Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Internet of things

Chateau L is undergoing a small amount of renovation at the moment. Thanks goodness for the Heritage Lottery Fund eh? Whilst we are getting ourselves a little extra space, we are at the same time entering the modern world. It's not that we're luddites, it is just that we are perpetually behind, so now is the opportunity to make up a little lost ground. Enter the internet of things, or IOT. I swear that there is nothing at the moment that isn't able to be connected to the internet. Maybe fruit. Everything else you are seemingly able to plug it in.

For instance we now have a central heating system that can be controlled from our phones, can detect when we are out and turn it down or off, and supposedly learns our habits and adjusts accordingly. Much of this is guff of course, but when we were away in Spain last weekend it did actually come in useful, as we were able to flip on the hot water and heating from somewhere around Hammersmith and thus entered a lovely warm house. Sorry, I mean castle. 







Similarly, the smoke detectors are wired in too, so we can now be alerted to the house burning down. This is probably less useful in the real world, but I suppose that if I am off galivanting somewhere and my phone tells me the house is on fire, I can at least try to call Mrs L and tell her to leave by the nearest exit. The fact that she never picks up her telephone is not relevant to the Internet of Things, or at least I hope not.

We shall shortly also be able to control the lights, music, and gawd knows what else as we gradually wire everything else in. How on earth we lived with mere physical switches before I just cannot fathom. Presumably this also opens up the possibility of criminal masterminds taking over our lights and refusing to turn them off until we pay them a vast fee, but I think I will take the risk. I am sure this is just the beginning - I have to say I was staggered when I began to uncover quite how slick quite a lot of this can be. I had no idea at all that most of this was even possible. I draw the line at a smart doorbell which will allow you to remotely assess the visitor and then unlock the door from afar, ie putting actual physical security in the hands of a bit of cruddy chinese Wi-Fi, but for a few simple things I think it could be a lot of fun. None of this beats having kids though - when the computer can make me a G&T and put on a CD, let's talk.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Madrid


Family trip to Madrid at the weekend a great success. More later.


Saturday, 18 November 2017

The last Thrasher

One of the birds I was most anticipating in California was the California Thrasher. I've seen Brown Thrasher in New York and Georgia, Long-billed in Texas, Sage in Washtington and Azizona, and Curve-billed, Bendire's, Crissal and Le Conte's in Arizona. This was then the final North American species that I needed, and actually they seemed pretty common if a bit hard to find due to their skulking nature. The first one was at our camp site in the hills above Santa Barbara, but I ended up seeing them on the coast at Big Sur and a couple of other places too. This is the one on the cliffs at Kirk Creek campground, which we reached via the incredible Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a narrow twisting pass over the Santa Lucia range (home to the Bristlecone Pine), a somewhat hairy drive in a 25 foot RV!! Highway 1 has been closed all year due to last winter's storms, so this road is the only way in unless you have a helipcoter. We didn't. The bird is a bit scruffy, but this was late August and most if not all the birds looked like this!


Thursday, 16 November 2017

California I'm coming home

Just a taster tonight – I have been somewhat over-extended and have yet to go through any photos from what was unanimously declared by my kids to the best holiday ever. We went to California for a fortnight, hired a camper van, and drove up the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We spent the weekend in the city and then returned to LA via Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. The freedom that the van gave us and the scenery it allowed us to be part of was nothing short of sensational. We camped in some amazing places, Los Padres National Forest, the pacific coast at Big Sur, underneath the Half Dome in Yosemite during the solar eclipse, and amongst Giant Redwoods in the Sierra. Nearly every night involved a family meal around a camp fire under the stars, and with the van having a shower, toilet, fridge and freezer you could hardly say we were roughing it. Cold beer and barbecues, a 6.2L V8 engine and 12mpg, we truly lived the American dream for two glorious weeks.



We had been talking about this trip for years, but had never quite managed to simultaneously have the time and money to make it happen. I lived in California as a child, in Santa Barbara, and my love for the State is undimmed by the intervening years and yet despite this I hardly ever go there. Mrs L and I did almost exactly this trip following more or less the same route about 15 years ago before we had kids, but that is the only meaningful visit in decades, and we had always wanted to repeat it once they were old enough to appreciate it. A shame that when we finally went America is in the grips of an extraordinary crisis of identity, but the ethos in California is about as far away from the myopic world vision of the current White House as you can get, and people went out of their way to apologise for the state of their – my – nation. Many people we spoke to described it as “a difficult time”, which indeed it is, but in truth it did not detract from our trip at all. The magnificent American landscape transcends politics thankfully, and whilst Trump and his army of clowns are trying their best to change that, for now the places made famous by John Muir and Ansel Adams remain awe-inspiring.





There was not a lot of birding. Whilst the RV put us in amazing places, it was not as if I could get up early without disturbing the family and scoot off to various hot-spots. I was largely restricted to the campgrounds and wherever we went hiking. This was sufficient to notch up well over 100 species though, including around 10 ‘new’ birds – I say new, I am not entirely sure. Back in 2002 Mrs L and I kept a list of what we saw, but I unfortunately lost that precious bit of paper many years ago and simply could not remember much of it at all. My one recollection was of Dark-eyed Junco, and bird I subsequently saw in Kent! This trip was therefore an opportunity to put that right, and so every day felt like a new experience even if it probably wasn’t. There will be a separate post about the birds but they were a sideshow really. The scenery and the travelling en famille were what it was all about. For anyone thinking of doing a family trip like this, just do it, it was unforgettable.

Thumbs up indeed!

Monday, 13 November 2017

A (very) quick trip to Alicante

How much birding can I get done in a day in Spain? Well, quite a lot as it happens....Logistics
  • A one day trip in mid-November with James H.
  • BA flights from LGW to Alicante for the princely sum of £60. James and I nearly drank that on the way out, in effect making the flight free.
  • Car hire from Avis, just under £40 for an Audi A1 for a period of exactly 24h.
  • Hotel in Elche, the quite excellent Huerto del Cura, £70 for a twin room
  • Main sites visited were Monnegre Gorge, El Hondo reserve, and the salt flats at Santa Pola.

Day 0
As I knew far ahead that the preceding week would be rather gruelling at work, I booked a very leisurely 3.30pm departure. This meant James and I could meander to Gatwick for a late lunch and possibly a couple of drinks before getting on an increasingly budget-airline British Airways flight to Alicante. I have lounge access by virtue of constantly flying all over the place, and now that they have cut catering in short-haul economy this just acts as an incentive to make the most of the offering before getting on board and having to pay for a drink. James discovered the Johnny Walker Blue, whereas I was a lot more sensible and stuck to a single glass of champagne before having an emergency G&T just before leaving.

The day continued in much the same vein once we reached our accomodation in Elche - we had an excellent evening of cañas and tapas in this lovely little town. They eat late in Spain, and arriving at Meson el Granaino at around 8.30pm we were amongst the first customers and were able to get a table outside. A fantastic evening ensued, and we ended up visiting three different places until calling it quits around 11. We could easily have continued living it up in for a lot longer, but the thought of needing to get up and go birding held us back. Maybe another trip based solely on food.... Also James speaks Spanish, who knew? None of my crappy menu spanish here, we were sorted.

Xixona, our starting point for the day

Day 1
We managed to rouse ourselves pretty early considering the night before, and were on the road by 7am. Our destination was the CV-800, a country road between Mutxamel and Xixona that I had read was good for some more barren/arid-loving species. Given we only had a day and were after a decent trip list, it made sense to start here as we would not be visiting any similar habitat for the rest of the day. We tried a track off one of the obvious switchbacks north of Xixona, and were immediately into an excellent selection of regular birds of a decidedly southern european nature, including Cirl Bunting, Serin and Rock Sparrow. Our main targets were Blue Rock Thrush and Black Wheatear however, and the olive groves up here just didn't feel right so we descended back towards the rockier section close to the industrial park which contained a Proctor & Gamble facility of all things. Just off the road in this unlikely setting James picked up the desired Blue Rock Thrush as well as some distant Griffon Vultures circling above where we had just come from, whilst I chipped in with an elusive Black Wheatear on the other side of the barranco and some genuine Rock Dove. I love it when a plan comes together.

Now mid morning, we descended back to Alicante, taking the A-70 back past Elche to the El Hondo visitor centre at San Felipe Neri on the west side of the reserve. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was a pleasant 20 degrees and getting warmer by the hour. Shirt sleeve birding in November just a couple of hours from London! In truth we explored only a tiny fraction of this immense wetland area but that part we did see was incredible. James had his first lifer of the trip about 30 seconds after getting out of the car when what on first glance appeared to be a Brent Goose was actually a Purple Swamphen. A Booted Eagle cruised overhead, and whilst the majority of the birds were Moorhen and Coot, a Little Bittern gave a fly-by, and we jammed Bluethroat on the edge of the reeds. It got even better though - scoping the second pool from the first I thought I could see the two-toned head of a Red-crested Pochard - however when we got round there it was a Marbled Duck, a new bird for both us and a proper scarcity these days. This pool also had loads of Shoveler, Pochard and Little Grebe. We carried on to the next pool hoping to get a view onto the largest lagoon, the Panta de Ponent, but we were separated from this by an impenetrable mass of reeds. It appears that in order to view this area you have to enter via the nothern gate during the quite restrictive opening hours, or it may simply be invisible from all sides and thus remains an avian paradise. Regardless, we advanced our day list massively in the small area we did cover - Fan-tailed Warbler, Great Grey Shrike, Great White Egret and Glossy Ibis to name but a few. 

Marbled Duck

Booted Eagle

We left the reserve at 2pm and drove the short distance to Pinet, on the southern edge of the Santa Pola flats. Here we started to notch up waders for the first time  - Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank and Sanderling, as well as some funny large pink waders I can't recall the name of. A Sardinian Warbler showed really well near the car park here, and offshore were Sandwich Terns and Yellow-legged Gulls. A quick stop near the salt workings along the N-332 was very profitable. Not only did James see his first Slender-billed Gull, and then his next 499, but there were also Avocets, Dunlin, a lone Med Gull and a few more wader species. 



Whiskered Tern

By now the heat of the day had passed, which meant that our day was nearly at an end. We birded at a few more places within the Salinas, topping up the list with Hoopoe, Golden PloverTurnstone and Whiskered Tern but the light was fading fast. Crow and Jackdaw coming in to roost were our last birds at a closing Galvaney's Clot, and so we ended our single day of birding on only around 80 species but a list stuffed with quality. From here it was only a 15 minute drive back the to the airport, and so it was a shame that the flight didn't leave a bit earlier really as we had to spend a couple of hours doing essentially nothing other than drinking. Can't complain though - for a full day of birding in southern europe that cost no holiday, didn't break the bank, and included an evening out enjoying Spanish culture, I have to say I was pretty pleased with how it turned out. I rather suspect a return visit is on the cards, this time with the agricultural plains to the west in mind - Sandgrouse, Bustards and Larks against a stunning backdrop.

Trip List (in order seen)

Blackbird
Robin
White Wagtail
Kestrel
Magpie
Cormorant
Collared Dove
Wood Pigeon
Starling
Chaffinch 
Black Redstart
Rock Sparrow
Serin
Sardinian Warbler
Cirl Bunting
Meadow Pipit
Goldfinch 
Red-legged Partridge
House Sparrow
Chiffchaff 
Great Tit
Linnet
Blue Rock Thrush 
Griffon Vulture
Coal Tit
Rock Dove
Black Wheatear
Grey Heron 
Cattle Egret
Redstart 
Sand Martin
House Martin
Stonechat
Purple Gallinule
Moorhen
Marsh Harrier 
Coot 
Mallard
Little Bittern
Cetti's Warbler
Little Egret
Booted Eagle 
Bluethroat
Shoveler 
Pochard
Marbled Duck
Lapwing
Black-winged Stilt
Glossy Ibis
Fan-tailed Warbler
Great Grey Shrike
Great White Egret 
Grey Wagtail
Kingfisher
Shelduck
Flamingo
Redshank
Sanderling
Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Greenshank 
Sandwich Tern
Yellow legged Gull
Black-headed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Slender-billed Gull
Dunlin
Mediterranean Gull
Avocet
Hoopoe
Greenfinch
Song Thrush 
Turnstone
Golden Plover
Whiskered Tern
Jackdaw

Crow


El gato pequeño

Friday, 10 November 2017

Bird Quiz Results

OK, results time.

  1. Sip = Song Thrush
  2. Siiiiiiiiii = Redwing
  3. Je-je = Redpoll
  4. Chuck chuck = Fieldfare
  5. Chup = Linnet
  6. Seeeeep = Siskin
  7. Chack chack chack = Ring Ouzel
  8. Zherck = Brambling
  9. Jupp = Chaffinch
  10. Squeak squeak squeak = Meadow Pipit

So first of all, many thanks to those of you who took part. In case you were wondering, that was 6 out of the 200 who read the post. Who says blogging is dead? Not I……. I’ll be honest, I was hoping for more engagement, but it doesn’t matter - it was all just a bit of fun and I guess this is just where blogging is at. I wanted to know how people variously thought about bird calls, and if somehow people heard things differently to me. And? Well they do and they don’t. It’s a small sample but overall those who took part between them guessed 70% of the my bird call representations correctly. The most confusing one appears to be Chuck chuck vs Chack chack – I clearly hear Fieldfare slightly differently, I think it has a slight husky/clucky quality vs a Ring Ouzel which I would describe as a harsher and crisper call, hence why Fieldfare I write with a “u” and Ring Ouzel with an “a” to emphasise that distinction. Similarly Chup and Jupp, how I wrote Linnet and Chaffinch, proved difficult to distinguish, which I suppose is fair enough really. I wonder if I should have added a “t” to make Linnet “Tchup”? Sip on the other hand, as well as Zherck, were ones that seemed more definitively obvious as being Song Thrush and Brambling respectively. I was surprised that only one person agreed with Redwing –if asked to describe that I would say it is a very thin seep with a slight sifflly edge, something that might if allowed to continue and grow become a high-pitched rapid trill but ends up being more of a mildly drawn out whistle – in other words, or rather in one word, a “Siiiiiiiiiii”.


So there you have it. If you have better suggestions, or different suggestions for how you would describe any of the birds above then do let me know in the comments. I’m a glass half-full kind of person.


Who can suggest a sound for this?


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Bird quiz homework

Good evening Class

A little test for you today. Please write down what ten UK birds you think make the following calls.
  1. Sip
  2. Siiiiiiiiii
  3. Je-je
  4. Chuck chuck
  5. Chup
  6. Seeeeep
  7. Chack chack chack
  8. Zherck
  9. Jupp
  10. Squeak squeak squeak
Please note that although I will be scoring you out of 10, there are no right answers. This is simply how I would write down the flight calls of common UK birds you might expect to get around now whilst partaking in that most excellent of pastimes, viz-migging. I had an excellent session this morning where seemingly every bird in the sky was calling (makes a change) and as I was listening to either flocks or singletons go over my mind wandered as to how I would describe what I was doing to people walking by – some of whom see me regularly yet none of whom stop to ask, presumably out of a not unreasonable fear I am a psychotic weirdo, standing as I do morning after morning seemingly looking at an empty sky. Were I to be asked however, the conversation would go along the lines of that I was listening for birds flying over, and that yes, I was able to distinguish between species simply based on their calls. I would then proceed to do an impression of a Brambling, which I imagine I would end the encounter quite quickly. I digress. Answers below please, I am genuinely interested to know if what I have written above corresponds to anyone else’s interpretation of these calls. Note that I have not referenced any form of field guide for this, this is just me writing down the sounds I have in my mind’s eye. Ear. Whatever.

clue

Monday, 6 November 2017

Quiet

It is slowing down, I can feel it. The last three days have been shadows of what went before, and soon my enthusiasm will wane. Another Hawfinch (see how casually I am able to mention that?) and couple of Brambling on Saturday added to an excellent finch autumn, but I fear that it is nearly over. This morning I barely heard a bird, flyovers were virtually non-existent. But the light, oh the light. Mesmerising once again, so here are a few more in the same vein as the other day. Unfortunately I forgot to put a different lens on so they're a bit samey. Don't worry, tomorrow is overcast....






Saturday, 4 November 2017

Misty Morning Hop


Bit of a change yesterday. Whilst I did hear a Brambling and some Linnets, mostly I piddled about with my camera in some simply glorious light as the sun came up on a misty Wanstead Flats. I’m aware that I’ve typed a lot recently, and I can see from the endless comments that people have left how interesting they find that, so instead here is a image-heavy post featuring my local patch. The light was a joy - I should really be more strict about when I take my camera out and when I don't, most days the light is simply pathetic. No excitement, no life. Yesterday was awesome though, and I am really glad I took a camera, and I was also quite pleased with my lens choice.

So for any geeks who happen to be reading, these were all taken with a Canon 5D MkIII, not the latest camera by any means, and one of my favourite but very accident prone lenses, the 70-200 f2.8 L MkII. I haven’t dropped it onto a concrete surface for a few months now so it is in full working order and was a pleasure to use, and of course compared to my birding kit it felt like I had a toy camera in my hands, almost weightless.

Here are a few of my favourites images from the hour or so I spent wandering around looking for opportunities. I was out before sunrise, but most of these were taken once the sun was a little way up. It was a standout hour in an otherwise unenjoyable day. I've got a whole load more than this of course, but I am saving them in case I need to brighten up a dull day. I'm also going to be seeing what I can do with them in black and white, silly though that sounds. I reckon with come heavy contrast and some darkening some of these could look quite atmospheric. Anyhow, hope you like them.











Thursday, 2 November 2017

The dead months

My patch dedication has been pretty peerless recently – many early morning starts to ensure I can get as much in as possible before I am forced to drag myself to Canary Wharf. It is getting a bit tiring if I am honest, and so I had a quick look to see what patch year-list additions had occurred in November and December in previous years. What am I going out for? What am I going to add if history is any guide? It does not make pretty reading, at least not in the last four years.

2016 - none
2015 - none
2014 - none
2013 - none

A big fat nothing. Zero. No new birds whatsoever added during the months of November and December. What about going out just for the pleasure of birding? Don't be daft, it is a numbers game isn't it? Surely it's the thought of new patch additions that fuels all local birders? So based on the above I might as well pack it in and start again next year. This would also help my hopes of lifting the prized Golden Mallard trophy in future years. This year The Proclaimers are waltzing it, having not bothered walking any miles at all during previous years - frankly this is the only winning strategy as it reduces your average to the point where come the first of January you can just poke your head of the window and immediately claim victory.

So what if I go back a little further?

2012 – Waxwing
2011 – Brambling, Woodcock, Oystercatcher, Firecrest
2010 – Yellowhammer, Treecreeper

Birds that are struck out are already on the list for this year, but it does indicate that there is at least some small amount of hope remaining. Waxwing would obviously need to be one of those years in which the UK sees an invasion, in 2012 for instance there was a decent winter irruption and I had a total of 27 birds seen from within the hallowed borders of Chateau L. If that happens again then there is definite potential. Woodcock should be straightforward - we have in the past had a regular bird with a regular pattern - plonk yourself in the appropriate spot at the appropriate time and tick away. If you are out early enough there is also the possibility of a bird being flushed by a dog and giving you a crushing flyby whilst your camera flops uselessly at your side and your jaw hangs open.

Oystercatcher was a one off, a ridiculous record in the context of Wanstead. A bird had come down on the playing fields in foggy conditions in mid November, departing calling its head off whilst I was close by. It could happen again I suppose, indeed Tim had a night flyover whilst attending his moth trap if I recall, but I am certainly not going to count on it. Yellowhammer likewise, there is an outside chance but I will have to be lucky - the guys got one a few weeks ago so that may have been the autumn movement.

As for any other possibilities, full fat patch ticks, well that is anyone's guess. Winter Grey Geese or wild Swans? Hume's Warbler? Desert Wheatear? Excuse me whilst I go and have a lie down.

Yes please!