Thursday, 24 September 2015

Gah no Shetland!

For the first time since 2010 I'm not going to Shetland. Bit of a shocker really, however these things happen I suppose. In my defence I am less tick-tastic these days, and the thrill of the chase does a little less for me. Don't get me wrong, I love it up there, but various things conspired to make it impossible this year. Mostly that I burned up loads of my holiday doing other things. Good things, but not finding rare birds on far flung islands things. I could have gone, but it would have been a four day trip, and in researching how to fly there last-minute on various websites I came across a ticket to Florida for a little less money. Given the risk of four days of seeing a couple Blackcaps in a north-westerly, and seeing as how Florida seemed to be chock-full of Yanks the last time I went, I sensibly yet regrettably opted for the latter. I'm well aware that you gotta be in it to win it, but I know that I am guaranteed to have a ball on the Gulf Coast near Tampa, and whilst I could hit it off massively on Shetland in those four days, equally I could see bugger all. I've elected for nailed on. Black Skimmer please, and Snowy Plover.

Still, it is a shame, as virtually everyone I know is going up there for at least a week, some longer. Last time I didn't go with them a Rubythroat turned up. Gah! Today a Thick-billed Warbler has arrived. Have I made the right choice? Possibly, but when the lads are filling up on White's Thrush next weekend I may come to change my tune! I did go last year for a few days and was submerged in Yellow-browed Warblers - it was superb fun, but this year I'll simply have to watch from afar. That said, the UK mainland hasn't been doing too badly of late, Florida is a long way off, and I have no other plans at all for the UK autumn. Bring it on!

Yes please!
Since August I've really been getting back into the UK. This is entirely normal as the summers are so dire on the patch, but I'm really feeling it at the moment. Wanstead has been brilliant, the day out in Essex and Suffolk the other day was very pleasant, and seeing a couple of rarities has got the juices flowing again. My bins are living in my pocket as you just never know. Between now and the end of this month I've seen a ton of amazing birds, both on Shetland and elsewhere.This Saturday for instance sees the five year anniversary of the Blakeney Point Alder Flycatcher, which I remember clearly to this day, mainly for the incredible walk out there. What are the chances of another one of those turning up?

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The spectre of county listing

My good London twitching buddy recently moved to far flung Essex, which is not very convenient for picking me up and driving me to rare birds. We’ll have to see how that plays out and whether my UK list now stalls as I simply can’t be bothered with long solo drives. Worse than this though is that his move has started me thinking about listing again.

Everyone enjoys a bit of friendly competition, and whilst I am precisely nowhere near filthy enough to bother the scores on the national front I was comfortably ahead in the London game, mainly due to working a local patch and pursuing a London year list in 2010, which saw me get all sorts of things I probably wouldn’t normally have moved for. With Bradders now having moved away, I think I can probably claim victory in London, however a new problem has arisen – Essex. I have always maintained an Essex list as I live in Essex. Fair enough, no? I don’t, for instance, maintain a Suffolk list as I don’t live there. That said I have a Norfolk list, but only because I need to know what it is versus my Essex list in the vain hope that I can keep Essex higher. I can’t as it happens, and though it’s close I suspect Norfolk will pull away as my son now goes to school there and the various pick-ups we’ll need to do will result in some incidental birding. But back to Bradders and Essex. As soon as he had the keys to his new house he unpacked his computer and notebooks, fired up Bubo (an online self-help website for people suffering from OCD), and totted up his Essex list. He was appalled to find that he was one species behind me, and resolved to immediately start Essex listing. Then he went back outside and let Mrs Bradders and Bradders jnr. out of the car so they could see the new house too.

So, one behind, he on 261, I on 262. Annoying for him perhaps, but even more annoying for me. I had actually managed to get over Essex listing, or indeed any kind of listing. This is just not helpful. I’d not had an Essex or a London tick, or even been bothered about getting one, since 2014. I thought vaguely about Lee D’s Staines Barred Warbler, thought about the M25, and went and did something else. My last Norfolk tick was also in 2014, and I'm not sure I've been birding there even once this year! Anyhow, in a quiet moment I did the old compare and contrast thing, working out each others gaps, and we each have some tasty blockers. Most of mine come from London and on balance I think he has the easier task, but good luck with that Baird’s Sandpiper!

To cut a long story short, we both got Grey Partridge with consummate ease at the weekend, and then on Monday afternoon news broke of a Wilson’s Phalarope at Vange Marsh. Good news soon filtered through that Bradders was stuck at work, but I however played a cheeky “3pm” card, a work concept whereby once a month I can get an early leave in recognition of the otherwise rather unfriendly hours I put in – I’d like to point out to all managers or indeed team members reading that this is only the third one this year and that September is the ninth month. Essex listing aside, my notes on the only previous Wilson’s Phalarope that I saw have those dreaded three letters – bvd. It was down at Stodmarsh in Kent five years ago, and the bird was feeding on a hidden pool. Every now and again a Marsh Harrier would cruise over, and the entire avian contents of the pool would collectively crap themselves, lift up into the air, swirl around for a bit, and then dive back into the pool and resume hiding from me. Although I clearly saw the bird it was a little bit underwhelming. Naturally I ticked it immediately, but having extremely high listing standards noted I’d like better views.

So in filthy weather I caught the train out to Pitsea from work and walked from the station. This cost me £9.70 as it was outside the Oyster zone, and a judicious umbrella was £18. Optical aids were already in my pocket, else this would have been an absurdly expensive tick. To cut a long story short I got rather wet and muddy but the views of this one were a lot better, and bvd is no longer an issue. Sadly it was still there this evening, so we shall see whether a certain Essex listing fiend toddles off there at some point….

Monday, 21 September 2015

Swallow Saturday

The alarm went off seemingly five minutes after I went to sleep. "But it’s Saturday" my brain screamed! Saturday or not, today was a day to be up and out as soon as possible. On my way home from work on Friday, a five minute walk through Wanstead Village netted 200 Swallows all streaming steadily north. Deskbound all day, I’d been hearing reports of stunning numbers of hirundines over the patch, and was glad I’d managed to see just a part of it. Nonetheless I felt that there was a real possibility of the passage continuing on Saturday – a quick look out of the study window showed leaden skies with heavy black clouds, potentially ideal weather for pushing birds down and keeping them low. So it was that I hurridly dressed, picked up my trusty bins and nipped out into the pre-dawn to head over to what we call the “VizMig point” on Wanstead Flats.

It was pretty quiet at first, but at around seven somebody turned on the Swallow tap. Birds began to pass me at anywhere from knee height to a couple hundred metres up. A trickle became a steady flow, and then they started coming in waves, predominantly heading north-west. I attempted to count the birds, as the team had done the previous day, but quickly conceded defeat. Sand Martins were coming through in small numbers, and gradually the House Martins began to increase in number, although often higher up than the bulk of the Swallows.

The next hour was a real highlight of the decade I’ve now spent watching the patch here in Wanstead. Tony was also out, and has written about his feelings here, and he has it spot on. It was birding of the highest quality. Visible migration is always exciting as you get a real sense of the seasons and the inexorable approach of a change, but this was the best I’ve ever encountered. That includes Falsterbo so I guess the patch always elevates itself above other places - getting up early on this particular day was perhaps the best decision I’ve recently made. The sky was full of birds – a scan with bins into the far distance revealed thousands, like swarms of west coast midges. You know when you look up at the sky at night with the naked eye and see hundreds upon hundreds of stars, and then look up through binoculars and see the hundreds transform to into hundreds of thousands? It was like that – I could see tons of birds over the copses, but then through bins I realized this was just a fraction of the activity. The threatening skies seemed to push them ever towards me, and facing south east I had a spectacular view of more birds than I think I have ever seen (Hornoya cliffs perhaps being the only real contender) moving steadily through at all heights. As the hour progressed the numbers of House Martin rose, and although I made no attempt to record numbers, it too had to be in the thousands. Whether this was a localized front, or was occurring over the whole of the south-east I have no way of knowing, but my assessment having witnessed this mass movement is that Swallows and House Martins are doing OK in at least some places. I am hoping that one of these places in future will be my house, as I’ve just bought a few Martin ”cups” for my eaves which will be in place next season.

By eight it was mostly over. A few trickles, but as it began to brighten up the birds disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Hopefully they graced a few more patches as the day progressed, but the likelihood is that as the fronts dissipated the birds got higher and higher until they were lost from view. But while it lasted it was bloody brilliant.  

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A very sociable plover

So first the view were like this, and we weren't sure if it was going to be that friendly.

And then after a bit of creeping around and getting quite sandy and a little but muddy the views were like this, and it all seemed to be going pretty sociably.

And then the various bits of plant started being really anti-social and just getting in the way, and so there was a little bit more creeping and crawling, ending up with a bit of slithering.

And then it was decided that the background really wasn't that much of a turn on, and if this bird (a sociable plover and not a Sociable Plover) would just do the decent thing and move a bit rather than just be sociable right next to us, that would be best for all concerned. And then it did.

And then it did some more.

But the background, whilst nicer, was still a little bit bluey and browny. Bluey is ok in my book. So is browny. But multi-bluey-browney can be improved upon, and so there was a little bit more creeping and neck hurting until the browny went away. It was clearly antisocial. But this left blue, though some might call it grey, which was nice.

A Dotterel. But you knew that.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

UKIP overrun on Wanstead Flats

Cries of "No more migrants!" were heard ringing out on Wanstead Flats this morning, but much like Nige, nobody listened. There were so many birds in just a small area that I was unable to keep track of any of them - some may have snuck through! Until we can secure our borders, no count of Whinchat or Spotted Flycatcher is safe. I ended up on eight of the former and seven of the latter, but they refused to stay still, flitting around the brooms and the margins of Long Wood in a frenzy of activity. A male Redstart was in the enclosure, with another male and a female in the brooms, and an ungrateful migrant Wheatear refused to let me get close to it. A couple of Whitethroat were in the brooms too, with a few Chiffchaff and a single, bright Willow Warbler. I was quite unable to visit any other parts of the Flats, and only left when the model aircraft crew started up. Oh for a model surface-to-air battery...

Friday, 4 September 2015

Washington and Washington

I've finally got around to loading up my other website with a few photos of birds from Washington State. When all is said and done I am surprised by how few I have - and that;s not because I took thousands and then binned them all. In actual fact I didn't take very many as I was mostly birding.This kind of upsets me, kind of doesn't. It does in the sense that I don't take nearly as many bird photographs as I would like to, and 2015 has been a fairly lean year in comparison to 2014. Almost the whole of July and most of August went by without me attaching anything longer than 200mm to my camera - a lot of kit gathering dust and that is just begging to be used. Then again I can't get too upset as my reason for going to the US west coast was principally to see birds. I used to say that these two hobbies, of seeing birds and photographing them, went hand in hand. Now I'm not so sure. Certainly they're not mutually exclusive, but you are forced to neglect one at the expense of the other. I could have seen less and spent more time with individual birds, which would have resulted in better images than I came home with, or as I chose to, I could zip about here there and everywhere maxing out on the listing front and doing some superb birding along the way. You pays yer money as they say. I think it's a common feature of a first trip anywhere - it takes a while to get the measure of it. If there are new birds you want to see them, and you worry about everything else after that. It's on subsequent trips that you learn what you want to do, certain species you want to target. My trips to Morocco are a case in point, the first one was a whirlwind of birds, whereas the follow-up trips were more leisurely and more targeted. I saw far fewer birds, I came back with far better shots of them. Dubai is still on my list of places to go for instance, and I know exactly where I'll be going next time. And I won't be worrying about listing - I'll be worrying about head-angles and rictal bristles on Wheatears.

I've also been to Washington D.C. Blink and you missed it, which I may have done as it was somewhat of a quick trip given the distance. But I am nothing if not stupid, and Mrs L and I had a lovely two days with my Aunt seeing the sights both downtown and the rural area where she lives. We also had a fun day in New York on the way back, as Mrs L was headed there for a choir trip. She sensibly had a week lined up, whereas I got a few hours and then came home and went back to work in order to pay for the tickets. And to book some new ones, as New York is utterly fantastic and fifteen hours, half of them asleep, wasn't long enough.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Migrant overload

It all got so intense last week that I had to leave the country. I may blog about the nature of leaving the country later, though I'm not sure that this readership is quite ready. Of course during the nanosecond I was away the Wryneck turned up. Note that this was always a question of when, rather than of if. The whiff of inevitability with Wrynecks bracketing us like a salvo from a Dreadnought made it 100% certain that one would land. So of course the moment I skipped the border one slunk in under the radar, but was luckily picked up by a visiting birder attracted to the area by the gazillions of amazing migrants that have been encamped on Wanstead Flats. 

Despite being in Madrid, I wasn't worried. Wanstead Wrynecks always stay a week, it's the rules. Local knowledge like this is one of the joys of working a patch - you know what turns up when, and you know where on the patch it will likely be. This in-depth know-how takes years to accumulate, but eventually, like me, you can say: Spotted Flycatcher, around Long Wood. Pied Flycatcher, around Long Wood. Ring Ouzel, around Long Wood. Tree Pipit, around Long Wood. And also you know how long something will stick, so I was not at all surprised to see a Wryneck streak across the brooms around Long Wood at half six this morning. Eventually it perched up, but by then the area was crawling with twitchers and my photo effort was so ridiculously embarrassing that I cannot possibly post it here. The photo however means nothing, it's all about the seeing and the ticking. So suffice to say that I saw it, which was critically important as it allows me to keep a Wanstead Wryneck clean sheet. 100%. Four birds in six years. What the hell happened in 2011 and 2014 is what I want to know. We thought at one stage that they might have been following the alternate year rule, but the 2013 bird blew that one out of the water. GSCE maths definitely has a part to play, but I'm too dense to work it out.

In the absence of anything other than a blurry mess, here's a Spotted Flycatcher. One of possibly 13 birds this morning. Around Long Wood. Did someone say best migrant patch in London?