Sunday 31 May 2015

Wanstead Bird Reports

Nick and Tim have produced another astonishingly good bird report for 2014, which you can view by clicking the image below, or if here that doesn't work. A work of love, amazing for what is an urban local patch, it shows quite how much hard work people put in on the patch, and how fortunate we are to have such a dedicated bunch of observers - the patch is large but the coverage is extremely good. The gradual build-up of decent records can be seen on the Wansteadbirding blog's Report Page. Success breeds success it seems, more reports equals more observers, equals more birds found. So it is with great timing that the BBRC just accepted last year's Blyth's Reed Warbler. Get in! 

Family holiday with absolutely no ulterior motive whatsoever

So, I've just returned from an extremely successful family holiday to Fuerteventura. Sun, swimming pools, happy children, calm wife. Sorry, I mean Houbara Bustard and Canary Island Chat scored for my Western Pal list. And with some ease I might add, and with fabulous views I jest of course, this was a holiday basically about flopping about in the sun and doing very little, although I have to confess to choosing the island for said flopping very carefully indeed..... 

I won't be doing a trip report as such, this truly was a holiday. We were down at Jandia, staying at the northern end of Morro Jable in a typical Costa del family hotel - Iberostar, and if you are like me a birding dad, these hotels are brilliant. It had the advantage of being a mere ten minutes drive from the sandy plain that bisects the Jandia peninsula between Costa Calma and La Pared, and so on the second morning there I got up before breakfast and went for a little look, this was after all the entire point of the holiday ;-). I ditched the car at the end of the town and proceeded on foot in the pre-dawn. Lesser Short-toed Lark were abundant, whilst three Black-bellied Sandgrouse flushed from somewhere ahead. The real target eluded me for two hours however, before I crested a ridge and spied two distant Houbara. They also spied me, and immediately ran full pelt the other way, despite there already being 300m between us. I gave chase, but the birds melted into the landscape never to be seen again. Still, tick and run as they say, with me doing the ticking and the birds doing all the running. I trekked back to the car, via an interesting Stone Curlew and a koenigii Grey Shrike that was very posy. So, breakfast or a quick search for the Chat? Easy decision, and I headed back east along the FV2 to the hotel....turning right at the first barranco I came to!! This was called Pecenescal, and is just after the turning to Risco del Paso. I'd read that these dry valleys were the favoured habitat, and so it was no surprise after only a couple of km to hear the typical Stonechat calls. Four birds were present, and one responded magnificently to my pathetic attempts at "tukking" (I don't have any mp3s of the Macaronesian species for some reason despite having a Western Pal set of discs) coming in very close. So, in one morning both of the specialty species bagged, this is what family holidays are all about.

I made a couple more early morning forays to both this barranco and the plains, but the Chats never played ball again. I found a different pair up at Los Molinos reservoir that also quite like my noises, but for some reason the males were a lot harder to convince and remained too distant for the camera. However by far the majority of the week was spent doing diddly squat on a sun-lounger. Birds recorded in this manner included Barbary Falcon, Sacred and Hadada Ibis (both presumably escapees), House Martin, Swallow, Swift, Monk Parakeet, Spanish Sparrow, Berthelot's Pipit, Chiffchaff and Spotted Flycatcher. I think I notched up something like 40 species all in all, so a meagre total but with decent views of quite a lot. The plains were actually very difficult. In the course of three two hour visits I found three Houbara (the final one from the car and a lot closer), four Sandgrouse, one Stone Curlew, and zero Coursers. I can say with some confidence that by far the best tactic to employ is blind luck. Just wander around and hope basically, I got just lucky enough for what I wanted. Some decent photo ops as well, as I hope you can see - I don't always lug a large white lens on family holidays, but I am glad I did this time!

Monday 18 May 2015

Been a while, been busy, been travelling, been birding

Old age isn't exactly slowing me down. I've been to a couple of places and done a spot of birding. Not at the places. The places were tourism, the birding has been confined to here, and has been terrible and wonderful in equal measure. Last weekend was terrible so I won't bother writing about that. Today was fantastic, in a raptory sort of way. Three hours watching the junior cricket at Overton Drive added three Red Kite, two Hobbies and a Buzzard (between overs), and then this afternoon I added another half dozen Buzzards, a Peregrine, a Sparrowhawk and a Kestrel for a six Raptor Day and a burnt nose. In Wanstead that's pretty damn good, almost as good as the Peak District I'd wager. Oh no, my mistake, they're all dead. 

Talking of which I've kind of recovered from the General Election and all the disappointment it brought, but it's a long hard road ahead. Bringing some much needed levity (if not outright pleasure) lately has been watching UKIP implode, but that's about the best I can say. It's hugely depressing, and if it angered me last time around it is going to properly make my blood boil this time. I tend to steer clear of politics as I very rapidly get accused of having views that sit nicely alongside my profession - whatever people choose to believe is what they choose to believe, but five more years of this mob with no coalition partners to add a grain of conscience is really not going to be pretty, with wildlife likely to take a real beating. On the plus side rich people are likely to make a lot of money from it, so that's good. Honestly, roll on 2020....

In between filling my boots with raptors I've been to Venice and Stockholm. And Barcelona actually on a family outing, but that seems like ages ago now. Birds seen in Venice included oodles of Swifts and Med Gulls, whilst in Sweden the best showing was from a Baltic Gull. I had no idea I was following in Mick S's illustrious footsteps, but I wasn't armed for bird photography topping out at 200mm. Not to worry, plenty of that to come this summer. I have to say that I enjoyed Stockholm very much, even if the main museum we had planned to visit was closed. Kiddo and I instead walked around a bit, had some meatballs as one does, and enjoyed the old town of Gamla Stan. Venice, with a different kiddo, was every bit as fun and we spent the day mostly on boats in warm sunshine. I'd been before as a kid, but forgotten quite how awesome it is - a wonderous place, crowded as hell but absolutely unique and definitely one for a family trip at some point. When I have a little more time I'll expand on these places but for now simply the usual.......

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Hudwits and Hirundines

An eventful few weeks but the birding has now turned to mush. Bearing that in mind, and with a two notable successes under the belt, I turned once again to foreign lands. But of the successes first. One, my magnificent Wheatear victory as detailed in my last post, and second, a perfectly-timed twitch to Somerset for the Hudsonian Godwit, a bird I had spurned the previous weekend in favour of staying faithful to the patch and breaking the Warbler day record. I wondered at the time if I hadn't got it wrong, but dismissed it as absurd - one cannot see every bird and I've missed enough that missing another makes no difference at all. But the bird came back and so the opportunity to have a rethink presented itself. Bradders, Nick, Tony and Monkey all had a very long think * and decided that we would go, so Saturday morning and with news of the bird still being there we were on our way. Upon arrival a mere three hours later the bird was still present, having moved approximately one inch since first light. Here's the view we got, which works just as accurately in two dimensions.... Great excitement when it once stretched its wings, and a number of twitchers actually fainted when it walked through the flock for a bit before hiding behind a Blackwit and going back to sleep. Exciting it was most definitely not, however they all count and this is a true rarity and seeing as I had the time, why not - always fun twitching as a group, and particularly so with this particular bunch of comedians.

The blurred bird is the Hudwit, moving so quickly that it only ghosts the sensor..... 

The next day I went to Corfu with my son, a long planned trip to sate some Gerald Durrell inspired wanderlust, and also to get a change of scene and some sun in the middle of yet another long slog at work that I can very accurately predict and thus make survivable. In short it was wonderful, ludicrously cheap with ample sunshine, nice food, father-son bonding, and a few quality birds. Not many, but that wasn't really the aim at all, and they were all a bonus/ A real flying visit, in one afternoon, out the next, but it is amazing what can be accomplished if one has no real agenda. Thus we walked to the Chessboard Fields as explored by Gerry in the 1930s a couple of times, soaked up a wonderful evening watching people fishing, and marvelled at the fantastic display of Hirundines and Swifts that were thick in the warm air. Also pretty good if you're a fan of airplanes flying right over your head - crazy stuff. Retired to a balcony with a stunning view and enjoyed an almost unrivalled dawn the following morning. 

The rest of the day before the flight home again was occupied by another walk out to the fields, followed by some good old-fashioned chilling out around the pool, admiring Red-rumped Swallows as they skimmed the water for a quick drink. Doubt any of the countless idiots round the pool, a mixture of extremely loud French and British slobs, even knew what the birds were or cared, but a heady mix of the latest iconic country music made them easily ignored. And when we got home I logged in and did some work, the perfect tonic to an enjoyable weekend and an excellent way to ease my way back into Monday morning.

* note that this is a complete lie

Saturday 2 May 2015

I've won!

It's official, I've won the big one, and I can confidently say that life will never be the same again. Many people say that a big win won't change them, but that's ridiculous, of course it does. In my case I fully expect that my new celebrity status could see me get endorsement deals, TV shows, and it's perhaps even possible that the story will transfer to the silver screen. For I am now the holder of the coveted North Downs and Beyond Wheatear Trophy, awarded to the blogger who manages to post the most photos of Northern Wheatears in any given Spring. To say I am chuffed to bits doesn't even come close, and of course I can start to travel again now. 

Rather than relate it all again, I'm just going to post the transcript from the award ceremony that recently took place on Wanstead Flats - where each and every Wheatear photo that I took came from. No travel involved, this is a very "green" win....So, back to the marquee....

* sound of thunderous applause gradually fading away * (NB this lasted for a full five minutes and was intensely embarrassing actually)

I honestly don't know where to start, to win this trophy is my dream. I'm totally overwhelmed. * blows nose loudly, wipes eyes *. First of all, I suppose I ought to say a little bit about the birds, this trophy is really for them. * more applause *  Wheatears are just, just, so, well, so, so perfect. They're the perfect bird. I mean Shrikes are fabulous, Whinchats are lovely, but they just don't come close to Wheatears. Perfection in a tiny package, they herald spring migration like no other species, they're the ones we all wait for. Sure we get LRPs, early Sand Martins and the like, but they're just not, well not Wheatears frankly. The little eye mask, the brilliant flush of peach, the silvery back, and of course the rump. Oh the rump, the arse! It's just so, so splendid, so pure, white. That first flash of white-arse, a joy as it flits away. You don't often see the bird at first, but the white emblazoned across the retina brings with it the joyous realisation that they're back and that a new season has begun. * lengthy applause * But I know that you all know that, as you're all fans too. We all are. 

Anyway, a few Thank Yous, there are so many people here that made this possible. First of all to Steve, whose marvellous idea this was. Many people thought that this competition was a piss-take, a way of expressing ire at the number of Wheatear images that appear on the internet from about late March, but nothing could be further than the truth. Northern Wheatears, Desert Wheatears,  in fact any Wheatear at all, Steve's a believer. 

To Tim, who found the first one, you're a hero, a legend, I couldn't have done it without you. Indeed all the patch-workers in Wanstead who patiently staked out the birds whilst I was at work, staying with them until I could get out, my thanks to you all.

I'd like to thank all my fellow competitors of course for a race well run. Really we're all in it together, we share a common objective, a common love. Your ambition spurred me on, and I look forward to next year. 

I'd like to thank my Mum and Dad, who ensured I got well enough educated to get a job which allowed me to buy the camera in the first place, and who I think now know what a Wheatear is. 

To the engineers at Canon, what can I say? The kit is superb, I can think of no better way to use it than to utterly wear my shutter out on a single species, and that of course is Oenanthe oenanthe. This trophy is partially yours too. 

In fact it belongs to everyone, even though it is going on my mantelpiece. I'd like to dedicate this win to to all white-arse fanciers everywhere. Thank You. Thank you. Thank you. Excuse me while I go and sit on that hummock. * bursts into tears *  * immense applause *