Thursday, 31 December 2015

In with the old

2015 is nearly over, and you know what that means? Yup, tomorrow many birders, including me, will get excited when we see a Blue Tit, a bird we’ve ignored for almost a year now. There’s also the excitement of “first bird” to come. Birders all over the country are no doubt in a similar state of excitement over what theirs will be. I would suggest that for most the choices are very limited. In my case it will be Robin, as it has been for the last 167 years in a row, unless I can somehow stifle the resident bird this evening. But then it just wouldn’t be New Year’s Day would it? Some traditions are best left well alone, so I’ve already inked it in.

Naturally I will be out all day tomorrow, and staying local. Along with my somewhat surprising second place in our local competition (although it isn’t really a competition at all), I would also appear to have clinched the famous Golden Mallard, which is worth at least fifty quid on Ebay. These two events have naturally fired me up for another crack at Wanstead, and so at dawn tomorrow you will find me crawling around the Flats with a large hangover.

I do however have a hankering to get a little further, see a little more. The coast is calling. Waders and exciting stuff. Perhaps that Red-rumper up in Norfolk? Trouble is I can’t be bothered to drive anywhere, and I would need a substantial kick up the backside. Oh hang on, what’s that you say Dear? The in-laws are coming round on Sunday?

Anyway, this is my last post of the year, and so all that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy evening, a bird-filled 2016, and good luck with those new lists. I’ll be back tomorrow to let you know about that bloody Robin….

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

2015 Bird of The Year

Yesterday on the train back down from Scotland I had a really good idea for a blog post. It was quirky, it was different, it had nothing whatsoever to do with birds and it was going to be a lot of fun. There is just one thing preventing me publishing it. Between yesterday and today I have completely forgotten what it was going to be about. I sat down and started typing this in the hope that it might come back, but so far it has not. Now I am not that old, not even middle-aged. Dementia ought to still be many years away. So you are spared, and instead I will regale you with what the best bird in 2015 was – of all birds I mean, not just the new UK ticks. What single bird did I enjoy most? My choice may be slightly controversial.

So yes there were various rarities, including monster birds all over the country and a self-found on-patch Yellow-browed Warbler. These are all just numbers however, and when I look back at 2015 there are a small number of birds that make me smile, that make me remember the place and the time. My shortlist would contain the excellent and fearless Dotterel in Essex, the splendid and monumental Varied Thrush in Washington, the White-tailed Plover in lovely light from Dubai……and the Red-legged Partridge in Wanstead!

I know, how can I possibly choose an introduced bird of unknown provenance as my favourite bird of the year? Well, it’s actually very easy. Of all the birds I came across, when I think back to this one it is simply the one that makes me smile the most. Birding is supposed to be a pleasure and I can't think back at that bird and not grin, and that's why it's a no-brainer for my bird of the year - no other bird does that in quite the same way. The Varied Thrush was epic, and to this day I continue to high-five myself when I think back to that moment, but I still keep returning the Partridge. I had missed it in the morning due to needing to go to work, but had left early in the vain hope it might still have been around. Wanstead Flats is not the kind of place I could see a small game bird surviving more than a couple of hours, but against all the odds I refound it almost immediately, pottering around without a care in the world under some goalposts in the late afternoon sunshine. Most people probably don’t give Red-legs a second glance, neither would I probably, but when it’s on your patch you look a little closer, and it was a comically gorgeous little bird. What it was doing running around Wanstead Flats we will never know, but it was enjoyed very much by all the local birders. I jogged home to fetch a camera, and was just about able to nab a few shots of it in the last few minutes of light, and before it went and hid in the long grass again. What a stunner!

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Florida II - Trip Report

  • A three day trip in mid November (13th – 16th), hopefully to be a repeat of the trip I made in February and which I enjoyed hugely, and targeting a slightly different area I hoped to see a few different species.
  • I took advantage of an airline sale and snagged an economy return to Miami for £380 with British Airways on their A380 service. Airline geek, moi? In a very happy turn of affairs I ended up getting upgraded to a flat bed both ways which made the trip a lot easier. I also booked cheap onward tickets to Tampa with American Airlines.
  • Car hire via Avis was a lovely Ford C-MAX hybrid, very comfy with lots of mod cons including satnav which meant I didn’t even need to use my phone. About £90 for three days and used a mere £15 of fuel.
  • I stayed in the frankly dreadful Guy Harvey Outpost on St Pete Beach, complete with spurious resort 'fees'. I don’t believe there are any decently-priced options that are not going to be full-on uber-occupancy party hotels. I spent very little time there so it didn’t really matter, but it was a poor way to spend close to £200.
  • In contrast to my last trip where I tried to visit too many sites, I resolved to visit only two – Fort Desoto Park and St Pete Beach. Research was thus very thorough, reading up on what the tides were doing, where to park, which locations were best at which times of day. I even picked out the main Skimmer colony from Google Maps satellite view, though in the event no birds remained after the breeding season.


Day 1: A morning at work before a wholly chaotic departure from London Heathrow mid-afternoon, arriving three hours late into Miami and missing my Tampa connection which was the final flight of the evening. These things happen I suppose. BA put me up in a hotel overnight, and AA rebooked me onto the first flight in the morning – the benefits of being a frequent flyer but irritating as I missed out on a sunrise.
Day 2: Early arrival into Tampa, picked up my car and was in Fort Desoto Park by half nine. I spent all morning and early afternoon here, and then investigated St Pete Beach in the afternoon.
Day 3: Early morning at St Pete Beach, an exploratory drive to Clearwater, Largo and Seminole. Afternoon and evening at Fort Desoto Park.
Day 4: All morning at Fort Desoto Park, early afternoon around Old Tampa Bay, and then an afternoon flight to Miami. Miami to London overnight and straight to work.

Main Sites I went to

Fort Desoto Park - a fantastic peninsula for birds reached by some toll bridges. Multiple beaches that face all directions, so great at all times of day, tidal pools, scrub and mangrove. Shell Key Preserve just to the north ensures plenty of birds, as does a roped-off sanctuary area on the western edge. There is a $5 park entrance fee.
St Pete Beach – this is a stretch of white sand that stretches for miles, from Fort Desoto in the South to Clearwater in the north. I spent most time near Indian Shores.
Old Tampa Bay - various boat ramps around the bay seemed to attract waders, gulls, egrets and other birds.

Day by day account

Day 2

Day 1 was all about either work or travelling. I dislike work and I like travelling, but nonetheless let’s skip straight to day 2 and birds. I arrived at Tampa at 8am, and had completed the 40 minute drive to Fort Desoto Park by about 9.15am. Florida was experiencing some rather unseasonal weather, and rather than temperatures in the 80’s and bright sunshine, it was more like high 60’s, with a stiff breeze blowing and overcast skies. This turned out to a blessing in disguise, and meant I could happily take photographs all day long, albeit that I missed out on the soft golden light that Florida is so famed for. After paying my $5 at the entrance booths, I checked out East Beach but this was busy with kite surfers so I went straight to North Beach, parking at the far end. Here I had a good encounter with some Palm Warblers in the mangroves at the shoreline, as well as a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. Waders on the beach included Willet, Grey Plover and Sanderling, however most birds were concentrated on some sandbars offshore – huge swirling masses that I couldn’t get to! Green Heron and various Egrets stalked some inland pools, and an American Herring Gull played with a crab. Being a weekend, the numbers of beach users soon began to build up, but there were plenty of inland areas that I could bird happily. Eastern Phoebe and Mourning Dove were the commonest birds, whilst Ospreys and Black Vultures soared overhead, and there was constant traffic in the form of Royal and Sandwich Terns. I was very happy, but as with most first mornings, the photography was a slight disappointment. I guess I am somebody who just needs a bit of time to get into it.

Palm Warbler

In the early afternoon I drove to St Pete Beach, to somewhere between North Redington and Indian Shores. There were loads of tame birds around the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary – this is a hospital that takes in and recuperates injured birds, but due to the amount of food around there are a lot of hangers on. Maybe they’re there to visit friends, maybe they spent some time there themselves? Whatever, if you want to see Wood Storks and Great Egrets wandering around, copious quantities of Night Heron etc, then this is a place to visit for sure. The best photographic opportunities are on the beach outside the Sanctuary, where you can see the Pelicans coming in to land on the aviary roof. On my visit there was also a fantastic Cooper’s Hawk perched on a wooden pole nearby. 
Cooper's Hawk
On the beach itself there were plenty of the usual suspects – Laughing Gulls, Royal, Sandwich and Forster’s Tern, and lots of waders. In the afternoon with the light coming in off the sea, I had to resort to a bit of wading myself to get the right angle, but it is very shallow, and in any event it was still cloudy. Of course there were lots of people swimming, using the beach, out for a stroll and so on, but very few of them flushed anything – in most cases they walked right past and the loafing birds barely moved. Gradually people started moving away, and this resulted in more birds dropping in on the beach, including an American Oystercatcher, a bird I had missed last time. Finally the sun went low enough to undercut the cloud layer, and so I finally got some decent light and spent a good 20 minutes with this one bird which was quite wary by Florida standards. I resolved to come back in the morning when the sun would be coming from the land side.

I finally checked into my hotel who had of course been expecting me the previous evening, and went and had a couple of beers on the beach before going to a roadside bar for dinner and live music. Despite the “mission” aspect of it, this was still a holiday.

Day 3
Back on St Pete Beach at exactly the same place as the previous day, and most of the same birds were still there! Overcast again, and although somewhat of a repeat of what I’d already done I had a couple of different ideas and spent some time trying to make them work. Particularly appealing was a juvenile Royal Tern constantly begging from a parent that had no food. I spent a happy few hours here, rarely going a hundred metres either side of the pier here. I’d lie down and photograph Terns and Waders, and then when a Brown Pelican came in range, quickly stand up, change the settings and try for a few flight or diving shots. 

A quick sandwich lunch and then I drove the length of St Pete Beach looking for different opportunities. Due to the amount of residential buildings it’s very difficult to find places to actually get to the beach, but there are a few public carparks along the way. I pootled all the way to Sand Key Park and beyond, but there was nothing doing during the middle of the day. Retracing my steps I spent the early afternoon driving around the interior looking for suitable habitat, but the short answer is that it’s either exceedingly built up or that you need a boat. I found a friendly female Anhinga on a public golf course, but other than that I barely took a photograph. So, back to Fort Desoto Park.

I tried a different area at the south end of North Beach, and this was fantastic. There are some saline pools, and beyond this the beach is roped off – and this is where all the birds are! The ropes are there not only for the breeding season, but also to provide the birds some respite from the constant human activity. There were thousands of them in tight flocks – no good for photography but great birding. Happily there is a bit of overspill, and it was here that I found one of my top target, Black Skimmer. A lone bird in with Laughing Gulls, and unfortunately right in the middle! They’re enormous, like a giant Tern with an even more outsized beak. Miracle of miracles this single bird was progressively joined by more and more birds, giving me some brief flight opportunities, and then developed into a decent sized flock on the beach. Again I had to wade to get the best of the light, but managed to isolate some individual birds – very happy. And then the inevitable happened and a kid flushed them, whereupon they all took off and went some distance back over the rope and into the sanctuary area. Still, it had been good while it lasted and I knew where I would be the following morning.
Black Skimmer
I spent the final part of the day investigating the fishing pier and the scrub behind it, and unfortunately managed to lie on a fire ant nest whilst photographing some Phoebes. For very small ants they really pack a punch, and being social animals they cunningly all got into position before HRH Number One Ant issued the bite command, whereupon they all got stuck in simultaneously. Agony, like being poked by a thousand needles. Legs, arms, back of the neck, thumb, ears. I sprang up, dropped the camera and vigourously started slapping at myself but it was too late….. I read later that these mass attacks can be bad enough to require steroid injections, so I was pleased to more or less get away with it, though some of the bites persisted for two weeks. I didn’t get any photos of the Phoebes and didn’t try again!

Day 4
I had until at least midday before needing to return to Tampa, and finally the day dawned bright and clear, and I got the light I had been wanting. I was at the same spot at sunrise and photographing a Reddish Egret fishing on the saline pools. Wonderful birds, and exactly as per the last trip to see them fishing is superb – dancing, jinking, running, waggling. Comical but amazingly effective in the shallow water. There were Egrets and Herons everywhere, but the Osprey I attempted to stalk was having none of it. No Skimmers this morning, and rather disappointingly two metal detectorists were systematically working the beach exactly where they had been yesterday, no doubt hoping to find all the jewellery lost at the by the weekend visitors. They happily stepped right over the rope and carried straight on into the bird sanctuary, pushing everything with them….Grrrr. A few birds remained however, and in the lovely warm light I made the most of it. Best of all was a white morph Reddish Egret. By 10am the light was really harsh, and I reverted to birding mode. Although the prior days had seen no nice light at all, the benefits of a cloud layer were now very apparent – I had in reality been very fortunate.

Hard to believe that these two are the same species! Reddish Egret!
All too soon it was time to leave, and as is typical for my flying visits I was late already. Just enough time to photograph a male Anhinga on the shores of Old Tampa Bay, and then I packed up, got rid of as much sand as possible, and headed to Tampa airport for my flight to Miami. A long layover in Miami stocking up on beer and deleting upwards of a thousand duff images, and it was onwards to London on the upper deck of the flying whale. All in all a decent and very productive trip, once again in rather compressed timescales, but it only required a day and a half off work.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Best Twitch of 2015

So what was the best twitch of 2015? Really this should be a much easier decision than any previous year because there were fewer of them – nine to be precise, and no big dips. It has taken a few years, and I would in no way claim to be a big lister, but I’ve now seen a sufficiently large number of birds that the chances of something new coming up are thankfully much reduced. And then of course there is the apathy. As I have written many times before (i.e. apologies for boring you...) I go through twitchy phases and distinctly non-twitchy phases, and I find that as the years advance the latter are gradually taking over. I am sure many birding readers will recognise the feelings of relief when a mega breaks and you realise that you saw one of whatever species it is a few years back. Yes! Unless you’re dead keen on county listing, or are Lee Evans, you can sit back and realise that you don’t need to be a part of the no doubt mad panic currently occurring in kitchens, living rooms and offices around the country, as greenhorn low-listers start forming plans. But does the opposite still happen when you do actually ‘need’ whatever it is? For me, not so much these days. For instance a Crag Martin happily spent about ten days flying around first a church spire, and then a sports stadium, both of which were only about three hours from my house. Did I lift a finger, did my ample backside raise itself from its metaphorical sofa? No I did not, and no it did not. I may have glanced at a map, just to check that Derbyshire hadn’t somehow gotten a bit closer to London, but even that was pretty half-hearted. I simply could not sum up sufficient enthusiasm. I do have a sofa by the way, in fact I have several, but I rarely if ever sit on them as I am too busy.

Anyway, I did manage to do a small amount of twitching in 2015, indeed I didn’t hang around, with the first occurring on the first of January which a quick dash up to Yorkshire for a Little Bustard with a bonus Blyth’s Pipit bolted on. Various other birds followed, mainly rare Yank Waders, but it didn’t feel quite like the old days, and the crowd of people I used to zip off to far-flung parts of the UK with are also beginning to lose the urge. And that’s the key to it really, whilst seeing the bird is the primary aim, above all it’s a social thing. I realise this sounds odd, and possibly the last thing that people outside the hobby might think when watching the TV news of a crowd of extremely socially awkward and identically dressed men clutching thermos flasks, and then listening to a dreadful interview or two, but for me given the competitive element fell by the wayside some time ago, a twitch is a now a good excuse to spend a few hours with a bunch of guys I enjoy being with. The anorak-clad masses probably say the same thing actually, but their journeys are filled with tales of birds they saw in 1968 and by the way, is X dead yet?

And so even though the split-second view of the UK’s last Lady Amherst’s Pheasant dashing across a woodland rise in a blue streak left me breathless with giddy excitement, instead I’m going to choose the Hudsonian Godwit at Shapwick Heath NNR in May, which I saw in the company of Nick, Bradders, Tony and Monkey. It’s a fair distance away, perhaps three hours, but the journey flew by mainly thanks to the average mental age in the car being about 12. The average actual age in the car was more like 43, and that’s with Bradders bringing it down substantially, but this crowd are a lot of fun and belie their age, and we had an extremely amusing journey. I have no idea what we talked about, but essentially the day consisted of three hours of nonsense, half an hour with a comatose wader that barely moved a muscle, and then lunch in a pub. On the journey back most of us probably fell asleep, for one of the reasons I gave above…


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The long wait is over!

One Sunday back in 2010 I was convinced to drive to Norfolk in the depths of winter to see a Northern Harrier. Being a tick-hungry whelp back then I was in the car like a flash, and shortly after dawn at Thornham barn the Harrier was observed floating over the salt marsh. Fantastic, tick and run! Then somebody let out that it wasn’t on the British list or some other minor listing issue….

What a let down! I remember the day very well as I lost all my toes to frostbite. It was absolutely freezing, cold of the sort that we just don’t seem to get any more. Somewhat keen, Bradders and I had arrived in the dark, as had a great many people. This meant a long time standing around before there was any action to speak of, during which we gradually got colder and colder. This may have been in the days before Bradders Birding Tours offered coffee, before the mother-of-all-flasks put in an appearance, so there was no respite and we gradually turned to ice. So after all that to then find out that the mission target wasn’t tickable… Gah! DB may have mentioned insurance value or some such, but try telling that to a small child!

Anyway, I mention this not because I have run out of current material and am thus dredging up the past, blog recycling if you will. Nobody would wantonly do that ;-) No, the reason I’ve brought it up is that it appears that the long wait is over, and that the species has now been accepted onto Category A of the British List. For those of you who have no idea what this means, I don’t really know either, but the key point is that it means that the species is eligible to be included on twitchers’ lists. I’ve no idea what category it may have been on before, but there are other various categories for non self-sustaining populations (the extinct category), the obvious escapes category (the Radipole category) and stuff like that. Of course individual birds still have to be accepted as the species by BBRC, but this particular Northern Harrier passed that hurdle a few years ago. Of course despite this it remained untickable. I don’t say know why I’m saying “of course”, the whole thing is baffling actually. Why bother accepting a bird that isn’t on the British List? Why even bother submitting a description? Anyhow, it is now on, Jupiter has aligned with Venus etc etc, and my once twitchy self has got what is known in birding parlance as an “armchair tick”. Indeed, in the depths of my disappointment five years ago I noted that on a particularly and viciously cold day in the future I looked forward to being cozied up indoors in an armchair and receiving news of its elevation. That day has now come, albeit that I found out at work and it’s stupidly mild outside. Still, I’ll take it.
That same day in 2010 I watched a man at Titchwell point out a Little Crested Grebe to an assembled group of birders. Still waiting on that one.

Travelling obsession

About this time last year I wrote a post called tripping out. In it I said I would likely travel less in 2015. Well what a big fat lie that turned out to be! I travelled more - well, further that is to say. Fewer actual trips, as the below shows, but generally they were to destinations that are further away.

January -UAE
February – Florida/NY
May - Fuerteventura
June – Washington State
July - Madeira
August – Washington DC/NY
October – Hong Kong
November - Florida

You will note that not every trip is a birding trip either, at least three of the longer ones had very little to do with birds whatsoever. This was all part of the plan for a return to a slightly more balanced life, or at least as balanced as I can manage. My trouble is that I can’t ever do just a bit of something. It has to be full on or not at all. So I will charge around doing loads of whatever it is to the exclusion of quite a lot of other things. Or rather, I won’t fully exclude anything, I’ll just sacrifice many other things (like sleep) for a bit and try and do it all. Throughout my life, even as a child, there have normally been at least a couple of all-consuming interests on the go. They have come and gone – chess, computers, growing plants, fishing, drawing. Each has taken a significant portion of my life and then declined. Some wobble on, like growing plants, others like fishing and chess have disappeared completely, leaving behind only vestigial traces of their existence. There is a chess set on the Harpsichord, and I have a cupboard full of unused fishing gear, but other than being hit on the head by a fishing rod when I’m trying to get a shirt out you would never know. The current obsession seems to be travel. I can’t tell you how long it is going to last, but at the moment it is a lot of fun, and seemingly ties in very well with birds and photography. These latter two interests are the ones that if the last ten years are anything to go by seem here to stay. They too wax and wane, but are always there, always vying for space in my calendar, and when I look forward to 2016 there are a couple of birding trips pencilled in already….

More exciting at this particular moment is a grown-up trip to New York with Mrs L for a significant birthday, as well as trips to Spain, Hungary and Austria with the family. Mrs L had a choir trip to NY earlier this year, during which she did a great many fun things, so we are going to repeat this with me. And of course and as my children will tell you, I am nothing if not fun….. We also went to Hungary a deux and found it incredibly interesting, so we’re taking the kids there during the summer holidays, taking a boat on the Danube from Budapest to Vienna, and generally immersing ourselves in culture. Innit.

But back to this year and what was it that really stood out? Florida was so good I went twice, but at the same time it is pretty one-dimensional and I have to say that when you only have two days or so and the sole aim is photography, you feel somewhat under pressure to ‘perform’ – to the extent that it ends up feeling a little like work which is obviously ridiculous. Far more of a varied holiday was my epic Washington trip, although that too was a little bit mission-like – self-planned, self-executed, no guide, just a lot of quality research and half the fun was in making it all work and sticking to the schedule whilst still seeing all the birds. It’s worth posting that Varied Thrush again, seeing as I resisted a few posts ago. It was utterly exhausting but I enjoyed every single excess minute of it – almost my perfect birding holiday, in fact I can’t think what I would have changed that would materially have altered where I went or what I did.

The UAE was superb too, if a little bit compromised by an unhealthy Larid obsession on the part of my travelling companions. Highlights were varied and many, and again a massive amount of research had identified some great sites that were teeming with birds, Indian Rollers at Dibba and the Gulls and Terns at Fujairah were excellent. And those fabulous Wheatears on the Jebel Hafeet are worth another trip by themselves. Most of all it was somewhere new, with new birds, and that’s something I find particularly rewarding – not for the listing aspect really, but more the challenge of identifying the unfamiliar.

The standout trip however was our family jaunt to Hong Kong. I won’t revisit old ground, but wow, just wow. Even though the kids are bigger now and easy travellers, as we pitched up as far as the taxi could take us on the island of Lantau in the South China Sea, and even though Hong Kong is hardly what you might call difficult to get to or exotic, I still felt an immense sense of accomplishment at simply having arrived, at having brought the kids halfway around the world. We had a wonderful time, absorbed a multitude of experiences, and came back richer in many ways. And poorer in another, but hey, I’d rather do this with it than spend it on junk like fishing gear.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Kicking off my yearlist

It's nearly the winter solstice, so it's high time that I started thinking about my year list. Back in the summer I erroneouly reported that I was on 198. That turned out to be rooky spreadsheet error, and once sorted showed I was in fact closer to 140. I resolved that very day to start making an effort, and four months later I am on 183 with the Woodcock from yesterday. This is so unbelievably pathetic I can't begin to explain. Then again perhaps it proves I am growing up and no longer feel the need to charge around the place in search of what most normal people would call the completely pointless. That said, there should be a happy medium. Whilst there's no need to hit 300 every year, as I did two years on the trot back in 2009 and 2010, the fact I appear not to have seen Kittiwake, Guillemot or Puffin this year indicates I'm simply missing out on some basic birding experiences that are simply fabulous. How can I not have visited a UK seabird colony this summer? Raven, Merlin and Red Grouse are all missing, have I not visited the uplands this year? What about Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Goosander? Pintail....

None in 2015. How bad is that?
These birds are but a fraction of a long and inglorious list that screams out that I've not done enough normal birding, not spent enough time in the varied habitats that this country is famous for. And that's a shame and something to contemplate with the New Year just around the corner. That's still ten days away though, and it would be relatively straightforward to get 17 species for a more respectable 200. But it wouldn't redress the balance, it would just be a whirlwind listing exercise so I'm not going to do it. I will let the sub-par score stand to remind me that I didn't do enough proper birding in 2015.

But that's just nationally. On the patch a mixture of luck and periodic dedication has seen me reach my second highest total ever. I've got one hand on the famed Golden Mallard and have had a remarkably good year with loads of good birds seen locally. I might moan a bit, but we really punch above our weight in Wanstead, with birds that would make many people envious turning up with clockwork regularity. If you spend a moment to look a Firecrest you realise it's a jewel, the likes of which are rarely seen, and stand right up there with some of the American wood warblers. The same goes for the Redstarts and spring Whinchats, utterly splendid. And don't get me started on Wheatears

And of course I've been fortunate to continue to travel fairly widely, which along with a little bit of apathy no doubt explains the paucity of my UK yearlist, which by the way in life terms increased by only nine this year - my first descent into single figures and probably a sign of things to come. Birding abroad is what really does it for me at the moment. That moment when I walked round a tree and came face to face with a Varied Thrush was one of the best birding moments I can remember. Swakane Canyon, filled with Bullock's Orioles and Lazuli Buntings an absolute delight. The UAE was superb, and as for the Gulf Coast beaches in Florida, well they were a photographer's dream.

So, 2016, what's the plan? Well more of the same I think, variety is what I need to sustain myself, albeit with more of what the UK has to offer. 2015 was the first year I've not been to Shetland for instance - it's already booked for next autumn. But where will I spend the first of January? On the patch? Out on the Essex marshes? The fishing boats at Dungeness? (joke...) Scotland? I have not yet decided. But I am going to see a lot more.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Only in Wanstead...

So today I am out on the Flats photographing a bird when a guy bowls up, climbs the tree the bird is in, and starts playing music and taking selfiesThis could only happen in Wanstead of course, which rarely if ever ceases to amaze me with unlikely scenarios for fucking me over, but this is a proper outlier. And so was the guy I have to say, and I beat a swift retreat. A new way to ruin to my birding experience that frankly I had never considered up until this point, but if you're in need of a Firecrest for your yearlist it makes finding one a lot easier. Just head over to Long Wood and listen for strains of "Buffalo Solider".....

A shame as it was going very well, with the bird pretty keen on my high-pitched pishing, but there you go. One day I will go live somewhere in complete solitude, it will just be me and the birds. And all the joggers, lunatics, incontinent dogs, aggressive dog owners, model plane fliers, the Wednesday evening crowd and everyone else, including now drugged-up arboreal hipsters, who delight in spoiling my all-too-brief periods of relaxation will be nowhere to be seen. And finally I will get five minutes of peace. Fair enough, it's London and London's busy, but even so I reckon I'm massively unlucky.

That said, there are also moments of immense good fortune. For several weeks now I've been trying to find Woodcock on the patch. Wintering birds are now back, and having missed them several times earlier on in the year, it's a much-needed patch year tick and also the bird that will see me finally overtake Gaucho Bob for 2015. I had planned to stake out the Golf Course this evening, but as I was watching the Firecrest a bird flew directly past me, barreling through Long Wood, jinking spectacularly through the branches and off to the east. Exhilarated doesn't come close to how I felt - how jammy am I?! Or should that be jammin'?

Friday, 11 December 2015

I'm leaving

This morning there were six or seven species of Gull on Wanstead Flats. I can only cope with about three at any one time, so I am leaving. Selling up. Moving. Not sure where to yet, but somewhere that is unattractive to Larids, like, errr. Actually I don't know, now that I think about it the bloody things are everywhere. For someone like me who is scared of Gulls and what they can do to you, the numbers now present and the interest that they are generating is very worrying. More worrying is that I started to take an interest, and this morning rather than stay cosy in bed I toddled off to the Alex looking for a rumoured Caspian Gull. I had thought I'd seen it last weekend in amongst the throngs on the football pitches, but sensibly closed my eyes and declared it all to be a bad dream. When I opened them a madman with a suitcase had scared them all away. Thank heavens for that, and I went and looked at some cardboard boxes instead to calm down.

All this week I've avoided looking but the constant reports have been nagging me because it is a year tick and if I see it I move one species closer to Bob and one step nearer to that coveted second place and a huge cash prize. There were two large Gulls on Alex when I got there, and handily the Caspian was one of them. I rather fancy that the other was a Yellow-legged Gull, but I don't want to get ahead of myself here as somebody will tell me it's just a Herring Gull. But that's the point really - they're all just flavours of Herring and I've been saying for ages that all Gulls should just be lumped. Gull. See, easy. Split into big and small if you're being really pedantic, but one supercline is where I think we're headed.

Now Caspian Gull is not a patch tick for me, I felt confident enough in one a few years ago to submit a description to the London rarities committee. When Bob first picked up the bird on Jubilee I was motivated to dust off the London Bird Report in question to remind myself of my previous triumph. Leafing through to the Gull section, I confidently read through the Caspo section looking for Wanstead and..... hang on a sec must have missed it. Essex. W....wait a damn minute! It's not there! This is the trouble with committees. Well, and with Gulls. Somehow my description must not have passed muster, absurd though that notion is. Gull. Big. White head. Dark eye. Long Beak. Long Legs. Sticky-out tummy. Wings. Faint aroma of rubbish. Accompanied by the photo I didn't take. Pah! This is why I hate Gulls, they're all basically identical and unless you're mentally unhinged and devote a significant portion of your life to them you don't stand a chance. 

Back to 2015 and admittedly this bird did look good, and I did have a camera this time so that particular demon can be laid to rest. The internet appears to agree that it is one, which is excellent news. Not because it is a rather good bird for here, or because it's a year tick, or even a real tick. But because it means I can stop looking at Gulls now and resume my search for birds that don't cause a gag reflex. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

My twist on the Midas touch

What's that saying? Everything he touches turns to gold? I've got something very similar going on, but it's not quite as good. Everything I touch breaks. When I say similar, I suppose I mean the opposite really. Rather than making a fortune at every opportunity, instead I'm hemorrhaging money on needing to repair almost everything I come into contact with. It started this summer when I dropped my camera for the umpteenth time and it finally died a short while later in Poland. I'd previously dropped it on Southend Pier, at Dungeness, in the Emirates, frequently in Wanstead - actually it might be easier to list where I haven't dropped it. Anyhow, that was a monster repair bill and a stack of hassle. 

Then the almost brand new washing machine died. Naturally I had not bothered to send in the warranty stuff, and after a failed repair it become more economic to just get a new one. Cue another unexpected bill. So annoying, it was literally about six months old, whereas the previous one had lasted ten years. 

The following week in Hong Kong, the diaphragm on my trusty wide angle zoom froze up. Excellent. The following month, in Florida, I forgot to zip up half of my backpack, and as I swung it onto my shoulders my second camera and a couple of lenses sailed through the air in a graceful arc, bouncing off a parked car and then onto the tarmac. The lenses seem more or less OK, indeed one of them had very recently dropped off the front of the camera at a wedding in Scotland and bounced spectacularly across the dance floor - one senses though that its luck might be running out. The camera however has given up the ghost in protest and will now only fire one shot before freezing up. It's my full frame travel body, and whilst used mostly as a back-up it gives me plenty of options that I now no longer have. I've yet to take either of them to be sorted out, I can't face it.

Then last week I discovered that the hands on my watch had become misaligned, so at six o'clock one hand points at six whereas the other doesn't point at twelve. Nothing major, but very irritating once you notice it and so I sent it off to be assessed at the beginning of this week. I might get away with this one as it appears to be under warranty, but it's still a hassle. No problem though, my shiny new phone I mentioned in the last post tells the time....

Ah. Yesterday I went out for the East London Birders Drinks, and whilst attempting to take a drunken photo managed to drop it on the floor. To be fair I drop it quite a lot, but this time I noticed a few purple spots had appeared on the screen. Ah well, not much of a problem, on with the festivities, more wine please! I woke up this morning to a pounding headache and this.

Whilst the headache gradually subsided, the phone got progressively worse as the morning went on, and when I realised it was to all intents and purposes now useless I conceded defeat and trundled off to a place that specialises in relieving idiots of hard-earned cash, the appropriately named iSmash. There I parted with another vast and wholly unnecessary sum of money, and a few hours later received it back in pre-Hornchurch condition.

They say bad things come in threes, but this is the sixth time this year that I've managed to destroy something expensive to the point of no return. Maybe they meant multiples of three? Anyway, Christmas is cancelled.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Small moments of joy in modern life

Chateau L is a haven of accidental neo-luddism. It's not that we oppose new technology, it's just that we never seem to get round to it. Life is too short to be bothered with installing a fridge with a barcode reader that will reorder milk when it determines yours has turned to yoghurt, or cancel the cheese order a fortnight later when you haven't scanned it out. If you recall, about halfway through the London Olympics I went and bought a TV as ours was an analogue lump. We watched a week of sport, and have barely touched it since. We don't have a games console, we don't have a microwave, and somewhat archaically we still fiddle around with shiny little discs if we want to listen to music. This is how we like it, life is not complicated, and we are ideally equipped to be old people. Round here if you make a cup tea which has little floating white bits on the top, it's time to buy milk. A friend of mine recently had his entire flat "done". I'm not quite sure what done refers to, but it means everything is digital without a wire in sight, he can set the temperature from his mobile phone, and also turn lights on when he isn't there, though I'm yet to be convinced of the merits of the latter. He says it's for security; we just have a lion*.

Modern technology is amazing though, and as we don't have much of it I am still regularly able to be thrilled by things the rest of the world discovered several years ago. For instance I recently got a new phone, diligently set it up and feeling safety-conscious set a PIN. Ha! Nobody will ever be able to get in! My son noticed this new arrival, and despite having a phone so outdated even Mrs L had cast it off, asked if I had set up the fingerprint recognition. Wh-wh-aaat?! And then showed me how. It's amazing, I don't have to remember a number or a password, I just place either of my thumbs on it and hey presto it turns on! Tomorrow I might set up a finger or two, and I am hopeful it might be able to recognise the tip of my nose so I don't have to take my gloves off in winter.

Some of these date from as long ago as 1992!
The surprise and delight does not end there though. We took delivery of a new car last week, this being possibly the one area where we are significantly less backward. It does things, clever things. Mrs L hates it, she say's it's designed for men by men. Whatever, I love it. Automatic wipers that start when it rains are old hat, so are lights that come on when it gets dark or when you go in a tunnel, and then turn off again when you emerge the other side. But this new one also controls full beam for you. None of this flick off flick on nonsense, it just does it. Empty open road, full beam on. Car coming towards you, off just before it would matter. Genius, and what made it even better was that I had no idea. I was driving along, just about to flick them on and before I could so the car did it for me. I wasn't even quite sure what had happened until they turned off again, and then it was just a joy predicting when they would turn on and off. But that's not all it can do. You can talk to it. No, really. You can tell it to do things. For instance, let's say you had filled a USB stick with loads of quality music and plugged it in (one of two USB slots by the way, as well as a three-pin socket and three - count 'em - 12V thingys), you could then simply say "Play Taylor Swift" and it would do it. It's never heard your voice, never heard of Taylor Swift (!), but it just starts playing. Obviously this is for the benefit of my daughters, but it works on adult music too ahem. Even cleverer than having an in-depth knowledge of country music artists though, it can also recognise the white lines on the road. If you drift too close to them it will either correct for you, or if that's not safe, vibrate the steering column to alert you. If you indicate it doesn't. If you indicate right and drift left, it does. A genuinely useful application of technology, quite brilliant.

I mentioned this miracle at work, and was met with derision. Well of course cars do that. Cars even park themselves these days! I beg your pardon?! Park themselves?! But it's true, I've seen a video (a kind of moving picture), and there's somebody sat in a car opposite a space. They press a magic button, sit back and fold their arms, the steering wheel starts moving and the car backs itself into the space perfectly. How can that have been designed for men by men?! And I'm not talking about fancy cars like Mercedes and so on, this is on your average Ford, which is what we have. Well, we don't actually. I rushed home from work to see if our car would park itself and sadly there is no magic button. Also the old one had heated seats and this one doesn't. Rubbish.

 extremely under-nourished, nonetheless highly alert

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Florida II - a taster

This is a little while ago now but as ever things have been rather hectic, and whilst I have managed to process the photos I decided to keep, I have not really yet engaged in the all-out blanket coverage that you would normally expect. There are reasons for this not related to lack of time, namely a desire to return to a slightly more care-free version of writing, but I've now run out of that so finally we can get down to business.

It was a flying visit (how else does one get there?) but in keeping with my very brief trip in February was equally productive. I would not live in Florida if you paid me, but for a weekend away it is excellent value on the bird front. There are lots of them, and they range from fairly tame to completely ridiculously tame. Because of this I made no attempt to do any actual birding on this visit, and spent the entire time lying on the ground with my camera. Here is a very small selection of the result, you can find more here


American Oystercatcher


Brown Pelihonk

Some fabulous Black Skimmers

Friday, 4 December 2015

Christmas cheer

Ho Ho Ho! It’s December, and Christmas is in full swing! Christmas was actually in full swing from about the end of October, with shops and supermarkets moving seamlessly from Halloween. Decorations appeared in Canary Wharf on about the 9th of November, and it has basically been downhill ever since. Now I’m not a modern day Scrooge, but neither am I a particular fan of Christmas, and certainly not a Christmas that lasts for two months. A week, I think, is fair enough. Long enough to get into the swing of it, short enough that the end is always in sight, which is always important where large family gatherings are concerned. If it were up to me, Christmas would start on the 23rd, and all evidence of it would have gone by the New Year, and I think I’m being pretty generous there. An argument could easily be made for a day either side of the actual day and have done with it.

However I’m not in charge, and so it is seemingly endless. Christmas Carols have started in Chateau L already, sung at high pitch by small girls, and frequently before 8am. Needless to say this is insufferable, but there appears nothing I can do to avoid it. Entreaties to stop are met with whispered conversations with Mrs L, giggles, and even more happy singing. And herein lies the problem: Mrs L is a big fan of Christmas. Not in the sense of smothering the house in lights, an inflatable Reindeer on the roof and sticking a “Santa please stop here!” sign in the front garden, but of just generally being deliriously happy that it is on the way, stocking up on wrapping paper, cooking stuff, encouraging offspring, and playing Christmas music late November. This is typically restricted to her car in the early stages, but by mid December it has made its way indoors and permeates everywhere.

I cannot even escape it at work. Whilst there are no Carols, various employees seem to delight in competing with each other to see which area can decorate their desks in the most outrageously lurid manner. Obviously I do not get involved, but as we sit in little cubicle-like things we share adjoining walls, and mine are now covered in green and gold tinsel. It would seem churlish to push  it back over the edge, so I tolerate it. But there are some elements of office Christmas that are simply intolerable.

Secret Santa.

Of all the irritations that Christmas brings, office Secret Santa is amongst the very worst. An email recently came round offering this delight, complete with voting buttons. Naturally I voted no. My team however are very aware of my dislike of this time of year, and knowing how I would vote somehow knobbled the system and had my name put down anyway. Thinking I was safe I was aghast to receive a name out of a metaphorical hat (the internet does all of this now, hats not required) along with instructions on how to wrap it anonymously etc etc. Maximum gift value ten pounds. TEN POUNDS!!??

Naturally I barely knew the person I had to buy a present for at all. This always happens. Every year I refuse to take part. Every year I am given a name anyway. And every year it's for the person I am least likely to have the faintest clue of what interests them. So starts the angst-ridden countdown to the Secret Santa diary entry where we all gather round a garishly decorated desk to distribute the gifts. I have no idea how much time I wasted wondering what on earth I was going to do, but somehow I managed it. I should have put a tenner in an envelope as soon as the email came round and had done with it. Anyway, I sourced some piece of junk, duly wrapped it up, and then forgot about it until yesterday at 4pm. And then it got a whole lot worse. Just before the grand event happened I bent down to tie my shoe lace, and seizing this opportunity somebody put a Santa hat on my head.....

So now what? In this era of smartphones video and photographic evidence would be obtained and circulated widely to colleagues in other offices. Company printers would likely be abused and colour A3s of me being Santa would appear. On the other hand to throw the hat on the ground and swear copiously in front of twenty-five people would not be very graceful. Or managerial. So to raise team spirits and promote togetherness I was Father Christmas for five minutes. Ho ho bloody ho. Anyway, hopefully it was worth it and people now feel like Christmas has started. Also note that comments about my perfect physique for this role did not go unnoticed, and when annual reviews take place later this month a number of people should expect very poor appraisals indeed!