Monday, 27 March 2017

Slow Sundays

Sunday continued in much the same vein as Saturday, but without the birding. Somehow the clocks changing caused me to sleep in until gone 9 (the new 9), which was close enough to the start of the football on Wanstead Flats that I elected not to bother. From my foray on Saturday morning I felt I probably wouldn’t be missing much, it still feels like migration hasn’t really started, at least locally. Instead I continued to potter up and down between the house and the greenhouse, tidying, sprucing, rearranging. I do like this time of year, there is interest on every front, and I can chop and choose where I spend my time knowing that no matter where I land I will enjoy myself.

Once again it was a beautiful day – not hot, but warm and pleasant enough to feel spring-like. Chateau L became a hive of industry, windows were thrown open to get some fresh air in, the washing machine went into overdrive, and for the first time in many months clothes got to dry outside. Surfaces were wiped down, dusting occurred, the atmosphere was highly positive. More importantly, barbeque coal and rosé were sourced, and once the grill had been cleaned of all the winter gank, the pleasant smell of charcoal started to drift into all the windows we had opened, and with a little bit of shift in the wind direction, blanketed the washing drying on the line in a nice grey cloud.

Oops. You can’t teach this kind of genius, you either have it or you don’t. Oh well, you can’t beat a bit of outdoor cooking for promoting the joys of spring, and thus the day passed very pleasantly indeed. Rosé was replaced by Gin & Tonic at some point during the afternoon, and we simply enjoyed relaxing at home. I am glad I can do frenetic and lethargic and be equally enamoured by both. A small amount of sky watching occurred, but unlike Saturday when the first Buzzard was right on time, I saw nothing all day.

I made it back on patch this morning and barely saw a bird, confirming my suspicion that it is still a tad early. A bit depressing actually, what with all the litter from Sunday’s football, all the razed areas of habitat, and then to top it off a nice bit of fly-tipping.  However just as I was on the point of giving up on a bad job and leaving the Flats to catch the train, three ducks heading over my head west caused me to look up. Shelduck! Annual, and always at this time of year, but almost always a flyover going east early morning. Excellent to get these therefore, but also confirmation that working a local patch can sometimes feel like you are stuck on repeat, merely going through the motions.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Maui List

Here’s a list of the native birds I saw on Maui, ie the ones that got there of their own accord rather than being brought there by people. Writing this list down for the blog is possibly one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done recently!

‘Auku’u
Koloa Mapu
Koloa Moha
‘Alae ke’oke’o
‘Alae ‘Ula
Ae’o
Kolea
‘Akekeke
Hunakai
‘Ulili
‘Amakihi
Maui ‘Alauahio
‘Apapane
‘I’iwi
Moa




Saturday, 25 March 2017

My perfect day

Today was a pretty perfect day. Having been away last weekend I was very much looking forward to a day of doing very little. Of pottering. I am a great potterer when the mood takes me, the hours just fly by. I started early, before 6am, by birding the patch. In all honesty it was pretty dire, nary a single migrant and very quiet indeed. The boys and I naturally started talking about drinking almost immediately - I worry about the liver function of many of our local patch workers. I also sense that a gin & tonic evening is probably in the offing, as we all seem very keen indeed on this most wonderful of drinks. The avian highlight was a particularly lovely male Stonechat in the Ditch of Despair - despite my camouflage hat I couldn't get anywhere near it so the below is about as good as it gets.


Returning home having drawn the proverbial blank I enjoyed coffee and some semi-stale crusts of toast . This is the problem with children, they eat you out of house and home yet don't bother telling you when something has run out (ie, been scoffed). They simply move on to something else. Oh, no bread? Right, cereal then. No cereal? Fruit. They just expect replacement whatever it is, in this instance bread, to magically reappear the next time they look. I open the bread bin about once a week and it is always sodding empty. So it was today, barring the ends of a couple of loaves. The trick is to splash a bit of water on them and then sling them in the toaster.

With this meagre sustenance I set to work. I was delighted to discover that my lawn mower still worked after all this time, and half an hour later the garden looked sensational. It does not matter how crappy your garden is, once you mow the grass ('lawn' would be pushing it at Chateau L) it makes everything look fabulous for some reason. I pruned a few things and did a few edges, you might almost think a gardener had come. Did Mrs L notice when she returned home? No.

Next up was repopulating the terrace with ferocious Mexican plants that have spent the winter under glass. I have a sack barrow specifically for this annual task and so made short work of getting all of them out and back up the garden. The local cats are once again in mortal danger, just the way I like it. And then with so much room freed up in the greenhouse I was able to take stuff from indoors and put it down there, which means we can now move a little more easily in the house. Some watering, some pruning, a but of weeding, and after all this I was amazed to see that my pedometer suggested that I had covered three miles simply walking up and down the garden - talk about industrious!

So now came the time to relax. It was precisely raptor o'clock. I plonked one of the garden chairs on the freshly mown grass and lowered myself gently down, binoculars at the ready. Five minutes later the first Buzzard cruised over, and an hour later the second. The intervening period passed very quickly, it is possible that I dozed off.

And then it was time for gin. 


Friday, 24 March 2017

Birding Hosmer Grove, Maui

There was only ever really one spot where I was going to look for the endemic Honeycreepers on Maui, and this is Hosmer Grove about half way up the road that leads to the Haleakala Observatory, just after the entrance booth to the park. It was a misguided attempt back in the 1920s to try and establish hardwood plantations and form a timber industry on Hawaii. Many of the trees didn't do well, but a handful did too well, thus damaging the fragile native ecosystem. There are still stands of these non-native trees today, some of them are absolutely huge, and the park managers face a constant battle to ensure that the native scrub land and its plants don't get further eroded. Despite this it is still noted as the best place on the island to get a view into that habitat, and is also the site of a protected area called the Waikamoi Preserve, established and fenced off by the Nature Conservancy to keep at least some of the slopes of east Maui as they once were. This preserve is strictly off limits for the most part, though there are infrequent guided walks down the slope to a boardwalk where good views of the Hawaiian Honeycreepers are more-or-less assured. I didn't have that opportunity and neither will most people, so I thought I'd put together a brief guide of how best to see at least some of the birds without being on a guide-led walk into the Preserve itself. 




Access
The first left turn after the entrance booths. There are several small car parks along this short road that ends at the campground, and you can leave your car in any of them. The grove is on your left, and to your right is native scrub land. There is practically no walking involved and you will likely see at least some of the Honeycreepers from the car if you are so inclined. For instance Apapane and Amakihi were relatively easy to find along this road, frequently flying out of the forest and up the slope into the native bushes to feed. The area around the large water tank and solitary pine tree was a good spot.


The actual trail starts at the campground car park itself, as noted on the map above, and first leads through Hosmer Grove itself, and then emerges a little higher up into the native scrub. The Waikomai gulch is to the right (east) of the trail, and presumably the off-limits Preserve is off the top of the map/north. The only non-native birds that I saw in and around the Grove were House Finch and Japanese White-eye, so any sound you do not recognise is likely to be a Honeycreeper. I'iwi in particular make a huge variety of sounds, and are easily picked up. The most productive area was easily where the grove begins to peter out and the give way to native plants - basically at the far right of this map close to where the trail splits in two and these is a shortcut back. As the trail emerges it does so alongside the top of the Waikamoi gulch, a ravine filled with native plants. There are couple of overlooks, the first with an interpretation board, and a stint here looking down into the gulch will produce results. I saw lots of I'iwi from this spot, often extremely well, and Maui Creeper or Alauahio were present in the pines right on the edge of the forest. They tended not to venture out very much, whereas the I'iwi flew back and forth constantly, although preferring not to move too far away from the treeline. I saw only one Amakihi in this area of forest, all the others were further up the hillside. This was mostly true of the Apapane too, I only saw one right on the margins of the forest, all the others were in the scrub.



I'iwi

I visited twice, once in the early evening about an hour before sunset, and once in the morning about an hour after sunrise. The early morning visit was unsurprisingly much more productive, although I did not walk the main trail in the evening. For reference I visited in late March. Note that due to the popularity of viewing the sun rising above the clouds on Mt Haleakala, entrance to the park is restricted between 3am and 7am – you need to have made a reservation and space is limited by parking spaces at the summit. I found this out too late, but a great day out in my opinion would be to start with the sunrise, and then descend to Hosmer Grove (about 25 minutes) and bird the area for a few hours. With uber-planning you could do that and join the guided walk which I believe starts at 8am from along the Hosmer Grove road. The summit is a shade over 10,000ft, and is cold and windy – you need proper clothes if you are going to be up there for any length of time. You can bird Hosmer in shorts and a T-shirt however, it is 'only' about 6,700ft and remains fairly pleasant. Bizarrely the calls of the Honeycreepers are interspersed with the coughs of Ring-necked Pheasant, another introduction to the zoo that defines most of the birding on Hawaii. As you drive up you’ll be serenaded by European Skylark….

Maui Alauahio


Amakihi
I birded the area for about four hours, from 7am on the dot to just before 11 by which time it was quite hot and bird activity had dropped off significantly. Beyond about 10am the I’iwi tended to stay in the trees more and I was happy to join them. The peak of activity was probably from 8am until 9am, by which time a bit of sunshine was starting to get into the top of the gulch. I’iwi was actually the commonest bird by some margin, followed by Apapane, then Amakihi. Alauahio was the hardest to catch up with, and I didn’t see Crested Honeycreeper or Maui Parrotbill at all. These latter are seen only a handful of times a year, but I suspect you would get the former if you went on the guided walk which takes you deeper into native habitat.

My four hour visit produced the following birds, and I got excellent views of them all.

I’Iwi – 20+
Apapane 8
Amakihi 5

Maui Creeper 3 

  

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Everglades interlude

Predictably I got up in the middle of the night, my mistake for sleeping on the flight over. I was able to pick up my hire car early, and under an hour country music later I was pulling into the car park at Royal Palm, home of the famous Anhinga Trail. I was the only person there, a fact noticed quite quickly by the resident swarms of mosquitos. Did I have any repellent? No. Unwise, and a lesson for anyone thinking of doing the same thing, which presumably after my last post must be loads of you. Happily the many bites I got during the dawn period were not ones that festered, and by that evening they had all gone down. I suppose I might now have but Zika, but hey.


I wandered down to the pond on the other side of the visitor centre - lots of very large splashes but I couldn’t see anything. Fish? Something bigger….? An Anhinga croaked out of a palm tree in annoyance before the bugs forced me back to the car for a snooze. I woke up as another car pulled in next to me, a fellow nature-photographer by the looks of things. That’s what I was today too, so as it was nearly light I got my stuff together and saddled up. The Trail is hardly a trail at all, a short board walk that crosses a natural watercourse through the sawgrass, a slough (pronounced ‘slew’ rather than like an inspiring town in Berkshire). Birds everywhere though not quite as many as I had hoped – late in the season, a month earlier is probably better.



 




The tactic, such as there was one, was simply to walk round in circles until you came across a bird in photographable range. There were no shortages of these really, but there was a distinct lack of pleasing backgrounds and I didn’t take many photos. I am never at my best on the first day of any trip is another reason I suppose, but for all I’d read about this place it wasn’t what I had hoped. This did not bother the vast majority of lens-toting people who later turned up and who were all too happy to aim their cameras at 45 degree angles down onto birds in the water or on the banks of course, but that is normal everywhere, and especially somewhere as accessible as the Anhinga Trail. Now that I know the lay of the land as it were, it’s somewhere I will try and factor into a future trip, as I think it could be worth a few mornings and evenings. As it was I reverted to birding, always an excellent fallback option, and I am glad that I did. As soon as I stopped concentrating on trying to get angles and views a Swallow-tailed Kite flew over, a bird I had been crossing my fingers I might see. Utterly superb, it just glided past and I swear I was the only person that noticed. I racked up quite a nice little list over the course of a few hours – as well as all the obvious herons and egrets, I pulled out Common Yellowthroat, Pine Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, a silent Empid I need to try and identify from photos, White-eyed Vireo, Red-winged Blackbird, Grey Catbird and Red-shouldered Hawk


And then there were the stars of the show, the Alligators! By mid-morning they were hauled up everywhere, and there were some monsters! Early morning there had been the odd ripple, a few snouts detectable in quiet corners, but as it warmed up they sought out the muddy banks close to the path and flopped out. Wood Storks and Ibises drifted over, flights of Great White Egrets and Black Vultures everywhere. Excellent views of large fish as well, the Everglades simply teems with life. Most enjoyable, but eventually the crowds became too much and I sought quieter areas. The other target was Snail Kite, and they were not present in the southern glades so I drove back north to Big Cypress, an enormous area of inpenetrable swamp level with Miami where I had to be anyway. To cut a long story I didn’t see one, but I did see another two Swallow-tailed Kites as I drove around Loop Road, a partially paved route that cuts through various swampy habitat and joins back with US41 about twenty miles further west from where you join it.




The time passed all too quickly and I only found my way back onto the highway at about 2pm. I wasn't quite sure how long it would take to get back to the airport so I didn't risk it and started heading east again. Glad that I did as it took an age - I was never in danger of actually missing my flight but it didn't leave a lot of wiggle room and one bad traffic jam could have sunk the entire trip. As it was I made it with about half an hour to spare, and settled down for the next leg in my weekend odyssey, a quick hop over to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.

Most pleasing

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

In praise of being a travel geek

I am over the Pacific somewhere. Bumpy. Our affable captain has just drawled that there might be a little chop… Typing has momentarily become more challenging, but these are the kind of sacrifices I make in order to bring you this. I am on my way to Maui, there to have a second crack at I'iwi, and to see lots of brightly-coloured fish, though hopefully not in the same place, convenient though that would undoubtedly be.

Remember last year some time I did a completely ridiculous trip out this way, more of an experiment in how to accrue a massive number of air miles in a very short space of time? Well it turned out I enjoyed it immensely as I suspected I might, and I didn’t even see an I'iwi! Nonetheless the fun factor was such that when the next European sale that made it possible turned up I didn’t hesitate and booked it up immediately.  As per last time the routing is fiendlishly complicated - this is one of those fares that when you’ve gone through all the legs with the sales agent and the price pops up on their screen there is a small pause at the other end. I like that pause a lot, but it is also indicative of my supreme sadness. You probably know this already, but I take more than a passing interest in flying. Before you say it, this is not full-blown plane-spotting. Proponents of plane-spotting go and sit in cul-de-sacs near airports with short-wave radios and notebooks, collecting lists of planes that fly overhead like, er, twitchers collect birds. I would of course never do anything like that, jeeesh, I still have a little self respect thank you.

No, my interest is dominated going to fun places and seeing the world, but along the way I have become ensnared by exploiting frequent flyer schemes. So whereas a normal person would fly to Los Angeles and then on to Hawaii in the most convenient manner possible, I work out which way will be cheapest and earn the most miles, convenience be damned, and do that. Actually a normal person wouldn’t go to Hawaii for two days even if there was a direct flight, so clearly yet again I find myself propping up one end of a spectrum, and not the cool end…. Look, I’m just saying it could be worse. No anorak, no beard, no notebook. I don’t need a notebook, I’ve got a spreadsheet….
 
Yes, like all good hobbies there is a master geeksheet. I’ve got one for birds which is genuinely a masterpiece, and now I’ve got one for travel. With pivots and everything. The most recent entries show that I flew to Zurich after work on Thursday from City Airport, and after a night in some faceless hotel that I flew back to Heathrow, and then on to Miami where I spent a day in the Everglades. It also tells me that the means of travel to Zurich was an Embraer 190 that I’ve travelled on seven times before, and that the return trip was on an Airbus A319 that was entirely new to me. In birding speak this is a “Tick”, and in my opinion is probably one scale up in the tragic stakes from that. However thankfully this is where it peaks. Well, mostly. I can also recognise different sorts planes, just like someone who is interested in cars can spot different models as they drive past. Or like twitchers can identify rare birds. Oh, wait…..

Talking of rare birds, here is something I don't think I could ever bring myself to twitch, a Double-crested Cormorant

Anyway, A320 or Boeing 737, there’s no fooling me. So with that confession out of the way, what’s the point? I’m not daft enough to miss the point that it is ridiculous circle, as generally speaking the only thing you can do with airmiles is use them flying places, and my shiny loyalty card is of precisely zero use outside of airports. Airlines know this of course, hence why these schemes exist, but at the cost of some research and a little inefficiency you can game the system and see the world at the same time. Let me give you an example that is somewhat more rational than flying to Hawaii for the weekend. Famille L is going on holiday to California this summer, a trip we have talked about for years but never quite managed for one reason or another, mostly cost. As always when it comes to school holidays dates are a bit restrictive, and the airlines know this, and so to fly direct to LAX on the dates we need would cost a minimum of £1,176 per person right down the back of the bus on pretty much any airline you can think of. Were that a realistic option for a family of five (which it isn't, clearly), we would simply leave London for Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon and arrive there on Saturday evening. Easy, but also nearly £6,000, not exactly chump change. 

Instead we’re getting up early on Saturday morning and flying to Stockholm on British Airways on a portion of the miles I am currently racking up on the way to Maui. After what I hope will be a nice and enriching family day out in Stockholm, we start our trip to America by flying back to London in the evening and going home to pack. Bear with me, as whilst it is as stupid as it sounds there is also method in the madness. On Sunday morning we return to the airport and fly to Dallas with American Airlines (which in something called Main Cabin Extra has far better leg-room than any competitor, and which thanks once again to frequent flying I can book for free for all of us) and after a short layover, from there to Los Angeles where we arrive in the evening. So far we have lost a day of holiday in California, but equally we will have had a good sniff around Stockholm, which is not to be, er, sniffed at.

On the way back the direct option leaves Los Angeles on Friday afternoon, and arrives on Saturday morning, whereupon we could go home, unpack, and use Sunday to recover ready for work on Monday morning. Pah!! Not for us! These intrepid travellers leave on Friday morning via Chicago, also arriving in London on Saturday morning, albeit ahead of the direct LA flight. We also go home and unpack. The big difference is that instead of flopping about at home on Sunday, we’re off to Gothenburg for the day which thus deposits us in our starting location of Sweden and meets the criteria of the ticket. We could somehow “forget” to go to Gothenburg, all be struck down by a mysterious illness etc, but that’s cheating and does carry the small risk of a gigantic ticket reprice. On the assumption we do go, I’ve bought some tickets home with Norwegian for under a hundred quid for the whole family.  So the return trip has cost us half a day in California, and rather than a nice relaxing day at home we are exploring another Swedish city, which being totally knackered is probably the last thing any of us will wish to do at that point. The sweetener is that rather than the unaffordable £6,000 of the direct option, this way costs under a third of that. No, I don't really get it either, but I am happy to go with the flow. 

Frankly this is a triumph for OCD, and I’ve just ‘saved’ a huge amount of money, even once you include getting to Sweden and back. This will pay for our Californian camper van for two weeks, all the petrol, camping at Yosemite and other good places, all the food, as well as side-trips like Whale watching out of Monterey should I be so lucky. We’ll probably even have a fair bit left over for another trip. It’s not remotely enough for lunch in Stockholm of course so we’ll have to take sandwiches with us on that leg, but even with the considerable extra faff it is a complete no-brainer, and all made possible by embracing my inner nerd. In fact it is the difference between doing this trip we’ve talked about for so long and not doing it at all. And not forgetting that all five of us earn a pile more airmiles for the combined family stash, enough in fact for three more family day-trips to European cities. I suppose we could have all gone to Bournemouth or wherever, but I want the kids to have far broader experiences. Taking nothing away from Dorset, but we all know where having a narrow world view leads…

So, Hawaii then. Indulgent. Yeah. Stupid. Absolutely. Crazy? A little, and when I first read about this type of trip I thought all of these things too. Then I did it for myself in August last year, and whilst I still think all of these things it worked out perfectly (lack of I'iwi and a knee injury excepted) and was complete blast. Like all trips there is joy in the planning phase as well as the execution phase, and this itinerary was eeked out over the course of a couple days of trial and error until I finally hit upon the route that worked. The day in the Everglades not counting as a stopover was if I don’t say so myself, genius., especially as it connected with a flat bed to the west coast. I hired a car for the day for about 20 quid, nipped down to Homestead, and spent the day in a massive swamp seeing tons of spectacular birds, alligators, snakes and fish. Returning to Miami I got on a plush 777 and snoozed in comfort to LA, waking up only for an ice-cream sundae, and now I’m about an hour inbound from Maui. I’ve only got a couple of days, and the rough plan is on arrival to go and buy snorkelling gear with which to while away the afternoons, and to spend the mornings and evenings looking for endemic birds, enjoying sensational views and taking photos. It is a hard life I know, but that is the price I pay for being a spreadsheet-obsessed gimp. Fair is fair, and so when I am sat on a tropical beach on Sunday evening watching the sun set over the Pacific with a cold beer in my hand, I will remind myself of all the ridicule and shame that comes with it.


New favourite bird

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Getting back to Morocco

You know that post where I mentioned Morocco, the one where I originally planned to write about how great the birds were there but instead wrote four paragraphs of drivel? Yes? Well this is it. I am suffering from severe Morocco photo-lust, and the reason is as follows. It is long-winded, I apologise in advance. In a nutshell….haha, no. I don’t do nutshells. Bullet points?

  • Moved floors at work, 10th to 4th
  • In doing so gained two new and lovely megascreens
  • Made screen backgrounds Wheatear to remind myself life existed outside Canary Wharf
  • [Became miserable]
  • Compounded misery by also adding 50 other photos once I realised they could be set to scroll
  • Idly counted where said photos were taken (1. Morocco, 2. Iceland, 3. Wanstead)
  • Immediately booked trip to Iceland in June
  • [Happiness]
  • Continued dreaming about Morocco
  • [Sorrow and lust in equal measure]

The lust was mainly centered around those fantastic clean backgrounds and the soft early-morning light characteristic of the desert. The sorrow because I am not sure it is wise to go there at the moment, and whilst I have never been wise I have of course always been obedient. Mrs L does not want me to travel there, she says it is dangerous at the moment. She did not want me to go to Istanbul either, but I said it was nonsense and went anyway. A week after I returned home some suicide terrorists shot up the very door area I had walked through and then blew themselves up, killing dozens. Negative brownie points were awarded. For not getting killed! But yes, fair point perhaps. Goddamit, what is the world coming to? I took the girls to Dusseldorf for the day last weekend. We had a lovely time, ate an entire pig and several kilos of cake, and the returned to the airport via the hauptbahnhof. Four days later a guy ran amok through the station with an axe. Getting closer.

I am not the fatalistic sort, I am clued up enough to know that this kind of rubbish happens everywhere these days. A man went nuts with a knife and nearly killed someone at my local tube station before being tasered. I was on the tube the morning it got bombed in 2007. Where exactly is safe? The Outer Hebrides probably, but if I go there no doubt some atrocity will follow. Iceland in June….. I should publish my schedule….

Mrs L probably has a point about Morocco, there are some stats out there that suggest that this lovely country has produced more Islamic combatants than any other, and many have now returned from Syria and Iraq bent on destabilisation and insurrection. I’ve been four times I think, and never felt remotely threatened or ill at ease. I’ve been the only westerner for many miles but have only ever been greeted by smiles, the more so when I break out the French or manage to say a word or two in Arabic. I think the danger lies in the cities, the places where tourists congregate, and to where I never go. I head the other way, to the wide open spaces and I desperately want to go back, to cross the Atlas and head back out to Tagdilt and the Erg Chebbi. Yasmina, how I yearn to wake up with your view! More than that I want to travel down the coast to the disputed region of Western Sahara. What I can’t get my head around is if in this uncertain world this is as safe as its going to be for a long time, and if in fact we’re headed for a period of global chaos that may last my entire remaining lifetime.

Anyway while I ponder risking life and limb on another trip to Morocco (I’m talking of course about the wrath of Mrs L), here are some are fond memories from the trips I made in 2013 and 2014.












Saturday, 18 March 2017

Nearly about Morocco

I am galivanting again, or I will be by the time you read this. This is the magic of being able to schedule blog posts to appear at any time you want. Earlier this year I could barely contain myself and wrote about six posts in a four hour period. I think I burnt out as I then wasn’t able to write anything for days, but it didn’t matter as every day at 6.30pm on the dot a new post would appear for the pleasure of the blog-reading public. Literally tens of people read them; I was delighted. Writers block solved. Except then that my output halved in February as once the daily auto-posts ran out I remained stuck.

To be fair I that was a busy month even by my standards, which saw me working up in my Glasgow office, a couple of stints in Fife looking after my dad, and then a week in Asia. None of these periods turned out be particularly conducive to writing for some reason, and right in the middle of it I had to do the LBR my US tax return. There is only one of me and as such it all dried up.

It has taken a while to return to the keyboard, a couple of well-read hem hem posts about my travels, and then some hints of spring. Then came a couple of birds, a gull and a duck, the full-on Wheatear experience and then the annual sock battle, and so here we are at 35,000 feet again. I’ve just watched (and very much enjoyed) La La Land over a couple of beers, and with nothing else particularly taking my fancy I turned to exploring some ideas I had written down on one of the many scraps of paper that rule my every waking hour.

This post is about Morocco. No really. Well it was going to have been about Morocco, and specifically about the lovely birds there and how I miss them, but uncharacteristically I have strayed off-message. I know, I can’t believe it either, but there you have it. Four paragraphs in and the original intent is looking less and less likely I feel, so perhaps park that one for another day eh? In a nutshell I want to go back, but instead I am on my way to Florida, which is about as different from Morocco as you can get. It is still travel so, er, don’t feel bad for me OK? I booked this in a fit of enthusiasm at some point last year and it has come round very quickly. A day in the Everglades is planned as the first stop, so I’m off to visit the famed Anhinga Trail near Homestead, mainly due to what I hope are a multitude of very tame birds there. I like tame birds. These birds are tame because there are so many people. The ones in Morocco were tame because they didn’t really see people. Opposite cause, same effect, but I like it just the same. I’m also hoping to see Snail Kite and Swallow-tailed Kite. In Florida, not Morocco. This is so confused now, I think I might have to stop.


In summary: I am on a plane to Florida to take photos of birds whilst thinking about different birds in Morocco. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Migrating socks

I think I peaked too early. Wheatear on the 11th March, basically the first day I had been out looking for migrants. Normally I would spend far longer trawling the Flats, and in doing so would likely get a Shelduck early morning, perhaps a Sand Martin, occasionally even a Little Ringed Plover. As it was I scored the only migrant that really gets my juices flowing and so having seen one on Saturday I have only ventured out once in the intervening six days. Poor, and I am a bit sad about it actually, especially as the weather has been exceptionally spring-like. I don’t think I’ve missed anything other than Blackcap, but nonetheless.

That said there has been progress in other areas. Like socks. There is constant problem in Chateau L around a lack of socks, especially at that crucial time of getting dressed in the morning when they just disappear. The problem is mostly that at some point between the washing bin and the washing machine that single socks migrate. I am very careful about searching for stragglers and vagrants, but other members of the household are not as diligent. As such we have an immense collection of odd socks. The other day, having run out of a fresh pair of matching socks for the umpteenth time I cracked and bought six more pairs online. Then I tackled the odd sock bag. Surely everyone would proceed in this order, no?

Anyway, I laid them all out in colours on the bed and thus successfully matched about 20 pairs, which is patently ridiculous. I blame the children. Then I emptied the washing bin of all socks of any colour and washed them as a mixed load. I’ve not lost my touch. A day later I thus matched a further 25 pairs, but we still have around fifty odd socks. I am tempted to throw them all out, but then all of their brethren would magically appear from under children’s beds, in children’s beds, and no doubt a host of other places I would never have considered, and we would have another insurmountable problem. Thus we cling on to them in the forlorn hope that one day (in a parallel universe I expect) this number might reduce. It never does of course, it just grows and grows until we all run out again and the bag overflows. Then muggins here gets involved and temporarily stems the tide until frustration and despair set in again.

My new socks have yet to arrive. I don’t actually need them any more as after my recent blitz I can barely close my sock drawer and neither can anyone else in the house. Close their own drawers I mean, I haven’t lined everyone up and made them attempt to close my sock drawer. If I can’t manage it, nobody can. But here’s the thing, the six pairs of socks cost £4. That’s, er, less than 50p per sock. I generally have expensive tastes, but not in socks – there is no point in Chateau L, any decent sock would be the first to abscond. But at 33p a sock (just checked on a calculator) why not just chuck them out when you’re finished wearing them? Less washing, less angst, less time spent chasing errant socks, fewer arguments with slovenly children. More time looking for avian migrants. Win win. Just order in bulk say once a month, where I suspect you could improve on 33p, and have done with it. They might not be very good socks, but when you’re only wearing them for about 12 hours then does it really matter? Worthy of consideration surely.


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hoi An Lanterns

The entire town is strung with innumerable silk lanterns - outside shops, along streets and waterfronts, in all the bars, restaurants and cafés. They look pretty amazing in the day, but at night it is spectacular. They are made of silk or cloth stretched over bamboo, and can be bought incredibly cheaply all over the place from the people that make them - they fold down pretty niftily so if you have a little bit of space you can bring home a tiny piece of Vienam with you. We cam home with four which we plan to hang as a group in a corner once we work out the electrics. So far LED deck lights seem to be the most practical, but my famed DIY skills may not stretch that far....

Anyhow, here are a few photos (of many) from around the town, of views that I found particularly appealing. Trying to recreate this at home is likely doomed to failure, but a home wouldn't be a home without little pockets of memories from around the world. And in a few days I'll be on the other side of the world enjoying something totally different, so watch this space. 







Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A short stay in central Vietnam

Rather than stay in Hong Kong, a city that as a family we have already "done", we went to Vietnam for something different. I say "done", I'm not sure you can ever really do Hong Kong any kind of justice in any kind of reasonable timeframe, but with holiday time very limited it's important to get as much variety as you can. My sister suggested Vietnam as a sufficiently different and interesting destination only a short distance away, although in truth almost all of Asia is just a brief hop away. Within the same range as Europe is from London are a host of incredible places. So Vietnam it was, the central coast a mere 90 minutes flying time away. Cathay Dragon accepts the same airmiles as BA, and no taxes to speak of meant a family of five could travel for about £60 return which is amazing.

So it was that less than 24 hours after arriving at Chek Lap Kok we were back there and heading back west. Da Nang is an up-and-coming (read: getting rapily buried in concrete) city that held no appeal, but only a moderate taxi drive away is Hoi An, a world heritage city that retains a huge amount of original buildings and a great deal of charm. Apparently Vietnam is a Communist state but you could have fooled me. I saw almost no evidence of restraint, and a massive amount of rampant capitalism. Perhaps better to say that a one party system is in operation. Still, when one pound equates to something like 30,000 Dong I can bear a bit of capitalism. The first ATM we encountered offered three choices - 100,000 VND, 500,000 VND, or 1,500,000 VND. I had unfortunately neglected to gen up on the above exchange rate, so cautiously went for the middle one, whereupon the machine spat out a single note. Hmmm. Hailing a taxi, I tentatively asked whether half a million Dong would be sufficient for the ride to Hoi An and was told it would be fine, but it was a very close run thing and I ended up giving the driver the whole lot for the 45 minute trip. Happily the hotel accepted credit cards so we were able to have dinner....




After a slow start the next morning another taxi took us into the town, dodging half a billion crazy mopeds. We stopped for a more sensible amount of cash, making me a local millionaire in the process, and set about exploring. I won't bore you with a minute by minute rundown of our holiday, but suffice to say it was fabulous - we had some work clothes made at a couple of tailors for which the town is famous, we visited the market, we went to a cookery school, walked through paddyfields, visited an ancient temple complex, chilled by the pool, shopped for silk lanterns (more on this in another post, for me it was one of the standout things about the town) and very small but highly satisfying hats, drank cocktails, played ping pong, had massages, saw monkeys.... in other words a highly varied family holiday. 




There was some properly tropical rain!



And of course I snuck a bit of birding in. Genuinely a tiny bit, hardly any. An early morning exploring the paddyfields and fishponds, and a bit of sneaky birding whilst being shown around some temples. In my experience there are only so many templey-type things that you can take in, whereas there appears to be no limit to how many birds I can hear, see, or generally be interested in. My visit to the ancient site of My Son was therefore dominated not by Gods and phallic symbols, but by Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Common IoraScarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Coppersmith Barbet and various Bulbuls. Oh, and Yellow-browed Warblers, well out of place and not an iris bed in sight.

The paddies closer to the town were stuffed full of Egrets - GWE, Cattle Egret and Chinese Pond Herons mostly, but also a few cool things like Yellow Bittern and Cinnamon Bittern. Plenty of Richard's Pipits and for that taste of Europe, Zitting Cisticolas. Distinctly un-european included Plaintive Cuckoo, White-throated Kingfisher, Green Bee-eater, Black-shouldered Starling, White-breasted Waterhen and masses of Swiftlets overhead of a species I could never identify 




I had read before travelling that central Vietnam was birdless, so I was really very pleased to see as much as I did, something like 20 lifers and a list of around 50. I think what the various reports I read actually meant to say was that whilst central Vietnam had quite a few birds, the real hotspots are in the north and the south, so on any trip to the country make sure you go there as a first choice. One day I will, and no doubt I will be amazed, but as a bit of casual birding on a chilled-out half term holiday I came away more than satisfied. 







Saturday, 11 March 2017

The dating game

Here are some dates.

March 16th
March 23rd

March 20th
March 19th
April 10th
March 11th

The final date is today, and is very nearly an entire month earlier than the date the precedes it. These are not random dates, they are significant dates. Very significant - they mark - of course - the dates when I saw my first patch Wheatear over the last few years. I am not quite sure what happened last year, but statistics never ever lie. Leaving this aberration aside, the 11th March is nearly a whole week earlier than the earliest I've seen Wheatear in Wanstead. So naturally for someone as nerdy as my good self this is extremely exciting news.

I was with Tony - the last few Saturdays it has just been the two of us (he would be lying if he said he didn't look forward to this tryst), the rest of the gang seem to have slacked off somewhat. We had done an unproductive circuit from around half six and seen very little. A second go was merited, so crossing the road back to the brooms we trundled on. A few Skylarks, various Mipits and Song Thrushes. And then it happened. A bird with a very different flight bounced over, moving away rapidly. The ever-sharp TB called it tentatively as a Wheatear, and as it headed into the top of the Coronation Copse it appeared he was right. I thought I detected a white rear end despite the high contrast, and when we noticed a man who later resolved into Rob S waving at us and pointing at the same treetop we knew we were in.

A smart but highly wary male, and on the exceedingly early date of 11th March. This is karma. I spent a lot of yesterday gazing at photographs of Wheatears. Wondering. Hoping. Salivating. And today was the day. Thankfully I got up and got out there, this was the moment I wanted to be present for.  So here it is in all its glory. Friendly it was not, but you can't have everything. Spring has well and truly started. Tony, Twitcher-Bob and I discussed a possible retreat until late August until the Spotted Flycatchers turn up, but I suspect we'll be out again very soon hoping for more. This is just the beginning.








Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Spring is in the air!

I can feel it, it is mild, and I can be birding by about six in the morning. Sometime, if I am very lucky, I can leave work while it is still vaguely light. I did so tonight and with a spring in my step, and my first (and so far only, though that may change) gin and tonic was on the way down at about half six. It does not feel like it has been a long winter, and barring that short spell of frost in January is has remained fairly mild for the whole period. My plants are thankful.

I didn;t get up at six obviously. I lounged around in bed for far too long and didn't make it out until gone seven. There were no birds, and a thousand dogs. Nonetheless it felt good to be out, and there was always the threat of promise. Now is the time. I read today that there has been a Wheatear in Lothian. Lothian! Talk about a world-beater. Ours tend not to arrive until a little later, and my earliest local record is March 15th though around the 20th to the end of the month is more regular. This suggests I have about a week until the first hint, and probably a fortnight before it becomes nailed on. You read it hear first. To say I am looking forward to it is the master of all understatements. As a reminder, here is what they look like.



This is my favourite time of the year on many fronts, not just the birds. I can start de-wintering the greenhouse, moving things that have spent the winter clogging up the house. I can while away hours repotting, rearranging, cleaning and dusting leaves. In turn I can bring things out of the greenhouse and onto the terrace, transforming the landscape into the arid tropics. But best of all is the end of the darkness, I can get outside and actually see things. The sun might deign to warm my face, and I don't have to wrap up as much. It's a kind of newfound freedom that is eagerly anticipated every year, with the bonus of masked bandits bounding down green paths.  

Monday, 6 March 2017

Am I on Shetland?

There is a funny buzzing sound. There it is again. Ziiip. Wait, is that a Pipit? Quite stripey. Ziiip. Oh, there are two. Ziiip, ziiip. Actually, there are several. Lots in fact. All over the place, two more on that putting green, another there with that Wagtail. Ziiip. Oh, one over there in that tree. Gosh, they're not hiding very well are they? Can't be a rare Pipit if I can see it can it? Ziiip. Let's have a closer look. Hmmm, yes, quite creamy on the front, lots of stripes. And quite greeny on the back. Olivey some might say..... Ziiiiiiiip

Ooooh, and what's that "boing" sound? Small bird, warbler sized. Chu-wee! Well, err, oooh, that's got a bit of an eye stripe! Very bold in fact. Lovely some might say. And what's this over here. Small, very acti....."Tsooo-wee-eeet!" JESUS CHRIST WHERE AM I???!!!

So where was I? Actually I was a little confused myself, I had just stepped off a plane but I had thought I was going to Asia, not Shetland. But here I was near Lerwick seemingly - long flight, must have been diverted. Warmer than I recalled but still, global warming and all that. Oh and what's this bird over here? Dark glossy blue, cocked tail, whacking great wing bar and white underneath. Oriental Magpie Robin! I was in Hong Kong after all, there hadn't been the mother of all mistakes. But what are all these autumn rarities doing here? The place is literally crawling with Olive-backed Pipits, Pallas's Warblers and Yellow-browed Warblers

Well, this is the beauty of migration. When UK birders step out of their cars into gale-force winds at Spurn, or sway onto the pier at Lerwick in early October, this is what they're all after. Asian birds. Hong Kong is twelve hours and six thousand miles away, the rarities we all chase have taken one hell of a wrong turn. They should be headed to the warmth of Southern China, to south-east Asia and to India. Instead they're jumping around a hawthorn bush close to the meridian.

I retired to my sister's house overlooking Discovery Bay on Lantau Island, and gratefully received a large gin and tonic. Can't be too careful, got to keep the quinine levels high. I was where these birds were supposed to be. OBPs and YBWs are common winter visitors here, and it was absolutely delightful to be wandering around South Asia with them all around me. 
Crawling with megas

Screams Asia

The next morning I woke up early and wandered the golf course until I got kicked off it - I was apparently endangering myself. Before that happened I saw Dusky Warblers, Long-tailed Shrikes to die for, Daurian Redstarts to also die for, and a ton of other birds including various wintering thrushes as well as some of the common residents like Violet Whistling Thrush. VWT is as cool as it sounds. I kicked myself for not having brought a proper birding lens whilst nonetheless enjoying myself very much without one. This was not a birding trip in any way, though I had allowed myself my bins, but here are a couple of feeble efforts with the meagre focal length that I had with me.

Male Daurian Redstart. Like.

Female of above, on my sister's garden fence. If she had an interest in birds her garden list would be amazing. There was however no sign of the bird guide I bought her when she moved to HK.

OBP

Long-tailed Shrike. Superb.