Tuesday 30 October 2018

Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Back in August I spent a few days in Zermatt with some of my university mates. It had been a shocking 20 years since we graduated. I did a four year course, which means it is nearly a quarter of a century since I started. Some poor people don't even live that long. The choice of the Swiss Alps had absolutely nothing to with what or where we studied, it is just where one of the guys really really likes going and he wanted to share it with us. And who am I to argue? The setting is magnificent, immense views at every turn, and we lucked out with the weather in a big way. The only downside was the incredulous cost of everything, the Swiss really take the piss in places like this. But whatever, we were on together for the first time in a while and on holiday, and so if a G&T cost £20 then so be it. Gah!

The plan was to gaze upon the Matterhorn and go hiking in the clear mountain air. And for me at least, to find, see and appreciate Lammergeirs. The plan was comprehensively actioned with Lammergeir on the first day and everyday thereafter, and the Matterhorn was also seen daily - not necessarily always a given! Here is an atmospheric shot of a small portion of the mountain for instance, and I'm led to understand that we could have gone a whole week and not even seen this much.

Somehow my terrible fitness levels did not hold the team back - my fellow fatty Andy (sorry Andy...) and I were able to keep our own pace whilst Charlie and the others went a little faster. This is always hard as by the time I caught up they had had a rest and were ready to crack on! For the most part we all stuck together, barring one day where Andy and I took a direct route to a beer rather than schlep halfway towards the Matterhorn base camp.

What a mountain, it has to be said. It is simply glorious. Iconic and engrained in the psyche in many ways. Even if you have never been there you know it, or know of it. Caran d'ache pencils, Toblerone bars, Disneyland.... Our hotel rooms faced it (by design, naturally) and so each morning we awoke to its immense presence. One morning it was completely clear, and fortunately I had set my alarm. Other times it had a bank of cloud on one side. Different each time you looked it.

The ridge to the right of the cloud is the typical ascent. We didn't attempt it...

We spent the four days hiking, eating, drinking and being alternately silly and having grown-up conversations. The five of us had six kids with another on the way, and all in our early forties with all of the things that age brings meant we had a lot to discuss. If our carefree days at Royal Holloway seemed a long time ago it is because they were!

Anyway, wonderful hiking, great company, and stupendous views were the order of the day. Nutcrackers were everywhere, and on one day I picked out a pair of Golden Eagles high up along a ridge. The scent of pine, mile upon mile of visibility and blue skies, birds calling and weissbier. I have been on few holidays quite as enjoyable.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Vizmigging in the rain

I'm not sure what possessed me this morning but I was up at new 6am and out birding a short while later. I had misread the forecast. What I had thought was a light shower at about 8am was about two and a half hours of cold damp misery we had to make two coffee runs just to stay alive. The collective today was rather reduced on account no doubt of the weather - only Nick, Bob and I were hardy/foolish enough to brave the elements. In truth it was probably not as bad as we thought it was, but the summer of 2018 has turned us all soft.

Our view for much of the morning

I had been enticed out by the promise of migration. Radar images had shown birds pouring across the North Sea at dusk and I wanted some of it. And it did not disappoint, even though I spent most of the morning hiding in a hawthorn. I recorded my highest ever numbers of Fieldfare (776) and Starling (1418) on the patch, with a supporting cast of Redwing (240), Skylark (73) and Lapwing (75). Rather than Whatsapp every single sighting for the benefit of warm, dry and soft fellow patch-workers, I instead thoughtfully recorded everything on my phone, thus:

A decent list, although lacking in that one star bird that would have made the morning, for instance a Woodlark or a Hen Harrier. Nonetheless a worthy outing, and I experienced five hours of quality birding with almost no let-up on passage. 

Looking at the list above you will see a few round numbers. This is because large numbers of birds are difficult to count. Up to about 25 birds I would back myself to get the count approximately correct a large part of the time. Above that and it becomes too difficult, so most birders will do something along the following lines "1, 2, 3-4-5, 6,7-8 [......] 26, 27, oh bugger, call it 40". For the truly big flocks of over 100, I try and count in 10s, trying to size up how much space ten birds take up and then roughly multiplying that to an approximate flock size. I have no idea how accurate or otherwise this may be, especially for distant groups that you get on late. There must be a healthy margin of error though, so some of those Starling counts of 220 etc could be anything from 180 to 300 really. Still, accuracy is irrelevant in many ways, it is all about reveling in mass movement and science can take a hike. There are probably scientific methods of surveying airborne flocks, but if there are I am not interested in them, it would detract from the fun somehow. 

I will be out again tomorrow, that extra hour of light makes all the difference at the moment - last week it was getting silly - only 25 minutes before I had to trot off to the salt mines. Following the clocks going back it is worthwhile again and I can only hope that the birds have read the script.

Between showers

Saturday 20 October 2018

Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

As ever I was poorly placed for the latest amazing bird to hit Wanstead Flats - Venice. Strolling around Accademia at dusk on Wednesday I was amazed to see a message from back home telling me that Nick had found a Rustic Bunting on the patch. Wow, just wow! He just gets better and better, I do have to be abroad though.... Happily for me it had the good grace to stick around until I could get to it, and indeed as I type is still here - about 20 minutes ago I watched it go to roost in the enclosure. It is a remarkably tolerant bird, but trying to get a photo of it during the twitch (I estimate several hundred have been to see it over the four days it has so far been here) has been a hiding to nothing. I've never really experienced a big twitch on the patch before and I think I can now understand why people on whose patches this occurs frequently might get a little jaded. What this means is that early mornings and late evenings work a lot better, when I can creep up on it without people assuming I am too close, and without the whole 'wacky races' thing going on.

It is only my second Rustic Bunting ever after a bird two years ago on Shetland, and the views have been amazing. It took me up to 152 birds for the patch, but now I am on 153......this morning before I'd even found the Bunting again Tony though he had a very slight glimpse of a possible SEO being pursued low through Long Wood. He, James and I set off towards Centre Road to have a look at what the Crows were so upset about, and we were stunned all over again when instead a Barn Owl flew out of the wood. Barn Owl! I mean wow, just wow! I've had two patch ticks in three days and neither of them were birds I thought remotely likely. I could have listed 20 birds and these would not have been on the list. Waders, ducks, egrets, but not these. It's the first Barn Owl on the patch for a quarter of a century, and Bob, James and Nick all saw it too - for Nick this is truly karma. He was poorly placed this morning when we called him - not Venice mind you - and we thought it had gone but he managed to jam it as soon as he arrive right at the south end. This also enabled James to finally connect - somehow he had missed it in the mist when Tony and I shouted out, and I was feeling a bit bad that he hadn't seen it when he had been so close.

No pics, but Bob has managed some great ones here. Instead here are some pics of the Rustic Bunting, a bird I've seen as many of as Barn Owls on the patch...

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Samsung Sunrise

I have to say I am increasingly impressed with what phones are capable of - it does lead me to wonder why I lug a large SLR around the place, at least for landscapes and people. Clearly no good for birds but equally some of the walkabout cameras are capable of OK results. I don't think the gap has yet been bridged, haha, but the distance is definitely narrowing. It pleases me that when I am old and infirm I will still be able to carry a camera. So, I took these yesterday actually, whilst I was seeing no Redwings but before the Egret came over and meant my blog material had to change for the day. Had I not given the game away would you have known these were casual phone shots (and not even from a phone that remotely qualifies as 'latest')?

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Not quite a tale of two Thrushes

If yesterday was exhilarating, today was sensational, but not for the reasons you might think. My morning total was one Fieldfare and one Redwing. Yes, just one of each. A few Linnet and Goldfinch kept me company, as did up to seven Skylark, one of which was in full song, albeit from the ground. At 8.01am precisely, just as I was leaving the VizMig Point and heading off east towards Manor Park station, I noticed a large heron shape in the sky just behind me and to my right. I expect I had been looking at my phone or something. Anyway, raising my bins I was astonished to see that it was pure white. I never even bothered to consider Little Egret, the views were superb in the early morning light – enormous bird with deep wingbeats and the characteristic bulge of the neck below, long entirely dark trailing legs. I fumbled with my phone to try and get some kind of record shot but it let me down and would not focus on the rapidly disappearing bird – somewhat gutted about that but I suppose photos are not everything. Interestingly Shaun had reported a Great White Egret flying west from the Ingrebourne Valley earlier that morning, but I had never imagined for a minute that it would fly over here. However when I checked a map at work and drew a line from the Valley over where I was standing, you end up at the southern end of the lower Walthamstow Reservoirs around Coppermill Lane.

This of course makes my uber ride to see the Wanstead Park bird earlier this year look increasingly bad value for money, but I am nonetheless delighted to add this species to my VizMig list, and indeed to my sub-patch of Wanstead Flats. Of course with increasing numbers in the country and counts of 20+ pretty regular this may become an annual bird, but right now it still has the hint of the exotic and rare about it. I checked Jubilee Pond on the offchance that it may have stopped off there but not surprisingly it had not. Still, I reckon we’ll see it again, and it certainly livened up what was in truth rather a poor morning compared to Monday.  BTW, if anyone wants to know how fast a Great White Egret flies, the answer is approximately 22mph.

As per yesterday I’m going to illustrate this post from my rather extensive back catalogue. To be clear this is not the actual bird, but everyone likes a picture. So had I been looking the right way I would have seen this….

Florida sadly

Monday 8 October 2018

Vizmig season begins

I had a nice little jaunt out to Rainham Marshes on Sunday with one of the kids, picking my fifth London (and third Rainham) Cattle Egret, as well as jamming a Great Skua going up the river and over the tip almost as soon as I arrived, but the real interest at the moment is in the sky. Visible (or in some cases audible) migration is starting. Of all of the things that occur on the patch, the spectacle of visible migration is perhaps the most exciting. Yes we find Redstarts and Ring Ouzels in bushes, but for sheer thrill there is not a lot to top the mass movement of birds overhead. 

It is starting now. I cannot say that either this weekend or this morning counted as a mass movement, but Saturday was notable for the first Redwing and Fieldfare of the autumn. This morning there were even more, I counted around 140 Redwing before I had to go to work, of which 80 were in a single flock headed west. They are amongst the most evocative of the passage birds due to their soft seeep as they pass over. The first few times you hear it after an absence of perhaps six months you can't quite place it - or at least I can't. And then you remember, and the memories come flooding back. And from that point on you're "on it" and every passing bird is noted. There are Finches too, and Buntings - indeed this morning a Yellowhammer went over, first north, and the a few minutes later back south again. This is an annual bird, like Woodlark, but we do not get very many here despite them breeding only a few miles away. That habitat is open fields and hedgerows though, something Wanstead just cannot offer.

I suspect the next few days will mainly be about Thrushes though, perhaps with Fieldfare numbers picking up. My experience in Wanstead this morning mirrored that elsewhere, with Redwings outnumbering their larger cousins by many multiples. The balance will swing at some point I expect - my past records indicate that towards the end of October we can perhaps expect a complete reversal. Fieldfare too make their presence known overhead - a husky chacking. Soon that too will be engrained in my head as I strain to pick up moving birds in the half light of the early morning.

Redwing, Iceland

Fieldfare, Essex

Sunday 7 October 2018

24 hours in Tokyo

It would have been far too simple to go straight home from Kuala Lumpur so instead we went via Tokyo. We flew overnight and after getting rid of our luggage were exploring the city mid-morning. Now obviously you need more that 24 hours in a city to do it any kind of justice, and that's probably even more true for Tokyo where you could happily spend a week, but a day was all we had and as a taster it was terrific. It is fair to say we managed to do quite a lot in the time available - a nice wander around Meiji Shrine, the ordered chaos of the Shibuya crossing, the dim alleys around Yurakucho, a look at the Seimon stone bridge at the Imperial Palace, a stroll around the Sensoji Shrine and the surrounding shopping streets, a quick swim at the hotel with Mt. Fuji in the distance as the sun set, then a sensational traditional Japanese meal involving a dozen miniature courses that were works of art, and finally concluding with drinks on the 52nd floor with a live jazz band and the twinkling lights of the city spread out around us.

So what follows is a mini photo-essay as we dashed rather manically around the city. At 7am the following morning we were at Haneda and on our way home. Exhausting but exhilarating, and it's a country that I will no doubt go back to. There is just something about far-east Asia, and Japan is uniquely different and incredibly interesting. Tokyo was but an introduction and we're already wondering how we can get back there.


Tuesday 2 October 2018

Florida calling

I recently saw an advert for a bird photography course in Florida lasting 3.5 days and costing $1749. I saw another, also 3.5 days, which involved boat trips to photograph Roseate Spoonbill for $2499. A fool and his money are easily parted. Fair enough, the leader is a pre-eminent bird photographer, however that is just crazy crazy money. I am taking Mick S there next month and I am not charging him anything like that! Seriously though, I should become a bird photography tutor, if I could get five punters to pay something along those lines, or even half of that, that would be me sorted out. Who wants to sign up? I know the places, I know the theory, and every now and again I've been known to take a decent bird image. Winner, surely? Here's a Wilson's Plover. I can help you take photos like this for a modest fee. I'm going again next month purely to research the best spots for you and you alone. I'm happy to take two people back next year. More than that and I would not spend enough time with each person. Winter months are best. I am free in December. Expressions of interest in the comments box please. £500 each for 3 days of photography + flights and accommodation which I will organise and bill you for. Participants must be able-bodied and like sand as there will be a shit load of crawling on our stomachs....

PS I also have experience of the UAE, Morocco, Iceland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and several other places. Take your pick, I'm there.