Thursday, 30 January 2014

Must. Write. Something.

Nothing to say. This evening I've started about eight blog posts, and never got more than about two sentences. There was one on commuting, There was one on long, dark evenings. There was one on tax. I've forgotten what the others were about, but they all had one thing in common. Boring. And thus were abandoned. This one has that in common too, but the difference is that I've persevered with it. Probably wasn't worth it. The trouble is the age-old one, which is that I have done nothing interesting recently. Neither, I suspect, have many other people, but they perhaps don't like writing as much as I do. I refuse to go watch TV, and I had dinner already. What else is there to do? Plenty of useful things, but they're all domestic. And boring.

In case you hadn't guessed it, I'm bored. Bored of commuting. Bored of winter. Interested in tax, obviously, but only one aspect, which is paying less of it. Unfortunately I don't have that choice and the number is what the number is. At least it's done and I'm not going to get fined. Of birdy things to say, there are none. I popped out very briefly at the weekend, and not since. It has been wet, miserable, and dark, and I would like it to be dry, warm, and light. I sense that it is getting lighter, slowly but surely, but even though Wheatears are potentially only five weeks away, there is still a long way to go.

If you detected a slight pause just then, it is because I stopped and very nearly deleted this entire post. Bet you wish I had. Oh, and before I forget, and because ideally every post should have a photo, there was a minor silver lining on Tuesday, when my commute took over two hours. Having attempted the tube to no avail, I then tried a bus closer to home. None of them stopped as they were all full before they got to me, but on the trudge home I passed a Parakeet. It looked pretty settled, so I grabbed a camera and came back, pleased to find it still there. And then I tried the mainline station, where I spent a happy 45 minutes on the platform and failed to get onto four trains. Then I walked to work.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Sycophantism is alive and well

Chateau L recently tried internet grocery shopping for the first time. No I haven't seen any birds. Shut up. Mainly we did this because we would get £15 off our first order, and that's enough to keep the children in bagels for a week, as well as meaning we didn't have to go and brave the scrums. Win win, you would think. Except that when we did it, we didn't get £15 off. Outraged of Wanstead (Mrs) wrote in....

She received possibly the most ingratiating reply I think I have ever seen, and having nothing else to say, I have taken the path of least resistance. Here it is. It is, as I am sure you will agree, wondrous in it's sycophantism and general obsequiousness. 

Dear Mr Lethbridge,
Thank you for your email and your patience in allowing me time to investigate this issue for you.
I’m very sorry to hear of the issue you have experienced on your recent grocery order, I understand when making an amendment to your grocery order the £15.00 off a £60.00 order is no longer showing.
Having looked into this, I have unfortunately been unable to find any reason why your eCoupon is no longer showing and I apologise I’m unable to offer a resolution as to why the voucher has dropped off your order.
However, I will certainly look to escalate this to our Support Team for you and prevent this issue from reoccurring.
As I would not like you to miss out on this promotion, I would be happy to honour this promotion for you. With this in mind, please reply to my email once you have received your grocery order and I will be more than happy to arrange a £15.00 refund for you on this order.
Finally, thank you for bringing this to my attention, giving me the chance to look into this for you. If you have any further queries please don't hesitate to contact us.
Kind regards,

Grocery Customer Service

First of all note the excellent start as customer service addresses my wife. Then thanks for writing, and straight into a nice cringing apology for taking so long to reply (approximately six whole hours). The email suggests that a period of bargaining may have taken place, whereby we came to agreement after prolonged bartering of how long we would give them to respond, but fun though that undoubtedly would have been, it actually that didn't happen so the apology is perhaps overkill. Naturally they are very sorry. Devastated on our behalf I expect, and well over half of the six hour response time has in fact been spent weeping every time they think of our predicament. Then the actual answer. Dunno, internet innit. Sorry. Again. 

Then another period of protracted weeping, followed by the realisation that we need not miss out on this life changing eCoupon at all. Hurrah! I, I Grocery Customer Service Person, intend to honour this eCoupon! My word is my bond! Veritas vos liberabit! More weeping, though tinged with the happy knowledge that they are doing The Right Thing. They will be more than happy to. Frankly this is a let down. More than happy implies what? Thrilled? Ecstatic? Over the moon?! Anyone of these could have improved the letter hugely, an opportunity missed.

More thanking for being so cheap as to demand our fifteen quid, and then even more thanking for the opportunity to investigate it (which as we know, was a complete and utter failure). Mrs L and I actually began weeping at this point, thinking of this kind soul for whom happiness is so easily achieved. The offer of sending more queries to see if we can elicit a similarly unctuous response is one we're considering. The winter evenings are long.

What we are both dying to know is whether this is actually in the training manual. Online Customer Service people are not generally allowed expression of thought, or free will of any kind. So is this response genuinely how large supermarkets think customers like to be addressed? I doubt it, most people, including us, squirm when reading it. It's so fawning as to be uncomfortable. Imagine having to write it?! I'd quit.

Or perhaps, and this is the explanation I prefer, the bored-witless customer service team run weekly competitions to see who can come up with the most appallingly cringe-worthy response to a customer complaint. This came in at "highly commended", but fell short of a podium place due to the lack of genuine feeling implied by merely being happy, rather than completely euphoric.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Slow start

2014 marks my slowest ever start to a year list or a patch list. I've got some truly wonderful stats that I am absolutely dying to trot out, but being the kind of guy I am I've decided to hold off sharing them with you. Sparing isn't sharing. Oh, OK then, just one. Are you sitting down? In summary, since I've started keeping records, eight years or so, I've seen more birds in the first week of January (often in the first two days of January!)  than I have so far this year. Are you staggered? Are you amazed? 

But more importantly, can you tell how bothered I am? Congratulations if you chose "not in the slightest". I don't know what it is, perhaps I'm finally growing up? I'm certainly not losing the desire to see birds - I went out today, admittedly for a very short time, and it was fabulous and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially when I finally caught up with Bullfinch on the patch for the first time in two years. It's just that the desire to continually chalk up species seems to be drifting away. Obviously I was a bit a tick-machine last year, but actually I saw relatively few species versus prior years - my year lists have on a downward trend since 2009.

This doesn't mean that I've lost the urge on the twitching front though. I got in our larger car the other day for the first time this year (I use the small eco-version for the school run) and was immediately struck by a desire to drive hundreds of miles. Curious, no? The minute I sat behind the wheel I was struck by memories of fabulous birds in 2013, as most of the journeys were done in that car. Had I had the time, it's entirely possible that I might have jumped on the M1 and driven to Inverness. Luckily I didn't, but I confess I'm looking forward to the first one that isn't a Coot.

Today I contented myself with a whirlwind tour of Wanstead Park. I started off attempting to photograph Shoveler - a bit of a challenge I've set myself this year - but got nowhere and so jacked it in. Heading off to the Old Sewage Works instead, I immediately found a Grey Wagtail on the Roding, and then as mentioned found a pair of Bullfinches. The place was alive with birds - three each of Green Woodpecker and Jay, Lesser Redpolls, Greenfinch, Chaffinch and Goldfinch all over the place. And the Dunnocks, good grief! After failing to find one on the first of January, today I notched up approximately 30,000 of them, all singing their heads off. I know I'm tempting fate, but it felt a bit like spring.... Now where's that Polar Vortex?

Thursday, 23 January 2014


Today it took me until the early evening to realise that my pants were on backwards. For american readers, I am not talking about my trousers. I had wondered for a while if there wasn't a bit of a problem, a little tightness, a lingering suspicion that something was amiss, but wall-to-wall meetings meant I wasn't able to pin it down. Only at half five did I manage to stagger to the bathroom to check, and sure enough.... This sums up my day really.

Anyway, in addition to apparently being too incompetent to dress myself properly, my only other news is that I managed to get out on the patch briefly at the weekend - yes, I know that is ancient history, but as you can see from the above there is not a lot else going on. I met Tony in the SSSI also failing to find Snipe, and together we zipped around both the Flats and the Park adding rare species to our year lists with consummate ease. We didn't even need to get to the shore of the Alex to find Teal, a Cormorant flew over Wanstead Park Avenue as we were walking down it, and a Grey Heron came across the allotments at the same time we did. Such skill. 

Ending up in Bush Wood, we attempted to find Firecrest and Coal Tit, and failed miserably. I guess with all the megas earlier in the day, the Birding Gods had decided Tony was all done. But not me! Back at home recuperating with a nice little coffee in the conservatory, the house silent and peaceful, I noted a small bird with what looked like a stripey head zip up the garden. Bingo! I've seen Coal Tit in my garden precisely once before, and so the timing of this bird was impeccable. It turned out there were actually two, as whilst attempting to gather photographic evidence with which to grip off TB, I unwittingly recorded a second bird that I only noticed later on the computer. I am so good at birding.

I've also just about finished going through the stuff from Morocco, and so my trip page is now complete with a few individual pages related to bird species, and a vague (very vague) stab at a report that in reality is just me babbling on about camera shit again. You had better get used to it as I am going back again soon. For now though I have just one final picture to bring you.....

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Gulls, Shingle, and Camo

The rot has started. Dungeness. With the Gull Brothers. Both in camo. Oh dear. You don't believe me? Get a load of this. Richard we know about, but Mick? Yup. Some nonsense about forgetting his actual coat. As if.....

Mostly crappy light, a lot of wind, dodgy attire and a shit load of seagulls. Big ones and small ones. I admit to papping a few of them between camo-induced laughing fits. The pattern is called "Woodland Shingle". Can you see him? I can't.

Here are some of my better attempts. It's so hard, and my hit rate continues to be pitifully low, though when I do connect properly it does kind of work. The gulls didn't really play ball, and rather than a lot of nice banking and so on, they mostly flew straight past, sniggering quietly to themselves when they saw Mick. Still, makes a nice change from sitting at my desk or lying in bed with the runs. Well, at least from the former. Kittiwakes are not birds I see often, and they're in their element in the wind and the spray. First winters are absolutely lovely (for a Gull), and it was a bit of a treat to have so many birds close in. 

In addition to the Kitts, there were quite a few big Gulls around as well. For good measure, and while I'm on a roll, here's one of them too. This is the nominate race of Seagullus maximus. All four images are actually of the same bird, but depending on how the light was falling it could end up looking quite different from one photo to the next.

Friday, 17 January 2014

How to get back into birding?

I'm having a bit of trouble birding. As in I can't seem to manage it. I've been back from Morocco for about ten days, and have seen two additional species. One of those was by accident! Apparently to do birding, you have to raise binoculars to your face and look through them. Trust me when I say that's actually a lot harder than it sounds. 

I have, however, seen a Chaffinch, which was not entirely by accident. I deliberately stopped at a location known for Chaffinches up near the Basin, and lo and behold there was one. I can't say I enjoyed it particularly, but there you go. Seeing as I appear to have lost my patch mojo, I was wondering about forcing myself to look at birds, in the hope that this might get me back into it. I mean what if I said I had to see at least ten bird species per day? Or twenty? Yes, ten isn't enough and I wouldn't actually have to look, but twenty might mean I have to think about it a little bit, and importantly, devote a bit of time to it, as that's where I've largely fallen down of late.

In the meantime, bird happiness has been provided by lots and lots of Moussier's Redstarts which I have been furiously editing. I'm really pleased how they have come out, but it's in the editing process that I realise all the little things that I could have done slightly differently. There's nothing for it, I'll have to go back....

Sunday, 12 January 2014

On being last

Despite the name of this blog, I'm currently lying in last place in the unofficial annual Wanstead listing competition that Nick always wins. This is both very satisfying and quite worrying. To be fair this has been threatening for some time, I just don't get out of it as much as I used to. But at the same time I know that once I get into a groove I do start enjoying it, albeit in a perverse kind of way as particularly at this time of year it really is same old same old. For instance I have yet to see a Chaffinch in the UK, which is pathetic in the extreme, yet also quite exciting - how long could I string not seeing a Chaffinch out for? I mean, could I get to February? That would be sensational!

As predicted my Morocco list is longer than my Wanstead (and hence UK) list this year. And with another trip to Morocco on the horizon, this could easily continue. I would have addressed this pitiful state of affairs this weekend, but unfortunately I have been struck down with a highly vicious (and I do mean highly vicious) tummy complaint, which means I have been confined to my bed since Friday evening. Whether or not this is some African gift I have no idea, but I was quite looking forward to going to Hove where that Phalarope has been hanging around at point blank range. Not because I wanted to take pictures of it you understand, but because I wanted to berate all the pillocks that turned up in camo clothing to photograph it in a children's play area. Unfortunately I have had to miss out on this singular delight.

Tragically, I will probably be well enough to go to work tomorrow, and so my entire weekend will have been a complete write-off. The only saving grace is that by only consuming approximately four pieces of penne and a slice of toast since Friday lunchtime, I have managed to shed almost half a stone, and it ain't over yet if you get my drift. At least I'm also getting quite a lot of time in which to go through the images from Morocco. Illness aside, this also explains my reluctance to go and slog the patch or compete with a bunch of camotwats in Sussex. A load of boring birds that I see all the time, with a load of obnoxious dog-walkers thrown into the mix, or just me and a Great Grey Shrike on a sunny hillside with views to die for? Then again, maybe I am currently dying for those views....

Guess how much camo clothing this required?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Morocco on spec

Looking at the BBC weather for the UK, and the BA website for cheap flights outta here saw me head for Morocco last weekend. I had ended up working every day through Christmas and as is well known, if I don't have a holiday every few weeks I begin to decline. So the flight was booked at short notice, and as the filthy weather persisted as the car was buffeted from side to side on the way to Gatwick, I knew I'd done the right thing!

I had no plans at all, in fact I didn't even have a map. I just knew that the birding and photographic opportunities were really good, and that I could probably conjure something up even out of a very short trip. This assessment proved to be spot on, though a little more planning and thought would have been helpful and avoided some wasted time.

The flight got in slightly late due to some shenanigans at Gatwick, and this meant my rental car people were nowhere to be seen. A quick phone call sorted that out, and it wasn't long before I was the proud owner of perhaps the crappiest car I had ever seen, a Dacia Shitter. No power steering, no nothing, but I came to fall in love. Driving in Morocco is of course an interesting experience to say the least, but with a top speed of perhaps 80kmh, I was in the ideal car to be able to deal with it as I weaved my way through mopeds and donkeys. Things come at you from all sides, the "drive on the right" thing is only very loosely interpreted for the most part, so you have to have your wits about you. Despite the chaos, there are no real hold ups and everything operates pretty smoothly. Introduce traffic lights and you would probably have gridlock and millions of accidents.

So, what follows is a very brief synopsis of where I went and what I saw. The whole point of the trip was to spend quality time behind a lens, and it was so successful that it would end up boring you to tears. If that interests you, keep an eye on the other blog as that's where the majority of the output is going to end up. Throughout my trip the sky was blue and the sun was out - a massive result!

Day 1 - Saturday
Got out of the airport by lunchtime, and made my way up to Oued Ourika and a certain layby where I knew there was an obliging Moussier's Redstart. It was still there! So too, unfortunately, were a variety of hawkers who all wanted not only my money, but my shoes, my jacket, my watch....Spent an hour or so taking photos and then decided to head for somewhere less busy and closer to where I was planning to stay.

Between Oued Ourika and Ait Ourir took some random side roads south into the slopes of the Atlas. Small villages and some agriculture, and hardly any people at all, perfect. Came across an obliging Great Grey Shrike, lacerated my leg on a very fierce bush trying to get in position for it, and decided that this was how I would spend my time the next few days. Would that I had resolutely stuck to this plan!

Found the hotel I was looking for in Ait Ourir, excellent value as always, and a great dinner.

Day 2 - Sunday
Returned to the same side roads from the previous afternoon and continued to potter with my tripod set up on the passenger side. Shrikes, Redstarts, Bulbuls, fabulous birding. I birded varying habitats from scrub through to Pine forest, with Serin and Blue Tit, and at one point ended up with perhaps 4000 Chough in an uberflock as I reached some higher elevations. A high point was a big group of Magpie surrounding the car, but on the whole I didn't manage any photos at all, the birds refused to come close. I wasted an hour on a Black Redstart, and half an hour each on a Sardinian Warbler and a Serin.

I eventually wiggled my way back west to Oued Ourika and this is where is started to go wrong. I decided to drive the valley towards Setti Fatma looking for opportunities that just weren't there as it was so busy. Disgusted with all the lies "The road ends here, park here" I turned around and decided to head up and stay at Oukaimeden, the ski resort I'd visited last time. The drive was fairly straightforward and took less than an hour, but there was no snow and far fewer birds as a result. Amazingly I found a small flock of Crimson-winged Finch, but as I was rolling up to them in the car for the killer shot a "merchant" flushed the lot by approaching and trying to flog me some tat. By this time I was in a shit mood having wasted half a day, so I was pretty unkind to him, but he did get the message and leave. With the sun setting I tried to book into a hotel, but at five times the price of my place in Ait Ourir I walked out again. At this point I made one of my more sensible decisions of the trip and resolved to return to Ait Ourir and pursue the back roads again, even though this meant descending in the dark.

Slunk back into my hotel bemoaning my ineptitude. My first full day in Morocco and perhaps 50 images.....not what I had planned at all!

Day 3 - Monday

A killer day. Putting the previous disastrous afternoon behind me I chose a new side road to the south of Ait Ourir and struck gold almost immediately. A song I did not recognise caused me to stop the car - another Great Grey Shrike up on an escarpment. Ditching the car I slogged it up there to find paradise. Although I couldn't actually get any images of the Shrike, the best Moussier's Redstart in the world also lived here, and I spent the rest of the morning in this one spot. Also present were Common Bulbuls, a pair of Stonechat, and a Black Redstart. And best of all, no people.

Carrying on up the road I never really found the same productivity, although I did get a decent Grey Wagtail and my best views of a Morrocan Pied Wagtail (99% of the Pied Wagtails in Morocco are alba). However I very much enjoyed visiting a succession of small villages and communities, and seeing the way of life up here that bears no relation to Marrakech. Eventually I ended up on the N9, the main road over the Atlas. I didn't fancy that, so took the next turning I came across, and what a stroke of luck that was. The road was unpaved and I had little idea where it led, but some pine forest soon gave way to a barren landscape that looked very promising. I continued to bump along, at one point going through a maze of streets in a village, and then on a ridge I espied a black dot.....I'd been hoping for this the whole trip, but other than the drive up to Oukaimeden hadn't really been in the right habitat - Black Wheatear!

I spoke to a local farmer about the bird and got permission to cross his field and attempt to climb the ridge to get up to it. He allowed me to take the path up past his house and from there I picked my way up to the ridge What I hadn't been able to tell was that this was in fact the edge of another plateau with some more fields and dwellings beyond, and after chatting to an old man for a while about what I was doing, I homed in on my target - there were in fact two birds, a pair, as well as Black Redstart, another Moussier's Redstart, and numerous Thekla Larks. And a Shrike, but not just any Shrike, a friendly one! So friendly I couldn't focus on it at times.

Meanwhile the old man had called his grand-daughter out to come and see this crazy white bloke. Her 'help' caused a brief halt to proceedings, until she got the bright idea that I might have some money, and ran back to her house and returning with some water. To be fair, this was a whole lot better than people just wanting cash for doing nothing at all, and the water was great after my ascent. Before I gave her some Dhirams I made a deal with her that she would go home and leave me to it, which thankfully she did. So there I was, in lovely weather, with views to die for and a whole suite of amazing birds, some of which I could almost have stroked. I spent hours up here, reflecting on quite how amazing a place it was, and how lucky I was to have found it.

When I was done, I reluctantly returned down to the car, and faced with a choice of returning to the main road or carrying on into the unknown, chose the latter. This took me over some landscape more akin to the moon than to anything else, and I ended up then descending via a series of villages back to the central plain. My little car was magnificent - some of the track was pretty hairy, but I steered a sensible course and took it nice and slow when required. Looking back now at the satellite view, I'm amazed I made it with no damage other than a few more rattles.

Now back on the plain and with less than an hour before sunset, I headed back towards where I though Ait Ourir probably was based on where the sun and mountains were. I got this spot on thankfully, and also found an excellent area of irrigated land that was heaving with Yellow and White Wagtails. I got some nice images of each of these, and sat on a thorn bush by accident.

Day 4 - Tuesday
With my flight in the early evening and thus needing to be back in Marrakech mid afternoon, I planned a vague route that took me to the south of the city skirting the edge of the mountains in a westerly direction, which would hopefully see me end up in the fertile agricultural area within striking distance of the airport.

An agricultural area near Tahnaout had an impressive number of Chough, and there were Thekla Larks all over the place, so I stopped quite frequently. Gradually the landscape became more arid, and the road took me through some very barren stony areas, more similar to the desert south of the Atlas than I'd encountered elsewhere, and had various Larks and my first Tristram's Warbler of the trip. After perhaps 50km I hit a lush valley, and headed up it to find a huge lake and a dam at a place called Aguergour. The water levels were well down, the place was set up to be a leisure destination for Marrakech, but the lack of water was clearly putting people off. Following a road around the west side of the lake, I found some Cormorant and a Ruddy Shelduck, and at the end of a track, two more Black Wheatear, though the heat at this time of day proved a complete killer for photography. Following the valley back down got me a pair of distant large raptors and a Black-winged Kite preening on a branch, but just a little distant to do anything with. Great bird though, shame I didn't have a scope.

I finally hit a larger road signposted for Marrakech, and so continued past this and into the fruit-growing area that I had been hoping to hit. Initially this wasn't as interesting as I had thought it might be, but I came across some pools in what ought to have been a major river that were teeming with waders - Green Sandpiper, Greenshank, Snipe, LRP, Black-winged Stilt, and....hirundines! I did a double-take, I had thought that Brown-throated Martin was a coastal species, but there was no doubt - here was a small group of them, and a new bird for me.

And that was it, my time was up. I rearranged all my stuff ready for travel whilst some fascinated kids looked on - they particularly like the Collins, and then headed back towards Marrakech, following tourist minibuses led me straight to the airport. A great trip, really pleasant, and what I really liked about it was just winging it with no firm plans, even though this did cost me at times. But it was a good exploration, and if (when!) I go back, now I know what works and what doesn't. Essentially if you ignore any area that has tourists and all the hangers on that they bring, you cannot really go wrong!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Sorry, what rain?

I skipped the country, seemed like a good plan. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Missing in Action

I've just spent a few hours getting my bird recording spreadsheet ready for 2014. If there's a way to have more fun on your own, I've yet to discover it. During this extravaganza I found out three things.

Firstly, that a spreadsheet has to be one of the least efficient ways of storing bird sightings. To be fair I think I knew this already. It now has seven years of information, has 48 tabs, has millions of formulas, and is 22 Megabytes in size. In many ways it is a thing of a beauty, as it can quickly tell me that I've seen 27 Pied Flycatchers in that period, of which seven have been in London, and five of those in Wanstead. Genius, no? Getting the formulas to actually do that is just not funny at all though, and it gets even more complicated when I try and get it to add up patch year lists, and as I only do it once a year I've completely forgotten how it works by the time it comes round again. I'm think I'm done now, but it is so, so painful.

Secondly, and connected to the above, that I'd seen a Smew in 2013, but that I had neglected to add it my year list due to a broken formula. Pfffff. Once repaired, this bumps me up to a massive 260 species. This isn't significant at all, but the previous total of 259 had also been my 2012 total (Yes, I checked all those formulas too.....), which means I saw more birds last year than the year before. Which means, dear reader, that I am on an upward trajectory! Yes! My year lists have been getting smaller year after year, as my desire to relentlessly chase down birds like Lapland Buntings has waned and basically died. Using the power of mathematics, I had predicted seeing 236.5 birds last year (the Semipalmated Plover was the half....), and when I got that wrong and ended up on exactly the same as last year, the best I could say was that at least it hadn't gone up. And now I can't even say that! The bird that broke the downward spiral was a Cirl Bunting in Devon. I should have closed my eyes.

Thirdly, and finally, I discovered that I hadn't seen an Osprey in 2013, nor a Goshawk. Neither did I see Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, once a Wanstead stalwart - a sad story that. In fact who needs the BTO Atlas, all you need is my spreadsheet. Wholly absent were Willow Tit, ShorelarkWood Warbler, Tree Sparrow and Turtle Dove. Somehow I went an entire year without seeing any of them. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough, but I think we all know that's not why, and that's a real shame. And no Ruddy Duck either, it's as if somebody has been round and shot them all or something.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

That bloody Robin!

This is dismal, can we go back to 2013 please? I lasted about two hours on the patch, during which I trudged round the Flats half-heartedly and scurried indoors at the first sign of bad weather. Usually it's Christmas which is dull, and I instead get massively excited, small child excited, about the New Year. I get my spreadsheet ready to accept the new records, and I listen out for birds as soon as midnight passes. This year was a little different, I went to bed almost immediately after midnight - I'm amazed I lasted that long actually - and, sacreligiously, I didn't even update my spreadsheet until this afternoon. So it was no surprise that my all time low enthusiasm was matched by an all time low Jan 1st score. 51 species. Paltry.

Of course it was that bloody Robin again. Whether it's singing outside the window at midnight or singing outside the window at eight in the morning makes no difference. It insists on being first on, and there is nothing I can do about it. That's five years in a row now. The only reason it didn't get on first in 2009 was because I was in Scotland, but I bet it was still singing, hoping. As last year, I was still in bed when I heard it. I groaned and turned over, but it was too late, and so I reluctantly got up. Magpie ten yards down the road, then the gentle strains of Song Thrush from the Flats. Woodpigeon over, and then a Blackbird.

Same old, same old. The only surprise today was a Little Owl, and even that wasn't really a surprise as I knew about it already. So the most surprising things today were the things that weren't. No Chaffinch. No Cormorant. No Collared Dove. No Heron. No Kestrel. But worst and most surprising of all, no Dunnock. I mean how can that even happen?

It must be a sign.