Saturday, 22 April 2017

Waders – a decade of retrospection

As I intimated in a recent post, Waders are the holy grail on my local patch. Given the lack of current activity on the patch I thought I might revisit past glories, all 13 of them. Always a lot of blogging mileage in memory. So here are the last 13 years. Slow going? Oh yes.....


Common Snipe

For many years I don’t think I recorded a single Wader on the Flats, they were all but impossible. Although I had been birding the patch for around four years by then, I didn’t record my first wader until 2008! This is a combination of me being pathetic and waders being difficult, back then probably more the former. It was of course a Common Snipe, probably the commonest Wader in terms of number of sightings. They’re a winter resident (although not in 2017!) and until recently an amble around the SSSI was likely to see a Common Snipe take off with a throaty rasp from the long grass towards Jubilee. Almost a gimmee really, or that’s what I would have said before this year.


Wood Sandpiper

I didn’t get anything else in 2008, but my second Wader on the patch, in 2009, remains one of my best. It was in mid-August and I was just approaching Alex early in the morning. Remarkably I think I got there before any of the dog-walkers, and the next thing I knew a small wader with a white rump was flying fast and low away from me down the south side of the pond. It didn’t make a sound, and it was distinctly brown rather than the black-and-white impression that Green Sandpipers can give. I reflected all day and called it a Wood Sandpiper – probably a little naively in retrospect – I think today I would either have let it go, or more likely I’m just a better birder and would have called it easily. In any event there is a happy ending as a couple of years later in early April 2011 I caught up with a bird on Angel Pond, and this one left no room for doubt at all.





Woodcock

I first recorded Woodcock on the Flats in the winter of 2009. At the time this was a huge surprise to me, but I think I’ve seen one almost every year since then. Another winter visitor, they tend to bury themselves deep in cover during the day, and either you wait for a regular bird to come out into the open (which is my tactic these days), or it is just pure blind luck that you bump into a day-flying bird. I’ve only ever flushed one bird, which exploded from underneath a bush in the boggy bit of the SSSI. All the others have been fly-bys in broad daylight and have given the most amazing views. Not amazing enough to have ever caught one on film, the one (really good) opportunity I had was when the first one I ever saw cruised by about ten feet above the ground all the way from one horizon to the other when I was stood out in the middle of Wanstead Flats. All I could do was stare at it dumbfounded with my camera dangling uselessly by my side as it crossed my field of vision almost infinitely slowly. Sometimes this is just the way birding should be.


Lapwing

By number, Lapwing is the most common Wader I’ve seen in Wanstead - 730 birds on the patch over years. This is still largely down to one extraordinary day in February 2012 when I recorded nearly 400. That snowy day also saw my first Jack Snipe and Golden Plover, but it was the Lapwing that stood out as they regularly flew over in groups ranging from 10 or so to over 40. My first were actually in December 2009, I was birding in the Park near Perch Pond and all of a sudden I thought I heard a Lapwing. Then there were 12 birds above me heading north. What a score! I was flabbergasted of course, but retained enough composure to race home and stand in the garden, where shortly after I got another bird flying south. It remains the only one I’ve ever seen from the garden. These days along with Snipe and perhaps Common Sandpiper it is the most likely Wader on the patch, and is most commonly associated with winter movements in hard weather, as on that amazing day in 2012. If you don’t have that however it becomes a lot harder, and it’s entirely possible to have a blank year as I did in 2016.




Dunlin

I still remember this as if it were yesterday, this tiny wader pottered along the shoreline of Jubilee Pond all day in April 2010. You could practically reach out and stroke it, it had clearly not seen people before, not even the local drunks could phase it. I visited it twice, once I think very rapidly for the pure twitch, and then again later in the day with a camera, though as you can see I did not make the most of it. Still the only one I’ve seen in over 10 years, which makes it one of the rarest patch birds.




Common Sandpiper

This is another annually expected bird, though I did not see my first until May 2010. I’ve now seen a total of 19, and they seem to be commonest on the concrete sides of Heronry pond in the months of April and August. I love flicky flight which along with their characteristic bobbing makes them very charismatic little birds. I think my best year was 2011 when I saw seven.




Little Ringed Plover

I remember excitedly finding my first LRP sitting in the gravel carpark next to the Alex in March 2012. I was there twitching a Common Sandpiper which had disappeared. I did a double-take as a small wader flew past me that appeared to have a black and white collar. Hang on a minute, Common Sand shouldn’t look like that! Nick crashed over, I think it was a first for him too. Since then I’ve seen another four or five, one was quite a friendly bird that hung about on what we call the Police Scrape for a few days, and more recently a veritable flock of three birds were on a dried-out Heronry pond in April 2017. In a way I am surprised I have not seen more of these, I suspect we do get more that arrive at night but that they are pushed off very early by the almost constant disturbance.




Stone Curlew

Remarkably I’ve seen two Stone Curlews on Wanstead Flats – this is a scarce bird in a national context, let alone London. The first was found by Nick one morning in April 2011 and he was the sole observer, but the following morning he found it again, this time flying back west, happily towards where I was. He was over near the forbidden triangle somewhere and I had been on my way home and was sprinting to get past Coronation Copse for a clear view. As I desperately approached the wood, movement to my right caught my eye – the distinctive black and white wings of a Stone Curlew folding up into the long grass near Centre Copse and the VizMig Point. Despite people converging on the area it was never seen again. I thought this would be a blocker for all the ages, but two years later in late March 2013 I was walking west across Wanstead Flats when I noticed a low-flying bird some distance ahead of me. I lost it almost immediately as it flew over Centre Road, but all my senses were screaming Stone Curlew despite the unlikeliness. I made a bold call to put the news out and get people on site, and happily about five minutes later was able to confirm my strong suspicions as I caught it banking over motorcycle wood. It disappeared yet again before anybody else had managed to turn up, but I think about half an hour later a number of people got some prolonged flight views as the bird circled over Long Wood before deciding that Wanstead was a little busy and heading north, probably over my garden!





Green Sandpiper

For ages and ages this was my local wader nemesis. I almost always missed birds which were frequently fly-overs, and it seemed for years that I was the only person missing this species. I finally scored over near Alex in July 2011 when 2 birds came off the lake and happily flew more or less past me. Since then I’ve seen few more singles and a flock of four over the SSSI. The only bird on the ground was bird pottering around the edge of Shoulder of Mutton Pond in the park.


Oystercatcher

Probably the least satisfying of all my wader ticks, in heavy fog one morning the undmistakable kleep of an Oystercatcher came from the murk ahead of me somewhere. Never saw it on a morning where I could barely see a few paces in front of me. Still, they all count. Earlier this year I had what I thought was another on another murky day, but as it only called once I let it go. As it happened this was the same day where the first returning bird was found on the Thames a short while later. I wonder….


Jack Snipe

I’ve seen a couple Jack Snipe, but the first was the most memorable. It was day of 400 Lapwings, and after most of these dried up a number of us were checking out the mostly frozen Alex as there had been a Med Gull. All of a sudden a wader came in, skidded on the ice and came to a halt under the branches. It looked small and the beak looked short. Tim had a clearer view of it as he was standing on the other side of the pond and confirmed our suspicions! We went around to join him and it started to bob…. The second was far less exciting, but Nick cornered a suspect in the ditch near Alex in 2013. It came up and flew to the larger ditch of despair, and then did a nice close flight to allow all of us to see that it was clearly a Jack.




Golden Plover

Remember that day I told you about with nearly 400 Lapwings and that Jack Snipe? (Hint, this was in the previous paragraph. If you can’t remember then you have a problem). When we all moved over to join Tim for better views of the Jack Snipe six Golden Plover swept over from the east. My shout, well scream really, could probably have been heard at Rainham. A memorable moment. I’ve seen a few more since then, including twitching some late in the afternoon from my moving car following a stressful journey back to the patch from a national twitch. Astonishingly those two birds were then joined by a third overnight, and relocated to Police Scrape where a short period of crawling through frozen mud allowed some relatively close photos.




Curlew

My last and final patch wader, there has been nothing new for me since these birds in 2013. Dan (Dan the wader man) had scored a flock of about a dozen in poor visibility earlier in the morning, and the rest of us were now out and about on the patch hoping for more. And morose. I found Dan and his magic satchel and stuck to him like glue. Sure enough, somewhere near the vizmig point the magic occurred and all of a sudden there were two Curlews over our heads. They must have come from the nearby playing fields as I didn’t see the satchel open, but who knows. It was over in a split second or so it felt like, but I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Needless to say there are no photos, but no photo could really cover the depth of this experience nor convey the absurd excitement.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Snipe

More local birding this week produced a Snipe. No wintering birds at all to our knowledge, and then mid-April once birds are on the move we get three in a week. Very odd. I realise that counting individual Snipe is pretty tragic as a past time, but Waders are basically like gold dust here in Wanstead. One day, or perhaps in a future life, I will live somewhere amazing for birding, where Snipe and many other birds are simply a regular part of the landscape. Ubiquitous. Would I then become complacent? Probably I would, in the same way that I ignore Blue Tits and, now, Blackcaps. Do birders lucky enough to live on the coast become numb to the wonders that surround them if that is their daily diet? Is the “good bird” threshold somehow raised to stratospheric levels, where even such irregular species as Redstart and Ring Ouzel are declassified into regular dross, and only BBRC birds are worthy of note? I suppose it is all location location location, which is why for Wanstead even a common Wader is frankly amazing, whereas at Rainham they give up counting Snipe when they reach 100 yet would all run quite quickly for a Redstart. Hey ho.

Whatever (if you live in Iceland)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Back behind a lens and enjoying it

I cannot remember if I whinged on here about 2017 being the worst year I can ever remember for taking photos. Possibly I wrote it and then discarded the post in disgust – nobody will feel sorry for me because I haven’t absolutely nailed various birds, particularly with the anti-photographer rhetoric so common at the moment. The post was about peaking in roughly 2014, and then gradually diminishing in both quantity and quality ever since. It got to the point a few weeks ago when I wondered about jacking it in as I wasn't enjoying it anymore. Why bother, there are plenty of bird photographers out there, who needs another? 

So most of this year on the patch (and indeed general birding elsewhere) has seen me with just binoculars, whoever thought that would happen? And even in the absence of many birds to speak of it has been refreshing to be so lightweight and free. Every now and again I have hauled the camera round the patch for no good reason and wondered why I bother – truly London is the pits. When trips to HK and even Hawaii failed to produce anything decent, I began to wonder if travel was in fact holding me back in some way. Or the camera. Was it mis-focussing or was that just my imagination? I couldn’t seem to get anything on target, nothing was tack sharp. My lack of practice or the tools letting me down? It is fair to say the camera is a wreck, a shadow of its former self, at least physically. There are cracks, dents, more scuffs than I can keep track of, and only about 60% of the rubber eyecup remaining. Whilst half of me was wondering about throwing the towel in, the other half of me was thinking dark, expensive thoughts about a new camera.

Once again it took the 800mm lens to sort things out. I have lost count of the number of times I have nearly sold it. It sits in the cupboard unused for months at a time, nagging at me - I do not deserve it, somebody else should have it. Somebody who will use it to its full potential, every day of the week. It is too heavy, too cumbersome, too large for everyday use. And I am too old, too feeble, and too busy to schlep it round the place. I’ll take the smaller lighter option instead, if anything, and get rid of it. Yes, cash it in. With my mind made up, and just before I get the box out of the loft, I decide to take it out one last time.

Christ, what a fantastic lens. Heavy, awkward, slow. And magnificent. I took it to Cyprus this weekend – Cyprus Pied Wheatears are small and it was an absolute joy. It makes bird photography a genuine pleasure, the range is incredible. How can 800mm be so much more than 700mm? 49 vs 64 I suppose, an increase in pixels on the bird of 30%. And that’s before any converter – a 1.4x converter almost doubles the number of pixels you have to play with on any lens, but this isn’t any lens. In near perfect light at 6am on Sunday morning I stalked a Cyprus Pied Wheatear at Cape Greco at the eastern end of the island. Crouching then standing, some crawling and some slithering. Constantly adjusting the monopod for the clarity of background. And then just for larks I added the converter as I still had plenty of speed in the clear morning of the eastern Mediterranean. Ooof! I can barely tell I’m using it, the bird zips into focus so easily, and it is huge!


There is nothing wrong with the camera, it didin't skip a beat that morning. Any previous concerns are all to do with the useless operator I’m afraid. The lessons here are many. Time spent with one aim in mind will always produce better shots than an on-spec wander. A lens on a monopod will deliver better results than one not on a monopod. And when it comes to focal length, longer is nearly always better.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Mute Swan

Jubilee Pond, the aquatic equivalent of an open sewer, had over 20 Mute Swan on it earlier in the year. Whilst catching Tuberculosis I decided to take a few photos of them, but rather than an entire post of large white birds I thought I would post just the one. It is called restraint, and I am well known for it. Now that spring is underway there are now fewer than 20 on it. Far fewer as it happens, and in fact at some point soon there will likely be only two as all other birds will have been relentlessly hounded off by the dominant pair who for some twisted reason view Jubilee Pond as an asset worth hanging on to. Birds can lack taste too.

The cob currently spends his entire day cruising around all fluffed up, serenely homing in on the nearest interloper like a guided missile. Rarely does he actually have to flap, the target bird, possibly his own offspring, usually takes off well before that stage. He then smoothly changes direction and with laser-like precision lines up the next victim. The same thing is happening on Alex, so there is a constant traffic of displaced Mute Swans travelling back and forth between the two ponds. At some point they will realise the futility of this and seek pastures new, but for now the air is full of the curious sound of Mute Swan wings.




And yes, this post is best categorised under "filler". Sign of the times.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A walk to work

For some reason I was up at 5.30 this morning so I used it as an excuse to go birding on the way to work. A stiff and cold breeze greeted me outside the front door, but it was bright and sunny. I set off in high spirits for the Park. Going directly to work is almost always in low spirits, going birding before work is a great antidote even if you ultimately end up in the same place. Reservoir Wood was alive, and I had it all to myself. Within the wood itself were Dunnock, Blackcap, Blackbird, Robin, Wren and Great Tit, all singing their hearts out. To my left a Great Spotted Woodpecker “kek’d”, and as I reached the scrubbier margins the first Chiffchaffs made themselves known, not forgetting Song Thrush phrases from every point of the compass. Over at the Shoulder of Mutton Pond a pair of Mute Swan drifted on the far side, but only a handful of Mallard now remain. Half a dozen Coot and two Moorhen, but the real interest was the Reed Warbler chuntering away in one of the corners. These birds have been regular patch breeders now for about the last four years – amazing that they or their descendents return to this small unremarkable pond half a world away. I’d missed the bird yesterday on my return from twitching the (expected) Cetti’s Warbler on the Roding, but I hadn’t been worried, I knew they would still be there whereas the Cetti’s was a little less certain.

A Jay bounded ahead of me as I skirted the southern edge of Heronry. It is a depressing sight at the moment, I do hope something gets done about it. The water is disappearing by the day, and the recently-exposed mud that had attracted the LRPs was now somewhat baked. Areas where the water disappeared some time ago now have that cracked appearance that you associate with African drought. Assuming all the water drains away, which surely it must, the landowner needs to take the opportunity to start from scratch – get a JCB (or four) in there to clear away the years of detritus – branches, the leaves of twenty autumns, rubbish and who knows what else, and once clear work out where the leaks are and repair them. And then restore the flow of water between the ponds which has clearly stopped. Only then can the healing and regeneration begin, but I have no idea what the plans are. Simply filling it up from the river or groundwater supplies would be dodging the problem, even if might then look better.



Anyhow, no waders on what mud there was, perhaps the Plovers were an abberation? A few motley Canada Geese and Mallards, a lone Moorhen picking its way across. More interest in the trees, where I heard my first Willow Warbler and Chaffinch of the day, as well as coinciding with a feeding flock of Long-tailed Tits, seems they are still at least partly communal in spring. Blackcaps simply everywhere, very heartening indeed, and just before I left a single House Martin, my first, scythed northwards - I am assuming a migrant rather than one of the resident birds that has recently returned to Brading Crescent.



Cutting through some of the residential streets I was soon on Wanstead Flats. This was quieter than I had hoped, but there was another Willow Warbler in West Long Wood, and a Mistle Thrush feeding on the playing fields, the first I have seen for a while. Cormorants and Canada Geese overhead, and of course the screeching of parakeets from every copse with an occasional sortie. Skylark was notably absent, but a few Meadow Pipits were in the grass.

Over at Alex were the first Greylags and a collection of Gulls nearby. I ignored them, I was birding. Little Grebe trilled, and Mute Swans were regularly scattered by the dominant pair, flying haplessly over to Jubilee where presumably the same thing happened before realighting on Alex to start the cycle again. Linnet overhead, Bob, and the first Greenfinches. A Green Woodpecker yaffled from the scrub, I later saw it in flight close to the Golden Fleece Pub. I picked out a distant Swallow heading north over Centre Copse, and then it was time to head for work. A pair of Sparrowhawk wheeled overhead clearly showing their size differential, hard to catch up with at the beginning of the year, I now see them on every outing. 41 species was the total for the walk, nothing overly remarkable but it makes for a positive start to the day that is well worth getting up a little earlier for. I won’t do it every day as it would become draining given everything else I have to do, but now and again it is really pleasant.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Getting there

Remiss of me not to mention the bonus Grey Wagtail whilst twitching the Little Ringed Plover. How a birder can go over three months without seeing a patch resident is beyond me, I can offer no excuses beyond incompetence. Remedied now but I am still missing a Peregrine, and not for lack of staring at the sky. One day – it is a marathon not a sprint, remember. If patch birding were easy….

That said it has got a bit easier of late, there has been a bit of migrant movement in this marathon. On an early morning dash around almost the whole of the patch the other morning I picked up Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, and others have picked up House and Sand Martins, and what I assume is a returning Cetti’s Warbler along the Roding. So it is starting, finally. As for the Cetti’s, good news as this has been missing locally for too long. Last year’s bird was brief but we all had high hopes of a return, and dare I whisper it, a colonisation. I’d still describe it as slow overall but it is improving.

In other non-bird related news, my life remains extremely dull.

No, we didn't bring a picnic to the Little Ringed Plover twitch. However if you recall, the previous weekend had been extremely pleasant on the weather front. As you can see, this brings out the best in people.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A bit of a turn up for the books

The weather changed on Monday and so did the birds. Presumably the massive high at the weekend that saw BBQs across the land fired up also saw every migrant sail right over the top of us and onwards north, however with that dissipating and some clouds and headwind appearing, so too did some birds. The patch saw its first Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Redstart, and best of all, Nick's veritable uberflock of waders in the form of three Little Ringed Plovers, feeding on the excuse for a pond that is Heronry. I had thought the Corporation's management of Heronry was a disaster, but now I recognise that leaving it to rot is actually an act of genius. My mistake.

Only because they stayed all day though, and I was able to twitch them late on after work. Had they disappeared during the day, as I thought likely, then I would probably still be moaning. As it was regular reports were received all day, and a mad dash from the tube in the evening delivered the goods. These three double the number of LRPs I've seen on the patch in the last 12 years, so this is a pretty amazing occurence.



Tony and James thought so too, falling over senseless soon after arriving and laying eyes on this mega trio, with only Richard retaining any sort of composure. For James this is sensational, only the previous day had we been discussing the paucity of his wader list, and now it has increased by a huge percentage. 

The birds were actively feeding throughout the time I was there and had been all day, and so it was no surprise that when I returned the next morning with a camera bigger than my phone that there was no sign. Still, I did pick up both the Whitethroat and the Lesser Whitethroat on the way back so it wasn't a wasted journey, not to mention the small matter of six miles under the belt before breakfast.

So finally a bit of patch success - waders on the deck here is pretty monster, and three for an entire day is very nearly unheard of. More please!



Monday, 10 April 2017

Vange vistas

After a dire Saturday in Wanstead I abandoned the patch on Sunday and went somewhere I might actually see some birds. I had a lot to do so didn’t go too far – popped my head in at Rainham to see H briefly, and then headed to Vange to see if the Black-winged Stilts were still there. Two pairs had been reported the previous day at the site, I was keen to see if I could double my previous total of two birds from the same site last year. I couldn’t as it happens, only one pair were present, but they showed very well even just through bins. A shame I hadn’t brought my scope as the views would have been superb, but I was travelling extremely light - it was a beautiful day and I simply hadn’t been bothered to take anything other than the bare minimum. Binoculars and flip-flops helped me stand out in a sea of camo. Not sure where the other pair went, but there is lots of eminently suitable habitat in this area of Essex (and Kent), so perhaps these colonists were not that far away.

I hadn’t brought my camera either so I have no photos of the birds, but one of the things about birding is that it takes you to the nicest places and you can often get nice landscape shots with just a phone that enable others to get a feel for an area. Vange for example is quite outstanding, you can see why these rare waders were drawn back here again this year. It was good to be somewhere different, somewhere a lot nicer than the devastation of Wanstead Flats frankly, and whilst there are many fine vistas the following two are my favourite.




Afterwards I went to Aldi in Pitsea to complete the experience. It didn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Slow spring

Contrary to what finds it's way on here, I have been birding a lot locally this spring. It is just that I feel that blog post after interminable blog post about hearing only Chiffchaffs doesn't make for great reading, so I have largely ignored my fruitless forays out onto the patch. It has been sort of enjoyable getting out there early before all the people and their pets, but equally it could have been a lot more enjoyable if I had been bumping into Ring Ouzels, hearing Willow Warblers, raising my bins and turning distant dots into hirundines and so on. No, I am afraid it has been dull as the proverbial ditch-water. Perfect blogging material now I think about it..... 

I did add a few singing Blackcaps last Saturday, but after the early excitement of London's first Wheatear of 2017 raised expectations to fever pitch, the patch has done nothing but underperform. Our neighbours in Walthamstow meanwhile have been clearing up, loads of decent birds to remind us how little we're seeing, and to add to the daily depression of another two hours in bed sacrificed for no good reason I have to walk past the scars of the Corporation of London's latest land clearance scheme. I have a post on this lined up actually, but every time I am ready to publish it I discover another area that has been razed to the ground and need to record that too.


Adding to the feelings of being hard done by are the daily missives from the East London Retired Birders Club. This is a Whatsapp group, and I am seemingly the only employed member of it. You can imagine where this leads. A constant feed of people seeing tons of migrants across the local reservoirs and the river. A network of dedicated observers with nary a care in the world, out on their patches from dawn to dusk, revelling in migrant after migrant. Work? Overrated apparently. The first Sedge Warbler, 30+ Sand Martins, some lingering Mergs, oh, some Black-winged Stilts. Nice. From my desk in Canary Wharf I grimace and carry on. That I was unemployed for two years and doing exactly the same to them is long forgotten of course, it is the here and the now that matters.   

All it will take however is one Red-rumped Swallow or Alpine Swift to make it all alright again. I live in hope, eyes to the sky. We may not have had many migrants this year, but imagine if one of those European overshoots made landfall here. It is what keeps local patchwatchers on their toes - we had a R-RS once, in the 1970s, and there was an Alpine Swift over nearby Leyton Flats only a few years ago, easily under a mile away, so it can and does happen. Just not very often sadly. 

You can see this year's somewhat pitiful list here.






Monday, 3 April 2017

Like a busy bee

Did you read that 20 million Britons are physically inactive? Not me! Or am I? I like to think of myself as active - but am I just busy? These are the words of a lady mentioned in the article who had a heart attack aged 44. Much older than me obviously, but food for thought. As regular readers will know, I have a million interests and am forever charging around the place in the pursuit of them. It might be birding, it might be travelling, it might be horticulture, it might be a bit of all three combined - never a dull moment! Along with regular family life I certainly feel very busy, but am I active? 

I have no time at all for any exercise, in both senses. I actually don't have any time, and I also just don't like the thought of it. Going to a gym? Ugh. I thought I might cycle to work, and for a while I did, but that didn't last due to various medical complaints that I am still using as excuses. The ankle I think is probably still just about valid. Anyway, whilst various bits of me do their best to malfunction, I instead decided I would do a lot of walking, but I am not sure how good this is for me. I have lost no weight at all. The only thing that seems to happen is that if I walk more than about eight my miles my other foot starts hurting. Then again, are all of these miles allowing me to stay flat, and I would have ballooned had I not? An interesting experiment perhaps awaits!

Typically I am lousy at staying true to anything which requires grit. Doing five miles a day on my own two feet however has thus far been remarkably easy, which probably explains why I am still doing it. Three months in I have just passed the 500 mile mark, and whilst not every week has seen me meet the 35 mile goal, there have been many that beat it by so much that the daily average is currently sitting at about 5.4. I am amazed by this, not least because my daily commute to work is only one and a half miles. Somehow nearly four more come from doing other things.

Birding is the obvious one. A typical morning commute is (during fine weather in spring!) extended by at least a mile and a half, possibly two, as I take various haphazard routes across Wanstead Flats rather then walk straight to the tube. By the time I get to work I am probably already on about three miles, and wandering around the office during the day seems to add another half mile or so and so by the time I get home I am basically done. My evening chores around the house seem to chew up the rest.


Mystery bird...


Weekends are different. The morning assault on Wanstead Flats is usually around five miles. A couple of circuits in the vain hope I might see something good. And this spring it really has been in vain... Once back home however is where the real work begins. This Saturday just gone I arrived back home on about six miles. I then did a further four at home! Four miles just walking around  the house and garden! To be clear, despite its name, Chateau L is in fact a regular suburban house. It is sadly not a vast estate with sweeping vistas down to the boating lake. Somehow all the things I had to do around the house added up to quite a hefty walk. I mowed the lawn, I repotted and watered the plants, I filled up the bird-feeders, I cleaned the greenhouse roof with a pressure washer, I hung up washing, I swept, I vacuumed, I picked things up off the floor, I walked into rooms and forgot why, I ticked off my to-do list in a frenzy of activity. Chores means miles, and this is what I meant by being busy, and I wonder if this is what the lady on the BBC meant too?

Sunday was even more hectic. I was at my parents house helping out - a huge list of jobs had been prepared for my arrival, and so from 9am to about 5.30pm I ran around the place doing them all. There were a couple of minor excursions into the village, but by the end of the day I was on five miles again, from seemingly doing nothing. I was on my feet almost all day but there was no physical exertion whatsoever. This is probably the missing factor. I need to puff and blow, and no amount of walking is ever going to achieve that. No, I need more, the question is what though.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Haleakala Sunset


A breathtaking experience that no photos can possibly do justice I'm afraid, but anyone going to Maui should make time for either this or for sunrise. Sunrise takes more planning, and you have to book ahead, hence why I chose the sunset. Are they the same? Undoubtedly not, but then no two sunsets are the same either. Just go, you will enjoy either one, and that's guaranteed.



To get there take the 377 then the 378. The summit is at 10,000 feet, you drive up a wonderful series of switchbacks to get there, passing through the clouds in the way. Where the trees thin out and the slopes become grassy you will probably hear Skylarks singing - a well out of place import. I also saw a Pheasant! It's probably about a 45 minute drive from where the road up starts, and once above the cloud layer the views are simply incredible. Given the height, there is probably no such thing as not a clear day so you will almost certainly get a decent view. Make sure you plan ahead for sunset as it is unrestricted and it gets busy - you will probably be driving up in a convoy so leave time as parking is tight and it becomes a bit fraught with people abandoning vehicles as the sun starts to disappear. Bring warm clothes, you will need them. And bring your soul.












Tuesday, 28 March 2017

When not birding in Hawaii




So what else of Maui then? Beyond birding Hosmer Grove for the endemics I didn’t actually do much birding, as I had seen all the waterbird endemics on my last visit. I stopped in at Kanaha Ponds briefly, which are right next to the airport, and this had quite a few Hawaiian Stilt, as well as a few Night Heron, a single Turnstone, Sanderling and Pacific Golden Plover. I picked up a few other birds along the way, mostly from the car or where I stopped the car to go snorkelling. And in fact the car and snorkelling were the major reasons for the lack of birding. The car was a Ford Mustang Convertible, and thus highly enjoyable, and the beaches of Maui offer possibly some of the best easy snorkelling on the planet. Below the water is simply fabulous, often right off the beaches, and the first thing I did after collecting the car was to go and buy a mask, flippers and tube. Things have moved on hugely since I last bought any snorkelling kit, and I am now the proud owner of a highly modern set of gear to replace my knackered old stuff bought in California circa 1986. I didn’t even bother digging this stuff out for the trip, and as soon as find it it’s going. I’m not sure silicone had even been invented then, my mask was rubber and I expect it has long since perished.







I stopped the car and jumped in the water multiple times, wherever it looked good and sheltered. On the first day this was most of west Maui, but on the second day there was some offshore swell that made a number of attempts futile. The best spot was up towards Lahaina, a beautiful beach where I could park the car under the trees and was mere steps from the water with a coral reef running parallel to the beach for several hundred meters. I spent a long time here and saw loads of wonderful fish. Is it OK to have a favourite fish? If so it is the Hunuhununukunukuapua'a, which would be awesome even if it were just plain and boring to look at. Obviously it isn’t .....no underwater camera so you will need to look it up….. The colours and variety were sensational, and in truth far outweighed the birds in terms of beauty and being entranced. As such I probably spent more time swimming than I did birding, which is wrong given mhy self-professed interest but there you have it. The last thing I need is another hobby, but I’ve actually got a trip coming up with my youngest daughter that is 100% about snorkelling as she is dead keen on anything to do with water and always has been – there must have been some kind of mix up as she is part fish. This was part of the reason for taking the plunge (haha) and buying new stuff. What I need to work out in advance of then is how I can get my camera, or a camera, underwater. That could be a whole new challenge for me – I’ve often marvelled at the underwater section of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibitions, or the footage from things like the Blue Planet, but I have never even considered how they do it as I simply had no frame of reference. Now I bet you can just take your phone with you…. Some research needed perhaps.

Zebra Dove

Nutmeg Mannikin
There was not really a huge amount of time in which to explore, but a massive highlight was watching the sun set from the summit of Haleakala - however this will be the subject of a separate post as it needs to be ridiculously photo-heavy to even stand a chance of explaining how monumental it is. For now, let's just say that despite the stupidity and all the time spent getting there, I really am a big fan of Hawaii. For starters they were the first State to challenge Trump's revised travel ban, which at the time of writing is still not going anywhere. There are other endemics to try and eke out, and of course there are Albatrosses....





Monday, 27 March 2017

Slow Sundays

Sunday continued in much the same vein as Saturday, but without the birding. Somehow the clocks changing caused me to sleep in until gone 9 (the new 9), which was close enough to the start of the football on Wanstead Flats that I elected not to bother. From my foray on Saturday morning I felt I probably wouldn’t be missing much, it still feels like migration hasn’t really started, at least locally. Instead I continued to potter up and down between the house and the greenhouse, tidying, sprucing, rearranging. I do like this time of year, there is interest on every front, and I can chop and choose where I spend my time knowing that no matter where I land I will enjoy myself.

Once again it was a beautiful day – not hot, but warm and pleasant enough to feel spring-like. Chateau L became a hive of industry, windows were thrown open to get some fresh air in, the washing machine went into overdrive, and for the first time in many months clothes got to dry outside. Surfaces were wiped down, dusting occurred, the atmosphere was highly positive. More importantly, barbeque coal and rosé were sourced, and once the grill had been cleaned of all the winter gank, the pleasant smell of charcoal started to drift into all the windows we had opened, and with a little bit of shift in the wind direction, blanketed the washing drying on the line in a nice grey cloud.

Oops. You can’t teach this kind of genius, you either have it or you don’t. Oh well, you can’t beat a bit of outdoor cooking for promoting the joys of spring, and thus the day passed very pleasantly indeed. Rosé was replaced by Gin & Tonic at some point during the afternoon, and we simply enjoyed relaxing at home. I am glad I can do frenetic and lethargic and be equally enamoured by both. A small amount of sky watching occurred, but unlike Saturday when the first Buzzard was right on time, I saw nothing all day.


I made it back on patch this morning and barely saw a bird, confirming my suspicion that it is still a tad early. A bit depressing actually, what with all the litter from Sunday’s football, all the razed areas of habitat, and then to top it off a nice bit of fly-tipping.  However just as I was on the point of giving up on a bad job and leaving the Flats to catch the train, three ducks heading over my head west caused me to look up. Shelduck! Annual, and always at this time of year, but almost always a flyover going east early morning. Excellent to get these therefore, but also confirmation that working a local patch can sometimes feel like you are stuck on repeat, merely going through the motions.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Maui List

Here’s a list of the native birds I saw on Maui, ie the ones that got there of their own accord rather than being brought there by people. Writing this list down for the blog is possibly one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done recently!

‘Auku’u
Koloa Mapu
Koloa Moha
‘Alae ke’oke’o
‘Alae ‘Ula
Ae’o
Kolea
‘Akekeke
Hunakai
‘Ulili
‘Amakihi
Maui ‘Alauahio
‘Apapane
‘I’iwi
Moa





Saturday, 25 March 2017

My perfect day

Today was a pretty perfect day. Having been away last weekend I was very much looking forward to a day of doing very little. Of pottering. I am a great potterer when the mood takes me, the hours just fly by. I started early, before 6am, by birding the patch. In all honesty it was pretty dire, nary a single migrant and very quiet indeed. The boys and I naturally started talking about drinking almost immediately - I worry about the liver function of many of our local patch workers. I also sense that a gin & tonic evening is probably in the offing, as we all seem very keen indeed on this most wonderful of drinks. The avian highlight was a particularly lovely male Stonechat in the Ditch of Despair - despite my camouflage hat I couldn't get anywhere near it so the below is about as good as it gets.


Returning home having drawn the proverbial blank I enjoyed coffee and some semi-stale crusts of toast . This is the problem with children, they eat you out of house and home yet don't bother telling you when something has run out (ie, been scoffed). They simply move on to something else. Oh, no bread? Right, cereal then. No cereal? Fruit. They just expect replacement whatever it is, in this instance bread, to magically reappear the next time they look. I open the bread bin about once a week and it is always sodding empty. So it was today, barring the ends of a couple of loaves. The trick is to splash a bit of water on them and then sling them in the toaster.

With this meagre sustenance I set to work. I was delighted to discover that my lawn mower still worked after all this time, and half an hour later the garden looked sensational. It does not matter how crappy your garden is, once you mow the grass ('lawn' would be pushing it at Chateau L) it makes everything look fabulous for some reason. I pruned a few things and did a few edges, you might almost think a gardener had come. Did Mrs L notice when she returned home? No.

Next up was repopulating the terrace with ferocious Mexican plants that have spent the winter under glass. I have a sack barrow specifically for this annual task and so made short work of getting all of them out and back up the garden. The local cats are once again in mortal danger, just the way I like it. And then with so much room freed up in the greenhouse I was able to take stuff from indoors and put it down there, which means we can now move a little more easily in the house. Some watering, some pruning, a but of weeding, and after all this I was amazed to see that my pedometer suggested that I had covered three miles simply walking up and down the garden - talk about industrious!

So now came the time to relax. It was precisely raptor o'clock. I plonked one of the garden chairs on the freshly mown grass and lowered myself gently down, binoculars at the ready. Five minutes later the first Buzzard cruised over, and an hour later the second. The intervening period passed very quickly, it is possible that I dozed off.

And then it was time for gin. 


Friday, 24 March 2017

Birding Hosmer Grove, Maui


There was only ever really one spot where I was going to look for the endemic Honeycreepers on Maui, and this is Hosmer Grove about half way up the road that leads to the Haleakala Observatory, just after the entrance booth to the park. It was a misguided attempt back in the 1920s to try and establish hardwood plantations and form a timber industry on Hawaii. Many of the trees didn't do well, but a handful did too well, thus damaging the fragile native ecosystem. There are still stands of these non-native trees today, some of them are absolutely huge, and the park managers face a constant battle to ensure that the native scrub land and its plants don't get further eroded. Despite this it is still noted as the best place on the island to get a view into that habitat, and is also the site of a protected area called the Waikamoi Preserve, established and fenced off by the Nature Conservancy to keep at least some of the slopes of east Maui as they once were. This preserve is strictly off limits for the most part, though there are infrequent guided walks down the slope to a boardwalk where good views of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers are more-or-less assured. I didn't have that opportunity and neither will most people, so I thought I'd put together a brief guide of how best to see at least some of the birds without being on a guide-led walk into the Preserve itself. 






Access
The first left turn after the entrance booths. There are several small car parks along this short road that ends at the campground, and you can leave your car in any of them. The grove is on your left, and to your right is native scrub land. There is practically no walking involved and you will likely see at least some of the Honeycreepers from the car if you are so inclined. For instance Apapane and Amakihi were relatively easy to find along this road, frequently flying out of the forest and up the slope into the native bushes to feed. The area around the large water tank and solitary pine tree was a good spot.



The actual trail starts at the campground car park itself, as noted on the map above, and first leads through Hosmer Grove itself, and then emerges a little higher up into the native scrub. The Waikomai gulch is to the right (east) of the trail, and presumably the off-limits Preserve is off the top of the map/north. The only non-native birds that I saw in and around the Grove were House Finch and Japanese White-eye, so any sound you do not recognise is likely to be a Honeycreeper. I'iwi in particular make a huge variety of sounds, and are easily picked up. The most productive area was easily where the grove begins to peter out and the give way to native plants - basically at the far right of this map close to where the trail splits in two and these is a shortcut back. As the trail emerges it does so alongside the top of the Waikamoi gulch, a ravine filled with native plants. There are couple of overlooks, the first with an interpretation board, and a stint here looking down into the gulch will produce results. I saw lots of I'iwi from this spot, often extremely well, and Maui Creeper or Alauahio were present in the pines right on the edge of the forest. They tended not to venture out very much, whereas the I'iwi flew back and forth constantly, although preferring not to move too far away from the treeline. I saw only one Amakihi in this area of forest, all the others were further up the hillside. This was mostly true of the Apapane too, I only saw one right on the margins of the forest, all the others were in the scrub.




I'iwi

I visited twice, once in the early evening about an hour before sunset, and once in the morning about an hour after sunrise. The early morning visit was unsurprisingly much more productive, although I did not walk the main trail in the evening. For reference I visited in late March. Note that due to the popularity of viewing the sun rising above the clouds on Mt Haleakala, entrance to the park is restricted between 3am and 7am – you need to have made a reservation and space is limited by parking spaces at the summit. I found this out too late, but a great day out in my opinion would be to start with the sunrise, and then descend to Hosmer Grove (about 25 minutes) and bird the area for a few hours. With uber-planning you could do that and join the guided walk which I believe starts at 8am from along the Hosmer Grove road. The summit is a shade over 10,000ft, and is cold and windy – you need proper clothes if you are going to be up there for any length of time. You can bird Hosmer in shorts and a T-shirt however, it is 'only' about 6,700ft and remains fairly pleasant. Bizarrely the calls of the Honeycreepers are interspersed with the coughs of Ring-necked Pheasant, another introduction to the zoo that defines most of the birding on Hawaii. As you drive up you’ll be serenaded by European Skylark….


Maui Alauahio



Amakihi
I birded the area for about four hours, from 7am on the dot to just before 11 by which time it was quite hot and bird activity had dropped off significantly. Beyond about 10am the I’iwi tended to stay in the trees more and I was happy to join them. The peak of activity was probably from 8am until 9am, by which time a bit of sunshine was starting to get into the top of the gulch. I’iwi was actually the commonest bird by some margin, followed by Apapane, then Amakihi. Alauahio was the hardest to catch up with, and I didn’t see Crested Honeycreeper or Maui Parrotbill at all. These latter are seen only a handful of times a year, but I suspect you would get the former if you went on the guided walk which takes you deeper into native habitat.

My four hour visit produced the following birds, and I got excellent views of them all.

I’Iwi – 20+
Apapane 8
Amakihi 5

Maui Creeper 3