Friday 30 September 2016

Back on Shetland

After a two year gap I'm back up north. Windy, I had forgotten quite how blowy it is up here. Team Bradders (which this year is Howard, Bob, and temporarily Nick) picked me up from Sumburgh early morning having travelled ahead, and I was soon back in my wellies, over-trousers and camo hat, tripping over countless Mipits and enormous Starlings. Star bird of the day was probably the Brown Shrike, however the best bird was almost certainly the stellar Greenish Warbler nearby which performed beautifully, calling its head off and singing quietly to itself in a rare moment of sunshine. A confusing Blyth's Reed Warbler, several Yellow-browed Warblers and a flyover Common Crane completed a busy day, and with the wind calming down tomorrow promises to be very pleasant indeed. Let's hope a few more birds decide to emerge from wherever they have been skulking, and that 'Terrier' Bob is in an iris kind of mood.

Wednesday 28 September 2016


If you had asked me a few years ago whether it was sensible to go to Hawai’i for a weekend I would have said you were insane. I wouldn’t say that now. I wouldn’t say it was entirely sensible either, but I would tell you that it was perfectly achievable and that you would likely have as great a time as I did. And boy did I have a good time. In two days I saw a number of endemic Honeycreepers, cleaned up on all the endemic water birds, and unusually did some heavy duty relaxing.

  • A four day trip in late August, taking advantage of the UK bank holiday, a multi-stage trip centred around two days on the wonderful island of Kauai. I left for Washington D.C. on Friday morning and spent a lovely evening with my Aunt and Uncle before continuing my trip on Saturday morning to Los Angeles. Here I spent a morning and afternoon photographing waders on the beach before taking an evening flight to Lihue. I had all of Sunday and Monday on Kauai, and then flew back with no substantial stop-overs on Tuesday, arriving on Wednesday morning and predictably going straight to work.
  • Flights were mostly American Airlines, with a short island hop to Oahu on the way back with Hawaiian Airlines, and the transatlantic component with British Airways. Oh, and I started in Dublin…..
  • Car hire via Avis was a Ford Mustang convertible that I cannot share the cost of in case Mrs L is reading……but it was brilliant! Kauai is a small island with small roads so there was no opportunity to open it up, but my mood was highly soporific and this did not matter. An inspired booking.
  • I stayed in the Waimea Plantation Cottages, a low key but highly lovely old estate on the south side of the island. I had a one-room wooden bungalow in beautiful grounds and I could hear the sea from my veranda. There were birds everywhere, barbeques on the beach and hammocks to star-gaze from. There were cheaper options, but this was close to the key birding area, and anyway how often do you go to Hawaii?
  • I visited a number of sites on the island, the main ones were Kokee State Park in the west, and then the Hanalei area in the north. The interior of the island has no roads, and the coastal road only goes three quarters of the way around the island, so to get from Waimea to Hanalei takes a surprisingly long time.
Day 1: Dublin to London to Washington, visiting family.
Day 2: Washington to Los Angeles, several hours of bird photography on the beach and birding a wetland area, and then on to Kauai arriving in the early evening.
Day 3: Waimea Canyon, Kok’ee State Park and the Pihea and Alakai Swamp Trails. Late afternoon at Barking Sands and Polehale State Park to watch the sun set and swim in the Pacific. Evening drinking beer and star-gazing on the beach at Waimea.
Day 4: Hanalei Wetlands, Kilauea Point, Wailua and Keahua Arboretum. Evening flight to Honolulu and red-eye to Los Angeles.
Day 5: LA to JFK to London, travelling all day whilst losing 11 hours.

Days 1 and 2 I am not planning to cover as they do not involve Hawaii, likewise day 5 which only involved sleeping on airplanes and was rather dull. Days 3 and 4 were where it was at.

Day 3: I woke up early very much looking forward to the day ahead. My accommodation was two blocks from the start of Waimea Canyon Drive, and that was my first left turn of the morning. I drove up to the first lookout, passing numerous Erckel's Francolin and a single Black Francolin, and had my first proper view of the spectacular landscape, complete with Red Junglefowl, which as you get higher up become somewhat purer. Allegedly. Breakfast of fruit with a view to die for, including sweet candy bananas, a local variety that I swear I could eat basically for ever. I saw my first Red-crested Cardinals here, a south American import from the 1930s. Eventually I made it to the end of the road, now at 5200 ft altitude, and the small carpark. Japanese White-eye were easy here as they are almost everywhere but I also found my first Honeycreeper, the red Apapane.

I had come here because this is where the Pihea Trail leaves from, tracking east along the ridge. Although at this point it is quite wide, it soon narrows and become in places very steep. Unfortunately what had been a clear morning soon deteriorated. Nice views down the leeward side of the island, including the white specks of White-tailed Tropicbirds floating around hundreds of feet below me soon closed up as the cloud swept in from the other side. Gamely I carried on to the Alakai Swamp Trail, a wooden boardwalk and steps leading down to the river and on to the plateau, but I just got wetter and wetter. Didn’t stop me from getting exceptional views of the Kauai Elapaio and Japanese Leaf Warbler, and better views of an Apapane. Briefer views of an Anianiau, but I didn’t push on as I wasn’t sure what the heavy rain would do to the river – whilst crossable at this stage might it have become wider and more dangerous later on? I decided not to risk it and picked my way back to the car. What was great about this hike was that I had this endemic forest entirely to myself, and so I went very slowly indeed, examining the plants, flowers and mosses, following up on every sound and call. No I’wii unfortunately, I am sure they are there but they will need to wait for another day and another trip.

Kauai Elepaio

As I got closer to the start of the trail the weather began to improve again, somewhat annoying but it had been a hard slog and looking back at what seemed to be a wall of cloud suggested I had probably done the right thing. I am certainly not as hardy as I once was, and I fell over on the trail and hurt my knee to boot. Nevermind, I was on holiday and birds are not everything – I felt I had done well to see at least some birds. Pleased to see the car I had another banana, and got changed out of my extremely muddy gear and back into shorts and flip-flops. To mark this the sun came out, so I put the top down on the car and drove back the campground at the lower elevations. This is a place to get point blank shots of Zebra Doves and Red Junglefowl so I spent a bit of time messing about here.


By now 1pm, Kok’ee State Park was pretty busy and did not provide the solitude I was after. Back on the coast I did a bit of shopping for the evening which I dropped into my bungalow at the Waimea Plantation Cottahes, and then drove west pretty much as far as I could go. I passed the Kawai'ele Waterbird Sanctuary but it was pretty naff - my first views of Hawaiian Stilt but not a very prepossessing place, so I carried on to Barking Sands Beach, stopping anywhere I saw something of interest. Once at the beach I set up my scope and pointed it out to sea - an astonishing number of Shearwaters and other seabirds. Mostly they were Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, but smaller birds were Bulwer's Petrels - and what looked like Manxies were Newell's Shearwaters. All very distant, but with my feet in the warm sand, a far cry from what I would normally associate with sea-watching. A few Brown Boobies were fishing offshore, and a Wandering Tattler scoured the surf. I stayed here for the rest of the day until the sun set, alternating birding with swimming in the warm water and powerful waves. A pretty damn amazing spot and a good end to a fun day. Back at the cottages I discovered that there were gas barbeques you could use, so I cooked up my dinner on one of these, and then lay in a hammock and indulged in a spot of star-gazing and beer-drinking. The sky in Hawaii is incredible, presumably one of the reasons they build observatories here - coming from London where we barely see a star made it even more impressive.

Wandering Tattler

Day 4: A slower start today, my last day on Kauai! I was up with the sunrise and exploring the hotel grounds, something I had not had time to do the day before. Very birdy indeed, and a somewhat eclectic mix of birds from around the world, all brought to Hawaii over the years and established. Pacific Golden Plover mixed with Junglefowl and Cattle Egret on the lawns. Passerines were represented by Saffron Finch, Common Myna, Chestnut Munia, Red-crested Cardinal, and my favourite White-rumped Shama. I had a leisurely stroll, took a few pictures, returning now and again to my cottage for a refill of coffee. With the sun well up I checked out and headed east - I'd be doing this for most of the next 36 hours!

I passed a Pueo on wires just outside Waimea, and a quick U-turn on the main road allowed me to park up next to it. This is of course a Short-eared Owl, but is the endemic sandwichensis sub-species, and I was pleased to find one. Next stop Salt Pond Park outside Hanapepe, but this was quite disappointing really, very dry. Ended up driving the whole of road around to Hanalei which had been the main plan. This takes a lot longer than you might think. The distances are small, but there is a lot of traffic, and large sections of the road have very low speed limits. So it was mid morning by the time I stopped at the Hanalei Valley Lookout and started scoping the reserve far below. In fantastic light looking through the scope was a pleasure, and I soon picked out the Koloa, the native Hawaiian Duck, along with numerous endemic Hawaiian Coots and Moorhens. A single pair of Nene were a decent find and the only ones I saw all weekend. Lots of Stilts were in various flooded fields, and a single Black-crowned Night Heron. After I was certain there was nothing more to find, I descended into the Hanalei Wetlands at ground level. From this perspective I didn't see a single duck, but got lots of good looks at the native Coot which is almost identical to the European one. Joy.

The Hanalei Wetlands

My oh my...

Next stop the famous Kilauea Lighthouse, which as bad luck would have it was closed on Sundays and Mondays, i.e. my entire visit. There went my Tropicbird photo plans..... Instead I watched from the small car park outside the entrance, fabulous views of Red-tailed Tropicbirds, with the occasional White-tailed in amongst them. Also here were Red-footed and Brown Boobies, and piratical Great Frigatebirds drifted by although I did not see any attacks. This was a nice way to spend a couple of hours before heading back round to the coast to find some lunch - fish Tacos from a roadside stall in Kapaa and then a restful loll on the beach at Lydgate State Park. Managed a bit of shopping here as well, plenty of places selling silly shirts and other tourist gear.

When thoroughly relaxed I drive the 580 to Opoeka'a Falls where I got good views of White-tailed Tropicbirds in the canyon, and Japanese White-eye in the vegetation at the overlook. This road then led all the way to the Keahua Arboretum, where I had a bit of a wander, finding more White-rumped Shamas and a small flock of Nutmeg Mannikin. There were also some pretty cool trees here on the slope up behind the stream, which I had to wade through to get up to them - well worth it, best bark I've ever seen. 

Japanese White-eye

With the evening approaching my final birding was along the Huleia stream just south of the airport. Menehune Fishpond had nothing on it all, but there were loads of birds in the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge - nothing I hadn't seen already but a nice walk to finish off the trip. I returned to the airport, gave my lovely car back, and then took the short flight as the sun set to Honolulu on Oahu. The red-eye for Los Angeles left at 9.30pm....

View from the Pihea Trail

Kauai List

I came off Kauai thinking I hadn’t seen that many birds, certainly only three of the native forest birds. However when I eventually got round to checking off the species I had seen versus the official list, I actually saw a very high percentage of what there is. Some obvious misses, but for 48 rather chilled-out hours on the island I am amazed at what I did see. This is also the first place I can remember going where I did not see a single Gull!

Bulwer’s Petrel
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Red-footed Booby
Brown Booby
Red-tailed Tropicbird
White-tailed Tropicbird
Great Frigatebird
Cattle Egret
Black-crowned Night Heron
Hawaiian Stilt
Pacific Golden Plover
Wandering Tattler
Black Francolin
Erckel’s Francolin
Spotted Dove
Zebra Dove
Red Junglefowl
Hawaiian Coot
Hawaiian Duck
Nene Goose
Kauai Elapaio
Japanese Leaf Warbler
Japanese White-eye
Saffron Finch
African Silverbill
Chestnut Munia
Nutmeg Munia
Red Avadavat
House Finch
Red-crested Cardinal
Northern Cardinal
White-rumped Shama
Common Myna

Pueo, the endemic race of Short-eared Owl

Red-crested Cardinal

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Twitching - did I waste my time?

My twitching efforts this year have been practically non-existent. I flirted with a Broad-billed Sandpiper in the spring, and turned around about half way and went home after it flew off. That’s it. I have not travelled to Cornwall to see a Pelican. I did not go to Devon for the Lammergeir. I didn’t go to Suffolk for the Purple Swamphen and have no plans to go to Lincolnshire for it. A White-winged Scoter that spent several months in Aberdeenshire was spurned, and an eminently gettable Cliff Swallow on Scilly was similarly ignored. No doubt there are several more examples of crazy megas that I have simply not bothered for.

I have recognized for a long time that my annual tick haul has been going down and down, however to fall off a cliff like this has surprised even me. You could say that I have grown up. Alternatively you could say that I have been unable to stay the course. Both are I think accurate. On the former point I have just had several face-to-face encounters with Pacific Golden Plovers. The views were fantastic, incredible even. I savoured them, I spent over an hour watching a single bird on a beach. A couple of years ago I haired it up to Norfolk to get distant views of one near Salthouse. The experiences could not have been more different, however only one of them increased my UK list by a species. I enjoyed the close-up encounter far more, the listing element has somehow diminished in importance.

But there’s the rub. Back in 2009 it was important, or it felt like. I’ve never been the type of manic twitcher who drops everything and just goes, elevating a tick on a list above any other consideration. I’ve been quite restrained really, however I have made a significant effort to see many of the 435 birds on my UK list. Some of them have been trips that required huge amounts of planning, time off work, and return journeys of 1500 miles. Others have required ridiculously early starts, driving through the night, staggering down unpleasant shingle spits, getting wet, cold and in some cases trampled. All to add a single bird to a list. So to all of a sudden completely stop, to consciously decided that I am not going to bother to add a bird to list (or attempt it at least), how does that reconcile with the immense effort that I have previously put in? Was it all in vain? Why, basically, did I bother if I wasn’t going to keep it up?

Well I didn’t know that at the time I suppose, and also I don’t like the attitude of not bothering to do something if you think you’re going to ‘fail’. It was what I did and [mostly] enjoyed during a particular time in my life. I was driven by the exuberance of youth. Yes, early thirties is still youth. Pffff. But now I’m not particularly interested anymore and it’s other thrills that are taking precedent. Like gardening for instance, a hobby far more suited to a middle-aged duffer like me – my early forties have seen a marked change in my approach to adrenaline….  Admittedly I’ve been interested in plants for almost as long as birds, but the appeal of a thirty yard walk to my greenhouse is not lost on me versus, say, Bodmin.

a memorable bird for all the right reasons

Nonetheless I still look back with some fondness on some of those twitches. At the time the vast majority of them did not feel like a chore in the slightest, and I had a lot of fun. Some of did of course fall into the “going through the motions” category – birds I had almost no interest in seeing other than the fact that they were new for my list. Short-toed Treecreeper. Zitting Cisticola. American Coot. American Herring Gull. Black Duck. The last three I saw in a single weekend, so the pain was condensed into a very short period, but honestly, talk about dull. These few however were eclipsed by a multitude of glorious birds, some of which I’ve barely seen anywhere else. Oriental Pratincole. Black Scoter. Cream-coloured Courser. Harlequin Duck. Northern Waterthrush. I could go on and on. Some others were glorious but only briefly so, leaving more of a feeling of relief rather than elation, much less satisfaction. Lesser Kestrel. Common Yellowthroat. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. All fall firmly into this category – mad scrambles resulting in rubbish views, all for that magic counter to tick upwards by one digit.

As mentioned, this year that counter has not advanced at all, or at least not through any action on my part. There remains the beauty of armchair ticks, new birds you can add to your list without needing to do anything. Brilliant! Absolutely perfect for my current frame of mind. I was probably abroad encountering very rare UK birds at extremely close range, and when next hit wifi I discovered I had gained a couple of armchair ticks with the 2011 Rainham Slaty-backed Gull and the somewhat dubious Kent Chinese Pond Heron in 2014. How on earth did that one get the nod? 

Whatever. It's just a number.

Monday 26 September 2016

LAX stopover

I planned my silly Hawaii trip with a couple of stops to break up the journey. The first of these was a very pleasant evening chez my Aunt in Washington DC, however as that does not involve birds and I am very strict about that on this blog, I don’t propose to spend any time writing about it. The second stop did involve birds, and was the beach at Los Angeles just west of the airport runway. I’d seen this on maps and done a bit of reading, and it suggested that there would be loafing birds and that it was very quick to get there by cab. Or it would have been if the cab driver had any concept of where anything was. I’m not sure he even knew he was in America actually, as “please take me to the beach the other side of the airport” meant nothing to him, and enhancing this with the name of the beach, Dockweiler, also did not help him pinpoint where I wanted to go. Maybe mine was an unusual request and most people want to go to Beverley Hills or Sunset Boulevard or something. Showing him a satellite map of the area was similarly futile, the only thing that would induce him to move was a road name he could put into his satnav and then follow blindly, so in the end I gave him the main road just outside the airport perimeter and once there reverted to “straight over”, “right here” and so on until we got to the beach. He is probably still there now, totally flummoxed as to how to return to LAX for another fare.

Dockweiler State beach was fairly busy at 11am on a Saturday morning, all of the usual California clichés, joggers, people walking designer dogs, rollerblading, cyclists and so on. Scanning the area I could see several groups of birds, mixed Gulls including Heerman’s and Western, and then a few sleeping waders that appeared to be Willet. Willet not being Gulls, I headed towards them, dragging my wheeled camera bag behind me – on reflection the backpack would have been significantly better for this part of my trip, though with so many airports on the route I did come to be thankful for it in the end. There were Willet, and lots of them, but more excitingly there were lots of Marbled Godwit, believe it or not a full-fat world lifer – wooo!

Yes I have a very long bill

Thankfully the weather was cool and overcast, in marked contrast to Washington DC which had been an oven, and which would have completely prevented any bird photography at all. I had banked on the coastal affect in late August, and it was absolutely perfect. I got to work, and in between all the human activity managed to get a few nice ones. A lowlight was a lady with a dog who walked up to near where I was lying, and then took it off its lead and told it to chase the birds. Which it then did with some relish. You could not have made it up. I mean even if had not been there obviously taking photos of them why would you do that? I jumped up and laid into her, the only thing missing was actual physical violence. I held nothing back Lost it. I called her every name under the sun until a nearby lifeguard arrived and threw her off the beach. There was probably cause to throw me off as well, but I am guessing she had seen what happened and realised where the problem lay. That was it really, the Willets, Godwits and a single Long-billed Curlew had flown about a mile (as would I if somebody had released a greyhound at me) and with my bag being somewhat sand-challenged I did not fancy it. That left the Gulls, and much as I dislike them you can’t really argue with adult Heerman’s, even going into winter plumage.

Not too bad for a Gull

Once I tired of these, and with my demeanour somewhat shattered by the dog lady, I decided to leave the beach and go birding at the nearby Ballona Wetlands. Quick spot of lunch at a nearby eco-café and then I headed off inland. I had not bargained on there being no pavements. I know, what was I thinking? This is the US of A, where people walk precisely nowhere. Being wheeled, I had to drag the case along the road for about 20 seconds, and then retreat to the safety of the soft shoulder whilst the cars roared by for a couple of minutes, and then I’d have another 20 seconds, presumably on a lights change, in which to make a bit more progress before diving for cover again. When I eventually made it I discovered that the sodding reserve was closed and probably had been for some time! Thanks LA! I walked the perimeter, birding in the gaps, and in this manner picked up Bushtit, my second lifer of the day. It was overall quite quiet though, mostly I suspect due to the time of day and the coastal murk finally having been burnt off by the sun meaning it was now quite hot. Time to flag a cab and retreat to the cool of the American Airlines lounge – a shower and then a series of cold drinks helped restore my mood, and I started tucking into my Hawaiian field guide in anticipation of the next couple of days.

Regulation Gull

Saturday 24 September 2016


Looking at the weather forecast yesterday suggested we wouldn't see a whole lot going on on Wanstead Flats this morning. Nor anywhere else in the south-east by the looks of things, and as at 1.30pm as I bash this out, this has proved to be spot on. Nevermind, it has been an OK week for late September - Spotted Flycatchers hanging on, a few Whinchats, and a steady trickle of Swallows. Earlier in the week these were going East, mid week they changed around to all go West, and this morning they were headed South. If they continue this stupidy they'll have made the Pyrenees by December and might as well turn around and come home. Probably the best birds since the Ortolan have been a couple of Stonechats. These used to reliably winter on the Flats a few years ago, but now seem only to be passage migrants. I managed one in the spring over by the Harrow Road changing rooms, so two that appeared by Centre Road carpark yesterday were most welcome. I didn't have a camera yesterday as I was CW-bound, however this morning I lugged it out there. Hard work, as two birds always are. I got into position just once before they realised what I was up to and kept a much closer eye on me.

The Whinchats all seem to have gone too, but a lone Redstart is hanging on at the west end of Long Wood. Just waiting for the Ring Ouzels now I suppose, and then it's officially winter birding again. Tony had a Siskin this morning, Starlings are gathering, and Goldcrests are starting to get easy again. It is coming. This is the eight autumn of blogging from Wanstead (and very occasionally elsewhere), and whilst it's easy to see that my enthusiasm has diminished over time and that priorities have changed, I still get a minor rush being out there on good days. More importantly, there are now enough other people out there who also recognise how good it is, the message has been well and truly delivered. 

In other news, Nick has been shopping for England. I have never known a splurge like it - new everything, including a new handbag apparently. He has been threatening this drastic action for sometime, but the moment finally arrived today. Tony, James, Bob and I spotted him from some distance away, gleaming in the sunlight. Shading our eyes as he came closer, we could not work out quite what this sparkling object was. Positively glowing, a spanking new camera, lens, and most amazingly of all, boots that do not yet let in water. Shetland will be the test of course. I give them a just under a week, with Quendale getting the better of them on about day six. Anyway, like Brexit, Nixit (Friday) is clearly not as bad as originally feared and he may single-handedly help us stave off recession if he is able to keep this up.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

The “of Happiness” concept

It is entirely possible that this post is a repeat of one that I have made before. If that is the case you will have to forgive me, but the concept of a Something of Happiness has been pretty central to my life since about late 1996, which is now nigh on 20 years. In fact it could easily be right about today’s date that the phrase first entered my consciousness. And it has spread further than just me – people who never met my mate James from whom it originates use it too. The Log of Happiness on Wanstead Flats for instance (well, multiple logs actually) so favoured by passage Wheatears is one example of its usage but there are many others, springing up in parlance all over the place. All thanks to James.

He was a pretty happy-go-lucky person. Unconventional, not designed for the straight-jacket of conformance that modern life forces upon most of us. Things were pretty easily categorized – for the most part either he liked them or he didn’t. He had little time for the latter and that drove how he lived his life. He did what he enjoyed, he actively avoided what he didn’t. As a result he never settled down in any one place, but neither was he transient. When he needed to he knuckled down to it and worked his ass off. When he didn’t need to, he had no compunction about chucking it all in and telling whoever it was he was working for to go and get stuffed. When I planned a two month stay in Australia before starting work in the bank I still walk into every day, he scrimped and saved to buy a camper van and joyously quit work the day before I arrived. If there was something fun in the offing, he wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I came into contact with the concept of the Something of Happiness was in France. James came to stay with me for a few days in my student flat in Montpellier. He threw himself enthusiastically into our lives and the few days turned into several months. In fact he stayed with me until I came home again a few months later, we took the same bus. He was a little older than me, perhaps 8 years, but just like me remained extremely childish, but was also almost entirely without my risk adversity. He just did stuff and worried about what might go wrong later. Those months were among the happiest and funniest of my life, and he made a lasting impression not just on me but on a number of my fellow foreign students. A permanent smile and an insanely gregarious personality meant he was a hit with most people he met. Beaches, mountains, bars and parties, he was a force of nature. Good things were good, bad things were bad. A beach was a Sandy Place of Happiness. A telephone bill replete with expensive calls back to the UK was Shitty Paperwork of Unhappiness. He didn’t like bills, bills were unfair, as were many things to do with corporate life. Banks for example, but he did not begrudge the fact that I was about to join one.

It was the Van of Happiness that really cemented the phrase. He and I lived in this decrepit van for two whole months, a van older than me and which had a top speed that barely exceeded my age. The Van of Happiness contained a Dirty Clothes Basket of Unhappiness, and ultimately a [cracked] Head-gasket of Unhappiness, but for two months it was our home and the centre of many wonderful adventures as we drove it from Sydney to Cairns and back. The Great Dividing Range west of Cairns did for us, our grand plans to get to Alice Springs shattered as the van lost all speed going up the hills and eventually overheated and ground to a stop. We could not afford to get it fixed, but some chemiweld (Goo of Happiness) provided for free by a local taxi repair garage that he charmed ensured we made it back to Coff’s Harbour in New South Wales provided we only drove during the cool of the night. This introduced a whole new dynamic to our trip, arriving in the early morning at fabulous locations and chilling out in during the day, sometimes for several days, before departing under cover of darkness to new places to have fun, climb mountains and find wildlife. The spirit of the van lives on in some of the birding trips I make today. When I travel with Bradders there is a Purple Folder of Happiness which contains all our travel documents, maps, and bird gen. And all trips generally conclude with a Spreadsheet of Unhappiness which works out who owes who for petrol and other expenses. Mrs L uses it for various things, so do my kids, and so do a number people I work with. It just catches on.

Whilst few of the people who use the phrase other than me have ever met James, and indeed never will as he died in 2009 in the Victorian bush fires (wrong place wrong time, and sadly also an element of not quite thinking things through), but some twenty years later I think he would be pleased to know that it lives on in numerous people and is used daily to express either pleasure or moderate displeasure. But never seriously, as most things were never so bad that they were a problem, and he just navigated his way around whatever it was in the pursuit of regaining happiness. Sometimes that was quick, sometimes it took a little longer, but he mostly always got there. And so too do I. Life throws up these road-bumps, if you’ve never had to deal with one then you’re most definitely an outlier but rarely is anything insurmountable. That was how he lived his life, aiming at happiness, attempting to avoid unhappiness. Doing what he wanted to do, avoiding what he didn’t want to do or had no time for. It’s a simple philosophy, and I wish I could apply it as effectively as he did. So the next time something irritates you, just call it the X of Unhappiness and it will cease to be as big a problem. Equally if there's something that makes you smile call it the Whatever of Happiness. It'll stick, and you'll smile more. Guaranteed. 

Saturday 17 September 2016

Summer to autumn

Thursday morning it was summer. Thursday evening autumn. The mother of all thunder storms swept in and the temperature dropped ten degrees in the space of a few hours. Fascinating to experience, and a shame it is over. I am grateful however for the additional two weeks of summer, it has been hugely helpful in the continuing recovery of Chateau L's plant life. Since I last wrote another set of plants have started pushing up - including one of the biggies that will now look spectacular in a few weeks.

Didn't get up to much today - a long and hard week which included some long hours and a heavy night out. I struggled off to the patch this morning in the autumnal weather - a stiff breeze and grey skies wasn't helping migration much. A few Mipits over, but the morning belonged to the Swallows. Probably saw around a hundred, all heading west, with a handful of House Martins in the mix. Spotted Flycatcher still in Long Wood with a few bright Chiffchaffs, but it felt completely different. It felt like Shetland.

I'll be there in two weeks after a 2015 absence. It will be good to be back, but with two more years in my legs it'll probably feel a lot harder - luckily we've managed to find a Iris bed sub in the form of Bob. He'll be issued with a radio by me, instructions by Bradders, and sent IN. I then plan to track his progress from roads, dry stone walls, car windows..... 

With the onset of autumn proper and a sharp drop in overnight lows, I've been doing what all good gardeners do and have been getting ready. This mostly means hulking large plants back and forth. The terrace, a tropical delight in summer, is being gradually emptied, and the greenhouse is being filled up. Equally plants that spent the summer in the humid greenhouse are coming back into the house as I can't maintain adequate temperatures in there over winter. Over winter it becomes a place to park the arid stuff instead, cold and dry with a constant flow of air. It is now looking tip-top after my constant visits - I've repaired the lights and have tackled some of the harder to reach corners.The fans are working again, and there is cleanliness and ORDER. A happy three hours down there today rearranging stuff, and look at one of the benches - regimented calm. And instant blindness and possibly death if you trip....

The tall blueish plant in the middle of the bench has a bird connection. No really. When it was younger it used to live on Kensington Cliffs in Cyprus. When I went there this January I popped in with Andrew M to have a look at the Vultures on the cliffs. It was raining fairly heavily and the birds were sat around looking miserable. Whilst Andrew ran back to the car to avoid getting completely soaked, I made a detour to a magnificent Agave growing nearby in the sandy soil. I could not resist pulling up a small offshoot (one of the ways the plant reproduces). I wrapped the roots in wet paper and a plastic bag, and then popped it in my camera bag. It was our last day, and so later that day when home I potted it up and put it on a bright window sill. It was a mere 10cm tall at that point. Eight months later and it is approaching 50cm and has been potted on several times, I have never known an Agave with such vigour - it is now producing babies of its own - you can see one just poking up on the right. In time I will dig it up and put it in a pot of its own and no doubt it will romp away.

Thank you for reading my gardening blog.

New York beaches in late summer

  • I snagged another one of my favoured ex-EU tickets which meant a bit of a faff leaving from Copenhagen rather than London. However it meant I travelled across the Atlantic in extreme comfort and would be extremely fresh for an early start on Sunday morning, except……
  • …..I booked into AirBnB just down the beach from where I wanted to be, probably about a mile or so. Unfortunately the owner/room letter went out partying on Saturday night and totally forgot about me which meant I did not get access to the room until 1am, having arrived in NYC at 8pm. Rubbish.
  • I visited just one site, Nickerson Beach, for two mornings and two afternoons.
  • No hire car necessary, I walked everywhere or took cabs. Interestingly enough though I discovered that there is a campsite right next to the Skimmer location, so next time I would probably just hire a car, sleep in it, and use the campsite for the facilities.

Day 1: Early start and a lovely walk down the beach to the colony. Spent the morning photographing the birds before going back for lunch. I repeated this in the afternoon for different light.

Day 2: Another early start and morning session, but the afternoon session completely curtailed by a massive storm which soaked me to the skin and then just sat over New York. I went the airport early as there were few other options, and the airline put me on the first flight back to London, during which I slept like a baby.

Day by day account

Day 0: Arrived feeling great at JFK at around 8pm and got a cab out to Long Beach very efficiently. Looking forward to a nice night’s sleep and then a 5am start for my sunrise walk down the beach. However an immediate snag when the owner of the AirBnB was not home, despite the texts I had sent immediately before leaving and just after landing, as agreed. So I phoned. And then phoned again. I managed to get access to the lobby of the building which had a sofa, and basically just had to sit it out. She eventually showed up at about 1am, blind drunk, and walked straight past me. Figuring this was likely my “host”, I gave her five minutes to find her front door and then rang up. She was on fine form, staggering heavily, and delighted that I had made it, absolutely no mention of the fact that she had agreed to let me in at 9pm. Her first question was something like “Did I like liquor?”. Second question “Did I smoke weed?”. She managed to give me a key and then collapsed. Excellent. I am not going to do AirBnB again if I can help it, or at least not if it’s a room in someone’s house. So much for my planning.

Day 1: I did manage to get up relatively early, but not as early as I had hoped. It was a dull overcast day so there was no sunrise to miss, but I got my gear together and headed off down the beach. The various plant machinery were busy scraping seaweed off the beach in preparation for the weekend crowds, but I was going much further up, probably over a mile. I could see my target in the distance, marked by a blue water tower. It took a lot longer than I expected to get there, but I was constantly diverted by birds, including my first Piping Plovers, a bird I had been hoping to see. When I eventually made it to the colony there were already a group of photographers there, but clearly no pros. The colony itself is quite large, scattered across the dune systems, and mostly roped off. Many of the birds however seemed to spill out, so there were plenty of subjects outside of the no-go areas, including lots of chicks of various sizes. There were also many Common Terns and a few American Oystercatchers  - in other words I was never bored! What I really wanted of course was actual skimming, but whilst I was there the adults barely did anything. Birds which encroached on each others’ territory would occasionally engage in mid-air squabbles which was quite entertaining, but I think I saw a parent feeding a chick just twice in two days – for the most part the birds simply loafed around. I have no idea whether this was weather-related, but it was far from a calm day. 

I spent the entire morning here despite the mediocre light, cranking through something like 800 images of mostly Skimmers, moving delicately so as not to aggravate my broken hand which I cleverly managed to knacker a mere three days before I left. Then I trekked back to civilisation for a late lunch and a nap to compensate for my lack of sleep the previous night. In the late afternoon I took a cab back up to Nickerson for a second bite of the cherry. Rinse and repeat basically, and very much what I had I mind. The beach was a little busier this time around, and consequently there were fewer birds that I could get particularly close to. Plenty of other birds on the shoreline though, so I spent some time with waders instead before heading for home as the skies darkened.

Day 2: It rained heavily overnight and was still looking rather grim when I woke up. Back up the beach again, no point just sitting around, but it was clear I wasn’t going to get the soft golden light that is so brilliant for bird photography. Indeed when I look back at the series of images I came away with, very few of them have any hint of sunshine at all, and they do all look a little flat despite the post-processing. There is nothing you can do about this, particularly when you’re travelling and on a tight schedule, it just is what it is. There’s an argument for doing longer trips to ensure that you get at least one day of decent conditions, but that would then mean fewer trips, and given that it is just luck, I don’t think it makes a difference. The good weather in New York did not return until the middle of the week, so there is no point dwelling on it, you just do the best you can in the conditions that there are, and I have never been anywhere on a short trip where it has been a complete write-off and I’ve sat around doing nothing.

To cut a long story short, after a decent session with Semipalmated and Piping Plovers it absolutely chucked it down from about 2pm, and soaked to the skin I called a cab as the weather radar strongly suggested that it was game over for the day. I had booked the last flight out so as to enjoy the evening sunshine, but after drying my stuff out a bit I went straight to the airport knowing that the steady stream of London-bound flights started around 6pm and suspecting I could probably wangle something. I didn’t even have to ask – the lounge manager took one look at my boarding card with a departure time nearly six hours away and moved me to the first flight instead. I just about had time for dinner and a few drinks and then I was on my way home. A bit of chimping and deleting on the climb out and then it was straight to bed.

A larger selection of images are on