Monday, 22 May 2017


This morning I did not even see a Swift. Lesser Whitethroat and Whitethroat were both singing, but the only movement on Wanstead Flats was newly-fledged Starling accompanying their parents on feeding excursions. Nothing is moving. Getting up at 5am therefore seems rather unnecessary, and I will be attempting to limit this for the next few months.

This is rather difficult however as after so long getting up early my body clock has adjusted to it. And of course at the moment it gets light incredibly early, and as Bob who lives nearby can unfortunately testify, our curtains are out of action at the moment. I hope Bob will recover in time….

So what’s the round-up then? I don’t think anyone who birds the area will look back at this as a classic spring. I think all the individual migrant species have been present and correct so peoples’ patch lists look more or less respectable, but generally numbers have been down on what I would expect.

Little Ringed Plover – 4 birds, a group of 3 that I saw and a single that I didn’t – definitely better than average
Snipe - after none in the winter, a handful in April moving through. I saw 1, which is just enough.
Common Sandpiper – 2 birds, I saw one.
Green Sandpiper – 2 birds, I saw none.
Common Tern – with the traditional fishing spot of Heronry dry, lucky to pick up 3 birds on a stormy day.
Hobby – a few birds through but not sure if we have any breeders.
Red Kite – perhaps 4 birds moving through, happy to say I missed them all.
Buzzard - I've seen at least 10, mostly from the garden. I don't know how other birders miss them...

Rook – 4 birds so better than normal, I somehow managed to jam one of them.
Common Redstart – 2-3 birds of which I saw none.
Ring Ouzel – 2 birds of which I saw, oh let’s see? Neither.
Nightingale – less than annual and I was away.
Whinchat – 2 birds on morning and that was it.
Wheatear – a very early bird mid-March with far better numbers in April. I didn’t see many of them.
Yellow Wagtail – generally poor but a decent passage on some days
Tree Pipit – 2 or 3 birds only. I was away.
Woodlark - the guys jammed in on a spring flyover when I was, er, away. I sense a pattern.
Swift - small numbers, but until this morning pretty regular.
Swallow – I’ve seen trickles.
House Martin – the local colony is still alive but numbers are not good.
Sand Martin – I’ve seen 3 single birds, pretty sure there have not been very many.
Blackcap - plenty
Garden Warbler – 2-3 birds in spring, but only sang for a day or so and are seemingly now gone.
Chiffchaff - plenty
Willow Warbler – to my mind a success, with more singing birds, and for longer, than I can ever remember.
Whitethroat - plenty
Lesser Whitethroat – more this year is my impression
Sedge Warbler – 2-3 birds which remarkably I saw/heard 100% of
Reed Warbler – back on their SoM stronghold

Cetti’s Warbler – first bird last year, and back in the same spot this year.

The overall patchlist for 2017 sits on 110, and I have seen just 99. This is mildly irritating me, but I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the early morning shift isn't likely to change this and my time would be much better spent asleep.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A veritable procession

I went to Rainham today for the third time in as many weeks, the place is on fire at the moment. Before you say it, it was not for a Gull. Had it been I would not be confessing on here, no, I would have kept it nice and quiet and moved on. What got me moving today (and quite quickly at that!) was a Common Crane.

Pottering about in the garden, I at first thought it was a joke so nonchalantly did the news come out. "Crane Serin Mound" was Dick's to the point message. Whaaat?! Rainham has never had a Crane, and they're a hard bird to catch up with anywhere as they can cover about 10,000 miles an hour on a nice warm day. I assumed it was a fly-over until the next message said it was on the deck....

Oh, er right then. Horticultural plans abandoned, scope sourced, bins grabbed, and off down the North Circular and A13 to Ferry Lane. I made it in nearly record time. The record of course lies with the White-tailed Plover a few years back which was before the installation of average speed cameras, now that was quick. Nonetheless I was nervous, this was not only a Rainham tick but also an Essex tick. Surely in the 20 minutes it would take me it would get up and be in Sweden before I got to Dagenham?

I need not have worried, the bird stayed all day and allowed almost everyone who cares to waltz up and have a good look - albeit a distant and at times hazy look. Arriving at the Serin Mound I was surprised to find only a few people there, maybe I was quicker than I thought. At first you could only see its head pop up every now and again, and at that point it could easily have been a Canada Goose. Gradually it walked out into the open and revealed the rest of it - a proper adult complete with a shaggy rear end. My only other London Crane was a juvenile at Beddington in 2010. Whilst that was closer, this was a lot better, and more importantly was within the boundaries of a couple of lists I take. It's a numbers game.

This was number 194, and hot on the heels of both Stilt and Quail makes a good dent in the target whilst still leaving quite a lot of easy ones. A morning on the sea wall in the autumn might net another 2 or 3, I nearly got the Raven today, and as well as the Laughing Gull there is now a Bonaparte's knocking around. It's always good to have something to aim at.

The rest of the day I spent aiming my binoculars into Wanstead air space. Futilely. One Buzzard for my troubles, a stratospherically high bird heading south so rapidly I didn't even bother to call Bob who still needs it. That's June for you I suppose, but the brief May interlude this morning was most welcome.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Nearly over

You feel that it is just about over. Spring I mean. The last few sorties on the patch have produced essentially the same birds, there is nothing moving. I am holding out hope of spring Spotted Flycatcher, though they are ridiculously difficult versus autumn birds. Per the uber-spreadsheet of happiness my tally is 1:91. There is likely a little bit of long-staying birds in the 91 records, but even so. Other than that I am pinning my chances on a wandering Red Kite. Historically I always saw these between mid-March and mid-April, but my sense is that there are more about now and that they could 'happen' any time.

And let's hope they do because I am stuck on 99 for the year. Agonisingly close. There are many misses still of course, but most of those cannot be rectified until at least July and more like September. The last remaining gimme fell on Sunday, when Richard and I enjoyed brilliant views of a Peregrine Falcon. Two Peregrine Falcons in fact. There was some kind of altercation, the first we knew of it was when we heard one of the birds, which I think is a first for me. Looking up one bird bombed off east whereas the other, possibly the victor in whatever had just happened, then cruised lazily round us in a big circle before powering off back west with a bit of mid-air shake. 

I had been wondering why I had been birding the patch for nearly five months without seeing a Peregrine, so this was much appreciated and was long overdue, as well as being easily the best views I've ever had of this bird anywhere. So that was 99, but all subsequent outings I've been seeing the same four Swifts and a motley collection of non-breeding Herring Gulls doing nothing on the football pitches. There are only so many mornings like this one can take, so it could be that my bins get hung up quite soon so that I can catch up on some much needed sleep.

June will be about sleeping. The question is basically if it is June already. I think it might be.

It may also result in more blogging. Leaving the house at 6am to go birding and then working leaves little time for anything else. Eating is prioritised, as is going to bed in order to be up early to repeat the whole routine. Happily this can all end soon as proper no-birds summer kicks in and we all lose interest. Can't wait!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Ditch of Dreams

The Whinchats were fantastic, but look what else was in this ditch! 

Yes, Great Reed Warblers, and lots of them. At one part of the ditch there were about five or six birds in a very small area – a patch of reeds no more than 2m wide and about 5m long, and they were winding themselves up something chronic. One would kick off “Kerrr kerrr kerrr cha cha cha” etc, and this would spur its neighbor to scurry up a stem and start as well. The first bird would then fly at the second and there would be aerial flurries, during which a third bird would creep up and get in a short burst. Two more then flew in with a few experimental croaks, their interest clearly piqued, and the whole circus would start again. I confess I watched from the comfort of the car for easily over an hour during which I had ample time to change lenses, add or take away converters, play with exposures and so on. At one point I even gave the sensor a bit of clean when I noticed a big gob of dust on some of the photos.

In short it was magnificent, and from my perspective even outshone the trips out on the lake that I went on. I spent a full afternoon here bouncing up and down some rough tracks in my lovely (but abused) Nissan Micra trying to get some pleasing shots. Now whilst Great Reed Warblers are properly charismatic, the show was stolen by the Black-headed Wagtails. What a stunning bird! These too were in the reed beds, and a number of them perched rather obligingly when I wasn’t ogling Whinchats. I had a very productive time, but what struck me most was the sheer numbers of birds at every turn. Nightingales were everywhere, and whilst they were at their most deafening after dawn, they continued all day and there was no point at which the soundtrack didn’t contain their piping songs. There were Shrikes, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Cuckoos calling, masses of hirundines and obscene numbers of Herons and Egrets flying over. Compare this to the British countryside where you could take a walk and see only a handful of birds. We might grow more crops but look what we have done. Much of eastern Europe is the same, the last bastions of a more low level form of agriculture and it abundantly evident. Bulgaria and Poland were the same, Bulgaria especially so, and which shares a border with the area of Greece I was in. Abundant birdlife. It takes a visit to one of these places to realise how impoverished we are here – any birders who do not travel are missing out.

So, apologies for yet another image-heavy post. Think of me as a travelling salesman, or rather a travel salesman. If you go to these places you can see really good birds, and lots of them. People wet themselves here and fall over in heaps when confronted with a Feldegg half a mile across a stubble field. In eastern Europe you can be 20 feet away from half a dozen birds and have them completely to yourself.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


"And a Black-winged Stilt must drop in one of these days surely?"

I wrote this yesterday, idly wondering what new species might propel my Rainham list to the magic 200. Today I popped over there after work and ticked it off. Yes, that's right, a day later, in fact less than 12 hours later, a pair of Black-winged Stilt dropped into the reserve and had the good grace to stay all day. What curious coincidence is this? Do I merely need to write the species I would like to see there and a day later one will appear?

An interesting theory, and I'd be delighted to see a Bee-eater, Hoopoe or, err, Green Heron, however my guess was not really a guess. Black-winged Stilts have been seen all over the place at various sites along the Thames Estuary over the last few years, but for some bizarre reason have never chosen to visit Rainham. I think there was a day bird back in 2010 but I was abroad and missed it, and there has not been one since. I figured it was only a matter of time until a repeat given the numbers in the country, and whilst I admit that the speed of arrival was incredible I can't say I'm that surprised.

They were about half a mile away, but the views were crisp in the early evening light. Excellent! I may have done a little jig, as I had had to find them by myself - none of this pitching up and asking for directions from a long line of green fleece. #193 in the bag, under the belt etc. I was soon joined by other members of the Employed Birders Club (there are not many of us) who had also presumably spent a day in agony hoping against hope that the birds would stay until they could get there. They need not have worried, Rainham is on fire at the moment - one of them I had seen only a few days ago whilst twitching the Quail.

All I can say is that hopefully we'll see each other again very soon!

Mostly very similar to the views I had.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Back on the Rainham tick trail

Once upon a time I used to bird Rainham Marshes. Predominantly this was in the carefree days of gainless unemployment - bird reserves are a magnet for the jobless and retired, or so my local Whatsapp group keeps telling me with message after birdy message whilst I'm firmly ensconced in a concrete jungle! As a result of being out to pasture I saw countless good birds there over a happy two year period. I say countless but I am of course lying, for I counted them all... this is after all what birding is mostly about.

In the space of those two years my Rainham list increased by a whopping 43 species, and I was on 140 to start with! I saw all sorts of goodies in a London context, including Hen and Montagu's Harrier, Spotted Crake, Snow and Ortolan Bunting, Merlin, Great and Arctic Skuas, Slav Grebe, Pink-footed Goose, Eider, Kittiwake, Gannet, Manx Shearwater..... Those two years were a huge amount of fun.

It gets progressively harder of course, and in the intervening six years since then I've only added nine more species. One of those was last night, a Quail singing on the edge of the tip at the west end of the site. This is only the second I've ever heard (for I did not see it) in London, a seriously decent bird, and it took my Rainham total up to 192. Or as I prefer to call it, eight away from 200. Oh yes, the irresistible lure of the nice round number.

There are some glaring gaps. Siskin and Lesser Redpoll for starters, and Tree Pipit. Raven is pretty regular at the moment and I still need that, as well as nearly every Heron bar the obvious ones. And a Black-winged Stilt must drop in one of these days surely? Doable in other words, although it will require some effort and some jam. The trouble is that I just don't go there enough any more, and reports of Siskin are not going to get me moving very fast in that direction. Last year I got two site ticks, Razorbill and Dusky Warbler. I 'needed' Razorbill for London, and also jammed in on a famous twitcher very unfortunately tripping over an electric fence. Of course I enjoyed the bird more, what are you talking about? The Dusky Warbler was only the second one ever for the capital, and whilst I had seen the first I suppose I must have been a loose end or something. Lesser Redpoll however? Meh. If I can somehow get over the limiting factor of not being impressed enough to drive twenty minutes for common birds that I can easily see two minutes from home on foot.....

However as I type this there is news of either a Franklin's or a Laughing Gull near the tip. Whilst the thought of a Gull is frankly appalling in May and only marginally better in winter, this would be a proper London tick and could tempt me back over. I am joking of course, I would never go anywhere for a Gull. Ahem. But the excuse I might use is that the birding there is just really nice and I will see infinitely more Whimbrel, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Redshank than I will in Wanstead.

One of my above average Rainham ticks

Friday, 5 May 2017

Of Whinchats and Wheatears

How good are Whinchats? I mean, just how wonderful are spring Whinchats? I remember the first time I saw one on Wanstead Flats, and my initial thought was that it was some kind of exotic escape and it took a few minutes of hard grilling before I could place it, during which time it disappeared never to be seen again. Unfortunately I don’t see spring Whinchats very often, here on the patch they’re far more of an autumn bird. When I do though it provokes thoughts of heresy.

I am fairly well known for being a lover of Wheatears. All Wheatears, as of course there are quite a few species and they are all very lovely. But the one I see most frequently is Northern Wheatear, and generally we get a good passage of these every spring. You can also generally get far closer to and thus get far better views of Wheatears than you can of Whinchats, which combined with their overall numbers during spring passage inevitably leads to the conclusion that Wheatears are just better. They are also first of course, I have never seen a Whinchat before I have seen a Wheatear, and so they are the bird that signals the end of the winter colour drought. And there is doubt that they are a striking bird – that soft peachy breast getting bolder and deeper towards the head, the grey back and white rump, and best of all the wide dark black bandit mask with white borders. When you add to this their upright stance and general panache, it’s hard to argue that there could be a better bird out there. Here are a couple of photos of spring birds from Wanstead Flats. If you need a minute, that’s fine.

But yet my thoughts keep turning to Whinchat. You see I recently had an opportunity to study and photograph at what is, for me at least, unusually short range. I was in Greece, at a place called Lake Kerkini (full trip-report to follow, naturellement), and Whinchats were far commoner than Wheatears. And they were absolutely stunning, almost beyond comprehension. I have never seen Whinchat so well anywhere, and this was achieved by virtue of taking my poor Nissan Micra somewhat offroad and using it as a mobile hide. I have no idea how a bright white car works as camouflage, however the birds seemed entirely comfortable with this large chunk of metal bouncing up and down next to the irrigation ditch where they were spending their time, whereas if I got out of the car to get something from the boot they disappeared quick as a flash. Interestingly the birds were very much tied to reeds. I had driven down the track to photograph Great Reed Warblers, but my attention was soon diverted when I realized that were as many if not more Whinchats also using the area to feed, and they had absolutely no problem perching on the swaying reed stems. In fact I’m not sure I saw them perch anywhere else – they would descend to feed on insects on the track, and then pop back up to the reeds to survey the area and cough up any nasty bits. Here are a few of the photos I took, after which there will be a difficult and heretical question.

Are Whinchats in fact better-looking than Wheatears? If Whinchats were as common and as approachable as Wheatears, could even diehard aficionados like me be converted? Might the real spring prize be the Whinchat? There were two on Wanstead Flats last week as it happened, a pair travelling together, and the male was an absolute belter. I didn’t have my camera with me that day but this didn’t matter as sans Nissan I couldn’t have got anywhere near them, so instead I enjoyed excellent views through binoculars. They’re not that different really, the distribution of colours and plumage is remarkably similar. Black mask? Check. Orange chest? Check. White stripes on head? Check. The black mask is wider though, as is the extent of the white border both above and below, which also joins more obviously below the bill. The orange is deeper throughout as well, and the mantle rather than being grey is instead highly patterned. As a package it is superb, very compelling indeed. Maybe I am currently confused as for the first time I have been properly able to make this detailed comparison? Previously I simply wasn’t aware how stunning they were. I mean I knew they were good but they were also a bit unattainable, which contrary to what you might think somehow reduced their appeal. Now that I have scored so to speak, I am not sure where this leaves me. I am fortunate to have recently enjoyed both I suppose.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Cyprus Trip Report, April 2017

  • A 3 day trip to Cyprus in mid April in order to give both child and parent a nice break in some warm sunshine, and to improve upon photographs of Cyprus Pied Wheatear by applying what is known as the “rock principle”
  • Flights with good old tired old British Airways to Larnaca, £50 each return and a handful of air miles. Left on Saturday lunchtime but arrives in the evening due to a two hour time difference and a 4 hour flight. Return flight departed at 7pm on Bank Holiday Monday which gave very nearly two full days of relaxation plus two opportunities to photograph birds in the early morning light.
  • Adams Beach Hotel in Agia Napa booked in advance via “Kaligo”, a booking service that throws air miles at you, and that was £60 per night for a fancy twin room including breakfast. Very pleasant and exactly the type of kid-friendly place my daughter wanted. Excellent location and very good swimming pools.
  • Car hire with Europecar, £71 for the whole trip. Spent a mere €15 on fuel over the two days as spent most of the time flopped by the aforementioned swimming pools as opposed to actually going anywhere and doing anything.

Day 0
Half the day was spent travelling, but having only hand luggage (in my case a camera and pair of swimming trunks) we exited the airport very quickly and were able to bird for half an hour at Oriklini before sunset, which is a great time to be there with so many birds coming into roost. Hundreds of Cattle Egrets covering the bushes like weird white and orange blooms, mixed hirundines flying low over the central lake, and BW Stilts and Wood Sandpipers feeding in the margins. My daughter spotted the 2 Flamingos first, predictably doing nothing. Possibly this is why I assumed they were Spoonbills, whose primary ID feature is being asleep. Just kidding, the pink gave them away. Child pretended to be interested. 

Hotel check-in was a complicated affair as it turned out we had been upgraded into the deluxe wing of the hotel that is for adults only, hence the receptionist was slightly horrified to discover that one of the Lethbridges was a Ms and only 11. Hushed conversations with various other staff members ensued, but I got the impression that a reverse move would have required booting out some other guests, so in the end permission was sought and granted for us to stay in the nice bit. And very nice it was too actually, although we did get accosted at the special lifts by security the following day for clearly not both being grown-ups. I referred the guy to 'management' and we never saw him again. So dinner slightly later than expected as all these shenanigans took far too long, but there are innumerable places to eat along the strip and they are open quite late. Child is currently undergoing some kind of growth spurt, albeit not quick enough for hotel security's liking, and is mainlining on protein so the cypriot diet of lamb and pork was much appreciated.

Day 1

We were up at 6am for the short drive to Cape Greco, probably less than ten miles down the coast to the east. You can either climb out though the town, or pretend to go back to Larnaca and then turn right and bypass it. At 6am it makes no difference. Using the map above we headed straight for site number 3, the area just above the sea caves, and on a beautifully clear morning we found our (my) target of Cyprus Pied Wheatear straight away. As I describe here, these first birds did not play ball one little bit, and so I wasted a lot of time not getting the photographs I wanted. There was still a lot to hold a birders interest however, with Kestrels, Jackdaws, passing Gulls, and the pretty ubiquitous Spectacled Warblers. Crested Lark were all over the place, along with migrant Whinchat, Tree Pipit, and an unidentified ringtail Harrier. The bushes near the road (just below the number 6) had Great Tit, Hoopoe, all sorts of finches and a bonus Collared Flycatcher. A five minute stop at the picnic site, number 7, provided a Cyprus Warbler tick for my daughter which delighted her no end as you can imagine. 

We dropped in at site number 1 on the way back at around 9am and hit the jackpot immediately, a friendly singing male Wheatear. X literally marks the spot. This bird was a total gem and showed almost no fear. I grabbed a few photos and prayed fervently it would be there the following day, as with the harsher light and more importantly free breakfast about to expire (7-10am at the chosen hotel) we needed to make a move.

The rest of the day was spent doing very little. Topping up the tan, going down water slides, being comatose on a lilo, and sleeping. There was a brief spurt of activity in the early evening as I needed to be online to nab a Yosemite camping slot for a future trip, but post around 10am it was a day of low achievement. You need that occasionally. We had dinner at the hotel, a sumptious buffet that once again saw child eat obscene quantities of everything. She remains a rake, I on the other hand.....

Day 2
Up even earlier and back to site 1. Thankfully the bird was still there, singing from one of the signs warning of danger from the nearby cliffs. As per the photo post I had an absolute blast whilst progeny read her kindle in the car. Some Alpine Swifts provided some variety, but I was only really interested in the Oenanthe. I took far too many photos of this single bird using the rock technique, and then as per the previous day scooted back to the hotel for a large and lengthy breakfast.

We lounged by the pool until check-out, quickly packed up into the car, and then resumed lounging until about four in the afternoon. The hotel has showers and changing rooms so we availed ourselves of those to get ready for travel, and at 5pm were back at Oroklini where this time we found some Spur-winged Plovers in the fields opposite the reserve (behind petrol station). Filled the car up here and then high-tailed it to the airport for a flight back, arriving in the UK at around 10pm. Many G&Ts polished off.

So a very short trip as per usual, but all aims fulfilled. I think I did improve on the photos of the Wheatear, and kiddo got a short break from SATS in some sunshine albeit that she had to endure a few hours of birds. Talking of which here is the list, around 50. Dedicated birders on a birding trip would likely see loads more - as the paragraphs above I hope make clear I didn't try very hard, but in the few minutes I wasn't fixated on the Wheatear I also saw the following:

Trip List
Red-crested Pochard
Greater Flamingo
Cattle Egret
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-winged Stilt
Wood Sandpiper
Spur-winged Plover
Yellow-legged Gull
Marsh Harrier
Harrier sp
Collared Dove
Alpine Swift
House Martin
Cetti's Warbler
Cyprus Warbler
Spectacled Warbler
Wood Warbler
Pied Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Tree Pipit
Crested Lark
Cyprus Pied Wheatear
Northern Wheatear
Collared Flycatcher
Great Tit
House Sparrow
Hooded Crow

Monday, 1 May 2017

The weekend delivers

On Friday I tweeted that I was fully expecting at least 6 ticks the following day. I got just one, a Yellow Wagtail that I didn't even see. I was disappointed that the morning just hadn't lived up to expectations, with the exception of that rather delicious female Wheatear.

I went out yesterday and this morning as well, and I am please to report that finally the floodgates have opened. Yesterday saw two fine Whinchat down by the logs of happiness, as well as at least seven Wheatear and my first Sand Martin, both of which were new for the year, and you can't beat a Whinchat in spring. Especially when you did not bother to take a camera. Nonetheless I came back feeling pleased, and then spent the rest of the day eating and drinking to excess. Despite this gluttonous afternoon today I was up even earlier, although for the first couple of hours I wondered why I had bothered. Happily Nick then arrived and released a Rook, which flew off east cawing as it went. A very decent year tick and only the 4th I've seen on patch. I don't know where he gets them, but I am very grateful. 

Not quite up to yesterday

Nick then toddled off to Rainham for some filthy twitchery of the sort I no longer partake in, and so it was up to me to see if I could grip him off for once. I could, albeit not in a major way. Bob and James joined me for a fly-by Hobby, and very soon after that a Swift dropped down, forced low by the dark clouds perhaps. Both new for the year also, and then three very high-flying birds caught my attention. As you know my eyes are full of floating crap these days so sky-watching is a real pain, however the dark cloud made things a lot easier and on getting my bins up it was obvious that they were Terns, albeit completely unidentifiable. Any Tern here is good, so I slammed off a few record shots in the hope that they could be positively proven to be Arctics or perhaps even better. As we examined them on the screen it began to be clear that the required streamers just were not there, and even that on one of the photos the bill actually looked quite lengthy. Back home a little later and with the benefit of some lightening up it seems that they were just Common Terns, with only a small part of the wing translucent. Still, my records indicate only a dozen Common Terns before now, and it's certainly not a bird I get every year. James celebrated by buying everyone breakfast, which perked us all up no end - cheers Mr H!

So, I am up to 96, a total I did not achieve last year until June, and the year before that July! In 2014 it took until September!! In 2013 it was April 26th though, so I am way off the pace of that particular year. Still, one good weekend has made the difference from par to being ahead, and I am feeling a bit better about my dedication. And of course I still have the pleasure of working through the photographs from Greece. In the meantime here are some really crappy shots of the Terns. If you think they're not Commons, please do get in touch!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

High Hopes

High hopes dashed! Once again a story of unrewarded effort, unrequited dreams. Out before 6am, and four hours on the patch produced one single year tick, an invisible Yellow Wagtail. Hardly very satisfying given the time put in, and the feeling that a change in the weather could have brought me gazillions of new birds for the year. Once again the weather was too nice. Last week is was not nice at all, extremely cold and unfavourable for migration. Today they mostly sailed right over the top of us. I say mostly as there was a scattering of Wheatears across the Flats. As a number of us were stood around moaning, one of them came and landed near us. It hopped around on the ground for a bit and then perched on a log, thus:

Well that's nice. I wonder if it will stay there? Binoculars off, camera strap discarded, the slow shuffle began. So far so good.

Essentially it never moved, even with three of us gradually converging on it. I got extremely close, possibly closer to a Wanstead Wheatear than I have ever been, and thus the morning turned into one that goes into the annals as a success. Eventually the bird moved off of its own accord, and James, Tony and I got up and dusted ourselves off. Which is when we found Bob surveying this silly scene with some amusement, three grown men lying prostrate on the ground worshiping Wheatear. So in summary there were not many birds, but there was one bird. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Progress (aka death by numbers)

So my Wanstead year list is on 89. Other local birders have seen far more, but this does unfortunately happen, especially when some of them can bird the patch far more than I can. I don't help myself of course, as I too could bird the patch more than I do. Sadly I have this terrible desire to travel abroad and see better birds, so I frequently miss out on stuff here. For instance had I been here last weekend I could potentially have added another six or so year ticks. As it was I was in Northern Greece lapping up Bee-eaters etc, so I don't feel too sorry for myself.

Despite this negligence I'm actually on about par for the year compared to what I normally see. This is perhaps simply indicative of how regularly I underachieve, but looking at what I've seen, and more importantly what I haven't seen, I'd still have to say that the year is looking pretty good. Let us turn to some stats...

Today is the 27th April. How many birds have I seen by this date over the last few years? I am so glad you asked!

2016: 87
2015: 92
2014: 82
2013: 97
2012: 94

So I'm firmly in the middle of the range, and crucially I have yet to see Sand Martin, Redstart, Ring Ouzel, Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Hobby - many of the regular migrants basically. I'm already ahead on last year - and that 87 included not only Sand Martin and Redstart, but also Red Kite and a few winter species that this year I'm saving for later. That said it didn't include Red-crested Pochard or Wigeon either, but I still think I'm ahead. In fact if you add the regulars, I think I'm doing better than all years other than 2013. 

2013 was a special year, my best ever on patch with 118. Tons of waders (10 species - I've only ever seen 13!), Crossbill, Waxwing, Kittiwake, Cuckoo..... I doubt I'll ever see that many again, I'm not committed enough these days. Here are those final totals again. You can see that they follow the April 27th marker quite closely. If I had to predict my final total for 2017 I think I'd guess 110.

2016: 106
2015: 115
2014: 102
2013: 118
2012: 113

A propos of nothing at all, here is a Whinchat. I have not yet seen Whinchat on the patch this year either, but I am very much looking forward to that first encounter. Although it is heresy, I am beginning to wonder if Whinchats are possibly on a par with Wheatears....

Whinchat from Greece last weekend

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Common Sandpiper the Redeemer

Predictably all of the decent birds had disappeared by the time I returned to the patch this morning after a weekend away. Such is the price you pay for taking point-blank range photos of Whinchats and feldegg Wagtails in Greece. If I was truly a proper patch-worker I would never leave for fear of missing something. As it is.....

Anyway, had a great time, and thought I'd check the Alex early doors as I understood it had been pretty good over the weekend for patch gold waders, most recently a Common Sandpiper. Obviously there was nothing on it all. After sorting out a response to a fire in one of the copses, and being forced to relive all the weekend's birds by Bob (Tree Pipit, Nightingale, Hobby, Woodlark and the rest), I then pootled off to the local sorting office to pick up a parcel I'd missed. It isn't just birds. Then a message from Bob that he was looking at the Common Sandpiper on Alex. Little git. The Sandpiper, not Bob.

How it eluded me I don't know, as I had walked around the entire perimeter looking for it. Nothing I could do, work beckoned. Work was crap, I mean really crap. On my way home I discovered people were twitching the Sandpiper. It was still there! Maybe something could be salvaged from the day after all. I quickened my pace, picked up my camera on the way past, and was at Alex quicker than you can say "I drove". A short while later I was positioned in a bush waiting for the bird to walk past, which it duly did, albeit in the shade. It seems that my suit is perfect wader camouflage, whereas I thought it was for looking professional in an office. Who knew?

Monday, 24 April 2017

Cyprus Weekender

Little did I know when I booked a trip to Cyprus for my daughter and I quite how desperate I would be for a Wheatear fix come April 2017. It had been in the diary for months, but by late April I assumed I would have had quite a few birds on the patch. I have had one. One solitary Wheatear on the 11th March, and I have somehow missed every single other one. There have not been overly many, but still, that's a poor reflection - and I've been working the patch quite hard!

So to Cyprus then, which by the time it came around was sorely needed. The aim was twofold. Show my daughter part of this lovely island (I'm not into the boycotting thing), and point a very large lens at Cyprus Pied Wheatear. This was a great success, and whilst we were only there for a couple of days, I surprised myself with quite how productive I was. The plan was straightforward enough - get up early and spend the best part of the day wandering around Cape Greco and environs, return for breakfast and then do whatever kiddo wanted to do, which was basically swim. Fair enough. We also popped in to Oroklini both to and from the airport.

I've been to Cape Greco on each of my birding trips to Cyprus, it is a wonderful spot and whilst I am sure there are many wonderful spots, if you find a site that you enjoy so much every time, why bother looking for others. On our first morning there we saw no other people for three hours. On our second there were three ladies out for a jog. There were no dog walkers, no motorbikes, no cars, no sirens. Just crystal clear air, a sparkling sea, and birds everywhere. Crested Larks were abundant, Spectacled Warblers nearly so, and Alpine Swifts screamed overhead. And of course there were Cyprus Wheatears.

The first birds we saw were paired up, and no amount of stealth could get us anywhere near them. Being two people probably didn't help, but one bird would always alert the other and as soon as one flew so did the other. Thus the first morning passed relatively fruitlessly, although we had a nice walk and Kate had a nice explore (we took the Shetland radios so that we could keep in touch). After taking almost no photos and instead walking around the headland, we ended up at the picnic site (all sites marked on this map). We didn't go to all the numbered sites, just the ones below.

    1. Although the dump seems to have been capped since my last visit, the tracks below it are still great for birds and this is where the friendly Wheatear was.
      3. Main area of scrub, lots of Warblers and some unfriendly Wheatears!
        4. Cliffs underneath main promontary, with two profitable paths. A lower one at sea-level (red), and another about half way up (orange). There is a link between the two but it's not recommended, instead swap between them at the western end.
          7. Picnic area which is clearly signposted. Cyprus Warbler exactly where I was expecting it.

          The scrub between areas 3 and 6 was very birdy indeed, with a what I think was a Collared Flycatcher on the first morning, as well as the obligatory Hoopoes and various other maquis-type birds. On our way back from the abortive photo mission we drove down to the dump tracks. Before we even got to the end of the road in we found two Cyprus Wheatears actually in front of the car, one displaying to the other with some kind of wing flaps. By the time we got out they had done a runner, but possibly one of the birds was now down by the sea caves right on the coast, singing from one of the danger signs. This bird seemed to allow a very close approach indeed, but unfortunately the light was bordering on harsh now, plus the hotel breakfast was not far away from closing up. Reluctantly we went back to Nissi, only about ten minutes by car, and had a huge feast at the Adam's Beach resort. Bloated, all we could then do was flop by the pool for the rest of the day.....

          The following morning we were up even earlier, the child less than convinced. She gamely got ready but this time stayed in the car with her kindle and the radio. This left me free to pap the Wheatear which thankfully was still exactly where we had left it - singing from the same sign in fact. Now on my last visit I had been armed with a 500mm lens. This time I opted for the 800mm, as after all Wheatears are small birds. I am glad I did (for one thing the other lens has a few issues at the moment as I discovered on more recent trip) as it performed amazingly, including with a 1.1x teleconverter mounted, which took it up to a staggering 1120mm, and that's without my camera's 1.3x crop. Monopod all the way in these circumstances, but many of the images below are with this combination - remember that the light in Cyprus is first rate, none of the rubbish you get here! First up was the need to transform the perches, so I spent a good ten minutes gathering a number of rocks and placing them atop each of the signs that I had seen the bird singing from (I removed them afterwards) before retreating to see what happened. You can probably guess what happened can't you? This:

          And then this:

          And this:

          And then this:

          Get the idea?

          No? OK. Then this, and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and....

          The rest of the day was again spent dallying at the pool, and at 4pm we had to leave to fly home. You could say it is pointless going somewhere for so little time. I might agree, but I also might show you 300 photos of Cyprus Pied Wheatear! We stopped at Oroklini again, and this time managed to find the Spur-winged Plovers in a field opposite the marsh. Loads of Stilts, Garganey, several tonnes of Cattle Egret, and masses of hirundines.