Wednesday 31 December 2014

Adios 2014

Well, it's been a roller-coaster year. Plenty of ups, a few downs. Normal life in other words, never perfect. Egrets, I've had a few. Gems, many. Visited a pile of places, took a load of photos, saw tons. Worked my butt off, learned a great deal about many varied topics, some of interest, some of use, some of no interest or use whatsoever. What will 2015 bring I wonder?

For one, I hope that people can stay happy. The world is such a crummy place at the moment, with so much anger, hate and violence. I am shocked on a daily basis at the depravity of mankind. Birding would help I feel. The experience of the cold clear air and the rush that seeing something beautiful can bring. This probably sounds exceedingly twee, but if I've had a crappy day, and hour birding after work, an hour hearing Skylarks singing and Meadow Pipits squeaking helps a great deal. And what about Wheatears? Manna from heaven, just as you're utterly fed up with winter along comes a bit of Africa on your local patch. Alert, bright-eyed, orange. It warms the soul, it really does. Think about that in the depths of winter, let it nurture you and guide you towards spring. As I type, it's potentially only ten short weeks away. For now, enjoy the Ducks in their finery, but know that the real beauties are not far away.

Today, I asked that the office TV be turned off. It was, and peace reigned. So all that remains is to wish any readers a peaceful and wildlife filled New Year. It starts in less than four hours. I might go on a twitch. But do whatever you enjoy. Just get out there and enjoy it. Stay local or travel. Live. Bird if that's your thing, photograph if that's what you enjoy. Life is all too short. Enjoy it, make yourself happy.

Best Trip of 2014

Zzzzzzzzzzz. Yes, apologies. When talking about travel I am very aware that I am liable to bore the pants of people very quickly. That said, I can do that with almost any topic, it just so happens that I have caught the travel bug, so that’s what I write about today. Tomorrow it could be something completely different, though it goes without saying it’s unlikely to be Wanstead. Sorry about that, the patch has most definitely come off second best this year, possibly not even that high. The blog title is a mockery, I am guilty of false advertising and trading standards have been made aware. I’d love to get back into the patch, but I’m too busy sounding like a broken record. No doubt it will bump along, but last year was very poor. Usually I am guaranteed to come second in the local listing competition, behind Nick. However this year the status quo has been rudely interrupted and I don’t even have a podium place. I don’t, of course, deserve a podium place, so that’s fair enough. All I can say is that it was easier when there were just three of us.

If I were really dweeby I could dig up some stats, but in addition to being my poorest patch year for ages and ages, it was also my lowest UK year list for ages and ages. I ended up on 237 – approximately 23 off my previous low. Year listing is a funny old game, and I’m not sad that I’ve seen such a low number of birds. It’s a total far more indicative of a healthy and well-rounded individual in my opinion, but there have been some crazy misses. No Mandarin Duck, of which the UK’s largest population live about fifteen minutes away. No Black Tern, no Osprey. The list goes on and on, I will not bore you with it as I have recently bored my family.

Work has intervened substantially, it’s been a tough year, tougher than any I’ve ever experienced. Local birding and going birding for the sake of going birding are what has suffered. Last year I believe I ended by saying I’d work hard and play hard, and that has certainly been the case. How I’ve kept going I have no idea, and there have been quite a few stressful moments, including some of my own stupid making. When I stopped running around like a lunatic momentarily just before Christmas, I immediately fell ill, having somehow avoided lurgy throughout the whole rest of the year. The answer is clearly not to slow down, and despite my rapidly advancing years I still feel reasonably energetic. It’ll hit me one day I’m sure, but for now I intend to continue to burn the candle both ends until I get singed.

In the same way that the patch and the UK have gone south, so has this blog. Versus previous years I’ve posted far less, and it annoys me. It used to be a fairly steady 15-16 posts a month, but this year it has been more like 9-10. I’d love to be able to say that I’m a quality over quantity kind of guy, but in truth I’ve had nothing to say for years. However that never stopped me before, whereas this year saw a mere 121 posts. I know, Thank God. But for someone who likes writing this is a massive decline, and it’s not like I have other outlets. Mind you, one advantage of fewer posts means that I have less opportunity to ramble on endlessly and stray off topic... 

...err, anyway, the best trip of 2014 has many many contenders, quite simply as I’ve been to many many places, and because I plan my trips properly they’ve all gone rather well. I’ve visited 15 countries, with highlights being taking my family to the USA for the first time and visiting the town my ancestors are from. Then of course there was Hong Kong to visit my sister and her family, which was breathtaking. Birding took a back seat for much of the time, and I zipped around the territory like a nutcase soaking it all in.

From a birding perspective however, it was all about Morocco. I made three visits there, one in January, one in February, and then more recently at the start of this month. The February trip to the desert areas south of Guelmin was the standout trip, with numerous Wheatears and other special birds. That’s not to say that the other trips to Morocco were no good, far from it, and indeed Cyprus was pretty damn good too, but it was the middle, longer trip that stood out. We arrived at lunchtime, and the following morning were in the middle of nowhere, knee-deep in Thick-billed Larks and Red-rumped Wheatears

Possibly my favourite foreign bird of 2014
That however doesn’t get the nod. Instead I’m picking Iceland, a short trip that I went on in late June in minimal darkness. Only three and a half days, a long weekend really, but what a place. A tiny trip-list, but the views of the birds were unparalled. Breeding waders and divers were abundant, and I had Phalaropes at arms length. Amazing Harlequin Ducks on the coast, and a trip to Myvatn for Barrow’s Goldeneye. The landscape is dramatic to say the least, but I have no photographic talent in that area and in any event was too busy with the birds. So hard to choose given all the other places I’ve been to, but it was somewhere I’d wanted to go for a long time and it gets a big thumbs up from me as it was as good as I had hoped it would be. Just beware of the weather – I can’t recall seeing the sun at any point, but we did see a lot of rain! That did not detract from what was an excellent trip that I would recommend to anyone interested in waders, wildfowl, and wild scenery.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

2014 Twitch of the Year

As previously mentioned, fewer candidates this year, but were any simply spectacular? Well, not really. Generally I was a little more gung-ho about things, for instance waiting six weeks to go and see the Ross's Gull in Devon...... But seriously, this is supposed to celebrate all things twitch, and do any stand out for being skin-of-my-teeth, brave and daring, cheating fate, that sort of thing? Er no, this is twitching we're talking about. The ability to own or have access to a car, and be able to read a map and follow simple instructions. So whilst there have been some great birds, most of them long stayers that allowed my absurd travel schedule to proceed unhindered, which was the most satisfying? Not missing out on the Eagle by being abroad was good, ditto for the Speccy. Both had the good grace to hang around for ages and ages, a feature of most birds during the year with the exception perhaps of the Great Knot (but I got that too!). 

However for sheer "I love it when a plan comes together"-ness, the most satisfying were that incredibly uninspiring trio of Yanks that graced Scotland right at the start of the year. I combined a visit up there with a trip to my office in Glasgow, and had exactly one and a half days to bag the lot before needing to be at work on Monday morning. I planned it out like a campaign, with times I needed to be at certain places, and times I needed to leave others. And it worked like a dream, with the weather mostly playing ball as well. I left Inverness airport at lunchtime of Saturday, and was "enjoying" the American Coot very shortly afterwards. I then diverted to Capercaillieland for a spot of pant-wetting, and after realising that the bird was quicker and fiercer than I was, went birding in the nearby forests, followed by going up Cairngorn to dip Ptarmigan. As the weather closed in I crossed the country to Strontian, passing a terrible night in a storm-lashed car sleeping for perhaps fifteen minutes at a time before needing to switch the engine on to stay alive. Sunday morning the glorious American Black Duck was all mine in dreadful weather before it was time for the long drive south to Campbeltown where an American Herring Gull had been seen. This bird, even for a a Gull-lover like me, was the worst of the lot, taking hours and an emergency Double Decker to connect with, and when I did the feeling of joy was indescribable. Sheer and utter joy. Not really, it was crap. I mean it was nice to get it, and it capped a sensational weekend of tickery, but let's face it, it's a manky gull like all the rest of them and is only marginally different from a Herring Gull. Whereas the Coot and Duck were complete polar opposites of their European counterparts. Ahem.

So, three crap birds and four hundred slow miles. But eminently worth it for reasons that continue to defy rational explanation. Boom boom boom, tick and run. The best thing about it is that it took less than a full weekend and I need never suffer from twitcher's angst about any of them ever again. They're done and forgotten about, forever inked in.

Sunday 21 December 2014

The shortest day, the shortest year, the best bird

Hard to believe we're here again, but here we are. A year ago, more or less, I was lying on my front in a Yorkshire puddle whilst photographing an Ivory Gull. I had thought that would be it for the year, but a week later I was in the south-west for a Dorset-Devon double-header, with first Brunnich's Guillemot and then a White-billed Diver. Looking back, it was a fabulous three weeks, and this December hasn't lived up to it at all, though there is a Blyth's Pipit knocking about that I cannot get excited about, fabulous inland find though it undoubtedly is. No, this December I've been content to knock around Wanstead, and most weekend days have been spent at home doing not very much. That's fine by me, my schedule can be pretty gruelling and some slack days are much appreciated. Not long to go before 2015 kicks off, and as from tomorrow the northern hemisphere starts its slow tilt back towards the sun. Normally I get a little sad as the year passes away, the trigger is usually when the clocks go through their autumn change, and that following Monday I'm sat at my desk bemoaning the 4pm darkness.

This year I've barely noticed the long march towards winter, engrossed in other things I suppose, but if you look at it in bird terms, it has been very quiet indeed compared to last year. In 2013 I gained eight lifers from October onwards, including four in December. In 2013 that number has been zero. Two in September, a Rustic Bunting on Shetland and a smash-and-grab raid on the Spurn Masked Shrike, and then nothing since. The two years could barely have been more different, and that late surge meant that 2013 was a lot more profitable than this year has been. 15 vs 10 is the final score, unless something dramatic happens. These days it is unlikely that my annual lifer total will start going up, but that's still a pretty hefty decline, and one that if projected sees me fizzle out on 429 in 2017, and then add a bird per decade. I'll hit 500 when I'm 500. Mind you, by that time a decent yearlist will be about 25 as most things will be extinct apart from Parakeets.

I usually do this in one post, but I make eke it out over the course of a few and thus up my steadily shrinking post count. Favourite bird of 2014? Last year the UK prize went to an Izzy Wheatear. This year it could easily go to the Kent Desert Wheatear, but I think for sheer buzz it has to be a rogue male Caper that I stopped in on between the American Coot and the American Black Duck. Odd that neither of those two should feature.... Many many people went to admire this amazing bird as the news spread (not from me I should add) - in my case I went in February before the breeding season kicked off and before the bird got too crazed from rising testosterone levels, but it was still a terrifying experience and I was left in absolutely no doubt as to where his territory was and where I should stay. I crossed that invisible line and was resolutely chased off, but if I stayed a short distance up a certain slope, only a few metres back, I was no longer viewed as a threat or a mating prospect and he strutted off to elsewhere on 'his' turf. An amazing experience with magnificent bird and one I'll not forget for a very long time.


Tripping out

As the year draws to a close, it's time to look back and see what I've done, where I've been, what I've seen. Anyone who looks at these pages even infrequently will realise I get through my fair share of travel, and as I look back I find it incredible to see quite how much I have crammed in. And it's not like my job got any easier either, it was the most mental year I think I have ever experienced. Work hard play hard, and it's true. Those hours behind a desk spur me on to get out amongst it as often as I can - as such most months have seen a small expedition somewhere in pursuit of birds. It keeps me going.

Although usually long weekends, I've tended to be very rigorous in the planning stages, and that combined with fortunate weather has meant that even on the shortest of trips I've seen loads of birds, often really well - this is a lot easier than in the south-east of England as by and large there are just far fewer people where I go. Hong Kong is of course the exception, and surprise surprise, I saw far fewer birds there during a week away than would have been the case in a less developed place. That said it was completely wonderful, and birding took an unusual back seat.

January - Morocco
February - Morocco
March - Cyprus
May - Hong Kong
June - Iceland
July - Finland
August - Sweden
September - Shetland
November - Tenerife
December - Morocco

The full list is here, and as you can see, Morocco is the destination of choice. I reckon I have a couple more trips there at some point, specifically the north coast for Marsh Owl, and then a longer trip down to the Western Sahara. However have you noticed the big gap above? Gaps plural? April and October are missing!! What happened there?! Terrible, I must try harder. 

That said, 2015 will likely see less frequent travel, as we already have a lot of family holidays planned, including the five of us heading off to Hong Kong. And whilst booking a ticket somewhere is the easy part, finding the time to do so is rather more challenging.That's not to say it will be a blank year, far from it, and some things I'm already looking forward to are the west coast of the USA, as well as two short trips to Poland and Madeira for specific targets. 

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Death and Despair. No Biscuits.

Where I work there are televisions that are always on. One is always in my line of sight if I am looking at my computer screens. If I turn around to get away from it, another appears instead. In the 360 degrees from my desk, I can see seven televisions, and every single one of them, despite no sound, is feeding me a diet of bad news. Constant bad news. Constant unpleasant bad news. Unless I’m in a meeting somewhere, my day is completely dominated by whatever atrocity or disaster is currently befalling the world. It does not do much for my well-being is the conclusion I am reaching. I don’t know about you, but as I age I seem to slowly but surely become more sensitive to sad and bad things happening. I never used to be like this, and really you would expect that the constant in-your-face aspect of today’s news services, often beaming you tragedy live and as it happens would harden you to it. Toughen you up. Yet it is the opposite, and there are some stories that I end up with a lump in my throat. They can be global news stories where you see a child’s body under a sheet, or they can be reading Michael Clarke’s address from Philip Hughes’ funeral. Perhaps it is to do with having children, perhaps it is to do with my own mortality, as so famously penned in song by Pink Floyd. Shorter of breath, one day closer to death.

I’m trying to work, but I’m surrounded by death. Seemingly news is not news unless somebody has died. Preferably lots of people. Yesterday I was pumped ten hours of the siege at that café in Sydney. As terrified people ran out of the building, so I saw them run. Then I saw the repeats of them running. Again and again. I saw the SWAT team going in and the flashes of gunfine. Again and again. And I saw the wounded being carried out. Today I’m being fed live updates from Peshawar, where religiously-motivated gunmen have just killed 130 children in some kind of revenge attack, part of an ever-increasing spiral of violence. Children, shot in their classrooms in cold blood. To say it is harrowing is to belittle it, I am speechless. I spent the summer watching Ebola unfold, with light relief provided by the periodic beheading of western hostages in Syria and Iraq. I saw the candle-lit vigils, and then the stills from the videos and the men in black with balaclavas on. I get aerial footage of M25 crash scenes, I get capsized ferries and cruise liners, I get downed airliners. Rape, murder and child abuse are all quotidian.

Occasionally, very occasionally, the BBC feel sorry for the viewer and stick on a feel good story. Or indeed comedy, for instance when UKIP take part in a by-election, or when FIFA release a report into their own activities. This is very rare, but the other day there was a piece, repeated pleasingly often, about baby seals, replete with extensive footage of baby seals looking adorable. This was heart-warming, and I watched it as often as I could, transfixed by the deep black eyes of the pups. But of course it was a story about orphaned seal pups being hand-reared back to health, so the sub-text was still DEATH. And as I type the BBC is now telling me that one of the last Northern White Rhinos has died in captivity. Ideally they’ll follow this up with a story about poaching, and show a few dead and mutilated animals bleeding in some dry acacia-dotted scrubland. Breaking News they call it. I’m sick of it.

I know what you’re thinking. Get up and turn the TV off. I would, believe me I would, but they’re suspended from the ceiling and I can’t reach the buttons.

Monday 15 December 2014

No more trips this year!!

I'm all done! No more trips for the whole rest of the year! I know, how will I cope? Well, cabin fever is a distinct possibility, but I have a solid seven days at work before my next break, or four if you count going to Edinburgh. The good news is that this means that I will be birding Wanstead comprehensively and continuously. Between my house and the bus stop mostly, but I am intrigued by the news of a Water Rail on the Shoulder of Mutton Pond. Will I go and have a look for it? Well, only time will tell I suppose. Work hard play hard seems to be the order of the day, and that unfortunately leaves little time for the patch. Hopefully I'll redress the balance a little next year, but Heathrow is only an hour and a bit away.....

So what has been happening? Well, Tenerife happened, which was very pleasant, and as you may have seen, so did Morocco. Both very productive little trips, with birds way better than here. Mind you, this time last year, or perhaps it was during the first winter season, not sure, I was fully engrossed in some amazing UK birds, including a fabulously showy Black-bellied Dipper and a local Slavonian Grebe. That's the kind of thing I'd like to do more of, but finding those types of birds is a rare chance indeed. Hopefully we'll get a cold snap, a bit of a freeze up, and I'll be able to get up close and personal with some wildfowl. I like winter, especially the cold clear days where you get decent light and the temperature keeps most other people indoors. Crossing my fingers. 

But even without that prospect, I remain pretty stacked. Last week was three Christmas parties on the trot, two in London on Wednesday and Thursday, with another in Glasgow on Friday. It's not just that I'm wildly popular, it's also because I'm the boss and they have to invite me. Not really. Well, I am in charge of a few people as befits a man of my advanced years, but rather it's a chance for the department to let their hair down and have a rare evening not talking about work. Even if we did talk about work most of the time. A riotous affair Thursday, obviously, culminating in a 1am (I know how to live, me) arrival home and an angry wife. Angry wife again, as this was preceded by the East London Birders Drinks, with typical levels of stupidity, and flying hot towels. We really are the Wild Bunch, and I can confirm that Mrs L does not appreciate cold drunken men invading lovely warm beds in the small hours. Even if they're me! Friday night was in Glasgow, but by then I was a shadow of my former self and didn't even make it 'til midnight. Partly this was to do with a Chicken Tikka Pakora of such immense proportions that I could barely move after eating it, but mainly it was to do with being totally shattered. I am not as young as I used to be, and this shows no signs of improving. 

Luckily I had a quiet weekend back in London as a fully-fledged domestic goddess before gratefully hitting Canary Wharf again this morning, as much for a rest as anything else. Apart from not getting home until gone 8am and then spending half an hour picking things up of the floor, as is typical of an evening. I particularly want to let people know how much I enjoy stacking the dishwasher after an 11 hour day at work, it really takes the edge off my stress levels - wonderfully therapeutic. What I am really trying to say is that I am in dire need of a holiday.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Morocco - Trip Report

·        A two day trip in early December (6th – 8th) booked in a fit of enthusiasm during a British Airways flight sale. No particular targets, just an expectation to pootle around and point the camera at stuff, much like my trip back in January.Two up, with Andrew M for the first time.
·        BA flight to Marrakech (RAK) from Gatwick departed 1250h on Saturday morning, arriving at around 1630h. At the time of booking this had been an early morning departure arriving at lunchtime, but this flight was axed from the schedule a few months later. I could have cancelled, but decided not to. Nonetheless it shortened the holiday by half a day, so I shall in future be looking at other airlines for this route.
·        Car hire via Avis was a clapped out Peugeot 206 that took a full 90 minutes to claim, an hour to give back, and came with zero petrol in it. I cannot remember a shittier car hire experience. Last time I used a local company, Medloc, and having now experienced the lackadaisical competition I will use them again. £94 and the doors didn't even close properly.  
·        No accommodation booked in advance, but I had two places in mind. The first was the Camping Sidi Wassay just north of Massa on the south side of the river, used back in Feb, where a small hobbit dwelling set us back approx £18, and then the Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir for the second night, which was £16 each including breakfast. We arrived at unannounced at 2330h and 2200h respectively, and had no trouble sorting out rooms at either place.
·        Research was unnecessary, as I'd been to all the places before, but I would have done well to read the news before leaving, as had I done so I would have learned about the incredible rain and subsequent flooding in southern Morocco, and may have changed the itinerary. The Massa and many other places have been devastated by floodwaters surging down from the mountains, and whilst we were still able to pursue the original plan, it was nowhere near as easy. A number of roads that I had planned to drive, both in the Massa and the Atlas foothills, had had bridges washed away and were thus impassable.
·        Ate mostly oranges and drank mostly water - an exceedingly cheap survival strategy! In fact the whole trip was stupidly cheap, spending under £100 each which included all accommodation, all food, petrol and motorway tolls. No police bribes for 'speeding' were necessary this time, but I was being particularly paranoid.


Day 1: Flight arrived at 1630h, and then wasted over an hour faffing with Avis thus missing all daylight. Missed the quick route out of Marrakech and arrived in the Massa just after 2300h.
Day 2: Birded the Oued Massa all morning, explored the Oued Souss in the afternoon, and then drove to Ait Ourir in the dark.
Day 3: Drove the backroads looking for photographic opportunities until about 1430h, when we headed for Menara airport and home.

Day 1
By the time we had managed to get a car off the cretins at Avis it was dark, and so all that remained was to drive to our destination in the Oued Massa. This took far longer than anticipated, and even in the dark it was clear that the heavy rains must have taken their toll. At the Sidi Wassay camping we sourced a dank hobbit cabana thing that had clearly soaked up a great deal of moisture, but were so shattered that it made no difference.

Day 2
A fine day by the looks of it, with Linnet flying round the campsite and a Moussier's Redstart perched on a German campervan's wing mirror. Up and out quite quickly we tried some of the same fields as last time for Bald Ibis, but drew a blank and instead were diverted by numerous Thekla Larks feeding nearby. As we crested the hill, the sight of the Massa drew our breath away - devastated, the delicate system of drainage and irrigation overwhelmed and destroyed. Birds a plenty, but penetrating into the maze of small fields proved practically impossible. At one point we had to jump what had been a path but was now a stream, and balance along the top of some of the remaining dykes to pick our way back to dry land. A Bluethroat was a pleasing find, though rather skulky - nothing that Photoshop cannot sort out though..... Other than that the usual denizens were present a correct in the post-diluvian morass - Bulbuls chattering away, Tchagras fluting, and numerous Stonechats and Sardinian Warblers, including some very obliging birds that made our struggle with floodwaters very worthwhile. We whiled away most of the day here before trying out the Oued Souss a little further north. This was nowhere near as good, but we were operating on no gen whatsoever, whereas the Massa was known quite well, despite its watery reshaping. With the light fading we skirted Agadir and crossed over the western part of the Atlas and back to Marrakech, getting hopelessly lost in the city before popping out of the other side and onto the road to Oukaimaden. It took until the road started to climb into the mountains for me to realise we had wanted the road to Ouzarzate, but this was easily corrected and we pulled into the Coq Hardi in Ait Ourir at around half ten. Whilst the previous night we had fallen asleep to the sound of the Atlantic, here we had the raging Oued Zatt, still in full flow a week after the rains. 

Day 3
After a fine breakfast we started exploring the nearby hills, just as I had done earlier in January. The Zatt was indeed in full flow, I've never seen so much as a single drop in it on any previous trip. We headed up on the P2021 through the Iggrouka forest and onto the plain above, seeing numerous Shrikes and other birds beside the road. Best of all was a Black Wheatear near Towouret, which I spied from miles away as it perched up distinctively on some cairns. The short hike up the slope to its territory was well worth it, and meant that we didn't need to risk the drive over the mountains further east where I knew there was another pair. In the event that was impossible anyway, as the bridge between Timezguida and Timzilite had been washed away by the torrent. Although not as bad as the Guelmin and Agadir area, clearly the impact of floods here had also been substantial.

One of the ex-bridges in the lower Atlas

So, turning around we had no choice but to head back to Ait Ourir. The usual White Storks circled the dump, and we took the P2010 out of town in the hope of coming across some bird-attracting irrigation in the fields. A roadside LRP and White Wagtail entertained for a while, but it was all about the Shrikes, which were stationed very regularly along the larger R210 road back west towards Marrakech. Soon however it was time to pack up and head for the airport - the flight departed at half five, and our short trip was at an end.

More shenanigans at the airport with Avis, who truly hit rock bottom. Mind you, this is a first world problem, think of those locals having to deal with rebuilding homes and fields. Easy flight back, I had my pick of passport officers at Gatwick and was back in the car so soon after landing I thought it might have all been a dream. The trip list was not high, perhaps mid-fifties, but plenty of decent images to wade through.

Averagely-loaded Moroccan truck. 

Trip List = 53 (presented in the order seen)

House Bunting - at the airport!
Spotless Starling - around Sidi Wassay campsite and elsewhere in the Massa
Pied Wagtail
Moussier's Redstart
Lesser Black-backed Gull - along the coast and at Oued Sous
Yellow-legged Gull - ditto
Thekla Lark - any stony ground
Southern Grey Shrike - common roadside bird around Marrakech
Black-winged Stilt - Oued Massa
Common Sandpiper - Oued Massa
Flamingo - in flight at Sidi Wassay
Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Collared Dove
Common Bulbul
Black-crowned Tchagra - close to the river at Oued Massa
Zitting Cisticola
Meadow Pipit
Bluethroat - skulking in crops in the Massa
Yellow Wagtail
Sardinian Warbler
Glossy Ibis - several flocks Oued Massa
Serin - Oued Massa 
Cirl Bunting - uncommon Oued Massa
House Sparrow
Spanish Sparrow
Laughing Dove - Oued Massa
Magpie - large flock near Oued Sous
Peregrine - Oued Sous
Black-headed Gull
Spoonbill - one at Oued Sous
White Stork - Oued Sous, and hundreds circling Ait Ourir dump
Sandwich Tern - one Oued Sous
Mediterranean Gull - one Oued Sous
Black Redstart
Black Stork - mirgating at dusk over the Atlas!
Crossbill - in Iggrouka forest
Woodpigeon - in Iggrouka forest
Black Wheatear - near Towourte
Long-legged Buzzard - Ighrisse Ait Faska
Little Ringed Plover - puddles east of Marrakech on R210

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Morocco again

Sorry, but I like it. I like it a lot better than here actually. Specifically there are lots of birds and very few people. Whereas in the UK if you go birding and are lucky enough to actually see a bird, no matter where you go the experience is soon ruined by dog-walkers, holier-than-thous, or the general twattishness of broad segments of the UK population. In Morocco, if you pick your spot you occasionally get interrupted by someone wanting money off you, but that's about it. It's altogether far better for actually enjoying the birds, which some would argue is the entire point. In the UK that's somewhat secondary, it seems to be all about perception and conformance. Possibly I'm just a bit bitter, but be that as it may, birding abroad is an a much more satisfying experience than birding here. And it's mostly warm, which counts for a lot. Also, there are no Shrikes in the UK, hence I go abroad to places where there are Shrikes. If there is a counter-argument on the Shrike front I'd like to hear it.

Time being a very limiting factor in my personal situation, this was another absurdly short trip, with less than 48 hours in the country. I can accomplish a lot in 48 hours. For instance getting up close and personal with Shrikes. In the UK on the rare occasion you get to see a Shrike, it's often in the company of fifty other people, and could easily be a hundred yards away across a field. In Morocco they're simply part of the landscape, omnipresent, and you just stop your car when you see one and then just lap up it's sheer awesomeness for as long as you want. Or as long as you can manage before risking missing your flight....

Oh, and some of other birds are rather nice too. I'll do a trip report in due course, but for now I can simply say that I saw nothing hugely rare, that my life list has increased by precisely zero, but that it was phenomenal once again - my third trip this year. I reckon I know enough about the region now that I could lead a tour (that's how easy it is!). Bookings can be made via the comments box below, and my rates are very reasonable. Oranges free.

Thursday 4 December 2014

In praise of Lego

Not that Lego......real Lego. Birders, tchah! No, real, actual plastic Lego - bricks, plates, tiles and bars. The toy of champions, and I love it. Yes I still play with Lego, and I'm not ashamed. It's one of the principal reasons I had children actually, so that I needn't come across as all weird and nerdy. Consequently, rather than in spite of, we have a lot of Lego in the house. Seriously loads. For instance there's a Lego Mos Eisley in the front room that measures a good 4 feet by 4 feet, and has seen many years of love despite it being a wretched hive of scum and villany. But we have nothing on some people, oh no. This weekend the kids and I went to Brick 2014, a Lego exhibition at Excel populated by dysfunctional dweebs amazingly talented grown-ups.

We were blown away. The dedication of these people is sensational, I thought I was committed to some of the things I enjoy. I have nothing on these guys, nothing. I am a pale imitation, my particular brand of OCD a mere shadow of what it could be. This is obsession on a whole new level, these guys would make amazing twitchers if it ever occured to them. Anyone remember this famous National Geographic cover?

What about Westminster Abbey?

I could go on and on. Three hours passed in a blur, especially the final thirty minutes when I lost a child. Some free advice for any other parents out there - monstrously large exhibitions are not the place to lose a ten year old boy. Of course we hadn't arranged a meeting point if we were separated. Or any kind of scenario planning whatsoever. All of a sudden he's nowhere to be seen, in a room the size of a football field populated by thousands of small people his exact size. Parenting fail. I got him back of course, wasn't worried for a moment, ahem, but FFS. But back to the Lego, I want to give up work, downgrade my house to a bungalow somewhere, and purchase half a million bricks, there to spend the rest of my life building the most amazing dioramas in the hope of being invited to sit behind railings in huge exhibition halls being admired by loads of kids. And their dads....

Here's a selection, including birds so that I can keep this blog resolutely on topic! 


Sunday 30 November 2014

Pope flees to Turkey

Yet again the supreme Pontiff got wind of my impending visit and fled the country. Last time Korea, this time Turkey. Seriously, these Vatican informants seem to be everywhere, I'm going to have to be careful what I say. Having enjoyed Rome immensely last time I went, it wasn't a massive deal booking to go again, this time with a child - a special birthday treat. Having done a project on the Romans there was apparently a need to see the Colosseum. Fair enough, and I had missed it out on my last trip so that's what we did. Incredibly impressive that any of it is still standing, let alone most of it - some of the artistic impressions of what it would have looked like fully formed are incredible. We had a good old wander around, and also took in a huge number of other antiquity while we were at it, including getting hopelessly lost in The Forum three times. I have never been to a place where there is quite as much history just lying around. Westminster Abbey came close, a history of England in a single building, but Rome is a different story. It's a place that you go to and come back wishing to read a great number of books. You don't of course, that passes, but it's incredibly interesting while you're there.

I'm sorry this isn't much about Wanstead. I just can't get the urge to out there, especially now that I hear there are wild packs of killer dogs on the loose. We nearly lost Bob recently, one of his hands is hanging by a thread. Well, the wound is at least 3mm deep, but the hounds looked large and their owners unrepentant (massive, massive surprise there), and frankly I would not have liked to have been in his shoes. Though I might have had a monopod on my person, and a dog owner may have subsequently had a monopod in their rectum. When said hounds have been rounded up and shot, I may give it a go, but until the weather changes I don't really see much point. We need a bit of change - first cold snap and I'll be right there. Unless I'm abroad.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Movember madness

Only a few more days go, it is getting rather wearing. My children (though they have been since given up for adoption) challenged me to do Movember. Much in the same way as they challenged me to do a 'fun' run. Apparently this is penance for various unspecified misdemeanours, such as when I took the car keys to Norfolk and they had - shock, horror - to take public transport one morning. 

Before I continue, this wasn't because they wanted to see me with a moustache, but because they figured I couldn't grow one, and that in trying I would look utterly ridiculous and thus they would gain a month's worth of daily amusement from the pathetic wisps of fluff that would no-doubt adorn my top lip. They were right in one sense, I do look utterly ridiculous, and they are amused daily, but I have surprised even myself with the vigour of growth. And by the amount of white. And worse than that, ginger. I mean where the hell does that come from? I need to talk to my Mum. If she is my Mum.

Nontheless it has been hard, as bottom line is that I am not one of those extremely hairy people. There are guys in my office who can grow in a few days what has taken me nearly four weeks. I started off with the full beard look, until it was pointed out that this was cheating and it had to be tash only. Now, there's no point going at it half-assed and growing a tiny little neatly trimmed thing. No, if you're going to raise money for a decent cause you might as well go at it 100%. Sorry, make that 110%. So I've tried to look as stupid as possible, going for the full mexican look as famously worn by Big Merv. Obviously I've got nothing on Merv, the luxuriance of that particular tash knows almost no equal, however to attempt to grow a mere shadow of it is a particularly stupid look. So, I psyched myself up for it and, armed with two bics, attacked my face after about ten days. 

It was terrible. What I should have done was buy a trimmer thing, but I am far too tight for that. Instead I ripped my face apart, blood everywhere, not nice at all. Both bics were trashed beyond re-use, and I was disappointed to require a third. I mean Jesus, that's probably 60p right there! But with a small amount of pain and a higher amount of humiliation comes maximum fund-raising, or that's the plan. I think I'm currently at around £120, which is in no way fair recompense for the daily event of mothers crossing the street with their children, people moving away from me on the tube, that kind of thing. Notwithstanding that I have to manage a team of however many people at work and they're supposed to take me seriously. Whereas now they just giggle.

Anyhow, the joy of the internet is that images can accompany words, and I felt it would be unfair to deprive my many readers (both of them) the opportunity to also enjoy my discomfort. And to donate, obviously, though don't feel you have to.

So with that done, here's a picture of my chin pre-shave this morning. Chins. Whatever. Shut up.