Sunday 29 September 2013

Fortune, Failure and Fulmar

It has been a funny old weekend. Yesterday I basically spent working, five days simply isn't enough at the moment! A quick look at the Birdguides map had confirmed that the east coast from Aberdeen to the Wash was essentially a monoculture of Yellow-browed Warblers with a dab of Brown Shrike every now and then to spice things up. So I took a quick spin around Wanstead Park just in case one of the aforementioned had deigned to leave the coast and head inland. None of them had. Anyhow, pretty poor really that during a top weekend for rare birds I had strayed no further than about a mile from the house. The alternative would have been to jump in car, where a quick 720 mile round trip would have netted me a bumper two tick day - 12 hours behind the wheel - for Sardinian Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler. Could have been immense, but I was a little busy, and in any event that's not the sort of trip you contemplate with a child, especially one as talkative as my son.....

So, today, after a quick breakfast with my folks who had come down to see us before commencing yet another month-long holiday (in case you wondered where I got it from), I decided that some minor twitching was in order. Although the Sardinian remained, I'm not going that far for one of those, so Kent was the destination of choice. Not ten seconds in the car though and a text from Nick and Bob told of a probably Jack Snipe near the Alex. Two minute later and I was watching it bomb across the playing fields into the big ditch. Nice. Always flying away, but behaviourally it was spot on. Noting where it had pitched in, we waited patiently for Dan to arrive as he needed this for the patch. I didn't drive to get him at all. We had stepped of the ditch "bridge" about three metres before the bird got up again, circling around giving great and confirming views before once again plopping down over by the Alex somewhere. Couple of pics here (Nick took them, ahem...) Fortune favours the brave. And those passing in cars.

Flush with success Bob pootled off to read three tons of Sunday newspapers, and we left Dan to see if he could entice the Jack Snipe back into his bag, and Nick and I (and two of my kids) continued with plan A, which was to see the Lesser Yellowlegs at Cliffe. This we failed miserably to do, although I understand the little git reappeared later. Hey ho. Instead we picked more than a few blackberries, raided a few apple trees, and found a crumble nest. This is all true, apart from the last part. So, failure. I mostly fail at Cliffe now I come to think about it, it's a difficult reserve. The Izzy Shrike at the other end was superb a few years ago, but I don't tend to get very far with the waders - a Pec Sand is all I've ever seen there.

Nevermind. Just as we got back to the car, Hawky called up and said it was all kicking off on the Thames - Razorbill past Beckton, and a probable Fulmar lingering on the river. Double Mega! Thoughts of the Spotted Crake at Oare and RB Fly at Reculver were quickly put to one side, and the car pointed back towards London. Figuring Rainham would be the best place from which to watch, we had almost arrived when yet another call from Hawky alerted us to the Fulmar now being definite, and still off Gallion's Reach. A seamless U-turn and we were back on the A13, and sure enough Gary and Paul D were still there scanning the river - what an afternoon they had had! An anxious wait before I picked it up about halfway to Barking, and managed to get the kids to see it as well. I don't rate it's chances unfortunately, it may be on the way to becoming rather moribund. It never managed to fly very far, and the local Gulls, of which there are many, harassed it almost constantly - a far cry from the magnificent spectacle in County Clare a few weeks ago. Dom arrived a bit later and managed to get on it - he needed it for London too which shows quite what an mega bird it is for here. I can't remember ever having had a chance at this species. Would that the Razorbill had flown back out, but from the sound of it from Gary and Paul it was probably in deepest Berkshire by now - really motoring. Still, a high quality London tick from absolutely nowhere, and a great end to an otherwise almost underwhelming weekend, fabulous on the east coast that I couldn't really get to, but rescued by London.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Making money out of Tropicbirds

Exclusive! Naked Tropicbird pics! The UK's fourth Tropicbird chats exclusively to ......

It didn't take long for the news to leak out that lovers of schadenfreude everywhere, as well as a handful of Pendeen unfortunates wouldn't be seeing photos of the Tropicbird any time soon. My immediate reaction was one of disbelief, I believe I said at the time that this was a "a load of bollocks", and then in a more measured way a few days later that "this wasn't right". I don't begrudge a person trying to make a few quid, not that the money involved was ever going to be earth-shattering, but really? I'm not judging the man (OK, actually I am) but my reaction would have been rather different. If you've just found a complete monster of a bird, even in somewhat difficult circumstances, a natural reaction would be to shout the house down. Look at me! I found it! Me! Me me me me me! Or something like that, but forgetting the personal glory aspect, I felt it was such a great bird, and let's face it, such a great story, that all interested parties (i.e. every birder in the UK except for 40 bitter ones) should have been able to see the pics immediately. We live in the digital age. Me me me, and now now now. It didn't happen like that, and about a week ago Birdwatch dropped through my letter box. Rarity Exclusive! The Truth about the Pendeen Tropicbird. I forced myself to read it, and you know what, it wasn't that different from my account, except with less venom directed towards the finder.... What I understand from this is that the 1,573 people who have so far read my post must owe me a pile of money. So, if that was you, cough up please. A pound each and I can buy another pair of Swaros. Sorry, is that wrong? I thought birding was about making money? No?

I am of course somewhat conflicted. I have been known to make a few quid from the birding mag in question, I wrote a column for a while, and every now and then I still contribute a photo. I have the greatest respect for the editorial team, who I know read this blog every now and then, and whilst I am deeply envious of the jet-setting life of the Azorean founder (!), I also recognise the hard graft that putting together a publication must have been over many years. And as you know, I am a big believer in hard work. Nonetheless, in this instance my personal view is that they have got it wrong, and will lose more in credibility than the extra sales might be worth. Journalism may be all about sensationalism, but surely birding is bigger than that?

I probably just need to wake up and smell the coffee. Birding, or parts of birding, whether I like it or not, are dominated by money. Rarity news, optics, clothing, tours, you name it, and it isn't going to change. But now exclusives? Really? I wasn't ever involved in the halcyon days, but is this the way birding is going? Is this a case of one-upmanship versus the other competing publications, or is this simply red-top advertising to boost sales? I don't know, but I do know I don't like it. I think there are certain aspects of birding, certain moments, that should remain free and accessible, and this is one of those instances. For all its faults, at least BirdForum is free. Of course the finder of this amazing bird is free to choose what he wants to do, I've already discussed that, and I haven't a clue if a bidding war ensued once he'd made his mind up, but it irked me to see what should have been a great tale in UK birding reduced to a business venture. And that's the bottom line really. No, really, it is.

The good news is I was joking about blog readers needing to blow the dust from their creaking wallets and cough up. I write this because I enjoy writing it, and I post photos up because I'm a bit of a show off. Maybe I'm missing a trick? I'd love to be able to bird for a living, but I can't. Am I bitter about that? Not really, I quite like my life, or at least most of it.

PS don't look at the photo below unless you want to be charged.

Subscribers only.

Friday 27 September 2013

How to spot moribund birds

It's amazing how little we twitchers actually know about birds. For instance birds that we might think were bright-eyed and healthy, feeding actively and running around, are in fact moribund. That is to say, they are basically almost dead. Dying. On their last legs. Finished. Anyway, as this is such a big problem, and most people seem not to be able to distinguish between a bird that is perfectly fine and a bird that is on the point of death, I've decided to post a few images that illustrate moribund birds in order to help birders make the right call. This could avoid a lot of grief in the future, and save people wasted trips in order to see birds that will be dead and untickable by the time they arrive.

This Copper-rumped Hummingbird is moribund. Although its wings were beating approximately 60 times a second, and its heart rate was about 1000 beats per minute, it was basically dead and hardly moving. About two seconds after I took this picture it died and fell to the ground. No warning, nothing. Dead. This was a tough one to spot, but the giveaway was that it was actively drinking sugar water from a feeder. This isn't in the frame, so you're forgiven if you got this one wrong.

A moribund Puffin. Look OK to you? Wrong. Puffins actually have a severe allergy to sandeels. Moments after I took this photo this bird crashed to the ground with fish-induced anaphylactic shock.

A Blackbird bathing. What's wrong with that you might ask? Hypothermia. Dead already.

This Buff-bellied Pipit died when it came into contact with the foam you can see in the image. It dissolved it on the spot, we didn't even find a feather. Don't bother twitching Buff-bellied Pipits on the banks of reservoirs is my advice, you're just wasting your time.

I was worried for this Roller the moment I saw it. Can you see that its beak is open? That's only part of the reason. When it also flapped its wings, game over. Moribund, without hope. It had died by the next frame - all I got was a bare twig. 
A moribund Kittiwake. Look's healthy, but isn't. The clue here is that it is flying around. Healthy Kittiwakes don't do this, they walk everywhere. A goner.

This moribund Skylark is easy! Moribund Skylarks always fly up really high before falling to the ground dead. Consequently you hardly ever see healthy birds, as they're very well camouflaged. If you happen to flush one from the ground, you've killed it.

Another easy one. Moribund waders always flock together before dying. This is common to all species, but especially Knot. If you see a huge flock off Knot wheeling around over an estuary, it's time to leave. They won't be coming back.

OK, so this one is a bit of a trick question. This Great Snipe isn't actually moribund at all, but it showed all the signs. Go figure.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

It's not affecting me.....

This morning I asked Mrs L to make sure youngest L tidied her room. Youngest Miss L is extremely messy, and does not enjoy tidying her room. If told to tidy her room and left to her own devices, you will go up after half an hour to find the room in the exact same state as it started off in, a vaguely guilty-looking child, and a collection of marbles, hair clips, string, pencils, shells, glitter and tissues neatly arranged in a small box. Constant supervision is the name of the game. Now, sharing with you the fact that I had spent the previous evening sat at my desk until close to midnight writing evaluations for members of my team, what do you think I said to Mrs L? Did I say "Can you make sure Pudding tidies her room?" No, I did not. Instead, and before I could stop myself, I said something like "Have Pudding tidy her room, force the agenda!". This is tragic. I am tragic. I mean for pity's sake, what have I become? She is six years old. I am her father, not her manager. 

This is the danger of spending silly amounts of time in an office rather than at home. Reality becomes twisted, warped. A new normality descends, one in which absurd office-speak sounds entirely normal. With the balance so far skewed in favour of one, the boundary between work and home inevitably becomes blurred. Assuming sleep was a constant, if I instead spent fifteen hours at home, and just two at home, would I go into the office talking in a nice gentle voice and offering people tissues and glitter? Who knows, it is impossible to say, and whilst I like the sound of that ratio very much indeed, I can't see it happening any time soon. So, my family needs to get used to me speaking strangely and being incredibly irritable. I do not have the ability to leave work in the office and this is a great shame. Mrs L reminds me very frequently about this, but all I can say is that some people are really good at it, and that I am not. I think it comes down to being obsessive, it's embedded in my character. I just don't do things by halves, and I never have. No matter how hard I try, whatever is consuming me at a certain moment in time, be it work, be it birding, be it plants or whichever of my one-time hobbies, that's what I do, that's what I live and breathe. I am not obsessive about work, or at least I tell myself that I am not. I mean, really? The two years I spent away from it were the happiest of my entire life. How can I now be so engrossed that I use management speak in the context of picking up Lego from the floor? The mind boggles. The next thing I know I'll be organising conference calls between upstairs and downstairs, and setting the kids goals. Sorry, deliverables.

Anyway, today I came home at a sensible time, in time for sausage and mash, and only barked at people a little bit. I say sensible, it was still basically bedtime, but nonetheless it felt good. A momentary hiatus probably, but I enjoyed it. I spent the evening washing insects off plants, thinking about a holiday to Iceland, and processing Arctic Skua images from the weekend, a selection of which can be found here. And then I wrote this, as a reminder to myself to try and get real.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Sunday Spectacular

If you've never been to the high tide wader roost at Snettisham you're missing out. I hadn't, but I went today. Wow. On exceptionally high tides, there is no mud left exposed on the Wash and all the birds are forced off and onto the lagoons. Waiting on the beach in dense fog, we heard the birds before we saw them - the noise of a thousand wing beats, powerful and slightly unnerving, coming from out there somewhere, invisible. And then they were on you, over you, on top of you, deafening yet silent, the rush of air and the multitude calls as immense numbers streamed over the beach, dropping over the banks and in. More Oystercatchers than I have ever seen, thousands upon thousands of Knot and Dunlin, Godwits of both flavours, Sanderling, Avocet and Curlew Sandpiper. Quite incredible.

On the lagoons themselves, patterns of birds. Waves, synchronised shuffling, packed tight, with more dropping in and vanishing into the melee, swallowed up. An occasional splodge of colour in an otherwise weaving grey mass - Knot - think how far they've come, where they've been. And now they're here, on a high tide near you. Go and do it, I can't recommend it highly enough. On a dull grey morning it was close to perfect.


Saturday 21 September 2013

Skewer Skua

Finally some birding. A leisurely start on a largely dead Wanstead Flats allowed me to chew the fat with the regular band of stalwarts, and then it was off to Suffolk for the Lesser Grey Shrike. Love 'em. Sadly it wasn't quite as cooperative as the last Shrike I saw, but it still was one and that counts for a lot. As expected a medium-sized crowd with a few familiar faces, and although the bird sadly didn't come and perch on my scope, good scope views were nonetheless had. This is the skewer bit, in case you were wondering.

Far more obliging once I had worked out the correct approach was an Arctic Skua at Sizewell, just down the road. With patience you could get relatively close to it, so that's what Bradders, Nick and I did. Lovely, although the poor bird is mildly oiled, which probably explains why it spending quite a lot of time sat around on the beach preening. I hope it makes it. I'll probably do a whole post on it over on the other channel at some point, but by necessity this post is short and sweet, as Mrs L and I are spending the evening together. We are both so busy that this happens approximately once every two years, and I have opened a rather special bottle of Shiraz to celebrate.


Friday 20 September 2013

Record Beaker

Friday never happened. Well, not in the blogging prior to Friday sense. So this is the here and now. Resisting for a moment writing about the office, here are some photos of a duck, a record-breaking duck. A duck that frankly is just a little bit too friendly. I didn't have any bread with me, but even just pretending to throw bread caused this vagrant wanderer to make a bee-line for me from the other side of Heronry. Not looking too clever really is it, but then again what did we realistically expect? That it got blown over from Asia in the massive storms we haven't had? That it moved from the near continent due to the huge and all-pervasive freeze occurring there? No. It's come from a lake in London somewhere hasn't it? The good news is we will never know! It can't talk, it can't tell us, we're not in central London so happy days. So do I feel guilty about slapping it on the list? Of course not, tick and be merry. Roll on the weekend, hopefully Shrikes are on the menu.


Thursday 19 September 2013

Think Bike on a Thursday

Think Bike. How often do you see that on a sign, see it on a bumper sticker, on a motorway matrix display? Think Bike, Think Biker is supposedly the message. I've got a better idea, an alternative idea. As well as Think Bike, how about Bike Think? Bike Think, Biker Think. Driving along at around 80 m.p.h. (allegedly) the other day, I noticed a motorcycle looming large in my rear view mirror. As I was overtaking another car, I couldn't really move in, and I didn't want to go faster, so I carried on. He came closer and closer. When I did pull in once clear, the biker pulled alongside, slowed down to exactly my speed, turned his head and gave me a long (and albeit under his shiny visor, hard) look. Yep, he wasn't looking ahead at the road, he was looking at me. Clever. Whatever his point was, he considered it made, and then accelerated to 100 plus and zoomed off into the distance. Tell you what, it's a good thing I'm looking out for bikers.

By far the majority* of them appear to be complete cretins with no regard for their own safety or that of others. Rules of the road and basic intelligence appear not to be for them, they're just out to have a good time and burn rubber. How many times do you see a biker zipping in and out of traffic, slalom-style, in order to make a bit of ground. Gliding through the slenderest of gaps, causing mild panic in drivers who were unaware of the bike undertaking them suddenly before weaving in front and then going outside the next one. I'm sure it must be very exciting, invigorating even, but when you're wearing a pair of jeans and a fleece it seems ever so slightly foolhardy. In fact I'd go so far as to say that I rarely see a sensible motorcyclist, one that doesn't attempt dodgy manoeuvres, one that rides at speeds suitable for the conditions at hand. Most of them appear to have death wish, but I'm supposed to be concerned for their safety and look out for them. Sounds fair to me, and even though it clearly isn't fair, I do it nonetheless. I'm nice like that.

The same can said about cyclists, especially in London. Red lights simply don't apply. There is huge and real concern about cyclists getting crushed by lorries turning left that either don't see them or don't look, and whilst I wouldn't wish it on anyone, cyclists could do so much more to help themselves. Like bikers, most* of them appear to be utter imbeciles with barely a shred of self-preservation. In and out of traffic, straight through red lights, undercutting, up onto the pavement, through pedestrians crossing on the green man, nothing ever surprises me. I once whacked a guy with my newspaper who cut straight though a pile of people - including nearly missing me - crossing entirely legitimately across the Hammersmith gyratory on their way to a gig at the Apollo. He nearly stopped and killed me despite being 100% in the wrong and ignoring the traffic light. You have to wonder what these people are on? Apparently if you ride a bicycle or a motorbike, you can do whatever you like and everyone else has to be extra careful not to hit you. Amazing. I'm not advocating deliberately knocking over cyclists who ignore signs, lights, one-way streets and so on, but at the same time what exactly is wrong with these people? Why do they feel that what applies to other road users just doesn't apply to them? I would never drive through a red light (amber, fair game....) yet those on two wheels are able to somehow completely ignore the colour of the light and carry on. I'm probably on very shaky and insensitive ground here, but if they weren't dead they'd probably complain that the driver should have seen them and swerved. 

Obviously all road users, especially those in charge of large lumps of metal, should be massively alert to all possibilities, but if you're on a bike or a motorcycle and think that traffic signals (and common sense) don't apply to you, think again. Biker Think.

* it could of course be that I only notice the flagrant cyclists and motorcyclists that cause me to nearly have heart-attacks on a daily basis whilst driving in London, and that the silent and law-abiding majority pass under my radar completely, but my point is that it isn't just one or two who are riding really really badly, it's loads and loads.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Wednesday hiatus

It's all Dan's fault. He has ruined this whole blogging at the weekend and then lining them up for the weekend by going and finding a Red-crested Pochard mid-week. I had imagined that, as per recent weeks, my birding life during the working week would be so contemptuously pathetic that there would be nothing to say, but in fact on the one week where I'd bet on that being the case (again), I've in fact broken my Wanstead Year-listing record. So I suppose I'm not that cross with Dan really.....

Admittedly, it's a slight dodgy bird to go eclipsing (ha ha!) my total with, but per London listing rules, provided that this species is seen away from certain locations in the centre of town it's fair game. Certainly when I found a pair about four years ago, also on Heronry, I counted them straight away. Nick didn't see those, even though they remained for a month, so this is that rare event for him, a grip back, and those of us who saw the pair in 2009 are of course all very pleased for him. Dan found it at exactly the right time of day, that is to say before I had to go to work, and with enough time on the clock that I could get there, scope it up, and get home again. Ideal, so thank you very much.

It would be remiss of me not to talk about stats, as I know you all love them. So, in 2011 I saw 113 species. In 2012 I also saw 113 species. The penultimate of these came at the end of October, so I had high hopes of smashing through the barrier, but I didn't get a sniff until Waxwings landed in mid-December and that was it. If you're still interested, you can go and have a look at these year-listing efforts on that banner that sits just below my Tropicbird tail above this post. So this year when I got to 113 on the remarkably early date of September 7th, I knew that Dan I was going to finally raise the bar and scale new heights. Yes, 114 is the new total to beat. And as I've said before, there are still quite a few possibilities. RCP was never in contention, so a real bonus bird. If I can ever drag myself over to the Old Sewage Works I should get Bullfinch, and when the winter autumn finch migration kicks in I should get Brambling. In cold snaps pretty much anything can happen, so Goosander, Smew and various other winter goodies could arrive, and there is still no sign of a Med or YL Gull.

All these are for another day though. For now I can just bask in the thought of a job well done, a target made. You have to love patching.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Tuesday and London listing

Continuing my theme of cunning, playing with the very fabric of time, I can tell you that today I went to work, but seeing as I don't know what happened there yet, I have nothing to whinge about and can thus write about something else. That something is London listing. The idea just popped into my head suddenly when I read Gavin's post about a London big year he had attempted in the late 1860s, when Willow Tits outnumbered people, and Grey Partridges were so common they were used as cavity insulation. I had been going to write about cycling, but when I read Gav's blog I soon gave up on that absurd idea and decided to change the theme to birds. Maybe next time.

All birders I know have lists. This is as universal a fact as badgers being evil. Show me a birder who does not have a list, and I will show you a fraud. And if you really don't have a list, then with any luck somebody else will be keeping one for you anyway. Most birders have a "close-to-home" list, probably a local patch or two, and the natural extension of that is a county list. London spans so many counties that it has its own recording area, a circle 20 miles in diameter centred on St Paul's Cathedral. Slightly antiquated now that we have the M25 as a nice natural boundary, but there it is, and we would all lose quite a few birds if we changed it so that's how it's staying. I'd lose Buff-bellied Pipit, Nightjar, Glossy Ibis, Raven, Wood Warbler, Great Grey Shrike, Savi's Warbler and Red-footed Falcon, so not sure what camp I'd be in. With that little lot, the "keep it as is" one I suspect!

My London list is low versus the die-hards, who have close to 300 or in some cases even more. Another way to describe the die-hards would be old. The secret to having a high list - anywhere, not just London - is to be extremely ancient but not quite have your name in green italics on the List of Lists. So, being the right side of 40, and only having birded in London for under ten years, it is entirely normal that my list be the wrong side of 250. Just. I probably realised I could start a London list in about 2006 I reckon, as for many years I only birded abroad. 200 came quite quickly, sometime in 2009, but it took attempting a London yearlist in 2010 to really get the it motoring. That year I added 22 birds, more than I've added since then combined.

The fascinating thing about London listing is that crap birds become really really good. Sandwich Terns, Gannets, Eiders, Ravens, Merlins, Brent Geese. Well, maybe crap is the wrong word. Common, easy, seen loads, in other words birds not worth panicking about. Yet I remember dropping everything for a Manx Shearwater on the Thames and hooning it to Rainham as quickly as I possibly could, praying fervently that it would last until I got there. The poor thing was flying ineffectually up and down the river, and almost certainly ended up inside a Great Black-backed Gull. A pitiful sight, the more so given that I've seen perhaps 30,000 in a day go past Pendeen in full command of the elements, and not how to enjoy the species, yet I felt elation that being at Pendeen could not possibly have created.

And then there's the traffic. The thought of a good London tick in south-west London, the Surrey sector, makes me shudder. During my 2010 big year I only had cause to go that way three or four times, and that was three or four times too many. Hours. Hours and hours sat in the car. For what? A Pectoral Sandpiper? Some Velvet Scoter? Please. The mere fear of traffic may possibly have scuppered my chances of beating the London record - various birds turned up that might have helped me get over the line, but the thought of the time it would take to get there stirred in me feelings only of apathy and dread. Yellow-browed Warbler at Ally Pally. Great Grey Shrike at Wormwood Scrubs. Gah! No thanks, not with the school run ever on the horizon. Instead I spent most of the year at Rainham, a solid tactic with Gannet, Kittiwake, Eider, Great and Arctic Skuas, Hen Harrier and Snow Bunting to name but a few.

So why is it I still keep going? I have very little reason, nothing that makes any sense. Why would I spend hours in the car to see something I've seen loads of before? Why would I fret, worry, and become annoyed by a dross bird simply because it's somewhere close to the M25 and I'm stuck at my desk until dusk? Why would I, on occasion, jump up from said desk and simply walk out of the door upon hearing news of a trip of Dotterel in Surrey? (I made it by the way) There's not even really a competitive element, the number of London listers is extremely low, perhaps fifty? That said, it's the only list I have where I'm ahead of Bradders, so perhaps that counts for something.

I reckon that it must just be the thrill of the chase. Bumper to bumper, at 2 m.p.h.

Monday 16 September 2013

Monday (Saturday) and a Cunning Plan

I have just had an exceptionally cunning plan that involves blogging. Many of you may have noticed that this blog often goes silent for periods of roughly five days. I've noticed it too. Do you want to hear about Regulatory Capital Management and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Of course you don't, nobody does. Yet if I were to blog on a Monday, that is what it would be about because on a Monday, that is what I am about. And if I were to blog on a Tuesday, you might find out what nine solid hours of meetings does to a person. Wednesday could bring angst, depression, tales of woe and mandatory compliance courses (You overhear a colleague talking in a lift about a stock that is about to make a big announcement, do you A) buy as much of it as you can and go to Vegas, do you B) raise the matter to your local Compliance Officer immediately, or C) Elephant). If, after that, I actually made it to Thursday, you might get to read about User Acceptance Testing, system failures, and job delays, and Friday would be about a mild hangover and a shed load more meetings. Interested? I thought not.

So here is the cunning plan. Over the weekend, which is when I ditch the mantle of banker and become an exciting and dynamic birder, I will write five blog posts about different things that I have been storing up, possibly even about birds, and I will schedule them using that button over on the right hand side such that one gets published on Monday, one on Tuesday, and so on. Da-dah! Brilliant, and so very simple. There is one eensy teensy flaw in my plan though, which perhaps you have already spotted. If supposedly I have all these things stored up, why have I been publishing complete drivel for so long?

Ah. Well you see when I get home, exhausted, all the ideas that I had when I was 'fresh' on the tube in the morning have all disappeared. When I'm wide awake I see lots of things, and think lots of thoughts. One chance encounter spawns whole trains of thought, and I have great clarity about what I am going to say. And then a day at the office destroys me, and all these good, clever, witty, ranty, whatevery things I was going to commit to metaphorical paper all go completely out of the window. I come home and have two choices. Bash out any old crap, or go to bed. Too often I choose the former, and too infrequently do I get to sleep at a reasonable hour.

So, this is Monday's post. I can't tell you what I did today, as when I wrote this today hadn't happened yet. See? Genius. What, you want another Shrike photo? Oh go on then.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Always go see Shrikes...

What a bird, what a little stunner! All week I've been itching to go and see the juv Red-backed Shrike at West Canvey. Local blogger after local blogger has been posting point blank images, but could I get there? I couldn't even get there yesterday, being indisposed in Oxford. However by some good fortune it was still there this morning, and so after dumping Mrs L and the girls in central London, young Master L and I went straight there. Well, a slight deviation to pick up suitable optics in Wanstead, but essentially straight there, nothing could have swayed me from my course. Rule #162. I love Shrikes, and I mean love. LOVE. They're brilliant, compact little birds absolutely stuffed full of personality. And Craneflies.

On arrival we could see a small gaggle of people, and a mini proliferation of white lenses. How come so many people have them these days? Naturally I added to the congregation, trouncing everyone with the mighty 800mm. Ha! Happily I only had to lug it all of about 100 yards, and it proved its continued worth - Shrikes are surprisingly small. It was atop a small bush, a crappy shooting angle, but it soon flew down onto the fence to continue feeding there. Probably as close as 30 feet - I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. Oh, except I don't buy any of that, and anyway, this was loads better. It was one of those rare and perfect birds that didn't care. Faced with a barrage of shutter clicks, it could not have cared less, and even the presence of the photographer with as little fieldcraft as I have ever seen didn't phase it - mind you he was well behaved today. And it was a Shrike of course, which added to the perfection. I suppose if I'm nit-picking it could have been an adult male, or a Masked Shrike, but hey....

So, absolutely no apologies for a massively photo-heavy post. It was awesome. Wish I'd been there for the early morning light, as it would have been delightful, but you can't have it all, and I was pleased to be there at all. If I could have one opportunity like this every weekend, ideally with a Shrike, from now 'til the end of the year, I would be a very happy man. Actually, I'm pretty happy already. Brilliant.



Friday 13 September 2013

A change is as good as a rest

Let me give you a quick summary of my week's birding.


Moving on, what else has been happening? Er, let me see now. Oh yes, work. And that's it! Still, I'd rather be working and solvent than not working and broke, and British Airways agree with me on this one. So no birding, and it's been quite good too. More Tree Pipits, more Whinchats, the return of Mipits. The weather has been nasty. Claggy, wet and distinctly autumnal. We have washing drying on radiators, so this latter part is definitely true. So, I've had an enforced rest from the patch. The reality is that an hour out on a claggy patch before an intense day mining salt doesn't have a huge amount of appeal. I said we needed a change in the weather, and that has certainly happened. The only issue is that it hasn't really delivered anything particularly different, and has seen the Wryneck off, unless it is just sulking. The happy news is that this means I haven't really missed anything - nobody likes a big grip off (other than the gripper). There is patch news though, as on Saturday evening I nipped out to Bush Wood to year tick Tawny Owl. I'd been waiting for a message saying something along the lines of "vocal Tawny Owl" for some time - I don't want to have to go find my own birds, that would be totally wrong. Miraculously the Owls were in exactly the same place that they have been in every year I have worked the patch, I just hadn't thought to go check yet. Happily Tim did, and so I didn't have to. This being the scene of the infamous mugging back when I started this blog, I didn't linger. Dressed all in black, I ninja'd my way over there, went only as far as I needed to to hear them, and scooted straight back. Tick and run in the most literal sense.

This is momentous. I'm not one to talk bird stats, obviously, but this was bird #113 and equals my best patch year list to date, 2012 and 2011 both netting the same total. Except I have nearly four months to go this year. Though in reality this is closer to 30 days, less when you lop off the weekends I'm otherwise engaged. Or abroad....

Sunday 8 September 2013

More Wryneck

Still there, day six and counting. A few new faces on the patch this morning, but the same birds there as last week basically, we need a change in the weather. I popped out with number one son this morning as he wanted to see it - actually he thought it was a tick, but when we came home we realised he'd seen the 2010 bird, as had his sisters in fact. This spurred us to then watch "Twitchers, a very British Obsession", so he could see how well I treat him, and also what all the people on the patch were doing. Compared to Baggers and Lee, I now appear a lot more normal. Lee of course twitched both previous Wrynecks, scoring both times, our patch's huge claim to fame. I remember him telling me he had thought Wanstead Flats referred to a block of flats. Just with a lot of good birds in it perhaps? Oh, another Wryneck in stairwell B, and a couple of Redstarts near the Biffabins....

The Wryneck showed pretty well first thing, and then scooted out of the enclosure into the broom fields where we kept getting glimpses of it dashing, all tail, between various clumps, but never saw it properly. All the Whinchats are still around, and Tony found a Redstart in the SSSI, but nothing else doing, and all the Warblers disappeared fairly rapidly. This was the cue to go home for sustenance, and more jobs. In a way it's pretty handy when weekends are quiet, it means I can get stuff done, stuff that I have been putting off for ages. So I've finally cleaned out the guttering on the greenhouse, and finally emptied the water butts and given them a good scrubbing too. My life is just too exciting....

Apart from that, the rest of the day has been devoted to Photoshop.....

In my dreams......

Saturday 7 September 2013

Another dull day.....

Another quiet day on Wanstead Flats. Just three Whinchats, two Spotted Flycatchers, two Lesser Whitethroats, a Garden Warbler, a Tree Pipit and a Wryneck. It's all getting a bit dull if the truth be told, and I got bored pretty quickly. Until it livens up a bit I don't think I'm going to bother any more, it's hardly worth it. Anyway, before I collapsed with apathy and fell asleep, I managed a photo of Wanstead's current dross bird. God I hope it improves soon, there's only so much more of this I can take....

As expected there were quite a few birders around this morning, many wanting a glimpse of the Wryneck. Losers. What do they think, that it's rare or something? Amazing, but there you go, it takes all sorts. I just can't get excited by something quite so mundane. Treecreeper on the other hand, now there's a bird! Can't wait 'til we get one of those - a crippling mega! Anyway, before I go, here's a photo of another crappy bird from this morning. Yawn.

Friday 6 September 2013

My Patch is Incredible!

I am almost lost for words. Not quite though. Sorry. My patch is incredible. Amazing. Good, e-ven. This evening I saw my third Wryneck in four years. I live in zone three. I am about four miles from Canary Wharf, that bastion of avian dreams. I am surrounded by humanity, my patch is overrun with activity. And yet the birds still come. Two Stone-curlews, innumerable Whinchats and Wheatears. Annual Pied Flycatchers. And now yet another Wryneck.

Bob found it. Or refound it, an interloper (cheers James!) had found likely the same bird earlier in the week. In the same hawthorn that the Nightingale had been in earlier in the week, sitting in the sunshine. Admiring the patch. I don't know what to say, it's bordering on the sensational, and I am quite emotional about it. I can scarcely believe that I live here, and have all this literally on my doorstep.

I spent an hour or so kicking bushes, after nearly expiring whilst running over to the Broom Fields. It had unfortunately disappeared. I pretended to leave, and naturally it popped up. Cries of "Jono!" from Bob and Marco had me scurrying back and there it was. I drank it in, euphoric, and then nabbed Nick's camera and took a quick shot. Hope it's there tomorrow!!

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Banging (them in), Hanging (in there)

I'm still just about clinging on to my Wanstead year-listing ambitions. The need to be at work at the exact time that passerines start to become active is a constant bore, with the possibility of people finding birds when I'm in crowded train carriages or negotiating busy platforms an almost constant problem. Sometimes I get lucky though and today was one of those days. Failing yet again to haul my ass out of bed at a sensible time, due in no small part to the inevitable conclusion that I would see nothing at all before I departed the patch, only for all the birds to come out and show superbly whilst I was on the way to work, I missed a patch Nightingale. This bird had been suspected the previous day, but Nick had made sure to be there early doors, and had been greeted by the sight of it perched up and having a morning preen. When I got there it had naturally dived into cover, and two untickable flight-views later I was on the bus, which is where I learned about the Wryneck that was also in the Brooms. Piss. Still, our third in four years - what a patch!

But this story has a happy ending. Leaving work sometime after seven, I received news that the Nightingale was in its original spot and sub-singing. A quick diversion from my normal route home, and it wasn't long before I was nearing the viz-mig point, where Bob, Dan and Stu were apparently seeking safety in numbers and listening out for the bird. As luck would have it, my timing was impeccable, as approaching the large patch of broom the bird was rumoured to be in, the briefest snatch of sub-song emerged. For the record, it went duh-duh-duh-duh in that way that only Nightingales can do. But was it the bird, or was it an iPhone?! Happily it wasn't the guys, and so on to the list it goes. A short while later the bird broke cover briefly and flew to the next patch of broom, allowing short views that without the heard bit would probably still have been insufficient, but frankly were one coincidence too many. In any event, Nick has some photos from this morning, which hopefully when on the big screen will show it in all its glory.

The last few days I have been properly banging them in, as in addition to being a full fat patch tick, this takes me to the Nelson, 111, which is a major milestone as it is essentially my average patchlist over the last three years, and thus my 100% for the Patch List Challenge. It is also just two away from my record of 113, achieved in both of the last two years, and given I'm still missing resident Tawny Owl and Bullfinch, I've got a good feeling. Plenty of other possibilities as well, Med Gull, YL Gull, Brambling, and who knows what other winter birds. The record could be on. I'm miles behind Nick, currently on 118, but I'm definitely hanging in there.

Ringo from Ireland, nothing whatsoever to do with this post.

Monday 2 September 2013

Basic needs

I studied French and Management Studies at university. The French bit was fairly obvious - Zola, Maupassant, Cezanne, asking if you have any pets, Chagall, Magritte, that kind of thing. I can still vaguely recall some of the texts I read, some of the paintings I studied. I've still got quite a few of the books, as well as various coffee-table books of the paintings. What I gleaned from them I can barely remember, but I did find my dissertation in which I managed to insert a Darth Vader quote right under the noses of the examiners. On the Management Studies bit I am less clear. There was something about EU Competition Law, and the amusingly titled Abuse of a Dominant Position, which even as a 19 year old was quite amusing. We also did some kind of case study on The Pier, a shabby chic home décor chain which clearly didn't listen to us as they closed down in 2008. Whatever else I did in those three years I am completely unable to say, but I came away with a piece of paper denoting achievement and glory. None of it, to my knowledge, has proved of any use whatsoever, beyond being able to show people the piece of paper when asked.

So I was very pleased to have my memory jogged by the BBC News website recently, when it published an article about Maslow. For those of you that don't know, Maslow was a man who studied human motivation, and devised the eponymously-named Maslow's Triangle, or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I remembered it instantly, though the context remains lost in the past. Presumably it was some kind of wishy-washy Human Resources module. The theory is that you start at the bottom with very basic needs, food and warmth for instance, and gradually move up the triangle until you reach the peak, which is complete fulfilment and happiness, and, presumably, uninhibited productivity for your employer. I'm nearly there.

However to one side of the article was a fresh interpretation of Maslow's most famous work, which I have nabbed and posted below. It made me giggle, not quite as much as photo-shopping Tropicbirds it has to be said, but sufficiently to motivate me to write about it. It's sublimely brilliant, hat's off to whoever first came up with it - there are endless variations on the net. Pure simplicity, but so true. I'm as guilty as the next person, as my recent visit to Ireland proved. Food - sliced bread that was left over from a gull photography session. Water - one bottle lasted three days. Shelter - Nissan Qashqai. Warmth - Nissan Qashqai heater and a sleeping bag. All of the above are completely superfluous to surviving in the digital age, but wifi? Critical. I need to check Twitter. I need to look at RBA. I need to see if anyone has emailed me. I need an internet connection. Food, water, not bothered. Warmth? Whatever, what's the password? Shelter? Will it work through the walls if I'm sat in the Nissan?

The need to be connected at all times beggars belief. I was having dinner in the rather nice little village of Skerries just outside Dublin. All alone, I spent the time watching the other diners. At a table of four just in front of me, the young lady in the party spent the entire meal, and I mean the entire meal, on Facebook. She chatted a bit, responded to the conversation as it ebbed and flowed, but her right hand always held the phone, scrolling back and forth, seeing whatever pathetic updates and links have come through from a pile of people she barely knows. I suppose I'm hardly the ideal person to be criticising this ridiculous over-use of the internet, but that never stops me on other topics, so I got to wondering what it is like to be completely off piste? Is there even anywhere? I reckon most places I go, all of them now have wifi. It's the first thing people ask for, so it's the first thing that people install. It's a selling point. How many hotels have a crappy little telly and tea and coffee making facilities? They all do. My last hotel had a trouser press, how quaint! Nobody cares, they just want wifi. My hotel on the tip of Tobago had wifi, Kilbaha (population, 9) had wifi, various places in Morocco had wifi, the Shetland ferry in the middle of the North Sea has wifi,. Where can I go that doesn't have wifi? I want to see if I can survive more than a day.

Sunday 1 September 2013

September on the Patch.... so far very similar to August. In fact it involves most of the same birds, including all of yesterday's Whinchats and possibly an extra one for good measure. A couple of Redstart still knocking around as well, but quality was provided by a Green Sandpiper heading west across the Flats. I was chasing the aforementioned Whinchats around the Broom Fields, and had got within the requisite 40m before they all took flight again, when I heard a wader call, high and piercing. Looking around desperately yielded nothing, but it called again twice whilst remaining invisible. I was texting out the news of wader goodness when a text from Nick came through. I had thought he was at Long Wood, but in fact he was somewhere over towards the Alex, and had had a Green Sand over calling. He hadn't seen it either, but no matter, mystery solved, and checking my phone confirmed that the high call notes were indeed the species I had been wondering about. Happy days.

This was as close as I came, which with 1120mm of focal length tells you all you need to know.
This proved the only high note of the morning, the Whinchats were completely impossible, and a brief glimpse of a Redstart diving between cover had me scuttling home - there is only so long I want to schlep a big lens around for without actually doing anything with it. So instead I have devoted the rest of the day to sorting out my greenhouse, which before birding took over my life was a mainstay of my OCD. The scene inside was of major devastation. Even though the plants I like are mostly from arid zones, there is only so much that even they can take, and I have unfortunately managed to kill loads of them. Mainly these were seedling plants, the ones that really needed tender loving care, whereas the larger plants have more in reserve and can last longer. I am a fool. So, a massive cleaning exercise, lots of disposing of dead plants, lots of tipping soil away, and a back-breaking trip to the dump to dispose of the lot. But it looks great now! Whilst I was having my sort out, I also swept and scrubbed the floor, and scrubbed the walls (yes, my greenhouse has walls....) and the dirty bits of the frame. I've got rid of all the mould, sprayed away many of the bugs, and basically done what I ought to have done about five months ago. It almost looks pristine, and I've resolved to enjoy it again.

This Green Woodpecker landed vaguely near Bob and I whilst we were discussing which waders we hadn't seen on the patch.

The feeling of satisfaction, although tinged with sadness at the loss of rare plants, is hard to beat. It has been on successive to-do lists for absolutely ages and ages. Why I decided to start it in September, when the whole of June had been available I have no idea, call it stupidity, but it is done. I actually started last night, and in total the job has taken somewhere between seven and eight hours of non-stop work. Mostly lows when confronted with yet another death, but a huge high when with no small amount of pleasure I also discovered two bottles of Scotch down there, a reminder of a time when I wasn't just processing photos and blogging all the time. Back then I thought nothing of actually sitting down and doing very little in my special greenhouse chair, sometimes even falling asleep in the muggy warmth whilst the fans whirred and the foliage rustled. I always kept a wee something down there for precisely those times, and although covered in cobwebs and muck, liquid remained within. The label on one had been completely eaten away by snails, but I recall that if was The Glenlivet. The other is obviously a Glenfiddich, though in a brown bottle rather than green, whatever that means, as the snails and slugs have had the crucial information. Naturally I checked that both were fine, a quick swig from each one, and am pleased to confirm that several years of neglect, sub-zero temperatures and then high thirties, seem to have had no impact on their sipping qualities, so I may take a glass down there. I've just fumigated it, done a final sweep up, a final bit of house-keeping, and all is good. Time to start buying plants again I guess.....