Monday, 16 October 2017

Ophelia please darken my door

Well the old neighbourhood just ain't the same. Look at this - this was taken out of my office window at about 4pm, but it appeared to be verging on dusk such was the effect of the dusty and smoky atmosphere brought northwards by Ophelia. It started early afternoon when things began to appear a little hazy outside. I went to a meeting where I couldn't really just stare out of the window and when I came back it was verging on apocalyptic. Very strange indeed and I'm a bit miffed that I didn't have a real camera with me that would have interpreted it rather more accurately than my phone which was doing its best to turn the scene into a sunny Samsung day! I think I managed to get vaguely get it to stop mucking about with it, but all I can say is that it if wasn't like the below then it was damn close. Everything was yellow, a dull sepia, as if somebody had stretched a pair of tights over the sun. The effect was quite amazing actually, one of those events that we may not witness again. An hour later it had cleared up considerably, the band of polluted air taken further north, but I imagine that there will be all sorts of amazing photos from up and down the country that emerge in the coming days.

The funny thing is that Canary Wharf didn't really appear any more windy than normal, and sitting here typing this at home it seems to be pretty calm outside. As a patch worker this is a bit of a shame, as I was hoping for the Bald Ibis/Gannet double tomorrow morning. On that subject, the patch was not on fire this morning in the same way as yesterday. From dawn to around 8.15 there were quite a lots of Wood Pigeons, up to c80 Redwings and four late Swallow, but the big numbers of finches just weren't there. Nor sadly the Woodlarks. Still, I am up to 107 for the year, which is already better than 2016 by one, and there is still quite a lot of time left in which to add to it. Woodcock is probably the only regular bird missing, and Bullfinch if I'm lucky, anything else will have to come with a fair slice of jam I suspect. Speaking of which, Hawfinch would be just fine.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

A momentary lapse

It had been a wonderful morning on Wanstead Flats - two Short-eared Owls, a couple of Brambling and stacks of other great viz-mig. Then an aberration occurred, and shortly after I found myself looking at this.

From certain vantage points, Wanstead Flats can look pretty amazing.
And then this.


Ok so this isn't Wanstead, or even close to Wanstead. It is in fact Wales, and this is the Rock Thrush that for some reason I was actually a bit miffed I didn't get to see yesterday. This is my first proper twitch since November last year, and confess I really enjoyed it. Apart from the seven hours in the car of course. Unfortunately Wales is a really long way away, but for whatever reason, and being somewhat bloody-minded, I decided that I could bear it for the sake of this bird. Being a total wuss I only left on positive news though, which meant I didn't get there until about 2ish which could have backfired rather badly. However it also meant that I got a decent session on the patch, which netted the two year ticks above and was hugely enjoyable. I did however miss out on two Woodlark shortly after I departed, which caused no end of local chortling. Looking at the above photo, I think I'm fine with it....

Am I restarting twitching? No. I just wanted to do something different, and I wanted a day out. As it happened I got the best of both worlds, and the welsh scenery is nothing short of magnificent. I've seen some birds in god-awful places, and I've seen some birds in some spectacular places. This is right up there with some of the best of them, and apparently only just down the road from where I saw a Marmora's Warbler back in 2010.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Abiding memory of confiding

I nearly considered going on a twitch this weekend. Happily Mrs L was already out so instead I took my daughters swimming whilst all my mates filled their boots with Rock Thrush, so my Saturday is mine again. However it did get me thinking about how I did actually enjoy seeing rare birds a few years ago. I am not sure why this isn’t the case anymore, perhaps it is just because any rarity these days is likely to be a complete scrum. Did twitching become more popular all of a sudden? Or is it that digital photography’s mass appeal has made it to birds? I am not sure, but a twitch these days holds little appeal - as the recent pathetic scenes at a Norfolk PG Tips only served to confirm. I didn’t go and I am glad that I didn’t.

A few years ago however I did go, and I have some fabulous memories that are dominated by the bird and not by out-of-control crowds. The Steppe Grey Shrike in Lincolnshire comes somewhere near to the top of my list. It was a long day – nearly nine years ago now - starting out by driving to Yorkshire. It sounds crazy but looking back it was kind of normal. Anyhow, we had  successfully seen a Two-barred Crossbill on a farm somewhere and having dipped a Pied Wheatear at a Caravan Park near Bempton we were headed back home via what we had heard was another decent bird, a Steppe Grey Shrike. This is a very similar to a Great Grey Shrike (excubitor), but actually falls under the Southern Grey Shrike (meridionalis) group – this one is known as pallidirostis and is a paler version that breeds in Central Asia, a seriously long way away. Back then I don’t think I knew any of this, all I knew was that it was a rare bird, a Shrike, and that I liked both of those things.

We drove through the endless flat landscape of Lincolnshire fields until we found the spot. A few cars were parked up, and a few hundred yard away we could see a small line of birders along the edge of a field. Optics unpacked, I slung my scope and tripod over my shoulder for I was a proper birder back then, and we made our way out to join them. As we came along the muddy margin the bird flew directly towards us, past us, and landed on somebody’s head. Gah!!

It was astonishing, it really was. For the best part of an hour this crazy little bird used people, scopes, tripods, camera bags, you name it, as perches from which to hunt. It had clearly never seen people before and was completely unafraid. I had never seen anything like it, and to this day it probably remains the least wary bird I have ever seen anywhere. I was spellbound and captivated – moments like this are so very very rare, and I knew then I would never forget it. And that holds true today – it is still one of my most fondly remembered birding moments. I’ve seen rarer birds, I’ve seen many Shrikes, but this one is still top of the heap. Being a massive fan of social media, I tweeted out a random photo of it last week and clearly it struck a chord as people from far and wide responded that they too remember the event incredibly clearly.

I've included a couple of photos from the day. Back then I wasn’t really very skilled and did not understand that pointing a camera directly at the sun wouldn’t likely result in a decent picture. Julian Bhalerao however did a far better job, and sent me this photo after the event of the bird perched on my scope with a very youthful looking me behind it.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

I must be dreaming

It has started. Remarkably a couple of days ago saw my first direct photo sale outside of printed publications. Two landscape photos of Wanstead Flats have been requested as prints from the my website, the appropriately-named The one with only birds on it, ahem. They’re of the copses at dawn, and I think they will look rather nice printed up. They’re not going far, the lucky owner seems to be pretty local, which makes sense given the subject matter. I am dead chuffed, this is exactly what I had hoped for. Well, I say that, but a 20m x 20m canvas of a Wheatear to hang from The Shard would have been quite nice…. Anyway. I can’t retire yet is the bottom line, but I am a little bit closer and I am very grateful. Small beginnings and all that.

There are number of other things I am exploring whilst awash with enthusiasm. The first is an exhibition, which despite the outlay could generate some interest and potentially some momentum. I think I have enough images now that are of a sufficiently decent quality to potentially present something rather nice. No gulls obviously. And then the elephant in the room is whether photography tuition is something I might explore? One on one, my full undivided attention for an hour or for a morning on how to get the best out of your camera and the available light locally. Or potentially abroad, where the opportunities for bird photography are far better. I’m lucky/stupid enough to own two prime lenses suitable for bird photography, and I’ve seen first hand the effect that using one of these for the first time has on somebody used to something much smaller. That smile that spreads across their face as they realise that the kind of photos they had dreamed of might actually be possible after all.

Actually perhaps it is me that is dreaming, I have no time for any of this!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

My desired life - you can help!!

I work in a bank. In an ideal world I would not work in a bank, I would spend every single day behind a camera, taking photos of birds, plants, landscapes, cities. Anything but people. I could get quite good I reckon, practice makes perfect and all that. The reason I don't do this and that idealism is not reality is that I would be destitute. Utterly poverty-stricken. Over the years I have perhaps earned a few hundred pounds from bird photography. A couple of magazine covers, a few quarter pages, a handful images in books that more often than not get me a free book. You can't eat books. 

I am not sure how you earn a living wage from photography. I think you have to run tours, have to learn how to put the clueless in situations where they cannot possibly fail. I have not tried, but am not sure I could hack it. It is the stuff of waking nightmares surely? But you have to start somewhere I suppose. So....

For many years now I have had a separate website devoted to galleries of my photos, generally what I consider the cream of what I have taken. I am pretty ruthless as to what makes it on there, and I frequently have a massive self-critique session and cull a few more. No doubt there are a few duffers on there that I am too emotionally attached to to get rid of, but largely I think they represent the best of the last six or seven years of not inconsiderable effort. Taking photographs of birds is not easy, in fact I would put it out there that it is bloody difficult. Sometimes hours of planning fizzle out into nothing and you get up from the mud in depair. Equally sometimes five random minutes can produce something sensational and you have to pinch yourself that it really happened.

Up until now my website has just been galleries - a visual feast for the casual visitor. However I have discovered that there is a free add-on where you can market your work. I've decided to give it a go, nothing ventured and all that. I've spent a bit of time revamping it, uploading far larger files that will reproduce nicely in a variety of formats - most are 4000 pixels wide, that's massive. Now I know that birders are notoriously tight, fine, I accept that. But think about it? Only a small number of people need order a couple of prints and that could be just the start I need. Have you any idea how much my lens cost? It's ridiculous, honestly absurd. Quite how so many people seem to have one I just can't fathom. Anywhere you go and there are tons. Tons that are seeing a poor return on their investment - and I'm not just talking about the ones attached to people who haven't a scooby. I'm talking about mine - it spends almost all of its time in a cupboard gathering dust. It is aching to get out there and earn its keep. Trust me, I do actually know how to use it, and your generosity could allow me to stop working in Canary Wharf and to spend my days fulfilling my destiny. And I need a new camera - mine is five years old and a total wreck. It had a new shutter last year but there is only so much you can do. So, are you looking for Christmas Cards this year? What about a calendar for 2018? A mug? Or - and this is novel - a framed photo of a bird to hang on the wall? If you are, please visit the link below and go wild. My dreams thank you.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Spotted Crake

A nice easy post today, a simple photo of a Spotted Crake. Funny that nobody calls them Spotcrake in the same way that Spotfly is a well known contraction. Maybe they do? I don't however, as with this species familiarity has yet to breed contempt. This bird was at the Ingrebourne Valley at the weekend, and was the second I have seen there. It is probably still there now actually, but I only have weekends in which to prove this beyond reasonable doubt, unlike every other person on the planet who can seemingly rock up on more or less any day they choose. This caused at least one well-known birder to whom this applies to publicly express envy of the happy five days a week I am lucky enough not be able to spend birding. His point was? No, I don't know either. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Modern life is rubbish

I tweet, I text, I whatsapp (if that is a word?). I am the very definition of modern. And let me tell you, modern has a lot to answer for. Right now I am in despair at the minute by minute aspect of modern life, specifically the lack of time that most people seem prepared to devote to anything. I use social media as an example, but you could as easily apply it to the news, where you work, how you shop, and even to how you vote. People want headlines and soundbites, almost everything today must be distilled into as few words as possible, and ideally have a conclusion pre-formed so that nobody has to do any thinking for themselves. The most important issues of our times are compressed into tiny snippets, lacking almost entirely in decent information. And unless what is left takes less than ten seconds the vast majority of people simply lose interest. We are vacuous in the extreme. It is the same at work, bullet points only please. If somebody has to think about something, that’s it – they move on and you have lost them. As a society we have become conditioned to brevity and to dumbing down – the two go hand in hand. Is it any wonder things like Brexit happen?

Attempting to write a blog has brought this home to me in quite a simple way, and I thought I’d jot a few things down in order to make the point. Writing – actual writing – is hard. Contrary to what you may think, each and every paragraph requires thought and consideration, there is no effortless flow here, no stream of consciousness that can lay down 1000 words in a matter of minutes. For the most part if I have an idea of what I want to say, I find myself composing things in my head as I walk around – frequently this is on the commute when I retreat into my inner shell and strap on my armour. My physical form is being crushed by humanity (or maybe not given I am on the Central Line), my literary form is buzzing, thinking a thousand thoughts, forming sentences and pithy one-liners. When I reach a keyboard out it all comes, a jumble of those musings. Then of course it has to be sorted, shaped, reordered. Sometimes re’written’ entirely. And of course sometimes nothing comes out at all, a day at work has frazzled me and I am left incapable of stringing even a few words together. I resort to gin and instead potter around the greenhouse. Occasionally this goes on for a few weeks and I am entirely silent. The point I am trying to make is that writing takes time. It might come fairly naturally to me, but that does not mean it is quick. Over the years, over eight and a half now, I have spent countless hours bashing out blog posts - around 1500 of them. That’s a big commitment, and it’s increased by the time taken to process and upload photos, to tinker with links, lists, maps, and all the other things that form a part of it.

As well as this avenue for the written word I also have a couple of Twitter accounts, and several times a day I might offer up some small nugget on one of them. Unlike the blog, almost no thought goes into this at all – with 140 characters to play with you could argue that you need to work even harder to craft a message, but actually it’s a far less intensive medium that I suspect takes most people almost no brain power. I offer up President Trump by way of example. So, a brief sentence that requires practically no effort to produce and can be done in seconds, versus several paragraphs of carefully honed prose that might have been, on and off, the product of an entire day. Of these, which do you think is likely to generate the most comment, the most interaction, the most introspection and response?

Exactly. It is the single sentence and this is the problem. And it is by such a wide margin that the blog does not even figure. Most posts I write are eventually clicked on (though not necessarily read I surmise!) a few hundred times. By contrast a two second tweet will likely get a couple of replies, a few 'likes', possibly a retweet. Now you could argue that none of this matters and you are right, it doesn’t. But the inverse proportionality of effort I actually find quite irritating, and it leads me back to the beginning of this post and the society we have become. When a blog, article, editorial or whatever it is is too long, or contains too much within it to allow reflection to be sufficiently brief, it has no future. Instead it takes almost no effort to 'like' or 'favourite' a tweet, literally none – it is the perfect button really. Tap, scroll on. Next! Actually composing a reply is also the work of mere seconds. A few squiggles on the phone, and blur of fingers, and it’s done. Two seconds to read it, a few seconds to consider it, perhaps ten seconds to reply back - including correcting the predictive text. The whole thing is done in almost the blink of an eye and we have moved on to something else. We are being trained to have the attention span of gnats – Breaking News! -  and most of are coming up that curve very well indeed! I despair. When is the last time anyone read a book?

So when it comes to writing a blog post I am beginning to question why it is that I bother? The reality must be that nobody gets beyond the first two sentences before giving up as it is too much like hard work. That is the almost inescapable conclusion I am sadly coming to. Or, as many of my good friends have pointed out, it’s just really really boring! I’m backing myself on this one though. Yeah you might have to think a bit, not a lot but a bit, but actually as a medium this is far better than a tweet. Better than Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram or any of the thousands of ways people can now rapidly and blithely communicate. Actual writing is far more able to convey meaning, emotion and fact. That it and the printed press in general is gradually withering and dying is a very great shame, or at least I think so. 

I'm off to the greenhouse. Via gin and tonic. 

Monday, 18 September 2017

Top patch moments

Between lulls in Redstart activity last weekend my fellow patch-workers and I got to talking about our best moments on the patch. What was interesting was the almost total agreement between us of which particular days those were, so much do they stand out from the norm. The norm of course is what we were doing, standing around chatting as there was nothing much else to do – most days on the patch stand out for being really really boring and containing very little bird interest. Very very occasionally there is some major excitement which anywhere on the coast would be classified as “Much about?” “Nah mate, dead”, but round here you take what you can get. So here are my picks in chronological order.

Finding my first Ring Ouzel
I still remember this as if it were yesterday. After years of trying to twitch other people’s Ring Ouzels, mainly dipping, and finally driving to Hertfordshire for my first, I got up one October morning and said to Mrs L that I was going out to find a Ring Ouzel. Remarkably that is exactly what I did, I rounded a corner near Esso Copse and came face to face with a fantastic male Ouzel. I still can’t quite believe it. Unfortunately I was not writing a blog in 2008 so the world remained ignorant, but I repeated the feat the following spring. If you fancy seeing how amateur (even more amateur) my blog was back then, you can check it out here.

Lapwings, Jack Snipe and Golden Plover
This might still take the prize as the best patch day ever – bitterly cold, snow in the air and on the ground, and over the course of that February in 2012 day I saw close to 400 Lapwings.  Given that seeing even one Lapwing in any given year can be rather a challenge, this was and remains nothing short of sensational. They came in wave after wave, each floppy flock being greeted with increasing enthusiasm. It was one of those days where we could do no wrong. Whilst checking out a Med Gull on Alex, itself a rare bird, a Jack Snipe dropped onto the ice which was a tick for everyone. Whilst we drank in the Snipe movement overhead caught my attention and a group of six Golden Plover flew over us, another patch tick. I believe my shout was heard on the Essex coast. You can read about it here.

A large fall of Wheatears
Spring 2013 was notable for a really delayed passage. Migrating birds were held back on the continent by poor weather and for weeks we got practically nothing. And then the floodgates opened and we were deluged. One particular morning I went out on the Flats to discover that it had started, and standing at the VizMig point and turning 360 degrees I could see over 20 Wheatears. Given my affinity for this species, the experience was magic. As before, the original is here.

Grasshopper Warbler in the morning, Red-legged Partridge in the evening
Birding plans changed rapidly one spring morning when Tim called to say that he had a Gropper in the Old Sewage Works whilst surveying reptiles. At this time of the year all the action is typically on the Flats, and it is a good twenty minute walk. As one we hoofed it over there, with Marco beating us all as he had a bike. Whilst watching this great new addition to the patch list we then got news of a visiting birder (Barry, one third of the trio that also contains Harry and Larry/Stuart) had seen a Red-legged Partridge on the Flats where we had all just been! With work looming I charged back there but couldn’t refind it before I had to leave. Naturally those patch workers lucky enough not to be saddled with employment enjoyed it at their leisure not long after whilst I had to sweat it out in Canary Wharf. I fully expected it to be eaten by a dog during the day, but nonetheless left work early hoping I might be lucky. I was lucky! I found it pottering around under a set of goalposts on one of the playing fields, and had enough time to dash home, grab a camera and get back to it before the sun set. A memorable day, which can be relived here.

Thousands of Hirundines
All of us old and new remembered this day, being as it was relatively recent and entirely amazing - September 21st 2015. Most of us had never seen anything like it anywhere, let alone on home turf. A trickle of hirundines became a torrent. I still can’t think of an adequate way to convey it really, you just had to be there. Thousands up thousands of birds passing from knee height to hundreds of metres up. Almost as quickly as it started it stopped again, but that hour or so will – and I honestly mean this – be with me for the rest of my life. That’s the power of birding. Here’s how I wrote about it at the time.

Yellow-browed Warbler, 3 Ring Ouzels, flock of White-fronted Geese
This was only last year but still creeps into the annals of Wanstead Birding as being worthy of inclusion. The whole event lasted a matter of minutes, but was amongst the most exciting moments on the patch that I have ever experienced. In a nutshell we were all celebrating a Yellow-browed Warbler, the first one that had been multi-observed, when three Ring Ouzels came up out of Motorcycle Wood and circled the western Flats. As this was happening a skein of Geese came in from the west making a slightly unfamiliar honking. It took a while for us to register the difference, but these were no regular Geese, this was a genuine flock of autumn White-fronts, long distance migrants from a long way north. A number of us had had two full-fat patch ticks in as many minutes, and we all agreed that as far as mornings go this was right up there. Again, you had to be there, but I hope that my original post goes some way to setting the scene.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The inevitable

Wouldn't it be nice to wander round unencumbered by a camera I said to myself this morning. Wouldn't it be lovely to have no excess weight to lug around. Just me and my bins, back to basics. I rarely get decent opportunities on the Flats anyway, too busy. I'll just leave the whole lot at home, wonderful. I don't know if any of you readers who are also keen on photography feel the same way, but whilst I feel rather 'naked' without my camera I also feel liberated - it comes with being able to be a birder as well, a birder first probably.

And it was rather nice early on as I trotted around my usual circuit. Quiet and uneventful, but extremely pleasant, as the sun rose a low mist formed across the area. I met Tony by Alex, nothing doing, and together we headed back to the VizMig point. A pair of Little Owls caught his attention in one of the copses, the first time I've set eyes on them this year having had a "heard only" experience during the summer. They flew up from the ground and into the canopy, not to be seen again, but we think we now know where the nest hole might be.

Over to the usual area by the brooms for a bit of a chat and Bob spots a distant Chaffinch. In fact the Hawthorn it is in is alive, three Chiffchaff, various Tits and also a spanking male Chaffinch Common Redstart! You can never get that close to Redstarts here, and there is always a lot of foliage etc, I was perfectly happy not to have a camera. Meanwhile Bob and Tony advance on the tree. And get closer. And closer. And closer. The Redstart pops up on a bare branch right in front of them, sits stock still and puffs out its chest. A torrent of shutter abuse follows, whereupon they gather around Tony's camera and high-five each other. Then Bob zooms up his and they exchange hugs and punch the air. They are amongst the best Redstart photos I think I have ever seen! Reluctantly, and with my tail firmly between my legs, I head home to dig out my lens. Why does this always happen?

It was still there when I got back about a quarter of an hour later, and meanwhile James had been having his fill. I must say it was a friendly little thing, but that soft morning light had rather disappeared. My best efforts are below, and whilst I'm pleased, I am nonetheless left ruing my early morning decision to travel light as the opportunity earlier on was simply golden. Nevermind, it was a little beauty and I don't think I've seen one better, here or anywhere else, and I hadn't expected to see one again this year so rather a treat. Other bird highlights were 50 or so Swallow, a couple of three species of Wagtail, and some good Meadow Pipit action.

This final image is actually a composite of two images with some funky leaf work, inspired by one of my fellow patch-workers!

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Velociraptor trousers

It will perhaps surprise you to know that at work I am known as a fashionista. Whether this is because I once went to Milan, or because I frequently have something to say about what my team (all much younger than me) are wearing I’m not sure. More likely is that this is an inside joke based on my own low standards of sartorial elegance. To put this into context, my favourite shirt dates from 1999 and I still wear it. It was once white but is now more of a grey colour, and it is fair to say that they don’t make shirts like this anymore. I love it like and old friend, and equate its longevity with unrivalled quality – they made things properly in the last century. I also still wear some shoes that I bought in 1997, although there is a slight element of Trigger’s Broom about those. Anyway, all I am trying to say is that when it comes to fashion I am the last person that should be allowed any say whatsoever in what constitutes as being well dressed.

So naturally this is exactly what I am going to do. I have one major objection to the 2017 ‘look’, and this is the phenomenon of Velociraptor Trousers that seems to be sweeping the nation. You probably know what I am talking about – this is where somebody crafts a perfectly serviceable pair of trousers or leggings or whatever, and then throws them into a cage of raging dinosaurs which then rip them to shreds. The dinosaurs are then distracted allowing the what is left of the trousers to be retrieved, at which point they are then shipped to shops up and down the land where they sell like hot cakes. Seen someone wearing some recently? I bet you probably have as they're everywhere. I simply cannot understand what would motivate somebody to wear trousers that are basically a few threads away from falling to bits. What is even more daft is that they have been deliberately ruined and the whole scenario was completely avoidable. Make the trousers, sell them to somebody. Skip the dinosaurs.

Some of the examples I have seen are probably more slash than actual material. Now I draw the line at wandering round taking photos of peoples’ legs, so I’ve stolen all of these ones from the internet. In the cold light of day tell me that this isn’t ridiculous? One slip or scrape and you’ll have nothing left! I mean some of my trousers do eventually end up looking a bit like this, but that’s only after a decade or so of exemplary service and it is always a sad day when they finally give up the ghost. To deliberately waste ten years of good wearing is nothing more than vandalism. Just say no!


Sorry about this, but as this is obviously a birding blog it would be remiss of me not to stay on message. On Wanstead Flats last weekend I saw, amongst other things, a Tree Pipit, a Yellow Wagtail, and three Whinchats. Not sure what else the autumn has to give at this point other than Ring Ouzel, but I live in hope.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Foxy moves

It felt good on the patch this morning, with three Whinchats, a Tree Pipit, several Yellow Wagtails, a Swallow and a Garden Warbler. Plenty of Warbler activity in the bushes with double figures of Blackcap too, but the big one continues to elude us all. Inland patch working is hard, even in September. Non-avian highlights included a bacon roll that showed very briefly, and this pristine Fox which spent a fair amount of time playing with what I think was a dead vole. Nice to see one that doesn't resemble the living dead.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017


I was lucky enough to be in America for the Solar Eclipse last month. We were on a family holiday in California and on the day in question were in Yosemite. I had planned ahead and bought five pairs of solar viewing glasses. Amusingly/irritatingly depending on your point of view, one of my daughters dropped hers into the river about 3 minutes before the eclipse was due to start, the best laid plans and all that, so I made do with my 10x ND filter combined with a  circular polarising filter and sunglasses! This provided just about sufficient protection to allow decent views, and also when stuck on a lens, a few photos. Yosemite wasn’t quite far enough north, the best nearby views would have been up in Oregon, but nonetheless we enjoyed about 75% coverage. It didn’t get dark per se, just rather dull for about an hour – even 25% of the sun is enough to provide a lot of light! Our views were somewhat stymied by clouds for a large part of the event – that day in Yosemite and the previous day in San Francisco were the only days we even saw a cloud, so not the best timing, but at least we were there and gave ourselves a chance. And to see it whilst stood underneath the Half Dome is something we’ll all remember for a long time!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A spring weekend at Lake Kerkini

So this write-up has taken a little while to get around to, describing as it does a trip I made in late April. I have no defence really, I have just pushed this from one to-do list to the next for months. Finally I revisited my field notes/diary thing and have been able to remember exactly what I did and what order I did it in. Thank god for actual pen and paper, a dying art. However as you don't have access my physical scrawlings you have to make to with digital ones. Surprisingly these trip reports seem to be the least popular of anything I bash out; people tend to prefer schadenfreude and stupidity. In a sense who can blame them as this is probably the closest I come to "I went here and saw this". 

Anyway, I went to Lake Kerkini in Greece and saw....

  • A long weekend in the last week in April, leaving Saturday morning and returning on Monday lunchtime.
British Airways operate a seasonal Gatwick route to Thessaloniki, and from there it is about an hour or so by car. In the winter (for Pelican photography) you would need to go on Easyjet which does not go every day, or take Aegean Air via Athens, which does.Birded around and on the lake (a couple of cheap boat trips) for the whole time.Two nights at the lakeside Morfi Hotel for under £100. Yes, an actual hotel with an actual bed! Sometimes I can be normal.
  • Car hire at Thessaloniki for about £50 for a Nissan Micra or something. Very cheap and cheerful.

Day 1I had to get up at a crazy time in the morning to make the 7am departure from Gatwick. In the end I breezed it but this was the first time I had used the night tube and I was a bit worried. In the event that part was fine but it was a little odd walking from Bank to Blackfriars laden with camera gear in what was effectively the middle of the night! We arrived on time at around midday, and after collecting the car I headed north, skirting the city of Thessaloniki on route 25, eventually joining routes 2 and then 12 before striking off on small country roads up towards the lake. When I reached Lithotopos I unpacked all the gear and started birding my way around the lake anticlockwise. The first thing I noticed is that singing Nightingales were absolutely everywhere, it was quite incredible. I stopped the car near one particularly loud one and immediately found a Woodchat Shrike - this was going to be a good trip I felt! 

Woodchat Shrike

Heading west from Chrisochorafa I found my way up onto the raised track that borders the lake at this point and surveyed the scene. Wow! The entire north-east corner of the lake was a flooded forest. Cattle were grazing on the drier parts, but the numbers of water birds was astonishing, particularly Great Crested Grebe. It was quite hazy but there were seemingly vast clouds of birds further out. I continued along this track to the village of Megalochori - quite bumpy but quite manageable in a normal car. This was notable for quite a few White Stork nests, and from here I drove the very short distance to the Struma bridge on the way to Vironia. There is a small Bee-eater colony here, although a word of warning - there are some pretty unpleasant dogs here as a lot of grazing takes place. West of the bridge are some excellent woodlands, and I happily birded around this area for a couple of hours before continuing around the lake to the old harbour at Mandraki. This too was an excellent spot for birding with numerous Squacco Herons, Egrets, fly-by Pelicans and all manner of other water birds.  In the distance however I could see boats with people on, and they seemed to be coming from a certain direction. This was what I had come for - I felt sure that if I drove around the lake I would find wherever it was they were coming from.

It's not just birds. You can see more at www,

So it was that I eventually I found my way around to the village of Kerkini itself, and there to the pier directly to the SE of the town. It being a Saturday boat trips were in full swing and I booked myself onto one leaving in about an hour and went off to check into my hotel and find some food and some cash. In the end I had to go to Rodopoli for the latter, there are no cash machines at all in Kerkini. In fact the whole area is extremely underdeveloped - a great thing for birds and birding, but a little bit of a bind if you are after things that make the world go round. Like money. Supermarkets are non-existent, and the various corner shops are very depressing indeed. You can see that austerity and the precarious nature of Greece's economy has hit this area very hard. All the more reason to spend some tourist euros here in my opinion, and so I bought various horrible bits of food from these shops to do my bit. Grim is the word - I suspect most people subsist on what they grow and farm so there just isn't a market for convenience.

At about 6.30pm and once the sun's harshness had gone, my boat set off across a mirror-like lake. The departure point is on the west side whereas the sunken forest is on the east side, so the first part of the trip is always pretty uneventful. Eventually you get to this area, and that's when you start getting Pelicans and Pygmy Cormorants flying past the boat at eye level. In short it was superb, but it wasn't really a photography tour, more of a taster for what might be possible on a more dedicated trip. Terns, Herons, Egrets, Spoonbills, and of course more Dalmatian Pelicans than I had ever seen - there are some man-made islands, essentially vast nesting platforms. These birds were the main reason that I had booked this trip, not realising then that winter was the season for the best photography - I guess I was somewhat trigger-happy, saw a cheap flight to Thessaloniki and booked immediately. Subsequent research revealed that everyone came in the winter months to get the Pelicans in breeding plumage. Ooops. Still, no worries, I knew that there would nonetheless be a fabulous selection of south-eastern European breeding birds and that I would doubtless enjoy myself immensely.

The boat trip lasted roughly an hour and cost €8, not at all bad for such good views of loads of birds. I organised there and then that I'd do a repeat trip, and met Vasilis Arabatzis at the Oikoperiigitis Hotel later that evening to organise it. Vasilis is the main man, or at least one of the main men, for Lake Kerkini bird photography. Most of the amazing Pelican photos you see have probably involved his boat in some way shape or form. He has it all sewn up actually as it's his hotel too, and whereas the whole area is a bit sad, clearly his business is thriving on the basis of bird photography. As well as discussing plans for a winter return visit, 7am on Monday morning was agreed for a second boat trip. Dinner was €7, another reason I really like Greece.Day 2I got up early and for some woodland birding on the north side of the lake. The plan was to see if I could pick up some new species for the trip, particularly Grey-headed Woodpecker which is present year-round. The best area per various trip reports are the tracks north of the river and south of the main road, so I parked the car up next to what looked to be an abandoned swimming pool complex just east of Vironia, and headed south into the area almost immediately crossing some railway tracks. These are in use, albeit infrequently, so look and listen before you cross!! The area was very productive with lots of birds of the type you would expect, particularly rich in Nightingale and Cuckoo in all wooded areas, and in Corn Buntings in more open areas like fields. Once again non-intensive agriculture is clearly responsible for a far better selection of birds that we get in the UK. Despite tracking down some promising drumming and calls, I never managed to see the Grey-headed Woodpecker, but I did get excellent views of Lesser Spotted and Great Spotted along with lots of other birds. You can eventually get quite close to the river, and in the flooded margins here were the usual Squacco Herons and Egrets.I walked a mostly circular route which took me first east towards the bridge, and then west alongside the north side of the river on various tracks until I reached a farm and could go no further, at which point I headed more or less directly back up to the road and walked alongside the railway tracks until I refound my car.

Pleasingly large numbers of Corn Bunting
By now it was early afternoon. I had read about some productive ditches on the east side of the lake, and headed off there, stopping off at the Bee-eater colony to enjoy those for a little bit longer. The ditches are reached by driving into the village of Chrisochorafa and taking the south-eastern route out and towards the lake. As you approach the lake you hit some farm buildings, and if you take an obviously white unpaved track that heads NNE and to the right of the larger buildings you will soon see the irrigation channel.  Simply drive alongside these ditches for some really good birding – I turned right and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying numerous close encounters with Great Reed Warblers, Whinchats and Yellow Wagtails. The best photography opportunities are from the car, so make sure you hire something appropriate – either a 4x4, or if you are a cheapskate like me, the lightest possible micro-sized car as these can generally be coaxed over some quite rough terrain where a heavy saloon would struggle. What I had not ever realised is that Whinchats really like reedbeds for some reason, and they were very closely tied to the stands of reeds that lined the irrigation channels. Throughout my time here I was also constantly treated to fly-over Herons and Egrets.

Whinchat. Better than Wheatear? Jury is out....


Great Reed Warbler

I spent the final part of the day at Mandraki trying to get better photos of Squacco Herons. This was only partially successful because the pier at the end is quite a popular spot for early evening strolls and there was a fair bit of disturbance which caused the birds to remain distant, or fly off when they had returned closer. Very frustrating when you have been squatting patiently for half an hour and bird is very nearly now coming into range only for a passing pedestrian out to admire the view to flush it back fifty metres! Loads of birds though, including more Wood Sandpipers than I think I have ever seen. They were literally everywhere and even with just binoculars I got really excellent views.

Day 3Another really early start as today was not only my final day, but also the day of the second boat trip. We met at the Oikoperiigitis Hotel, and after a coffee for the assembled boat passengers we went down to the lake and got on the boat. It was immediately apparent that conditions were not as good as the first evening, with quite a breeze causing what had been a lovely still surface to be quite choppy, but we set off east anyway. In contrast to the evening trip, even from a distance we could see a lot of bird activity, including what looked like a massive Pelican feeding frenzy.  We were soon at the other side of the lake quite near to Mandraki, and Vasilis positioned the boat to drift alongside the activity, to the extent that he was not limited by the very shallow water levels. In short it was fantastic, with excellent views of feeding birds, and of birds flying to and from roosting areas to feeding areas. By excellent views I mean through binoculars, as photography-wise it didn’t really tick the box due to light and priority being given to a boat full of passengers who were happy with bird snaps rather than anything else. This was fine with me; as previously mentioned I now know that the key period for the kind of images seen on the web is in winter, and I am in the process of crafting a plan for that. So I was simply happy to be there and be soaking up what was quite a spectacle. Dalmatian Pelicans of course, but also White Pelicans, SpoonbillsPgymy and Regular Cormorants, Common Terns, Black-crowned Night Herons, and lots and lots of hirundines.

Overall we were out about an hour and a half, so when we got back to the dock I needed to get my skates on as it wasn’t that long until my return flight. Returning to my hotel I turned things around in exactly eleven minutes, which once back to Thessaloniki gave me a little time to stop at various places and see what was about, particularly the south-west corner of the lake which I hadn’t really explored. Again lots of water birds and Pelicans, but nothing new at this late stage. It should be about an hour to the airport, but it was quite hard to find somewhere to refuel and I had to go out of my way. This meant I arrived at the car hire place about 55 minutes before my flight left which is somewhat under the recommended time frame! Luckily the airport is a doddle, and I was waiting by the gate about 10 minutes later and boarded shortly afterwards. Yes I would like a Gin and Tonic please! 

In summary: Northern Greece in spring? A big thumbs up from me!