Tuesday 30 September 2014

Shetland 2014 - day 3, Unst

Unst has been very good to me over the years, with three lifers and a whole host of good birds. It's the most northerly of the islands, and involves two ferries to get over, with the [poor, neglected] island of Yell in the middle. This time around there was yet another new bird awaiting me, a Rustic Bunting that had been knocking around since almost the start of August, faithful to the plantation and surrounding gardens at Halligarth. Amazingly we didn't go up there on our first day, but I am of course very patient when it comes to bird twitching.

A glorious morning, we were on Unst by half eight, and scouring Halligarth before nine. A Yellow-browed Warbler made itself known, and the plantation was eerily still. Usually it's somewhere you visit when the wind is howling, as the four walls afford shelter in at least one corner, but today there was barely a breath of wind and the sun was shining. Garden Warbler, Willow Warblers, even an Acro. Brydon gave us the gen on the Bunting, and even had a poke around in his garden for us, but there was no sign. Disappointing, but with a Subalpine Warbler just down the road our spirits lifted. Especially when we pulled up alongside a gaggle of birders who told us that they had a 'funny' Pipit. 'Funny' Pipits are always good, except when they're just Meadow Pipits being bastards. Happily this one turned out to be a Pechora Pipit, and in marked contrast to the one on Unst in 2012 showed amazingly well. As did the Subalpine Warblers. Yes, plural - there were two, and one of them was singing. So, in late September, on the most northerly island in Britain, I was stood in my shirt sleeves listening to a Subalpine Warbler singing and had just seen a Pechora Pipit. It was vaguely surreal.

We carried on our itinerary, Unst is not a big place, visiting first Skaw for a quick bash as well as hoping to see the established Little Bunting, and then pottered around Norwick and Northdale for a while, picking up Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed, and a Common Rosefinch - the last of the expected scarce, so we were now in uncharted territory. It was very pleasant, and very warm. A few other stops followed, but it was fairly quiet, so we went back to Halligarth for a second crack at the Bunting.

But this time with Double Deckers. I am sure I have mentioned the magical properties of this particular piece of confectionary before, but it is worth mentioning again. Almost any bird, no matter how skulky or invisible, can be persuaded to start parading around in the open by the simple expedient of eating a Double Decker. It works every time. A fortnight ago in Norfolk with that Barred Warbler (though one could argue that was a bit of a waste), I had to bring one into play for the American Herring Gull in Kintyre, and I believe I also drew upon their power for the Ivory Gull. There are countless other examples. So, in keeping with the prescribed ritual, I solemnly handed them out before we started looking for the bird. 


It took approximately five minutes before the bird popped up in a nearby hedge....

With this superb bird under our belts, there was just time to try for a nearby Bluethroat. This hadn't been seen for some 20 minutes, but the potency of the Double Decker was still fresh and I flushed it out of a rose bush immediately. This rounded off an excellent day in which we saw a mind-boggling array of quality birds, and I got a tick to boot. When it's good on Shetland, it is often very good indeed.

Monday 29 September 2014

Shetland 2014 - day 2

Another exciting* day on Shetland! We started close to home, in our own garden and our own plantation. One Siskin, and one Song Thrush! Yay! Things picked up with a Yellow-browed Warbler at the end of the road, and then we decided to twitch the village of Veensgarth, as the previous day it had held no fewer that three Red-breasted Flycatchers. Howard, being Howard, walked in a straight line and found all three. I did a lot of wiggling and following Howard, and saw only two, as well as a Barred Warbler. Found by Howard. Ho-hum. My moment of glory was imminent however.

Heading north now, we birded a selection of sites all the way up to Isbister. At Busta House there was a Yellow-browed Warbler and probably a Barred Warbler. Howard and I are calling it a Barred Warbler. Bradders, made of sterner stuff*, is calling it nothing. Basically I walked up the lane and heard a massively loud "Tchack tchack tchack tchack", louder than a Lancaster Bomber. Admittedly it wasn't quite right for Barred, but DB saw the bird in question and said he was 99% confident it was one. So H and I added the extra percent. Awesome.

Sullom Plantation once again tried to break my ankles, and held another two Yellow-browed Warblers and a very rare Woodpigeon. Isbister held a really grumpy man who told us there were too many tourists in Isbister. This is the Isbister that is at the most northerly part of mainland Shetland. The Isbister where the road ends. It turned out he was concerned that we were dog-walking sheep-rustling maniacs, and he got into his van to monitor our progress down the Iris Bed. Once he discovered that we had no dogs and had no interest in Sheep (apart from me, but I held it together) he became friendliness itself, but his initial reaction was so un-Shetland-like it was shameful. There were no birds other than Snipe. We left.

Back past the garden of Grosbeak Happiness, we checked a random garden at South Heog. This, naturally, had a Yellow-browed Warber in it. In fact most gardens we checked had a Yellow-browed Warbler in them, and it was generally a disappointment when we couldn't find one as it was pretty much expected that we would. Such is birding Shetland in September and October - I ended up with 23 in four days. And then came my moment of glory near Ronas Voe.....

I, J Lethbridge, found my own Red-breasted Flycatcher. Howard must have been looking the other way or something, and Bradders was unsighted by a row of bushes. Mine, all mine. My precious. It was not a hard ID, but I surprised myself by only calling it once as a Redstart before settling on what it actually was. Hurrah! Naturally my camera was in the car, but it looked approximately*** like this, which I actually took on Whalsay two days later.

* if you are a weirdo-freak
** party-pooper
*** very much

Sunday 28 September 2014

London Nightjar, a Patch Tick, and a 'Fun' Run

New 'filtered' through today of a day-roosting Nightjar just down the road from me at the Middlesex Filter Beds. A local birder had spotted it whilst out  jogging, and it had subsequently attracted quite a crowd of London birders, some of whom needed it for their all-important London lists. I didn't, having seen breeding birds in the Surrey sector last year, but I went anyway as I've never seen more than a silhouette at dusk. I've long hoped to come across a day-roosting bird, but I don't really bird the right habitat for that ever to be a possibility. 

The bird was roosting in more-or-less plain view. Naturally it had chosen the exact spot where a clear photo was impossible, but I gave it a go anyway (as did Shaun, even though it clearly wasn't a Gull). A real treat for loads of local birders.

In other news I've birded the patch both yesterday and today, and come away with a full-fat patch tick in the shape of a Woodlark thanks to a timely text from Nick who had discovered it zipping round the grassy area of the Flats calling its head off. I hastened down there to find it still doing exactly that, though unfortunately those less quick off the mark were not as lucky. And then this morning I had the inspired idea to check the Park for a pair of Wigeon that were no longer on the Flats. I know, genius. And of course there they were. They take me to the astonishing total of 97 for the year, which is so piss poor I cannot even begin to tell you. Next year I promise I will make more of an effort.

And finally, hot off the press, I have just survived a fun-run. The other day I lost a huge number of BPs by driving off to Norfolk with both sets of car keys in my pocket. My rescue mission to Belgium with the second set of car keys is apparently long-forgotten, and as penance I was forced into a participating in a family fun-run in aid of Make Poverty History. I am, as you might imagine, an unexceptional runner, and the concept of the words fun and run in the same breath is entirely foreign to me. Nonetheless I whacked on a pair of trainers and set off the Park to meet the family, who were ahead of me due to the need to twitch the Nightjar. I made it to the start and picked up my number just as everyone all set off. Mrs L and the eldest set off together, and middle child went with a friend. Needless to say I didn't see them again until the finish. This left me with my youngest, now aged seven. She is not built for running, with very short legs at this point in her life, so we took it nice and slow - frankly this worked for me. How slow? Well, 5km in 45 minutes is how slow. Whereas young Master L finished in 29 minutes, Mrs L in 31, with Pie and her friend coming in at 38 minutes. So yes, we were last (as in last in our family of five, not last last - gratifyingly there are people out there less fit than I am), and no, it was not fun. But I did it, and I did not complain as much as I expected. And I am still alive, which is obviously a massive bonus, and by no means a guaranteed outcome as far as me running anywhere is concerned. Welcome to the Revolution.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Shetland 2014 - day 1

I'm just back from Shetland, where I've spent an extremely productive four and a half days. For the whole week before I arrived it blew light easterlies, so it was no surprise that the islands were carpeted with scarce when I arrived. I'd had a taster in Norfolk the previous weekend, but obviously Shetland is completely different, and Bradders, Howard and I were ready to give it 100%. Sorry, 110%.

There is unfortunately no cheap way to get to Shetland. The short hop to Sumburgh from one of the hub airports is expensive. Hiring a car once there is expensive. Putting your own car on the ferry from Aberdeen is expensive. I think my travel costs were in excess of £400, which is absurd when you think about it. I took a cheap flight on Friday to Aberdeen, and was picked up by the Braddersmobile, which subsequently found itself on the MV Hrossey. On Wednesday I flew back to Aberdeen from Sumburgh, and then on to Heathrow, throwing twenties out of the windows all the way. I could have flown to New York for less. But there is something special about Shetland, and whilst it didn't on this occasion deliver the absolute mega, the birding was amazing for most of my short stay. That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is to say that my Rustic Bunting tick cost me about 600 quid when I could have seen one in Kent a couple of years back for about a tenner had I been in the mood. You can choose.

The ferry was uneventful, which is the way I like it, and the following morning we were greeted by clear skies over Lerwick and a light breeze. Ideal really, and we set off to dip the Bluetail found the previous day by The Proclaimers (who knew they were keen birders?) who had come not quite 500 miles to do a spot of autumn rarity-hunting on the islands. Sumburgh Head looked glorious in the sunshine, and we worked our way down to the farm from the lighthouse, picking up Lapland Bunting, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Redstart and Yellow-browed Warbler along the way. A good start. 

From here we moved on to Toab via Virkie, where a Barred Warbler was typically elusive and severely outclassed by a showy Red-backed Shrike. I love Shrikes. It may have been at this point we learned about another Shrike in East Yorkshire, but I digress.... We checked a few other sites on South Mainland before twitching an Arctic Warbler at Hoswick, and then had a quick look up the Swinister Burn, which as usual we simply waded up. Final stop of the day was at our favourite site at Channerwick, where the Sycamore of Happiness produced another Red-breasted Flycatcher as well as a Pied, after which we headed for our digs just east of Tingwall at a place called North Hamarsland. This had been picked over the net, and unlike the Decca where we usually stay, had a decent garden and a plantation to savour. This did the business straight away as whilst being shown round the place I glanced out of a window and saw a Barred Warbler about six feet away. Winner. I thought this would win me "best garden bird", but how wrong I was.....

We continued being shown around in minute detail, including an explanation of every switch in the house, and then we came to the toilet. A toilet which looked like a giant potty and had no visible flushing mechanism. And a suspicious tub of sawdust sat next to it. Yes, welcome London people to a self-composting toilet. WTF? We got shown how to use this too. First you sit on it and do a poo. Simple, and usual wiping rules apply. Then you get a big scoop of sawdust from the tub and chuck it down the hole after the toilet paper. Then you extract a handle and turn it anti-clockwise (very important) which rotates the drum and thus inverts the hole. Then you continue turning it until the hole comes back again (again very important, especially for the next user). Then you go and vomit in the sink. What could be easier? I mean FFS. Barred Warbler or no Barred Warblerit is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder. I didn't take a photo.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Alex Salmond rules on my list

Today is a really important day. Today the people of Scotland vote, and the responsibility must be unbearable. This is a decision that could have huge repercussions, and none is more important than my list. The vote is essentially on whether my list stays at 419, or drops to 402, for I've seen 17 species in Scotland and nowhere else. That's what Alex Salmond has basically been banging on about for the last few weeks. I mean yes, he talks about national identity, about a proud nation etc, but when he says "Let's do it!" what he really means is "Let's wipe the smile off those smarmy UK listers, coming over here and taking our birds."

This is outrageous. I've paid good money to see those 17 birds. Seven of those have been on Shetland, involving five highly expensive trips. I suppose I did manage to subsequently see Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll in Suffolk and Buff-bellied Pipit in London, but Syke's Warbler, Lancie and Pechora could be more difficult. Last year I even bloody twitched Shetland for that Pine Grosbeak. Had I known.....And then a month after that I was on the Hebrides for the Harlequin Duck. I demand a refund! And as for my exciting Yank trio of Coot, Duck and Herring Gull, well they cost me a weekend and about £30 each, and were dull as ditch-water to boot. You think I went to see them for their aesthetic value? For what they could teach me about plumage? Pah! It was for my UK list, a UK that includes Scotland. And what about the Black Scoter? That sodding thing took me seven hours to find off Blackdog. Seven hours, some of them whilst being chased by a naked man wearing a sailor's cap. Is the Yes Campaign really saying that that was all in vain? How can that be fair, it's just so short-sighted. I guess I should count my lucky stars that the Sandhill Crane relocated to Suffolk where I saw it again, even though at the time it was one of the worst things that had happened in my entire life as it meant all my mates then saw it. 

Then there's all the endemics. Where am I going to see a Ptarmigan in England, Wales or Northern Ireland? Or a Crested Tit? And what about Scottish Crossbill? Presumably all those will have to now pass a DNA test or they'll be shipped back across the border? The whole situation is nuts, and clearly hasn't been thought through properly. For starters what about all the economic benefits that birders bring to Scotland? On some trips I've forgotten the Double Deckers and had to purchase them up there, and on Shetland I reckon I've spent at least £20 on pies over the years. And this is just me! There are literally tens of other people like me who could also withdraw their custom, the damage to the people of Scotland could be immense. Westminster would have to increase their already massive subsidies to make up the shortfall. Oh, wait.....

Gone but not forgotten....
Thank God

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Kicking off my year list

I went year-listing in Norfolk at the weekend. I think I may have left it a little late, as I was only on 195. After a successful day I am now on 203, but this is approximately the total I would hit in April if I were taking it seriously. Clearly I am not taking it seriously, and whilst at various stages I have both decried and embraced listing, 2014 will be my lowest ever total by a wide margin. I think I need to do better. I am not saying that I am going to go all out and smash it in 2015, but if you do at least pay a little bit of attention to listing, which patently I have not this year, then you will spur yourself on to see a few more birds. That’s the answer really – call it what you will, add a listing element if you want, but just go birding. If you do, you’ll see more birds than I have this year. For instance, my 200th bird was a returning Pink-footed Goose in a skein high above Warham Greens. How is this even possible, how did I manage not to see a Pink-footed Goose last winter? We were searching for a Red-breasted Flycatcher that the ever-productive John Furze had just found, and the sounds came floating down. I recognized it immediately of course – I’d seen hundreds of birds in Iceland relatively recently – but that’s not the point. It means that throughout the whole of the last winter period, I had not birded the coast. Not been to north Norfolk, not been to the Yare Valley. But it gets worse - Black-necked Grebe was a year tick too! In other words I have seemingly not been birding anywhere. That’s not quite true of course. I had been to Morocco – twice – and also to Cyprus during the winter period. It’s true that there weren’t many Black-necked Grebes and Pink-footed Geese, but there were outstanding numbers of Moussier’s Redstarts and Cyprus Pied Wheatears, neither of which we could find yesterday on the coast despite giving it a really good bash. Time is the killer, but still. 

Go. Birding.

Nick, Bradders and I had a relatively leisurely start, and didn’t arrive at Blakeney until about 9am. It was cold! I’d been told to expect a nice warm day, wandering around in shirt sleeves not seeing very much, but it was murky with a stiff breeze blowing and newly-arrived Wheatears clinging to the sea wall. We quickly located the juvenile Red-backed Shrike sheltering in a bush, and then went off to bird Friary Hills for a bit. Nothing much doing here, so we pootled off to Warham Greens, always a favourite place to go birding on an autumn easterly. We started at the Stiffkey end and gradually worked our way west, picking up a couple of Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher. As we arrived at the most-westerly track, Garden Drove, we could see a group of birders moving cautiously down towards us. We stayed put as they pushed down, and saw a couple of Spotted Flycatchers in with various Tits, but the real prize was a Red-breasted Flycatcher that eventually showed very well indeed. Such smart little birds, I’ve now seen eight – simply by virtue of going birding, incredible! Remarkably I’d seen one down this exact track almost two years ago. I think it’s what they call a site having a track record. So almost impeccable timing on our part. Arriving half an hour earlier and finding it ourselves would of course have been perfect timing!

We birded our way slowly back to the car via various Buntings, Wheatears and Finches, and following a spot of lunch in Wells, parked up next to the track that led down to Burnham Overy and Gun Hill. The hope was that with the freshening breeze, more and more migrants would start arriving. Although we bumped into Nick, Clare and Tony who confirmed that this did appear to be the case, beyond a few more Whinchat, Wheatear and a Redstart, we couldn’t conjure anything better up. A few Yellow-browed Warblers further east raised our hopes a bit, but I think it’s probably all going to be about this week and next, it’s east all the way and Shetland could be immense. Seeing as it wasn’t heaving, we decided to devote a small amount of time to the Barred Warbler that had been there a couple days. Barred Warblers being what they are, there was nothing happening, and so after seeing a Garden Warbler, cynicism and boredom got the better of Bradders and he wandered off. He had however failed to appreciate the significance of eating a Double Decker. Nick and I both had one, and whilst I promptly fell asleep, Nick stayed awake and the subtle magic started to work. Thus almost imperceptibly I became aware of a very shouty man in the dunes…… “It’s there!” “In the Elder!!

Eh? What’s an Elder? I think I need to work on my bush identification skills. By now fully awake due to shouty man, I managed to work out which bush it was, namely as it was the only one with a bloody huge Warbler in it. Ah, so that’s what an Elder looks like. The Warbler actually moved with surprising grace for a large lump – much like me – and was in complete contrast to the Garden Warbler, which basically performed a series of large belly flops in a bramble. I took a series of piss-poor shots with which to grip off Bradders, and we proceeded back towards the car as it was now approaching 6pm – no wonder I was tired….. On the way back we finally saw the elusive Black-necked Grebe (a likely Norfolk tick for me, except it wasn’t as I had seen one in exactly the same place six years and day ago), and then performed our good deed for the day by pushing a Merc off a bank following a parking fail by another birder that had left one of the rear wheels spinning in mid-air and the body of the car grounded on the grass.


Totals for the day were a Red-backed Shrike, a Red-breasted Flycatcher as well as Pied and two Spotties, double figures of Wheatear, about five Whinchat, a Barred Warbler, several migrant Goldcrest and a whole host of other things. Without bothering to look at Waders and Wildfowl we ended up at 89 species – eight of which were somehow new for the year. Thus demonstrating that if you go out birding, you end up seeing birds. I must do it more often.

Monday 15 September 2014

Captain Cook discovers Wanstead

Yesterday was one of the most enjoyable days I can recall for a long time (PS, no birds...). It's Alistair Cook's benefit year, and as he's an Essex cricketer, and several of the Essex side came from the Wanstead Ranks, he brought the team over to Overton Drive for a morning of coaching the kids (my three included), a T20 match vs Wanstead in the afternoon, and then a gala dinner in the evening. We only attended the first two, but were there for something like eight hours - for a man of his stature to give up his Saturday and come out and inspire all these kids is simply phenomenal - and he was so nice too, so normal, no sign of the pressure he must be under. And hats off too to the Essex team that contained the likes of Bopara, Foster, Topley and Panesar, they were all brilliant with the children, and really that's what the day was all about. 

The match itself was won by Essex on almost the final ball, and it was perhaps the least competitive cricket I've ever seen, and all the more fun for it! One of the Wanstead guys had won an auction to keep wicket for Essex, and had a whale of a time. A ten year old kid came out and bowled an over at some point and won man-of-the-match for doing so, Kishen Velani (local boy done good, played for England under-19s) tonked Monty for four sixes in a row, and Cook himself was the victim of a fantastic one-handed catch out at deep mid-wicket.

Wanstead Cricket Club has been superb from the moment we joined it some years ago. It is made up pretty much entirely of volunteers that give up their time to coach the kids, and the whole setup and atmosphere is all you could wish from a local club, and we are fantastically lucky to have it on our doorstep. All three of ours go there every week, let's hope they stay interested for a long time. Especially if it means that I can have great days out too!

Captain Cook asks my child a question - will she bat or bowl. It takes her an eternity to answer. 

Cooky and Trevor, head of Junior Cricket

Monty takes a wicket and goes off to high-five the entire crowd!

James Foster

Nick Browne on his way to a fine score



The centre of attention!

Monday 8 September 2014

Meanwhile in Belgium...

Yes, I know. Another foreign trip. In my defence it was only Brussels, and seeing as we're all European, I'm not even sure it counts as a foreign trip. A somewhat hectic day, with a trip to the Isle of Wight tagged on afterwards - now that really is foreign...... Anyhow, arrived in the capital of Belgium nice and early to be greeted by a damp grey day. It is probably like this every day in Brussels, even if the rest of Belgium is bathed in sunshine. But it didn't stop a staunch Brit Eurocitoyen like me from having a bit of a look around, as my last visit had been inexplicably brief. Ostensibly the plan could have been to have had lunch with a friend, but she was unaccountably absent, so I reverted to beer. A trusted correspondent, when asked what fun could be had in Brussels for a few hours, had given me a list of "must-dos" that only involved bars. No mention of the Atomium (I saw it from the bus and reckoned I was 98% done), no mention of the quite adorable albeit very tiny statue of a small boy urinating (Le Manneken Pis), just booze - so naturally I followed these precise instructions and spent the majority of my very short visit sat in various drinking holes nursing absurdly strong beer whilst watching the world go by. Which mainly involved other people drinking beer, numerous weddings and pre-wedding frivolities, and a fair old portion of gloom. I also took in some culture at the death, and you won't be escaping that. Needless to say, I took a camera, so here is a pictorial essay on my day.

This is Albert. Most people in Belgium are called Albert or Jacques, so this isn't particularly special. What was special was a statue opposite of who I assume was Mrs Albert, gazing lovingly up at her mounted beau. Of note is that he is looking off into he distance, and not down at her.

This man was a tourist attraction in his own right. He ignored everyone. Like an aged Depardieu/Halliday, well before lunchtime he was content with fag, rag, and killer beer. Possibly he actually was a tourist attraction.

Selfie. Not really. I have no idea who this is, but I am going to hazard a guess that he is American. No reason really. He is headed towards "Le Cirio", a very charming brasserie with fab decor that served far more beer than it did solid food. I sat next to an old Belgian couple who ordered all the ingredients for a sandwich, and then proceeded to make it up at their table. It was probably the highlight of their week. It was very nearly the highlight of mine.

This is presumably the man above's reason for visiting Belgium. Or perhaps emigrating. Anyhow, much as I really would have liked to have partaken, on top of a number of fine brews, somehow I couldn't stomach it. They were, however, selling like hotcakes, particularly to Japanese tourists no more than half as big again, who would then stagger off down the street and collapse onto a bench or bollard and proceed to stuff their faces. One or two actually died.

In La Grande Place couples were getting married at the rate of one every 35 seconds, it was literally a procession. The bride on this occasion chose the traditional blue, perhaps it isn't her first time? The only reason I took it is because they had invited a Trappist Monk along, who as you can see is looking less pleased than everyone else, no doubt due to missing out on five minutes of ale-drinking and thus unable to build up an appetite for lunch.

I can't remember much about this place, I think it was called Galeries Hubert. Basically a bit like the Burlington Arcade, but a lot bigger and with a ratio of nine chocolate shoppes to one of anything else. Tourist magnet. I purchased chocolate. As gifts.

An interesting display of books. On the left you have book on wild ducks, by Jean-Jacques. On the right you have a book on fortunate hair placement, by Jacques and Jacques. That the two should be side by side shows that this is clearly Belgium.

To the Woodcock! This was yet another pub serving deadly beer. I did not partake.

Here however I did, because it is supposed to be an experience. In an ideal world the waiter would have yelled at me or something. That is what had been promised, and whilst there was a certain frisson, I can't say it was any worse than places in London where staff basically view you as an unfortunate necessity.

I could not visit Brussels without getting a dose of culture. These are some owls by Magritte. It is of course forbidden to take photos in the museum, so I have no idea where these came from. Anyway, way back in the dim and distant past I wrote a dissertation on old René and his surrealist pals. I have forgotten all of it, and one brief visit round a museum isn't going to bring much of it back. I recall a train coming out of a fireplace, but could not find it. Instead there were gazillions of paintings of owls, and a mildly unhealthy obsession with breasts.


My final piece of culture before heading back to the UK. I was most pleased to find this, and it will come as no surprise that it had about ten times as many admirers as the Magritte exhibition I had just come from. A thousand tourist cameras and iPhones have approximately this photo on them, the key difference being the presence of the owner in the foreground. Me? I couldn't even bring myself to place Snuffi in front.....