Sunday 31 January 2016

January blitz!

Well what a start! As all patch birders know, January is very much a numbers game, a mad dash to try and see as many birds as possible on the patch. The common becomes rare again, birds you will ignore for the next 11 months become "must sees". The danger of course is that you leave nothing for February and mope about in state of deep depression, but let's try and not think about that. 

Despite not seeing a Sparrowhawk I've somehow managed 71 species on the patch. By way of contrast I didn't get to these dizzy heights until April 7th last year, and last year was nearly a record one. The soul-less will argue that it is merely a different shaped curve, but that's hardly the point. It means I've been in amongst it, out and about, living the patch dream and achieving high things. Doing more birding, and as the sad news of the loss of Martin Garner reached us this weekend, you really need to get in as much birding as possible while you still can. You never know when you won't be able to any more.

It was blowy out on the patch today, the remnants of Gertrude or the beginnings of Henry. The Flats are a muddy morass, the haunt of stacks of Common Gulls with sprinklings of larger ones. I missed the Med Gull yesterday on account of having lunch with a mate in Amsterdam, but realistically I could be ending the month on 75 or so. I clinched Woodcock last weekend down by the Roding, but Little Egret, Little Owl and Tawny Owl have probably all been available at some point. Still I've really enjoyed January, and that's the whole point. Not of January, just the whole point of everything.

I managed to get to Norfolk for a family walk along the beach, seeing a ton of decent birds along the way. I went to Cyprus on Mission Wheatear and came away successful. I gave the patch a decent go and blew my personal records away. I've been to Rainham a couple of times, and seen a lot of friends from University days and more recent. I've lost several kilos and started cycling to work. The lack of booze hasn't been as hard as I thought it might be, it turns out I am not addicted after all. I've mostly sorted out some obscenely unfair amounts of paperwork needed to comply with an outrageous money-grabbing attempt by a large bully of a country, a considerable weight off my mind. I've started eating fruit, and I've begun in a small way to clear Chateau L of unnecessary things. In other words it has all been very positive and I am enjoying it. 

February is shaping up to be fun too. There is a family holiday to look forward to, and then another birding extravaganza in the USA along the same lines as the Washington trip - i.e. me, a large 4x4, and a list of very exciting targets. And then the Wheatears arrive in March...

Thursday 28 January 2016


We recently contemplated moving house, but quite quickly discounted the idea. Various reasons, the thought of avoiding having to do a loft conversion was one them, complications of citizenship another. Above all though it was the sheer agony of having to pack! Good grief we have a lot of stuff. Unnecessary junk for the most part, Mrs L and I both guilty - me more guilty, but less obviously so. Would that we could roll the clock back to when we arrived 11 years ago. We moved from a house half the size, and after moving in continued to wander around largely empty rooms for quite some time. Roll on ten years and we can barely move, but have no recollection of when this change happened. Gradually I suspect, the purchase of a book here, a pair of binoculars there..... Not that the house is totally stuffed with reading material and optics, but you get the idea. Partially stuffed. The other day I looked at a bookshelf and realised I had not even opened the glass door on it for about five years. My 7x42 binoculars, when did I last look through them?

Ugh. There is junk everywhere. Fishing stuff, millions of bird books, two-way radios, wool, rocks and pebbles, plants, cricket balls, photos, a collection of pine cones from around the world. Why?! How does this happen? Well it just does. Stuff just accumulates if you're not careful. Like children. We arrived with a one year old, tiny. Now we have three of them and that one year old is massive, way bigger than we ever anticipated. And is collecting his own belongings! The house is awash with sports kit, clothes, shoes, and all manner of crap that a twelve year old picks up along the way.

Something must be done. Some serious decluttering must occur, and I am starting now. Naturally I made a list..... In fact it is three lists.

1. Sell
2. Give away
3. Throw away

The key I think is to be strict. If I have not actively used something for a year, I must not need it, so off it goes. So goodbye the pair of bins that live in the car. Whenever I drive to a bird I take my other bins, so what is the point of car bins exactly? A couple camera lenses bought on a whim and used.....twice perhaps? A watch that just sits on the windowsill. A shelf of books I've not opened for a couple of years. Some cassette tapes and a pair of shoes with a hole in. A long wave radio! A dead amplifier that was replaced but yet sits on top of the new one! A hundred DVDs that are all classics but that I never watch as I don't have the time.

And this is the key part. It takes time to get rid of stuff. If I was being totally ruthless I would hire a skip and simply heave the whole lot in. I'd be done in an afternoon! Goodbye and good riddance. But you shouldn't really do that with Leicas.....

Saturday 23 January 2016

Dying at Dagenham

I've been ill. Really ill. Ill enough that Mrs L brought my daughters to my bedside, not to say goodbye but to solemnly pronounce that this was "man flu". They nodded, concerned, then giggled and ran away. Hmph. Why is it that no disease that I succumb to is ever treated seriously? I've literally not left my bed all of Thursday or Friday, yet this is man flu and thus to be scoffed at.

I blame the cycling and the lack of booze. Still dry, I gamely cycled to work on Wednesday, feeling weak yet managed a day of work, but that ride home was the most difficult thing I have done since walking Blakeney point for that Alder Flycatcher. The next morning I was flat out. Hot, cold, shiver, a wracking cough. I ache all over, particularly my lower back, which feels like somebody emtied out my insides, stuck them in a ring with Mike Tyson (sorry, only boxing reference I know of) for ten rounds and then stuck them back in. I swear I passed out at some point on Friday afternoon, and last night I woke up soaked to the skin three times. 

I still feel terrible, but at around 11am today, which happened to be the cricket lunch interval, I thought about blogging for the first time. And food. Ah-hah I thought, I must be on the mend. I skipped the food and went birding instead, thinking that the fresh air of Dagenham might cure me. Or kill me. We shall see tomorrow (or you might!) but for the moment I am still standing and able to type this.

The Scaup was nice, last year I didn't see one, so this is another victory for the new 2016 approach of getting up off my backside. Or in this case, my back. Met up with the locals - an acquired taste I should warn you! - at the Pond-of-a-thousand-names and then had a wander round the site looking for Vince's Sibe Chiff. We found this easily down past the Slack and it's a belter, though too quick for my dulled reactions. At least ducks just sit there and bob about. My first visit to the Chase for donkey's years despite it being only half an hour away by car. I reckon I could get there quicker by bike....

Confuse these two!!

Next stop on the tour Rainham - targets Raven and Bittern, which would both be site ticks. Neither were forthcoming, though Shaun was there. Mind you Shaun being there was about the same level of probability of Robin being my first bird of the year every year - pretty much nailed on. If you need him as a year tick just head down to the Serin mound at about three in the afternoon. Trust me, he is unmissable ;-) Before I caught up with him I had enjoyed some semi-decent views of the Shortiesbut seeing as how their mission in life is not just to catch voles but also to frustrate the hell out of him it was not surprising that they seemed to disappear just after I met him. Rainham is great for amazing views, but really tricky if you're after photos. Defeated again I headed back to Wanstead.

I returned home shattered, but not before a cheeky Woodcock twitch, risking life and limb down by the Roding. Nick was there, motionless in the dark, but being the kind old gent he is took pity on me and spared my life, however sadly informed me that the resident Woodcock had appeared, and then disappeared, some three minutes previously. So close. He escorted me off the patch and then went and found a Tawny Owl.

Monday 18 January 2016

Opening the floodgates plus bottom update

Now that I have taken off all of the various bits of comment censorship and approval I have not surprisingly started to get a lot more interaction on the blog. I knew this would happen, I should have made the change a long time ago. Oh well, live and learn. Two recent comments from readers are shown below. In addition to being topical, interesting and highly relevant, I was astonished to find that they were plastered with links to other websites! Websites that unlike mine had no connection to birding whatsoever. The very cheek! I've removed them for the purpose of publishing them here, but I'm actually wondering if Mr/Miss P Islam might not be interested in birds at all!

Pinky Islam has left a new comment on your post "Making money out of birds": 

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However My Kiều is clearly a very keen birder as you can see below....

My Kiều has left a new comment on your post "Pope flees to Turkey":

Với sự phát triển của thương mại điện tử, quý khách hàng muốn mua những mặt hàng tại Nhật Bản. Nhưng vì khoảng cách, thời gian, tiền bạc, những điều bất thuận lợi làm quý khách không thể mua được những món hàng tại xứ sở hoa anh đào này. Vậy hãy sử dụng
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về việt nam
ship đồ từ nhật về việt nam
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về tphcm
nhận chuyển hàng từ nhật bản về việt nam
dịch vụ vận chuyển hàng từ nhật về việt nam
dịch vụ ship hàng từ nhật về việt nam
nhận ship hàng từ nhật về hà nội
Dịch vụ mua hàng - order hàng -chuyển hàng từ Nhật về Việt Nam nhanh chóng, an toàn, tiết kiệm được nhiều chi phí.
Hoặc quý khách có thể sử dụng dịch vụ fado mua sắm các mặt hàng tại amazon Nhật hoặc Mỹ.

No, I don't know either, but I am supposing it has nothing to with either the Pope or birds, and probably more to do with the import of cheap goods, or worse, from Vietnam. Much as I would have liked to have clicked on the links in the name of research, these days you just don't know what that might do, and it could prove to be a costly mistake. It didn't translate into anything either, so remains a mystery.

Anyhow, on to my bottom. I am pleased to say that it no longer hurts at all. No, I can hop on and off the bike at will and my posterior is absolutely fine with that. My knees on the other hand... This is the trouble with throwing oneself into physical exertion with no preparation, indeed with many years of frankly un-preparation, if I may be allowed to make up a word. I am gamely getting on with it however, and today my birding list moved up by one with the addition of a twitched Stonechat on the way to work. This is an annual bird in Wanstead that you would be hopeful of always getting, but it is the first wintering bird for ages and so is a bit special. It came with the added bonus of an extra kilometer, taking my morning ride to a colossal 10.7km. In a fit of enthusiasm I then came home a somewhat roundabout way and upped that to an even more colossal 11.7km! It has the potential to become addictive, and if this is what winter is like, summer could see me coming home via Rainham. Or the Naze!

Cycling to work has also made me a better driver almost instantly. Not that I was a poor driver before, but I am so much more conscious of cyclists and pedestrians after only a few days - things other than cars. I think all London drivers should be made to cycle to work for a week, with an annual refresher, it would work wonders for safety. Anyway, despite being a driver myself I am beginning to develop some pet hates to do with cars. These can be covered in another post as I have wittered on for long enough and all I had really wanted to say was that my backside was fine, and thank you for asking. Oh, and I think that large supermarkets and dead high streets are a really good idea - again, a topic for another day.

There we go, a blog post with nary a bird in sight. Normal service is resumed.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Norfolk kick-off

Last year I went to Norfolk twice, in October. As distinct from going twice in October, if that makes sense. Yes, twice all year to perhaps what is, behind Wanstead, the best place to go birding in the entire country. However with young Master L now resident in the county, I find myself up there much more frequently. This can only be a good thing, and so today famille L got up very early and drove through literally millimetres of snow up to Norfolk, picked up a scruffy urchin en route, and made the coast at Cley-next-the-sea by mid morning.

It was a glorious day, cold and bright, and if anything we were over-dressed. Not quite shirt sleeve weather but very pleasant to be out and about. We pootled slowly down the east bank, me pointing out various birds to children who pretended to be interested. Rather bizarrely there was a Red-necked Grebe bobbing about on the flood which used to be Arnold's Marsh, along with lots of Wigeon and Brents. Gratefully received, though the family had lost interest by this point. A bird I didn't see last year, and according to the spreadsheet that never lies, the first I've seen since 2012! That tells you all need to know either about the status of Red-necked Grebe, or of my commitment to UK birding of late.

Down on the beach the sea was pounding at the shore, frothy, with good sprinklings of Gulls which I ignored until two became Kittiwakes. Better still was Grey Phalarope, yet another bird I didn't see in 2015. What did I say at the back end of last year? That I would see more birds? Why yes I believe I did say that, so it is nice to see that I actually am. The shingle was littered with the byproduct of winter storms, starfish, mermaid's purses, a dead Guillemot, and even more spectacular a long-dead Sperm Whale. Fun for all the family. Seriously not nice, it had clearly died some time ago and was grim, if interesting, with enormous jawbones protruding from the carcass. I checked it very carefully for Ivory Gulls, but possibly even they would have been put off by the best before date on this one. 

Also on the beach was James L, which was odd as we had been talking about him and his recent move to Norfolk on the way up, and he had been wondering when he might next bump into me up here. He too was on a family walk, and it turns out some of the Whale twitchers we had just passed were his wife and daughter. He was some way behind, no doubt waylaid by Phalaropes or more bits of whale that had dropped off. Having left London he is now every inch the country gent, green the dominant colour, and is clearly enjoying his new life very much. And why wouldn't he, the place was fantastic!. Action on the sea, flocks of Lapwing on the marsh, and 21 Snow Buntings on the shingle.

Lunch was taken at the Dun Cow, and was very fine indeed. Despite Wherry being on tap I remained immovable. Mrs L kindly had a pint on my behalf, remarking that it was very tasty and that I would have enjoyed it a lot. I am sure I would have. Still, the end is in sight now, only a couple of weeks to go before alcohol becomes de rigeur again. We took the footpath behind the pub back to Walsey Hills, where I flushed a Woodcock, and after a quick pit stop at the NWT, headed back to return kiddo to school. All in all a very pleasant day, some lovely winter birding, and a good family outing.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Meanwhile in Wanstead

Back on the patch today in the hope of a cold weather delivery of rare goodies. That was the plan, and that was precisely what didn't happen. Before I ventured out this morning Mrs L wished me luck with Wheatears. Eh? Fair enough I have been talking of little else, but could it be that she does not entirely listen to my witterings? Needless to say I did not see any, but I did think about how the moment we're all waiting for is only perhaps eight short weeks away! Doesn't time go quickly, it will be here before we know it! Which is why we need to make the most of the winter whilst we still can. So if there are any Lapwing or Smew listening, please fly this way!

After a brief stint on Jubilee attempting to take photographs but only really achieving getting very cold lying on the frozen mud, I met up with an optimistic Nick, who had pinned down a Snipe species in the long grass. With the anticipation building we kindly waited for Bob and James to shuffle over, and then proceeded to walk it. Sadly only a squawking Common Snipe came out, but any type of Snipe was a year tick for all of us so we were all still happy to see it. Barring this it was very quiet morning indeed, but I managed to add Reed Bunting to my year list before I had to head off for a party, social butterfly that I am.

More tomorrow hopefully, and yes we would like some winter Swans please.

Cyprus in Winter - trip report

  • A 3 day trip in early January with Andrew M, Saturday to Monday, targeting wintering Finsch's Wheatear.
  • BA flight from Heathrow at around midday Saturday takes just over 4 hours and gets in to Larnaca at about 6pm local time, so the whole of day one is a write off. Return flight at 7.30pm on Monday however means that the final day is a full day given the sun sets at 5pm. A bargain at £89 return, booked well in advance.
  • Stayed at Nissi Beach Hotel in Agia Napa on Saturday night, and the Almyra in Paphos on Sunday night.
  • Hotel came with breakfast, so spent only 35 euros each on food all weekend.
  • Car hire from Europecar was an excellent Subaru 4x4 which proved its worth getting to the Wheatear. However £26 from the UK turned into a further 140 euros once various taxes, fuel, waivers and so on were added. Somewhat of a con, but the car was good and the price was split between two.
  • Birded Cape Greco, Oroklini and Larnaca on Saturday, and Anarita, Phinikas and Germasogeia Reservoir on Sunday.
  • Extensive research involving Gosney, Stagg and Hearl, and recent sighting as detailed on the web to pin down sites for the Wheatear.
Day 1 - Saturday

A non-day, but a leisurely one as the flight did not leave until roughly midday. Hand baggage only and a long flight on a clapped-out 767, but bagged the exit seats which helped a great deal. Only an hour or so from Larnaca to Agia Napa on good roads, and an early night to be on tip-top form for Wheatear finding the next day.

Day 2 - Sunday

An early start from Nissi Beach and Andrew and I were at the top of Cape Greco cliffs just after sunrise. This is where I had spent a lot of time back in 2013 and I knew the area well, so we took the middle path west back towards the dump. For a map of the area please see this old blog post. We spent a little time with an engaging pair of Blue Rock Thrush before carrying on round, with Stonechat, Sardinian and Spectacled Warblers omnipresent. A fly-by male Pallid Harrier was a bit of a shock, but not totally unheard of - we reported this to the Cyprus recorder upon our return. Once back off the cliffs and more at sea level, Andrew's keen eyes picked out a flash of white rump and the Finsch's Wheatear was in the bag. Although this female bird had not been reported for several weeks, at this time of year they're more than settled onto their winter territories and won't be moving, so you can be pretty sure that any birds mentioned in December are still going to be present at the same locations in January - this proved to be the case elsewhere too. The bird was with a Stonechat, and extremely wary, vanishing whilst we were still some distance away and not reappearing until we were well back-up the slope, silouetted against the sea. We left it there, the visit was all about the male really!

Blue Rocck Thrush

Sardinian Warbler

Whilst winter in Cyprus clearly isn't as good a time to be birding as the spring, it still beats the UK - we were in shirt sleeves, birding and taking pictures under a clear sky with temperatures approaching 20 degrees. It's also the only time to guarantee seeing Finsch's Wheatear, which only arrive in October and depart by March which is before the spring migration starts. By the time Cyprus Pied Wheatear starts to arrive on territory, the Finsch's are back in eastern Turkey

After an unproductive attempt at Stonechat and various Warblers we returned to the car before zooming back to the hotel for an enormous breakfast and then checked out. I was amazed the hotel was even open, we seemed to be almost the only guests. Next stop Achna Reservoir, but this was still a litter-strewn dump, complete with a dead Cattle Egret, frequent gunfire, and water-skiing - not very conducive to birding so we did not linger and headed instead for Oroklini Marsh. This was excellent, with loads of Teal, Shoveler, a couple Greater Flamingo, and as a special world lifer bonus, three female White-headed Ducks. These had arrived in late 2015 and I was not expecting to see them, so a bit of a result. A few Spur-winged Plover skipped across the marsh, and in the far corner which is the only muddy area a handful of Black-winged Stilts.

The rest of the day was spent around Larnaca airport, with the salt lake hosting thousands of Flamingos. We birded the area between the runway and the sea, which is a network of pools and fields, and includes the sewage works. These two man-made pools held massive numbers of duck, mostly Teal and Shoveler again, but also Mallard, a few Shelduck, and seven White-fronted GeeseMarsh Harrier hunted over the water with predictable results, and my third lifer of the day came with some distant views of Black Francolin in the fields behind the hide. We both wished that we had a scope! At dusk we headed west for Paphos.

Day 3 - Monday

An even earlier start saw us in Anarita Park following a route that I had researched two years ago and had been waiting to do since then. Whilst we got this difficult to find spot bang on, there were no wintering Wheatears that we could see, so we moved on towards Phinikas, a ruined village on the side of Asprokremmos reservoir, presumably abandoned when the dam was constructed. The access track here is not passable unless in a 4x4, and after heavy rain may be even more challenging or simply not possible. It would be a half-hour walk to the village from the end of the paved road. A few Cormorants were on the reservoir, as well as a Little Egret on the beach area and two Black-necked Grebes further out. The ruins got all of our attention however, with a Black Redstart spotted on a decrepit building, and then the main target - a male Finsch's Wheatear on the beach slightly outside the village. We spent the rest of time here following this bird around and attempting to get photos of it, but whilst it did gradually seem to become accustomed to our presence, in no way would I describe it as confiding, and only my 800mm lens with a converter on it kept me vaguely in the game. Had we stayed longer we may have done better, however the promised rain started up at about half nine and sent us on our way. By the time we got back down to the coast it was torrential and any thoughts of birding west of Limassol had to be abandoned.

After another monster breakfast in order to avoid the need for lunch we drove west to try and escape the rain. We noted a few depressed-looking damp Griffon Vultures on Kensington Cliffs, but the rain started coming down even heavier, and it wasn't until mid-afternoon at Germasogeia Reservoir which is further east again that it started to ease. Here we spent a long time trying and mostly failing to get views of Moustached Warbler in the immense reed beds, but picked up Grey Wagtail, Snipe, Jack Snipe and various other birds around the margins. Our final stop of the day was Oroklini again - the White-headed Ducks were still present, and a trip highlight was thousands of White Wagtails coming in to roost at sunset, along with our first living Cattle Egrets, which numbered several hundred as they decorated various parts of the marsh. A bit of mucking about being arty with the sun setting behind the reeds, and then it was time to go back to the airport which is only 20 minutes or so away.

Trip List

Little Grebe
Black-necked Grebe
White-fronted Goose
White-headed Duck
Black Francolin
Little Egret
Cattle Egret
Grey Heron
Greater Flamingo
Griffon Vulture
Marsh Harrier
Pallid Harrier
Common Buzzard
Water Rail
Black-winged Stilt
Spur-winged Plover
Golden Plover
Jack Snipe
Black-headed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Med Gull
Collared Dove
Little Owl
Crested Lark
Meadow Pipit
White Wagtail
Grey Wagtail
Blue Rock Thrush
Song Thrush
Black Redstart
Finsch's Wheatear
Spectacled Warbler
Sardinian Warbler
Cetti's Warbler
Moustached Warbler
Great Tit
Hooded Crow
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting

Friday 15 January 2016

Wheatear World

I apologise for doing two posts in a row that are about birds. I know that it is probably not what you were expecting but my recent visit to Cyprus has got me all enthused about Wheatears again. And Wheatears are obviously birds – spectacular ones as it happens. Not that I was ever un-enthusiastic about them you understand, but until last weekend I hadn’t seen one since about September so they had faded somewhat. However seeing that male Finsch’s Wheatear perched on the ruined buildings of the abandoned village on Monday reminded me – keenly – what superb things they are, and since then I’ve been thinking about little else. How can I see more of them? Where do they live? How can I get there? If I go there will I be killed?

Actually that’s not quite true. Wheatear research was briefly interrupted by the need to do my tax return, but with the pages on Black-eared Wheatear left open, I completed this in record time. Naturally I got completely rinsed once again, but not to the point where Wheatear missions would have to be abandoned, so I fired it off and got back to my reading. Never best to dwell on bad news.

I should step back a bit, as quite a lot of Wheatear occurred before the spectre of HMRC made itself known. It started with a list, as all thorough bird research ought to. A list of all the species of Wheatears in the world. I then divided this list into two, Wheatears I have not seen, and Wheatears that I have seen. As I mentioned a few days ago I’m not really up for going to the Yemen or Somalia just at the moment, so whilst I wait for democracy to be invented and religion abolished, I thought I would go through the Wheatears I have seen, not just to re-live the good times, but also to see if there could be better times. So I sub-divided this list into Wheatears I’ve got decent photos of and Wheatears I don’t, and this is how I eventually got to Black-eared Wheatear – I could only find two photos, both of which are a load of old rubbish. So where could I go to improve upon these? The answer is many places, especially as there is an eastern and western race….

And naturally I did this for all 15 of the species that I’ve so far managed to see. Roughly two-thirds of them I seem to be in pretty good shape with, the other third could do with some improvement though, in some cases significant improvement. Six species don’t really make the grade, and this is of course excellent news. Rather than risk life and limb in Angola for my next Wheatear fix, I can simply nip to Spain or wherever and have another pop at Black-eared. Pied is another one that requires some additional love, and as I said I didn’t do very well on Hooded or Hume’s either. And don’t even talk to me about Variable….

The other happy conclusion to this frenzy of activity is that I am now pleased to be able to direct you to my new shiny Wheatear galleries, where I have arranged the species one by one, and put up what I consider to be the best images I’ve got. Or in some cases, images that are a total pile of dross but that are the only ones I’ve got at the moment. Welcome to Wheatear World!

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Mission Wheatear

I’ve just returned from a Wheatear excursion. This is not in response to the recently announced Wheatear 2016 competition, this was more of a long-range foray and one that has been long in the planning. You may or may not know that one of my missions in life is to see all of the earth’s Wheatears. What’s that you say? What is a Wheatear? Oh please.

Oh OK then. Wheatears are one of God’s gifts to birders, designed purely to make people happy. They are the antithesis of Gulls, which were placed on this earth simply to irritate and confuse us. Wheatears don’t loaf around rubbish tips and then attack people for chips and ice-cream, they perch up on prominent landmarks looking divine. They’re small birds, thrush or chat sized, and most of the species live in arid climes where they live on an insect diet and typically nest in crevasses or under rocks. Plumages are largely based on combinations of black and white, with a bit of grey, peach, beige and rufous thrown in here and there. Just one – the Northern Wheatear – breeds in the UK and further up, and here in Wanstead they pass through from mid-March, returning to their wintering grounds in Africa just a few months later. These are the ones that send me into a state of rapture every year, followed by deep depression when they leave again, and the long dark Wheatearless winter of discontent sets in. Six months of pain and hardship.

For the rest of them you have travel unless you are lucky enough to connect with a vagrant here. Desert Wheatear is the most frequent straggler, and there are occasional records of Isabelline, Pied, and sometimes even Black-eared. Whilst Desert Wheatear is a late vagrant, if you want a Wheatear fix between October and March, the onus is on you to visit them. As part of my aforementioned mission, this is something I am trying to do each winter. So last year I went off to the Emirates to pay my respects to Red-tailed, Variable, Hume’s and Hooded Wheatears, and this weekend just gone I went to Cyprus to prostrate myself before the altar of Finsch’s Wheatear

Finsch’s Wheatear is one of the best there is, as the following image demonstrates.

Ooof! What a belter! 4 inches of feathers stuffed with personality and awesomeness. Finsch’s Wheatear breeds no closer to us than Eastern Turkey. The range extends further than that to places that are not really conducive to tourism, or at least not by pale-skinned westerners whose countries are engaged in bombing raids in the Middle East. And that is frequently the problem with many Wheatear species – their breeding ranges are in distinctly unsafe parts of the world. And whilst it is obviously my life’s aim to see all the world’s Wheatears, it would be a shame for this to also precipitate the end of my life. Luckily for me a small number of Finsch’s Wheatears decide to spend the winter in Cyprus, which despite its relative proximity to places overrun by black-clad terrorist death cults, remains as safe as houses. The biggest risk in Cyprus is being run over by a geriatric Brit on a mobility scooter following one too many G&Ts.

There are 23 species of Wheatear, and so far I have seen 15 of them. Eight therefore remain. Two are found in the Middle East, and six breed in Africa, largely in the Horn, though two, Capped Wheatear and Mountain Wheatear, extend all the way to South Africa. The Horn of Africa isn't a great place to get to unfortunately - one does not simply walk into Somalia. So seeing the remaining eight species is going to require quite a lot of planning. And quite a lot of permission seeking, and I don't suspect it is going to happen any time soon. Many of my Wheatear missions have been quick weekend trips that have been pretty successful, however I'm not sure I can get to Angola and back in a weekend. 

For now though this is OK, as I have a side mission - to photograph all the Wheatear species. But not just, you know, record shots. Yeah, I know you know. What I mean is proper photos. Photos showing Wheatears in all their glory, like this fabulous White-crowned Wheatear that I saw in Morocco.

I have ended up becoming quite obsessive about Wheatear photos, and whilst I have images of all 15 of the species I have seen, some of them I am not happy with as I know that the full fabulousness of the bird is not adequately represented in the artistic manner that it merits. Here are a couple of examples. Padding, moi? The first is of a Hume's Wheatear on a fence. There is nothing wrong with the fence per se, but a bird this good is crying out for a decent rock. The trouble is the bird really liked the fence, so I am very seriously considering flying to Abu Dhabi in order to place a rock on the fence in the hope it might hop up onto it. The second is a Hooded Wheatear, and it is sat on a wheelie bin. I would rather it were sat on, well, anything really, but it is the only photo I have of this species.  So far....


Friday 8 January 2016

Eight days of nothing

Today is the my eighth day of abstinence, which has been very hard. It is also eight days since I posted a new photo on this blog, indeed the last five posts - everything so far in 2016 - have not featured any kind of 'padding' whatsoever. Photos are most definitely padding, in the same way that cycling is. Speaking of which I have a new list, my cycle to work list! As you know I love a good list, and this is a perfect excuse to start another one. Yesterday I gor Redshank, Teal and a few other bits on Bow Creek, but I had a sneaking suspicion that I had missed something, so today in addition to all the other clobber that cyclists weigh themselves down with I added binoculars. Frankly this is what London bikers have been missing. So along with my high-viz straps, helmet and various other accessories, I added Swaros. It completed the look nicely I felt, and they proved their worth very quickly when down near the river I added a Common Sandpiper to the list . They also allow me to legitimately stop pedalling. Not to rest you understand, it is just that it would be extremely dangerous to try and use them whilst moving, so I am forced to stop. Anyway, I think I am now up to 21 species, and it could be time to start varying the route a bit to see what new things I can pick up. For instance yesterday I took a wrong turn and ended up in a housing estate. This cost me about three minutes, but it did net me a Dunnock. A wrong turn down a long canal, of which there are many in east London, could see me add Grey Wag, Mute Swan, or possibly even something as good as a Coot. In other words there is plenty of motivation to come.

Here is a Dunnock for illustrative purposes. Not the one I saw this morning, which you can tell as there is lots of blue sky. So far my cycling career has been dominated by grey skies. Wet grey skies mostly.

Anyway, back to the padding... I am sorry to say that so far this year I've not even picked up my camera which is pretty poor - especially living on a patch littered with winter ducks in all their finery. Apart from bloody Wigeon of course, bastards. However this is all due to change this weekend, when hopefully I shall be doing nothing but. My arms are looking forward to it, as they have been feeling left out in favour of my legs. I've told them what I've been doing to my legs counts as abuse, if not full-on GBH, but apparently they're still up for it. I'll take the 800mm, that should shut them up.

Thursday 7 January 2016


A while back, probably a good five years or so, I had no "filtering" on blog comments. People, whoever they were, and if they could be bothered, were free to type their little response to whatever I had posted. I had a few of the usual "I very much like this blog post. I sell all sorts of roof tacks and hardware equipment, please browse my website" but they were easily dealt with. Whether this was actual people or just these clever little bot things I have no idea. A few were in cantonese, a few russian, a few in something attempting but failing to be english. Fine fine, this is the internet, it is expected. Then a few unrobotic comments began to creep in from anonymous contributers, and there was a distinct correlation between the ugliness of the comment and the lack of identity of the poster. Well, I like a bit of discussion, but when it starts to cross a line well that's not really what I'm in this for. The world is a big place, there are many people that hold opposing views, many that hold similar views, and that's normal for the internet too, but when it starts to get nasty it's time for censorship. And blogger allows you to do that, so rather than waste time I selected whatever option disallowed anonymous - now you had to have an ID. That worked pretty well, but something later than spurred me to go one step further and allow me to decide what got published and what didn't. I have no idea this amount of time later what that event was, but until yesterday that's how it operated. Anyone leaving a comment simply got a message that their comment would be "visible after approval" or something along those lines.

But that's a double-edged sword I think, as it presumably makes it more of a hassle for anyone to leave a comment. Twitter perhaps also has a part to play. I frequently advertise the presence of a new post there, with a link and so on, and this leads people reply to the tweet rather than comment on the blog. As a result, or perhaps as a contributory factor, I get very few comments. Why is that? Is it dull? Well yes, frequently. The decline in comments probably goes hand in hand with the gradual decline of me posting, as I detailed in that "Where is the joy post" last year. Admittedly I do very much go through fits and starts, but it does sometimes amaze me that a long post, perhaps even one stuffed full of photos, rarely attracts a single comment, especially when you know heaps of people have read it.

As well as providing an ability to censor comments, blogger also has a stats tool. I don't use it that frequently, however an interesting one is how many clicks a particular post gets. Now obviously not everyone who reads an entry is going to want to say something, why would they? But when you get 300 hits and no comments whatsoever, what's going on there? August last year is an excellent example - 969 views, 0 interactions. All bloggers like a bit of comment, a bit of response. This not only satisfies vanity, ego etc, but is also a genuine way to interact, which is the primary purpose of blogging - putting yourself out there and all that. And here's my biggest problem - rarely if ever did I reply to a comment I received. I hit "publish", sometimes days after the fact, and went and did something else. I cannot possible feel aggrieved at no repartee if I myself play no part in any dialogue.

So alongside my renewed sense of the need to write stuff on here, from now on all comments, well, most comments, will receive some kind of acknowledgement. Promise. I've also removed all the hassle elements - although I am still steering clear of the anon route. Whether this makes any difference will be interesting to see. Whether the trolls will come back is another question. As an analogy, whenever I put my bird-feeders up the squirrel is back within 24 hours. So if anyone is feeling squirrely, please can I ask that you go next door!

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Oh my poor buttocks

Following on from a recent post where I said I had been looking at my bike, today I did more than just look at it and got on it. Now before you say 'hang on a sec, I didn't bloody click on Not Quite Scilly', this is Jono and not Gavin. I'm just having a moment, you'll have to indulge me. Now last year in about May I had a health check up of the sort than many newly-minted 40 year olds have. The results were hardly astounding. Eat less, drink less, do some exercise (you podge) and you will lose weight, your blood pressure which is a teensy bit high will go down, and your blood sugar which is definitely too high will go down. I did none of these things, at least not meaningfully, and carried enjoying my if not entirely sedentary lifestyle, one which was rich in the finer things in life. Like gin. And bacon. Not together.

This Christmas was the usual gluttony and excess, and on January first I went off birding, not realising quite how incapable I had become. 12 miles should not have been so hard. This is pathetic I decided, and resolved there and then to do something about it. This involved less stuffing my face, zero booze (for as long as I can bear it), and the dreaded exercise. On January the second and third I put in another few miles despite the intense pain, figuring that I ought to just man up and walking doesn't count as exercise, and then today, with the shins still smarting and the toe wincing, hopped on the bike. I have not cycled anywhere for a long time, and it was surprisingly refreshing.

There are a number of things I like about it, there are a number of things I don't like about it. Let's start with those. Just because.

  • Oh my God how much do my buttocks hurt? I know from prior experience that this will lessen over time and eventually disappear altogether, but I also know quite how awful the second ride is. Today this came only eight hours after the first, but boy did I know all about it. I am dreading tomorrow morning
  • The commute home. Mornings are fine really. It is light, you are fresh, the promise of gainful toil awaits. In the evening the story is entirely different. It is dark, you are tired from mental strain, you wish to be home, and your buttocks hurt like hell. That DLR seat never looked so good.
  • Your colleagues get to see you dress up to leave...
  • Lycra
  • It is actually faster than public transport! No word of a lie, even with a pudgy birder doing the pedalling. 35 minutes there, 37 minutes back. Six miles each way and I've shaved 20 minutes off my daily commute.
  • No public transport crush. No other peoples' armpits.No waiting. No strikes!
  • I can have a shower when I get to work, and emerge onto the office floor looking and smelling radiant, as opposed to the Central Line turning me into a bedraggled mess.
  • Better still, when I get home I can have a shower again, and the key benefit of this is that I will change into normal clothes. Stupid though it sounds, not spending the evening in work clothes could dramatically change my outlook on life.
  • It is free!! OK, so I have just spent the equivalent of a month's travel pass on getting my bike serviced (new brakes, new cables) by this will soon pay off. I just cashed in half an annual tube ticket and the princely sum of £500 is soon going to land in my grubby little paws. I am going to spend it all on booze in February.
  • And then of course there is the pure satisfaction of just doing it. I've not yet experience the endorphin rush or whatever it is called, but even though I am knackered I have to say I feel a little bit perky. Strange but there you go. 

I'm very interested to know how soon I will notice a difference from this minor lifestyle change. Presumably my body will do its utmost to preserve those carefully squirreled fat-reserves, so I will need to stick at it for a while. What I will be able to notice, instantly, are the miles I eat up and how I eat them up. None of this silly little bike computer thing with a doofer on the wheel, no that is severely outdated technology. These days you just use your phone, assuming you have not dropped it. I have been pointed in the direction of something called Strava. You touch a button to say you are leaving, you touch again when you get there. Like Oyster but free. This amazing app then records your time over individual segments of your journey, so you can see if you are getting faster. Or not as the case may be. It also shows you the times of those segments achieved by other users of the app......ah. So, on the nice smooth ride away from my house and through the middle of Wanstead Flats I am currently the ......509th quickest person to do it. Somebody called Buster did in two minutes what took me three and a half. But I know why. On that stretch of road there are several sets of traffic lights, and I bet you that Buster stopped for NONE OF THEM. As a brand new cyclist (kind of) I am very good and stop for all of them, however after just 12 miles I can already begin to see why so many cyclists completely ignore them. I hope to remain good, but the lure of the stat could see the odd transgression!

Monday 4 January 2016

Counting Things

All mildly obsessive middle-aged men like counting things, and I am no different. Recently I have been counting birds, but obviously that's stopped now. A three hour trudge in sodden conditions yesterday netted me one solitary thing to count, a Coal Tit. Hmpff. So now I am counting other things. Here are some of them.

Number of tasty, refreshing, well-deserved alcoholic beverages consumed this year: 0

Number of crisps eaten today: 0 (do not ask about yesterday)

Amount of sugar taken in my coffee: 0.00g

Number of steps taken today: 7699

Oh yes, it's January and that can only mean one thing. Dieting. After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, and er, the last 12 months, it is time to tighten my belt and stare down the barrel of moderation. Actually I cannot tighten my belt as I might explode. This is my major problem. It's not that I'm very fat - I mean I don't need the extension seat belt on an aeroplane, people don't offer their seat to me on the tube or anything like that, but I definitely on the way to being a little tiny bit rotund. Errr....

And seriously unfit. I am so unfit that I am not fit enough to exercise. Such a shame! All it took to break me was a 12 mile romp around the patch on New Year's Day. My right knee hurts, my shins hurt, and as for the middle toe on my left foot. Can you guess? Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow. I had a play around on some mapping software today, and my usual route around the patch is a shade over four miles. That's easily manageable, especially with a Double Decker half way round. So to do three times that without chocolate was asking for trouble, and sure enough the next day I couldn't walk.

I am feeling a lot better now and my limp has almost gone, as evidenced by 7699 steps, however in no way do I feel I could run anywhere, and that was the plan -  to start that couch to sofa thing everyone talks about. Even though they're only about twenty feet from one another, one in the front room, the other in the middle room, I can't possibly run between them at the moment so that's on hold until I have recovered sufficiently. Then you won't see me for dust! (Without a domestic goddess, Chateau L isn't looking the best to be honest)

But I am starting all that other stuff, including the abstinence. Gah! What I wouldn't do for a glass of wine! Gin! And in addition to this major temporary lifestyle change I have even thought about my bike a couple of times! Then I've tended to look out of the window at the rain coming in sideways and thought about buses and trains instead. Hmmmm. The walking thing is good though, simply a freebie app on my phone installed in about 30 seconds. I had no idea I walked so far in a nothing day. Today's steps were about 3.5 miles and that was without any birding whatsoever- simply my commute and a bit of walking to get tea and coffee throughout the day. Disappointingly this only burned 355 calories, though how my phone knows that I have no idea. That's because walking isn't in any way difficult - what knackered me was the repetitive part of it causing various muscles to quit in protest. My heart rate probably never even moved above whatever normal is, and toddling round the patch is unlikely to do anything to change that. Unless of course the Caspian Gull returns. Wait, what am I saying?

Sunday 3 January 2016

Glad Rags

I've remembered what I wanted to write about that I forgot a few days ago and had to talk about a Partridge instead. In all honesty the Partridge was probably better, but here goes. I was moved to think about this subject by my own children, one of whom is approaching that age. We were travelling back down from Scotland on the train after Christmas, and waiting on the platform at Kirkcaldy as it pulled in I scanned around to make sure that everyone was present, not playing on the tracks and so on, as all good shepherds do, and for a moment panic set in as I couldn't see the kids. There was Mrs L with the suitcases, but in place of my kids were three small gansta rappers dressed in hoodies with bright shoes (trainers, I think they're called) and caps. And then I realised that they were my kids, and that they looked ridiculous. Not that they look different to any other children of their ages, but that this is just what kids these days wear. God, I thought, did I ever look quite so stupid when I was a kid?


Most emphatically YES in capital letters. I looked absurd!

But did I in fact think that I looked really cool and, dare I say it, stylish? O-hhhh yes. Big time. If you didn't know already, I do not have a single stylish bone in my entire body. Never have, never will. But this did not stop me as a brand new teenager thinking I 'had it'. Are all kids as delusional as I was? Did my parents not look at me, shake their heads, and think I'd get over it? Why did they never say anything to me?!  Perhaps this is something that young people have to work out on their own, and anything a parent says disapprovingly to a teenager simply makes it more compelling to said teenager Had they in fact said I looked like a total plonker, would I have hit the shops the next day?

Top of the fashion crimes list was my grey and white paisley shirt. Short-sleeved, more than a hint of shiny, I adored it. I looked and felt positively amazing in it! And it was awful! Looking back on it from the pedestal of 2015, that late 80s shirt was positively disgusting! It is a shame that I was on the way down from my parents, as I am sure that in the family photo albums there is a photo of me in that shirt, and I would very much like to share it with you. Were my parents not so technologically inept I could perhaps have them scan it and email it to me as they will, I am sure, remember the shirt. Another time perhaps, but for now just imagine the most grotesquely patterned cheap-looking monochromatic shirt that anyone anywhere ever produced, and that's it.

And then there was the jumper that got me sent home from school. I was of course a model pupil, if a bit of a smart arse, and so when I read the official - and if I might say so, poorly drafted - uniform policy, it occurred to me that there was nothing within the spirit of the text that said I couldn't wear my frankly superb diamond-pattern golfing jumper. All school jumpers had to be black, grey, or red. Well I had just the thing, a jumper that in addition to having all those colours simultaneously was also irrepressibly fashionable.

I don't have a photo handy of this either, however if you google "cool jumper circa 1988" the top hit is basically it. Imagine this bad boy with a darker shade of grey as the main weave and that's what I wore to school that day.

And shortly afterwards it's what I wore home from school that day.... Despite my protestations that this jumper significantly over-achieved versus the uniform policy, I was sent packing by a stern teacher with no fashion sense whatsoever. Its effect on the female population thus remains unknown, but I can only imagine that my life would have turned out very differently had Mr Caldwell agreed with me that it was sublimely kosher....

Oh dear. I can only look back now and shake my head. What was I thinking? I suppose it is a stage that we all have to go through before we 'find' ourselves. You should just all be glad I haven't found lycra. 


Saturday 2 January 2016

And we're off!

'I'm sorry Sir, we're fresh out of Wigeon. Would this small Woodpecker be suitable?'

At the end of last year there were record-breaking numbers of Wigeon on the patch. At the start of this year there were just two. Two declined to zero soon after Bob lobbed a brick at them in the fading light, and Nick and I dipped shortly afterwards. However whilst looking for them we found the first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker for ages and ages. Nick was so delighted that he hugged me. A touching moment, but that's how good these birds are. Wanstead used to be a dead cert for them, people came from miles around for a year tick. And then suddenly, about two or three years ago, they vanished. The regular birds on the Flats melted away, the reliable birds in the Park near the Temple disappeared. If my amazing (ahem) spreadsheet is to be believed, my last records are from February and March 2012. So yesterday's male bird feeding in some trees alongside the Basin following, er, an exploratory foray onto the Golf Course was an incredibly welcome sight. None of us bird the Golf Course as it's private property, the closest we get is scanning the Basin from the road. When I've previously got inexplicably lost and ended up on there, it hasn't taken long for a brightly-clothed person to send me on my way. Perhaps the Woodpeckers have been here all along? Anyway, Wigeon smigeon, I'll take Lesserspot any day of the week.

Yesterday was a good day. I didn't quite break my Jan 1st record of 62 species, but I came very close indeed. The reason I fell short is that I am falling to pieces. Despite carrying nothing more than a modest set of 8x32s, by midday I was limping badly, by 2pm I could barely walk, and when I returned home at dusk I had to crawl up the stairs. Bob estimates we did about 12 miles yesterday, In the context of the patch that's pretty extreme coverage. In the context of what a spry youthful person like me ought to be able to manage in a completely flat landscape it is absolutely pitiful. I ache in places I did not know one could ache. This morning getting downstairs was a major achievement that took close to two minutes, and was accompanied by many anguished noises, and as for putting on my shoes....

I ended the day on 61, with highlights being the aforementioned Woodpecker, an errant Short-eared Owl, two Peregrines, Firecrest, and an unseasonal Shelduck. No New Year's Day would be complete without some embarrassing misses, and so it was that I hobbled home without Linnet, Reed Bunting, Sparrowhawk, Nuthatch or Skylark. The latter is the most disappointing. For many years Skylark has been an unfailing feature of Wanstead Flats, with parts of the breeding colony over-wintering. Tony found the three birds that we know to be here this morning, but the point is that you never even needed to try, they were just there. In 2011 I counted 19 on the first; I fear we're now not far away from the end

In happier news I can still just about walk on level ground, and a two hour slog at approx half a mile an hour this morning produced two Nuthatches in Bush Wood, and then two Great Black-backed Gulls on the Brick Pits. I couldn't find Coal Tit, and the Linnet continue to elude me. Nick says that we need 78 species for a record January, and with a collective 71 already I reckon we have a decent chance. I will definitely be giving it 110%, assuming my legs don't fall off.