Saturday 23 April 2016

Something ventured, absolutely nothing gained...

I've just returned from a quick trip to Reading Services, which were very lovely. A nice way in which to totally quash any resurgence of twitching angst. I've not twitched anything for a very long time, not counting the Rubythroat a few weeks ago. Or the Wren in Arizona. Or that Thrush. Oh. What I mean is that I've not made any meaningful attempt to up my UK list for ages and ages. My last tick was from the comfort of the armchair, which frankly is how I like it. However you do see more birds if you leave the house, and if I look at my year lists over the last few years the total has gradually slipped to below 200. 2015 was a paltry 183, and part of that is to do with random birds you pick up whilst chasing something else, something I simply don't do as much of these days.

And this morning reminded me why. Dipping. Well, I'm actually not sure if driving to Reading services can officially count as a dip if the bird was in Gwent, but the thought was definitely there. It was a Broad-billed Sandpiper, a bird I've dipped once in Essex and never subsequently had another shot at. But Newport? Ugh.When it was reported this morning I tweeted that there was no way I'd be going for it and then left immediately.

I met Matt in Egham, a place I know well from student days, and a convenient place to dump one of the cars. Spirits high, and £6.60 carefully counted out for the bridge, we set off west. And to cut a long story short, so did the bird. Bugger. We waited in Reading for a while doing some hasty research on the site and trying to guess what it might do, and decided it would be sensible to give up and go home again. Thus starts my 2016 twitching career. Whilst it was nice to catch up with Matt who I have not seen for a while, and who appears to travel even more than I do, it highlighted everything I remembered hating about twitching. Starting with not seeing the bird of course. Why do people do it? Why did I think I wanted to? Pah.

Anyhow, I was home before lunch - much to the delight of my youngest who had been eyeing up a second bowl of soup - and so now I have the chance to go and see no birds in Wanstead, which up until eight or so this morning had been the original plan. As that famous Carthaginian said, I love it when a plan comes together.

Tuesday 19 April 2016


Predictably I did not add a single species to my Rainham list last Saturday. Up with the proverbial lark, everything I needed was predictably absent having been seen almost daily up until that point. Three Egyptian Geese were about as good as it got in the "notable" stakes. Utter dross in Wanstead, I casually pointed them out flying up the river, with Hawky shouting "Where where where!" - quadrupling his count of this species at this site. My total went from 4 to 7, that in nearly ten years of on and off birding there. In Wanstead I could turn out of my front door and be seeing a veritable flock of pestilential proportions within about ten minutes. Even within the small circle that counts as the London recording area, it can still be about context. I scoped up a Greenshank on Aveley pools and whilst doing so a pair of Pintails swan past behind it. I've seen neither in Wanstead in a decade, and my chances of changing this I would assess as poor.

Raven, Firecrest, Siskin and Tree Pipit were my targets, the final three of which I see annually in Wanstead, and the latter two of which are basically "on demand" in the average winter. For whatever reason I've never bumped into any of them at Rainham - this is a function of not birding there enough but also that they're just scarce there. Anyway, 67 species racked up, with a few bits of quality including a nice pinkish Little Gull on the river and a pair of Avocets. A relatively close SEO was good value, and let's not forget the seven Wheatears behind the Stone Barges in the area we definitely didn't go to...

I was away for the rest of the weekend (more on this later) so I didn't bird Wanstead at all. A lot has arrived however, so the next time I go out it will feel like the first of January all over again. That's just cause for only wandering over there sporadically if you ask me! 

Friday 15 April 2016


Once upon a time I birded at Rainham Marshes. I was there several times a week, and probably all weekend too. It was a golden period, mostly when I wasn't working. There were playgrounds for the kids when they became bored of river watching, cake on demand, and shelter from inclement weather, but as with many things in my life it gradually tailed off. Work was of course the main reason, but so is convenience. Rainham is a car drive away, Wanstead is just outside my front door. 

The recent dash over there for Razorbill had me reminiscing over past glories, as many birders are wont to do. And boy have there been some corkers! Most, of course, are all about context, the now ex-Razorbill being a classic example. I've also seen Pink-footed Goose, Eider, Manx Shearwater and Great Skua. London shouldn't get these birds, but occasionally some get a bit lost and extroverts like me go and see them. Some are rare nationally, such as Spotted Crake and Montague's Harrier that anyone who calls themselves a birder should go see. And then there are some that are off the scale - Baillon's Crake and White-tailed Plover are the stand-out examples - these cause stampedes! Oh, and some Gull or other. Back then I used to volunteer there, although this was only really an excuse to go birding more. It's not as if I went and swept up leaves or anything, I just went out with my bins on the trails and radioed back whatever I saw. Which was lots - revisiting my list whilst adding the unfortunate Alcid, I noticed the total was 189. That's perilously and irritatingly close to 200.....and all birders like a nice round number, I mean that's the whole point isn't it?

For Wanstead I'm on about 144. That's also close to a round number, but nonetheless still some years away you have to think. London is something just over 250, which means a nice round number is decades away! However at Rainham that 11 would include Siskin, Tree Pipit and a number of other things that might be quite straightforward. Plus I like Rainham, I've spent heaps of time there and it's just a great place to be out and about birding. I don't know why I've not managed to really visit in the last five years or so. But that can easily change.....

Tuesday 12 April 2016

The mythical floodgates (that only open after 8.15am)

Somebody has turned on the tap upstairs, and birds are now piling through. There were a minimum of nine Redstarts found in Wanstead on Sunday, including a garden tick for a lucky Tim, so the actual number of Redstarts was probably in the millions. I love this time of year, and so was out on the Flats this morning at just past six. And it was dead with a capital D. Dead. In just over two hours I saw a Linnet, a Yellow Wagtail pseeped through, and a male Redstart was flitting around the brooms. You may think that this is not actually that dead, but for London's best migrant patch after heavy overnight rain that haul classifies as avian desolation.

As I headed gleefully to the Salt Mines once again, I mused on whether it had been worth waking up at such an ungodly hour in order to see three birds. And then of course when the inevitable news of more Redstarts and no fewer than seven Wheatears came through, it became clear. Do not bother birding in the morning because the floodgates are closed. OK, so the early morning birder will, in time, pick up a few goodies. It has happened to me, it has happened to others. However by far the majority of the good birds seem to pass through at some point between 8:16am and about 10am. Can you guess what time I have to leave the patch in order to arrive at CDub for 9? Oh, I gave it away in the title.

One more (Steve) of the first male of the year that was found on Sunday.

So today, rather than miss out again, after work I went home via the Flats. And not only was it was far less busy than at six in the morning, it was also carpeted in Wheatears still. I am clearly missing a trick by attempting birding before work. A hiding to nothing I believe they call it. A mug in the common parlance. There were seven in a tight group near the barrage hitches, six males with a female tagging along. I don't habitually schlep a camera into work with me, so there are no photos, but for at least 15 minutes me and seven Wheatears enjoyed a close relationship.

Over the coming days I am expecting to run into House Martin, possibly Ring Ouzel, various Warblers fresh in, and potentially something left field - there was a Stone-Curlew at Rainham today.... Now that I know I can bird the patch at both ends of the day there may be no stopping me. 

Dunnocks are currently going beserk on the Flats. This is from the weekend.

Sunday 10 April 2016

Mega weekend

Song Thrush on the pavement near my house.

This weekend was completely mega, all you could hope from a patch-working weekend. It started with the most mega thing I think I've ever seen on Wanstead Flats - a dog walker told another dog walker to put their dog on a lead BECAUSE OF NESTING BIRDS. Nick and I looked at each other in utter disbelief. Did that really just happen? We tweeted the news out straight away, with the information services understandably treating this as an unconfirmed report, stringing of the highest order. I let them know that there had been multiple observers, but I think they were still pretty sceptical. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I would have been too, but then this is April, and pretty much anything can occur at this time of year. This is the story of how it happened.

Walking briskly along close to Long Wood comes a young lady with some kind of dog ON A LEAD. The first miracle. Talking earnestly on the phone, she spots a man with an enormous Rottweiler not on a lead. Barely pausing for breath, she shouts over to him that his dog is not on a lead and that it needs to be on a lead, and that there are ground nesting birds and to put it on a lead NOW. No niceties, no skirting round the issue, no worries at all that this dog is gigantic and hers is a mere pup in comparison, no. Put it on a lead, and DO IT NOW. And then the phone conversation continues and she strode off. I'd like to say into the sunset but this was mid-morning. Needless to say I fell instantly in love with this young lady - an incredible force of nature - but I could not keep up with the power walk. Nick and I agreed we had never seen anything like it. Pinch me he said, but I was too stunned to move. I'm pretty sure the Rottweiler owner was knocked for six too, but I think he complied and left the area, probably never to return. I wish we knew who our new superhero is. I reckon if she were to walk/patrol the Flats for a few days all our dog issues would be over. A couple of months and we'd probably be overrun with Skylarks and have to start culling them. 

We both agreed that this was easily the most mega thing either of us had seen on the Flats in all the years we had been working the area. Stone Curlews, Wrynecks, Blyth's Reed Warblers, all mere dross compared to the immensity of the 9th of April 2016, a day that shall live long in the memory. Bob and the others missed out, but Nick and I will forever share that moment.

In other news that it barely seems worthwhile to recount, I picked up my first Redstart of the year on the same day, and ended up with four in just a small area. Nick found another four in the Park, and Tim had one in his garden. I have no idea what the generally accepted ratio of birds moving through versus birds seen is, but I think it's safe to say that there were A LOT of Redstarts in Wanstead this weekend. 

And then I saw a Razorbill in London. This would have been truly mega had mega not been redefined earlier that day, but this Auk is still very much a local rarity nonetheless. Clearly nowhere remotely as rare as a dog walker telling another dog walker to instantly moderate their behaviour, but still, worth an honourable mention perhaps. A certain Mr Jonathan N of Walthamstow had strayed to Rainham for some reason, and rather calmly put the news out. Very factual, there is a Razorbill on the path. I guess he'd seen our news earlier and realised he couldn't compete. Anyhow, this had a number of London-based birders moving rather quickly, myself included, and once finally through the gridlock I found myself looking at this rather unlikely addition to my London list. The theory is that it had collided with the power lines overhead, but being a small bird this hadn't fried it but simply knocked it down onto the ground. Whilst nobody knows the extent of its injuries, once it had made it through the Evans fox-proof electric fence* and was settled on Aveley Pools it actually began to look pretty perky, sorting out its feathers and even having a dive or two. Its long term outlook is not great if it stays there, so hopefully it either takes off and refinds the river, or somebody wades out and nets it. Still, I'll take it, and it was a great little twitch, my first in London for ages and memorable for all the right reasons. **

And then today, finally, I found a Wheatear. A perfect spring male flitted across centre path in front of a jogger and promptly hoofed it all the way to Alex, where I caught up with it sat near the ditch of despair a short time later. It had absolutely no interest in having its picture taken but that isn't important. What's important is that it was there and looking lovely. We have not done well this year, I think this is the second bird and the first male, which for nearly mid-April is a scandal. Hopefully the start of things to come. Although it is now bagged, my appetite for more is undimmed.

* No I did not snigger. Not at all.
** see above

Monday 4 April 2016

Coronation Chicken

I am blaming the Coronation Chicken for all of my recent hardship. It is said that mass-catered events and airline food are the number one sources of dodgy tummies. I do enough of the second one to know that this isn't true, but I did go to wedding on Thursday and this is when my troubles began. Registry Office gallop at four, at the feeding trough by half past, Coronation Chicken down the hatch by five, some odd gurgling by eight.

Or maybe it was the A3? This poor excuse for a road had me driving round Sussex and Surrey country lanes at 1am with nary a diversion sign to be seen, and contributed to basically having no sleep that night and thus my body getting out of kilter. I am a very regular person, but not anymore..... Dammit I hate being sick, and having stomach issues is my least favourite type of illness. Give me a cough or a cold any day of the week. Friday morning was kind of OK, bar exhaustion, but by Friday evening I was having the kind of cramps that I hitherto only associated with Polonium 210. By Friday night I felt like I was having a baby, and most of Saturday was spent groaning. Sunday and I am at least up and about and able to twitch rare ducks, but it's now Monday morning and it has all gone pear-shaped again. How on earth one (well, maybe two) sandwiches can completely destroy my digestive system is anyone's guess, but everything has all ground to a depressing halt.

It would be unkind of me to share with you my exact symptoms, however when I arrive in Glasgow I will be shopping for prunes, kiwi fruit, and pro-biotic yogurts. Plus pot pourri and a sari. Jesus. Somehow I have to get through a day of meetings that have been especially organised for a functioning me. Not that type of functioning... I simply mean that an in pain, groaning and dashing to the loo me is somewhat sub-optimal in terms of what lies ahead. Perhaps the answer is to hold off on the prunes until the afternoon, but I am in urgent need of relief and I cannot wait that long. I am already wondering what can be cancelled and what time the hotel check-in opens so that the extravaganza can start.

Being ill is the absolute pits, luckily I am stoic enough to suffer in silence.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Where shall we go on a family walk?

Using an old Jedi mind trick employed by birders with families the world over, I persuaded the family that the ideal pre-lunch family outing should be to Ruddon's Point on the north side of the Firth of Forth. "Is there a rare bird there?" was Mrs L's immediate response. "No no no no no no no, er well yes maybe. Well, it was there yesterday. Probably gone now, I wouldn't worry". Somehow the destination remained unchanged, and so a small gaggle of us arrived to some mild rain at the Shell Bay caravan site mid-morning. The target was a female King Eider a lovely family walk in a beautiful location. A location that frequently attracts rare nearctic ducks. Allegedly.

No proper camera today, but there were loads of these about looking marvellous.

I walked briskly to the Point, children, wife and father left in my wake. It was going to be challenge with bins only but I felt confident I could pick up her supreme gingerness at some distance. Mistake. The flocks of ducks were generally miles out, and with the nearer birds quickly dismissed any hope of finding the Queen Eider was basically dead in the water. Still, it isn't all about rare birds these days, and so just with bins I had a careful scan of what was identifiable. And it was superb, from a Londoner's perspective there was quality everywhere! A Red-throated Diver was close in, and small flocks of Mergs drifted along. As well as the Common Eider, small numbers of Common Scoter were visible, but nothing gave a flap to show white panels so Velvet remains needed for 2016. Two larger Divers were further out, but I wouldn't like to put a name to them. Probably one each of GND and one Black-throated if I had to guess..... A Long-tailed Duck was diving constantly quite close in, and Mrs L and Père L were able to get on a Gannet flying over. A few Razorbills were seen, and before I was dragged away I also saw groups of OystercatchersRedshank and a Curlew. So although necessarily brief, you really can't fault even the shortest time birding Largo Bay. Most enjoyable, and all to the backdrop of singing Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Yellowhammers and Chaffinches

Mrs L describes my waistline.
Along the beach we were diverted by stone skimming, and the children were pleased to get up close and personal with a Common Eider which showed very well indeed. Back where we had left the car, right at the entrance to the caravan park, were two birders with scopes. You know what they say, find the birders find the bird. Well it's very often true and remained so today - they had Mrs King Eider lined up and ready, and had done really rather well as she was pretty far out towards Edinburgh. Decent views though, and easily pickable amongst the Common Eider

Afforded excellent views whilst resting on the beach.

By fortunate happenstance there was a drake Ring-necked Duck at Kilconquhar Loch, only a short distance away from where we had ended up on our family outing. It would have been rude not to go really, so the family waited patiently* in the car whilst I walked through the church yard to have a look. Without a scope this was rather a challenge, but my recent familiarisation in Arizona helped my clock the two-toned flanks from quite a way away. Not the best views ever, but when ticking rare birds when did that ever matter? Quite. Kerching. 

All good and so back to Uberchateau L for a lovely and well-deserved lunch, two rarities UTB and a host of decent and distinctly non-E11 birds seen in a great location. I've never been disappointed birding the Fife Coast, and I'm fortunate to have a second base up here from which to conduct filthy twitchery and other bird-based activities. Aviemore etc is only a couple of hours away, Norfolk distance basically, and you've a ton of great birding spots up there. As the old folks, er, get older, no doubt I'll be making more trips this way, and that can only be a good thing. For family harmony. Obviously.

* not patiently at all, do they not realise that one does not simply rock up and instantly find yank Ducks? 

Saturday 2 April 2016

Wanted in Wanstead

So far there has been one Wheatear, and it will come as no surprise to you that I did not see it. As is frequently the case, I birded the patch like the veritable demon for a couple of hours before work, toddled off to earn a crust, and then all the usual suspect layabouts turned up and found one in one of the spots I'd been checking. Grrr. It happens so frequently that I can live with it. Just about....

It was actually a really good morning. Nobody about, and I did the circuit of the brooms before heading east to the Alex. On my way over there the first Swallow of the season zipped over, cheering the heart and lifting the soul (think where it has come from!). I greeted it sololmly, and continued on to the empty lake before returning via the Ditch of Despair. No birds in it, obviously, however a funny buzzy chip of a call with a ring of familiarity had me looking up at the sky - took a number of seconds to place it, but by that time the glorious yellowness was in my bins. Yellowhammer! Birding a local patch is all about context, and whilst Yellowhammer is not a bird you would normally associate with feelings of patch gold, here in Wanstead it is just about annual for one lucky birder. Today that lucky birder was me, and I reckon it's my fourth here in 11 years. It certainly put in a spring in my step, but this extra va-va-voom still wasn't enough to track down what so far remains the patch's only Wheatear of 2016. 

This is nothing short of a disgrace. Nowhere in London is this migrant so keenly anticipated, yet this year we have been bracketed by birds with barely a sniff of our own. And when one did finally turn up, it was a) a drab female, and b (and far more importantly) not seen by me. I tell myself I'm waiting for that first spanking male whilst basking in Rubythroat happiness. This is actually true, and I can still scarcely believe that I've now seen one. All the cuttlefish and cages jokes from those on a well-timed Shetland trip last year have been rolled out, but I remain highly contented. 

There is only one thing that would make me more contented.