Tuesday 28 February 2017

Bird Report

I like birds and birding. I do not like work and working. Simple. So what happens when birding becomes working? I’ll tell you. Delay is what happens. Excuses are what happens. Extreme procrastination and putting things off become the order of the day. I am of course talking about the London Bird Report, for which I am a contributor, and I am very very behind.

It’s a professional-looking A5 sized softback book published by the London Natural History Society. LNHS members get for free, or it can instead be purchased for a very reasonable sum. It is an entirely voluntary effort from a large number of people and collectively it takes hours, hundreds of hours. In addition to the immense amount of time put it by Pete the editor, there is an entire editorial board tasked with elements of the production. I am on it, I view it as a way of giving back to the birding scene which has given me so much enjoyment over the years. We meet several times a year as we plan the publication, and each member has quite a lot to do in advance of those meetings, reaching a veritable crescendo as we approach the end date. Earlier on in the process many other people are involved. There are the local county recorders who chase down and compile the output of the capital’s birders, and a whole rarities committee to assess the trickier ones. There is an army of people who write sections of the systematic list, translating a huge database of daily sightings into meaningful summaries of individual species. I did “Tits, Crests and Nuthatches” for a couple of years and it was a very big piece of work indeed. Then there are people who contribute papers, for example accounts of London sites, or detailed studies of species. Further people do the gazette, make lists of sites, and a whole host of things I probably don't even realise. 

My job is to source, edit, check and caption photographs of birds to accompany the systematic list and to some extent the accompanying papers. This is not as simple as send out an email and wait for people to send me lovely photos. It's actually quite a struggle to get enough that are sufficiently decent for print. Once I have them I have to whittle them down to a shortlist. Then I have get bigger copies of some of them., and then edit almost all of them - noise reduction, straighten horizons, dust spots, sharpen them up and get them the right size. I have to find something suitable for the front and rear cover, with enough blank space for titles, ISBNs and barcodes and so on. I also have to check that they were taken in London, and that the dates match up with the records on the database. I have to make sure that I am not reusing a species from a previous year too much, Wheatears excepted, and then I have to write a sensible caption to accompany each image. When all that is done, I have to get the shortlist and the captions over to the designer and work with him to ensure that the chosen photos actually work with the blocks of text, trying to avoid instances of a species account on one page and the photo on a different page. Finally I have to assess the proofs for accurate colour reproduction. It is an enormous job.

And here’s the rub, that last little three letter word. It is and feels like a job. Like work. And thus it feels like a chore, a drag, rather than something I genuinely want to spend my time doing. And so I inevitably leave it to almost the last minute. Although this has been on my plate for quite some time, and I started gathering the images many months ago, as of last night I have only written about a third of the comments. The deadline is today. This evening is when I promised the rest of the editorial board that I would have everything ready to go, and I am woefully short of where I wanted to be. I had earmarked several blocks of time to get this done, including on the flights to Hong Kong and back. All of these slots came and went without me doing so much as opening the file. So tonight, when I have finished writing this blog post, I am devoting my entire evening to getting it done.

To be fair, this is the final piece of the puzzle. I’ve already done all the selection and editing. I’ve already sent the editorial board the cover choices for them to vote on (I don’t vote). I’ve already prepared the file with all the species names and checked the birds and their dates against the dates captured in the image files. But Nigel the designer can’t start work until I’ve sent him the final images and the final captions. So whilst I’ve put in hours and hours already, hours that by my own admission I don’t really have, none of this means anything for anyone else until I’ve 100% finished. Anyway, next time you pick up the London Bird Report, or indeed any bird report produced by any county or recording area, spare a thought for the hard-working volunteers who have selflessly devoted hours of their personal time to make sure you have that report in your hands, year after year.

You will be surprised to hear that none of this is what I had planned to write about. Or maybe not? No, the spur for this now tangential post was that I was up at 7am today desperately trying to write a few more of the captions before I had to leave for work. One of the ones I wrote was for Sedge Warbler, to accompany Russ’s fine image from Rainham on 10th April that I am planning on using. It struck me that for all my talk of February being pathetically dull and unworthwhile, in a few short weeks local birding would be an entirely different proposition. And by then I'll have finished the LBR and can get out and enjoy it.

Monday 27 February 2017


I and other local birders in Wanstead are facing a dilemma. The month of February is generally one we greet with little enthusiasm. Towards the beginning of the month we might mop up a few stragglers missed during January, but then we essentially give up until the first migrants arrive. It is cold, it is predictable, and above all it is boring. For those hardy souls that do venture out, expectations are low. Confoundingly however three birders have added three new species for the year in the last three days. This is not supposed to happen - we are supposed to collectively give up and see nothing until we hear news of the first Sand Martins arriving on the south coast.

It is Tony's fault. And Bob's. Tony found a Med Gull on Saturday, which caused both Bob and I to come out and look for it. I saw it and took a crap photo of it with my phone. Bob didn't see it, and so went out on Sunday, did see it, and what's more took a decent photo of it. This spurred me on, and I went out later on with a camera to seek it out, and whilst failing found a Red-crested Pochard on Jubilee. Roll on Monday and news of these two birds has drawn Nick to the Flats - a permanent fixture in recent years he is now somewhat of no fixed birding abode. Whilst looking for the Med Gull he found a Yellow-legged Gull. I'm going out to look for it tomorrow morning (assuming blue skies and sunshine). What will I find instead?

This is often how birding goes, a variant of the well-known Patagonia rest stop effect, after a famous birding location in Arizona where rarity after rarity was found by successive visitors looking for the previous bird, despite being no different in habitat or promise than any other location. I've been there, didn't see much! Here, have a Magpie.

Sunday 26 February 2017

Duck Days

I really should go out for ducks more. I promise myself every year that I'll devote the winter to photographing ducks in their finery, and then I look outside at the grey skies and the wind ripping up the puddles and go and do something else. I am weak. Today I finally got a nice big piece of glass between me and a duck, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much so I'm wondering whether next weekend might see more of the same.

I didn't actually go out for ducks today, I nipped out to see if I could find yesterday's Med Gull. I couldn't, instead finding about 250 footballers. My stupid fault for leaving at 11am rather than a few hours earlier. Still, it was lovely slow morning involving coffee and a sofa so I can't really complain. I tracked down the side of the Western Flats and crossed the road over to the Jubilee Pond in case it was on there. It wasn't, but there was a funny-looking duck in the far corner behind one of the semi-submerged wirefences. At first I thought it was one of those exotic teal things, but then it dawned on me that it was a female Red-crested Pochard. I don't see these very often, but today I got excellent views. Too excellent some might say. This is one of those species that you always have to treat with a healthy degree of scepticism, and this bird was no stranger to bread and people. That said, the population at Victoria Park - probably the closest to Wanstead - probably see their fair share of Mother's Pride as well, so who knows? If we discounted every duck that was partial to a bit of crust.....

How I first saw it. Apt some might say.

The Wigeon on Shoulder of Mutton showed a lot more class happily. It's been around for over a month now on and off, and seeing as I had a camera on me which is not always a given these days I thought I would give it a go. It came quite close, but not disgracefully so. Wigeon is guaranteed annually, but is not so common as to be ignorable when the first one gets found in January or February. I rapidly twitched this one about six weeks ago, hence why it is still here in exactly the same place...


Saturday 25 February 2017

Winning on foot

I can only imagine that you are desperate for news of my walking challenge. Well, there is news. BIG news. News of a round number. A LARGE round number. There have been ups and downs, three weeks of failing to make the distance for starters, but there have also been huge successes. One of these was last week, when on holiday I very nearly doubled my distance. This has ensured that whilst there might be bad weeks, that my average daily healthy mileage is above five. If I can keep that up I'll meet the annual goal at least. Anyway, on to the momentous figure - 300 miles. Surpassed at some point this morning whilst walking up and down the garden cleaning up after storm Doris. 

There wasn't much to do - a few big sticks to tidy away, and the re-erection of all my bird feeders, all of which came down. No damage done, but at some point between Thursday and today the local foxes have decided that what the feeders really needed was to be decorated with poo. Why? The bird feeders had no territorial ambitions, they just happened to be blown onto the lawn. Thanks foxes. A nasty job, fox crap is pretty rancid at the best of times, but to be cleaning it off my bird feeders came low down of my list of things I wanted to be doing this weekend. Done now, but honestly. Yuck!

So back to walking, and another victory for foot power. Tony found a Med Gull on Wanstead Flats this morning, a decent bird over here. I trekked out to try and find it a little later, averting my eyes at the increasingly wanton destruction wrought by the Corporation of London. Scanned far more Gulls than is healthy but couldn't find it. Hey ho. Bob, Tony and I converged on the playing fields having collectively looked through nearly every group of Gulls on Wanstead Flats, and as is entirely normal for 9.30am started talking about Gin and Tonic instead. It's the demographic I think. Anyway, I had actually gone out this morning with the intention of buying bread in Leytonstone before being diverted in the opposite direction by larid news, so after a healthy discussion on when the first snifter of the day might occur, I bade farewell to the guys and started to head back.

Bob was incredulous! I had walked to the Alex?? Egad! Naturally he had driven over, and so offered me a lift back to far closer to the bakery. I thought about it I must admit, but I declined in the interests of my waistline and trotted off. A little later the merits of this strategy paid off when I bumped into the Med over on the Western Flats, probably the only spot nobody had checked. I didn't see one last year, so very pleasing, and with the once regular Valentine's Park bird likely playing a harp somewhere they have become far more difficult. I tried to call Bob a couple of times but there was no answer. Probably already back home and on the G&Ts......

So here it is, most lovely. This er "image" was actually taken with my phone through one barrel of my bins, which I didn't think was likely to work but has somehow produced an identifiable record shot. 

I did eventually make it to the bakery, and £3.80 later was the proud owner of a sourdough loaf made with 30% rye. Fantastic. I also found a new fishmongers, so dinner at Chateau L this evening involves fresh shrimp and Red Snapper. I may even break out some white wine, but only after the Gin.

Friday 24 February 2017

Eastern journey

Oh, er, hello. It’s me. Been a bit quiet, sorry. I’ve been travelling again as it happens, and whilst I could have tapped a few things down I was having such a relaxed time I couldn’t be bothered. Some types of holidays do this to me I’m afraid, I lose all purpose and dynamism, and just flop about. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it feels lame sometimes.

I was in Hong Kong again, as well as Vietnam. Last year I went west a fair amount, but as all UK birders know, it is the east from where the gems come these days. I’ve been to Shetland a fair number of times, including last year, and whilst I missed the monster birds, I saw tons of visitors that had travelled a very long way to see me. I thought I would return the favour and go and visit them, seemed only fair. As regular readers will perhaps know my sister lives in Hong Kong, another pawn in the global financial system. I’d visited her twice in the last couple of years, once with the whole family, and the plan this time was to repeat that family trip in order to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday. Unfortunately extreme misfortune – known in some circles as clumsiness - runs in the family, and at the start of the year he fell over and broke lots of things.  Like father like son. He could not travel, but as we were all booked up we decided to go regardless, toasting his milestone in absentia.

Given we had all spent some time in HK before, the main focus this time was a side trip to Vietnam. That’s not to say that HK is boring, far from it. It’s a monumental Asian city, fabulously interesting and if you head off the beaten track you really are in another world. However you can also get that in Vietnam, indeed somewhat more easily, and in our thirst for new experiences we took a quick flight across the South China Sea to Da Nang, and from there travelled down the coast to the heritage town of Hoi An.

Unlike a lot of Vietnam which is being rapidly concreted and westernised, Hoi An retains heaps of original character. Markets, old buildings and passageways, street vendors, and a short distance outside of the town paddyfield agriculture.  It is also firmly on the hippie trail so suited me down to the ground ahem. There is not actually that much to report - this was firmly a family holiday and I only managed to sneak out birding a couple of times, once in Hong Kong and once in Vietnam. 

More on what I saw later, but what I really wanted to say was that everywhere I went - from central Kowloon to my sister's garden on Lantau, from a temple in the mountains in Vietnam to sitting in a restaurant in the middle of Hoi An, from under a palm tree on a beach on the South China Sea to waiting for taxi at Chek Lap Lok - I was accompanied by the calls of Yellow-browed Warblers. They were simply everywhere and I think I drove my family to distraction with my constant excitement at hearing them, by pointing them out and by leaping up from relaxed meals to peer into trees. But to me it's the essence of being a UK birder abroad, the ability and joy at connecting events from the "scene" back home to the other side of the plant where you currently are, and understanding more clearly the miracle that is migration and vagrancy. These Warblers were supposed to be here, and my enjoyment at finding them everywhere I went was compounded by this feeling of everything being right and in place.

My Son, Vietnam's answer to Angkor Wat. Known principally for it's wintering Yellow-browed Warbler population.

Friday 10 February 2017

Gimme an O...

The suspense has, I suspect, been killing you. What new year bird could I possibly have gained, if you were paying attention, somewhere between 7 and 8pm on Monday evening? When it is dark. Need a clue? Only a [resident, year-round] Tawny Owl

When I first started birding in Wanstead I was super-keen. I used to make a conscious effort to seek out Tawny Owl. Late night trips out to likely spots, listening and looking. Many wasted hours in the cold. Then one night when I was a bit older I was sitting on the toilet and heard one calling from one of the nearby gardens, possibly even my own garden. Since then I’ve not really bothered seeking out Tawny Owl with any great regularity as the bird always falls at some point during the year – usually either on the way back from a trip to a local watering hole, or on the way home from work.

So it was on Monday, when about three seconds into Bush Wood I heard the eerily unmistakable sound of a Tawny Owl off to my left. I am ashamed to say I didn’t even stop walking. I’ve never really liked Bush Wood in the dark since that unfortunate incident several years ago, and I tend to scurry through as quickly as possible if I go through at all. This helps to explain why returning from the pub is a favourite time to seek out Tawny Owls – dutch courage. Anyway it called several times despite the lightly falling rain, enough for me to text James and suggest he nip out and give it a go. Needless to say he dipped; the rain started falling more heavily and then a police helicopter came and hovered over Bush Wood, no doubt looking for strange men after that anonymous phone call they received. Apparently they didn’t catch him.

That brings me right up to date in terms of local birding this year, 69 species, and missing Peregrine, Sparrowhawk, Woodcock, Snipe, Grey Wagtail and Little Owl. You have heard it all, and I sense it is becoming dull – understandable, as that is exactly the word I would use to describe the birding. Worry ye not however, as the next couple of weeks are going to be a lot more exciting.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Onwards and upwards

The year ticks keep flowing. I spent an hour on Saturday afternoon dipping (or rather, not finding) Treecreeper in Bush Wood. I walked many circuits, bumping my daily mileage in the process, but drew a blank. Perhaps because it was late in the day, perhaps because the Treecreeper was also doing a circuit but a hundred yards in front of me. Whatever, no dice, an hour wasted. I tried again on Sunday morning also to no avail. Treecreeper is for the most part one of the winter species, a bird you really need to connect with early on, or so we think. Maybe it’s because in the exuberance of a fresh year list we try and get it early doors and then close our ears to all noises that might be Treecreeper for the rest of the year.

I tried again yesterday morning and struck gold almost straight away. I had tried what I consider the favoured paths, the two that run west to east from the dried-up pond to the main north-south ride. This is the area that the Firecrests also like, but I only heard Goldcrests. The next best area is a slightly smaller ride that runs between the eastern side of the Quaker complex and the aforementioned dried-up pond, i.e. not very far as the Treecreeper flies. I saw the bird before I heard it, flying ahead of me between two trees. I’d only been seeing Tits and a few Goldcrests, so this immediately struck me as being different. Excitingly different, and you can’t often say that about a Treecreeper.

Now a 16-35mm wide-angle lens isn’t ideal for photographing small birds, but I like to think that you don’t visit here just for the photos. But it is there. For ease of scrutiny and audit purposes I’ve taken the 3 pixels it inhabits and blown it up for you. Don't say I don't go that extra mile. As I am sure I have mentioned Treecreeper used to be a rare bird in Wanstead. Or rather it was once common, but at the point I moved here had inexplicably disappeared. You can probably search through my blog archives and chart my amazement at why they were not here in numbers given what appears to be perfect habitat, and I still remember very vividly the day I found my first Treecreeper in Reservoir Wood, and the mass twitch that ensued. Tim remains grateful to this day. Since then they seem to be regaining a foothold, and along with Nuthatch are definitely on the up. Nuthatch of course is somewhat less subtle so it is very difficult to say if it is returning faster, but on any given day I would expect to be able to find Nuthatch in three distinct places, whereas as far as a I know Bush Wood is the only place where Treecreeper is regularly found.

So Bush Wood strikes again, and when I came back almost exactly 12 hours later..... but that's for another day. Got to eke this stuff out somehow!

Monday 6 February 2017


There has been a terrible, unforgiveable omission in Wanstead listing.  Overcome with excitement caused by Robins and Mallards, I totally forgot that as I had crossed the SSSI on Sunday morning a Redpoll had chupped over. In light of the rigorous and scientific treatise that I posted last week on Redpoll identification, it is particularly apt that a Redpoll has flown over my head within such a short space of time as it allows me to talk about something I did not previously mention. And that something is a minefield for I did not see the Redpoll, I only heard it...

Whilst all Redpolls are genetically identical whilst not being physically identical, some people believe that they also sound different. These people are happy to call a Common Redpoll flying over, as distinct from a Lesser Redpoll. I am not one of them. I am more of the opinion that if you think you can separate Redpoll (sub-species) in flight on call then you are deluding yourself. Perhaps if you lived – outside- in a huge birch forest in Scandinavia that was saturated with millions and millions of different-yet-identical sorts of Redpolls then you would be in with a chance, but I think you’d have larger problems to deal with. Such as insanity. In the UK where for the most part you just see and hear one sort of Redpoll, forget it, I just don’t think you’re going to have enough experience to nail it. I mean it’s almost impossible when you actually see it, and even then you would need ideally need them to be in a line-up! In order! One flying over by itself. Just call it a Redpoll, that’s what I would do.

And that’s what I did. REDPOLL, nicely inked on my spreadsheet under Lesser Redpoll, which is the correct and conservative approach at the moment. I don’t have Common/Mealy Redpoll on my Wanstead List, precisely because I am conservative and have never been 100% happy that that Redpoll which looked a bit paler than the others fitted the bill (and bill size is important too!). Patch ticks need to be more certain. Maybe my early experience of being castigated for reporting hundreds of Mealy Redpolls in Essex set me on this path, but I reckon I’d have to see a super-sized Hornemannii to even start considering Mealy.

Sunday 5 February 2017

February doldrums

February is one of the worst months for local birding, sandwiched as it is between the excitement of January where everything is interesting again, and the anticipation of the first migrants in March. By the time February comes around you've seen everything you're likely to see and March is still several weeks away. It has literally nothing going for it. Usually I skip the country but circumstances have conspired against me this year. Not one to sit indoors moping I have been out and trying. And it is very trying. 

Today there was a tiny tiny hint of sunshine at about 8am, and then the sky closed in, the fog re-formed, and the temperature dropped away. In the light mist I considered my options and ended up doing a quick tour of the SSSI where I saw quite a few Reed Buntings, followed by a visit to the Park as far as Perch Pond where I saw some Teal and other ducks, some gulls, and a few small birds like this Robin below. None of them set my world on fire really, although I amused myself momentarily by pointing my camera at a few of them. Then I realised my shutter speeds were for the most part ludicrous and gave up. Feburary is all about giving up.

Friday 3 February 2017

Big Garden Bullfinch

I did this year's Big Garden Birdwatch in Fife instead on Wanstead. All that time I had spent tempting birds to my London garden with squirrel-defeating feeders has been in numerical vain. So as soon as I got here I sorted out my parents' feeding station - two new feeders and fresh food - hoping to recreate the birding bonanza of back home. It has been a remarkable success, although I can't tell you what amazing bird made a special guest appearance for the count, you'll have to remain in suspense.

The feeders are outside the study window, and there are now a couple more at various other vantage points - peanuts visible from the window seat in the kitchen, from my Mum's greenhouse, and from the sofas in the front room where my Dad is currently frequently to be found. This is all a cunning plan to get the aged relatives interested in what's around them, and in the process make me appear less weird. Today this plan worked brilliantly, or at least it didn't fail spectacularly. You take what you can get with my frowned-upon hobbies around here.

So, the count starts. No cheating, you begin at a designated time for these counts. Mine started at 1.21pm when a stunning male Bullfinch landed on a bush outside the living room window. Wowzers! I passed my Dad my bins and he got a good look too. I don't mean to sound too optimistic but I think he was quite impressed. His usual diet is Blue Tits and Great Tits, and I'm not sure he recognises any difference between them. This was, he stated, huge! And bright red helps too of course. I was amazed, I mean I know there are more Bullfinches here than back home, and I know exactly where to go to see them in Fife, but I never expected one in the garden, ten feet from the front door. I grabbed a record shot and then got down to the serious business of counting. Here's the list.

Bullfinch, 3 Great Tit, 5 Blue Tit, Coal Tit, Dunnock, Wren, Robin, 2 Blackbird, 4 House Sparrow, Magpie, 3 Woodpigeon, 2 Collared Dove, heard-only Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Rook, Jackdaw and Herring Gull. The Chaffinches and Song Thrush which I know live here did not deign to pay a visit, but nonetheless this is a decent count, and the Bullfinch is a new garden bird here. And a year tick to boot.


Wednesday 1 February 2017

Largo Bay and around

Early one morning last week whilst I was playing carer I managed to sneak out to Ruddon's Point on Largo Bay. I always try and pay a visit when I am up here, it is one of the best places I have ever birded and is simply consistently excellent. I swear I've seen the same drake Surf Scoter here for about six years on the trot now. Not this year though, as I didn't have a scope as I did not anticipate doing any birding on this visit. Largo Bay being vast this was rather limiting, but with perseverance  I still came away with some nice birds including Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed Duck amongst the Common Scoter and Eider.

It is a totally wonderful spot and in contrast to the previous day at Loch Leven the weather was glorious, including the sunrise. There is something about the sun rising.....ok ok, I won't start all that. Anyway, I had the place to myself and didn't see a single person for the entire time I was there - given where I usually bird this was utterly fantastic, a real treat. Unlike many birders I am not socially inept, but I do prefer not having to talk to people for that brief amount of time I am out and about. I do enough being polite and talkative for many hours per day, a break is good now and again.

The tide was right out, which probably did not help my birding cause. I didn't feel confident picking my out to the edge of the rocks; the last thing my wider family needs right now is yet another fracture or break. Instead I observed from the reassuringly solid grass and sand, getting nice enough views of Redshank, Turnstone and Oystercatcher doing what they do, whilst Reed Buntings, and Rock and Meadow Pipits fluttered around inland. The Surfie was surely out there somewhere, but I expect I shall be back up here soon enough and now that I know I can nip out I'll bring a scope and see if I can pick it up. Meanwhile I enjoyed the views and the sound of the sea, the Bass Rock visible from behind Elie, and some distant villages near North Berwick visible on the other side of the Forth, whilst sea duck flew back and forth and the sky gradually grew brighter.

I had not planned to be up in Scotland until much later this year, but despite the circumstances it is good to have seen a few decent winter birds that I would not have seen down south. I've added a new bird to the Scotland list I don't keep, and I also added a couple of birds to my alternative garden list up here. I do keep this one, but I've written quite enough already and so this can wait until next time.