Friday 27 May 2016

On not seeing rare birds

Lammergeier, Dalmatian Pelican, Green Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo - the list is phenomenal and those are just the big ones. Guess how many of them I've seen? None. None at all. Devon, Cornwall, Shetland and the Outer Hebs are not places I can get to in the week, nor really at the weekend without serious advance planning. Yet my twitter feed is drowning in photo after photo of these birds from people who have done exactly that. Well good luck to them I say, if you can drop everything and nobody notices or cares then you might as well do it. 

I can't. I'm jealous I suppose, but my life does not work like that. I'm not seething though, I think I got over not seeing every single rare bird that turns up a few years ago now. Once you have missed a few it doesn't really matter any more, and anyway I was never a massive lister desiring of being at the very top of the green pile. I was keen yes, particularly from around 2009 to 2012, but gradually the burning desire has lessened. It's probably not a coincidence that this cooling of the ardour has occured in parallel with it becoming harder to add new birds, and harder also to find the time if they turn up at all. All part of the great rollercoaster that is a birding career.

It's too early to say if I've given up, signing out at 433 BOU. Part of the reason for that is that I can't help thinking back to some of the fabulous birds I've seen and how enjoyable the experiences often were. Some of those twitches I will remember forever, not just for the bird but for the settings. The Harlequin Duck off a glorious Hebridean beach will take some beating, and that Courser on a hilltop golf course was monumental. Of course some experiences were less wonderful, getting trampled for a Yank Sparrow. Nearly dying of exposure for various birds, ridiculous Lesser Kestrel angst and daft crowds charging through graveyards or blocking traffic. All part and parcel of the great British twitching scene, but these days I'd rather be seeing showy birds of any sort as opposed to rare ones, and without the crowds. That's a challenge here in the south east, so my jaunts abroad are a welcome outlet.

This coming weekend I won't be seeing any rare birds at all. I will however be seeing stacks of common ones in Iceland. Red-throated Divers, Eider Ducks, Snipe and Godwit. Iceland is positively bereft of people too - just 300,000 or so residents makes it the most sparely populated country in Europe. Sounds perfect in my book. And indeed when I went last time it was amazing, with wonderful birds and scenery. Here's hoping for lots more of the same.

Sunday 22 May 2016


I recently spent a day in Malta and really enjoyed it. Yes, I know, delete me from your blog roll immediately. Clearly it's not fashionable for birders to go to Malta given the the populace and their politicians' seemingly overwhelming desire to shoot anything that flaps out of the sky, but I went anyway. I have now returned, having seen barely a bird it must be said, but I do not feel guilt-ridden. It's a lovely place for a visit and I've been wanting to go for a while. That said, the hunting situation there has troubled me sufficiently to prevent me going up until this point, but there are arguments both for and against boycotting. And if I'm brutally honest here the number of tourists I saw on Malta suggests that the defiance of the entire British birding community and their mates won't make a blind bit of difference. 

Given all the recent news on UK raptors, constant poisonings, shootings, trappings and the like, I also can't help thinking that we're a fine bunch to be lecturing other countries on the impact of hunting on wild birds. There has actually been some good news just this weekend, with the FKNK (The Maltese hunters federation) asking the Maltese Government to ban the spring hunting of Turtle Doves. How they can be asking for this whilst refuting that there is a decline in the species is rather odd though, not sure I understand that one but it's nonetheless the first positive news for some time. A ban does not of course prevent people from heading out and blasting any species of bird out of the sky regardless, and anyone who watched the Chris Packham segments last year will realise that the odds are hugely stacked against any migrating birds, with the police turning a blind eye for the most part. Malta is of course just the tip of the iceberg, and with it's british roots and background a natural place on which to focus. It is however just one tiny dot on an immense flyway - in my opinion it's in North Africa that the main damage is done, and that's an area that unfortunately won't make the news. It also does not help that large lengths of that huge coastline are now no go areas for western tourists, activists and media alike. Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia are all places I would not consider going at the moment, and probably will remain dangerous for years. Parts of Morocco too, more's the pity.

It was a short visit, they usually are. I arrived at lunchtime on Sunday and was home for dinner on Monday. In the 24 hours or so that I had there I did what I usually do, which is to walk miles and miles (17.49 miles to be precise) and try and soak it up as much as possible. And possibly take a photo or two. Or a thousand. 

So, touchdown around midday and a cheapo bus into Valletta. I had a short wander before having a frugal lunch down by the Sliema ferry. Here I experienced the most relaxed service ever, with a simple pasta dish taking an extraordinary 90 minutes to arrive. I think the waiter's grandmother was down in the basement churning out one bowl at a time. I didn't mind - a leisurely beer whilst watching the world go by in warm sunshine is a passable way to spend time in my book. When it came it was simply delicious - cherry tomatoes from nearby Sicily (another place on my to do list), the best I've ever had, and fresh octopus. A little more time climbing the endless steps of Valletta, and then I took the ferry over the harbour to admire the skyline and wait for the blue sky - a photographic phenomenon that occurs after sunset and which I really do rather like.

Dinner was more italian food. Risotto this time, in St Julian, and chicken with figs and local wine. The local wine wasn't all that really, fairly rustic, but it felt right somehow. I walked it off by taking the long route back to my hotel, noting what might be a decent photograph for the next morning. Remarkably I managed to get up for it, and so was back in St Giljan Bay for 6am. The sunrise wasn't what I had hoped but I had good fun mucking about with my ND filter, HDR, and long exposures. Here's the result, smooth water and strange ethereal light.

My hoped-for breakfast cafe was closed on Mondays, so I crossed back over to Valletta and found a busy little place serving local office workers. I had a coffee so potent that it made me sit bolt upright, and thus recharged I positively zipped around the City. 10 euros to visit St John's Cathedral offended me, so instead I carried on walking. I went all the way around Valletta clockwise and back through Floriana, chatting on the way to local Greenfinch fanciers, and to an old lady who wanted to show me the oldest shop in Malta. Thoroughly enjoyable, though as always too brief. I wanted to be everywhere at dusk and dawn. I wanted to photograph the colourful fishing boats but didn't get to the right village. The Blue Lagoon and Gozo were also tantalisingly close, but these can be saved for another trip. Steeped in history, a strange combination of Italy and the UK, with red phone boxes alongside tiled palazzos. Views to die for around almost every corner, and incredibly photogenic. Highly recommended.

Sunday 15 May 2016

Wanstead Great Crested Grebes

With my weekend travels yesterday I wanted to stay local today and not drive anywhere. Wanting to catch up with Hobby on the patch, and perhaps jam a Common Tern, I headed to the Park. In the event I got neither of these things but instead spent most of time photographing a Great Crested Grebe with a chick on its back. This species seems to be doing particularly well this year after several years of it not really working. I figured I had not done a post on this species for about five years when I set down this juvenile effort. Today is far more mature, after all there is a child involved. Mostly photographic I'm afraid, during the time I was there nothing happened whatsoever. No fish were brought, the chick didn't acrobatically dive off, nothing untoward at all. A touching scene though and I will try and get down there with more focal length soon.

Saturday 14 May 2016

Back on the Essex tick trail

Choices, choices. Cornwall for a Pelihonk? Maybe Lincolnshire for a Broad-billed Sandpiper? My current bogey bird but I wanted to stay relatively close to home today, so birding in Essex was the decision after a tough week at work. No big distances, places I know, and some good birds. I had a leisurely morning before leaving the house at around eight to head over to Abberton, currently hosting a Franklin's Gull. News from Adrian first thing that it was still there convinced me that I was making the right call, and I arrived shortly before nine at Layer-de-la-Haye causeway in a biting wind - what happened to May? The gloves came out quite quickly, and as soon as another guy turned up with a woolly hat I felt able to put mine on too. No sign of the gull, and I was soon joined by Lee W and elements of the Suffolk massive, picking out a few Black Terns and an Arctic. After a while it became clear that the line of people on the reserve were on the bird, so we cracked and paid the entry donation, hurrying down towards the hide to be rewarded with fine scope views of this super-rare visitor. Yeah, just a gull, utterly rubbish in all respects other than being an Essex tick. Woo! 

It's the darker one with the obvious eyering. Spectacular some might say.

I love Essex ticks, they're almost the best kind of ticks. Home county and all that, bettered only by garden and patch ticks. But wait, what is this news from Vange? Black-winged Stilts? The ones I've missed in Essex repeatedly for years on end? Well I don't mind if I do. Bade farewell to the guys and jumped back in the car for a rather long trip back west. The Stilts showed well on arrival. Essex tick #267, and I spent a bit of  time attempting a some photos without much success. Good to catch up with Steve A, one of my Tropicbird companions from a few years ago...., and also year tick Monkey in shorts.


With news that James had found a Red-crested Pochard on the patch, the first for quite some time, it was time to leave the Stilts and head home. I'd got a couple of miles when my phone went off - it was Steve who I'd just been with. "Red-footed Falcon at Vange!". As in the Vange I'd just left? Yes, that Vange. Well done that man, and thanks for the call! Cue a quick U-turn and a rapid return to the marsh where I picked up the Falcon immediately. It showed fantastically for the next hour or so that I stayed, and pulled in quite a crowd including Adrian all the way from Abberton, as well as Shaun and Monkey (who had also left but not got further than the sausage aisle at Tescos).

I took far too many photos of the bird, most complete rubbish as manual focusing was required, but a few turned out acceptable. I didn't really want to leave but James' duck was calling quite loudly with Nick off patch chasing some cuckoo or other.... Straight to Heronry and there it was in all its finery. I snuck up on it from the south side for a quick pap, but with a friend's 40th early evening I had to get back. It capped a fine day's birding in Essex though, with several really good birds that I got excellent views of. I should really do this more often!


Tuesday 10 May 2016

Collecting scrap metal

As a child I engaged in many scintillating and improving hobbies, one of which was birds, albeit not lists and the collecting of ticks. The collecting bug was however present and correct even in those early years. I never collected birds eggs, but somebody, a kind grandfather perhaps, encouraged stamp collecting, and I remember a phase of tongue-stuck-out-corner-of-mouth fiddling with trying to place various issues pleasingly onto the pages of albums. My favourites were those with birds on, and with many American relatives (and this being in the pre-electronic age) I was constantly furnished with interesting US stamps. I distinctly remember a series of State birds - I probably saw a Cardinal on a stamp long before I saw the real thing. 

This hobby died as so many did, and instead I started collecting coins, specifically those with George VI's head on. I had a book, serious-looking with a green cover if I recall, that listed all the possibilities and I feverishly devoted my attentions to trying to collect them all on a rather limited budget. Even when you had say, a 1937 silver half-crown, you still wanted a better one, a nicer one with fewer dents in it, less tarnishing or whatever else could be wrong with a coin. When you eventually found one and part-exchanged your now vastly inferior old one for it, the triumph of inserting it in its rightful slot was hard to beat. To see it there, gleaming, showing none of its 50 years, well that was what it was all about.....for a brief moment. For as soon as you had it you would completely forget about it, the pleasure being purely in the chase, and so move onto whatever one was next. And so of course gradually you forgot about all of them, which is exactly what happened, and go and do something else instead like count paperclips. But I still have them - even though I last looked at them in about 1989, somehow they made it with me into adulthood, surviving several house moves, recently resurfacing at the back of a cupboard whilst I was in one of oh my god I must get rid of everything moods.

Now mostly 70 or so years old, they still look for the most part brand new, and I am still amazed at my diligence and filing system. Some are even some degree of actual silver and remain somewhat shiny. Do they arouse any feelings, any collecters urge? No. I have zero interest in coins at all - well apart from ones that I can spend - so whilst they're very pretty they're also completely unnecessary and are just taking up space. But somebody must want them right? Wrong. My naive younger self may have thought they were investing for the future, collecting something of real value. No, I have instead somehow amassed a collection of small round discs of scrap metal. It might as well have been bottle tops.

Noting that some of the rarer ones were actually worth upwards of 20 quid each, a few weeks ago I dutifully went through them all and wrote down various lists of what they were, which coins from which year and so on, and then started soliciting coin dealers, thoughts of new-found extreme wealth to the fore. Time to think again. Of the half dozen specialists I have contacted, just one has bothered to reply. "Not for us, we have loads of these already". So whilst they're happy to sell them, and indeed I could now easily complete the gaps that were beyond my adolescent means, once you have them it seems you're stuck with them. This is highly disappointing, but then again who is really interested? When a coin had a circulation of millions, that's going to require a lot of very dull people before there is any kind of demand. Whilst the UK is undoubtedly full of very dull people (I know many of them from birding) there are not currently enough of them. In other words they saw me coming.

A 1942 Florin. Only 39,895,243 of these highly sought after coins were ever minted. Please get in touch if you would like to buy it.

A big disappointment all things considered, but such is life I suppose. I won on the whisky, and people did at least want the fishing gear (albeit for a pittance), but on these I fear there is no hope. Next time I go birding anywhere I'm just going to bury them all, and one day some lucky person will dig them up and get all excited at the treasure trove they have discovered. And then become hugely deflated when realise they're still worth nothing.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Cetti's at Dawn

It's 5.25am and I'm hurtling down the Aldersbrook Road into a fabulous sunrise. The Flats are empty, and I have the Alex to myself for the first time in as long as I can remember. Needless to say there are no waders, just the usual collection of motley Canadas and Greylags, but it doesn't matter. I don't linger, I have unfinished business at the Roding – that damn Cetti's Warbler. Surely it must still be there? Does it only sing in the morning? Silent Cetti's Warblers do not make for great birding experiences....

Carrying on down Wanstead park Avenue I make a familiar yet strange turn right onto Empress Avenue. Usually I am on foot. Today I zip around, pedals carefully aligned. Down past the stables, I'd never really appreciated the incline before although it's not long enough to get any kind of speed up. Somebody is up, there is a car there and lights are on even though they're not needed. Probably whoever it is got up even earlier than I did. Love of horses does that to a person I suppose, but I'm not a fan.

Into the Old Sewage Works proper and I take the double bend at speed before turning past the big hedge and down towards the river. There are Warblers singing everywhere, it's deafening. Whitethroats and Blackcaps mostly, the odd Chiffchaff struggling to be heard. Song Thrushes too, though perhaps not as many as earlier in the year. As I approach the place where the lower river path starts I slow down and dismount. It's time to listen. Bob had the bird a bit further on, down near what we call the Gates of Mordor that signify the end of the patch, but I reckon it's worth a slow amble from about this point as the habitat is ideal.

At this point the/a Cetti's Warbler bursts into full song right above my head. Tchah! Tchah-de-da-de-daa! Literally above my head. It is somehow in the one bush that I have stopped my bike next to, which is prophetic given my prediction of this patch bird and my two dips earlier this week. It does it again, and comes higher into the foliage. I can actually see it now, the leaves are not yet fully out. I am delighted to even hear it, but to see it is something else entirely – such a plain bird but so in your face in other ways. And now it has vanished again, so I continue down to the Gates. A Little Egret is on the bend, and is joined by another before they go their separate ways – one south, one north. I give it ten minutes but there is no Cetti's down here so I retrace my steps. It sings again, further away from the river this time, heading deeper into the OSW. The habitat here is remote enough that nobody has yet thought to clear it and create grand vistas, and it could hold dozens of them. In due course it may well do if this bird is, as we suspect, merely the vanguard. A few years from now and it could be an expected tick on any visit here, we've been bracketed by Cetti's Warblers for what seems like ages, and it has been slightly odd that we've not had any. A few mild winters in succession now and they're seeking out new areas. It was only a matter of time.

It's in the big hedge now, one last burst. It's not even 6am, I feel like I've been out for ages. Tony joins me and we do a few circuits before I leave to check out the Park. Nothing doing, although it must still be here somewhere, just the cacophany of Whitethroats dulling the senses. They've only been back a couple of weeks but there seem to be more than ever before – a good sign. Really none of us bird this area enough, it's one of the best places on the patch, but a long way from everywhere else, the furthest extremity. I can't get to it in the mornings before work, or at least not without missing out everything that lies in between, and as we all know some of that is pretty damn good too. We rarely get here.

The Park's water bodies are pretty empty now. A few geese, a few grebes, but nothing out of the ordinary. I am checking for Common Sandpiper on the banks of Heronry, a favoured spot, but there's nothing here today. In common with most days really, so I pedal back off to the Alex to chat to Nick about the day ahead, which for me holds swimming and hockey, and for him, nothing but birding. I can't complain though, I've had a great morning, a plan has come good, and I've seen a new bird on the patch that I've been waiting for for a long time. Home, and my meanderings have somehow clocked up six miles. Six miles and a Cetti's Warbler all before breakfast. Life is good.

Friday 6 May 2016

Nice round numbers

If you read this blog back at the start of the year you may have noticed a bout of cycling-related enthusiasm. Any cynics reading may have thought this was merely a flight of fancy, a flash in the pan. They would have been partly right, as it's early May now and I've probably ridden to work only 15 times. I have many excuses, each more ingenious and inventive than the last. Weather is top of the list of course, it has simply not been nice. True cyclists are supposed to be tough, hardy, and impervious to water, cold or wind, just like birders... Well, I'm definitely a fair-weather birder, and so it will come as no surprise that I am also a fair-weather cyclist. And as it turns out, a fair-weather cyclist who is also quite happy to travel on public transport in fine weather too. 

Anyhow, I cycled today, and today I reached a milestone which is what I wanted to tell you about. Not only did I hit 287km for the year (a distance equivalent from London to Liverpool!), but I also recorded my 50th species whilst pedalling. I love a good list of course, and when I decided I would fight the flab and jump on the bike, the lure of a new list to keep was definitely a motivating factor. The 50th bird was an Oystercatcher on Bow Creek on my journey home, a bird I'd be pleased to see most places in London. On the way in this morning it had been preceded by a singing Whitethroat on a bush right by the side of the road on Wanstead Flats, and then a pair of Swift over the Barking Road when I was waiting at the McDonald's traffic lights. It's been rather good actually, and I'm fairly stunned at how many species so few journeys have gleaned.

I was hoping that today would also see the 51st actually but it didn't happen. I took a longer route home in order to twitch a Cetti's Warbler that Bob had found earlier in the day. Bob has dropped his hours again and now works 0.2 days per week, which puts him in the same "highly annoying" category as Nick, liable to find decent birds at any moment. And given that I am at 'any moment' as likely as not to be nowhere near the patch or able to get to it, this is becoming a source of some frustration. And this is the second time I've dipped Cetti's this week, and it's not only a new bird for all of us on the patch but also my prediction for 2016. So to be away when one eventually turns up, dip it when I get back and then miss and dip the second one only a few days later is very irritating indeed. Especially when I cycled an extra 2.3km to do so!  That said, two in five days is rather promising, and I doubt I'll be missing it for long. 

Did I mention I went to New York? I went cycling there too, I'm positively addicted.... Mrs L and I did well over 5km on a clapped out tandem in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. We didn't fall off and we're still married, so miracles do happen. It was an excellent ride for birds as it happens, and I nearly crashed multiple times as we kept seeing mega after mega all the way round


Thursday 5 May 2016

So, what's been going on then?

Hmm, like many bloggers out there I seem to be lapsing, and as others have noted it's real life that gets in the way. In short I have very little news. Let's do this in summary format, it might work better. When I say work better, what I really mean is that it might be quicker for me to bash out, and thus there is at least something rather than nothing. Hopefully a little more spare time headed my way in a couple of weeks.

Real Life
Decluttering continues. I have sold all sorts of crap that never in a million years did I think anyone would be stupid enough to clutter their house up with. Natch. The list is very long and very satisfying. I returned from a three day break recently to find I needed to make up ten packages. This netted me something in the order of 40 earth pounds....Dammit. The time equation should dictate that I simply chuck stuff away. In a spirit of pure altruism I do not want to deny that opportunity to others however, so I'm sticking with it. Phase 2 is I think to cut out the middle man and take it straight to the tip. The difference is actually noticeable, to me at least. For instance my cupboard of fishing gear now contains one rod and one reel. More than enough (by about one rod and one reel....) to keep me in the angling business. Scope eyepieces are reduced to one, which is handy as that matches the number of scopes I have. Idiot. My two 35mm SLRs went to Spain and Manchester respectively, and a lens found its way to Belgium or somewhere. Actually I forget as there have been altogether too many packages. Fishing gear tends to head north, optics south. Does this say anything about the world? Probably, but I have no time to dwell on it at the moment.

There has of course been some travel. Malta (booooooo, hisssssss), and New York. I'll cover both of these in due course. Suffice it to say that despite it's reputation among birders, Malta is actually a very nice place. To boycott or to not boycott? Every birder in the western hemisphere could not go and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference, but the campaign must go on - there was some positive news just recently in fact. Whether that translates to a difference on the ground is impossible to say. There can be no complaints about NY however, a stunning place. Well, apart from many buildings saying "Trump" on them. And the overwhelming stupidity of large parts of the population, most recently in Indiana. Oh America, what are you doing? Still, despite all this NYC remains one of favourite places, we were there in celebration of a significant milestone for Mrs L, and this we did in style. All I want to do now is go back as soon as possible. It feels like unfinished business.

In between all this and metres of parcel tape and bubble wrap there has been some work and some illness. Work is the normal crap I have to deal with, illness is something new and something I may possibly have to deal with for a long time. Hopefully nothing too serious, but when you feel under the weather blogging seems to drop down the list and is yet another reason why these pages have remained silent for quite some time. There is of course some blogging mileage in being ill itself, but I'm reserving judgement for now.

There has actually been quite a bit of birding, albeit nothing particularly spectacular. I've been keeping my head vaguely above water with visits to the patch, picking up all the usual suspects with some regularity. That's part of the deal with patch working to a certain extent - the repetitive nature of the passing years. The first Willow Warbler, the first Swift. These latter were today when I wasn't even thinking about it. I had just got home from work and glanced up whilst fiddling for my keys. Four birds then spent the better part of an hour cruising around above the garden, a keenly anticipated event round these parts. Reed Warbler fell, as have both Whitethroats and a few other bits. A big miss was Cetti's on the patch, a bird I predicted but then predictably was then away for. There is something about me going to America in the spring which sets a chain of events in motion and culminates in failure.

We also had a rather nice day out in Suffolk. Four seasons in one day, but we picked up number one son from his school in Norfolk and then crossed the border back west to do a circuit of Lakenheath. Cuckoos, Warblers, Swallows and more in what felt like winter at points. Somehow the kids were cajoled into doing the full circuit and it was superb to just be out and enjoying the area. The hail and so on probably put paid to seeing that much, and there wasn't a single Hobby, nor any Stone Curlew in the two sites nearby that we tried, but there was plenty of material to see how much of what I have drummed into the kids over the years has actually stuck. Some, is the answer. Not much, but some, and they're still streets ahead of your average kid in terms of knowing what lives where and what it looks and sounds like. Small victories, for instance the scratchy tune of a Whitethroat was recognised as for what it was, and the number of 12 year olds who can do that must number very few. Way more to do in this space however.

One of my favourite blogs finishes each episode with percentages, this was a recent one:

20% stolen choux outrage (long story)
20% eye strain
20% creeping dread
20% Dutch sentence construction
20% Wishing I'd had my teeth cleaned by softly spoken Jérémie the kind dentist in the last 6 months instead of hiding away until I look like Father Jack.

I am wondering about stealing this idea. If I were to, it would look something like this.

30% non-functioning intestines
20% cardboard and parcel tape
20% jetlag
20% small chocolate eggs even though I stopped eating them two weeks ago
10% Cetti's dipping