Tuesday 27 June 2017

Iceland Round Three

I looked at my holiday calendar in March of this year and realised that I had very few dedicated bird photography trips. Mistake. I tend not to bother in this country nowadays, in and around London where I live it's very hard to create the conditions that I like, and I don't frequently have unfettered access to a car at the weekends. I do however have access to my passport and good links to several London airports. Cue abroad. So a few days after realising I was short of opportunities I booked my third trip to Iceland for a weekend at the start of June. My shortest trip ever, and also by far the cheapest.

  • A two day solo trip in early June.
  • Two key sites identified. Eiders and Arctic Terns close to the airport, and then Red-throated Divers about 90 minutes away.
  • Wow Air flight to Keflavik for £101 (which included a piece of chargeable hand luggage) departed Friday night after work and an early return on Monday that saw me back at my desk before lunch.
  • Car hire from Avis, but taking advantage of "free weekend" voucher that I had earned after a certain number of previous rentals.
  • Accommodation - see car hire above ;-). This did somewhat limit the amount of sleep I had, but I took the view that the daylight hours at this time of year would want to see me out and about and thus limit that anyway. So why pay? I took a small sleeping bag, Iceland in June is still not a warm place.
  • Took most food with me - A loaf of bread, a pack of salami, 4 bananas and 4 Double Deckers. I bought a couple of coffees and a few bottles of water.

Day 0-1
Wow Air from Gatwick was right on time, and got me into KEF for about 11pm local time. I presented my car hire voucher and without fuss was given a brand new VW Golf with 20km on the clock. I handed it back with over 800 on it, but more on that later! I headed west towards the slowly setting sun at Gardur. This was a popular event on a clear evening, and there were plenty of people parked up around the Light House taking it in. I did the same, noting happily that the public toilet in the car park was nice and clean and appeared to be 24h due to the next door campsite.

When the sun finally disappeared underneath the horizon, I drove the short distance towards the Eider Colony, found a quiet spot away from the birds, parked up and settled down for what would be a very short sleep. It was 1am and still perfectly light.....

I woke up at 3.30am in broad daylight feeling somewhat worse for wear but determined to make good use of the fine conditions. I unpacked my photography gear, got dressed and carried on up the road to the birds. This area contains both an Arctic Tern colony as well as an Eider nesting area. This is roped off and fiercely guarded by locals who have a vested interest once the Eiders have finished breeding, but once it was clear that I wasn't a feather rustler and was only taking photos from the car windows they seemed to lighten up a bit. The light was amazing, I had really lucked out in my choice of weekend - Iceland in June can easily be miserable, wet and grey affair. I spent the entire morning here slowly rolling up and down the road, stopping whenever a good situation presented itself. It felt the like the entire morning,  but when I had had my fill I looked at my watch and discovered it was only 8am! I headed off to my previously spotted toilet for morning ablutions, and had a spot of breakfast - namely a banana.

I felt I had had enough of the Eiders, and there didn't seem to be as many next to the road as there had been early morning - presumably the birds were off feeding. With the weather still decent I decided to check out my next spot, the reserve at Floi. Rather than go via the Blue Lagoon and Grindavik I took the northern route via Reykjavik, taking a short-cut before I got the city. This took me through a landscape of lupins and lakes which was really very pleasant , so I stopped a while for a snack and a break. There were a few unusually tolerant Redwings around, and whilst chasing them around I noticed a small Grebe on the nearby lake. A quick check through the bins confirmed this a smart summer-plumaged Slavonian, and it appeared to favour an area very close to the bank, which was also extremely close to a footpath which had numerous walkers and joggers going round it. Thrushes forgotten, I watched for a while and the human traffic seemed not to be bothering it, could this be this one of those incredible opportunities?

It could! I spent a fabulous half hour with this bird as it cruised along mere metres from me. I wondered for a while if there was a partner bird hidden in the bankside vegetation, but if there was I never saw it. The bird was also calling frequently with no response, so maybe it was still trying to attract a mate? Whichever, it was a superb place and although busy by Icelandic standards this seemed to work in my favour as the bird was used to people. By this time the light was actually getting a little harsh, so I carried on over the pass to the Divers at Floi. This side of the mountains the weather was not as good, but at least the harsh sunshine was gone. I still had just enough light for decent speeds, but really I was here for the soft evening light and so crossed my fingers that by that time the nice weather on the coast might have come a bit further inland. 

I had unfinished business here from my last trip when I felt Shaun and I had departed the site far too early, and rectifying this had been in the forefront of my mind when booking the trip. As ever the entrance track was good value, with numerous Godwit and Snipe along the edges, but as it was the Divers I was after I didn't really linger. Parking up near the triangular toilet (I had this all figured out!) I was pleased to see numerous RTDs dotted on almost every small pond. There was even a bird nesting on the first pond in what I reckoned was the exact same spot as my last visit. I didn't want to linger near a nesting bird so I bypassed this pond and its mate and moved on to the next one, which was larger and appeared to be hosting two pairs, neither of which had an active nest yet. I adopted the usual tactic of waiting until the birds dived (which they frequently did together) and then running as far as I could before going prone when I thought they might resurface. In this manner I got very close to the edge, and whilst the first click of the shutter caused instant alertness, when nothing further followed the birds both relaxed. One even went to sleep right in front of me, and I reckon I probably dozed off too!

Although the light was not wonderful I loosed off far too many frames over a couple of sessions over the afternoon before deciding I wasn't getting what I came for and heading off to see if I could find better weather and something different. I drove a few roads around Villingaholt and Arnessyslu without a great deal of success and had another nap in the car until the early evening when I returned to Floi. The cloud layer was still thick but as time progressed the sun sank below it and partially gave me the light I had come looking for. Unfortunately this also came with a breeze that made the water rather choppy, but rarely do you win them all I suppose. Once again the Divers went to sleep, I must be very boring.

This session lasted a couple of hours before the sun sank behind the tall hillsides that border the site. I headed back to the Grebe site to check the bird was still there, which it was, and gave Mick S the directions. Unbeknownst to me he had also booked a trip to Iceland and had been looking for this species further north without success. He decided to head down that evening to give it a go the following morning, agreeing to meet me at the Eider spot at first light. It was about midnight and still broad daylight, sleeping was hard, but on the plus side I had roughly 1,900 images safely nestling on my memory cards. Surely it was worth it?

To be continued....

Thursday 22 June 2017

Modern listing is rubbish

Although adding new birds to lists isn’t much of a pressing concern these days, I had at least given the Elegant Tern buzzing around the south coast a little bit of thought. No much, but I did briefly consider going before deciding I couldn’t be bothered. Big lines of people in a crowd, “meh”. So much for twitching. It’s an incredibly rare bird this far east of its home waters , but thus far I find that it isn’t really gnawing away at me very much. I must be nearly cured. Thankfully now I don’t even need to go at all, and this is all thanks to power of the internet. Yesterday the bird strayed away from Church Norton where it has been spending most of its time and wound up on Brownsea Island near Poole in Dorset. Somewhat staggeringly, of all the places it could have chosen to land it plonked itself down right in front of the National Trust Tern colony webcam. This fact was broadcast on Twitter, which I viewed very much in the same light as “lift offered” when it comes to rare birds. Seeing as it was just a click rather than spending an age in a car with a complete stranger I gave it a whirl.

Nothing. Presumably most birders in the UK were doing exactly the same thing and the website simply didn’t have the bandwidth.

I moved on.

Later that evening I was sat in the garden mothing. Still early and with not a lot of activity I idly fired up the webpage again. Although dark it appeared to have an infrared mode…


The Elegant Tern was roosting in the centre of the screen. I couldn’t see its bill, but the punk hairdo and ring on one leg were huge giveaways amongst the Sarnies. I watched entranced and after a little while it woke up and had a look around. Will you look at the bill on that!

Tick and run! Or rather tick and stay sitting at home.


What do you mean that doesn’t count as a tick? Of course it does! Travel to the site and look at the bird through some glass. Remotely look at the bird also through some glass. I mean the only difference is really the magnification, physically I am doing exactly the same thing, looking at a rare bird through some optical equipment. And with a far better carbon footprint I might add – eco-twitching if you will. I watched the bird for some minutes, getting absolutely excellent if monochromatic views as it craned its head skywards as the Sandwich Terns engaged in some late night squabbling. I honestly could not have asked for a better rare bird experience.

OK, so in all seriousness it does seem a little bit wrong to tick the bird, however technology is advancing steadily and we cannot ignore it. It’s like video-conferencing – back in the day all meetings were face to face and people travelled to meet each other at vast expense. These days however we all save ourselves the time, money and effort and simply sit in offices interacting in almost exactly the same way as we would have done in a single room. So cast your minds back to the White-throated Robin twitch in Hartlepool, the one which famously (or infamously) involved ladders and all sorts of shenanigans. A passing white van was also requisitioned and had its roof caved in as I recall. Scenes. But what if someone sensible had turned up with a long selfie stick and simply poked it over the wall? The crowd could have looked at the phone screen, live, and had perfect views of a bird that was only a few feet away and without recourse to the mayhem that in fact ensued, and which reinforced yet again what a bunch of misfits UK birders are. And you don’t need to see a bird with your own eyes, after all the concept of ‘heard only’ has been around forever and a day. If you have no doubt about what you have heard, many people call that unequivocal, as good as seeing it.

Taking the technology piece a bit further, what if somebody had had a drone and hovered it fifty feet above the garden? The only differentiating factor between the selfie sick, that, and viewing a webcam then becomes the distance involved. You’re either physically quite close to it but separated by a physical barrier or you’re a further away. And if the only barrier to ticking a bird is simply a test of whether you have the time and inclination to drive a vast distance quickly, well…. Oh hang on.

Monday 19 June 2017

Egretta gardenetta

Yesterday was very pleasant indeed in London. I made the most of it by doing very little – some mild gardening in the morning, more on which later, and then some heavy sitting in the afternoon whilst listening to the Champion’s Trophy final between India and Pakistan. During this latter period a long-awaited event occurred - a Little Egret entered into my airspace and thus found itself on my garden list. In keeping with many if not all garden lists, the area in question is of course far larger than just my garden. The list would be a fraction of the size were it restricted to species actually IN my garden, a quick mental tot up suggests that it would be no more than about 25. So you also have to look UP and count stuff that flies over. And because it would be virtually impossible to judge straight line extending vertically upwards from your fence lines, the only practical suggestion is to simply count everything that you can see in any direction. Some people take this to mean standing on their roof scoping a distant reservoir, but here at Chateau L the worst that generally ever happens is standing on the very edge of my drive listening for Warblers on Wanstead Flats. Oh yes, heard only is just fine. Coots in the still of the night on a distant local pond? Fair game.

Anyhow, as I was on the phone to Mick S discussing in some detail the merits of Iceland as a photographic destination, a Little Egret flew roughly north-west through my field of view, thus gaining the distinction of becoming #82, a mere 4 years after #81. My camera was indoors so there is no photographic proof, however if you grilled Mick on the slight change in direction of our conversation that occurred he would quickly confirm that there could be no possibility of this having been anything other than a full-fat garden tick. I basically lost the plot. Red-throated Divers were forgotten, and instead there was excited jubilation and accompanying bad language.

It has been a long time coming, the proximity of the Walthamstow Reservoirs (which I can’t see from my roof) means that birds must go over relatively frequently, and it is just a question of being at home to see it. And of course I am not all that frequently at home….. I have come close before on two occasions. Once on the school run when one flew over the car not long after we had left the house, and then a bird over Long Wood heading towards where I live. That second bird would almost certainly have been visible from my garden had it continued its trajectory, as would the Stone Curlew that headed off north a few springs ago, but that’s a stretch really. No, I have to content myself with ones I am actually home to see do it.

Little Egret was actually my top prediction for my next garden tick, and now that it has fallen that honour now sits with Nuthatch. These have undergone a local resurgence of late, are known to be nearby, and are also quite vocal. I’m hoping one will visit my peanut feeder one day, although that would require prizing off the Ring-necked Parakeet that is currently nailed to it.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Iceland, where to start?

Where to start indeed. I left after work on Friday and was back at my desk before midday on Monday. Between those two times I drove something like 500 miles, had under 10 hours sleep, and reduced the life of my camera shutter by about 4,100 shots. 

It was epic. I took a budget flight with Wow Air, enjoyed free car hire via an annual voucher I tend to get, took most of my food with me and 'slept' in the back of the car. This ensured that the weekend was as cheap as it could possibly be; Iceland has justifiably got a reputation for being obscenely expensive. I was so tired on Tuesday that I fell asleep at my desk momentarily and was woken up by my boss with a light tap on the shoulder. Not the best just before mid-year appraisals, but I still maintain that it was worth it. Iceland is fantastic, you bird in monumental scenery and you are surrounded by wildlife. If like me you live in a big city which is pretty bereft of wildlife at this time of year, especially birds, then a visit to somewhere like this around now is an excellent way in which to stave off the summer blues. 

I was fortunate with the weather, blue skies and wall to wall sunshine is by no means guaranteed, even in June, and it could equally have been a dreary weekend of grey skies and drizzle. A gamble that you have to take, and I got lucky. But oh my poor camera....It might be a bit old these days, and certainly more than a bit battered, but it did the job. It's on its second shutter now, and I made sure to get as close to the third as possible - though when that day comes I reckon there won't be much of the rest of the camera left. I got wet, muddy, cold and sun-burned all at once, and I had a brilliant time. I've managed to reduce the resulting images to under 700 now, but I've got months of editing to look forward to. The things I do to myself, honestly.

Here are a few tasters.

Tuesday 13 June 2017

A tweet of diminishing returns

I just returned from Iceland, a glorious trip in which I suffered severe sleep deprivation in the pursuit of birds. I ended up pressing my shutter 4,114 times over the course of the weekend which is pretty obscene. Last night when I got home I downloaded all of these, and before I passed out I quickly processed a few of them that I remembered taking. I tweeted them out, including one as I thought it was actually quite good and had a little bit of a “wow” factor to it. Showing off in other words. I don’t do it often, or at least not any more as I barely get to use my camera. Then I had the most amazing sleep I can’t remember.

Turns out that I was right, it does have that little something extra about it, and as far as I am aware it has gathered more attention than any other photo I have put up. I say as far as I am aware because I have only just now discovered a function of Twitter that shows you how many times any banal tweet you sling out has been seen by other people. Stats in other words – a little bar called “view tweet activity” on my mobile phone, or a little graph symbol online. Has anyone ever used this? I had no idea that this was even possible and I am staggered that the IT systems that sit behind Twitter can even do this at all. Now I don’t know that I can call this viral exactly, but as I write this the photo has been seen by nearly 16,000 people in the last 24 hours. I say seen, but this is where the stats become interesting, and where the true vacuity of Twitter becomes apparent. He actual stat is called “Impressions” and apparently means how many times a tweet has been viewed on Twitter – you can actually see this number ticking up as you look at it, so you know that somebody somewhere just wiggled their finger and….scrolled right past it!

The reason I say that is that there is another stat called “Total Engagements”, which I think means how many times somebody didn’t scroll right past but actually paused and clicked on it. That number is 1,598, so about 10%. Nine out of ten cats….. Then we have something called  “Media engagements”, which is how many times somebody actually clicked on the photo, i.e. to make it bigger. This is where it gets interesting. 953.  So 60% of the people that lingered also wanted to see more. Of those, 319, so about a third, felt they had the time to hit the little “like” button. This takes all of about a nano-second, I know this as I’ve done it myself many times with little to no thought whatsoever. Until now I had no idea what it actually meant, but now of course I realise it is directly connected to inner glow and happiness. 55 people went the extra step of retweeting it, the Twitter equivalent of forwarding an email, so about a sixth of those who had “liked” it if of course it is a subset which it may not be. I don’t know and I am not interested enough to find out. And anyway, it would not fit with my journey of diminishing returns that is the whole point of this post. 

Continuing with which, 37 people decided they were interested in who took the photo and would look at my profile, the one which says I am a dedicated patch birder hem hem. I have received no proposals of marriage and my acolyte count has risen by approximately four, and here we are getting to the nub of it I think. There have been six replies. Six. A mere six people could be bothered to actually type anything, and one of those was a German guy who I think missed what was supposed to be an expression of favourable fortune and extreme jamminess when I said "Not quite sure how this happened, but I'll take it" and told me that the reason was the bird's feathers had lost their hydrophobicness. I thank them for it of course, especially Kurt, but as a demonstration of the here today gone tomorrow uselessness of social media I think this is an excellent case study. 0.0375% of people who saw the photo actually said anything about it. To put that another way, for every one person that did type something, 2,665 did not!! It is therefore fortunate that I do not rely on bird photography (or Twitter!) for a living, as the amount of money I have earned from this photo rounds to exactly £0.00. In fact it cost me money to even take it, not only because my shutter is now one frame closer to stopping working, but also because surviving on anything other than bread and water in Iceland requires that one practically be a billionaire.

Here are those numbers again.

On a timeline/scrolled past: 15,994
Paused/clicked on: 1,598
Image expanded: 953
Liked: 319
Forwarded: 55
Interested in who took it: 37
Commented: 6
Defrayed costs: 0

Because a picture is better than a thousand words, I also put it on a graph.

Oh, and because we have come this far, here's the actual photo...

Not quite sure how this happened, but I'll take it

Sunday 4 June 2017


Ugh, it’s June. As several people have said, including without fail me every year, June is just rubbish. In birding terms it holds virtually nothing to get excited about whether you live on the coast or do your birding inland. I suppose an exception would be if you happen to live near a seabird colony, but for most of us there is not a lot going on. In truth I gave up about ten days ago, about two thirds of the way into May I decided that June had arrived early and curtailed my early-morning forays. Then last weekend I finally bagged Red Kite for the year and so have been able to hang up my binoculars until August.

So now I have to somehow survive about two months of bird-free life. What to do, what to do? Many people struggle, as evidenced by pretending to be interested in butterflies and so on. I have no such worries as I suffer from a surfeit of hobbies at the best of times, and an enforced break from one of the biggest ones is actually a welcome chance to invest some energy in something else. Traditionally many birders dust off their macro lenses around now, and I may start doing that too, but for now I’ve been enjoying an extra two hours in bed every morning. I am getting itchy feet however, and the garden is beginning to get my attention. Now I am not a big gardener, indeed for all the years I’ve lived in Wanstead the garden has just been there and has largely looked after itself. Every now and again we pay a guy to come and hack it back, but as a family we’ve taken very little interest in it. This year however there are some big plans afoot, and the first of these actually caused me to dig out the fork and spade that have been gently rusting away in the shed for the decade since we moved here. Prior to that they rusted gently in my old shed in Becktonia, but last week I actually used them! If spades could speak you would have heard this one squeal with pleasure as it was sunk into the soil for the first time this century.

Needless to say my back still aches, but the main goal has been accomplished – about 150kg of sand, grit, gravel and perlite has been dug into a bed near the terrace which will become a tropical oasis. Up until now I have been banned from planting anything exciting in the garden. This is grossly unfair as it is not like Mrs L does any gardening. Nonetheless rules are rules, so all my exciting plants have remained in pots and make an annual appearance on the terrace and dotted around the garden. What do you mean? Of course plants can be exciting! Now however I have permission to actually plant some out and I am wasting no time in doing so before she changes her mind. Here is the area in question, it is only about 3ft x 10ft and being a bit of a softy I had no idea that simply digging in a bit of substrate to improve drainage would be quite as back-breaking. Happily the worst is now over – I reckon a further few sacks of gravel and sand ought to do it and then I can sculpt it into a slope and get planting. Maybe Chelsea is rubbing off on me after all? Anyway, stand by for the “after” photos!