Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A few Madeiran birds

I didn’t do a great deal of birding whilst in Madeira in early January, but I made sure to catch up with at least a few of the endemics during some of my forays out into the countryside.

Maderian Firecrest
No trip would be complete without getting good views of the local Firecrest, and I am happy to say unlike Firecrest here these are everywhere – possibly the commonest bird in the right habitat. They are easily located on sound, a single note call that our birds just don’t make, and they’re not particularly shy either so good views are guaranteed. My best encounters were along a couple of levadas around Ribeiro Frio, but I heard them all over the place and the nicest photos were actually a bit higher up towards the radar at Arieiro.

Trocaz Pigeon
I saw Trocaz Pigeon in a couple of places, but these are much more restricted. The best and closest views were from the track that runs underneath the Balcoa watchpoint. You are also guaranteed to see the species from the watchpoint itself, but you are looking down on them from a great height as they fly above the Laurel forest. Excellent views, but not camera excellent.

Chaffinch Madeira also has an endemic Chaffinch, maderensis. The absolute best place for crippling views of these has to be the aforementioned Balcoa watchpoint, where there are fearless birds hoping for a handout. It was here that I discovered that Madeiran Chaffinches eat bananas. They're not that different from the sort we get in the UK (coelebs gengleri) really although the green does seem very green. More of a cline perhaps, like bloody Redpolls.....


The Blackcap on Madeira is an another endemic subspecies to Macaronesia, heineken. Visually I could not tell them from the birds we get in the UK, though in theory they are browner on the mantle. They also refresh the parts other Sylvia warblers can't reach. What I found different was the intensity of the single note “Tak” call. Perhaps this is because I have not heard a Blackcap for several months, but it seemed to me to be a level harder than the nominate species. I found the bird to be commonest at lower altitudes in gardens, but I got my best views from a balcony that was level with the canopy at the Monte Palace Gardens. I pished it in and although I didn’t have a birding lens with me, maxed out my tourism zoom with a 2x converter to get something that is passable.

Atlantic Canaries are very common, particularly so around areas where sparser vegetation blends in alongside gardens and banana plantations down near the coast. Easily picked up by their jangly calls, sounding not unlike Serin which most European travellers will be familiar with, I got excellent views of these in Funchal itself. I can recommend the coastal area in the Lido district as being a good place, especially alongside the waste ground along Rua da Ponta da Cruz – which is also a good spot to seawatch from so you can kill two birds (possibly more!) with one stone so to speak. With patience and if you stay still, the birds will be feeding all around you, which is what happened to me only about five yards off the pavement.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Understanding Redpolls

In terms of UK birding I don’t do much twitchery these days, I prefer seeing no birds in Wanstead as this is a lot easier. I am generally reliant on the glories of yesteryear for any listing advancement, such as the Rainham Slaty-backed Gull, and then more recently a Chinese Pond Heron in Kent that everybody belittled as a joke bird but went to see anyway, just in case. This just-in-case twitching is actually a thing, and in birding lexicon is known as an insurance tick. You go and see a bird which isn’t officially on the UK list owned by the Bird Police, but that might become official at a later date once the scientists and the great and the good have had their say. It is a gamble that does not always pay off, but in many cases it does. Tiny Canada Goose went on for example, I bird I had squirreled away for ages in the hope that one day it might get split from Normal-sized Canada Goose.

Last week saw some more upcoming changes to the UK list. I skimmed over it briefly and took from it that I was going to get a Goose tick – with Taiga Bean Goose and Tundra Bean Goose being split. A number of insurance ticks I had not bothered with seem to be going on too such as Thayers Gull (you can understand why I didn’t go…). Still, one to ink in so can’t complain really.

Hang on a minute though, what’s this down the bottom? Whimbrel and Hudsonian Whimbrel are being added back together? That's no good! This is the very opposite of a split, a lump. Where previously two species were considered to exist, now only one is. Rather than needing ink I now need tippex….. and my tactic of sitting around in my armchair extending my UK list has backfired on me. My list is going in the wrong direction!

But hang on I can hear you exclaim! Surely you break even? Plus a Goose, minus a Whimbrel, a zero sum gain. Yes, but I have not yet got to Redpolls….. You see Redpolls are also being lumped, and therefore I am definitely going backwards. Personally I believe there are about ten thousand species of Redpoll, but up until now the scientists have recognized just three. These were Small Brownish Redpoll, Medium Paler Redpoll, and Polar Bear. I had been hoping for a further split to also include Bigger-than-Medium-Paler-but-Darker Redpoll, as well splitting Polar Bear into Lesser and Greater, but in fact they have taken the opposite approach. Going forward there will be just two, Small-to-Medium-Doesn’t-Matter-about-the-Colour Redpoll, and Large-to-Enormous White Redpoll.

Medium Dark Redpoll (rostrata)

Anyone who has seen the various flavours of Redpoll in this country will know what I am talking about, but let me clear this up. The commonest Redpoll in the UK is Lesser Redpoll. These are small and buffy/browny (cabaret). Occasionally you find a frosty looking one in with them that is a bit bigger and a lot whiter and you are allowed to call these Common Redpoll although some people call them Mealy Redpoll (flammea). Then you get some pretty large ones thought to hail from Greenland that are almost as brown as Lesser Redpoll but a lot darker (rostrata), and you can call these Common Redpoll too. Then you get big white ones that are not quite white enough and that are thought to come from Iceland (icelandica) – I have no idea what you can call these but let’s stick with Common Redpoll. Then you get really really white ones with fluffy tarsi and these are called Coue’s Arctic Redpoll (exilipes), although some people call them Hoary Redpoll, and finally you get massive white ones that are absolutely enormous and that hunt seals, and these are called Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll (hornemanni), or also Hoary. Both these latter get called Arctic Redpoll. Confused?

Very Large Really White Redpoll (hornemanni)

Look, it's easy. Essentially you start small and buffy/browny and gradually you get larger and whiter, with the exception of rostrata where you replace whiter with darker. And then there is everything in between, and this is why the whole thing is a mess because nobody can agree where one starts and the next begins. The two Arctic Redpolls have never been split despite their dietary requirements, but up until now a distinction was drawn between Lesser and Common/Mealy. No longer. Where we are landing now is Mostly Brown = Common Redpoll, and Really White = Arctic Redpoll. End of. Oh, apart from race icelandica which goes into the Brown camp despite being White. AaaaaarghhhhhhHH!

Back in my formative birding youth, I heard over the grapevine about a large flock of Mealy Redpolls visiting Thorndon Country Park in Essex. I still “needed” Mealy Redpoll at the time, and with a large flock present how could I go wrong? How naïve. So I pootled over there, found masses of Redpolls that all looked the same, and duly called the pager people with news of a large flock of Common Redpolls near the main car park. And naturally I was then rubbished far and wide. Hard as this was to bear at the time, I like to think of myself as prescient.

Medium White Redpoll (icelandica)

The Redpoll argument has been running for hundreds of years, but science is now providing the answer. Or an answer. Based on DNA analysis of 77 different variations on the Redpoll theme, apparently ALL are near-as-dammit identical. Common and Arctic are 100% the same, and Common and Lesser are as close to 100% as makes no difference. So why do they all look different? This is the mystery of creation I suppose. In a way I consider myself lucky to get to keep two species, as there seems adequate justification to reduce the whole lot to one, which would leave us simply with REDPOLL.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Snowy Egret

Blogging is great isn't it? I think I have almost reached the zenith, whereby I flip open the laptop and write down everything I've done recently in the mistaken belief that anyone cares. I went here, I saw this, I went home. This is bird blogging as it is meant to be. And you wonder why it is on the way out... and this is today's offering I am afraid, as the last few days have been rather uneventful. Don't forget the 'back' button.

So.....I nipped out yesterday afternoon in order to avoid cabin fever. My destination, Loch Leven RSPB. No reason really, I just wanted to see some birds. Any birds. I didn't get out until about 2pm, there is a lot of stuff that needs doing in the ancestral home at the moment. It was a nasty day, drizzle and quite windy, and as I crossed over to Perthshire it started to snow - not the best birding weather but I didn't care, it was just nice to be out. I've not been to Loch Leven for quite a few years, my usual destination when I am up here is the coast. I crossed through the tunnel that takes you under the road and wandered down the muddy path to the first hide.

No birds. Not one. I could make out the shapes of distant Swans further away on the loch, and lots of duck, but in terms of birds right there? Nada. The second and third hides were the same. Two Black-headed Gulls and a Mallard in 800m. Glacial, driving sleet, and nothing to see. Any nacsent birders visiting Loch Leven yesterday would have ditched their binoculars there and then and taken up golf. Or knitting. I retreated to the visitor centre and went up to the top floor to warm up. They have a few telescopes bolted to the windows, and despite the fact I knew there was nothing there I idly fired one up and started scanning.... Yes, there was the Mallard, phew. Only one Gull left, you can't win them all. Oh, a white blob on the next scrape, that's where it is. Better check it, just in case.

WAAAAAHHHHH!! It's only a bloody Little Egret! I know what you're thinking. Dross. Down south maybe, but up here it's a rare bird. No doubt it will become common as the species inexorably conquers the entire world, but in 2017 it's still a good record. I've been birding in Scotland a lot and this is the first I've ever seen. No doubt had I been chasing a list I would have seen one some time ago, but ex-Shetland my birding up here tends to be a pretty casual affair. To put this in context, I've seen Spoonbill and Hoopoe in eastern Scotland, and you would easily say that Little Egret is by some magnitude commoner than either of those. Very pleasing, and turned a turgid excursion into a downright success. Needless to say it didn't look happy. The flood was mostly frozen and it was just stood there, hunched up and doing nothing whilst the snow settled on the ice. You would think that at some point these pioneering species would reach a point where they stopped, thought about it for a while, and then decided that enough was enough and actually it would be better if they retreated a bit. This Little Egret looked like that was on the cards. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Failure (live)

It had been going so well, but I am now staring failure in the face. My mission to walk 35 miles a week for a whole year has failed at almost the first hurdle. It's still January and I am about to chalk up a real blow to my ambitions. I am not going to make it this week.

Disappointment. Dented pride. Weakness personified.

So now, obviously, is when I trot out the list of excuses. The reasons why I fell short. I expect sympathy, forgiveness, possibly chocolate, cards and flowers.

Week one was good, everything went to plan. Exactly 35 miles. I hit this on the final day and then must have immediately called for my sedan chair to carry me home. Week two was a blinder - 41 miles, partly explained by being in Madeira and taking nice long walks in the mountains and by the sea. Week three was solid. Despite being hemmed in by Canary wharf and work, I managed to trot out 37 miles, mostly before work whilst seeing no birds on Wanstead Flats. Which takes us to week four and failure. 

It is Saturday morning and I am in Scotland at my parents house. My dad has taken a fall, and I am here helping for the first few days after his release from hospital where he has been for the last three weeks. That's not the reason I have failed however, the real reason is that I started really badly last Sunday. We had some friends round for lunch and I didn't get out, ending the day on under 50% of the required run rate. I picked it up during the week with some fog-bound local pacing but this wasn't sufficient. Going in to yesterday I needed about 11 miles, and given my day consisted of sitting down working and following my dad round the house I didn't even scrape three. Which brings me today, needing eight.

And it is raining. 

This is what I really mean by failure, I am too soft. I cannot see a good reason to go out in the rain, and am thus accepting of failure, which makes me an even bigger failure. True grit would see me shrugging on my jacket and heading out into the wet, personal comfort be damned. As it is I am sat next to the Aga feeling extremely comfortable, eyeing up the kettle, and generally being pathetic. Cozily pathetic.

LATE EDIT: I am up to 10,436 steps today, or 4.8 miles after a spot of birding in snow and rain, but I am still about three miles short. Such is life.

Friday, 27 January 2017


The fog barely lifted on Wednesday, it was the very definition of gloomy. I went out in the morning anyway, it is good contemplative time and I enjoy it whatever the weather. Apart from rain of course. I took a camera but didn’t even get it out of my bag as there was no point. The photo below was from earlier in the week when you could actually make out trees. So if you saw a guy in a red hat wandering purposefully around Wanstead Flats on Wednesday morning when there was evidently no purpose at all given the close-to-zero visibility, that was me.

I was listening of course, that’s what proper birders do. In fact I didn’t even have optics with me, I have risen above that low level of birding. Optics are for the weak, I and many other real birders scorn them. If you don’t instinctively know what is in front of you then you might as well get another hobby. Sorry, that was an alternative fact. It is true that I didn’t have any bins though, as I took one look out of the window in the morning and realised they would be dead weight. Why I still took my camera defies any reasonable explanation other than idiocy as I knew I had no time during the day either.

Needless to say I heard nothing definitive. At one stage I thought I heard the call of an Oystercatcher somewhere overhead in the murk, but it was only the once and I cannot be totally certain it wasn’t a funny Parakeet. I’m off to Scotland shortly where Oystercatchers abound, so I will tune up so to speak. Too late for this one though, a shame. My only other record was also on a very foggy day, but that was multiple calls and left me in no doubt. Interestingly enough the two birds I heard most frequently were Greenfinch and Dunnock, both of which were almost impossible to find at the beginning of the year. Given the weather is far colder than three weeks ago and a lot less conducive to breeding, I am at a loss to understand why they now feel the need to sing, and in the case of the Greenfinches, embark on their skewy display flights. No doubt some bright spark will tell me.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Dare I say it, Gulls?

The ice has driven all the real birds away, so I have resorted to taking photos of Gulls. Well, actually I have mostly been taking pictures of trees and grass in preference, but this weekend given the lack of much else I was forced to swing the lens laridward. There are a lot of Gulls here at the moment, concentrated around the mostly frozen ponds, and it is fair to say that they are not doing much. Loafing. Waiting for handouts. Slipping clumsily on the ice despite their talons. Yes, Gulls have claws. I've not really spent much time studying Gulls, and especially not their feet as feet do not generally sort out ID conundrums, so I was mildly surprised to see claws at the end of the webbing. Not sure that they accomplish much I shouldn't think, but quite interesting actually.

The dominant flavour of Gull on Wanstead Flats is Common at the moment, impressive numbers. I've even been reading a few of the rings, pretty easy to pick out with all the birds stood about. Most seem to be from Norway, or at least to have visited once, with either white or green rings. Amazing to think that they've come all this way to scoff rancid bread and chapatis, but if it keeps them going. There were three different ones that were ringed, which caused momentary excitement until I realised that Tony had seen them all already. They seem to be very site faithful of late, but if there is no pressing need to move I suppose I wouldn't either. Oh, is that a pita? Mmmmmm. 

PS I've included a duck as well, lest you all think I have lost the plot entirely.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Birding the desert

I went birding in Canary Wharf last week. In just under one hour I completely smashed it. I birded it into the ground. I went to the four corners of the estate, I looked at the river and the docks, I looked at the green spaces, I had one eye on the sky. The result? 20 species. 20…..and that includes a Pigeon.

I knew it was hard having done it before, but it appears to have got harder. As this is notionally a birding blog in theory read by birders, and on the basis that all birders love a good list, or in this case, a list, let me give you the rundown of what those 20 species were.

2 Grebes (Little, GC)
2 Wildfowl (Canada Goose, Mallard)
2 Rails (Coot, Moorhen)
4 species of Gull (GBB, LBB, Common, BH)
2 flavours of Pigeon (Pigeon, Woodpigeon)
2 Corvids (Crow, Magpie)
4 Passerines (Blackbird, Robin, Blue Tit, Goldfinch
+ Heron and Cormorant

This takes my Canary Wharf 2017 list up to 21, as I had previously seen a Peregrine which I missed today.  Meanwhile my Wanstead patch list is on 65. How pathetic is this place? I could go almost anywhere else and see more birds in less time, and that is very depressing. I shall persevere though, I do not give up easily on anything. Well, apart from exercise and not eating.

However have you noticed the first bird I listed? Little Grebe. I’ve been birding here long enough, on and off, to know a good thing when I see it and this is monster. There were in fact two, bobbing about close in to the dock wall near that crappy hotel on stilts. Blink and you would have missed them, but I am a birder and birders eke these things out. In all of my forays over the years I’ve seen Little Grebe only once before. I wouldn’t say this latest sighting took my breath away exactly, but birding is all about location location location, and in a location as barren as this you take what you can get.

In all their glory, ahem
An interesting tactic could be to get here early, before the 100,000 people that work here. Might I then get the odd Redwing or Fieldfare, or something left field? It’s difficult at this time of year though as round here work starts well before the sun comes up. Perhaps something to consider in the spring for some of the arriving migrants? What price a Wheatear* on one of the river paths?

*Not long now....

Sunday, 22 January 2017


Have you noticed how cold it is? Good isn't it? I've been making sure to get up nice and early in order to get out and enjoy it. There are pretexts obviously. The first is that the only way I can get my 10,000 steps under my belt on a weekday is by taking a very long and extended commute to work. The second is creativity, so I have been poncing around with my camera in the crisp conditions. The last few days I have been taking a macro lens with me, in the hope of capturing some amazing closeups of frost-covered branches. On the whole this has been a dismal failure, which I would like to blame mostly on it being basically dark when I'm out and about. Luckily the lens can also focus on things far away which is much more my comfort zone. For instance the horizon. So whilst the last post was dominated by the setting sun, this is the other end of the day. 

I have to say that Wanstead Flats is very beautiful on mornings like this. Yes it's overrun with dogs and joggers and, lately for some reason, cyclists, but none of that can really detract from what is a magnificent area of open space right on my front doorstep. I am very lucky to have it. Spending an hour or so outdoors is also helpful for the soul. Silly though it sounds I find I am more relaxed in the office if I have had a bit of a wander. You would think that it might have the opposite effect, resentment that I wasn't still there, but the warm glow remains. I know that very few people I see will have done something similar, and I feel good about that. I am winning, so to speak.

So, once again apologies for the photo-heavy nature of this post, and of course all the commas, I just cannot help it. 

deliberately unwound the focus for this shot


Saturday, 21 January 2017

The setting sun

If you were paying attention, you will have noticed that in the final sentence of my last post I snuck in something about sunsets, and if you were really really paying attention you will also remember that in a post prior to that I threatened to write about sunsets. That threat is now real.

But who doesn’t like a good sunset? One of the joys of sunsets is that are available to almost everyone. OK perhaps not coal-miners on afternoon shifts, or that guy who tried to blow up a plane with his shoe, nor the 1.3bn people that live in a smog cloud in China, but nonetheless you would have to say pretty universal in terms of access. You don’t need money or time especially, you just go outside at the appropriate time of day and look up. Or straight. Whatever.

I love a good sunset, there is something very appealing about that shimmering ball dropping below the horizon. It just kind of draws you in. Sunrises are good too of course, but require you to not be in bed, so for some peculiar reason I am more drawn to sunsets, and I if I am out and about I often make an effort to go and appreciate one, especially if the skyline is dramatic. And even more especially if there is NO skyline, for instance ocean sunsets. The best.

Los Cristianos, Tenerife

During the day you are never aware of the sun “moving”. Yeah yeah I know, it doesn’t move but we do. If this is news to you I am sorry. Sure, you are aware that in the morning it was shining right in your face as you drove east to work, and when you next looked at around lunchtime it was towards the south, but you don’t actually see it move (partly this may be because you can’t actually look at it). However at sunset you become acutely aware of the sun moving, and as you approach the very end it seems to speed up, with those last moments passing incredibly quickly. I find it mesmerising. It also appears to get bigger the closer it gets, I've seen some enormous ones.

Cape Greco, Cyprus

At times it can of course simply be a damp squib. The other day I drove hell for leather to Ponta Do Pardo, the lighthouse at the western end of Madeira, as I have a bit of a thing for the sun setting over the sea and it’s not often I get to see one. It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, and as I arrived at the spot there was the glowing orange ball. Everything was set. And then it just disappeared! Distant murk over the horizon totally obscured what could have been utterly magical. But for all the misses – using language we all understand let’s call them dips – there are some spectacular successes, glorious evenings that make you shiver. Or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, majestic in their breadth and scope, and being somewhere special for one is a privilege.

Jebel Hafeet, Abu Dhabi

The light changes constantly, the hues differ by the minute. The colours are hugely varied, especially once the sun has actually disappeared below the horizon, and it is probably this that is the best period of all. Not even that low layer of clouds can defeat this, instead they act as an enormous reflector creating amazing sky-scapes. Shifting patterns, reds to oranges, pinks and purples. I swear it sometimes gets lighter, more vivid, than when the sun had been above the horizon.

For all the images I have posted here, cameras cannot really do a proper sunset justice much of the time. For starters it is an experience that requires other senses as well. Fading warmth on your face, the first slight chill. Why does the wind seem to get up when the sun goes? Silence if you have chosen your spot with care. waves crashing, and in warm countries sometimes the sounds of the night - insects, frogs and who knows what else. Mostly however the lens simply can't pick up the same width or the depth of the landscape as your eyes do, nor the shimmer, the pulses. For all of the distance involved, it really is something that you are a part of and that does not translate perfectly onto a two-dimensional screen.

The Shard, London

Sumburgh, Shetland

Thursday, 19 January 2017


Music is an important part of my life, other than when I am birding or working there is likely to be music in the background. I am quite old school in that I listen to and enjoy the physical presence of CDs. For any younger readers, they’re a kind of shiny plastic disc about 15cm wide that you place in a little drawer in a machine, and wires then run from this machine to another machine called an amplifier, and from there yet more wires run to loudspeakers. If you want to listen to something different you have to go to the machine, take the disc out and put another one in. Or send a child. When not being listened to the discs live in little square plastic cases which take up vast amounts of room yet give undeniable pleasure. This past sodden weekend my CD player got a lot of action, including Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” which seems to be appropriately apocalyptic for the current place where the world finds itself. 38 years old yet still highly relevant, prophetically cyclical you could say. We also listened to Van Morrison, Keane, Springsteen, Waylon Jennings, Tracy Chapman and Mozart. What that says about Chateau L and its residents I cannot say.

Music can also help connect you to physical moments. Neither Mrs L nor I are soppy enough to have an “our song” or anything like that, but Friday evening will always see Van M’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview” get an airing. The whole family know it by its alternative name of “The start of the weekend music”. This tradition goes back a long way and the original reasons why are lost, but those first "da da das" signify the start of something better, something positive, a clean break. It is infectious; I suspect our kids will do it too in later life.

For me, music comes into its own during travel, especially solo travel, which has been known to happen from time to time. All of my trips have soundtracks. Just before my recent trip to Madeira I finally fixed whatever it was that was wrong with my iPod (other MP3 players are available) and so was at long last able to download a number of those funny shiny discs onto it, including Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promise” that I had bought some time ago. This is a series of recordings from the late 1970s that were part of the “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” sessions, but that didn’t make that album’s final cut. Released finally in 2010 after a 30 year hiatus they are however equally as good, and I spent my journey to and from Madeira, driving time, as well as some down-time in the evenings getting to know it. I mean really know it. In short, excellent, particularly The Brokenhearted and a couple of others. This is not intended be some kind of Springsteen eulogy, the same is applicable to all sorts of albums listened to on other journeys. I am just saying that whenever I listen to this particular album or hear a song from it, and despite its content and mood, I will now always think of the glorious levadas in Madeira that I walked along whilst humming various melodies, and the wind-blown trek out along the ridge to the viewpoint at the Pico do Arieiro to look at the Zino's colony. Of the stunning collection of mature South African cycads at the Monte Palace Jardim, hundreds of ancient plants. Of the amazing succession of viaducts and tunnels that make up the major roads on the south of the island, and the amazing coastal road that goes from Sao Vicente to Porto da Cruz on the northern side. And then finally a rather gin-fuelled return journey back to the UK with a fabulous sunset at 37,000 feet.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A slight pause

I have an increasing sense of paranoia about my use of commas. It could be worse I admit, but I write a fair bit at work, executive summaries and the like, and then of course these musings. When I reread things I have written I am aghast at the, overuse of commas. See what I did there? OK so that was deliberate and I don't ever foul it up quite like that, or at least I hope I don't, but nonetheless I have noticed a tendency to write extremely long sentences which inevitably means I use quite a lot of these humble little bits of punctuation.

I can't quite place my finger on it, but I just have this sense that there are too many. That last sentence for example - did I need the comma in the middle of it or would it have worked perfectly well without it? It's the practical use I am most concerned with, rather than any sense of grammatical correctness. Nobody cares about that anymore, this is 2016! I was probably taught it once, eons ago, and indeed a short refresher on the internet does suggest that before a "but" is an OK place to put a comma, but also that it does not necessarily follow that where a slight pause might exist in spoken english that this is the right place for a comma to be inserted. Unhelpful. It seems to be quite easy to spot where you definitely shouldn't whack a comma, but quite difficult to know where exactly one is actually needed and where you might get away without one. If I am ever in doubt, which is frequently, I seem to put one in. That last sentence there, would it have been OK, or even better, if it had read " If I am ever in doubt - which is frequently - I put one in." Or perhaps " If I am ever in doubt which is frequently, I put one in.

Ridiculous though it sounds, I quite often trawl through old posts removing commas that I feel are superfluous. You could argue I should quit while I'm vaguely ahead. English is not an easy language so in one sense I am doing quite well to even get words out and should not worry about the real nitty gritty. For instance I manage to avoid many of the usual written pitfalls such as their, there and they're, and also your and you're - the poor use of these latter two in particular I find impossibly annoying, far more than I ought to I'm sure. I've also seen his and he's used more-or-less interchangeably, and just recently no and know. I have recently caught myself simply writing the wrong word in a sentence, hear instead of here, but managed to go back and correct it before I hit send as it just didn't look write right. Easily done, english probably has more homonyms than many other languages, it must be incredibly confusing for anyone learning it as a foreign language. Then again it appears to be a foreign language for many people born here such is the amount of mangling that goes on.

At this point it is probably best to quote Nigel Molesworth, that fabulous creation of Willians and Searle, as he does a run-through of his various teachers in "Down with Skool".

"They teach english e.g. migod you didn't ort to write a sentence like that molesworth."

Monday, 16 January 2017

Missing Mistle

It was getting embarrassing. Mid-January and no Mistle Thrush. I mean I know I’m not the greatest birder to have ever issued forth from the streets of London, but this is a Mistle Thrush. They’re everywhere, they’re loud, and they’re absolutely enormous. Most of my compatriots easily bumped into one on January the first, I never had a sniff. On Saturday I went for a leisurely stroll around the Park, and helpfully gave Tony the heads up that the Little Egret on Perch was relatively friendly whilst simultaneously moaning that I was still such an unbelievably poor birder that I couldn’t find a Mistle Thrush to save my life. He helpfully replied that two had flown over Shoulder of Mutton just a short while ago. The same Shoulder of Mutton I’d walked alongside an hour or so before. Crushing doesn’t even begin to describe it. I didn’t retrace my steps of course, I’m bigger than that. One does not twitch Mistle Thrushes unless one is an utter loser. 

As predicted Sunday morning dawned grey and shitty. The kind of day that immediately promotes thoughts of slippers, multiple classy small cups of coffee, and heated conservatory floors. And annual tax returns. The less said about this latter the better, given how much tax I have already paid it is astonishing that they want more, and that they want it within two weeks. If they were ever able to get this mysterious thing known as a tax code correct, a dark art if ever there was one, then it would be a lot easier to bear. As it is I start 2017 not from the position of comfort that I envisaged but as completely broke. But I digress.

My peaceful Sunday was shattered with news of a Wigeon on Shoulder of Mutton. I’d searched every pond on Saturday without success, yet here one was. It was probably there all along but my birding skills were just too feeble to hoik it out. So what to do, given the rain? I mean this is after all just a Wigeon. A duck. OK, maybe I do know what I am talking about. One of the harder ducks it has to be said and on most patch visits you won’t see one. So I decided to go, albeit that this decision took me about five hours to make, still reeling from the injustice of Self Assessment. I also happen to know that from my house to Shoulder of Mutton and back is about 3,500 steps, and with my daily total languishing on about 1,500, mostly pacing around the house muttering dark thoughts, I needed those steps to stand any chance of avoiding a pathetic start to the week. 

I set off into the gloom, the rain beating down on my new coat. I bought it on the cheap in Texas where it never rains, so this was also a test of sorts. Hood up, face down, I trotted through Reservoir Wood where the paths currently resemble Passchendaele. Some poor guy was attempting to jog through it and looked like something just dredged from a swamp. I was being more cautious, skipping and jumping in an effeminate manner from one side to the other like some kind of Captain Jack Sparrow wannabe. This also means more steps of course, huzzah!

It was still there, a drake, and looking very happy chasing a few Mallard around. The rain seemed to just slide elegantly off its upper feathers for some reason, which wasn’t happening to me. Somebody should make a coat out of duck backs. It was then that I had a genius idea. One of those almost once-in-a-lifetime plans that is so marvellously simple that you wonder why you didn’t think of it years ago, or in my case, yesterday. I checked the golf course. Grass innit? And no golfers as who in their right mind plays golf in the rain, I mean it’s dull enough in nice weather. Side-stepped a couple of Canada Geese and sidled up to the fence...a and would you bloody believe it, a pair of Mistle Thrush with a retinue of subservient Redwings feeding on one of the fairways. Serious score, and a huge boost for what had been a rapidly diminishing faith in my birding abilities. I can do this. I am not hopeless. Then I realised I was just getting wetter so I went home to my slippers.

From 2013 for illustrative purposes, and to show I know what a Mistle Thrush looks like.

Sunday, 15 January 2017


In our house we listen to the radio a lot, mostly Radio 4 which is suitably middle class. We call it the wireless of course. Not really. Anyway, it means that the kids get a good selection of comedy and current affairs. So in addition to being fans of various long-running series like "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" and "The News Quiz", they are also up to speed with all the unfortunate things happening in the world, know all about Trump, ISIS and other tragedies. And they also get the weather.

So it did not escape their attention when, with increasing urgency, the weather forecasters began talking about storm surges, travel disruption, flight cancellations, danger, amber warnings, carnage etc etc. Her eyes full of hope, my youngest daughter looked up at me on the way out of the house on Thursday morning. "Daddy, I haven't made a snowman since I was five". 

Well what can I say? This is what we woke up to on Friday morning. As you can see, chaos.

Why is it that in this country we frequently predict the end of times when nothing of the sort ever happens? It is a national past-time to obsess about no weather at all. Perhaps it is because when we do get the tiniest bit of bad weather that we experience a collective collapse, weather that most normal countries wouldn't even notice brings us to a complete standstill. Despite the intensity of the band of snow said to be crossing the country, last week was so pitiful that public transport continued to run without any problems at all, and the nice cozy day I had envisaged working from home turned into the usual schlep to Canary Wharf. And needless to say we did not get to build a snow man..... I'd estimate there was just about enough of the white stuff in our garden to build something, oooh I don't know, an inch high and about half and inch wide. Pitiful. 

Here's an old photo from a few years back instead. I haven't shown it to the kids...

My garden, circa 1852

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Slow progress

I've not been on the patch for a few days - it hardly seems worth it when the sun rises at approximately the same time I need to be on the tube, and as I was away last weekend today was probably the first real opportunity for a while. I made the most of it, doing a complete loop of the Park and the Flats. For little reward it has to be said, as for all this talk of cold weather, huge tides and gargantuan amounts of snow, Wanstead has remained steadfastly dull. On Thursday I awoke to about half a millimeter of something that anyone who lives north of the Pennines would call a mild frost, and it had completely disappeared by the time I came home. Instead everything is just damp and miserably cold, with just enough ice on the local ponds to ensure that all the wildfowl have decamped to the Thames, but not enough ice to bring anything interesting in from a frozen countryside. Pathetic in other words, woeful for birding.

I struggled round manfully - five miles or so at a steady pace - I called it a dash on Twitter but actually it was at 3.3mph - and saw just two new species for the year, a couple of Siskin in the Dell, and then a small flock of Fieldfare over near the stables. I still can't dig out a Mistle Thrush anywhere, and tomorrow is looking very much like an indoor day with heavy rain forecast during all hours of daylight. So ends another week of local birding.

This Robin was really rather friendly. I expect it just wanted a handout mind you.

That is OK, I have plenty of other things to keep me going, a benefit of having lots of hobbies. My tax return for instance has been crying out for day like tomorrow. I have dutifully gathered all the required bits of information, one of which took over an hour to find in a stack of paper about two feet high. The number that I needed from it was zero. Excellent, excellent..... Given the effort I almost wish it had been something. 

There is of course a lot of blogging, and given I've just been away, a bit of photo-editing as well. I've almost finished potting up my stash of greenery from Madeira, the conservatory is looking less dining room and more Kew Gardens. Needless to say Mrs L is not impressed, plants are just things for her to walk into or that stab her. Sob stories about how they will all die if they go outside or in the greenhouse are just about working for now, but I don't know how long I've got - I need to get through to about mid-March I reckon. That's the trouble with this weather, I like it cold as it (very occasionally) brings birds and nice photographic conditions, but this clashes almost exactly with some of the other things I like, namely strolling around in shorts whilst poking at tropical plants and drinking chilled wine.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Full flow

Believe it or not this is my 10th post of 2017. Ten in 13 days. Somehow I have rediscovered my enjoyment of writing, and you the internet unfortunately have to bear the brunt. Last year I was on the point of throwing the towel in. Quitting blogging altogether. I simply couldn't be bothered, the blogging community was shrinking, most posts received no acknowledgement whatsoever, I didn't really feel I had the time to devote. Then I wrote about this sad state of affairs and in the process discovered that despite all of this I still really enjoyed it. And so here we are. 

After a summer of writing almost nothing, the autumn saw Wansteadbirder.com step up a few gears. I've not regained the heights of 2011 and I doubt I ever will - that was a unique period in my life - but it is beginning to flow again. I can't really say that there is a reason for this, it just is what it is. It may continue or it may not. It may get boring, indeed some may say that it already is! Now that I think about it I'm sure I once wrote a blog post about how I was boring even myself. That said, I’m back to doing what I used to do back then, which is keeping a list of things that I see or think of that I might then choose to bash out a few sentences on. Currently on this small scrap of paper are my unique sense of balance, snowmageddon in Wanstead, how trips often have soundtracks, sunsets, and why it is that I frequently use too many commas. As usual not much birdy content.

That said and despite the title, it has never really been all about birds. That would too boring. Had it been, I think it would have died a death quite a few years ago. As it is this is the ninth year, can I make it ten? How long does the average blog endure for? And how on earth does Steve Gale manage to write so much?! He's just won the highly-coveted Rambler award for the best blog that Neil reads, and for the fourth year running. This is richly deserved, his output is second to none, no repetition, always something to whet the appetite and always something new to make the commute go that little bit quicker. Apparently I was the runner-up again, although I did pick up a gong for my overly-emotional post about the parallels between the US election and Brexit. I think I won it once, probably back when I was a house husband and wrote stupid things every day about the minutae of life and my laughable attempts at domesticity and bringing up children. Anyway cheers Neil (aka Factor), and well done to Steve and thanks for the words!

Factor has also listed a number of really good reads to make up his shortlists, it is well worth going over to his page and having a look - you may discover something that really piques your interest. Since I had my big moan/epiphany, I have been trawling around various birdy spots on the web and have managed to discover a number of enjoyable places to fritter away time. So now over there on the right you should see a fresh and expanded blog-roll. There is a new one about waders, one from a birder who travels possibly more than I do, a few local patch soldiers from around the country, and a couple more photography ones. I hope to add a few more in the coming weeks, albeit that I don’t want the list to be too lengthy. In summary, there is light.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A short missive from Madeira

Hello from Madeira! I am spending a few days on this Atlantic garden island because I was not able to have any days off over Christmas, and because I like plants. I have been before, but that was mostly a birding trip when my horticultural inclinations were at a low ebb. Whilst chasing Firecrest around I did happen to notice that there were quite a few nice-looking plants around though, and it is this that has spurred me to come back. This time around I'll mostly be visiting botanical gardens and parks, but bins will be around my neck and I plan a few walks along some of the levadas - narrow mountain tracks with watercourses that wind their way around the edges of the many valleys. You can often get good views of the Trocaz Pigeons flying below you, and Firecrests are guaranteed pretty much everywhere you go.

It is all about the climate - sub-tropical. Moist oceanic air, warm winds. This means that you can grow almost anything without fear of frost or low temperatures. It's early January and I've been wandering around in shorts. At home it was just -4 in Wanstead a few days ago, here in Madeira it's about 20 degrees, and all those plants in my greenhouse that I spend hours agonising over whether they're too cold, whether I've watered too much or too little, they all grow like the clappers here with no care whatsoever. Huge proliferations of colourful flowers, fabulous palms, cycads, succulents and agaves. Yuccas the size of trees, Aloe arborescens with amazing red flower spikes growing as roadside weeds.The last time I was here I helped myself to a couple of Agave attentuata offshoots, a plant that is very difficult to find in the UK but which on Madeira has naturalised and is literally everywhere in Funchal and along the coast. Huge pale green rosettes, and unlike the rest of the family, no spines. They multiply by seed, but they also put out suckers and turn into huge clumps, thus liberating few babies from the roadside is not a problem. These have grown steadily in sub-tropical Wanstead, don't be fooled by the fragile look, they go into the minus figures with no problems if kept dry. A number of people have asked if they could have one and I already gave one to a guy over the road who seemed really keen. As mine have not yet grown offshoots of their own I'll try and source a few more in the next few days. Thank god we're still in Europe and they can be imported with impunity.

The middle three. In Madeira they grow to the size of armchairs.
I'm also hoping to see if I can pick up a few different things, so a number of nurseries and market stalls have been bookmarked for a visit, and my suitcase is practically empty in case they should have any small gems that take my fancy. Heliconia, strelitzia, canna, gingers, protea, bananas, agapanthus. Oh sorry, I'm getting carried away, I forgot this is a birding blog. Anyway, well done for making it this far, I know my plant fetish is not exactly riveting for most people. I will probably not be able to resist posting a few photos either, but there might be a few landscapes as well as I quite like that side of things too. Birds? Well there is large white tube over there in the corner of the hotel room - rarely do I go anywhere without it. I may find something to pose in front of it...

Oh well I never, will you look at that?!