Wednesday 23 July 2014

Inexorable fall and rise

The numbers game is an easy trap to fall into, list at your peril. Here's the deal, drive round the country, see rare birds, adulation is yours. Simples. But it does you no favours. I'll let you into a little secret - when I twitched the Spectacled Warbler in Norfolk a few weeks ago, I had forgotten how to use a scope. But my UK list is now well over 400. How can this be possible? I honestly don't know. Well, I do actually. It's because I rarely go birding any more, and when I do, I am not likely to carry a scope (people don't hate me enough if I carry a scope, I need a camera for that). There are a number of reasons, the largest is obviously time. I may have managed to squeeze in most of the decent rarities this year, but I've committed almost no time to decent days of proper birding. This shouldn't really be allowed, but I have paid the price. Such meagre skills as I may have acquired have dulled. Waders confuse me, and I can barely handle my scope. A sorry state of affairs indeed, but entirely my own fault. Spare time, such that there is, I devote to other things. Family, Travel, photography, drinking....

It's a shame, as I really enjoy birding. It just I enjoy other things slightly more at the moment. Things will change though. I have a weekend in Finland soon that I plan to spend wandering around places with better birds than here, and I have a long weekend at Falsterbo over migration. That, I am told, is superb birding, and I can't wait. I am also half considering booking up Shetland this October. More precisely I am considering gate-crashing some mates that are going. Shetland is proper birding. It separates the wheat from the chaff, and you have to properly go at it. I love it (for a few days), and when it really kicks off it's one of the best things ever. When it's dead, you revert to drinking. Win win. Last year I found an OBP. Imagine that! Instinct kicked in, I knew I had something, I knew it was good, but I hadn't seen it well, it hadn't called, and didn't know what it was. The feeling was totally awesome. 

The point being that is it about time I eased myself back towards birding a little. It's been a tough year, I've done a lot, but the pendulum has swung a little too far off course. Once a week round the patch, especially as it becomes interesting again. Why not? The upside to rampant twitching is that I need never worry about certain birds again. When a Semipalmated Plover appears somewhere I'm not going to give two hoots. When a Snowy Owl arrives on a distant Hebridean Island, not even one. Great Knot, no interest. Brunnich's Guillemot in Thurso harbour, not for me. The odds are moving in my favour. Sure I'll miss a few, I always do, but if I'm away when the big one breaks, it won't be a big deal. And despite my hectic schedule, I seem to do OK. Pretty good even some might say.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler early on, followed by a mammoth weekend of a trio of (boring) Yanks in Scotland. And then Spectacled Warbler, Short-toed Eagle, Great Knot and Ross's Gull in the summer that kept on giving. A tidy haul indeed, especially as I was out of the country when three of the final four broke. Best bird so far? Either the rogue Caper in Scotland, or the Long-tailed Skua just recently. Or that really friendly Shrike in Morocco. Or perhaps the Pied Wheatear in Cyprus (mmmm, Wheatear). Or maybe the......Whichever, I just love birds.

Sunday 20 July 2014


Anyone who calls me a filthy twitcher should think again. The Ross's Gull in Devon has been present since May 21st. Today is July 20th, so that's almost two whole months. Ross's Gull has under a hundred records, did I jump in the car in May to go and twitch it? No I didn't. June? Once again no, I merely chilled. I almost waited until August! That's how relaxed and calm I am about these things. Ticks? No, very little interest in such lowbrow things, I just like a nice drive.

Today I made a leisurely trip to go and see it. Approximately 20 seconds after entering the hide at Bowling Green Marsh, I had seen it. Yeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I mean, er, yes, that's nice. Is it a tick? I have no idea. Possibly I suppose, I don't concern myself with such trivialities Listing? No, sorry, not sure I know what you mean. Anyway, here it is, a very dainty little bird that showed exceptionally well from the new boardwalk next to the train tracks. Incredibly small next to the Black-headed Gulls. Common as muck I'm led to believe, but nonetheless worth the very slight detour.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Birds on Posts

There is an old wildlife photography adage, which is that birds on posts are far better than birds on natural features. Add a bit of barbed wire, even better. So, especially for non-believers, who miss out on opportunity after opportunity because the perch isn't the millimetre-perfect moss-covered knoll, here are a few birds on posts. These are mostly all from my recent trip to Iceland, a country with a great many excellent posts, some of them brand new!

Plain, dark, nice

This photo needs more post

A plain post AND a ring. Double the quality.
More post than bird. Brilliant
Excellent straight edges and man-made angles

Mega post, completely dominates. Bird added for scale.

A bit too natural for my liking...

I might come back to this and clone out that nasty moss

Superb! Clean, lovely background, slightly rusty barbed wire. The bird spoils it.

You're not going to see much better than this

Not a fan of all that lichen....

A simply stonking post!

Post of the trip

Needed to bring up the exposure on the post as the shaded area lacks detail

 A bit of moss is starting. This post will be no good in about six months time - ruined by nature,

Thursday 17 July 2014

Iceland Trip Report

I've just come back (I say just, it's probably about two weeks ago now) from another one of my long weekend trips in search of birds. This time the destination was Iceland, a place I've wanted to visit for a long time. We deliberately booked at the height of the solstice so as to maximise the available light, and the fact that all birds would be back on territory.

  • A four day trip in late June, Friday evening to Tuesday afternoon, with Mick S and Richard S.
  • Birded the Snaefellsnes pensinsula for two days, including visiting the Island of Flatey. Third full day spent on a long drive to Myvatn and back for Wildfowl.
  • Icelandair flight to Keflavik (west of Reykjavik) from Heathrow departed 2110 on Friday night, alllowing a full day at work, and arriving at about 2330 the same evening (there is one hour time difference the opposite way to mainland Europe), costing about £250 at the time of booking. It's possible that closer to the time Easyjet flights would have been available.
  • Car hire via Hertz, horrendously expensive (as is most anything in Iceland), at something like £430 for a small Toyota. This included millions of different insurance options as many roads in Iceland are unpaved, and volcanoes apparently wreck cars.
  • Accommodation was booked for three nights at the Harbour Hostel in Stykkishólmur, and was £45 per night per person. Basic, but clean. We elected not to bother sleeping on the first night, and instead drive/bird slowly up to the peninsula from Keflavik.
  • We did a small amount of research before we left, which told us we probably had to go to Myvatn, but as we were looking for photographic opportunities with common birds, we basically winged it.
  • Mobile reception was pretty good almost everywhere we went, so we used Google Maps. I have a roaming deal mind you.
  • We had a couple real meals, including some Guillemot (!) but mostly subsisted on junk. Expensive junk.
  • It never got dark. Sunset and Sunrise practically merged into other. There were a few hours around midnight during which it was too dull for photography. It really screws you up.
  • Sleep was limited to 13 hours over the course of 4 days. Punishing.

Day 0-1
Picked up the car and were on our way by around midnight. Found some cash machines in Reykjavic, and then headed north on Route 1 to Borgarnes, where we left the main ringroad and took the 54 up towards Snaefellsnes. We explored a few side roads round here, including the 533. It was relatively 'dark' at this time of day/night, so opportunities fairly limited, but we got some nice sunshine by about 4am. Birds everywhere, Redshank and Snipe on every post, Black-tailed Godwits and Golden Plover in the wet meadows, and Red-throated Diver in small pools. Many many close opportunities on the waders, but we were probably too eager and didn't do much thinking, so very few images from this period.

The aim was to get up to Stykkishólmur for the 9am ferry across to Flatey, and we made this very comfortably. A ticket as a foot passenger was around £35, and it's a 90 minute crossing to the island, which is a stop-off as the ferry crosses the bay to the northern peninsula. The ferry then returns twice, once at 1330, and once at 2000. The island is tiny, you can walk from end to end in ten minutes, and the major draw is the presence of loads of incredibly tame Red-necked Phalarope, as well as few Grey Phalarope. These latter breed in the northern end of the island, and during the summer months this is unfortunately out of bounds so we we never saw one. The other species kept us fairly engaged though, as well as many fairly tame Redshank, Puffins, a handful of Snow Bunting and millions of Arctic Terns. I had an absolute ball, but Mick and Richard couldn't find their mojo and decided to take the earlier boat back to Stykkishólmur. I stayed, spending more time with the Phalaropes on the rising tide, but also a session with the Fulmars up on the low cliffs at the far end. The tiredness was getting to me though, and by 6pm I was totally done in. I caught the ferry back across and met the others at the harbour, to discover they had had a much better afternoon, including finding a photographable Red-throated Diver, a quality Golden Plover, and some Phalaropes that were possibly better than the ones on Flatey. They promised me a tour the following day, and we went off to find some dinner.

Day 2
I think we managed about four hours of sleep, but the thought of all the birds that Mick and Richard had found the previous afternoon was too exciting, so we were up and out pretty early. First stop was the Diver, which we enjoyed for a couple of hours, including some mega-stealth crawling through vegetation, a strategy that was to help us get close to various other birds that we found on the shallow pools that are dotted all over the Icelandic landscape. 

Their Golden Plover was still there too, in some lava fields, and allowed for some great opportunities. A bit further west, past Grundarfjordur, we stopped at the series of small pools, but found no Phalaropes. Mick however spotted a diving Harlequin Duck from a bridge, diving in a bend of the river close to the sea, and so our afternoon was sorted! The bird soon flew through the bridge and off up the river, and whilst following it through the bins we found another two birds, this time a pair. Although quite a long way up, we felt they were drifting down, so we set up on the bank below the bridge, out of sight, the theory being that the birds would ride the rapids through the narrow bridge and immediately find themselves in front of our water-level lenses. Amazingly this actually happened, with the pair coming down first, followed soon after by the third bird. Boy oh boy did we have a great time! And to cap it off, a single Phalarope turned up and allowed some amazing reflective shots.

The rest of the afternoon was spent following the 54 anticlockwise around the western end of the peninsula, with hightlights including an immense Arctic Tern colony at Rif, and Kittiwake cliffs at Arnarstapi. All common birds, but the quantities were extraordinary. We found a family of Great Northern Diver which meant more stalking through long vegetation, and our first Slavonian Grebes which were unfortunately too far out to do anything with. With so many stops the light had now gone, and so we headed back to the digs. With such a successful day we felt we had cleaned up on Snaefellsnes and so decided to get up even earlier and head to Myvatn for a change of scenery, and hopefully some new species to photograph.

 Day 3
A 2.45am start was incredibly difficult, but it was over five hours to Myvatn, a large lake in the north of Iceland famous for wildfowl. The journey was pretty extreme, requiring the first 100km or so on unpaved roads, before finally joining Route 1. Sharing the driving, it didn't seem to take as long as I thought it might, and there were several highlights along the way, the first being tons of Pink-footed Geese as we drove up a mountain valley. An incredibly wide river flood plain, mainly gravel, gradually became narrower and narrower until we crested the top of a pass and carried on down the other side - waterfalls, cliffs, huge snow-covered peaks. It truly is an impressive country, but we couldn't really linger. During the valley descent, as the landscape became more lush, we stopped to photograph some of the many Black-tailed Godwits - there must have been young around as they were not amused by our presence, so we carried on. Beautiful birds though in their summer finery. As we neared Myvatn we crossed over some high moorland, and stumbled across an amazing waterfall - a major tourist attraction called Godafoss - without realising where we were. This stop proved pretty inspirational, with the three of us picking up probably our best ever images of Whimbrel and Snow Bunting.

We finally hit Myvatn at about 9am, and decided to drive around it anti-clockwise looking for opportunities. Although the lake is pretty large, you cannot actually get close to the shore other than in a few areas, but luckily for us the Barrow's Goldeneye, a major target and a Western Pal tick for all of us, seemed to prefer an area where you could park up. We tried our luck with a lone male on a smaller pool, before spotting a group of birds resting in a bay on the lake proper. More commando tactics ensued, a particularly nasty crawl including getting several mouthfuls of bugs (Myvatn is called Midge Lake - they don't bite, but there are simply loads of them). It was well worth it though, as before too long all three of us had our lenses poking through the vegetation and out over the water. Cue many many images, some of which actually worked. There were probably around twenty birds, a mixture of males, esclipse males, and females. They were no doubt well aware of the motor drives, but none of us broke the horizon so it's possible that didn't associate what they could hear but not really see with human activity. I certainly hadn't thought that we would be able to get this close in without the birds flushing, but as with all the birds we targeted, we did a pretty clean job both in and out. I recall one Whimbrel flushing, and then one of the highlights of the trip was seeing Richard still stalking it not realising it had flown off ages ago when I was already back at the car!

After exhausting the possibilities of these birds, and via another cute baby Wheatear, we carried on to the bird centre up on the northern side for some well-earned lunch and something to drink. very friendly staff who told us where to look for certain species, but apart from the Goldeneye, it seemed that most birds were very far out. Carrying on back round, west, we found some Red-throated Diver chicks from the road, and were pleased to be in position when the adult flew back in with food. This resulted in some "action" images, though not the artistic stuff we were hoping for. A bonus Common Scoter and ducklings were pretty lucky, and a Wigeon flying around also got the treatment. Plenty of Red-necked Phalaropes, including up to 50 birds in one small bay, but we never bothered with them as we already had what we wanted and by then the wind had started to get up and the surface of the water was very choppy. I think we ended up doing two circuits of the lake before reluctantly realising that Wildfowl photograpy was over, and instead concentrating on yet another Golden Plover for a while.

So started the long drive back, punctuated by a small group of Great Northern Diver on a smaller lake called Masvatn, and a flyby Gyr Falcon at Akureyi whilst stopped at a traffic light - the bird unfortunately sailed off into the distance pursued by Gulls. Gradually the weather deteriorated and before long we were driving in pretty poor visibility back over the mountain passes. Luckily the road here was pretty good, and it wasn't like it was particularly busy, and of course it never got dark. We again shared the driving, and arrived back in Snaefellsnes just before midnight - a twenty hour day!

Day 4
Although I tried to get up early, it just didn't happen, and I had a lie in until 7.30am. Mick was up and out and making the best of the weather, but by the time we got out it had deteriorated quite badly. Retracing our steps back towards Reykjavik we realised we did not have a great deal of time before our 4pm flight, so with the bad weather the day was mostly a write-off photographically speaking, but we did get to visit the Blue Lagoon near Keflavik briefly. Easy flight back to Heathrow and I was home by 10pm, but utterly wasted from lack of sleep. Once the memory cards were safely downloaded I had one of the best nights sleep I can remember. 

Trip List
Red-throated Diver
Great Northern Diver
Slavonian Grebe
Whooper Swan
Pink-footed Goose
Greylag Goose
Tufted Duck
Harlequin Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Common Scoted
Barrow's Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Gyr Falcon
Golden Plover
Ringed Plover
Black-tailed Godwit
Red-necked Phalarope
Arctic Skua
Common Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Black-headed Gull
Arctic Tern
Black Guillemot
Rock Dove
Short-eared Owl
Sky Lark
Pied Wagtail
Meadow Pipit
Northern Wheatear

Knot too bad as twitches go really

The arrival of Britain's fourth Great Knot had me all in a twist. How typical, the whole weekend more-or-less available and I find out about it on Monday morning on the way to work! Never fear though, there is always a way. With the amount of daylight at the moment, evening twitches are game on, and even though Breydon Water is over two hours away, it was still a walk in the Park. Met Bradders and Paul "it's only a bird" Hawky chez the former, and we were on our way. Regular messages about the bird's continued presence kept me calm in the back seat, and I continued to work on my Blackberry without much of a care in the world. Using local knowledge Bradders got us as close as could be, and after a mere 20 minute walk towards the long line of birders, there it was - boom, as they say. Superbly rare, and in the bag. Fairly decent views given the massive size of Breydon Water, no Great Dot here - very distinctive looking bird. Never close enough to see exact patterning, but you could tell areas of contrast, and all those present agreed that this was easily enough to identify it as "the boy". Bloody good find by somebody. 

So, another big one falls - somehow despite the large amount of travel and working away (last week in Glasgow, imagine if the bird had been a week earlier!) I seem to have been rather fortunate and not really missed much. Crag Martin perhaps, which had I forgone sleep one night would have been on, and I've still got that Ross's Gull to deal with at some point. But so far this year that's seven new ones, and the possibility of rich months to come. We'll see.

Better was to come on Monday night though, as post Knot we learned of an adult Long-tailed Skua lingering on the beach just down the road. Really? Really. And it was sensational in all respects. Distance from the car park, 10 yards. Distance from the bird, 30 yards. Tail streamer? Check. Amazing! Such a brilliant bird, it did a few little fly-arounds for us, gave phenomenal scope and bins views, and then 15 minutes after we got there buggered off out to sea. I doubt very much I'll see one like that again, and just like all birds that are amazing and close, will be remembered for a long time. Didn't get to bed until 1am, but it was well worth it. Almost unbelievably this puts me on 418, not many vs the big boys I'll freely admit, but for little old me, who would have thunk it? The Dusky Thrush, 400 (and now accepted) seems a long time ago, but it was only just over a year. Pretty good going for a non-twitcher.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

More toe issues

Some of you will be lucky enough to remember my toe incident a couple of a few years ago. The one where I heroically sprinted to the garden to get a domestic appliance engineer a towel. The one where in a spectacular flying leap into the house I crushed my big toe against the sill of the door and fractured it. Plus blood. Plus a new sodding dishwasher as after all that it would have cost £200 to fix it and £201.50 for a new one. My left toe (the caring NHS doctor wrote right toe on all the forms) has never been the same since, and in colder weather it aches. Well, friends, there is more. Concerning the opposite big toe, the right-hand one, if Whipps Cross is reading. The day after I came back from Iceland it suddenly went numb. Not completely numb, just bloody irritating numb. 

I have no idea why. A cursory internet seach found a page which listed 33 causes for a numb big toe. I didn't read it, I mean who would? My mother said that as she approached 40 her big toe suddenly went numb too, so clearly it's genetic and also isn't particularly fatal. It's just a mild, not quite pins and needles annoyance that two weeks later shows no signs of going away. Any doctors out there that can suggest fewer than 30 reasons why this might be are welcome to get in contact, as obviously I can't be bothered to go and see anyone about it. As far as me is concerned, it's about as far away from the important bits as it can be, and frankly is not a big deal. But I thought I'd mention it as I have nothing else to say. 

Or at least I thought I did, but then this weekend I had another toe incident! Well, a close to toe incident. Would that it had been my right big toe, as it concerned stepping on a drawing pin ALL THE WAY IN. My children are not noted for having tidy bedrooms. In fact, Chateau L is not known for tidyness in any room, but these particular rooms are the worst. The word "pit" is often overused, but not here. Anyhow, I made the criminal mistake of walking into a child's bedroom in bare feet. A child's bedroom with a bulletin board. I then experienced the kind of pain reserved only for childbirth. Think stepping on Lego but far far worse. I reached down, gasping, and discovered a bloody drawing pin protruding from my foot. From my non-numb foot. From the foot where I can now say that the nerves are functioning one hundred percent. Arrrgh!!! I pulled it out, and an immense arc of blood spattered over the room. Not really, but there was a bit. Enough to worry the owner of the pit and of the drawing pin. Choice words emerged, and I hobbled to the bathroom to sort myself out and stem the flow, which by now was a steady drip.

On the plus side, some incredibly feverish room tidying of the sort rarely seen in Chateau L occurred almost instantaneously. Every cloud and all that. The rest of the day was spent resting, obviously, as major wounds like this do not take kindly to over-exertion. The following day some mild swelling, and as I type this a few days later I can't actually feel anything. Or not in my big toe anyway.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Rambling down a Fjord

Did I mention I went to Barcelona? No? How about Stavanger? I went there too. Boredom, basically. The family were away, I should perhaps have been with them but that’s another story. Anyway, with a weekend to kill – in June I might add, so no decent birding possible* - it was a choice of hanging around Wanstead seeing manky Mallards and doing a pile of useful but boring jobs – or going and doing something interesting. I chose the latter, and seeing as I have not done a lot of travelling recently, decided to push the boat out and go to Barcelona for the day. And then as that wasn’t enough to keep the Mallards at bay, I also booked up a fjord cruise in Norway for the following day. My carbon footprint is terrible, then again the planes would have left without me. Is it OK to say that?

So, an early start to get to the airport, but Barcelona isn't far and it wasn't long before the shuttle bus dumped me at the Placa Catalunya, at the top of Las Ramblas. I've been to Barcelona a few times, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Nothing. Nothing beyond walking around a lot, and having tapas for lunch. And so that is precisely what I did. I visited no Gaudi landmarks, went to zero museums or galleries. I meandered, I got lost down side streets, I wandered around markets, and sat on benches. I found my favoured tapas bar, and after overdoing it on Cava, had a nap in the sunshine by the sea. In other words it was highly unpleasant and I cannot for one moment recommend it. As mid-afternoon beckoned, I met a colleague who happened to be in town, and we had an extremely large beer together in a palm-lined square. Horrible. It was a relief to get back on the plane I can tell you.

The Catalans know how to live

Las Ramblas is full of interesting sights

I have no idea. Meccano possibly.

Possibly the best Tapas bar in Barcelona

Lunch. First course.

A listing shop

Think I got away with this one

I elected to stay at Heathrow, and so the following morning was fairly relaxed with a decent breakfast in the lounge and then off to Norway. Beautiful weather in the south-west, and my pre-booked cruise up the Lysefjord was on! I wandered around Stavanger old town for a while, breathed in the clear air, spent my ISA on lunch, and then got on the boat. It was wonderful. I honestly cannot think of anything quite as pleasant that I have done for quite some time. I just stood on the deck and admired the view. For three hours. Various things were pointed out, but I wasn't listening. Beautiful is all I can say. Perhaps that's what the boat captain was trying to say too. We stopped twice, once to feed some 'wild' goats, once to collect some water from a waterfall in a bucket, which all the passengers then partook of. Cliched, yes. Cool and refreshing, also yes. And that was that really. Once back at Stavanger I had another wander round town, and then caught the plane home. The whole thing was remarkably easy and relaxing. 

Stavanger, famous for its staute of "Little Boy and Ducks (and Panther)"

Stavanger Old Town. Picturesque in buckets.

The Costa Stillafloatia was in town

How are you feeling today? A bit Tractor.


The entrance to the Lysefjord


More horrible


Binoculars? Nope, not on either day. Sometime it's really good and positive to do something different. I tend not to do "tourist". I fly to major cities and then head the other way, and learn very little about the country I'm in. Can't say I learned a great deal about Spain or Norway, but the point is that I was free from the stress that is constant birding. Or something like that. It was a pleasure not to need to attempt to identify every moving speck, to be able to have a nice cold drink, to eat proper food rather than either starve in the middle of nowhere or eat junk, and to not worry about light, flushing, exposure theory or whether my battery was going to run out. I've got a few more of these lined up, and if they're as fabulous as this weekend was, it could become a regular feature. 

*apart from summering megas like Short-toed Eagles of course