Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Forgetting February

Just a quick update on a local rarity seen whilst out birding. Me. February somewhat passed me by, with half term holidays, a couple of other sorties, and daily news of the patch being absolutely dire. With time at a premium I did the sensible thing and went birding elsewhere. That’s not to say that on March 1st I rushed out the door keen and eager, of course not. Most of March was utterly terrible as well, and so it wasn’t until a few weeks in that I ventured out, tempted by news of the first LRPs and so on. Initially there appears to have been a westerly bias, with Dorset and Devon getting the vanguard, but gradually more and more sites on our side of country have been seeing their first migrants.

I’ve seen mine too, but it wasn’t the one I wanted. You all know what that is. Anyway, although that gem is still to come on Friday I spent a considerable portion of the day out on the patch cashing in on other things. Earlier in the week I had missed some Rooks, and somewhat disastrously a mega-for-London Hooded Crow. Work is the curse of the birding classes, or something like that. Anyhow, it was a bank holiday, I was here, and the weather was good enough for this fair-weather birder to be out. And it was good, in the Chiffchaff sense of good. Hmmm. I then missed Rooks again by going home for coffee and breakfast. And a nice long rest. But by mid morning I was raring to go again and so joined Nick on the side of the Alex for a spot of skywatching which almost immediately paid dividends with a stratospherically high Buzzard found by Nick. I found this very difficult to pick out, I think my month and a half of sitting in a darkened room processing a huge backlog of images has taken its toll on my outdoor vision. The next bird was altogether more satisfactory being a much lower Red Kite, which I picked up somewhere north of the Alex. It just appeared, not sure how – this is common when skywatching. One minute there is an empty sky, the next minute there is a bird in it, and you’re never quite sure how it managed to get there across the expanse of sky that you've been scanning. And then of course when we looked again after sending the obligatory twittergloat it had disappeared. Oh no, there it was, lower again and a bit further east. Oh but hang on, that’s a Buzzard. Where did that come from? And so where’s the Kite? And then when we looked again there were two Buzzards right next to each other, both of which then gained height and vanished within a matter of seconds.

All good in other words, with two year ticks in a couple of minutes to add to the earlier Chiffy. This latter and the Buzzard I would always expect to get, but Red Kite whilst increasing is never guaranteed. Last spring I missed them completely and had to wait until mid-May, which turned out to be my only sighting all year, so I’m pleased to have managed to connect in what must be the most likely period for Kites to go a-wandering. My three year ticks turned into four with with three Sand Martin that dropped in briefly, and then I had to go home and eat freshly baked Hot Cross Buns. Never easy.

Thirty seconds into the journey home I looked up at the sky and there was another Red Kite hanging in the breeze, tail twisting to maintain position. Where it had been immediately prior I cannot way, but Nick and I think there may be some kind of bird vortex above Wanstead Flats, which randomly spits out and sucks in avian interest for short periods of time. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to see it. What is on the other side of the vortex remains unknown, however we’re pretty sure it isn’t Walthamstow else we’d have had Osprey.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Whilst in Holland

Rather than a smash and grab raid for the Rubythroat, Bradders and I stayed overnight and devoted the second day to birding in Holland. Largely this involved twitching a few long-staying rarities that were nearby, as well as exploring a number of sites in the north of the country. Neither of us had birded in Holland before, indeed this was a country tick for DB to boot, and we were both bowled over by the quality of the habitats that we visited. Waterfowl and Gulls in particular were ridiculously abundant, more so than in any place I have ever visited. Driving along any road you were assured of a constant stream of interest. Luckily Bradders was driving or we would have ended up in about a dozen canals.

We had left London at around 4.30am, and were in Northern France by 8.30am (with the one hour time difference). The tunnel is incredibly easy and efficient. Despite the recent atrocities in Belgium there was no sign of any type of border control or check. I had wondered if travelling so soon afterwards might have been a bad plan, but we cruised through with no issues whatsoever and I am thus here to tell the tale of a wonderful weekend. We did a spot of shopping for provisions near Antwerp, negotiated a massive jam in Amsterdam, and arrived at Hoogwoud just after 2pm. We had the bird to ourselves at first, but before it showed properly we were joined by a minibus full of Dutch twitchers, showing that this bird remains as popular as ever two months on from its arrival. This mass of people probably contributed to the bird remaining extensively hidden for a period of time, but when they departed I gathered up the mealworms they had randomly scattered and put them somewhere more suitable. Soon the bird popped out, scoffing a few before taking one particularly juicy one back into the undergrowth. This next photo is principally for Mick S who loves a good mealworm photo, but also to show that this bird is getting fed and regularly so, such that it may stay for some time yet. 

Top drawer I'm sure you'll agree!

With the light beginning to go, we drove the short distance north to Den Oever for a Lesser Scaup, which DB picked up with ease across the lagoon. The weather was worsening by the minute, the wind really getting up, and we agreed that our timing for the Rubythroat had been spot on. The next day looked very inclement indeed, we weren't sure how much birding we might actually get.

Retracing our steps to Alkmaar we had a superb dinner in the old town. If you find yourself there I can heartily recommend a restaurant called simply "Steak", and don't even think about having anything else. Or at least that was the message from the very convivial Fred who was running the place. As well as great food, our candlelit celebratory dinner also involved beer. Excellent beer. Supremely good beer. Beer so good I gave regular thanks that I wasn't driving... DId you know Alkmaar also has a world-famous Cheese Market? I am betting that you didn't, neither did I until I googled it. It being the evening of Easter Saturday it was closed, but I mention it on the offchance that you can make use of this snippet of culinary information. I am a fan of cheese, and so as the next best thing I popped into a supermarket (the only supermarket in the country that does not take credit cards of any description) and grabbed a couple of slabs as a reminder of my time here, and in the hope of adding to the heady aroma already developing in the braddersmobile following the shopping expedition in Belgium.

Up early the next morning and back to Den Oever where we had apparently missed a drake Bufflehead the previous day. Soon put that right but five minutes later and it would have flown out to sea and we would have missed it - a smart duck, but where has it come from? A box? Or somewhere further away? A birder we met at Hoogwoud was pretty dismissive, but wildfowl is notoriously difficult to assign. Top bird nonetheless, and as it was sitting a hundred metres out to sea ignored all the bread I threw at it.

Next stop some wonderful habitat near Zaandam, the Engewormer and Widjewormer. Ducks everywhere, displaying Godwits, birdy goodness in other words. A showy Scaup was recompense for a dipped Ring-necked Duck, but I'd have rather seen the former given my recent experience in Arizona. A short distance away a Lesser White-fronted Goose with rings indicating it was from the reintroduction program behaved very badly with a Greylag Goose. Baffling and an indication that a bird's behaviour is not necessarily a guide to its provenance.

Disgracing itself?

We needed to back in Calais for about 8pm, and had one final area pencilled in, the Biesbosch, south-east of Rotterdam. This has had a number of decent birds recently that indicated promise for an exploratory session. We failed to see some Penduline Tits in high winds, and then came across a Red-breasted Goose in a huge flock of Barnies looking absolutely pukka. Turns out it has a purple ring on it and it is almost certainly duff. Go figure.
The Biesbosch is wonderful. Superbly named, it has a network of raised roads wiggling through stellar habitat and is stuffed full of birds. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking it all in, working on the trip list and generally feeling good about birding. Very windy, but we saw a lot of good stuff despite this - Smew, singing Willow Tit, Water Pipit, Marsh Harrier to name a few.

Clearly plastic....

Favourite Goose


As usual I helped Bradders negotiate a long and tricky drive by falling asleep several times in the passenger seat, and so just a short while later we arrived in Calais where I managed to blurt out enough french to blag us onto an earlier crossing. Merci. Storm Katie was beginning to make itself known and so the drive back was rather grim. Naturally I stayed awake for it. Final scores on the doors something like 83 species, including a variety of rare wildfowl that it are seemingly impossible to call. Shoot them and isotope them I say.

Snuffi nearly got eaten by a dog whilst posing for this


What to do over a Bank Holiday weekend? How about an obscene megabird in Holland? A risk for sure, with the possibility of Wheatear in Wanstead, but these opportunities don't come around all that often, whereas Wheatears come around frequently. And anyway, a Siberian Rubythroat is a Chat...

So it was that my arm did not require very much twitching when Bradders got in touch last week suggesting a euro minibreak departing on Saturday morning. Oh go on then. If I must. A heinous departure time meant that we were on site just north of Amsterdam early afternoon, and viewing this skulking Sibe shortly afterwards. Although the photos say otherwise this bird is actually remarkably shy, and three and a half hours of staring into undergrowth in a small cul-de-sac produced four views totalling perhaps three minutes. Most of the time it was content to sit invisibly in a shrubbery and sing quietly to itself. If you were in position when it popped out (which mostly we were), fine. If not it could be a frustrating afternoon.

It goes without saying that I've never seen one before, barring birds in cages in Hong Kong, so this was even more brilliant. That said I think I could see dozens and still not tire of them so lovely are they. Where has it come from? Who knows, but it would be for the best if it left soon I think... though with people putting down food for it that could prolong its stay beyond what one might consider reasonable. Anyhow, here are a few images from my visit - one of the reasons for going all that way was the steady stream of stunning photographs making an appearance on my Twitter timeline and it did not disappoint. This was my first eurotwitching excursion and I am very glad I went, and of course it wasn't just tick and run as we did a pile of birding at a number of sites in Northern Holland whilst we were at it - more on that to follow but for now the star of the show!

The first views were like this as it cautiously wondered whether to come out.

A real skulker

Reinforcements were called for....

And so no surprises that this then happened....

...and it showed superbly, albeit briefly.

New favourite bird!

Southern Arizona - Trip List

As I've mentioned, this type of trip is my absolute favourite. Much planning in advance, so much researching of new locations that I almost feel that I've been there before I arrive for the first time, heaps of new birds. In my four days in Arizona I saw 130 species, which I felt was about par. Over 50 of them were completely new. Three ABA rarities bagged, wintering birds from Mexico, but a few misses of more regular birds mean I'll be going back! Shame....

130 species
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Neotropic Cormorant - Pena Blanca Lake
Great Egret - only a few seen along the Gila River
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron - Gilbert Water Ranch
Snow Goose - 12 at Whitewater Draw
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Cinnamon Teal - small numbers at Gilbert, Sweetwater, Whitewater Draw
Green-winged Teal
Lesser Scaup - Gilbert Water Ranch
Ring-necked Duck - Gilbert Water Ranch
Ruddy Duck
Canvasback - a single bird in a small pool on Santa Cruz Flats
Common Merganser - irrigation channel alongside Old US 80
Black Vulture - Sierra Vista near Mexican Border
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk - Whitewater Draw
Sharp-shinned Hawk - Whitewater Draw
Common Black Hawk - Santa Cruz Flats
Ferruginous Hawk - 2 Santa Cruz Flats
Red-tailed Hawk - dozens, everywhere
Crested Caracara - 3 at east Santa Cruz Flats, along E Baumgartner 
American Kestrel
Merlin - Santa Cruz Flats
Gambel's Quail - Paton's, Gilbert Water Ranch
Virginia Rail - Whitewater Draw
American Coot
Sandhill Crane - Whitewater Draw
Killdeer - Whitewater Draw
Black-necked Stilt - Gilbert Water Ranch
American Avocet - Gilbert Water Ranch
Greater Yellowlegs - Whitewater Draw
Long-billed Curlew - Santa Cruz Flats, single at Willcox
Least Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Ring-billed Gull - pair at Willcox the only gulls seen
Feral Pigeon
White-winged Dove - Paton's
Mourning Dove
Inca Dove - Paton's
Greater Roadrunner - Sulphur Springs Valley
Great Horned Owl - north of Sonoita along US 83
Burrowing Owl - Santa Cruz Flats
Northern Pygmy Owl - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera)
Belted Kingfisher - irrigation channel Santa Cruz Flats
White-throated Swift - Whitewater Draw
Broad-billed Hummingbird - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera), Paton's
Anna's Hummingbird - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera), Gilbert Water Ranch
Gilded Flicker - W Santa Cruz Flats
Gila Woodpecker - any small trees in Santa Cruz Vallet
Acorn Woodpecker Santa Rita Lodge (Madera)
Downy Woodpecker Santa Rita Lodge (Madera)
Ladder-backed Woodpecker - Florida Canyon
Arizona Woodpecker - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera),
Gray Flycatcher - Huachuca Canyon
Black Phoebe
Say's Phoebe
Vermilion Flycatcher - Cataline SP
Loggerhead Shrike - common in Santa Cruz Flats
Hutton's Vireo
Mexican Jay - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera), Pena Blanca Lake
American Crow
Common Raven
Chihuahuan Raven - Whitewater Draw
Horned Lark - Santa Cruz Flats
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Bridled Titmouse - Madera Canyon
Verdin - Santa Rita mountains, Gilbert Water Ranch
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper
Marsh Wren - Pena Blanca Lake
Bewick's Wren
Sinaloa Wren - a Mexican rarity wintering at Fort Huachuca
Rock Wren - Gila River bridge
Canyon Wren - singing at Florida Canyon

Cactus Wren - very common
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Florida Canyon
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - Thrasher Site
Black-capped Gnatcatcher - Mexican coloniser at Florida Canyon
Rufous-backed Robin - wintering rarity at Catalina SP
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird - Catalina SP, Gilbert Water Ranch
Bendire's Thrasher - Santa Cruz Flats, Thrasher Site W of Buckeye
Curve-billed Thrasher
Crissal Thrasher - Thrasher Site W of Buckeye
Le Conte's Thrasher - Thrasher Site W of Buckeye
Sage Thrasher - Thrasher Site W of Buckeye
American Pipit
Sprague's Pipit - Santa Cruz Flats

Phainopepla - Catalina SP
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Pena Blanca Lake
Hepatic Tanager - Santa Rita Lodge (Madera)
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia- Florida Canyon
Abert's Towhee - common at Gilbert Water Ranch
Canyon Towhee
Spotted Towhee - only at Gilbert Water Ranch
Green-tailed Towhee - Florida Canyon
Rufous-winged Sparrow - Catalina SP
Black-throated Sparrow - Santa Rita mountains
Chipping Sparrow
Black-chinned Sparrow - Florida Canyon
Lark Bunting - large flocks at Santa Cruz Flats and Sulphur Springs valley
Vesper Sparrow - Whitewater Draw
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow - Paton's
Dark-eyed Junco
Yellow-eyed Junco - Madera Canyon
White-crowned Sparrow
McCown's Longspur - Santa Cruz Flats along W Pretzer
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird - thousands at feedlot near Kansas Settlement
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
Pine Siskin
House Sparrow

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Up with the Lark to Duck out early

It's migrant time and I've resumed birding. Sadly nobody told the migrants, but it was a lovely morning nonetheless, beautiful, crisp and clear. For the first time this year I heard Skylarks singing, at least four birds. A lower number than any previous year, but they're still hanging on. I won't dwell on why exactly the landowner seems powerless to act to protect them, perhaps they're just hoping the problem goes away? This strategy will of course work, I give the birds two years. 2018 and I don't expect we'll have Skylarks on the patch any more, and for that the apathy of those people with the power to actually do something will be as much to blame as those who felt that it was their right to allow their dogs run amok through the rough grass during the breeding season. Sad, but there it is.

As well as the few remaining Larks, a handful of Meadow Pipits performed their parachuting display flights, and a male Reed Bunting flew great tseeping circles. Green Woodpeckers chased each other from east to west as spanking Black-headed Gulls wheeled high overhead. Migrants were totally absent, but who cares when it's as lovely as this out there? I commented at the time that the world was a nice place. Then of course I got to work and had Brussels beamed at me for eight hours.

Anyhow, with apologies to sub-editors everywhere for the cheap title, I left work early to twitch the out-of-place Common Scoter in Rotherhithe. It's currently sat looking a bit confused on an ornamental pond in Southwark Park, and so this not being far from the salt mines of Canary Wharf I nipped out early to give it a go. I don't need Common Scoter for London, but if it was on small pond then potentially the views might be very good indeed. I barely made it before dark, and was not surprised to find Rich B there before me with the same idea. It did show very well at times, and despite the awful light the miracles of modern technology and my incredible biceps mean that 1/60s exposure can bring you this. Lovely.

Then I went back to work. Less lovely, but this is London and it never actually stops. I found my colleagues abusing my desk with balloons and so on - busted - and had to remove two kiwi fruit that had been humourously sellotaped to my monitor before I could send those last critical emails. It was probably worth it, not only to catch them red-handed, but because the Shard was looking very impressive against the rosy sky. The lens turned a few heads, but I explained that whilst not ideal it was all I had and it would have to make do. Ducks and landscapes don't mix, although in this case I actually think it worked pretty well.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

On being boring

Around that same pub table I described last week we also discussed the merits of being boring. All agreed that I was very boring indeed, true friends in other words, but that the advantages of being boring were there for all to see. As is often the case with discussions in pubs, I cannot precisely remember how this conversation came about, but it may have been to do with stability and family harmony. Whatever, though I am actually 40 now, I have been 40 since I was 20 if you see what I mean, and that has a lot going for it.

My mate Richard, whilst perhaps not meeting the same ‘boring’ baseline, an area where I truly set the bar, agreed he too was a pretty level-headed kind of guy and that he liked that. Neither of us will ever set the world on fire, neither of us will ever go on to achieve great things that are talked about for generations to come. And we’re both absolutely fine with that. Steady as she goes.

So what is good about being dull? Well, I am unlikely to ever spring any surprises on anybody, especially my family who know me best. Mrs L generally knows what I am thinking before I do, or what I am about to do. She catches me “tasting” in-progess cooking before I have even reached for the spoon for instance. My children have this talent too – this is good. Being predictable means that expectations are generally always met. Having a firm footing in an unexciting home life (by which I mean no fits, no screaming, no emotional angst) means that my kids are level-headed, sensible and nice individuals, who at this stage we feel will develop into level-headed and sensible teenagers, hormones not withstanding. This may have been the gist of the original conversation, but at this stage we can’t see where the “I hate you I wish I’d never been born!” is going to come from. Perhaps being boring also brings with it massive amounts of parental naivety? Time will tell.

In my case, being boring also means being risk averse to the point of paranoia, a trait I have happily passed on to my son. Bungy jumping? No thanks. Sky diving? Yeah right. Anything mildy exciting at all? No, I'm fine thanks. I find watching sport stressful, I don't need any additional bursts of adrenalin that come from the faint feeling that my life be in danger. It makes you feel more alive apparently. Well, being rational I feel perfectly alive already. Pulse? Yes. Another tax return to do? Yep, definitely alive.

And of course I like birds. There's a boring badge right there. One of the best you can get in my opinion, my head full of useless avian facts, latin binomials, calls and songs, and a mental archive full of what rare birds I've seen where. I've been known to wear green, and I even have a camo hat (kind of). Not forgetting my ground-breaking musical tastes....

And no, no migrants yet since you ask.

Arizona in Winter - Day 4

Day 4 – Picacho Peak, return to Santa Cruz Flats, Sonoran Desert Reserve, Thrasher Spot, Gilbert Riparian Preserve

My final day, and time to attempt to mop up. I allowed myself the luxury of a lie in until 6am, and was at Picacho Peak State Park for the the low glow of early morning. Here I mucked about with Snuffi and cactuses, and finally got a Cactus Wren that had a clue about plant identification and was perched on its namesake. This is a paid-entry area, but it was early enough that it wasn't manned and so I was able to potter about for a while. It would be worthwhile, if you are visiting for a week, to see if you can get a State-wide pass, as I shelled out in several places and indeed was put off visiting Patagonia Lake due to the $15 entrance fee (in addition to the time I didn't have). 

Once I'd finished dicking about I drove back up to the Santa Cruz Flats to join several other Mountain Plover dippers. We consoled ourselves with McCown's Longspur and a Merlin, and I got Bendire's Thrasher (as well as Sage and Curve-billed) thanks to some decent and recent gen from one of them, but the Plovers were nowhere to be found. Another trip is needed. This is a great spot, and even though I had planned out my day the previous night to be at the 150 mile-distant Buckeye Thrasher spot for about 10am, I didn't leave the Flats until gone 11 so that one went out of the window. 

Mountain Plover

Western Meadowlark. Or Eastern.....
Being somewhat stubborn I did still enact this plan though, and enjoyed a scenic drive though the Sonoran Desert – the Saguaros go on as far as the eye can see but sadly there were few stopping spots. I scored a Rock Wren at Gila River bridge and finally got to the Thrasher spot at about 2pm, probably the absolute worst time of day. It was nearly 90F and appeared totally dead. I met a Brit and a Californian who had seen very little, but this was a significant detour for me as rather than drive 90 miles to Phoenix I had driven 160, and still had another 60 to get back there. So I set off into the desert! And naturally I scored with five Thrasher species at this one spot in the heat of the day. Curve-billed and Bendire's were easy and close to the road. I found a Sage Thrasher briefly, but the other two took some finding. The tactic was simply to wander aimlessly - as the birds live here, you just have to walk close to the bush they're in or underneath. First to fall was Crissal, low in a bush and singing quietly. Le Conte's took longer and was much further away from the road. Again, I was just pushing forward into the habitat when some rapid movement caught my eye. I walked around the low bush and.....nothing. I tracked a circle around the distance I thought a bird might have moved but still nothing. I repeated the circle a little wider, and there it was again, a rapid dash between two bushes. Le Contes! A pair in fact, darting from shaded spot to shaded spot – the closest comparison I can make in terms of behaviour is Cream-coloured Courser, and being pale in colour and with curved bill you can immediately see the similarities. They run really very quickly indeed, and I didn't see them take to the wing once, in contrast to the Bendire's and Curve-billed which were only too happy to fly away from me.

Classic Thrasher habitat

Bendire's Thrasher
With this rather unexpected success taking me to about 3pm I got back on the road and headed back east to Phoenix, where Gilbert Water Ranch was my final stop of the day. I had to drive all the way through the city but found it easily enough. The main lake had a number of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck on it, but the main interest is in what is called the Riparian Preserve, a series of lakes and managed habitat behind. It was fantastic, I swa heaps. Abert's Towhees hopped around, Gambel's Quails were numerous. Anna's Hummingbirds buzzed from bush to bush, and Verdin was relatively common. The scrapes held a variety of waders and wildfowl, including decent numbers of American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Lesserlegs and Least Sandpiper

Abert's Towhee

Anna's Hummingbird

I had a very pleasant few hours wandering around here until the sun went down, and spent the last half an hour getting down low with the ducks on the main lake. This was complicated by it being 'Sadie Hawkins', an important date in the American high school calendar where the girls ask the boy out and everybody dresses up. So when I emerged from the Riparian part of the park the lake was crawling with dolled-up teenage girls and gawky uncomfortable-looking boys. A dusty English American guy with a camera that put theirs to shame didn't really fit in, but they worked round me, and in some cases stepped over me as I was flat on the path. I think it was probably worth it.

Lesser Scaup

female Ring-necked Duck

drake Ring-necked Duck

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt
Then I met some cousins for dinner, or at least I think they're cousins. My family on the American side is descended partly from Yorkshire immigrants and partly from Mormon settlers. I don't know how far this goes back precisely, but the end result means I have relatives absolutely everywhere. So I met Kelly, Ben and their kids E and D at a nearby mexican place. Kelly is my mother's (mom's!) cousin's daughter. We share the same Great Grandmother, but I don't know what the technical term for that is. Let's stick with relative. We had a great time catching up - we had last seen each other as 11 year olds on the family ranch in Utah, a trip I still remember as I got to ride a quad bike for the first time and went fishing in "Blue Lake" for trout. This branch of the family still have the ranch, and still go there every summer which is pretty cool. Both being somewhat advanced from 11 we have kids of our own now, and they will get to meet later this summer in Scotland which should be a lot of fun - so the meaning of family continues.

And that was my trip! After dinner I drove to my pre-ordained lodgings next to Phoenix Skyharbor, and the following morning I flew home in a somewhat roundabout but enjoyable way. About 125 species, of which a third were new. 1800 photos, reduced to 428 on the first pass once back in front of a decent screen, with a lot more editing to come. My ideal kind of trip really - short and sweet in a new area with new birds, with lots of advance planning and a lot fun had putting it into practice. I'll be going back, the only question is when?

No Panthers were harmed during the taking of this photograph.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Arizona in Winter - Day 3

Day 3 – Sulphur Spings Valley, Fort Huachuca Canyon

Sleep is for girls. Today I got up at 4am for the long drive to Whitewater Draw, south-east of Tucson near McNeal. Really I should have stayed down near Patagonia somewhere as that would have been a lot closer, but nevermind. I got there for dawn and was greeted by a birders paradise. Thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes blasting off from their roosting pools and heading off to feed. The noise was incredible, and in fantastic light the Cranes just kept going and going, heading out to the numerous fields to feed, as did a dozen Snow Geese. In photographic terms, the viewing platforms face entirely the wrong way for dawn, but occasionally a bird would circle back round into nice light. I would think that a dusk session could be very productive, and I very nearly changed my plans to come back but as this was mainly a birding holiday I resisted. 

Once the Cranes had mostly all gone I started birding in earnest. The pools were good for Waders, with Long-billed Dowitchers, an American Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Dunlin and Least Sandpipers. Duck numbers were good too, mostly Green-winged Teal and Shoveler, but also some more Cinnamon Teal. These are lovely ducks, and I saw them in pretty much any suitable habitat anywhere I went. A Black Phoebe flitted around the pools, and good numbers of Vesper Sparrow were seen. On the raptor front, both Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted, and I had terrific views of a Northern Harrier perched in reeds, on the bank, and then quartering.

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Harrier

I spent the rest of the morning birding my way back up the valley, groups of roadside Cranes providing interest, as well as flocks of Lark Buntings. On the road to Kansas Settlement I was just wondering how on earth I was going to see a Roadrunner when I saw..... a Roadrunner by the side of the road. Awesome – a top target. The bird wasn't shy if I remained in the car, and by placing the car on the opposite verge (another victory for the 4x4 btw) I was able to get sensational views as the bird dashed to and fro, catching various bugs, tossing them into it's beak much like Roller does with larger insects. Every time it stopped it would raise its crest and cock its tail – and I think I detected the faintest of “meep meeps” too. I spent way too long watching this bird doing its thing, and consequently didn't have long at the lake at Willcox. Here there were hundreds of American Wigeon and Shoveler, a single Long-billed Curlew, and amazingly another Roadrunner that poked its head round the blind I was observing from to check me out – pure comedy. It was about two feet from me at one point! Also of note was a feedlot on the main road between Kansas Settlement and Willcox that hosted over a thousand Yellow-headed Blackbirds

Rusty Post Wren

Greater Roadrunner

The afternoon I spent being a bit touristy. It ain't necessarily all about birds, so I had great fun visiting the really quite tacky town of Tombstone. It's actually a real place, as is Yuma by the way. In fact many of the place and road names are incredibly evocative of the old wild west. Cripple Creek, Emerald Gulch, Bucking Horse Road and so on. This is where it all happened, and as a fan of the genre I was pretty pleased to be here. When I was last in Arizona in 1986 as an eleven year old, I'm not sure I'd ever watched a western. Now having watched a great many of them I was finally in a position to appreciate it. Tombstone has been “preserved”, albeit in the Disney sense of the word for the most part, with many of the historic buildings selling tourist tat, which I avoided. I was severely tempted for a while by a Stetson, but realised I couldn't pull it off. However for many residents down in this part of the country it's actually the normal way to dress. These days they drive F350s rather than horses, but they still wear boots, jeans, checked shirts and wide-brimmed hats. I'm also pleased to say that many of the modern cowboys still have guns. Not really. I mean, why? I was paying for fuel when I realised the guy in front of me had a 9mm pistol in a holster strapped to his waist. So did the guy coming in for a soda. A restaurant I went to had a sign that said to please leave guns in the car. They're obsessed! AZ is about as far from Washington as you can get, and Obama probably doesn't carry much sway down here. So yes, lots of guns unfortunately. I even saw some drawn ones, driving past some kind of take-down event in Sierra Vista. I was stuck at some lights when police cars appeared from nowhere converging on a roadside shop, and all of a sudden there were guns out (as in BIG guns) and a guy on the ground. Luckily my light turned green and I was able to get out of there, but this is probably a daily occurrence when firearms are such a way of life.

Curve-billed Thrasher

My next encounter with guns came at Fort Huachuca, a military base close to the Mexican border, and temporary home to a wintering Sinaloa Wren, perhaps the fifth ABA record so seriously rare. As an American citizen (and proud, ahem) I was rightfully allowed to twitch it, but getting access was a huge mission. I got past the first set of soldiers, and then had to visit a command post and attempt to complete a form designed for real Americans, generally centered around driving licences and social security numbers. I was unable to fill in much apart from my name, eye colour and weight, which I took great delight in entering in stone. Basically I confused the hell out of them, and at one point there was a conference call  with a superior that needed my UK driving licence and both passports. A yet higher authority was consulted, approved of my twitchery and yankness, and I was duly issued a 30 day access pass. Yeehah! 

Trouble is this all took ages, and I was left with only an hour of light in which to find the bird. So I drove through the final set of soldiers (who sadly did not salute) and found myself in a mini-city crawling with camo-clad military types. It was like birding in the UK! I passed Humvees, huge trucks, you name it, and finally found the canyon at the back of the massive area. The Ebird directions were excellent, and in searching the 100m or so of stream below the first bridge I found the Wren within 20 minutes. Some scrabbling Juncos in a patch of dead sticks put me onto it – the Juncos flew out but there was still noise from within and soon I was getting glimpses of the speckled face of this immense rarity. At one point it came fully out but within my minimum focusing distance – damn 500mm!! Still, a great score for the ABA list that I don't keep and that is entirely pathetic given there are several hundred resident birds I've yet to see! Nonetheless I was very pleased, after all I was not in a tour group having birds pointed out to me, I was doing this all on my own, and part of the satisfaction comes from the coming together of all the lengthy planning and actually succeeding. On paper it all seems very straightforward, I will go here and see this bird, and then I will go here and see this bird, easy. When you're actually in situ it's a whole different story, so it's good when it works. As mentioned, versus my various bits of paper that passed as research I missed loads, but aside from the cost element I'd much rather find fewer birds myself than be shown more birds by other people. Finnish Owls are the exception, and whilst I'm still limping from that one, that was a very objective and ultimately sensible decision.

A long drive back to Tucson during from almost Mexico, during which I got stopped by the Border Patrol looking for illegal Sinaloa Wrens. I kept quiet, and so did they. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016

On pacing myself

So in response to my last post where I mentioned I was a little tired of all the running around I do, a number of correspondents got in touch to say that this was all entirely my fault. I accept this a hundred percent, I am mostly busy because I make myself busy, and there are some conscious decisions that I could make (if I were brave enough) that would slow me down. The major one of course, and the route taken by at least one of these people, would be to turn my back on the stress of the rat race and go do something entirely different. Work, for better or worse, is mostly the root cause of all the running around. Not only because of the time it takes up during the day, but also because of all the opportunities it subsequently gives me to fill up my time with. Natch.

I had the opportunity before or course, and whilst I didn’t spurn it, perhaps I didn’t make the most of it. I had a lovely time though and will always remember quite how nice it was living a simpler existence, albeit still in London. Long summer days, still quiet mornings, a sense of calm despite small children.

Fundamentally I like to be busy, but I think the point I was trying to make was that it would be nice if sometimes, just sometimes, that wasn’t the default state. Bob made an interesting point on life continuing to speed by, but that people slow down, and I suspect his many years of experience ;-) are hitting the nail on the head here. I am getting older and there is no denying it. I am still trying to run around as if I were 21, but that the inescapable truth of it is that I’m a few years past that now and basically more tired. To be clear, I am not past it, whatever ‘it’ is, far from it, but perhaps I need to recognise that I have limits, and that those limits are coming in a bit. And that rather than increase the amount of things I do, I need to drop a few of them. That is the difficult part as I have a great many interests, none of which I really want to give up but some of which I may need to change.

So really this is another post about ageing, adapting to it, and how it annoys me that I even have to. But I have started in a small way, and I’m feeling sort of positive about it. This is because I was forced to buy a new camera bag, which is always a happy event. Camera bags are a topic for endless discussion because there is no such thing as a perfect camera bag. There are however many imperfect camera bags, another one of which is now in my cupboard! This one has wheels…..

Yes wheels. This is what I mean about ageing and it annoying me. I mean what camera bag has wheels? To be clear there is no hint of tartan, I have not yet reached that stage, but it certainly isn’t as manly and youthful as the backpack that it replaces. The sad truth is that neither am I, and after my recent trip to Arizona I realised I could not cope with the weight of my bag for an extended period of time. It contained a fair amount of stuff it has to be said, due to my pig-headed inability to choose between pure birding and pure bird photography and insisting on doing both. Hence a large lens, a large scope, two cameras, a few other lenses, a tripod for the scope, a monopod for the lens, chargers – you get the picture. The weight? 23kgs and there was barely a thing in it that I didn't use. There is no compromise possible in my mind on trips like this where I have multiple aims, but after lugging it around for a week I realised I can’t do it again, or rather I would prefer not to.  Hence the new old man’s bag. I have high hopes for it, and it doesn’t actually hold as much stuff so not only does it roll gloriously across airports and along pavements, but it will be lighter too. This is a bag for easy trips, worry ye not though as for hardcore bird photography trips I have a smaller bag that my poor wizened frame can still bear.

Ready to roll
Whilst on the topic of ageing, last night Mrs L and I met up with our university buddies at our traditional meeting spot, which is an old-school public house in London. A classic old boozer actually, utterly timeless, whilst those who frequent it gradually become more decrepit. Last night the starting topic of conversation was gout, which is entirely appropriate for our demographic. In a way this is entirely fitting, we have been going to this pub for years and gout is thus the natural conclusion. Not my gout I hasten to add, you would have definitely heard about it by now! We recalled how we had been sat perhaps at the very same table talking about buying houses and mortgage rates. Over the years the subjects have varied, through engagements and marriages, jobs, toddlers, children, school places, catchment areas. And now in a depressing yet totally expected progression we’re onto our ailments. Actually a couple of us are still talking about engagements and marriages, but they’ve held out long enough that they might get to do the ‘in sickness and in health’ part simultaneously! And I suppose if we all remain in London for the foreseeable future, it’s probably the place we’ll end up in talking about death too. Nobody said that last night but I wonder if we were thinking it? Or maybe it was just me, bags with wheels prompting morbid thoughts well before their time.