Friday 28 October 2016

Always stay at home to see Shrikes

Plan A for this morning involved travelling to Essex to see an Isabelline Shrike. Then I found out I had no car again, so plan B was enacted - hit the patch. I was up relatively early, still not quite on the right time zone after Texas. Oh yeah, I went to Texas - very nice. Anyhow, looking outside it looked dull and decidedly murky. In other words excellent for migrants, so I got up and wandered the short distance over to Wanstead Flats. A few finches overhead, and some pretty decent Woodpigeon movement, but nothing to write home about. And anyway, no pen. I commented via Twitter that it wasn't really up to the standards of Southern Texas, drenched in Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Green Jays, Altamira Orioles and the like. Then Tony called.

Tony birds the patch once a week for a few hours on a Saturday morning, as he lives just that little bit too far away to stumble around before work. Despite the infrequent visits, he has quite a good track record. 

"Jono, where are you? I've just had a Great Grey Shrike!"

He should visit more often. 

After that was a bit of a blur. I joined him at the Ditch of Despair, likely soon to be renamed, to talk about what to do next. One brief view, then lost, but unlikely to be anything else. We split up, I circled around to the brooms, he went back to the start of the ditch in case it had gone round. Nothing. Just as I was approaching a Hawthorn, another call from TB - this time to tell me it was in a Hawthorn. Which one? Waaaaaaahhhhhhh! This one! The bird flew low and fast across the Flats. Ooof! Sheer delight, what a record. I phoned Bob again, also nearby and aware, but before I could get back on it it was off again, this time flying around us and off towards Long Wood. Another brief perch up, decent views this time including for Bob, and it was off again. Back over our heads and into Centre Copse. At this point Tony suffered a hug.

And as other [sad] local birders will tell you, that was it. Despite walking round every corner of the Flats for the next two hours none of us could relocate it. Unfortunately the Flats gets quite busy on a Saturday morning around this time, lots of football, morning strolls, and the bird may have decided this was not a place conducive to a prolonged stay. But leaving sorrow aside for the moment as it's not an emotion I am currently experiencing very much, oh my God! A Shrike on the patch! The patch has had many good birds, and a spectacular autumn, but this is the stuff of dreams. Always go see Shrikes. The fact that this morning I could not did not hold me back, is this more evidence of karma? Without a doubt missing Siberian Thrushes puts a lot of credit in the bank, but still, this is almost farcical surely? It is the third record for the patch, the last in 1977, and Tony Brown is a legend. His account, with photos, is here. I am still in disbelief, and now that all my weekend errands and chores are done, about to start drinking. There will be a toast.

Oh, and the Izzy Shrike had done a bunk.

I read this when I got home.

On hobbies

All my whining about the death of blogging has had a positive impact; NQS (v4) is back. In response Gav explored why it is that his hobbies (which include writing, go figure) rise and fall, and put it down to himself. In contrast I’ve always tried to blame something else - primarily my lack of time - for why I drop some hobbies either for long periods or altogether. In fact it is probably my own lack of focus, and the answer has been staring me in the face all along. He is called Henry and he is twelve.

For Henry, focussing on anything for longer than about eight seconds is frequently physically impossible. One exception to this was when he spent an entire day throwing a ping pong ball into a glass - admirable focus in more ways that one - but that’s also part of being twelve I suppose. This does not detract from him being a lovely kid, as you would expect given he is basically a miniature version of me - we are so similar that my parents frequently get us confused and call me him and vice versa. I thought that this inability to concentrate for much of the time was one area where we differed, but now I am not so sure. Given I see a lot of myself in him it should not really have been a surprise to me, as it was last week when I read Gav’s post, that instead of blaming a lack of time there should be a teensy bit more introspection. A bit more of blaming me. Although it is a very long time since I was twelve, am I actually able to maintain an interest in anything at a steady state? 

No. Or at least very infrequently.

As a child my mother despaired of my constant complaint of boredom. I moped. I kicked stones. I did not knuckle down to anything, including school work. My mother is a teacher, my father an academic; you can guess how this went down. Instead I had passing interests; in lego, computers, role-playing games, fishing, drawing, coins, snooker, naval history, birds, sailing, drawing, chess, bridge, tennis – the list goes on and on. Despite my inability to choose any one of these as a long-term prospect, I was nonetheless supported and encouraged. And in response I dumped nearly everything.

As an adult I have whittled down the list somewhat, but I am not sure that I am really any different now to how I was then. When we moved to our current house, sorry Chateau, my interest of the moment was growing plants. So in a huge fit of enthusiasm I constructed a large greenhouse and then killed 80% of what was in it due to complete neglect. Had we moved 12 months later I suspect it would never have got built and we would have a lot more garden. At least that hobby is currently undergoing a renaissance of sorts, but how long will it last? Worryingly this is hobby which requires an even and constant level of interest. The sort of interest that my pea brain seemingly cannot cope with for any length of time. However for now I am finding that my desire to poke and weed and dust and water is very strong indeed, and contrasts nicely with other more frenetic aspects of my life. I went down there this evening for a bit of a potter after work in a blaze of halogen. By the way, a whole 60 people read the last post about my observations on temperature variations in said greenhouse; I knew I was onto a winner.

In a somewhat similar vein, I became hugely keep on fishing again about ten years ago. On my first foray with my brother-in-law over in west London somewhere I caught a massive carp. Or rather he did, as my mind had predictably wandered off somewhere and only his quick thinking prevented the rod from disappearing into the lake. I then steadfastly reeled it in, all 31lbs of it, but I am under no illusions as to what would have happened had he not been there. Anyhow, this early success subsequently manifested itself as mostly collecting fishing gear as opposed to actually going fishing again, and so last week I sold that same fishing rod to a bloke in Poland and good riddance. Its departure on a van eastwards marks the end of my fishing career such that it was, and I now have a lot of my wardrobe back, which is where I had been storing the vast amount of paraphernalia that I had accumulated. What do you mean you don't keep your fishing gear next to your shirts and suits?

Then of course I got into birding in a big way, which in turn was a revival of a childhood fad. Birding locally and discovering Wanstead eventually turned into twitching and going everywhere for everything. To my credit (and surprise) birding continues to this day in various guises. Sometimes the patch dominates, at other times I abandon it completely. There is no telling when this will happen, albeit that June is frequently an indicator. I also blow hot and cold on the chasing of rarities; if I'm not in the mood I simply don't go no matter how close it is. If I am, then I get up in the middle of the night and am prepared to travel large distances. I thought I had finally laid this to rest but last week off I went again. What possessed me? I have no idea other than to say that this just what happens, be it in birding or anything else. Two or three years ago I went out on the patch every day and possibly further afield at weekend. I also ended up with no fewer than four pairs of binoculars; one for the car, one for a windowsill, one for the summer and one for the winter (I am cringing even writing this...). Mrs L pointed out that I have only two eyes and that one of those doesn't really work. I ignored her. Some things never change, my one steady state success.

This story repeats itself almost endlessly in any activity that gets my attention, up and down, peaks and troughs. The singular and obsessive pursuit of collection of whatever it is followed by an unceremonious dumping and shedding of all of it. In other words, I am hopeless.

The birding continues, but today I have just one pair of binoculars and use them about twice a week tops. What I really need to do is to talk myself out of being interested in anything new, boring though that would be, and concentrate on what I know that deep down I do truly enjoy and keep coming back to despite any temporary evidence to the contrary. Whether I am capable of such a feat is unfortunately highly questionable.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Temperature guage

This post I expect to go down like a lead balloon but I am going to write it anyway. It’s actually boring me writing it, but what the hell, live a little.

For many years I have been obsessed with the temperature. Specifically, how cold is it? Will my plants survive? How ironic then that it was excessively high temperatures that were the cause of recent problems…..though as I said in retrospect that might have been the best thing to ever happen as it appeared to have killed off 100% of insect pests and 90% of the leaves have already grown back or are starting to, so a clear "win". So we’re back to the other end of the thermometer. Everyone still with me? If you’re not, let me summarise. Hot = good, cold = bad.

Currently it is cold that is bothering me. This morning when I checked the fancy gizmo on my shelf that has a wireless link to the greenhouse it showed as 8.6 degrees in there, and it had dropped to 7.4 degrees overnight. Gah! 7.4! That’s freezing! Well not literally obviously, but it’s a far cry from the heady heights of 30 degrees which I was achieving regularly all summer. At this time of year the biggest problem is the differential between day and night time temperatures. Last weekend was really rather nice, and as a result the greenhouse hit 19 degrees. When I popped in during the day it felt really nice, but it more than halved overnight. In the summer when it’s 30 during the day, it never drops below 20 at night, so nothing stops growing. Right now the plants must be very confused, not knowing if they’re coming or going. It is the same every autumn/winter of course, but the last few years I have not cared and simply buried my head in the sand. This year is different. 

Meanwhile in the house the morning temperature was 17.5 degrees. That’s not too bad, but as I mentioned there are a lot of plants still actively growing new flushes of leaves in response to the August furnace incident, and this isn't really warm enough to see these through to their conclusion. They might terminate or become stunted, and I can already see a slowdown. When the first batch of new growth started, in September – read all about it here, 3 people already did! – it was still sufficiently warm and light that the new leaves positively raced away. Those that started in October however, perhaps only a couple weeks later, have been much slower. Away on Shetland and then working in Glasgow I came back to not much change given the number of days that had elapsed. And worse still there are some including my favourite plant that have only just started in the last two days. There is nothing I can do, the plants decide when they will grow, and that is that. I’ve moved it closer to the window for more light, but the lack of heat may end up causing a stall.

Enter heating. This is what the industrial revolution has brought us and it is time. I suppose that it is nothing short of a miracle that Chateau L has not yet this year had to resort to central heating, much less the underfloor heating where the plants are. So last Sunday morning I switched both on, coinciding neatly with our free energy period. It took a while to get going but it was lovely. Warm feet! Warm air! It was so pleasant that it caused me to chill a bottle of Rosé and for us all to have a very protracted Mediterranean family lunch! But outside of those free weekend periods, ouch. We recently got given a smart meter from our supplier. It can show you at any point how much money you have spent on electricity or gas, and all last week those numbers ticked up much faster than at any point for many months. I have a bad feeling that I could be staring a very large bill in the face in a few months, especially if the predicted Siberian winter comes to pass.

That said, the news from across the country of late suggests that it already has!!

Thursday 20 October 2016

A momentary lapse of reason

"I thought you had stopped twitching?"

I got that a lot at Spurn the other day. Er, yes, well. I'm not staying I've started again, but that bloody Accentor at Spurn called to me for some reason. Very contrary. I've managed to not be arsed nearly all year and consequently not seen some amazing birds, and then when a colourful Dunnock turns up I'm in the car like a shot. As Col put it: "I don't do twitching anymore preachy preachy oh hang on, Sibe what? Oh go on then."

With a frankly ridiculous crowd in the dark, I very quickly realised why perhaps it was that I had 'quit'. Hundreds of people all with the same thought. Must. See. The. Bird. At. All. Costs. A sudden surge to the fence line, like somebody had fired a starting pistol, then the masses sheepishly hauled out of the undergrowth by the local birders. I watched, irritated, from the pavement, and joined the queue that was then formed. This was a million times worse that the Lancey on Shetland, but this is mainland UK twitching in 2016. If you want to see the birds, this is what you sign up to. OK so it was worse than normal, this being the second ever UK record of Siberian Accentor, and the first gettable one without spending upwards of £500 - which more than a few people apparently did last week for the first one on Shetland. Nonetheless I suspect my twitching career could still be in its final throes.

It had calmed down by the afternoon when we went back for seconds, the 1200 or so having been sated, but that early morning stampede was amazing. It reminded me of the Kent Dusky Thrush in terms of the desperation, when will people ever learn? They won't.

Spurn itself was amazing. I've only been a few time before, but today was easily the best. Howard, Sam, Bradders and I were almost overwhelmed by the numbers of birds dropping out of the sky. 6 Woodcock, 15+ Ring Ouzels, 4 Redstart, Black Redstart, Shorelark and Jack Snipe accompanied thousands of Redwings and Robins. Chiffchaffs probably numbered 100, and whilst we didn't see all that was on offer, a Dusky Warbler and another Little Bunting were excellent value. Meanwhile Bean GeeseBrents and White-fronts chugged south as we picked through sheltered spots. A Firecrest in a ditch here, exhausted Goldcrests at our feet there, birds falling out of the sky almost everywhere you looked.


The Little Bunting was a major tick for Sam, his number one bogey bird after a lifetime's birding. I remember being with him on Scilly as we dipped a one on St Mary's and then another on St Martins. In the intervening seven years he still hadn't bumped into one, so when Bradders and H called one along the path at Sammy's Point it was a special moment that I was glad I was there for. It showed well too, albeit briefly, and then with the number of birders about caused gridlock at the end of the road - we could barely get back to Easington. All in all a rather spectacular days birding, even if we didn't see all of what was there - simply too many people for that. When brigade numbers of green-clad warriors are actively twitching a Shore Lark you know something is very very wrong. 

Little Bunting


So will my twitching career now see a resurgence? I doubt it, but as with many things in life, never say never. I once said I would never eat a chickpea again for instance, but I had one yesterday. So the odd choice bird perhaps, but I can safely say that the herd mentality isn't for me. That said the earnest evening phone calls, the midnight pickup and whispered conversations in the driveway, and then the drive through the night (thanks H!).... well it was like old times, palpable excitement building in the car, adrenalin overcoming tiredness. And of course the journey passed with the sharing of memories, past glories and silly stories in good company. And it's that as much as the bird that often make these days as good as they are. A solo drive and a brief glimpse just wouldn't be the same, it's a shared experience, success or failure. Happily it was a success, as it frequently is. Spare a thought however for the eight birders who haven't seen a Siberian Accentor this year.

Dusky Warbler

Saturday 15 October 2016

How does your garden feed?

I am sorry to say that I have not fed my garden birds for at least three years, and consequently I’ve not really seen very much out of the window. My regular Robin has unfailingly turned up whenever I’ve been out gardening, but other than that it has been slim pickings. The reason for this was an indestructible squirrel with metal teeth that came and parked itself on my feeders and sat there 24/24 eating me out of house and home. It actually chewed through one wire cage feeder such that a waterfall of peanuts cascaded onto the lawn. I bought a diversion squirrel feeder and put it on the fence in the hope it would feed there instead, but it preferred seeds and nuts. I eventually resorted to borrowing a gun and trying to shoot it, but it had a forcefield and the pellets simply bounced off, so I let it finish off all the food and then took all the feeders down. Only then did it swagger off to the next benefactor.

I have decided to try again, so a couple of weeks ago I cleaned all my bird feeders, bought a couple of new ones (promised to be squirrel-proof) and some taller poles with squirrel baffles, and finally opened some large bags of seeds and nuts that had been gathering dust in my toilet for a couple of years. Family members are very pleased to be able to sit down without their legs jammed against 12.5kg of nuts.

The squirrel came back immediately of course, but so far it has just been prowling around the base of the feeders whilst its fiendish little brain figures out how to defeat the various anti-squirrel measures. I’ve no doubt it will get there eventually, but so far the combination of the even taller poles with conical baffles holding metal feeders which are spring-loaded such that the weight of a squirrel stops the flow of food seem to be holding it at bay.

It has taken longer for the birds to return, and I’ve not necessarily always been around to see them, but last weekend over lunch they were there en masse. Four species of Tits included a pair of Coal Tits that dashed in for a sunflower seed and then dashed off to consume it, and were only the second time I’ve seen this species in my garden. As well as the Tits, the Robin made an appearance, up to five Goldfinches were at the nyger, and a brief fat Woodpigeon attempted to land but its vast bulk prevented it from doing so. All the activity proved an excellent talking point over lunch, and showed that my kids have still not forgotten all of the basic bird ID lessons that were drummed into them from an early age. Talking of which, this morning as I was making coffee a Great Spotted Woodpecker was on one of the peanut feeders. See what I did there? A huge bird, splinters of peanuts were flying everywhere, so perhaps this will be sufficient to distract evil squirrel from engaging in nefarious acrobatics.

What I am really hoping for is a Nuthatch. For many years we inexplicably didn’t have any Nuthatches on the patch, but they’re making a comeback, and they are mostly based in the same bit of the patch as the Coal Tits. I reckon I have every chance this coming winter as the birds may start to explore local gardens for food. The other vague possibility is Mealy Redpoll. There seem to be quite a few ‘colder’ birds about already on the coast, so there’s always a chance that they gradually form up inland. Both would be garden ticks, and the Redpoll would be a full fat patch tick. Or maybe, just maybe, I should dream bigger? There are numerous examples of stonking rarities visiting garden feeders. What do Siberian Accentors like to eat?

Friday 14 October 2016

Schadenfreude rules supreme

All this recent writing about blogging or not blogging as the case may be got to me thinking about what makes a blog good. What makes me go back and revisit an old page, what makes me diligently go and check a website just in case there’s something new? I know what I like, I alluded to it earlier – variety. For instance repeated photos of Caspian Gulls banking in flight over shingle, no matter their quality, tends to be a bit of a turn-off. That’s just me, YMMV. And of course I’m hugely guilty of one-dimensionality at times, but nonetheless I wondered if the decline in blogging might be partly due to the material.

Enter blog stats. 

In common with my general falling out of love with this website, though not that you would notice this week, I’ve also not looked at my stats for a while. These tell me - if I desire to know it - who has visited me, where they live, what their pets are called and what those pets had for breakfast. I made an effort to do so yesterday and it is fascinating. Ok so yes there is a general downward trend from about 2013 which I knew about, but taking 2016 as the sample I wondered what had worked and what had not. Seeing as these days comments are a little haphazard in the light of easier forms of social media, I based my “research” on the number of times an individual post has been read. Hits in other words. Highly illuminating! 

All the posts about travel which I admit have been suffocatingly many tend actually not to be very well read. This is a shame as travel is probably my main interest at the moment, but I suppose saturation point has been reached. A trip report on birding Hawaii was read 110 times, a trip to Prague 100, and a post stuffed full of photos of birds on a New York beach just 68. Fair enough, I can see that there may not be a huge amount of relevance there for some people, and it comes back to my Caspo comment above - nice sharp pictures of Skimmers? Meh. Fine.

The local birding posts such as they are tend to do better, perhaps getting 150 individual hits each time. This was a bit of a surprise given it is supposed to be the core element of this blog, but then again I’ve been birding Wanstead and writing about it for many years so to a certain extent it has become a little repetitive and dull  - which of course mirrors my own birding experience: most patch visits are extremely dull! 

Instead the traffic is dominated by tales of woe. Forget local birds and exotic locations, that’s not what the public want. The numbers don’t lie, people want schadenfreude. Noun: pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Blog readers want to chuckle at the bad things that happen to other people, which in the case of this blog mostly means me. Thus it was that 200 people gleefully read the post about breaking my hand complete with gory x-ray, 233 joyfully clicked on a post about missing all the rare birds on Shetland, 296 tuned in to my aching buttocks after cycling to work, and then the clear recent winner with 396, a write-up of a dog-walker shouting at another dog-walker and Lee Evans getting zapped by an electric fence.

Ho ho ho! Much mirth and merriment! The message is clear. Lee, no matter what people might think of him, is comedy gold, a best-seller and always will be. That I should engage in more (any!) sporting activity to raise the possibility that something might go "pop!" or "twang!". And that I should start twitching again so that I can DIP.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

So why do bloggers give up?

It’s gratifying to know that a few people still read it and that a few people would be sad if I stopped, and I thank those people for their kind words, but that wasn’t really where I was going with that last post on the death of blogging. In any event I’m not yet decided on what the future holds. On the one hand I’m tired of it, tired of the nagging feelings it can evoke. On the other hand I’ve not yet totally run out of things to write about, and I’ve not really even started on recycling, that great resource for lapsing bloggers. But whatever happens I won’t delete it, as Gavin mentioned blog authors are probably the greatest readers of their old posts and I would miss them too much.

So I should have been more explicit. Rather than responses along the lines of “Please don’t stop”, very kind though they are, what I really wanted to explore was why it is that blogging appears to be on the way out? Many of my favourite blogs have stopped – 3 months, 4 months, over a year in some instances. Why? Apathy? Malaise? Shift of focus? Lack of time?

For me it is a mixture of all of these things, but time pressure is close to the top. Do many bloggers perhaps start in their relative youth when they have a fair amount of time, but then as work gets busier, relationships start, family comes along, house moves, longer commutes – real life in other words, all of the things that typically begin to weigh people down in their mid-thirties or these days perhaps a little later than that – and so quietly drop it? Of course I didn’t start blogging until I had moved house and had three kids, but I’m just a sucker for punishment. But if any of you reading this are the people whose blogs I used to enjoy but who have gone quiet, why is that? What made you stop? And do you still read blogs even if you don’t now write one yourself? And what might make you start again?

There are parallels with twitching. Of the small group of guys that I typically travelled to see birds with, almost every single one of them barely goes any more. I‘m one of the lapsed. I’m busier than I have ever been and so I am actively attempting to be less busy by dropping out of things that don’t seem to matter as much anymore. Twitching is definitely one of those that's fallen by the wayside, but blogging may be as well. It is in that second tier list which could go either way. 

Most of the blogs I follow or followed were centered around birds and birding, just like mine hem hem. Is their demise or mothballing linked to their author’s current lack of birding? Phasing as it is known? Are bird bloggers falling into the trap of no birding equals no blogging? Reading that article I linked to, I am not sure that follows, as the subject matter there was mostly interpersonal, family-oriented “mom” blogs, and it’s not like parenting just stops is it? But just because it's possible that my favourite writers of yesteryear haven’t really been out birding for a while, does it also follow that they have nothing to say? Why not branch out? The best blogs I always felt were the ones that were more varied and didn’t rely purely on birding material which in some instances, say inland patch-working in June, can get really boring really quickly. But they’ve stopped too, which supports the more general malaise that I’m currently seeing.

So why this malaise?

If you once wrote a blog (especially one I followed) why don't you now?
If you once read blogs more frequently than you do now, why is that?
If you thought of starting one but didn't, what held you back?

Answers on a postcard blog please.

I should really try and generate a new one of these to see what has changed.

Monday 10 October 2016

Blogging is dead

There’s a question that has been vexing me of late. Even though I’ve been posting something almost every day, I have been wondering whether personal blogging is in fact dead. I was therefore delighted to find this piece written by one of my favourite non-bird bloggers, Emma aka Waffle. Please go away and read it and then come back (the link is entirely safe). I’ll go make a cup of tea.



So what did you think? I have been wanting to write this piece or something like it for several months, but now I don’t have to as Emma has done it already, and far better than I ever could have. In simple terms it comes down to the interplay and life-cycle of catharsis and connection. Does a blogger write for themselves or for others? I think it always starts as the former. Surely only very infrequently does someone stand up and declare “The world needs to know about my life.” and then start a blog. Or a reality TV show. No, it’s a release done purely for personal reasons. For me, without going back to the very start I couldn’t actually remember why I started it in January 2009. However reading that firstpost suggests that it was dark and cold, that I was bored, and that other people were writing blogs so why not me? Knowing myself as I do, boredom was and is probably the key element here. As an aside, it also highlights that my love of double deckers existed even then, and that in 2009 my patch list was a mere 89. 89!! Eight years later I am on the dizzy heights of 146, and these days would expect to see 89 birds every year by about May. How things change. But I digress, this post isn’t about that.

About a month later I lost my job of 11 years and the process of writing something, anything, became a little bit more important. Stuck at home with a one year old and a three year old, it became less about birds and more about the minutae of my life. As you would expect the first 20 or so posts sank without trace, and it wasn’t until March that the first comment appeared, from none other than NQS (ex!)writer Gavin H. In the context of this current post this amuses me greatly. I did nothing whatsoever to advertise the fact I was writing it, or at least I don’t think I did, but somehow he found it, and so too did a number of other people. The next 20 posts also mostly sank without trace, but gradually in that first year I started to get what I hesitantly call a following. I hesitate as that sounds awfully big-headed, but we’re only talking about miniscule numbers of people and this is what Blogger itself calls it. I renamed it to Acolytes of course, it seemed only right.

Anyway, thus starts the next phase of personal blogging. The move from writing for yourself to satisfy some kind of inner-need, to writing knowing that other people are reading it, and that those other people may have some kind of connection to what you’re writing. You write differently of course, or I assume you do, and I am sure I did. I cannot pin down exactly what changes, but I think it largely comes down to caring more about whether what you write is actually decent, rather than just bashing something out and hitting publish without much thought. Emma has hit the nail on the head when she writes about the pressure, not imagined but real, to write something “good enough”. Good enough for the 100 people that might read it? Hah! You’ve not clue as to who 90 of them are, but somehow it still matters. You begin to interact with people whether you know them or not. Comments are eagerly anticipated. One blog post spurs another blogger to pick up the theme. One comment spawns a dozen. A tentative community somehow develops, especially on blogs that contain much heartfelt angst. I’ve never really had that, I’ve not laid my life bare as some have, and typically it is the stupider posts that seem to generate the most interest. Especially those with mildly fruity titles that Google searches may misinterpret.

This state of affairs continues for a while. It might be months, it might be years, but eventually this community, such that it ever was, declines. Disappears. It’s like that bit in Amélie where the old guy crosses off another deceased friend in his address book. If I look at that list of my favourite blogs over on the right there are many that are no longer there, many that I have sadly deleted. Of those that are left, some have been inactive for several months and their time is probably up. I note that as they drop off there is not much of a queue of worthy replacements. If not quite dead, personal blogging does indeed seem to be very seriously ill.

Ironically enough I blame social media. I don’t use many of these apps, Twitter and Whatsapp only, but surely the demise of blogging has a lot to do with the condensation of what little material there ever was into 140 characters or a quick photo. In the past I’d have written a whole post on a bird, and sometimes I still do. However I frequently now simply ‘tweet’ out a photo of the back of my camera and move on. It is the modern way. People can ‘like’ it with the prod of finger and also move on. It’s quick, it’s efficient, it requires almost no effort from any of us. You need not have an attention span longer than ten seconds. Why bother reading a post about a Yellow-browed Warbler hours later that evening when you can vicariously see the bird on the phone in your pocket two minutes after it has been discovered? As a further irony I sometimes tweet links to my latest blog post and sometimes people prod a finger at that too. Like. But that singular prod largely eliminates any possibility of community and commonality.  Am I suggesting that as a society we are becoming ever more vacuous?  I think I am.

By the way, this post isn’t a lengthy proxy for “leave more comments you ungrateful bastards”. Far from it. Time is at a premium, I understand that, and as people move into middle age (very early middle age in my case) I am experiencing this first hand and I am sure it is no different for most of my generation. I am busier than ever before. But nonetheless the demise is a shame. Blogging has only lasted a decade. I’ve been going for over seven years now, and as you may have guessed from the title of this post I'm feeling that it, and me, are on the way out. I’m not sure I need it any more, and I can fairly confidently say that nobody else really does either. Oddly enough though I’ve been bashing out more posts recently than at any time since 2013, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. A late and final flourish perhaps? And I’ve got half a dozen things lined up that last week and this weekend triggered the “oooh, I could write about that” instinct and that I filed away in whatever bit of my brain stores these nuggets. Feeding birds in my garden. Chequebook twitching. Sweet and delicious karma. How I’m not the only person to leave Shetland before a biggie (OK so those last two might be related…). A binocular craving. An obsession with temperature. How I am probably more stressed than ever but feeling incredibly relaxed.

Anyway, if you have ever blogged, or been a regular reader of a blog, please do go and read that link above. What I’ve written can’t possibly do it justice, and yes it’s a bit emotional and ‘deep’ in a way that Wansteadbirder never was or is ever likely to be, but nonetheless it resonates strongly, and it may do so with you too.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Bringing it all back home

As Richard neatly put it, this was our Bempton moment. 

I was unpacking from Shetland, and had just rather satisfyingly ticked off a long-standing job on my to-do list. Cleaning the bathroom cupboard if you must know, and throwing out baby shampoo and other bottles of stuff that dated from about 2006. A tweet from James H informed me of Ring Ouzels in Motorcycle Wood. I had been expecting them, the time of year is spot on, and I'd also had an email from Gary H to say he had had a probable yesterday evening. Wishing I'd got up earlier to find these for myself, I trotted out. 

It felt excellent, and just off Shetland I felt on form. Along the SSSI scrub, left at the limes, then right towards the birches. "Tsooo-wee-eeet!". EH? From the birches there was a Yellow-browed Warbler calling. Calling repeatedly. Surely it must be a recording? I called James, no answer. Dashing through the narrow path and around the corner I expected to find a birder with a tape, but no, there was just James with a massive grin on his face, and from the trees above a magic call that I am intimately familiar with and attuned to like no other. The bird was calling it's head off, literally non-stop. We stood there disbelieving. Although I've just seen 67 in a week, I am under no illusions that Shetland is unique. This however was Wanstead Flats, in the heart of London. Zone 2. And yet here was another of these little sprites that has travelled oh so far. Location location location, that's what its all about. I must have imported a little northern magic. Then three Ring Ouzels got up out of the wood and flew in a big circle before dropping in again. Ah, Wanstead. Home.

Tony and Richard turned up having seen the messages I'd sent out, and we set about refinding it. Happily it did the decent thing and started calling again. As it did so some honking in the sky prompted me to look up. A skein of geese looking like they wanted to land. They didn't sound right. Were they Pinkies?  "Get on these Geese!!" I shouted. Quite big, are they just Greylags? "There's barring!" came the cry from Tony. "They're Whitefronts! Count them!"  They circled a few more times before deciding the better of it and heading off east. 15 White-fronted Geese! Utterly sensational, our post-pyhllosc Albatrosses. Grey Geese are not at all common in London, and more often a winter species at sites like Rainham. To have them here is fabulous.

I've had a White-fronted Goose before, in 2007, and a brief Yellow-browed Warbler last year that nobody else saw, but James, Tony and Richard had all just had two patch ticks in under five minutes, and that is the magic of local birding and more proof, if it were needed, that Wanstead Flats is a stunning place to see birds in a London context. Despite not new for me, I was nonetheless on a massive high. This was karma, this was more than payback for leaving Shetland before the big one. Brilliant stuff. There were up to another three Ring Ouzels elsewhere on the patch, and a single Wheatear and Stonechat to complete an epic morning.

Thursday 6 October 2016


I departed Shetland last night rather nervous. Not nervous that the guys I was with would find something good, after all we had been flogging far-flung bushes for six days and found practically nothing, but nervous that a gettable monster bird would appear the day after I had left. A bit like the White's Thrush would have been gettable had I not needed to be down south for my flight. I flew off in the evening, and after a decent sleep in Aberdeen commuted to Glasgow this morning. I had a busy day, and the first time I checked the news properly was a bombshell. Howard, Bradders and Bob had found a Siberian Thrush on Unst. This isn't like finding a Red-flanked Bluetail or a Blyth's Reed Warbler. This is like finding a Dodo.

Jesus. Whilst I am delighted that the team have scored and scored big, I am understandably finding it rather hard that I wasn't there. These things happen of course, and it is only a bird, but to have thrashed around for nearly a week for very little reward and then depart the day before my carload bump into a dream bird is a bitter pill to swallow. I put in all the effort, all the time, gave it as long as I could give it and missed out. You could see it coming obviously, I know I did. But to have it actually happen, well....that's a different thing entirely. Good blogging material mind you.

As well as working on a presentation this morning I also drafted a blog post, before I heard this news. It was about how I was mildly pissed off with seeing fewer birds than I thought I could have seen given both the weather and what there was, how hard graft had not delivered, and so how on the next trip I was simply going to stay down south and twitch everything with rapturous abandon in a steamy tick-fest. Now I don't know what to think. Clearly finding rare birds is possible. I knew that. I still know that. The lads were doing nothing different today then they and I did over the last week. We thrashed plantations, we checked sheltered spots, we peered over fences, we walked down burns, we fell over in iris beds. In doing this non-stop for a week we found nothing noteworthy at all. I flew home, and the next day, without me, they did find something noteworthy. Very noteworthy. Different league noteworthy. I'm not interested in having my name in lights or referenced in a report, that's not my bag at all. I'm just as happy if not happier papping Fulmars, but nonetheless I do feel that I have missed out and that it is all a little unfair.

I'll live of course. Anyone who has been within 100m of a UK Tropicbird and still goes birding is clearly highly resilient, and I am level-headed enough to accept the c'est la vie nature of it all. I can have no complaints really. I had to come off as I had no leave left. And I had no leave left because I had used it all up seeing a procession of amazing birds all over the world. You pays yer money, you makes yer choice, or something along these lines. And that's entirely fair enough, I did make that choice, and I'm still glad I did. I'm gutted to have missed out, but that extra day (or days, watch this space!!) that 'cost' me so to speak, that was not a day that in my view I wasted, and so I do not feel especially sorry for myself.

Blog readers however are invited to feel extremely sorry for me, and to post messages of unadulterated sympathy and support in the comments section. You never know, one day YOU might be in need of karma....

The cost

More of the cost

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Shetland - day 6

Today was my last day on the islands, and whilst it was very pleasant the big one never arrived. Or not that we could get to anyway – White's Thrush on Fetlar broke late morning but wasn't doable in the time I had available before leaving. Instead I consoled myself with my personal day-record of Yellow-browed Warblers, 25. They were literally everywhere, and I love them.

Seeing as we were close we started at Sullom Plantation where a Black-throated Thrush had been found yesterday. Naturally we dipped it, but there were upwards of 10 YBW in there, along with Goldcrests too numerous to count. Good birding as we moved up through the plantation, tsooweets everywhere, sips of Song Thrush and seeps of Redwing. It felt promising.

Next stop Voe where we picked up the long-staying Red-breasted Flycatcher in the burn, and another four YBW..... The rest of the day involved a gentle progression south, picking up multiple YBW at everywhere we stopped – Loch of Voe, Gott, Scalloway and Wester Quarff. We finished at Sumburgh Head, watching exhausted migrant birds dive into the second quarry and feed at our feet.

The full list of noteworthy birds is laid out here. Whilst I didn't get a tick, I can look back and say I saw some rather good things. Perhaps not as many as I had hoped, but decent nonetheless.

Brown Shrike
Lanceolated Warbler
Blyth's Reed Warbler
Greenish Warbler
Red-backed Shrike
3 Little Bunting
Rose-coloured Starling
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Common Rosefinch
Barred Warbler
Common Crane
…..67 Yellow-browed Warbler

I mean 67 is mental isn't it? There are no doubt some birders who saw well over that, perhaps even topping 100 in a week, but come on! It was just silly at times, you would see movement in a tree and you could almost guarantee what it was going to be. I remember my first in Norfolk, a heard-only at Muckleburgh before actually getting to see one at Burham Deepdale. As you would expect from a first class geek like me, I do keep a spreadsheet of bird-happiness. This tells me that up until last week I had seen 65 Yellow-browed Warblers, so in less than a week I've doubled that which is ridiculous. Imagine if you lived on Shetland, you'd get to 500 in the space of a few years.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Shetland - day 5

Why is Shetland so hard?! Two days of excellent winds have produced scandalously little, at least for us. Today was better than yesterday, but a total of four Yellow-browed Warblers and two Little Buntings wasn't really much reward for a full day in the field. The wind has been relentless. It is coming from a good direction, and you feel that the longer it goes on the more good birds will turn up, but it also makes finding them very hard indeed, as almost no part of anywhere is immune to the constant howling gale. 

We started up north at first light for a White's Thrush reported last knockings yesterday. To cut a long story short we didn't get it, which was a shame really as I could really have done with seeing it.....So, over to Yell and then Unst for a change of scene. For once I actually went birding on Yell rather than just drive over it at 60mph, and three Yellow-browed Warblers were very welcome, once again in basically every garden we looked in. On Unst we went straight up to Norwick at the top end, scene of many a good bird on my list. A hoped-for Paddyfield Warbler turned into Blythii Lesser Whitethroat, and the Great Snipe couldn't be found in a brief wade around near the burn. I probably threw away a Richard's Pipit down the lane to the sea (called overhead then disappeared, said to the lads "what kind of Pipit goes zeep really loudly?", reported later...), and we had two Little Bunting in the crop field below Valyie. Ker-ching? Maybe. 

Over in Skaw, the UK's most northerly inhabited dwelling, there was another Yellow-browed Warbler. There are no trees or real bushes here, so all birds tend to be in the burn and with no cover I finally got a few OK photos of one without stuff in the way. #42. At Halligarth the walled garden had a tristis Chiffchaff and half a Wood Warbler, and we got some excellent views of an Otter at Westing before needing to catch the ferry back to Yell and on to mainland for another monster dinner cooked by H.

Meanwhile a new Black-throated Thrush has arrived, and generally this afternoon things appeared to be picking up, so perhaps my last day on the islands tomorrow will be an opportunity to go out with a bang? Eyebrowed Thrush would be acceptable. I suspect what will actually happen is that the three days of south-easterlies I got will deliver nothing, and only when I am safely in Aberdeen will the real biggies start to arrive. This always happens and I am mentally prepared for it already. Frankly it would be bad form to actually get a tick this year.

Monday 3 October 2016

Shetland - day 4


Barely saw a bird and didn't take a single worthwhile photo. Charts, shmarts. Given the previous day's arrivals we tried east - Lunna, Swining, Vidlin, Nesting. Piss all. Ten Yellow-browed Warblers and a tragically twitched Barred Warbler. You know when you twitch a Barred Warbler on Shetland in October that you're lowering the bar, and boy did we scrape the barrel today. That said we did not stoop as low as the bloke who ran for it. As somebody called it I could see what was about to happen and said "oh please don't run..." but unfortunately he did. He then followed this up with a commando roll underneath a fuchsia bush in the [vain] hope of a killer view. Full marks for enthusiasm, zero marks for decorum. That said it was a ridiculously slow day in the face of wondrous weather charts, with almost nothing being found. A true Shetland soul-sapper that unfortunately does happen from time to time, and when you least expect it.

Tomorrow could be the same (probably), or completely amazing (unlikely). Team YBW score is up to 69, with my total 38. When one of the guys calls Yellow-browed I tend to fail to break into a run, and a commando roll sliding under a bush for that make or break view would be unheard of. I wouldn't say it's apathy exactly as they're super little birds, but you can have enough of a good thing. Here's a photo I took yesterday. Mega.

Sunday 2 October 2016

Shetland - day 3

Dawn chez nous
Lots to tell, lots to tell. Today we were on a bird-finding mission. We, all alone, would find lots of rare birds up on north-west mainland. American birds mostly, but we would accept eastern vagrants in our bushes if absolutely necessary. It started well, with two Yellow-browed Warblers at Tangwick Haa in a garden the size of my greenhouse. It's ridiculous up here it really it, these fantastic gems outnumber all other warblers combined, I've seen nearly 30 in three days now and the way the weather charts are looking suggests I'll likely double that.

Eshaness was quiet - lots of Golden Plover but little else of note - certainly not the flocks of Semi-P and Buffies that we had been banking on. Nevermind, on to the next bushes, up on one of the longer Voe's that point due north. A spectacular garden here held no fewer than four Yellow-broweds, which is crazy when you think about it. There I was worrying that I'd missed the 2016 influx. As it stands it may only just be starting.

Then it all went wrong. Lanceolated Warbler at Boddam. Boddam which is basically at Sumburgh. Lanceolated Warbler that Bradders and Bob both need.  We carried on birding up north, pushing harder than ever for that gross mega-find

Boddam was heaving, a good 80 people crowded along a fence line peering into a tangled garden. Pager bleeps, mobile phones, shuffling, groaning, audible angst bordering on panic as desperation set in. I saw one bloke punch the air..... This hadn't really been in my plans today. I would have been fine with it had the plan been to stick down south and soak in the combined finds of millions of birders revelling in the obvious arrival of stuff from the east, but it felt like a rendition. Of course had it been a PG Tips that would have been totally different.... The bird showed blindingly, my second up here and as good as the first. Ninja-like I snuck in beneath the feet of the thundering herd and sat down next to the fence. Within about five minutes I had the Lancy down to about 30cm as it crept around like an avian mouse right in front of me, amazing views even if it didn't walk over my foot like it did for some. Job done I backed out and went birding, finding another YBW. Who would have thought it.

With all the boys also now one Lancy to the good it was time to leave, so we went to Hestingott to find more birds. Unfortunately the only birds present were Yellow-browed Warblers... Bored of these we twitched a pod of Orca from Sumburgh Head and Scatness. Distant but spectacular. Onwards to Geosetter where we found three more YBW, and then at Ellister another six. Minke in Levenwick Bay for another UK mammal tick and then back up to Muckle Roe. A full day by any stretch of the imagination, and the team inornatus count is now 56. A fish supper showed briefly, as did the Aurora, and with the easterly conveyer belt in full swing tomorrow could be very interesting indeed.