Wednesday 28 February 2018

Second time lucky

The first "new" (broken) camera was returned whence it came. Somehow I managed to source a second "new" camera in short enough order to take it to Oman, which is where I was at the end of last week. This one worked a lot better and I think I quite like it. I have also filled it with sand so I am somewhat bound to now keep it. It is just a tool, not something to wrap up in cotton wool. Anyway, to end February here is an extremely friendly Desert Wheatear that also liked the camera a lot. He was so persistent that I considered giving it to him, but my backup is a still a bit hit and miss so I had to keep it. And what does a Wheatear need with a camera anyway? Well this particular Wheatear would have adored to have had a very tiny camera with which to take selfies. Instead he had to content himself with frequent and lengthy self admiration in a defunct Toyota wing mirror abandoned in the desert. I might send him a print.

Monday 26 February 2018


On Sunday morning I was leaving Oman - by the time the plane left at around 9.30am the temperature was approaching 30 degrees. The previous afternoon it had been 37 degrees. Even the birds that live there seemed to be finding it hot, as this panting Wheatear shows. By the way, if you happen to have a hunch that this is Hume's Wheatear and not a Variable Wheatear, or vice-versa, do please let me know as I am undecided.

This morning could not have been more different. The local birding team had enjoyed a Lapwing bonanza over the weekend, birds pushed from the slowly freezing continent over the channel to the relatively mild UK. It doesn't feel like it, but compared to Europe we're enjoying a bit of a mild spell. So before work I trotted out onto Wanstead Flats to see if I could get in on the action. As it happens I could, and in the hour or so that I had 27 birds flopped over - excellent. It was however absolutely glacial - the snow came in horizontally on a bitter breeze and hiding from it meant missing birds. Oman anywhere slightly below Muscat is officially the tropics - that area where the sun will be directly overhead on at least one day of the year, so to come back to the UK after a nice little break sniffing out Wheatears and other nice birds in sweltering sunshine was a bit of a shock to the system.

Saturday 17 February 2018

In which my new camera is broken

I went out birding today. Not far, just down to Jubilee to test whether the second-hand camera I have just bought worked properly. To cut a long story short, it didn't, which is very much a total bummer. And a big fat hassle as well, as now I have to send it back, possibly argue, etc etc. A shame as most of it works just fine and I am quite enamored with it. In the thirty minutes I spent playing with it to make sure everything worked as expected it did seem a step up from the last one. However in a different way it is a step down, as whilst giving it a thorough work-out I discovered that a critical part of it appears to be as dead as a dodo. I need a camera to simply work and to not have to think about it, so it's a reject. These are some of the test images I took, the quality seems fine, so if I can get a working one it will keep me going for a while I expect.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Fond memories

There is a trend afoot in blogging circles at the moment to relive past glories. This is understandable – it is February and there is not a lot going on unless you are Steve Gale and can spend all day every day relentlessly finding hundreds of Hawfinches. For most of us however February is an exercise in almost perfect boredom, the same birds in the same places that you saw them last month. There is a little bit of late winter excitement every time it gets a bit cold but for the most part it is extremely difficult to drum up the necessary enthusiasm to get out on those local patches. I’m only speaking for myself of course, but the plethora of “here’s good some birds from some time ago” musings suggest that I am not alone.That being the case, I thought I too would draw on the reserves of yesteryear, from times when the birding was better than it is now. The date is the 7th January 2008, and I am an incredibly keen novice twitcher… 

My drive is not an overly long one, just up to Cley on the North Norfolk coast. I have done it quite a few times before, but never with such anxiety and excitement. Such is my enthusiasm that I leave and arrive in the dark. The bird is a White-crowned Sparrow, the fourth record for Britain, and I have severely underestimated its popularity – it is not light for at least an hour and yet there is a throng of people and more arriving all the time. I quickly grab a position in a spot from where I stand a chance of seeing where the bird has been showing – a narrow gravel driveway. This is not going to be easy, but I line myself up with my scope in a scrum of green-clad humanity. It is absolutely freezing, but the massed observers act like a group of Emperor Penguins and thus stave off the worst of it. I am not used to this kind of gathering, none of the few other twitches I have been on have been anything like this. It is very peculiar in fact – a phalanx of people are assembled opposite a five bar gate on a narrow country village street, backed up against and onto the grassy verge. There is jostling, people losing their balance, and the sun has yet to even rise.

Gradually it gets lighter, and I can now see the full extent of the crowd. Gosh. There are 300 people minimum. I actually have a decent vantage point compared to some, but all of the usual nonsense of people’s heads, hats, arms and so on blocking carefully aimed scopes is happening. Every now and again words are exchanged before the exclamation recedes and we are back to the underlying low hum of conversation. I gather that many people seem to know each other, stories are being exchanged, lists compared – it is enthralling stuff and I feel like I am part of an event. And then the main event happens….

The bird has been seen on the driveway for the first time, and there is an uncontrollable surge across the road to the gate. The old and infirm are knocked off their feet and crushed. I am carried – swept -  unwilling across the road in a tidal wave of goretex. I am jostled, shoved, manhandled. My tripod goes flying and I barely keep hold of it – I have zero chance of seeing the bird in the maelstrom and just hang on for dear life. To be fair nobody is enjoying this, but the number one priority is to see the bird, and despite all of the friendly chat just a moment earlier all bets are now off. The energy of each and every person is concentrated, straining, to set eyes on the prize. Gradually some do, but they make the mistake of lingering! The gate is perhaps seven feet wide, only a small number of people can see down the drive at any one time. What is going on, why are those at the front not moving?! Complaints begin to be voiced. Make room! If you’ve seen it move away! Have you seen it? Can we see it please? Stop being so selfish! Come on, get out of the way, some of us haven’t seen it yet! The whole thing is a crazy mess, an uncontrolled every man for himself barging match where nobody has the slightest interest in anyone else’s wishes and desires, yet these desires are common to everyone here. I managed a brief and unsatisfactory view and then manage to stagger away, rotating off the side of the pulsing crowd to recover my breath and see if I still had all my limbs and clothing.

Honestly, what a palava. I very nearly gave up twitching there and then, and even now I have a huge amount of distaste for seeing birds like this, that has in many cases caused me not to travel. There have been some of course, the Dusky Thrush in Margate and the Siberian Accentor at Spurn spring immediately to mind as being highly similar, but on the whole if I judge that the location and popularity is such that it will be a complete bun fight I almost always find other things to do. My memory has faded a bit ten years later, but if I recall I went and did some real birding and came back in the afternoon for a much more satisfactory second viewing. 

Though I didn't realise it fully at the time, White-crowned Sparrow is one of the commonest passerines across the United States and I've seen them there on many visits. Location, location, location, the eternal mystery of twitching. Here is one seen in more relaxed circumstances a couple of years ago - I am glad I have largely abandoned the "thrill" of the chase!

White-crowed Sparrow, Washington State

Monday 12 February 2018

We're all going on a gull hunt

Yesterday Dante found a Ring-billed Gull on the Thames, a pukka adult. The guy is a fiend, seriously good at gulls at such a tender age. Brave too... My Wanstead list would greatly appreciate a Ring-billed Gull, and as such I now have something to do with my mornings before work. 

Yes, you read that right. Before work. It has been getting lighter now for over a month, and the days of being able to sneak a quick bash of the patch are once again upon us. At the start of the year the sun didn't rise until 8.06am, and on overcast days it felt a lot later than that. Now however it is nearly an hour earlier, at 7.20am, and on clear days like today it feels earlier. We're gaining nearly four minutes a day at the moment - every week there is an extra half hour.

I was out early this morning and it was bright and crisp. And carpeted with Common Gulls. You can see where I am going with this. Back in the day there was a Ring-billed Gull regularly at the south end of the Isle of Dogs. I used to nip down there when lunch was still a thing and see it on the mud off Island Gardens. It was my dream however to find it on Wanstead Flats, hiding out amongst the many hundreds of Common Gulls. I never did, though I had a few stringy near misses. I am a better birder now though, and not quite as scared of Gulls as I once was, so I would give myself more of a chance these days. So I had a good old pick through the loafers this morning, and whilst my Yank Gull count is still zero for the patch, it was a good exercise, and also a good excuse to get back birding again.

Here's a photo of the search image. There is more streaking on the head, and the legs and feet are a brighter yellow. Not quite as much white sand on Wanstead Flats as in Florida, but it should still stand out.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Let's go fly a kite

No really, that's what we did, we flew a kite, and it's all because of Blue Planet II. It is half term, and this is a recent purchase of the DVD to make up for missing it when we didn't have a TV aerial because the builders had thrown it in the skip along with the chimney. Anyway, half term and so the house is crawling with children, so many in fact that we were not all able to sit on one sofa, and so we moved the other one around so it faced the television. Underneath it was a kite....

What do you mean you don't store kites under your sofa? I thought everyone did? We established it was not impossibly tangled up, and after a passing hail shower headed out to a breezy and gusty Wanstead Flats. It was such fun. Such a simple pleasure, but absolutely wonderful. There was no stopping my youngest, who took the first turn, and hared off at a rate of knots not realising that one does not have to move to keep a kite aloft. She soon remembered how to do it though, and for the next hour we had a brilliant time. I even saw a few birds, gulls mainly, sailing serenely above our wheeling and banking kite.

Blue Planet II is fantastic by the way, we are watching an episode a night and are hooked. It seems that as every year passes the technology goes up a gear - compare this to some of the older BBC Nature series from when I was a kid. They were groundbreaking back then, but now look amateurish. Aside from the brilliance of what these teams are now able to do, the seas are fascinating - truly the last great unknown, and yet we continue to ruin them. It seems that this series has finally woken people up to the issue of plastics, I hear people at work and on the commute talking about it, about wanting to make a difference. It is probably too late of course, it is insidious. I look at our weekly shopping delivery and everything is encased in plastic, the price of convenience - options to not buy everything wrapped are slim. We recycle to the max of course, a family of five generates less than 30L of landfill a week, the rest is all washed, sorted and collected, but this likely makes almost no difference in the grand scheme of things when you think about the vast swathes of humanity who either cannot or don't care. Brexit is a mild shade of idiocy when you think about it.

Friday 9 February 2018

Wanstead not Birder

I have not raised binoculars to my eyes for about ten days now. I cannot in truth call myself a birder. Accordingly the website will renamed to Wanstead Worker as that is essentially the only thing that is happening in my life at the moment. To be fair this is exactly what I predicted – every February is the same. After the excitement of January, February is just one of those months you have to get through. It is highly unlikely you will see anything new (although Team Wanstead did score a Goldeneye last weekend) and you just have to hang on until March. So that’s where I am at, I cannot honestly say I am missing birding because it would in all likelihood be a bit  rubbish. What I have been missing however is being outside and fresh air. It gets to you after a while, so this weekend I have given myself lots of jobs which involve being outside. Most of them are deathly dull, and some of them will be quite hard work as I am getting various things ready for spring in the garden – digging and stuff - but I am nonetheless looking forward to doing them. Unless it rains in which case I will have to revert to plan B which is basically drinking.

There is birding in sight however, and sooner than March. I am off to Oman with Mick S for a long weekend of bird photography. I’ve been before, but only by mistake and ironically enough also with Mick, where some sub-standard map-reading in the UAE took us into and through one of the Omani enclaves that sit entirely within the borders of the Emirates. I’m not sure that really counts and so this is a new country for us. Targets are Wheatears, the elusive Crab Plover (my third attempt at this species!), and various other waders. Oh, and Gulls apparently. Whatever. 

From last time......

Wednesday 7 February 2018


As a keen patch birder I like nothing more than a really cold snap to shake things up a bit. Cold snaps have a tendency to deliver good birds to the local area, for instance Smew, Slavonian Grebe and various waders have all been seen during colder weather. You don’t want too much, else everything freezes and you end up losing the wildfowl you had in the first place when they all bugger off to the Thames.  So just the right amount, two or three days, just to see if a little movement ensues. I’m on 149 for the patch, the magic roundness of a milestone number is just one bird away. What will it be? A Black-necked Grebe? A Merganser? A Grey Goose or a winter Swan? All of these would be patch gold, and I am eagerly awaiting any and all of them. Cold and crisp also makes for great photo opportunities, and a light covering of snow improves the grime of London no end. Yep, bring it on I say.

But hang on, one of my other hobbies is horticulture. I grow a vast range of plants from the Mediterranean, Central and Southern Africa, Madagascar, Mexico and Central America. Places where for the most part snow and ice are simply unknown. The absolute last thing I want is an extended cold period! This has the possibility to freeze what at the moment is relatively warm and wet soil, and to turn my various outdoor palm trees and succulents into boiled cabbage. Of course a lot of my plants are under glass, but during a very cold period a couple of years ago I didn’t heat it. The result? More cabbage. Not many losses, but some were very disappointing given the amount of effort I had put in over the years. The other issue of course is that when it is nice and mild, as it has been, a greenhouse will heat up during the day – I actually found myself needing to water in January to ensure that the plants didn’t dry up. I won’t go into the finer details too much, but in an ideal world the roots of a plant come spring will be nice and healthy, not shrivelled and dried. If it is warm and you don't water you get shrivelled and dried. If if it is cold and you water you get root rot. In other words you need to get it spot on, but that is very difficult when it is 12 degrees one day and -2 a few days later. Shrivelled and dried is preferable to dead, so most people err on the side of caution, but that is just storing up the problem for later as when spring comes you have to introduce water incredibly sparingly as dried roots plus lots of water also results in dead plants. But while you wait for the roots to regenerate the short growing season is passing you by. By the time the roots rejuvenate you've lost a good portion of the five months you have. 

With that in mind I try and go for the 'spot on' approach, but dramatic swings in temperature from double celcius figures only a week ago to negative numbers now is particularly trying as I currently have soil that is not perfectly dry combined with temperatures on the plunge. More cabbage looms and to avoid this I am going to have to turn the heaters on, which will mean I can’t even afford a real cabbage as the pair of them blast out at 4KwH. No, constantly nice and mild please, that suits me down to the ground.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Some Numbers about some Words

A recent correspondent intrigued me in a comment left about my January enthusiasm for blogging. Ric F asked if I had any idea how many words I had typed over the last nine and a bit years. Did I know?

Pffff. Did I know? Of course I didn't! But it would be easy to find out. As it happens, and being the slightly obsessive sort, about two or three times a year I save down a few months of blog posts into a word document. I am a 'just in case' kind of person, as Mrs L will through gritted teeth confirm. Google probably has it covered, but you never know - if they make Mr Putin angry enough.....

So it was pretty straightforward to quickly save the most recent couple of months down, and then open all of the 20 or so files and tot it up. Any excuse for a good spreadsheet. And if you have a spreadsheet you can come up with some statistics. Words not birds. 

Across 1,552 posts (not 1,564 as I thought, there are 12 which I started and never published), I have typed 957,000 words. That's getting close to a million! A million! That is just ridiculous. In a standard portrait orientation word document they take up over six thousand pages. There are admittedly *a lot* of photographs which sometimes take an entire page, but nonetheless. Imagine the book?! There are some handy comparisons....The Lord of The Rings is a lightweight 455,125 words, although is perhaps a bit more popular. And sticking with popular, if not quite as readable, apparently the Bible has 783,137 words. Jesus wept! I've demolished that too! I'll call the Gideons in the morning. Only Harry Potter is currently standing in my way with 1,084,170 words, but I estimate that I'll have overtaken Ms Rowling by about October next year. My sales figures are not quite as good unfortunately.

Anyway here are the figures in glorious tabular form. I can only apologise for the amount of time people must collectively have wasted, which leads me neatly to a final stat. If the average reading speed is 130 words per minute, then the answer to my previous question is 4.75 million minutes, which can alternatively be expressed as 79 thousand hours or three and a half thousand days. Nine years. Nine man years have been consumed. Frittered. The gross assumption is of course that people read every word, which can't possibly be true as I would expect that many visitors give up or fall asleep. Or just look at the photos. Still, my contribution to dawdling and procrastination is pleasingly meaningful.

year pages words posts avg
2018 116          14,255 24         594
2017 687          87,763 133         660
2016 651        102,371 131         781
2015 750          61,689 98         629
2014 773          90,840 123         739
2013 871        118,034 198         596
2012 745        133,381 203         657
2011 575        107,958 202         534
2010 715        145,730 267         546
2009 560          95,059 173         549
6,443        957,080        1,552         617

Sunday 4 February 2018

Only 800,000 of these are me

My blog counter recently passed a million hits. I am aware that this is hardly a big deal. When some person my daughters told me about called Ed Sheeran releases a video on YouTube it generally surpasses that by lunchtime, but nonetheless I am quite surprised. I was joking about these mostly being me – I actually set it up some time ago to ignore my own IP address which I thought was impressively technical of me.

I started it off back in 2009 with no fanfare, yet somehow it got picked up. I plugged away, and a little later that year I lost my job and turned to it as a form of intellectual output, albeit in a silly kind of way. I don’t think I can safely argue that this is in any way an intellectual website, but the writing of it at least kept my brain ticking over during that period. Those transformative years, from finance employee to domestic goddess, were probably my favourite ones. I had an endless supply of material and I went birding all the time. Since then it has become progressively harder, culminating in several periods over the last couple of years when I have very nearly jacked it in. Nothing to write about, no time in which to do so, and a feeling that somehow the days of social media which required a modicum of actual effort were coming to an end. Somehow I am still going, not exactly rejuvenated in 2018, but ticking over nicely. It will slump of course, that is the familiar pattern, but ultimately I do still enjoy writing.

It’s nearly impossible to see where these million clicks lie, the rudimentary stats on offer simply don’t show the level of detail required. By far the majority of them are, I assume, regular readers who each time a new post pops up diligently go and have a look and are subsequently disappointed. But seemingly never learn. There have now been 1,564 posts, and I’ve no idea how many times each one, on average, might be viewed.  What I can see though is a top 10 posts, so I thought I would list them here. A birding day in New Delhi has topped the leader board for some time, and my mega-dip of a Red-billed Tropicbird has been enduringly popular. Touching. Schadenfreude rules supreme, and indeed is a theme throughout the following posts. If you want blog hits, dip. And make it a big one!

Anyway, thanks for reading. I’m not sure I can safely say here’s to the next million, but there’s probably a bit more to come.

Thursday 1 February 2018

January Pace II

January has passed at a million miles an hour. I already mentioned that I surpassed my highest ever January total of birds seen on the patch with a frankly magnificent 72 species. As you will have noticed I have also been pretty full on when it comes to blogging which came as rather a surprise given the ability I equally have to be rather lacklustre. Somehow though I have had quite a lot to say (or not, but have written something anyway – Ed.) and so noticing that I posted something on 22 out of 31 days I set off to write about how this was the most productive I had been in recent memory, which also has the benefit of helping to contribute to February. I like to get these things right, so I pulled up the website to check previous years, fully expecting the last time I had written so much in January to be in about 2011. 

Well guess what? It was actually last year, and this post therefore falls at the first hurdle. Yes, in January 2017 I somehow posted on 24 days out of 31, which in all the years of me doing this is the most ever. It was exceptional however, and I soon petered out – February declined to 11 and I never really picked it up as the year went on, indeed that one month ended up being close to a fifth of the entire year. Back in 2010 and 2011 was the last time there was any output-based consistency. Those years started at the same level as this one and carried on relentlessly, a feeling no doubt felt by readers. Those were the glorious days of unemployment, of domestic trials and tribulations, and endless material provided by children. Blogging was easy then, relatively speaking. Every day contained a multitude of silly events that were ripe for self-deprecation or schadenfreude, and of course I went birding a huge amount. The children were highly portable back then, and every day between about half nine in the morning and three in the afternoon was a blank canvas. I twitched as far as Minsmere once, and Landguard was a piece of cake. Mostly I stayed close to home though, engaged in some London year-listing as well pursuing a national year list at weekends. The days were long and fulfilling and despite all of the house work and child-rearing there were seemingly hours and hours of quality time.

Maybe this is the rose-tinted spectacles effect brought about by having spent most of the intervening years in an office at Canary Wharf, riding the corporate roller coaster and all the aggravation that comes with it. If anything this makes this year and last far more impressive performances. I never write about work and what I do for most of my waking hours – and in January, by far the majority of the daylight hours. Working in the type of environment that I do means that there are endless behavioural gems and countless ridiculous situations that in the real world would make wonderful blogging material. I cannot and do not however, being professional means that these two parts of my life just don't mix. From a personal perspective this is a great shame as I spend a vast amount of time at work and all of that time is essentially off limits. That’s not to say that I don’t think about other things whilst at work during idle moments, of course I do, but in terms of experiences and things that go on there it’s basically dead time.

Which is why of course I try and do as much as I can with what time remains, and why I never have enough time to in my view do justice to all the many things I am interested in. And occasionally - when the writing fires are burning - it also results in a stream of posts about all sorts of things, many of which are totally unrelated. January 2018 saw me cover photography, listing, walking, patch-working, wildfowl, building works, domestic bliss, twitching, travel, plants, birding and blogging statistics, along with a good dollop of nostalgia. You never really know what you are going to get, largely because I rarely know what I am going to write. Generally a safe assumption is that it won't be about birds or Wanstead.

Ideas form either instantly based on some random trigger, or gather pace more slowly, fleshing themselves out during the commute or other empty moments. When I am in the groove I frequently have several ideas on the go at once, and certainly January saw more than a few posts lined up and set to auto-publish several days in advance. If something comes out at exactly 6.30pm that's an indication that it's one of those "here's one I prepared earlier" posts as at that time I'm either at work or still on the way home. One evening I wrote three in succession, they all just tripped out of their own accord, somehow the jumbles of phraseology I had mentally turned over and over were retained and delivered in roughly the right order. Often of course that doesn't happen and I end up with a series of disjointed sentences that I need to reassemble into something that actually makes sense and says what I thought I had in mind, which can sometimes result in something entirely different emerging. Sometimes I just publish it and hope for the best. Life is short and I've got eight thousand hobbies to pursue.

And the house needs dusting again.