Tuesday 31 July 2018


I don't just grow tropical plants. Earlier this year I sowed loads of tomato seeds, and that effort is now, er, bearing fruit. Out of the five of us in Famille L, only two actually like tomatoes. One of them is me, and the other is my daughter who is currently not here. If you leave a tomato on the vine for too long, especially when it is wet, it may swell and split. That would be a criminal waste, so that'll be me eating several kilos of tomatoes over the next week. To be honest I am fine with that - eating a tomato straight off the plant is one of life's great pleasures. Even brushing your hand through a tomato plant is special, the scent given off is so very evocative. So this is me for the next few weeks, I might actually turn into a tomato. By happy coincidence my annual health assessment is just around the corner. I don't know if a week of exclusive tomato eating will be sufficient to right the cholesterol wrongs of the last seven months, but I am assuming that it can't hurt. This was lunch on Sunday - tell me you're not salivating just looking at it! 

Monday 30 July 2018

The arrogance of squirrels

For a long time I had no feeders in my garden. They were empty, stacked up in the shed, and I had few bird visitors. Why? Because every time I put up a feeder it would start to grow grey fur and a bushy tail. Whenever I looked outside all I could see would be squirrels gorging themselves on my hard-earned peanuts. They would stay all day, dropping off and rolling back home only when the sun went down. The following morning the queues would form well before sunrise - a ticketing system was in operation. The organising committee chair-squirrel would blow a whistle at dawn, and then a grey wave would rush down the garden and envelop anything edible. I tried everything but the result was always the same - fat squirrels. Finally I came up with the solution I had not wanted to try - place the feeders exactly in the middle of the lawn, mathematically working out the one spot that was furthest away from all possible squirrel launchpads. This is a pain as whenever I walk down the garden - which is very frequently - I have to dodge the bird-feeders. But it has worked, for now....

On Saturday morning I was up early, Wader twitchery on my mind. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes it seemed that the bird-feeder looked a bit different. Blinking a few times I looked again. Yes, it has definitely changed, but how?

Wait a minute! I've got it. The feeder has got....a tail. Huh? Gah! It's that bloody squirrel again! As I watched, it attempted to get around the baffle and then when it noticed me slid down the pole a short distance. 

Then it spoke!

"Yeah, what are you looking at? I'm just hungry OK, I'm always hungry. Those Monkey Puzzle seedlings you carefully grew and that I uprooted and ate the other day were no good. Well, maybe the eighth one was alright, but its peanuts that I really want. I just want peanuts. I can see them and I can smell them, and frankly this cone thing is a right pain. No, no, don't take it off. You see I am going to beat it, you know it and I know it, it is just a question of when. I want that satisfaction and I want to see the look on your face when you realise I've done it. I'm going to be going now so don't bother opening the door and trying to scare me, but I'll be back. I'm driven by constant and insatiable hunger, and that's a very powerful motivator. You've got to go to work on Monday, and as soon as you do this is where I'll be. I reckon I'll have it cracked by Tuesday, so fill her up loser!"

And then it slid the rest of the way down the pole and sauntered off down the garden.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Signs of life

With five posts in the space of  a week you would be forgiven for thinking that the title of this blog post was self-referential. Not to worry, there is little danger of that. But I did want to share a few photos that I took earlier today on a short walk around the SSSI - the part of Wanstead Flats that was the most severely burned. There are signs of life. I've been a little selective, there are still enormous swathes of pure black, but as we all knew after fire comes renewal, and in a way that can be very beautiful. One of my other hobbies (other than blogging) is growing plants. For certain of these, particularly those from Australia, fire is an essential part of the cycle of life, and is needed to stimulate reproduction. I have a cycad that was imported from Queenland many years ago which has a trunk that is entirely blackened from numerous grass fires. The trunk, formed from dead leaf bases, is impenetrable - fire sweeps through burning all in its path, possibly including the leaves of the plants, but the core plant itself is not damaged - this heat and the nutrients from the burned vegetation causes the plants to grow new leaves and seed cones. This sight of a blackened landscape with these incredible bright green flushes of new growth can be quite awesome. 

Wanstead Flats cannot boast anything quite as exciting, but the contrast between black and fresh green is still pretty magical. We had an absolute drenching on Friday evening, and as I type it is coming down again. I don't know whether it is this recent water or whether it was the damping down from the Fire Brigade that started the regeneration, but either way it looks wonderful and I found it extremely uplifting and am very encouraged. No birds yet of course, it is still a wasteland in that respect when in fact it should be buzzing with young warblers, and that is a crying shame. The low point has passed though, and we are on the up.

Saturday 28 July 2018

The Rainham tick trail redux

There was news yesterday evening of a Marsh Sandpiper at Rainham. I sat and thought about it for a while. Marsh Sandpiper? Don't think I have seen many of those, did I see one in London? Not sure, let me check. As it happens if I had seen one in London I would have had to have been nine years old, as the last record was in 1984! This then was my Saturday morning - a twitch. Rainham is OK, a bit far I suppose but I have not twitched anything since the Little Bunting at Walthamstow in January so I didn't mind doing a few miles. This would be a triple - Rainham, London and Essex, so surely worth it.

With the weather having turned, I was confident the bird would be there this morning and whilst I got up relatively early I did not try that hard - unlike Rob "insomniac" Sheldon who commonly hits the patch at 5am. That was my plan too - there is currently a glut of Little Egret on the Ornamental Waters/Heronry, counts approaching 40 have been recorded and I was keen to get in on the action. However when the news came through at 6am that the Marsh Sandpiper was still there I regretfully abandoned thoughts of Egrets and drove straight to RM. Howard, his usual altruistic self, was there opening up and Ruth B was just setting out to the northern boardwalk where Andy was currently watching the bird on Aveley Pools. We didn't hurry, had a little natter, and were soon approaching the first viewing platform where we could see Andy, Hawky and TB. 

"Quick it's flying!" exclaimed Tony.

Of course it is, great gag TB. Funny man! OK, so where is it?

"I'm still on it, just to the left of the radar tower, high!" said Hawky. "I've lost it", said Tony.

"I though you were joking, you know, larking about!!?

"Nah, it flew with a Redshank just as you arrived, wondered why you weren't hurrying!"

Well crap. 34 years and I'm 15 seconds too late. High south. Not coming back. Next stop Sussex. Poo. So, pleasantries were exchanged, never let a big dip get in the way of being polite etc, and then with a nasty black cloud looming Gripper Tweed and Gripper Hawkins left, high-fiving every three paces. Ruth and I looked at each other and then at the cloud. It was easy decision, and so with Gripper Brown in tow we returned to the visitor centre passing Dippers Bacon and Mo on the way. So, not the ideal way to resume my twitching career after a six month break, but one should not dwell on these things or they will consume you. I've seen many birds come and go this year and not felt the slightest twitchy inclination, so not seeing another one didn't sting in the same way it might for others.

I hung around the visitor centre for a while chatting to a few London birders I'd not seen for a while having been "out of it", and then made my way home. There were after all several tonnes of Little Egret to go and count on the patch. Just as I turned off at Ilford the Marsh Sandpiper landed back on Aveley. The North Circular junction at Ilford is under a flyover and you can therefore get straight back on should you so choose. If for example you had just dipped a rare wader out on the A13 and were headed north on the A406, you could swing around and head south again if the bird was relocated. Very convenient. I arrived back at RM shortly thereafter and repeated my journey out to the northern boardwalk, this time without the rain. And this time at the end of my trot there was a Marsh Sandpiper, so all was well that ended well.

The bird was right on the other side, so I had excellent scope views but did not bother with the camera. Here instead is a twitch photo. Note a much happier Steve B on the right. This is my 195th Rainham species, and my 258th for London. I've some way to go to join the top listers of course, but lists are not everything I find. A fair number of the Wanstead guys had made the journey as well, and the viewing platform was all smiles and happiness, including Ruth who had staked serious money on the bird coming back. I should have listened to her! I saw the Prof as I left, on his way to erasing 34 years of pain and anguish. Apparently not living in London is no barrier to maintaining a London list. I have trouble maintaining a Wanstead list, not sure how he does it! Anyway, the rest of the day has been spent in the normal fashion piddling around in the greenhouse and earning brownie points. Ah yes, good old BPs, they still feature very heavily.....

What do you mean you can't see it?

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Parakeet Central

I am being eaten out of house and home. Not the children, though they are partly to blame. It is the hordes of Parakeets that descend on my feeders even as I am hanging them back up. The crafty so-and-sos have cleverly pried apart some of the wire cage in order to be able extract entire peanuts. This they do with remarkable efficiency - they have created a free-flowing tube of nut happiness - as fast as I pour them in at the hop the Parakeets pull them out of the bottom. I keep pulling the mesh back into shape but one quick tweak with their very stong beaks is all it takes to open the floodgates again. I went through 2kg last week, and the news is spreading fast. 

"Guys, there are peanuts!!"
"Whoa, look at those, they look great! Let me tell Jim!"
"Jim! Jim! They're back! That old sucker has filled up again! Can you let Stan know?"
"Stan! Gather the flock! We are back in business!"
"Wowsers, look how easily they come out!, it's almost like they are on tap!"
"Out of my way lads, I'm hungry!"

There is a clear pecking order, so to speak. One of the birds seems a little more grizzled than the others, and suffers no competition on the feeder - I have been watching them so much I can actually recognise this individual on sight. He's called Stan. More obvious however is his behaviour - as soon as another bird even tries to descend he moves up the wire to head it off with loud squawking and threat displays. I am surprised this bird is not enormously fat as I am pretty sure it would just hang there all day were it not for the family going up or down the garden. It is actually getting to the point where you can almost walk past and they'll just continue scoffing down huge beakfuls of peanuts, hanging delicately upside down and letting them run wantonly into their overflowing crops. 

This is the Boss. If a bird's expression could be described as cheeky, this is it.

Monday 23 July 2018

Romania and Bulgaria, May 2018

This is a trip report about an unashamedly photographic trip to Eastern Europe - Romania and Bulgaria. I'd birded the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria before, about six years, and vowed to go back as it was simply outstanding. For many reasons I had not managed it until now - it was once again so good that I am trying to find an excuse to go back.

  • Thursday evening to Monday evening in late May with my photographic buddy Mick S, thus taking advantage of the Bank Holiday. This gave us three and a half full days, with four mornings and three evenings.
  • Flights from London to Bucharest were about £100 each with British Airways, arriving at midnight on Thursday. Not a particularly great time to start a long drive to the coast, but hey. Return on the evening of Bank Holiday Monday.
  • Car hire a bargain at about £150 for the long weekend for a very nice new Golf. The staff at Avis Bucharest checked it upon return incredibly thoroughly, almost hoping to find something wrong - you have been warned.
  • We had to pay an extra €50 to be able to take the car into Bulgaria. If you don't have the paperwork you will not get through.
  • There is a toll to pay on the E81 after you cross the Danube. This can be paid in cash or subsequently at most petrol stations.
  • We stayed three nights at the Branta Birding Lodge, a few km south of the Bulgarian border. This was €40 per night each including breakfast and dinner, very reasonable indeed. It was perfectly fine if a bit on the tired side, and we gleaned a ton of good (free) information from the owner and bird guide Pavel. Beer was included!
  • I don't remember anything about the food but we made sure to have an icecream every day as it was really hot. Neither country takes euros, and my card refused to work in any cash machines.
  • We were out at dawn and came back very late. The weather was glorious throughout.
  • Day 0: The flight arrived an hour late (1am) but Avis were still waiting for us. We managed two hours drive east towards Constanta before collapsing in a layby for a nap.
  • Day 1: Revived but groggy we drove north-east to Sinoe and birded the lagoons. Then relocated to the Tern colony at Vadu. Afternoon into Bulgaria, birding lake Shabla and finally Cape Kaliakra for Pied Wheatear.
  • Day 2: Dawn start at Lake Durankulak for Paddyfield Warbler, the rest of the day exploring smaller roads and tracks between here and Balgarevo. Evening on the steppe near Balgarevo.
  • Day 3: More of the same
  • Day 4: Back to Romania for another crack at Collared Pratincole at Vadu, then Sinoe, and finally a long drive back to Bucharest for an early evening flight home.
Collared Pratincole

Day 1
Our first stop was Sinoe, a site close to the coast reached from the village down a very long track to the lagoons. Early morning birding here was fantastic with tons of Yellow Wagtails, Bee-eaters, Tawny Pipits and a good selection of waders. We were both a little shell-shocked from an overnight drive and little sleep and were not able to make the most of the opportunities though. There were no Pratincoles though, which is what had prompted this late decision to head north into Romania, so after a little while we tried another spot that seemed likely based on some quick internet research. This proved to be right on the money, a dried lagoon near the village of Vadu a bit further south. This too was a magnificent birding spot with a huge Tern colony on an island, and the Collared Pratincoles present and correct a short distance away. Mick had been here before, but this was a new species for me. The birds were not yet nesting, indeed the colony seemed not to have that many birds at all, but there were enough for a spot of crawling photography. Beware the mosquitoes though, they were rabid and rather offputting.

Mid-morning and we were keen to head to some of the sites that we had actually researched, and retracing our steps took the Constanta Ring-road towards the Bulgarian border. There was a lengthy queue to get across, and the border staff did indeed check the car paperwork that we had paid for. A quick stop at Lake Shabla was unproductive, but the real destination was Cape Kaliakra - famed for Pied Wheatear and if I am honest the whole point of the trip. It did not disappoint - there are loads of breeding pairs around the archaeological ruins, and with so much human traffic they are fairly well accustomed to people. We stayed here for the rest of the afternoon, only leaving to check the gorges a little later - no owls. Of note were hundreds of Rose-coloured Starlings coming in to roost, and a Black-throated Diver off the tip of the Cape was rather strange.

Red-backed Shrike

Pied Wheatear

We headed back to the border and our accomodation at the Branta Birding Lodge. They were rather surprised to see us.....turns out we had stuffed up the booking and were not due to arrive until the following day. Happily they had space and knocked up some food quickly.

Day 2
Out for dawn feeling a lot better than the previous day, and a short drive to Lake Durankulak and their resident Paddyfield Wablers. I'd been here before with Dick, Mo and Bradders in 2012, it is a well-known well stop on any itinerary of Eastern Bulgaria. It was rather breezy, hard work with the 800mm lens where the lens hood acts like a sail, but the birds did not disappoint. We singled out a small clump of reeds slightly detached from the main reed bed which seemed to be a holding a singing bird and for the next 45 minutes had an absolute blast in the wonderful morning light.

Paddyfield Warbler
Paddyfield Warbler

The rest of the day was spent exploring various quiet tracks betweeb Durankulak and Balgaravo, hoping to find cooperative Shrikes to photograph out of the car window. We found several Lesser Grey Shrikes, the best of which were on the track east of Sveti Nikola that leads across the steppe to Rusalka. By far the best habitat was the larger steppe to the west of Balgarevo towards the Mussel Farm. This is criss-crossed by many tracks that were no match for our VW. We spent the whole afternoon here, including the final golden hours. Birds included a small population of Isabelline Wheatears with fledglings, many Calandra Lark, Short-toed Lark, Tawny Pipit. The constant trilling of the Calandras was awesome, photographing them was exceptionally hard however. A Montagu's Harrier flew over, and there was a very pale Long-legged Buzzard as well as Stone Curlew and Hoopoe - and all in the most superb setting of wild-flowers which I would go back for like a shot. In fact I regret not spending more time on the plants.

Lesser Grey Shrike

Tawny Pipit

Isabelline Wheatear

Calandra Lark

Day 3
We spent the morning on tracks close to Vaklino recommended by the ebullient Pavel, our host at the Branta. It too was lovely, with exceptionally pretty stands of wild flowers alongside a track that wound its way across the landscape towards Lake Durankulak. It was here that one of the Red-backed Shrikes finally played ball, allowing some close shots in decent light out of the windows. On the way back an adult White-tailed Eagle showed well. Close to here we staked out a Syrian Woodpecker nest hole and were pleased to get the adult returning with an enormous grub.

Red-backed Shrike

Syrian Woodpecker

We found a large Bee-eater colony inhabiting the sandy cliffs near the campsite at Ezerets but this is most likely an evening site given the north-south nature of the coastline. I attempted some flight shots but my arms gave out with the weight - I need to see a physio about a worrying case of tennis elbow that I am sure my photography is exacerbating. 

The afternoon was spent slowly driving down the Gorun to Tyulenovo road - largely abandoned and in very bad condition but this also meant that there was zero traffic to disturb us. At Tyulenovo we turned south to Kamen Bryag, and along this road we found huge numbers of Rose-coloured Starlings feeding at close range in cherry orchards. The light was grim but we toughed it out. There is also Olive Tree Warbler at a site near here but it looked like rather a slog so we didn't bother. The evening was spent as before on the steppe near Balgarevo. Same birds as before with the addition of a stunning Black-heading Bunting which I jammed a short session with. Most of the time was spent stalking the Isabelline Wheatears though.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear

Black-headed Bunting
Calandra Lark

Day 4
Back to Romania for the Collared Pratincoles in early morning light meant a crushing start time, but we made good time and were on site at Vadu for the golden hour. I struggled to get close however, I don't think I got low enough, and the mozzies were worse than terrible. I did manage some close range shots of Kentish Plover though. We then enjoyed the colony of Little Gulls at the nearby lake before returning to Sinoe. This really is a top birding site and I regretted not having a telescope to view the waders - a distant Golden Plover was later identified as a PGP! You are really close to the Danube Delta at this point. On another trip I reckon I'd head up that way - there were birds everywhere, achingly good. With photography done for the day we probably added 20 species in short order to an already decent trip list. And with that we were done - a long drive back to Bucharest to make our evening flight.

Kentish Plover

Little Gull

Little Gull

Gull-billed Tern

Trip List

Sunday 22 July 2018

The aftermath of the Wanstead Flats fire

I ventured out to Wanstead Flats this morning, a week after the fire took told. As well as simply being busy I hadn't really been ready before. I'd been hearing second-hand news, snippets and views, some brave attempts at positivity. The Skylark area escaped. The copses are singed but in one piece. The heather which has been slowly expanding for a decade has nearly been destroyed but a small part survived. It was the area nearest to me, the SSSI, that I was most concerned about. This is one of my favourite areas as it is far less disturbed, and it was also the area that saw the fiercest fire and where the blaze started. 

It has been decimated, there is no other word for it. The rich belt of scrub alongside Lakehouse Road - a haven for Warblers and which once held one of the Wrynecks - is almost totally gone. A few blackened trunks, a few stands of scorched broom, mostly just ash. The absence of bird song was poignant. A few Crows pecked about in the ruins, some Magpies chased each other through the slalom of charred sticks. The fire is out, but it smells terrible. This is the part of the Flats closest to where I live, the part that I get to first. It is going to be hard going crossing the threshold, seeing a blackened expanse where once there was greenery and life. You might I think I am being overly dramatic, but just come visit. It is unspeakable.

I crossed Centre Road, just as the fire had done last Sunday, driven by the breeze. By this point there were more LFB resources on site, and thankfully they have managed to limit the damage. Nonethless it extends almost to the far eastern end of Long Wood. What the Corporation didn't destroy in the Enclosure the flames have finished off. The best area of the Flats for migrants has been razed. The view from the Vizmig point has been altered beyond desciption. Where once were areas of broom interspersed with Hawthorn there are charcoal remains. Some of this area has been ploughed already by the landowner, either to create a better firebreak for what is left to the south, or to aid regeneration.

Should be easy to spot the migrants in the bushes.....

There are no signs of vegetative regeneration as yet, but this is not surprising really. There was a slight sprinkling early yesterday, but it is bone dry extending out all of next week. What we need is an enormous soaking, something to get the richness of the ash down into the soil to nourish any roots or seeds that might have survived the heat. In past fires the bright green of new growth pushing through the black scars has always seemed somehow magical. When it eventually happens this time it will seem even more so, but let's be clear - this was an enormous fire, intense and destructive. London's biggest in modern times, large enough to be declared a wildfire. That it is on my patch is just awful.

This is sample - it like this almost everywhere

Not all the people who live here feel the same way about it of course, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that the area is heavily used. The fire has exposed what they have left behind, and it beggars belief. Alcohol is the most obvious relic, the numbers of charred bottles and cans that have been exposed is remarkable. Years, probably, of people tossing their empties into the scrub as they walk along. So much easier than taking it home, or putting it a bin or recycling container. No, just chuck it. Possibly the fire is the result of cigarette butt following a can a short while later. A portable bbq that got out of hand? Or arson of course? We will probably never know, but part of me hopes it wasn't deliberate. That said, part of the Park was set on fire near the stables yesterday, and school is out. I suspect we'll be seeing more of the Fire Brigade this summer. Probably not near me though, there is nothing left to burn. I dread to think how many animals or fledgling second broods perished? 

Some things that it would have been nice to incinerate survived


What I can say is that birding this autumn is going to be very hard. Having been out this morning I am deeply put off spending time there. Everywhere I look I remember birds, remember what used to be there. The patch where the Dartford Warbler was. The Wryneck bush. The bushes where I saw my first Flats Bullfinch. A Pied Flycatcher spent two days there. The tiny Hawthorn where I counted double figures of Whitethroat one autumn morning. The patch of scrub where I found my first spring Whinchat and for a few moments had no idea what it was such was its blazing colour.