Wednesday, 18 July 2018


I was alerted recently by Rick's mate Dave to a Golden Plover ID article on Birdguides which apparently featured a photo I had sent in. The article can be found here and is a good read, should you be someone who studies wader flocks in autumn, and for your convenience the photo is here. I'm not sure if I have published it before - it is highly possible.

It is rather a nice photo if I don't say so myself. Little did I know that the pose could be used to usefully illustrate such arcane things as tertials and primary projections. Personally I am of the opinion that the most striking feature for it being a Pacific Golden Plover was the fact I was lying on my tummy on a sandy beach in Hawaii whilst taking it, but I suppose I have to concede that is not necessarily nailed on. I wasn't even considering its identity of course, I was just trying to get a bird in nice light with a nice lack of background. Like I always do.

In addition to being a pleasing photo, it just makes me want to go back. I remember that beach very well, it was early morning at a place called Waimea on Kauai. I was staying in a beach hotel consisting of isolated small cottages, and I awoke with a small hangover resulting from lying in a hammock looking at the stars with a six pack of beer the previous evening. The Pacific Ocean put paid to that quite quickly, and refreshed I retrieved the camera and started getting sandy. Honestly the things I have to put myself through to educate people on basic bird ID.....

Sunday, 15 July 2018

There goes the patch

If you ask me it was bound to happen. The Flats are dry as a bone, and people are remarkably stupid. I was in the greenhouse dozing off when I noticed the light had a peculiar golden quality. Odd, I thought, and went out into the garden to find I could hardly see for the smoke. One of the kids was desperately trying to close the windows - it being a warm day pretty much all of them were open. A grass fire on Wanstead Flats, and really not very far away from the house. Chateau L still stands you will be relieved to hear.

It burned for probably three hours, and at one stage the Fire Brigade had 40 engines here and over 200 firefighters trying to contain the blaze. They have done a remarkable job in breezy conditions, but the fire still managed to jump across main roads. Many local people went to rubberneck, but I was not one of them. Instead here is a photo nabbed from the Police helicopter (NPAS) that spent many hours circling round just above our house.

The main burnt bit is the SSSI, an excellent area for breeding birds but thankfully not for our endangered Skylarks. Nonetheless the damage is considerable - the area near the obvious dog-leg was once amazing scrub - it's where the second patch Wryneck was found, and we affectionately called the bush it liked to sun itself in the "Wryneck Bush" I've not been out, but I suspect it is now the "Wryneck Pile of Cinders". At one stage the smoke was so thick I couldn't see out of the window, and the inside of the house has a fair amount of ash in it. 

It also looks like the whole of the birch copse has gone, as well as the tree I saw my first patch Redstart in. Devastation. The houses closest to the road were evacuated. We didn't suffer that, but Mrs L had to go out shortly after it started to pick up a child, and what should have been a 30 minute run took three hours as the Police set up cordons that she could not get back through. In other words and barring the smoke it was a nice peaceful afternoon!

I'm dreading going out on the patch again. It was looking great the other day - more late August than mid-July, but full of insect life - butterflies galore and loads of flowers. Unfortunately some tosspot has, through either carelessness or malice, ruined the area for the next few months. The grasses will recover - I've seen them burn before albeit not as extensively, but the broom and the scrub will take many years to come back,and one of my favourite places for Warblers is no more. Long Wood has also been hit once the fire jumped the road. It looks like the trees are OK, but the fabulous scrub around the margins has gone - another great migrant trap exterminated - what the Corporation started someone else has sadly finished. I'll go out and assess the full extent of the damage later on, for now I think the Fire Brigade are still on site in case it flares up- big fires like this can actually continue burning underground. Such as shame, but we're all still here and we'll keep on birding it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Celebrating 13 years and 7 months

It's not the most obvious anniversary I know, but we have been in Chateau L now for 13 years and seven months. How they knew is beyond me, but it was extremely gratifying to have what amounts to probably the whole RAF fly over the ancestral home earlier today. I didn't know today was the day, and first heard some helicopters close by and wondered what was going on. The next thing I know a whole flock of them went over, and soon after that some gigantic planes. I raced up the turret and grabbed a camera, and just about the first thing I photographed was this. 

Stealth my arse. Surely my camera should have been totally flummoxed by this thing with all its confusing surfaces? But no, I picked it up instantly and blasted it out of the sky. $85 million apparently. Rubbish. At the very end of what was a veritable procession came the Red Arrows. Who doesn't like the Red Arrows eh? This is one half of the "V", but the angle they came in on makes it look like they're stacked on top of each other. Anyway, nice to be able to finally write a blog post about things that fly....

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Tinkle tinkle

Back when I lived in Manorhouse L and before we upgraded to a castle, Mrs L and I had a fountain. My memory of exactly why has faded with time, although I do remember that the rocks I put in it fell to bits after a few years and the whole thing clogged up and died whereupon I threw it out. However it got there it was nice though, nothing fancy, just a small pump in a bucket really, but surrounded by lush foliage it added to the jungle atmosphere. My love of plants dates from this period I think - we moved in to a house with a conservatory that was empty, and I subsequently filled it with green things to the point we could barely get in there and had to move. I've done much the same with the new place according to Mrs L.

Anyhow, with the reopening of the Temperate House at Kew Gardens earlier this year, Famille L headed west for a day trip. I've been going to Kew for years, indeed if you look very carefully in some of the glasshouses you will find some plants labelled up with "LETH" - I donated some tiny seedlings about a decade ago and they are now significantly bigger than the ones I kept! The power of winter heat and gardeners who know what they are doing. The plants were incredible as always, but what struck us most was the landscaping within some of the collections, and the presence of water and how that tied in with the planting. We came straight back to Wanstead and installed a stream running throughout the length of the house, culminating in a waterfall out of the back door.

Actually we didn't. We bought a small pump and another bucket.

There is an element of chav I'll admit, especially as I hooked it up to one of those smart plugs so that the thing can be voice-activated, but equally there are few things more pleasurable than the soft tinkling of water in the background as the mirrored surface catches the light. When I win the lottery I'll do it properly, for now I am enjoying this very much.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Book Club

Bit of a change today. I read in fits and spurts, either not at all or voraciously. At the moment it is the latter, and I get through books in a matter of days. Most of the time I read books about travel or wildlife, at least notionally, but occasionally I pick up (or am passed) something completely left-field that I would be highly unlikely to have chosen myself. Here are the last three things I have read.

Beyond a boundary – CLR James
Described as the best book about cricket ever written, it seems both current as well as obviously written in a different era. The pleasure derived from watching cricket, as well as the skill needed to truly do so remains as current today as the 1960s when it was written, although it covers West Indian cricket from several decades earlier. Those West Indian cricketers around whom so much of the book revolves every keen follower will probably have heard of in passing, but have little idea of who they actually were and what they did - Constantine, Headly and Grace to name but a few - so it was interesting to fill in some historical gaps. I have rarely heard, even on my beloved TMS, cricket strokes described so perfectly. It has a clear political slant, and explores the racial divides in Trinidad and the wider West Indies, but also how cricket shapes a person. A must-read for any lover of the game.

Crossing Open Ground - Barry Lopez 
A fantastic read, exactly my kind of book. Wilderness adventure, exploring nature and the relationships between humans, animals, birds and the land. Set in North America and laid out as a series of essays, this is travel writing of the highest order, supremely considered and thoughtful, beautifully written and compellingly interesting. Set in North America he ranges from the southern deserts to the Alaskan coasts, delving into the past and present alike. Geology, geography, art, science and morals - an all-encompassing view into some of the special areas of the US that have shaped the history of the country and those who call it home. I've read this several times before, and about every five years I feel the need to return to it. This is the kind of book that makes me want to travel as much as possible, even if I could never describe remotely as well as this master of his genre.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
This is the kind of book that makes Mrs L want to travel, which is a very rare thing indeed. She read this and declared an urge to travel to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Who was I to argue, I had a frequent flyer 'magic voucher' to burn, and so we are off there later this year. I would not have said this was my kind of book at all, but I demolished it in under three days. Set alternately at a hill station in colonial Malaysia during the period immediately after the Second World War and then some years later, this is a story that weaves history and fiction together around the relationship between a Chinese Malay ex-POW and a Japanese gardener. I read it avidly, but remained slightly unfulfilled, feeling that the author had tried to blend too many strands into his narrative, leaving too many questions and stories open. There is also a somewhat ponderous rhythm to it that I cannot put my finger on - a bit florid perhaps? That said I found it impossible to put down, and it kindles an interest in the story of Malayan independence, the mixing of cultures and, once again, parts of the world hugely different from the London underground which is where I read most of it. I'm looking forward to visiting and drinking the local tea.

Sunday, 1 July 2018


I love that we now live in a country of shortages. Not at all embarrassing, no. There is a shortage of beer and various other things due to a shortage of CO2, and now there is a shortage of lettuce because of the heat. Even with the football this counts a slow news day. If however I were to have to choose between long sunny days approaching 30 degrees for weeks on end and going without lettuce for a bit, well.....

It's not hard is it? Bring on the sunshine. Normal english people melt and start moaning. Not me. I'm part californian, this is in my blood and I love it. I am up early to do the chores in the cool dawn hours, and then shorts and flip flops become the order of the day. I've watched no football, couldn't care less about it, and barely raised binoculars to my eyes. Watching the girls play cricket on Friday evening I picked out a Common Tern whilst drinking a soon to be scarce beer. This was a year tick but I didn't let it get to me, this was still June after all. My only other notable bird news came in the form of 16 Lapwing flopping over my house east at some point during last week. Failed breeders I suppose, either that or the parched fields have the consistency of concrete and feeding has become impossible. A rare June record here, but Waders are on the move I gather - I vaguely keep up with bird news still , and am sensing that for some of them autumn is beginning already.

Other than a brief foray to the Park to twitch a butterfly I've once again gone nowhere - exactly what hot summer days are designed for. Not for me shopping malls and traffic jams, you can keep all that. The garden holds plenty of interest. For instance I discovered that I have a leaf-cutter bee creating a den (nest?) underneath one of my plant pots. It's quite a handsome thing, and keeps returning with neatly chewed segment of leaf which it carries underneath its body in the manner of an Osprey with a fish. From my spot near the barbeque I can watch its comings and goings. I also discovered a massive ants nest in the compost bin, and gave the colony something to do when I inadvertently opened the lid to chuck in some clippings and scattered their developing progeny to the four winds. Sorry about that.

Rubbish photo but you get the idea. It could almost be surfing!

Tomorrow it is destined to be even hotter. The long range forecast suggests it just keeps going and going, smashing. My arid and tropical plants suffice it to say are loving it, and I'm fine with it too barring one small thing. My commute. There are no words to describe how grim the Central Line is at around seven in the evening. It has spend the who day heating up and reaches its peak just as I and the rest of the world need to get on it. It is so hot that it exceeds the temperatures where it is legal to transport livestock. The other day they actually started handing out bottles of water as people were getting on - I've never seen that, it must be bad. And of course with the heat come problems. Broken down trains, passengers collapsing, signal failures and who knows what else. Six minutes would be bearable, just - about the minimum I could spend on there if all were going well. Unfortunately it just crawls and shudders. You know that particular feeling when a bead of sweat slowly trickles down the small of your back? It rarely happens that I get so hot that I get it, but the Central Line wrings it out of me and there is nothing I can do. Suited up it is deeply unpleasant. Then again if I had to choose between a summer like this and dismal, wet and cold June and July, even with all the lettuce I could eat I'd be voting for exactly how it is now. Maybe the odd tropical downpour to save me watering, but that is all I would change.

Monday, 25 June 2018

The quiet life

The last few weeks have been marvellously quiet. I have set out to do very little other than some mild gardening, and have been spectacularly successful. Mostly of course I have been at work, I am hoping that the summer might bring some respite from the grind - when the important people all go on holiday this bizarrely coincides with a drop-off in super-urgent tasks that need doing. It helps that a great deal of Europe just disappears to their houses in the countryside or to the beach. I have two coping mechanisms with which to deal with intense periods at work, and I am guessing you know them both already.

The first is to go to an airport and bugger off somewhere. The trouble with this approach is that I usually return even more shattered than when I left. I have been feeling pretty knackered recently, and so I'm actually taking a break from going on holiday and staying at home for the next two months. The second tactic plays very nicely to this, as I just potter around at home annoying the family. They would rather I went on holiday apparently. I am too demanding, too bossy, and too grumpy. OK, so I'll just go and live in the greenhouse then.

I do spend a lot of time down there, it is a haven. There is water, warmth, and lots and lots of oxygen. As a result I end up monitoring my plants obsessively and can totally lose track of time. It is a busy place, endless jobs need doing. Watering, fertilising, spraying, cleaning, repotting, sweeping. Anything but sitting down and resting which I am very bad at. But at least there is nobody telling me what urgently needs doing. 

Here is another nice landscape shot ruined by a bird. I was hoping to take a photo of this thistle and then an Izzy Wheatear came and sat on it. I am still slowly going through them. Non-urgently.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018


Tawny - adjective - of an orange-brown or yellowish-brown colour. 

This describes the palette of this photograph perfectly, and was exactly what I was trying to achieve. Some Pipit or other has unfortunately walked into the shot and spoiled it, but as soon as I get some time I'll clone it out and publish the pure, smooth rendition of colour that I was after.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Holiday shocker

In almost exactly 24 hours time I was going to be leaving for Iceland on another photographic marathon. It was going to be non-stop shutter abuse for close to 72 hours. Divers, Skuas, Phalaropes, Eiders.  Get our your tiny tiny violins however, as the pressures of work and in particular a surprise external meeting have forced me to cancel. This has never happened before, holidays are (were) sacrosanct. Maybe I have been lucky up to this point, especially how frequently I travel, but to say I am gutted is an understatement. What a pisser. It will be even worse when young Michael, who is still going, returns with a shed load of top quality images (check out the recent efforts here) whilst I have a blank memory card and a head full of Regulatory Capital articles. 

Still, Romania was extremely productive, and after a roadside sleep at 3am somewhere near the Danube, Mick and I gathered our strength and made it to the Black Sea coast. He had a vague memory of photographing Collared Pratincoles somewhere close to Constanta, and a bit of internet digging gave us two places to try. We struck lucky at the second, although by then the light was slightly against us. Fabulous birds. Imagine a Tern crossed with a Swallow, dressed up in a Red-legged Partridge outfit. They're sensational - I'm not sure how many species there are, but I remember ticking the three UK vagrant ones in the space of about three weeks some years ago. This was much much better. Better than Red-throated Divers - that's what I have to keep telling myself...

Sunday, 10 June 2018


Not a lot going on really, a weekend of pottering. One of the things I do best. By largely staying in my garden I managed to avoid people almost entirely, but I did have to contend with these reivers - clearly a very local population given how much time they spent glued to my feeders.

On blogging: the words are not coming at the moment. Pretty pictures are probably the order of the day. Sorry.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

A nugget of purest green

Getting a lot of these at the moment. Rather 'meh' these days but that was not always the case. I've graduated from being ridiculously over the moon to seeing one on the patch, through ecstatically ticking it for the garden, then regular flights over the house in flocks of up to 50 morning and evening, and now they're a permanent fixture on our feeders. Literally nailed on, and the food is disappearing as up to six birds rotate between the nuts and the seed. Very messy, and so I also have a pair of Stock Dove pecking around. The Parakeets are also fearless, and so it was really easy just to walk to the back door and take this.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Pied Wheatear

Naturally the whole point of the trip was to photograph Pied Wheatear. Cape Kaliakra was the place, I remembered a brief encounter in 2012 that left we with my only photos to date, but as I improved they left me wanting more. Better. As you know I am obsessed with this family of charismatic birds, and I remembered that here, on the Cape, they were quite fearless as there are so many people wandering around.

My memory served me well, the place was packers. Coach parties, tour groups, families. Frequently visitors walked almost up to the bird I was photographing, and then saw me and stopped and wondered what I was doing. Meanwhile the bird flew off of course. It soon came back, it had a very clear series of favoured perches on top of ruined buildings (the Cape is an archaeological as well as a military site) and was quite the poser. I am going to put most the images on a different website, but a taster is here. I am quite satisfied now, my Pied Wheatear gallery is vastly improved. One day I will publish a book just of Wheatears - I just need to pluck up the courage to visit some fairly inhospitable places first.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018


You know how you occasionally mess up, don't quite think things through? We had a new turret extension put in, and once it was all complete we discovered that our bed would not go up the stairs. I suggesting winching it up the side of the house and in through the window, which our son thought was a great idea and started to dream up pulley mechanisms. We were vetoed, there was apparently a simpler solution. Buy a new bed? No, not in Chateau L, no extravagances like that. Instead we managed to bend the mattress up the stairs and then just slept on the floor. 

It was very refreshing, zen even. We began to feel quite oriental and minimalist, belying our natural tendencies. I even bought a bamboo drinks mat for the bedside table, which looked ridiculous being two feet higher than the mattress. After five months of sleeping on the floor we could not imagine sleeping on a western-style bed, so when we were finally solvent again (turrets don't come cheap) we bought a new bed. But not just any old bed - a Japanese bed. Low to the floor, not quite a futon but close. We much prefer it, without really being able to say why. Affinity for walnut?

It arrived earlier this week and I, Mr. Useless, managed to put it together. Mrs L came home expecting to launch straight into DIY but was confounded by a ready made bed. It only had eight parts, even I could manage that, and they had numbers stamped into them to make it especially easy. She expected it to fall to bits but so far (three nights and counting) my flat-pack assembly skills have not been called into question.

We don't feel quite as puritan or trance-like as before, but it is easier to get up in the morning. The groans are not quite as loud, there is less haul and ever so slightly more grace. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Paddyfield Preview

I visited the reserve of Durankulak Lake in north-eastern Bulgaria back in 2012 as part of a four day trip with a few of the east London birders. We were on a guided trip in a minibus, ably led by a great guy called Dancho. I recall great birding, and a constant struggle for camera positioning in the back of the van, with Dave Mo and Dick repeatedly smacking me round the head with their lenses as they manoeuvred for position. Roll forward six years and I was finally back, this time with Mick S. He and I do not muck about when it comes to bird photography, and so last Saturday we found ourselves in wonderful early morning light facing the fantastic reed bed, lenses at the ready on monopods, slowly converging on a singing male Paddyfield Warbler in a smaller clump slightly in front of the main area. It was a windy day and photographing a small bird  in wildly swaying reeds was frustrating to say the least, but eventually a few clear shots were had.

I'm currently travelling again and don't have access to a proper computer screen with which to do some real fine tuning, but the below images would seem to be the best of the many that I took, and the ones that have needed the least editing. I'm quite pleased with the first one, it is almost what I wanted (in an ideal world I would have had the whole reed!), and I am hopeful of making a gallery composed of just this one bird in different poses as I was a bit trigger-happy. Whatever, it is a definite improvement on six years ago when my visit was a lot shorter, punctuated by an incredible rainstorm when the sky turned black. I'll be doing a trip report in due course, it seems to be the only thing I do at the moment. Never fear though, the next two months don't see me leave London, so expect a degradation in material and a return to total drivel.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Rose-coloured Starling influx

I am still searching for my 150th species in Wanstead. Trouble is, I think I am searching in the wrong place. Is Poland in Wanstead? What about Romania? Bulgaria? No absurd Brexit comments please. Still, although London patch birding is guaranteed to surprise, and something very very common elsewhere could become my milestone, for instance a wader of some sort of which the UK has thousands, it could equally be a rarity or scarcity. London has a huge list of birds, and whilst Wanstead lacks the habitat that might pull many of these in, the list of what has been seen here over the last few years speaks for itself. Great Grey Shrike, Ortolan Bunting. Blyth's Reed Warbler. Wryneck. Three more Wrynecks. Lapland Bunting. Slavonian Grebe. Most of those would have birders moving pretty quickly no matter where they lived. 

I've just returned from a trip to Bulgaria. Whilst there, the biggest flocks of birds that I saw were not waders or gulls. They were Rose-coloured Starlings. Thousands of them, in flocks hundreds strong. They are not breeding birds there per a local birder we spoke to, but they have just arrived in huge numbers. The story is seemingly encountered across Europe, including in the UK, albeit that the further west you go the flocks diminish in size. I saw a tweet from somewhere celebrating a flock of nine birds as being the biggest wherever it was had ever seen! All I can say is when you have seen 300 birds leave a moderately-sized cherry tree in one synchronised movement then a flock of nine will leave you underwhelmed. I would not twitch one here, but I would definitely be up for finding a flock. In Wanstead a satisfying flock number would be, umm, one. Yes that would do, a lone bird in amongst our regular Starling population would suit me just fine. They have already reached our shores, and local birders are out looking. I intend to join them as soon as I can. It may liven up June. Or it could be the most boring June we have ever had.

A morning birding Barbados

Although I am billing this as a trip report in fact it was a morning birding the island that I managed to slip in during a short trip away with one of my kids. We were there for snorkeling primarily, but it just so happened that my sister and her kids were on holiday there too, a complete coincidence, so I managed to negotiate a play date with cousins and went off for a few hours. As such I am dispensing with the usual logistics and itinerary, and just going for a glorified trip list. I did engage a guide (as I frequently do where birding is a side-show) but in truth I am not sure I got great value from this. My guide came away with two island ticks which probably tells you all you need to know - there is no delicate way to say this - he was simply not impressive, and professional bird guides need to be impressive. First off he did not have a telescope, so we could not identify anything distant such as small waders. Secondly he was not remotely up to date with island birding. That said I was very much in a Caribbean frame of mind, relaxed and happy as opposed to nervous and twitchy, and my guide was very personable and similarly relaxed, so I had a fun morning. He also had a car and he did know the sites, so I guess that without him my ability to find and get to the sites that held the key birds would have been limited, at least not without a ton of research that I did not have time to do.

Barbados does not have many birds, and the single endemic – the Barbados Finch – is completely ubiquitous and will be seen almost everywhere. The Barbados Golden Warbler (Dendroica petechia ssp petechia) is an endangered and endemic subspecies of the very complicated Yellow Warbler complex so that was worth seeing, but apart from that there is nothing on the island that you won’t be able to see somewhere else. In other words don’t bother go to Barbados for a birding holiday, unless it is half a day as part of a wider Caribbean trip. Do go to Barbados if you want to meet friendly people, eat great food, and have a very chilled out holiday. Here is a quick run-down of the sites I went to.

Barbados Bullfinch. I took this at a hotel cocktail party.

A small number of Royal Terns were present on the Jetty here with some Laughing Gull.

Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, Bridgetown
This is closed to the public and has been for several years – the owner is in dispute with the Barbados Government over their lack of action in preventing external factors from damaging the mangrove habitat. You can view into it along the sluice that used to feed the swamp, and it was here that I got the Golden Warbler in the trees. Solitary Sandpiper was here too, along with Caribbean Elaenia, Caribbean Martin,  Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Black-faced Grassquit.

Chancery Lane Swamp
Viewed this wetland area from the residential streets at the NW corner, but as neither my guide nor I had a scope it was hard work. Lesser Yellowlegs, Snowy Egret and Great White Egret were obvious, as was the vagrant American Flamingo that had, unbeknownst to my guide, been on the island for about six months. Barbados needs a birding Whatsapp group. Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper also present in decent numbers but without a scope the views were rubbish.

Inch Marlowe
A rocky shoreline east of Bridgetown was unfortunately quite sparse in bird life at the time of my visit, but I expect that in different weather you might get fly-by Terns and Frigatebirds. There were no waders on the beach.

Woodbourne Refuge
A series of small ponds near the village of  that are extremely rich in bird life. The first bird I set eyes on was a Spoonbill. My guide couldn’t believe it, Roseate Spoonbill would have only been his second!  I had concerns though, mainly about how white it was, how not pink it was, and somewhat telltale black in the wings. Frankly it was suspiciously like a Eurasian Spoonbill, which was very confusing indeed. An escape perhaps? But who keeps Spoonbills? We carried on birding, great views of Least Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper here.

Bayfield Pond
This is basically a village duck pond, but I actually got another tick here, Masked Duck, a bird I had been hoping to see and that I had missed elsewhere on other trips to the region. They were incredibly hard to see on even a small pond, and it took another bird guide turning up to show us exactly where. Very smart little things, I know it is bad to anthropomorphise but they looked very cheeky. The other guide also confirmed that there was a Eurasian Spoonbill knocking about and that it was a genuine vagrant that had been on the island. I still think I can legitimately claim this as a find as I knew none of this. - apparently this is not the first either, with a record in 2008 of two birds. Anyway, the important thing is that my guide got another tick…Plenty of Green Heron in breeding plumage here too, and lots of Common Gallinules.  

Westmoreland Resort
The lake near the main road had a large flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks as well as two Fulvous Whistling Duck.

Trip List

1. Barbados Finch
2. Scaly-naped Pigeon
3. Zainada Dove
4. Carib Grackle
5. Antillean Crested Hummingbird
6. Green-throated Carib
7. Green Heron
8. Cattle Egret
9. Magnificent Frigatebird
10. Laughing Gull
11. Grey Kingbird
12. Bananaquit
13. Royal Tern
14. Collared Dove
15. Common Gallinule
16. Ground Dove
17. Caribbean Martin
18. Greater Flamingo
19. Eurasian Spoonbilll
20. Masked Duck
21. Great White Egret
22. Snowy Egret
23. Black-faced Grassquit
24. Caribbean Elaenia
25. Yellow Warbler
26. Black-bellied Whistling Duck
27. Fulvous Whistling Duck
28. Turnstone
29. Spotted Sandpiper
30. Solitary Sandpiper
31. Greater Yellowlegs
32. Lesser Yellowlegs
33. Least Sandpiper
34. Semipalmated Sandpiper
35. Semipalmated Plover
36. Grey Plover
37. Shiny Cowbird
38. Pigeon

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Eastern Poland Trip Report: Bialowieza Forest

Wanstead goes on tour! None of us are quite sure how this happened but at some point on a slow birding day on Wanstead Flats we must have started discussing where might be better than here. Almost everywhere! We eventually decided on Poland’s Bialowieza (Bee-yah-woe-vyay-zha)  forest – a number of us needed Owls and Woodpeckers, and it was readily doable over a long weekend.

  • Early Friday to late Sunday in mid-May gave us two half days and one full day birding.
  • Flights from London to Warsaw were about £107 each with British Airways. At the time of booking they were cheaper than any alternatives and the flight times were perfect.
  • We tried to hire a minibus as there were six of us but there were none available so we got two cars and drove in convoy. Well, attempted to at any rate. Per car this came to about £80 rental + £45 fuel for the three days. We drove 760km.
  • Accommodation at the Ostoja Pasibrzuch was shall we say rustic, but a bargain at £12.50 per night per person in twin cells. Sorry, rooms. We didn’t use the pool as it had a dead cat in it. Breakfast however was excellent at about £5.
  • Whilst we were not on a tour, we did contact and book a guide for the Saturday - Arek Szymura. If  you want Owls and Woodpeckers you need a guide. In the event his son Mateusz took us round – from 4am to 10pm! €50 per person, which whilst sounds steep is an incredible hourly rate. He knew his stuff and was quite a funny guy, and he also did not let up the pace all day. In addition he gave us good gen for our last morning in the forest. In deference to his livelihood I won't detail the exact locations of his stakeouts.
  • We ate two meals at a restaurant in town. The food was cheap and good but the staff need to work on pretending they are pleased to see customers.
  • Day 1: 4am wake-up call for a 7.35am flight from Heathrow which arrived at Warsaw at 11am., We were on the road by midday and drove 3 hours up to Biebzra marshes for Aquatic Warbler. It was then a further 2 hours to Bialowieza.
  • Day 2: 3.30am start call to meet Mateusz. Massive day spent in the Bialowieza forest visiting various staked-out breeding sites, with the evening spent in the upper Nawew valley at a Great Snipe lek.
  • Day 3: All morning spent birding around the forest at a number of sites suggested by Mateusz, and then a cross-country drive back to Warsaw, birding all the way, for a flight at 6.30pm back to London. We attempted to spend time in a Warsaw park for Syrian Woodpecker but spent but unfortunately there was an event on and it was too busy.

Day 1
We left London at 7.35am and arrived in Warsaw at 11am. With hand luggage only we collected the cars very quickly and were on the road by 11.45. In car 1 (callsign: Red Khajar) were me, Bob and James. In car 2 (callsign: Black Pecker) were Tony, Dave and Richard. Naturally our plan to drive in convoy failed spectacularly at the first major junction, and the carefully planned two-way radio back up plan also failed when Red Khajar went out of range almost immediately. From then on we kept in touch via Whatsapp and eventually met up again at the Dluga Luka boardwalk about three hours later. It is fair to say that Black Pecker was navigationally challenged at many points during the trip, notably (and repeatedly) in the very small village of Bialowieza, but we all got back home again.

The roads were awful, the E67 seems to be undergoing a lengthy period of reconstruction and we kept on getting diverted off it, so the journey took 3.5 hours – rather longer than hoped for. Once we reached the Biezbra Marshes it was clear that the birding was excellent, but with news that somehow Black Pecker had overtaken us we did not linger and carried on to the famous boardwalk at Dluga Luka. We saw our first Elk just before we got here, a huge animal in a small cleared field. Oddly there was no sign of the other car at the boardwalk, no doubt a sat-nav glitch…. We walked west down the short boardwalk through a lush wet meadow interspersed with small stands of reeds, narrowly beating a tour group in a coach to the viewing platform at the end. Here we started hearing Aquatic Warbler almost immediately but in breezy and overcast conditions they were keeping low. A Whinchat kept our interest, as did flyover Honey Buzzard and a Lesser Spotted Eagle. We managed a few display flight views of the Warblers, but it wasn’t until the sun came out and we were alone again that we started to get decent views. We had agreed at our planning session that we only needed one scope with us and Dave had been assigned scope-wallah duties, so he lined the bird up and we all had excellent views of two singing birds.  Much better than we had dared to hope actually, and for all of us other than Bob and Richard this was a lifer. It was going well. Then I tripped on the boardwalk and trashed my 1.4x converter…

Target #1, Aquatic Warbler

Before leaving for Bialowieza we checked out a nearby marsh tern colony we had seen on the way. This was excellent, with probably up to 100 pristine White-winged Black Terns, a handful of Whiskered Terns and a solitary Black Tern. We all agreed these were probably the best views we had ever had of the former. Supporting cast here was Cuckoo (present in huge numbers everywhere we went), Lesser Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler. Then it was two hour drive south east to the forest during which we managed to stay together and which passed without incident. Dinner and one too many beers were had at the Pokusa Restaurant, and the vodka shots ordered by Tony were completely incompatible with a 4am start.


Whiskered Tern

Day 2
My alarm went off at 3.30am. Ouch. After a 4am start the previous day this was very hard indeed! Mateusz was waiting in the car park and the five keen birders that had managed to wake up all introduced themselves. Tony shambled up a few minutes later blaming an ill-advised chaser and time zone issues, and then we were on our way! The weather was not very nice, light rain and very overcast, but it was what it was and we all had waterproofs for this eventuality. We did not go far, only to the meadow between the town and the Strict Reserve. European Bison! A male, albeit not quite fully grown, was feeding in the lush grass close to the forest edge. The scope was pressed into service again and we enjoyed some nice views of this enormous European mammal.

Our next stop was the territory of a White-backed Woodpecker, one of the top targets for the group. It was a fair walk down a forest track followed by a taking a narrow trail to a very boggy area. The bird took a while to show so the resident mosquito population enjoyed an unprecedented feast. Finally it appeared, albeit briefly, but we all saw it pretty well as it came to what was probably a nest tree. With this under our belts we did not hurry back, and instead enjoyed our first views of Red-breasted Flycatcher, a stunning male, as well as Wood Warblers (abundant) and Collared Flycatchers.

Flush with this success we visited a site near Budy for a known Middle Spotted Woodpecker nest. This was a lot more straightforward and we had excellent views of both adults as they came to and from the nest. We also heard Black Woodpecker here but despite it being quite close we were not able to track it down.

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

We had a short break for breakfast before meeting a new guide, Dorotha, at the Bialowieza Strict Reserve. Not quite sure what the deal was here, but Mateusz was double-booked and taking a large group around the same place about 15 minutes ahead of us. A bit off really but it did not make a huge amount of difference in the long run, and we saw Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which his new group didn’t. Win. At the huge entrance gate we were entranced by amazing views of a Black Woodpecker hammering huge chunks of a rotting tree to smitherenens. The ground below had mounds of wood shards, and these were easily the best views I had ever had of this brilliant species. Dorotha was a field scientist with a special interest in Collared Flycatchers so it was appropriate that we also got stunning views of this very numerous species, as well as a lot of good general information about the reserve and its ecology. Middle Spotted Woodpecker and another Black Woodpecker were seen on our long walk round.

The entrance to the Strict Reserve - the tree favoured by the Black Woodpecker was just to the left of the gate, but it may be a stump by now!

Black Pecker. Probably lost.

Collared Flycatcher

We were passed back to Mateusz again at the entrance and then visited his Grey-headed Woodpecker site in the Palace Gardens. The bird was unfortunately not present which didn't surprise me at all. I'd previously dipped it in Lithuania, Finland, Estonia and Greece, so why not add Poland to the list. To console us we travelled to a Pygmy Owl stakeout and scored instantly, Mateusz ran a stick up the trunk to mimic a Pine Marten, and the bird reacted by poking its head out to see what was going on. With our scope lined up and ready we all got nice views of this diminutive and tricky bird.

Pgymy Owl

It didn’t stop there though! We were soon at a new site near Czerlonka looking for Three-toed Woodpecker, another elusive and much-wanted species for most of the group. Mateusz did not know the actual site, more the general area, but by extreme good fortune and a sharp-eyed Bob bringing up the rear we managed to find the exact tree. Had we been but a few metres further on (or had Bob kept up!) we would have missed it. As it was our guide now has the site and is a very happy man. We retreated to give the bird space and enjoyed wonderful views as it came into the nest tree.

Three-toed Woodpecker. This would have been a lot better with a 1.4x converter.

We were flagging but Mateusz was indefatigable, and we embarked on another huge walk to try and track down Nutcracker and Tengmalm’s Owl. To cut a long story short we found neither. 2018 is not a good year for owls and although the Tengmalm’s had been seen earlier in the season displaying at this site it was not present. Rather disappointing to have walked so far for no reward but nothing is ever guaranteed. James actually fell asleep walking back to the car.

Before we broke for dinner and well-earned rest we stopped off for a Red-breasted Flycatcher and were treated to close range views of a fabulous male. I’ve seen quite a few in the UK but none have been this good. Back at Bialowieza we returned to the Grey-headed Woodpecker nest and this time the bird was at home! Mateusz whistled it out and it had a quick look around and then flew strongly across the meadow. Finally!

Red-breasted Flycatcher

At this point (5pm) we were allowed a brief rest, only fair after 13 hours of birding and about 12 miles. But we were not done yet! We quickly dipped Wryneck near the guide’s house before returning to the Gulag for power naps and a quick bite to eat. Then we picked Mateusz up again and hit the road to the Narew valley, about 40km distant. How I drove there and back I have no idea, but we made it and all is well. The Upper Narew Valley is well known Great Snipe lek that has received some decent funding to create the ideal habitat.

Great Snipe only start to display after sundown and we timed our arrival perfectly. Corncrake were calling everywhere and when they are close they are incredibly loud. Despite thinking we might see one we never did, but it seemed to be at our feet at times! At the area known for lekking we stayed quiet to try and hear the characteristic bill-clacking. Mateusz pointed out a slightly higher area of ground used for the displays, but the actual bird was was spotted by Dave somewhere completely different. In fact it was far far closer and yet again having a scope provided the most sublime views despite the low light. I’ve seen a vagrant Great Snipe at Spurn but it was basically just expiring in a field so this felt a lot better. Supporting cast here included churring Nightjar, Thrush Nightingale, Woodcock and Gropper. On the way back we stopped at an open area between Bialowieza and Pogorzelca and were treated to a River Warbler belting it out continuously near the tower hide - it must take crazy amounts of energy - the whole bird shakes constantly.

Great Snipe - I have lightened this image significantly.

Day 3
A lie in! 6am start! We set off in search of Hazel Grouse at the catchily-named Zebra Zubra trail. This is an extremely long boardwalk with no Hazel Grouse anywhere near it. Or at least not when we were there. Apparently April is a lot better as by May they are well into raising young. Plenty of Wood Warbler, a Firecrest and our first team Goldcrest. Pleasant though the forest undoubtedly was we felt this to be a fairly poor return for our time. We did hear a Wolf howling distantly here though (James assured us it could not have been a dog.)

River Warbler

Icterine Warbler

Rather disappointed with our nil return, we returned to the River Warbler site from the previous evening and found it singing from halfway up a tree which was a bit surprising. The interminable boardwalk was soon forgotten. An Icterine Warbler was singing from the same tree, a Black Woodpecker was in the next tree along, Rosefinch was in an adjacent bush, a pair of Red-backed Shrike were in a clump, Great Reed Warbler was in the ditch and a Savi's Warbler was in the opposite reed bed. Eastern Poland is simply superb - birding as it should be. If you have never been you need to go, it is mind-blowing.

Zebra Zubra trail

We returned to the village and to the Palace Gardens to try and help Richard tick Thrush Nightingale. Tree Sparrows a-plenty, Red-backed Shrikes and Great Reed Warblers by the ponds but no joy. Hawfinches and another River Warbler close by, along with yet more Rosefinches and our first Sand Martin overhead. The place is teeming with birds.

After another excellent breakfast we had one last look around the village, this time picking up a pair of Barred Warbler, but as it was now late morning we needed to head towards Warsaw. This was billed as a 4 hour drive, and being birders we knew it would take longer than that as we would be stopping and looking. We took the southern route via Kleszczele, Sokolow Podlaski and Grebkow, which although slightly longer was said to be more picturesque by Mateusz. It was indeed extremely nice, and along the way we added PheasantCorn Bunting, LRPSerin, Wheatear and two more Montagu's Harrier to our trip list. A special moment was enjoyed by all as Richard finally ticked Thrush Nightingale after a minor breakdown. Cool, calm and collected are not words that would apply. Hopefully one of the guys has a video...

A planned attempt at Syrian Woodpecker in a Warsaw park was thwarted by some kind of triathalon event, so we ended up being very early at the airport for our flight back to London. The collective trip list was 108, and we were all pleased to see that a week long trip with one of the major tour operators cost a grand and only got 160. We spent a quarter of that and saw most of what we wanted to see - Tengmalm's was probably the biggest miss but having seen one in Finland I was pretty chilled on that front. So all in all a fantastic short break - very tiring but extremely satisfying to have spent a weekend enjoying top quality birding in great company. 

White Stork

Tree Sparrow

Trip List

Italics = heard only
Birds seen by others - Great Grey Shrike, Tree Pipit
Mammals: Rabbit, Hare, Red Squirrel, Fox, Elk, Red Deer, Roe Deer, European Bison and we heard a Wolf!