Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A post of increasingly bad puns

My best 2018 blogging intentions already went out the window – I started strongly but was unable to maintain the pace, even with dragging out a two hour photography session into three posts! Of course the issue, as ever, is that I have nothing much to say that I have not already said. The mind-numbing stupidity of those in the corridors of power continues to astound and worry me in equal measure, but as this is supposed to be a birding blog I had best not stray. Also if I have learned anything through writing a blog for many years it is that when it comes to politics and current affairs it is impossible to write something without offending some part of your readership. Or maybe it is the way I write it? Not that I have ever paid too much heed to surpressing my feelings on contentious issues, but on the whole writing about birds remains a relatively neutral and easy-going topic that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. Sorry, that was terrible. A bit like “twitchers flock to rare bird” headlines, you can understand I could not pass it up.
So birds then. Well I am pleased to report that 2018 has started rather well in local context, and that not only does my patch list now stand at 67 with many straightforward birds such as Skylark and GBB Gull left, but also that I have already had a full fat patch tick. Some quick thinking and more importantly decisive action allowed me to quickly nab Tim’s fantastic Great White Egret on Perch Pond. An on-the-deck sighting of this species has long been overdue – a few fly-overs seen by others have to my mind not been conclusive, particularly in light of one record where an image was circulated online that people widely agreed was a GWE, only for a bit of tinkering with the levels to expose bright yellow feet! Albino Grey Herons are also not unknown! This bird however left those lucky enough to see it in no doubt, and my unorthodox and rather expensive lunch hour means I am included in that rather exclusive list. Clearly one of the Fairlop birds having a bit of a wander, it stayed all day but unfortunately has not been seen since. I am sure there will be more and that this is just the beginning, just as Little Egret was many years ago, but that said I am pleased to have got it out of the way early! Je n’egret rien, as someone once sang.

Phone photo in a big hurry!

The Egret took me to 62 species for the year, and so this weekend was all about a further clean-up. I added Tawny Owl in Reservoir Wood at about 3am on Friday whilst on my way to catch the night bus to get to Gatwick, and then on my return yesterday I nipped out to the Park to retrace the Saturday steps of all my fellow patch-workers. Time had more or less stood still in that regard, the Water Rail was still calling on Shoulder of Mutton, the Kingfisher was still sitting on Heronry, the Siskin were still feeding by the Tea Hut, and the Great Crested Grebe was still on Perch. However – and seeing as this post already littered with bad puns - it is with no Little Egret that there was no little regret. I'll get my coat.



Late Edit: The GWE returned today and was similarly twitched by another CW stalwart. I like to set trends, even stupid ones.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Swans

The weather has been so dreary lately, I hate the UK winter with a passion. Cold and crisp I could deal with, but this mushy crap we are currently experiencing is just rubbish. Two weeks into 2018 and in my estimation there has been one weekend day that has had suitable conditions for bird photography. Well any photography really. That was Sunday 7th, and a brief opening in the otherwise constant grey cloud cover in Wanstead provided just a couple of hours in which to take a few images. Blink and you would have missed it, as other than that one day, the camera has stayed firmly indoors gathering dust. So I already posted the Stonechat and the Treecreeper, and I also did a quick photo-heavy post on Ducks – the way the weather is going and my 2018 duck photography project may have ended before it has even started. It is very frustrating to look outside in my brief periods of free time and realise that there is no point in even trying. Happily though I have thought ahead for today’s post, and foretelling this exact scenario held back a few from the weekend before last. This time it is Mute Swans, nothing special but hopefully can add a bit of light to your dull day.




That’s it I’m afraid, anything fresh is going to require a change in the weather, and with a less than one in three change that that change falls on a Saturday or Sunday it is a bit of a lottery. I also have to be in the country, which is never a given – this Saturday for instance I was on Madeira which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite winter destinations. I’ll be providing some boring information on orchids and succulents shortly. If you have not been it is well worth a trip - there are some endemic birds too.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

In praise of ducks

Way back in 2017 I vowed to spend more time photographing winter ducks. Yeah that went well, I am hopeless. So now it's 2018 and I'm trying again. I went out on Sunday morning and patiently waited by Jubilee Pond for the light to become nice. Jubilee Pond is the most disgusting, filthy, litter and rat-infested water body on the whole of the patch by some margin. I've blogged about it before, here. As you can see, some way from salubrious.

However what looks like a total dump to a human with a camera clearly appeals to birds in a different way, for if I was asked where the best place on the patch to photograph wildfowl was, I would unhesitatingly say it was Jubilee Pond. All of these were taken there last Sunday morning during a half hour period, and I would say that the project is off to a good, if late, start. I am itching to go back - hopefully not literally, there are so many rats there, and hitching on the rats are...

Whist pride of place obviously goes to the fine specimen immediately below, I also managed to get photos of lesser ducks such as Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Pochard and Shoveler. This latter species is one that I want to spend a lot more time with - I particularly want to get the take-off just a little bit better than my current finest effort!





  







Monday, 8 January 2018

Stonechat on Wanstead Flats

Back in the day we used to get wintering Stonechat year in year out. It was a guaranteed tick on January 1st every year. I can't remember exactly which year they petered out, but last year we had at least one wintering bird and this year there appear to be two. This is excellent news, they are lovely little birds that like to perch up and don't seem to be phased by large cameras or red hats. Yesterday the bird by Cat & Dog pond and I played a little game. The rules were that for the first half an hour I would try my hardest to approach it, and just as I was about to press the shutter it would fly off and giggle. Once this time was up, it then promised to stay still for up to ten seconds at a time before changing perch. This suited me just fine, I don't need anywhere near ten seconds when I am in the groove.....

 





NB This is exactly the kind of post Gavin H referred to in his recent post about blogging. Forget the words, just go with photos. I wrote it yesterday whilst I had a bit of time, and then set it to publish today at 6pm. I'm at work. You're welcome.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Walking....

Remember back in 2016 when my run of injuries and medical complaints was bordering of farcical? No? Well no I suppose not, it is the funny posts that people seem to remember rather than the sad ones that make them well up. Anyhow, the culmination of these was a particularly nasty ankle sprain in Abu Dhabi that in truth has never quite healed, putting paid to what would almost certainly have been a promising career in competitive cycling. With this avenue of calorie-burning cruelly cut off, I resorted to only thing left that I could manage. 

Walking.

Yes, that noblest and most intense of exercise regimes, striding up and down London's alpine-esque landscape, flab falling by the wayside with every step. Well, more gentle strolling really, mostly on Wanstead Flats. Anyway, whilst it might not have raised my heart rate much above whatever it is normally, what it lacked in aerobic it made up for in sheer distance. I walked 1764.32 miles over the course of the year. I know this as my pedometer was constantly on, and I made the effort, daily, to bung it on a spreadsheet so that I could retrieve all sorts of interesting facts. For instance the most distance I covered in a day was 17.57 miles, and the least was 0.07 miles or 162 steps. Not sure what I was doing that day. Dying in bed is the only reasonable explanation that fits, but actually I would have said that 2017 was amongst my healthiest. I had a couple of bouts of diverticulitis, but you cannot keep a good man down as they say, and I did not visit a doctor once, nor set in foot in any kind of medical facility, Frankly after 2016 I would have performed an amputation on myself rather than go to a hospital. 

1764 miles is a long way. Setting off from London, it would have taken me further than Moscow. It is nearly twice as far as Rome, far further than Reykjavik, Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul or Marrakech. The approximate distance is from London to Rhodes, which probably takes about 4 hours to fly to. But it was in a failing cause as it is not quite five miles per day which was the goal I set myself. Maybe I was over-optimistic, maybe just stupid, but I did come pretty close. Those of you who, like me, have calculators on your desks will no doubt already have tapped this in and worked out that it is 4.83 miles per day. I don't think that's a bad effort at all, after all I am no spring chicken. And a lot of it will have been whilst weighed down with an enormous camera.....

Which is the point of this entire post. Well yes it would have been quicker to say that I went out on the patch today and took a pile of photographs but, well, you know how it is. I went here and I saw this. Not on this blog. Readers truly have to bear with me. So, as threatened yesterday I unpacked the camera for its first outing of 2018. At first it was dull as proverbial ditch-water, but I continued trotting round and eventually the low winter sun came out. Which enabled me to take these.


 







Saturday, 6 January 2018

Having four January Firsts

The last couple of years have seen me bash Wanstead from morning til night, but this year was a little different as I went to Rainham for a bit of a change. Returning just before dusk I scraped another five species onto my patch list to add to the omnipresent insomniac Robin. The next day I had to go to work, and even though it's basically still dark during my morning commute by slowing my pace through Bush Wood I added eight to take me to 14. The next day I had an early meeting and added nothing at all, but the day after that I worked from home. I know what you're thinking - worked from home in inverted commas and hey guess what, the patch list is now 60? Sadly not, a few glances out of the window added another five birds, and the following day a slightly different route to work added a few more to take me to the dizzy heights of 32.

So it wasn't really until today that things got going properly and I was able to give the patch a decent look. I met Tony near Centre Road car park where I'd just located the wintering Stonechat, and together we meandered through the SSSI where we added Smallish Buffy Brown Redpoll, and Sparrowhawk, and then a blitz of Bush Wood added Firecrest, Coal Tit and Nuthatch in quick succession. Tony was particularly pleased with the Firecrest having not managed one in the previous 370 days.... 

Through the Park did not really add a great deal barring the highly prized and elusive Chaffinch, but it still felt exciting because I'd essentially had that New Year's Day feeling all over again. I finished the day on 54, and I anticipate that tomorrow will be the same again as there is still so much to try and find - my highest January total is 71, so there is still a lot to play for. The best bird today was probably Little Owl, the resident pair were unexpectedly out in the open in East Copse and this generated a mini-twitch. No camera today, but with the light potentially looking nice tomorrow I think I'll take it for a little spin and see what I can get.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Fea(rl)ess

2018 has not started well from a bird-listing point of view. One of my most prized birds, the catchily-named Zino’s/Fea’s/Desertas Petrel, is no more. Gone. Expunged. Erased from history. Yep I must have imagined being at Porthgwarra watching it loop slowly past the Runnelstone. Dreamed it. Made it up perhaps? I’ll come clean, I actually never went to Cornwall on the 30th August 2009 at all, and these photos of the pager and of Monkey were actually just photo-shopped.



Not really. I was there. I took the photo! It happened, and it was one of the most amazing birding experiences I’ve ever had – made even better as I was so green that I didn’t really know what a Fea’s Petrel was nor how rare a bird it was. Apparently however I have now no longer seen one, so as you can imagine this is a bit of a crushing blow. What has happened is that the keepers of the official UK bird list (the BOU) have decided to adopt the official global taxonomy maintained by the IOC, and that list does not have this group of Ptreodroma Petrels as separate species. As such as from yesterday Fea’s Petrel was zapped from the British list as a distinct species. Now I don’t know what the scientists think, but of course it is true that this group of birds are not really possible to distinguish in the field, especially at the sorts of distances associated with sea-watching, but it seemed very churlish to not add it to my list, especially as the balance of probability was well in favour of Fea’s. And it was a mega no matter what so I added it as Fea’s, what the hell, live a little. At some point the listing website I use (Bubo, link over on the right there) it then became Fea’s/Zino’s. Fine, still having it, don’t care what it is, it was magnificent. To be honest I am a little confused at why that is different to the IOC situation we have now, whereby all three are known collectively, but what is different is that now it is simply gone. Eliminated. Sorry, you didn’t see anything. Next! I was expecting to have to go and edit my list to take off Fea’s/Zino’s and add on the IOC version, but in fact what happened is that my list was simply shortened by one from afar. I went in and therefore tried to add it back under its new name but there was nothing to add. Sorry son, move along now.

Now Bubo is an exceptional website, one that satisfies the needs of many nerdy birders, but in this instance I think they need to reconsider as I am now in the unfortunate position of having my own spreadsheet not tally with their undoubtedly very convenient web version. I hate it when things don’t tally, it offends the sense of orderliness and neatness for which I am famed* in Chateau L. So this is hard to take, and will likely develop into a constant niggle. Not to mention that my list has now declined by one! Now you could say that it doesn’t matter, that it is just a number. You would be wrong, very wrong. Pterodroma Petrels are not numbers, they are awesome. If you had to reduce a Pterodroma Petrel to a number then it would probably count as 10 of anything else, that’s how good they are. Adding to their goodness is that most people I know have not seen one, so the number needs to be modified by the grip factor. This is at least 3, so a Fea’s Petrel is most often worth at least 30 on a comparative scale and you can’t simply just get rid of something that valuable. Needless to say I am keeping it – I can remember that moment back in 2009 as if it were yesterday, and so to make things add up I’m putting it on Bubo as a Black-capped Petrel with a suitable note.




*loathed

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Top ten not bird images from 2017

So here are my final ten images from 2017, none of them featuring birds! I tried to combine the two but it was an impossible task  - the styles are very different and I like the process that goes into both. Birds will always be my first love, that feeling of satisfaction from getting a clean and sharp image of a bird with just the right amount of head angle, just the right light and so on, is very hard to beat. It happens so infrequently that when you do get it right you feel like jumping for joy, but landscapes and portraits (which I find very difficult) require a different mindset and different technique and can be equally rewarding. Most of these are taken at the very beginning or very end of the day. As ever it is all about the light.


I took this from the observatory in Greenwich Park at the very start of the year on a bitterly cold and clear evening. Henry and I were experimenting with filters and exposures, and this is a 54 second exposure at f8 with a 1000x neutral density filter on the lens. This is just the central portion of the lens, at 35mm on a full-frame body. I like it so much that I use it as my desktop background across both of my monitors - I've sized it to precisely the required resolution of 3840 x 1200.
A magical January morning on Wanstead Flats, this is full frame at 16mm just after dawn. I am hoping to take many more like this in 2018 as no two mornings are ever the same. This, for me, is why photography means painting with light.


We went to Hong Kong and Vietnam en famille in February to celebrate my Dad's 70th birthday. He sadly didn't make it out there as he had a serious accident, but we all went anyway and toasted him in his absence during a fantastic meal overlooking the harbour. This photo was taken during the central part of the trip in Hoi An, Vietnam. This is a vibrant town whose specialty is silk lanterns and tailoring, and this is my favourite representation of the the place. 
Mount Haleakala at sunset, a memorable experience on the highest point of Maui, way above the clouds. Photographs can in no way do this justice of course, but by looking at this one I can transport myself back and be entranced all over again. I realise that I am very lucky, but work hard play hard. 

Despite all the places I've been to this year, half of my favourite shots are actually from close to home and this is another from Wanstead Flats. This is from a chilly morning in January and has a bit of human interest, a couple of people out on a morning stroll. You can see their breath in the cold air!

This image was taken the day after the one above - I was eager for more! Cold and crisp conditions make for interesting photography, and I always find it amazing how it is possible to create so many different pleasing images in a short space of time when the environment is with you.


Another morning of spectacular light on Wanstead Flats but at the opposite end of the year. I took all sorts of photos over the course of a couple of days, and this zoomed-in view of sunlight shining through the autumn leaves is the one I liked best. You can see the full series here.
In October I took my eldest daughter Kate on a horse-riding holiday. Normally none of the kids like having their photograph taken and make stupid faces or turn away. However the horses won the day here and just before dinner I was allowed to take a few as she wandered around the paddocks saying good night to them.

Ah Bologna! I have wanted to go here for ages, and particularly to climb the Asinelli Tower which affords an amazing view of the city from close to 100m above. The stairs were endless but me and my dodgy knees and ankles made it up and this is one of the results - 16mm full frame straight down! Henry and I had a great half hour up here mucking around and followed the descent with an epic lunch at the Osteria dell'Orsa. Try the ragu!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Top ten bird images from 2017

This time last year I was bemoaning the fact I had taken fewer decent photos than in 2015. I'm afraid to say that the same thing has happened again, and I don't think that it is because I am becoming more selective. Still, it was hard to pick just ten, there are so many that I like very much. Most of them have likely been featured on this blog before so they may not be a surprise, and they may not also be the "best" objectively. But they're the ones I've enjoyed planning and taking most. I've also got a top 10 non-birds planned, as I took a surprising number of non-avian subjects in 2017.


Cyprus Wheatear, April 2017. I did a trip with one of my daughters purely for relaxational purposes but managed to find time to visit some Cyprus Pied Wheatears whilst Kate ran off and played on the rocks - quality parenting. Talking of rocks, I used my favoured rock technique, where I first of all spend some time watching where the birds like to perch, and then placing an attractive rock on top of the perch. Nine times out of ten the bird perches on the rock atop the perch, and the scene is set.

This isn't the greatest photo I've ever taken, but I was particularly pleased to get a 'nothing' background on this Black-headed Wagtail in Greece. In my opinion this is the best flavour of flava, so to speak.

From the same location (i.e. within a few metres!) as the Wagtail shot above, this was taken out of the car window during a hugely enjoyable session around Lake Kerkini in Greece. This particular Whinchat was crushingly beautiful, and the head turn here which just shows a bit of that peachy orange breast is essentially, in my eyes, perfect.

Another score for Lake Kerkini, I lined up and framed this lone high reed in the hope that the Great Reed Warbler would ascend and sing from the very top. It did. I left happy.

Arctic Tern sex. Another car shot, they do sometimes make the best hides. I slept beside the Tern colony in the hope of getting photos like this in the early morning. Luckily the happy couple obliged. This is one of a long series of similar images but I think it is the one that I prefer.

I've probably said all there is to say about this already - a photo created out of pure luck and little else. This is the fourth in a sequence of five all taken in a split second alongside a tiny ditch in Iceland that was positively teeming with Red-necked Phalaropes. So many in fact that it was hard to isolate a single bird and I was concentrating on that rather then attempting this specific shot. I couldn't believe it when I looked at the camera. Well worth getting rather wet for as I basically had to lie in the same ditch to get to the right level.

This "periscope" image is also from Iceland and one that I had preconceived in my head. On my previous visits I never had the light that I wanted for this shot - this is always somewhat of a lottery in Iceland.

This was a simply stunning bird and whilst this image is not as I would wish it to be (no camera when we found it!) I've included it here because it was just one of those great patch moments.

I've got closer photos and I've got better photos, but this is a top ten of images that mean something and I was delighted to get this on day two of my recent South Africa trip. The bird is sharp and in typical habitat - I'm just going with it.

I've got full frames of the entire bird with the tail and everything, but I most liked this one for the framing and the inquisitive expression that the placement of the flowers seems to put on the bird's face.








Monday, 1 January 2018

Reflections on 2017

A traditional blog post to kick the year off, a look back at the last year which seems once again to have gone incredibly quickly. I used to do one of these every year when I actually had something to write about, whereas these days....

Best twitch
Well there was precisely one twitch this year so this has been a really hard one to decide upon. Yes, it's the Rock Thrush in Gwent. Despite this having almost nothing going for it - a massive drive, limited time with the bird and the potential for crowds it turned out to a hugely enjoyable trip. The ratio of time behind the wheel vs time admiring exquisite birds was, it has to be said, poor, but for whatever reason I was in the mood - possibly as I hadn't twitched anything for about 11 months and had withdrawal symptoms. It didn't put me off in the slightest, perhaps a sign of things to come. That said how many twitches have I been on since then? Zero. It's all about being selective. A great bird in a great setting.



Best bird
I saw many wonderful birds in 2017, there is only one possible choice though - the magical, implausible but not actually made-up I'iwi. I 'dipped' this on Kaui in 2016, a long way to go and be disappointed so there was only one thing for it - I had to go back! Happily this time I got to see several and they were simply astonishing. I mean it can't be real can it? 



Best local bird
I managed 111 species this year which is my best effort since 2013. There were some memorable moments, for instance three Red Kites in an afternoon of skywatching from the garden, an amazing male Common Redstart, but the highlight was a series of fantastic mornings vizmigging on Wanstead Flats during October. On not one but three of those days I was treated to a small portion of the UK Hawfinch invasion - the patch tick that everyone was hoping for!

Best bird photo
I'm still finding a bit of time to use the camera, though enthusiasm for using it in the UK continues to wane. There were four serious photography trips this year - two weekends in Cyprus and Greece in April, a weekend in Iceland in June, and five days in South Africa in December. All of these trips were highly productive given their length and it has been remarkably hard to pick out a single image. I've got a post lined up which has a top 10, as well as a separate top 10 post on those photos which did not involve birds (surprisingly many). Here however is the image that I think I enjoyed most - this may also have featured an epiphany moment when for the first time ever the thought crossed my mind that Wheatears might not be the most attractive type of Chat...



Best trip
South Africa was amazing, Iceland for a weekend of photography was both monumental and shattering, and what can I say about my trip to Maui? But the stand out trip was our family holiday to California where we rented a massive RV and drove a big loop from Los Angeles up the Pacific coast San Francisco, and then back again via Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. It was epic in the planning and out of this world in the execution. All five of us would do it again tomorrow if we could.



Worst Trip
No contest on this one, it was my failed trip to Florida to go snorkelling with my daughter. We spent the morning at Heathrow airport whilst The World's Favourite Airline had an IT meltdown of epic proportions and ended up cancelling every single one of their flights. The airport descended into absolute chaos and it was only by a combination of experience and blind luck that we managed to retrieve our suitcase and escape the terminal. We were offered replacement flights a couple of days later, but school holidays put paid to that, and with our family schedule there were no available dates until 2018. There were tears.

Stupidest moment
In contrast to 2016 there were no hospital visits - this was really important to me given how crappy that year was with seemingly endless complaints and various intrusive tests. However I nearly blew it in December when in a slightly unsober moment I decided it would be a really great idea to get up on the kitchen counter in order to look behind the fridge to see where the builders had put the water filter. Naturally I fell off, straight onto the stool I used to get up in the first place, and I suspect that I may have some cracked ribs as it now hurts a bit when I laugh. I also smashed up my knee and gave myself a bruise on my hip so enormous and horrible-looking that I went to see the nurse at work about it (which does not count as a hospital visit in case you were wondering) as I thought it might be the first step to my whole leg falling off. It was just a haemo something and disappeared after a couple of weeks, but the worst thing about this whole incident was that Mrs L watched me do it...

Funniest photo
No contest. This is Mick cowering in absolute fear as an Arctic Skua attempts to nail his head to the tundra with its beak. He has a similar photo of me. What was funny about this bird and its mate was that neither of them cared a jot as you approached them and snapped away. However once you backed away again this triggered the 'must kill' response and the birds got up and were incredibly aggressive. These make Arctic Terns look like ducklings. There were no eggs or young, it was purely a territorial thing - I can only think that you tend to back away with a slightly higher profile than when you crawl towards them. Once you were back on the road it all stopped and the birds landed exactly where they had been and were perfectly content for the next person to crawl up and take their photo again.


So that was 2017. Lots of trips, quite a lot of photos, various disappointments - chiefly at work - and another 365 days gone. I wonder what 2018 will bring? Actually I can tell you. There will be a top 10 bird photos and a top 10 not bird photos, a review of the year on the patch, and something about Madrid and Bologna.