Friday 24 June 2016

Slavonian Grebe (European)

After a torrid day at work contemplating an act of national lunacy seen only once in a generation, I arrived home frazzled. A glass of wine - French - has helped calm shattered nerves, and so I've sat myself down and worked through a number of Icelandic Slavonian Grebe images. I would imagine that many leave voters have never been to Iceland. In fact I would imagine that many of them have never been anywhere and probably don't even have passports, but that's their lookout. They are missing out on these frankly magical birds which were a privilege to observe and photograph. I've only really seen winter-plumaged birds before, and as I think I've mentioned I can barely believe that they're the same species. Here's one of the Wanstead bird from last year - does not even compare!

We were in an area relatively far north having received some brilliant gen from a local birder. Arriving at the place he mentioned we found perhaps six pairs, but only one were in a location that made for a decent set-up - a long and narrow pool, perhaps 30ft across, ie within easy reach of long lenses. Despite reasoning we could get very close indeed, I nonetheless opted to use the 800mm mounted on a tripod and with a gimbal head - this reduces this massive lens to something that is practically weightless. We crept up as the birds dived, stopping when they surfaced, and so quite quickly got into what seemed like a good spot. And we were right! It was honestly like shooting fish in a barrel, all you had to do was make sure you had your horizons level and that you maintained accurate focus, and in some instances when they came stupidly close that you were not cutting any of the bird odd. Having checked the time stamps on my images, Shaun and I spent precisely nine minutes with this pair of Grebes before retreating the way we had come - we knew we would simply not get better. The only things I would have wished for would have been less wind and hence stiller water, and a bit more sunshine, but really I'm picking at straws here.

Apologies in advance for a very photo-heavy post with no real content. I am not really able to speak today in a coherent manner about much at all. In due course I am sure I will, but I am simply seething at the way in which people have been duped by rhetoric into massively changing the future for generations of children including mine. It simply beggars belief that as a nation we can be so grievously stupid, but there you have it. Anyway, have some Slavs. I need more wine.


Monday 20 June 2016

Return to Iceland

Ever since I went to Iceland a few years ago I've wanted to go back. It remember it as being one of the most productive trips for bird photography that I have ever been on, on a par with Morocco. I am not allowed to go to Morocco any more following a Mrs L travel safety ban, but Iceland for now remains as IS free zone and is OK. I last went in late June 2014, so this trip was timed a month earlier to hopefully see more displaying behaviour.


  • A three day trip in late May, Friday evening to Tuesday morning, with Shaun H.
  • No specific itinerary in mind, and no accommodation booked in advance, the tactic this time was to not be tied down and to go wherever the weather appeared the nicest on the grounds there would be birds everywhere.
  • Icelandair flight to Keflavik (west of Reykjavik) from Heathrow departed 2100 on Friday night, alllowing a full day at work, and arriving at about midnight the same evening (there is one hour time difference the opposite way to mainland Europe), costing a mere £140 at the time of booking which was great value.
  • Car hire via Hertz was more than the flight at £240, but for this we got a decent sized VW Golf estate with plenty of room for all our stuff, and to sleep in if we did find ourselves miles from anywhere. We took advantage of this on the first and final nights when there was no point getting a hotel.
  • We got accommodation for the two middle nights at a hotel in Borganes at about £80 per night for a double room which included breakfast.
  • Some decent research on a Red-throated Diver site was all I did. Everything else was completely random. Most of the birds we wanted to photograph in Iceland were very common.
  • Shaun insists on proper meals and going to bed at 6pm. Iceland is not the gastronomic capital of anywhere, and these were largely disappointing and expensive. We could not find anything that wasn't fast food in the depressing settlement at Keflavik and were reduced to KFC. KFC for a tenner.
  • As before, it barely got dark. Despite this we did not push ourselves and had decently long sleeps, in marked contrast to my last trip where we barely slept. I put a pea under Shaun's mattress one night, just to check...

Day 0-1
Arrival into KEF was very easy and we were on the road by 1am, heading south east towards the Diver site. The weather was distinctly unpromising, with sheeting rain and absolutely freezing. We pulled into a layby at around 2am somewhere east of Grindavik on the south coast for a fitful few hours of "sleep" before continuing on to Eyrarbakki. The weather here was pretty grim too, and certainly too dull for photography, so whilst it appeared promising we instead pointed the car at lighter skies to the north east and drove until we hit sunshine. This proved to be a good tactic and it wasn't too long before we hit actual sunshine somewhere along road 272 and 268. The only trouble was that this far inland the birds dried up, mostly due to the hostile terrain that for most species would prove difficult finding food. Nonetheless we photographed nesting Oystercatcher and had a crack at a few roadside Snipe and Whimbrel. At a random stop on a smaller side road in order to be able more safely stop the car and photograph from it we came across a Ptarmigan on top of a rocky outcrop, and managed to creep it for some frame-filling shots. I've never tried to get anywhere near one in Scotland before, so didn't know what to expect. What I can now tell you is that they can be pretty tame if you move slowly and deliberately, and we managed decent shots of several male birds over the course of the course of the trip. The second bird however was easily the best. In common with all of the birds that we saw, this one was sat on top of a prominent feature in the landscape. The tactic was to get in the right position for the light and then slowly advance on it - ten paces and take another shot. Repeat. As we got closer the bird then stood up, and perched even higher on the rock which actually made the images even better. It stood watching up for a while, not sure whaat to do, and then was off in a whirr of wings, though not far. We saw several birds perched like this each day, either on rocks or on a grassy gnoll. Each bird clearly had a favourite lookout point, as sometimes when returning down the same road we would see a bird in exactly the place we had first seen it. After this second bird however there was really no point trying to get better images and so on subsequent birds I just went for more landscape style shots. Given I've never got more than a blurry digiscoped shot before, I couldn't believe that we had simply got out of the car and walked a Ptarmigan, but that's just how it happens sometimes. For the purposes of this trip report I'll pop in a photo here and a photo there of all the main species, and then later on do a series of much more in depth posts on individual birds.

Close to this Ptarmigan spot we also spied a trio of Harlequin on a small island in the middle of a large river. Leaving the car we picked our way down there, but the river was bigger than we thought and the birds were still some way off. Still, really nice to see them and these were Shaun's first as he hadn't twitched the Hebrides bird with me. A pair and a single male, they were just loafing around on a shingle bank half way across, and were spectacular in the sunshine, if a little wary despite the distance. Not a lot could be done on the photographic front so we picked our way back to the car and carried on. 

To be honest the landscape here was a little barren with not much in the way of bird life, so we gradually found ourselves heading back the way we had came on a circular route. This took us back towards much duller weather but this was a short trip and we needed to be seeing birds at the very least. We stopped a couple more times near small pools, one of which by a road intersection was carpeted in Red-necked Phalaropes and other birds. While Shaun busied himself with the tiny waders, I decided against doing so as the situation was not as good as ones I had previously encountered, and instead picked my way around the pooI to seek other opportunities. I managed to get my only Redwing photograph of the trip here, but it does not stack up against the images taken in 2014 unfortunately. Everywhere we went we found the Redwings incredibly sensitive even to the car, and the mere act of slowing down would cause a bird to drop into cover. Before I go next time I need to work on a new tactic. The only reason I got anything last time was I think because the bird was engaged in feeding young and prioritised that over anything else, including me. 

We eventually made it back to the Diver site by late afternoon, but the light was dismal. We gave it a go, but the resulting images are all dull and lifeless. Still, it was a privilege to even watch these stunning birds, and to see their behaviour change when a marauding Arctic Skua overflew their pool. Plenty more Phalaropes too, and a backdrop of fishing Arctic Terns. Iceland really is a special place, and if like me you're as interested in the birds as taking photos of them, you can't really lose. Too dark? Too bright? Binoculars work in all conditions!

We had an early evening meal of expensive fish and chips in Selfoss and used the restaurant wi-fi to work out what the weather was doing the following day. Looking at the map, it seemed that only the northern part of Iceland was clear, and that with an easterly bias, so even though it meant a longish drive we needed to head that way. Remarkably I didn't feel that tired,so we headed over the pass to Rekyavik in poor conditions and then up to Borganes, probably about a two hour drive in total. Despite it being a UK bank holiday we managed to bag a very nice room in a hotel that is just before the causeway, and for our 15,200 Kronor also got breakfast and as much tea as Shaun could guzzle. And a hairdryer. Still perfectly light, we gratefully went to bed.

Shaun always travels with a mirror.

Day 2
We did not particularly stretch ourselves getting up as breakfast was not available until 7.30am. One of the things about travelling with Shaun is that he requires meals at the right times, regular infusions of tea, and to be tucked up in bed by half six every night. This is a pretty foreign way of birding to me, but I've never lived in Hornchurch so cannot say what it is like. The Wanstead way is to "go hard or go home", but on this occasion I forced myself to relax and thus miss out on about 50% of our available birding time. And I still arrived home knackered!

Breakfast was good, with pickles, fish, cheese, salami and great bread, and thus sustained we headed north east on Route 1, passing through Borganes and up ultimately to Blönduós. Along the way we tried to find roadside birds, but once again we passed through some fairly barren landscapes where birds dried up pretty quickly. It seems that in Iceland you have a choice - follow the weather and risk spending a fair amount in the car seeing not a lot, albeit with very dramatic landscapes, or stay where the birds are but prepare to get wet or blown off your feet. Overall it appeared that the coastal areas of the western side held more life than the interior, but we never made it across to Myvatyn, which as I may have mentioned last time is teeming with birds.

We made several stops at promising-looking areas, including an excellent high-altitude pool with four pairs of Phalaropes in it - these probably our best ones of the trip.It was quite boggy, but crucially the pool was very still and pretty small, which made for some nice close birds and some decent reflections, albeit that the water only shows the white sky.

Not much else of interest photographically speaking - we tried and failed with some coastal waders and terns, and of course attempted lots of birds on posts images. Plenty of interest for pure birding though, with lots of stuff on the sea, and our first Glaucous Gulls in the river at Blönduós. Our luck however was to change - taking a random track past a stables (horse-riding is a big thing in Iceland) we happened across some Golden Plover. Wary, they didn't make for good stalking, but as Shaun was persevering (I had long since given up!) a large 4x4 pulled up alongside our car and a guy got out. He was a Icelandic policeman on a day off, and also a keen photographer  - he showed us some amazing aurora shots he had taken, as well as some fine bird photos. And crucially he passed on some fabulous gen on a spot which held a small number of Slavonian Grebes in what might be termed a golden situation photographically speaking. A long thin narrow pool that might provide close views and nice backgrounds..... We swapped details and bade him farewell, heading straight for the spot which was quite easy to find. Sure enough there were the birds, possibly up to a dozen on a few different pools. Assessing the situation made it clear that really only one of these pairs was worth attempting, and so we carefully approached, hoping the birds would tolerate our presence briefly. This they did and in spades - I took more photos in a fifteen minute session than I'd taken the whole rest of the day, and this is what defines nature photography really - one brief session can make the difference between a wasted day and an incredibly productive day. Sunday was immediately elevated to the latter category - neither of us had ever had even a glimpse of a photographable summer-plumaged Slavonian Grebe, yet here were two only a matter of metres away. I'd seen them up at Loch Ruthven in the Highlands, but that's scope views only. This time I was actually able to use the camera, and I had my 800mm lens attached, Shaun the poor relation with the 500mm, and for an incredible few minutes we made merry before retreating and leaving the birds in peace. I can still scarely believe it - looking at the images now I'd like to go back and try a couple of different things, and to be there on a still day, but for now I cannot complain in the slightest.

We drove back south on a huge high, trying a few side roads just north of Borganes, such as the 533 and 535. Some good birds in good situations - Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Golden Plover and Ptarmigan, but in pretty dark conditions, so we decided to go back the next day and re-checked into our hotel from the previous night and went for dinner.

Day 3
The day (afternoon practically) dawned relatively clear, and so we drove the short distance to roads 533 and 535, which we slowly drove in the hope of photographic opportunities. More of the usual really - Ptarmigan, Snipe and so on, but nothing standout. Our first road, an attempted loop, ended in failure due to a ford that we didn't feel we could cross, and the road from the prior evening didn't seem to have the same levels of birds as then. With the morning almost over by the time we decided we had had enough, and headed south as we wanted to be in striking distance of the airport for the flight home the following morning. 

Heading back through the mega-tunnel at Hvalfjardagong we drove almost to Rekyajik and found our way to the Heidmork nature area, just of the main loop road. Parking up where the Helluvatn meets the Ellioavatn we breathed in a mouthful of bugs and set to work. Whilst Shaun could not resist some more Phalaropes, I headed anticlockwise around Helluvatn and came across some scruffy Mergansers. One pair flew off almost immediately, however a lone male proceeded to display to anything on the water, which in this case was a Mallard floating around quite near me. The routine was that he would swim from one bay towards the Mallard in the other bay (where I was) constantly displaying, throwing his head back etc. When the Mallard completely ignored him he would then fly rapidly back to the first bay and then repeat the exercise. This worked out pretty well for photography as you can imagine, it was just a shame that the plumage wasn't that great. When I could take the bugs no more I went back to find Shaun, who similarly plagued wanted out!

Next stop the Red-throated Divers again as the weather forecast suggested their area woudl finally have some sun. It did, but we found that even at 4pm the light was far too bright and the distance simply too great to defeat haze. I had not feeling very well since the previous evening so I gave up on photography and birds and instead fell asleep in the grass for an hour or so hoping for the heat to dissipate. What we really should have done was to wait until at least 9pm or so for perfect conditions, but nevermind. 

We drove back to the airport the long way around through many lava fields, stopping now and again where it looked promising. By far the best place was right next to the airport, a superb colony of Common Eider and Arctic Tern, but the orientation was such that this was really a morning stop. A nearby village had some excellent Redshank, and provided the best opportunity yet to see this species. 

And so that was the trip. We finished up in Keflavik, Iceland's culinary capital, its gastronomic heartbeat. Anyone interested in fine dining would miss this at their peril. We found a closed chinese, a couple of dingy burger joints and a KFC. We chose KFC and had an entirely dreadful zinger wrap thing, as overpriced as it was foul. At least the water was free. A refreshing sleep in our car until about 4am until my insides could take it no longer and we made our way to the terminal to await our flight home. I was asleep before we even took off I think.

Three days was a good length of trip. Enough time to see quite a lot, but not to be away for very long. We spent way too much time in the car on reflection, but it was either chase the weather or be defeated by the weather, and although we did a fair few km we undoubtedly got more photographic opportunities which was the whole point of the trip. The backdrop of constantly drumming Snipe was something I'll remember for a long time too.

Monday 13 June 2016

More New York

Sunday morning, and we're in midtown Manhattan. Wonderful, and so easy really. Pretty tired we did not challenge ourselves particularly, and enjoyed a leisurely start to the day, not emerging from the hotel until mid-morning. First stop more food, obviously. Remarkably my sister (the one that lives in HK) was also in town, so we met up with her and a family friend for Sunday brunch, which wasn't as massive as I had hoped. Two poached eggs and they forgot the bacon! Oodles of coffee though, so I got through it without too much trouble and then it was off for a bit of a walk - let the fun begin!

I love Central Park. I've been enough times now to know the really good spots for birding, and whilst it was lunchtime rather than dawn, there was still plenty going on. Mrs L had for reason elected to the Guggeheim and was probably glad to get shot of me as I tend to have a meltdown if exposed to museums and art, so I had two hours in which to dash around Strawberry Fields and the Ramble. As is often the way I met other birders pretty quickly, and one of them whose name I have unfortunately forgotten was happy for me to tag along. Unlike many american birders, this lady actually knew what she was talking about and together we saw many excellent things, including one of the first Yellowthroats of the year down by the lake shore. Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow Warbler - all common stuff for Central Park but wonderful for a visiting birder like me - mega after mega after mega!

Late April/early May is an ideal time to birding in New York or other northern states. You won't get all species, as the migration period is staggered for different birds - really you would need to be there for a month to hope to catch everything on the way through, but as you move into May you are approaching the peak I would say. I ended up seeing ten species of Warbler in a matter of hours, as well as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and numerous other species including Vireos, Orioles, Hirundines and Flycatchers. I'm beginning to know some of these birds sufficiently well that it no longer feels like birding a new continent on every visit, but it is still very exciting to catch glimpses of something and gradually piece these together to come to a conclusion. And when that conclusion is something like Northern Parula, well, need I say more? Mrs L has now seen a Parula btw, as there was some enforced birding later in the trip. She was about as impressed as you can probably guess.

not a Parula

So after an intensive 2 hours of craning my neck skywards I met Mrs L (still at this stage Parulaless however) up by the museums which are about level with the Jackie Onassis reservoir, and we went for a cawfee and shared a cookie. In America it is wise to share food, and this cookie was the size of small plate. Then we wandered all the way back down the side of the Park and back to midtown for a rest - tiring all this eating and walking. 

In the evening we had some wonderful mexican food a few blocks away, Salvation Taco. Small portions thankfully, but completely delicious. Almost finger food in some ways, so we made sure to have lots of it. And then on to a trip highlight which was to piano bar in the theatre district, a new experience for me but a very fun one. Many tiny tables, people crammed in, and a truly excellent pianist who could seemingly play anything. Van Morrison merged seamlessly into west end numbers, with a good amount of humourous patter blended in. Beer, nachos, music and lots of good people watching as folk dipped in and out. It was an open mike too, but you'll be pleased to hear that my British sense of decorum was not over-ruled my my American genes and I remained sat in my seat rather than jump up with a rendition from my unique musical catalogue.

Saturday 11 June 2016

A bit of a catch up

It's all quiet on the avian front. Well, it is for me at least. Rare birds seem to be turning up left right and centre, but my urge to chase them has diminished to negative levels. And anyway, I'm always in the wrong place. Today I am in Scotland visiting the old folks. The Spotted Sandpiper however is at Brent Reservoir in London. Hmph. Still, it is just a Spotted Sandpiper, half way across a reservoir, and the fact that it is in London is really just silly when you stop and think about it. It's possible that had I been in London I might have toddles around the north circular to see it. It's also quite possible that I would have stayed at home and done something more productive, like write a boring blog post. 

I'm actually up here to take photographs of birds. It isn't going well. For starters I never got round to booking my spot of the Isle of May boat, and surprise surprise it has been full for weeks due to some special weekend. So no Puffins then. OK, so I'll drive up to Aberdeen and look for that King Eider. Except that the whole of the east coast is covered in cloud and rain, and these days I'm very much a fair weather photographer. And lazy, with little to no ambition. As you get older the things that seemed one day to matter are no longer as important. Yes, I've come all this way, and so yes it's irritating that my plans are not working out, but actually does it matter in the grand scheme of things? No, of course not. I'm warm, I have a cup of tea, the house is very comfortable, there's rugby on the TV and cricket on the radio, and my mother is fussing over me. Life is pretty good, even while my 500mm lens languishes upstairs, unloved and untouched.

In the absence of plan A and birds, plan B is just to bum about and get looked after, and to catch up on a few things. Processing photos from Iceland was top of my list, but of course they're all in London. I had a great time there with Shaun by the way. Top quality birding and millions of photographic opportunities. We chased the decent weather around with some success and generally made merry. Unfortunately I got ill again about half way in which limited my desire to be crawling around and getting low, but generally I felt I came away with some pretty decent images of a number of species I've never got anything on before, chiefly Slavonian Grebe and Ptarmigan, the former of which is basically a no-go in breeding plumage in the UK. Here's one that I did manage to take a quick look at after I got back and before real life took over again.

I usually see Slavonian Grebes only in winter, and so seeing them on territory in their full finery I can scarcely believe that they're the same species! I had a memorable encounter with a bird on a frozen pond in Dartford a couple of years ago, and then one that was almost as good in Wanstead Park, but this was something altogether different! On a narrow lake right next to main road in Iceland, the birds were incredibly close and confiding, although with the nest site looking like it was in some vegetation nearby we did not hang around. We didn't need to as we were taking this kind of photo within the first minute and had as many as we needed very quickly indeed. It was a similar story almost everywhere else, and I ended up with something like 2000 images in a three day blitz. I've so far managed to edit these down to 250 or so, but that's as far as I've got. Looking at a few of them I have high hopes though, very pleasing. I'll do a trip report at some stage as it's an incredibly easy place to get to and you can be taking photos almost 24 hours a day only a short distance from the airport.

Right, time for another home-cooked meal with freshly-picked veg from the garden. I shall be rolling back home in a couple of days.....

Thursday 2 June 2016

Arriving in the Big Apple

There is so much to say about New York, a wonderful city that I am lucky enough to go to now and again. Every time I go however I barely scratch the surface, or that’s what it feels like. It’s so big, so in your face, so many things to do that I could visit a hundred times and still barely get to know the place. I always feel slightly defeated by it actually, even though I know I’ve got a little more to grips with it every visit. This trip was no different, a whirlwind of eating, drinking, meeting, looking, walking, even some birding. 

Mrs L and I left on a Saturday evening from Heathrow after a lovely day with her entire family and some of mine. We were celebrating a very significant event, which is that I am no longer married to someone in their thirties. Yes, Mrs L has now joined me in haggard middle age, and to make this truly memorable we decided we would go and have some fun in New York City. In order to help us sag that little bit more we devoted the whole of Saturday to gluttony. Even though we had had a nice meal in London at lunchtime, we had another at the airport, and then just to make sure that the calorie count tipped squarely into the millions, we then had another long meal once in the air, although we cut down on the wine this time. I had thrown a ton of air miles at this trip, and one of things you get for that is the ability to sit down opposite each other at an actual table with an actual table cloth, and use actual cutlery to eat real food. Somewhat nicer than eating some sludge out of a plastic box whilst squeezed in like sardines down the back. We obviously can’t do it every time, but as the occasional special treat it is very nice and we made sure to make the most of it before snuggling down for a short sleep. Sadly in separate seats in deference to the other passengers, one of whom was the actor Jean Reno who played Léon in, well, Léon. He tried to come over and get a photo with me, but I was too busy stuffing my face so he had to go back to his seat and watch a film instead.

With my impeccable US credentials we were allowed in very quickly, and were outside our hotel in Manhattan well before midnight. We briefly considered going out for a meal, but could find no nearby motability scooters to get us there so had to pass and instead were carried by the porters to our room and rolled into bed. When we awoke we were in New York City!

It's a great place, it really is. We were only there for a weekend but we packed all sorts of things in. For starters I went birding in Central Park twice as it's a rather good time of year. The weather wasn't all that so birds were a little thin in the ground versus the locals' expectations. I thought it was nothing short of fabulous though, and Mrs L now has Parula on her list! I think I got ten Warblers in total, the best of which was a Worm-eating Warbler - initially 150 feet up in a tree, I lucked out when it came down to a small pond in the Ramble just as was passing, having tired of neck ache a short while earlier. Great views of Black-and-White Warbler too, as well as Ovenbird, Prairie Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo. I didn't bring all the usual photo kit so opportunities were a little limited, however my go-to travel lens, a shortish zoom, takes a 2x converter pretty damn nicely and with this combo I came away with a few images I was reasonably pleased with. Below is the afore-mentioned Worm-eating Warbler, a full-fat world lifer that I had wind of before arriving. I managed to see it with a group of American birders flitting high up in the canopy and calling - poor views but identifiable at least. About an hour later I was birding by myself at a pond nearby when I thought I caught a glimpse of the bird down low. Sure enough, it had come down for a drink. 

Worm-eating Warbler

This wasn't of course a birding trip, it was a trip to enjoy NYC and celebrate, and we did a lot of that. Mrs L spent a week here last year on a choir trip and did heaps. Back then I spent an afternoon with her before leaving for home, so it was a chance for her to show me some of the places that she had been to, and some of the things she had enjoyed. So we went to a seafood place in Brooklyn and we rented a tandem. We had cocktails in a revolving bar and we visited museums. We took a ferry and went to an old-time Piano bar. And when I have a little more time that's what I'll be concentrating on, as it was superb.