in Oulu

The whole point of going to Finland was to see Owls, but it would be remiss of me to not mention a certain Swift that all but three UK birders have now seen. It was bound to happen, in fact I predicted it at Heathrow before we left, and sure enough it did, adding insult to injury by remaining for two solid days and being reported at regular enough intervals to make the Prof cry. I was relatively sanguine about it, as was young Bradders, but the Prof? Oh dear. I've missed more than enough now to not care if I miss another, but I guess when you've seen as many birds as he has, they all matter. Upon arrival home, and despite being dead on his feet, he immediately twitched the Holt Roller for his Norfolk list, but this was only a consolation prize really. A shame, but there you go, if you didn't want to miss anything you would never go away anywhere and never have any of these amazing experiences, and even Prof W would agree that the Owls were amazing.

The only way to see Owls is to perform a small quasi-religious ritual involving Euro banknotes. You all sit around a small pot at midnight holding hands and going "OMG OMG OMG", and wantonly throw Euros into it until you are completely and utterly broke. After that you give the pot to a representative from Finnature, and then Owls immediately start to appear. Simple. We saw Great Grey Owl about fifteen minutes after setting off, and it was magnificent. Enormously magnificent. My photos were less than magnificent, so you will just to imagine its magnificence. Over the course of the next ten hours we were taken from one site to another to enjoy the secretive birds of the region, the guides having staked out multiple nest sites for all the species. Three-toed Woodpecker fell pretty quickly, but Ural Owl took two attempts at different sites. On the plus side it didn't kill or maim us. Pygmy Owl (my fave bird of the trip, so much attitude) was at the first nest hole we tried, but Tengmalm's Owl took three different locations before a nearly fledged chick was found having a look around.

Surely the inspiration behind Gonzo
We couldn't find Hazel Grouse, but we peaked at over 100 species in the course of our trip out with Antti, including extra treats like Black Woodpecker. Was it expensive? Yes. Is it a captive market? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. You stand practically no chance of finding these owls yourself if you go up, days and days of searching and you might jam in on one if you were spectacularly lucky. Pay up though, and you get to see all of them in half a day, though I understand we were perhaps the first group to manage it this year as GG Owl was far from guaranteed. Time, as they say, is money, and so I forked out and I'm glad I did. I thoroughly recommend it.

I could not in good conscience fail to mention a considerable downside to our owl mission, and that is that the insect life within Finnish forests at this time of year can only be described as voracious. Finland is basically one large boggy forest with a shed load of lakes thrown in. This is mosquito heaven. It doesn't matter what counter measures you take - repellents are just a garnish, clothing a slight challenge, and we were eaten alive. To the point where tick and run (literally, run) became the order of the day. It is difficult to choose the worst point, to single out the hungriest. The Three-toed Woodpecker nest hole site probably takes the prize, but the first Ural Owl site (the one without the owl....) was relentless. Almost no part of me was safe, I lost pints. My wrists and hairline were particularly singled out, and by the end of the day they were biting through the previous bites, to the point where when I ran my hand over the back of my neck it felt a bit like bubble-wrap. I've no idea who they liked best, who was especially favoured/savoured, but I'd like to think that the Prof was the tenderest of the three of us and thus the most enjoyed. My bites have mostly declined now, but it was hellish out there. Next time I go I intend to take one of two items - either a full bee-keepers outfit, or a hat with a dozen Pied Flycatchers attached to it with small pieces of string.

The Prof enjoying a cup of DEET

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Sitting next to a legend

I'll bet Bryan Adams didn't even consider this possibility when he booked a flight to Helsinki last Friday night, but the quiet and unassuming guy sat to my left on the BA flight took it in his stride. He didn't recognise me of course - no bad thing, I like to travel incognito - but we had a nice chat nonetheless about family, photography, and some massive concert he was playing that evening.....

I mean how am I supposed to know what Bryan Adams looks like? Would you? I was in BA Club Class - this happens very infrequently, but by some quirk of the pricing system the seat was twenty quid cheaper than economy. Fair enough, I'll do that then, not the hardest decision I've ever had to make. Oh, and can I have a rock star travelling companion? Certainly Sir. I confess to spending over an hour chatting to him having no idea who he was, and to his credit he didn't blurt it out. He had seen my improbably large camera bag and enquired about what it was that I did (at this point I had no idea he was an award-winning photographer either), so I told him, and so it was only polite to ask what he did. I'm guessing at this point he may have realised I hadn't twigged, but nonetheless he just said he was a musician. Fair enough, so is Mrs L. Except Mrs L hasn't sold gazillions of albums, toured the world, and written the hit song that accompanied Robin Hood Prince of Thieves......

Oh well, never mind. Maybe he enjoyed talking to someone who wasn't immediately in awe of him and asking him to autograph every item on their person and then their forehead for good measure? I have to confess to a) not owning a single Bryan Adams album, and b) being unable, once I realised who he was (mainly due to the stewardess asking Mr ADAMS what he wanted to drink and being suffocatingly deferential), to name a single song of his. Shame, as I could have slipped a few cheeky ones in there. Please forgive me, I didn't recognise you.....

So, over the course of the next hour or so I instead bored him witless with bird chit-chat, and it was only his good fortune that meant I didn't have the Collins on me else that would have come out and been turned to the owl pages. Once the obligatory "I'll be seeing a lot of birds too" line had been rolled out with a wink and a smile - nice to know that Bryan Adams makes the same joke as every other bloke on the planet -  we basically had a normal chat about kids and the dumb things they say, crappy airline food, being busy, and selling out stadiums. I also discovered that he'd seen a Snowy Owl in Canada which flew over his car. Anyway, and whether you're a fan of his music or not, he seemed a really nice and surprisingly down to earth guy. I wished him luck in his concert, and as it was pissing down, hoped for him that it was indoors given that it probably wasn't the pub gig I had initially imagined. He in turn hoped for me, given the outdoor nature of my pursuits, that the weather might improve in Oulu. And thus we parted, he to hordes of screaming fans followed by a luxury hotel room, me to a six hours in a rental car followed by extreme sleep deprivation.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Finland screws you up

3am in Taiga country
Finland should come with a health warning. I've just been there for about three days and I'm completely trashed. Places that don't have night-time shouldn't be allowed in my opinion, as if you're a birder there is no real reason to stop birding. I left on Friday lunchtime after doing a half day of work which necessitated getting up quite early. The next time I closed my eyes was on Saturday at 3pm. Four hours of sleep and then up again for a further 23 hours of birding. And so it went on until today, and the stats are not pretty. I'm a little bit amazed I'm still alive actually. Back in my younger days I might not have coped, but having lots of children toughens you up. Somehow I came direct from Heathrow this morning off the back of these stats and did a full day in the office, and incredibly I'm still standing and able to bring you this simple message: Finland is great.

Citrine Wagtail. Oulu. Midnight.

A full (in so far as mine ever are) trip report will follow shortly, but in brief, the Owls have been bagged, and many many bonus species put in an appearance. I have done more birding in three days than I would normally do in a week away, anywhere, and probably spent more hours in the field than I would in Wanstead over the course of any month you care to choose. Intense is not the word. Mental is probably closer. But it was brilliant and yet another of these fab trips that will live long in the memory for reasons beyond birds alone. Star bird, for me at least, was this Pygmy Owl. More personality in 15cm than you can shake a stick at. Right, I am going to bed. I deserve it.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Ten things I have learned recently

Ten things I have learned recently.

1) I have more stuff to do than I can possibly get done, and that something will have to give, I'm just not sure what yet.

2) Being intolerant and shouty is almost three times as popular as anything having to do with birding, and four times more popular than my children. Natch.

3) Taking photos is the easy bit, processing them is hard.

4) 16 months of unopened bills and other crap that arrives through the letter box is about two feet high and takes four hours to reduce to about a centimetre.

5) People do not like constructive criticism and would prefer to hear only nice things about the complete and utter dross that they have produced.

6) I am crap at dieting.

7) Roller might have been my 400th bird, not Dusky(ish) Thrush.

8) I should not have sold my 135mm f2 lens.

9) My toe still hurts.

10) Finding things to blog about is next to impossible, but gratuitous photos help.

Monday 10 June 2013

After school on a Monday...

A Long-tailed Duck appeared in Peckham the other day. Not the most obvious place for one to turn up, but seeing as I've now seen more LTDs in London than Mallards, frankly it appears they can get anywhere. I went about five years without seeing a local one, but between last November and today I'd seen 283,990 within ten miles of my house. Once Peckham has been checked out, the bird wisely moved on, heading to a duck pond in Greenwich. Go and see it, urged James L, it shows like a dream. No time, grrrrr. I considered going to see it there on Saturday morning, but failed to wake up, and in the event it wasn't there anyway, having now decided that Rotherhithe was where it was at, which is where Rich B found it a little later. Come and see it, he urged, and bring a long lens! But cousin Emma would not have been pleased if I'd chosen a duck over her wedding, so I decided to give it a miss. However as of yesterday evening it was still there, so on the off-chance that it might still be there today, I bowled up to work in Canary Wharf toting my camera bag.

It was still there, and I got regular updates during the day of its continued presence. This caused me to press the sod-it button relatively early this evening, and one short tube stop later I was staring at my 283,991st London Long-tailed Duck. Sweet. Except that it stayed resolutely in the centre of Canada Water. Rich, still at work, suggested finding some bread to tempt the Tufties in, the thinking being that the LTD would likely follow. So I toddled off to Tescos with my 500mm under my arm and bought a loaf for 90p, getting some pretty strange looks.

It worked like a charm, though the LTD probably ate more bread than the Tufties, ahem. I had to become a temporary member of the Rotherhithe Angling Club in order to get low to the water; nothing like trashing a pin-striped suit with a bit of guano in the pursuit of art and happiness. In the end Rich couldn't resist the lure of seeing it yet again, and so came down and joined me for what was some quality pappage. Gazillions more photos here. A Common Tern was also hanging around, so I papped that too. It's what people like me do.

Sunday 9 June 2013


I've not picked up bins this weekend at all. Not even once. A family wedding yesterday, and a follow-up barbeque lunch today has meant no birds, but we have had a wonderful time. The wedding was sans enfants, so Mrs L and I got to be grownups and stay up late. Today, once my grownup hangover had abated, was a family barbeque with all the children. Football and French cricket in the garden, and lots of lovely water to drink - I feel fine now, but it was touch and go early this morning.

Naturally the camera came too. Not that I'm that enamoured with taking photos of people, but it's always good to broaden what you do, and in my case, lets me dust off various lenses that don't see a lot of use in the normal course of business. Only one of my three children would submit to having their photo taken, and of course it was the youngest one - of the three of them she is the natural show-off, the drama queen, the actress and the live-wire. I really like these ones, can't believe she'll be six soon, where does time go?

Friday 7 June 2013

A cautionary tale

I'm late to this due to a bit of time spent being intolerant, but there has been one and only one story in British birding circles this week (well, twitching circles, if that's different) and that has been the fiasco surrounding the mis-identification, or the mis-broadcasting of the almost-identification of a monster rarity in Devon, Orphean Warbler.

Like many, it would seem, I checked for bird news before heading off to bed on Tuesday evening. I am a well-rounded individual. Not that I'm a hugely keen twitcher, especially not now, and on a school night there is little potential anyway, but it's developed into a bit of a habit due in no small part to a tendency for recent megas to break fairly late, cf the recent Dusky Thrush.

Ooooh, will you look at that! An Orphean Warbler in Devon. Mega-alerted no less! A specific routine now kicks in - I jump in the car and drive there immediately! I'm kidding. What I mean is that I log onto BirdForum to see if anyone actually believes it. And lo, there is commentary suggesting it is without a shadow of doubt one, with confirming (and comforting) observer names. There is even a blurry photo of about a tenth of a warbler and a song recording. I have a quick listen, both to the recording on the net and to the recording on my phone, come to no sound conclusion one way or the other as it is late and for me it makes no difference as I can't go anyway, and then I go to bed, dreaming thoughts of mass twitchery and ticks. I wonder briefly who might be waking up a little early and can't think of anyone so filthy........ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The next morning dawns with the mega still present and correct, but before I am even out the door it appears there is a problem. Twitter is going ballistic, and there are MAJOR CONCERNS about the bird. Two minutes later and it is a Lesser Whitethroat. Eh? Oh dear oh dear. I mean, really? One is about twice the size of the other for starters. So last night a definite nailed on mega, today in the half-light a common summer breeder. How did that happen?! And far more importantly - and with a suppressed snigger - how many people are currently in Devon about to start a riot?! And even more importantly than that, do I know any of them?!!

More twitter messages are now coming through, and.......wait a minute, yes! There is some excellent news of exactly the sort I had been hoping for! I do know somebody! Fantastic! I couldn't possibly say who it is, but this is what birding is all about in many ways and easily one of the best things about twitching. And this is a proper banana skin. Yes it's about the thrill of the chase, yes it's about the numbers, yes it's about relief and despair in equal measure, but mostly it's about being able to have a bit of a giggle at your mates, or indeed at yourself. We've all done it of course, a desperate journey, the bird seen well and self congratulation begins. In my case it was even worse - I was actually home again before the Greater Yellowlegs a hundred miles away was re-identified as a Greenshank! I hadn't suffered the ignominy of having already put it on Bubo and having to slink back on and delete it, but I felt enormously stupid. However rather than blushing furiously and cursing, rewriting history and myself out of it, my response then and now, once the initial disbelief had passed, was to have a bit of a giggle. I mean what else can you do? Even today, when I think back to how smug I was feeling having arrived at the school gates, a distant mega snaffled in the meagre time available to me, an involuntary giggle never fails to escape my lips. Yes it's embarrassing, yes it's very silly, but above all it's very funny. Especially if it wasn't you! I appreciate that those who had driven overnight from various distant places (for instance, and entirely hypothetically, Walthamstow) might not see the funny side quite as clearly, but in time I am sure they will come round.

Of course the real fun starts now, the finger-pointing, the rewriting of history (and deletion of blog posts), the accusations and denials. And it's all there for everyone to enjoy, on the same place that confirmed the ID for many people in the first place. Top quality entertainment, and 100% free! Perhaps the best bit of all is that the young guy that found the bird hasn't had to revert to revisionism at all, as almost from the start he maintained it was a Lesser Whitethroat with a funny song, and presumably was quite surprised when birders from all over the country arrived on his patch slavering in anticipation of an Orphean Warbler, only to slope back to their cars feeling confused and ashamed, and with work many miles away, presumably all with nasty coughs coming on.....

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Badgers in Wanstead remain relaxed

Whilst the South-West gets ready for a wholesale slaughter, Badgers in Wanstead appear not to be feeling the strain. That is all I have to say.

Tuesday 4 June 2013


Against my better judgement, I have been provoked into writing a blog post. Before I start, I should make it clear that I have nothing whatsoever to say, and that what I do say I have said before. Generally it makes unpopular reading, that is to say, it makes me unpopular. It makes me come across as arrogant, right-wing, and a shit. It is probably how I get this misplaced Toryboy image - I speak proper, I work in a bank (though not in the champagne-popping, Ferrari-driving bit as commonly portrayed in the media), and I hate scroungers. That's a shallow way to judge someone.

I was having this conversation with a friend the other day. Well, not exactly this one, but along similar lines. It was basically how I couldn't vote for anyone as I hated them all. Not that I take a great interest in politics, and I could be entirely wrong about some things. Many things most likely. But anyway, and although this may come as a surprise to some, I could not possibly vote for the Conservatives for reasons recently made clear here. Namely that they are a self-serving bunch of walking environmental disasters with seemingly no concept of democracy. Fine, so they're out. The Lib Dems then, are they my natural home? No. They're a load of pathetic ideologists with no hope of ever making a difference other than taxing me out of existence. The Labour party? Iraq. And they're basically Tories anyway. The Green Party? Laudable in some respects, unfortunately so far removed from reality that they're not a realistic choice in the modern world. UKIP? Not if you paid me. The BNP? The day those fascist pricks wield any kind of meaningful power is the day I emigrate. So politics it seems is not for me. There are probably a heap of fringe parties I have failed to mention, but nobody knows who they are anyway, and I might as well walk into my polling station and eat my ballot paper for all the good it would do voting for one of them. But I still hate scroungers, which makes me......makes me what exactly? Nothing. It makes me nothing. I go to work, I provide for my family, I am at this point no burden on the State other than the education that my children receive, but that's where my taxes go. Oh, and to shooting badgers and conducting illegitimate warfare overseas.

As I was walking home from work tonight, at about 7.30pm or so (half day...) I noticed a guy sitting on a bench in the sunshine. I say sitting, really I mean lolling. He looked most contented, and was enjoying a beer and a cigarette. Fair enough, we all like to unwind after a long hard day, indeed I myself was on my way to a bit of unwinding as well, having left the house at around 7am. Except this was the man who for years now has hung around Leytonstone tube station asking for 90p for the bus. I've not seen him for a while, probably because I typically go one stop further up to Wanstead station so as to avoid getting mugged by yet more honest and hard-working folk, and what with rising fares he probably asks for more than 90p these days, but I digress. In addition to being a liar, he's a complete and utter scrounger. He's the kind of person that instantly gets my hackles up. The kind of person who gets to sit around doing whatever the hell he wants (OK, so perhaps not exactly pursuing his dreams necessarily, but you know what I mean) whilst I schlep off to work and indirectly provide financial assistance so that he doesn't have to. He looked really happy, angelically at peace with the world. Of down in the dumpness there was not a hint. I tweeted, as is the modern way, some words of mock surprise. And (thank you Mark) I received a reply. The suggestion was that rather than be bitter and angry, I should go home, uncork a bottle, and toast my luck. A fine sentiment. Live and let live.

Apart from the luck.

I am not railing against the unfortunates of this world. I am railing against the suggestion that in any way, shape or form, the fact that I enjoy a happy life free from many worries and  financial pressure is down to luck. Bollocks. It's down to choices. A friend of mine called Dal, who has had twenty jobs in the same time in which I have had two, frequently insists I am the luckiest person on the planet. Poppycock. Complete garbage. The fact that my life is currently where it is at is essentially due to one thing and one thing only, and that thing is called effort. Effort from the age of about 15. Jobs before school and after school. Jobs in the holidays. Exams. Hard work. Toil. Graft. Going out every day and doing something I do not enjoy so that I can do things I do enjoy on the few days that I am not working. So that, many years down the line, I can buy nice camera lenses I never get to use to their fullest extent. So that I can give my children exciting experiences. So that they can play musical instruments if they so choose. So that they can be members of a cricket club. The list is endless, but so that, in short, I am free to make some life choices. Not everybody gets that opportunity of course, but the point is that nobody came along and handed it to me on a plate, and I didn't win some kind of life lottery that solely and exclusively determined my fortunes. There is a school of thought that talks about the cards people are dealt, and I concede that there is an element of truth there, and that my upbringing was trouble free with loving parents who insisted on education (In case anyone thinks I went to Gordonstoun or wherever, I didn't, I went to my local community college. Whatever). But there are plenty of stories of people overcoming the below-par cards they ended up with and doing just fine, excelling even. The difference tends to be willpower and determination. Some people would call that luck. Crap.

My health is luck. Or at least to a certain extent. For instance is it lucky that I don't wreck my body with crystal meth? Or lucky that I don't do crack cocaine every night of the week, even though I could probably afford it? Possibly, possibly...... who can say what will happen, but at the moment I am healthy and I am thankful. But absent health issues, the reason I do alright is very simple, and has nothing whatsoever to do with luck. I get along in life because I work my socks off. I have not taken the easy way out. I grind it out day after interminable day. I absorb myself in it. I bring it home. I allow my mood to be dictated by it. I think about it day and night. I piss my family off with it, and I am mostly a grumpy bastard because of it. I don't pull sickies, I just get on with it. I expend a huge amount of effort and time to making a success out of it. Luck? Forget it, it's called effort, and anyone who pitches up and calls me a lucky so-and-so is delusional (sorry Mark, I don't buy that one little bit). Is that a Tory attitude? I don't know, and I don't care. I don't give a shit what you label it as, as long as there is a recognition that the reason I am not sitting on a sun-kissed bench swilling premium lager and pulling on a fag is that I have chosen to work for a living rather than waste my life scrounging off other people.

The counter-argument is of course that there are plenty of people out there who put in a lot more effort than I do, work a lot harder than I do, and still end up on the metaphorical bench. I reckon that must just be bad luck.

Sunday 2 June 2013

June. Oh dear.

Normally June is the beginning of the dead period. Birders give up on birds (as there aren't any) and start harassing insects instead. I started in May, when my attention was captured by a butterfly for at least half an hour. It was a Green Hairstreak, and it got local birders insect-lovers all excited as it was the first in Wanstead since 500 B.C. They all rushed out and found loads more, so now it's a common Wanstead butterfly and not exciting at all any more. So back to June and the doldrums....

As I mentioned yesterday, I had a very unenthusiastic day in Suffolk and Norfolk. I pressed the shutter of my camera about 80 times (this is an unbelievably small number) and basically lost the will to live. I ended up having two naps in the car, and my day list was around thirty. Today I took zero. This is unheard of, I reckon I must be ill. The day revolved around lego, cricket and tidying up before Mrs L returns from a trip abroad. The first two I can cope with, the third is less satisfying, especially on a sunny day. 'Tis done now, but five days of toil now stretch to the horizon.

What I need is a holiday.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Wren in doubt.....

Somehow dragged my sorry ass out of bed at silly o'clock today for the early morning shift at Lakenheath. Gropper came first, a lower and slower reel, and then when I turned the next corner the Savi's had dialled it up a notch - much quicker, and as a result sounded higher-pitched. It showed pretty nicely in the reeds through the scope, but far too far away to bother with the camera. First I've seen in East Anglia, and the first I've seen since 2009 - hence my interest in going up there today. A Golden Oriole sang briefly, suspect I won't get that on the yearlist many more times, and more's the pity.

I remember when I life-ticked Golden Oriole at Lakenheath - still the only place in this country that I've ever seen them - and they were seemingly all over the place. The actual moment of tickage came when three birds, two males and a female, flew in a rough circle above my head between two of the plantations before dropping back in. A short while later they repeated the feat. Since then (this was in 2008 I think) my views have got shorter, more often than not it's been down to a single bird, and today I didn't even see it. Very sad, but I understand a lot of people were marching about this in central London. One group were marching down Whitehall as they hate Orioles for some reason, but another group of more liberal people prevented them doing this - in a peaceful manner obviously, only to be branded traitors. Meanwhile a whole load of Badgers turned up nearby to protest about Buzzards killing cattle. I avoided London today, it was all too marchy  and protest for my liking - I enjoy the quiet life and moaning about things in the comfort of my own home. When I eventually did return to the capital I got stuck in traffic near Twickenham stadium due to Beyoncé. God knows what she was demonstrating about. The lack of recent lucrative gigs for tyrannical dictators? Shucks.

Anyhow, despite planning a day out with the camera, I felt so lacklustre today that I barely lifted the camera to my eye in ten hours. Basically everything was too far away and I couldn't be bothered to do anything about it. This Wren near the visitor centre at Lakenheath was the sole exception.