Sunday 29 December 2019

Top ten not bird images from 2019

Birds are not the be all and end all, and I continue to enjoy taking photographs of landscapes and other scenery wherever I end up. Landscape photographers are true artists. Unlike birds you do not just bowl up and try your luck, there appears to a tremendous amount of planning involved, as well as immense amounts of skill to blend all the elements together. It is all about the light, the first rays of the sun lighting up a landscape of rugged beauty. Getting into position can take hours, often in the dark, and as for knowing what to do when you get there.....I cannot hope to get anywhere near that level of proficiency. But I do go to some amazing places, and some of these are so photogenic that you can take something that looks great with just your telephone. 

Monument Valley in the American south-west. The USA is overflowing with unsurpassed landscapes like this. The weather was somewhat against Henry and I, and this shot was taken shortly after a snow storm had passed through and temperatures low enough to make us seriously and sanity-questioningly uncomfortable. The light that morning was very peculiar indeed, with the fresh snow combined with orange rocks creating a living sepia effect. We may not have come away with any coffee table stunners, but we will remember this trip for a very long time!

Photos cannot do Antelope Canyon justice, although there are legion attempts far better than this as any google search will show you. Henry and I visited in February and the place was rammed even with a blizzard going on. Most photos show grains of sand falling pleasingly across a sunbeam. I've chosen to go with flakes of snow.

I can't even really remember where this was other than to say it was somewhere between Las Vegas and Zion National Park just before sunset. What we didn't yet know was that the polar vortex would deliver some of the most violent weather either of us had ever seen, which turned the ochre landscapes of Arizona and Utah white. This photos was of one of the preludes to this band of weather, which gave an ethereal quality to the light as the sun went down.

Singapore's Gardens by the Bay, taken from the eastern side during the blue hour. The weather was once again playing tricks, but I successfully dodged the thunder storms that turned the sky black over to the north east. Singapore is a spectacular city, and I really want to go back.

I took this on a walking tour of the city with a colleague, not sure what I balanced the camera on as I didn't have a tripod, but it has come out rather nicely for all that.

This is phone photo, taken whilst driving along the road to Mauna Loa on Hawaii. Shortly after this I heard but could not see my first Omao, the Hawaiian Thrush. Just look at the landscape though, This is not a skilled image, but this transports me back to a red Camaro convertible in glorious weather in a magical place.

Black Sand on Punalu'u Beach, Hawaii. This is actually a colour photograph, I didn't have to tinker with it at all. Birding was my primary purpose of course, but a bit of tourism never goes amiss. Hawaii is a wonderful place, just a bit far away.

The Pacific Ocean, facing west from Hawaii. Over to the right is Maui, but straight out  from Hapuna Beach there is nothing for six thousand miles until you hit Hainan Island near Vietnam. Watching the sun set over the ocean is one of life's great pleasures, were that I lived somewhere where this could be a regular event but alas I am tied to London. 

The only photo from Wanstead in 2019, the incomparable Flats early in the morning. I rarely take my camera out there, so I suspect that this must have been on my phone. The more photos I see from phones the more I wonder why people bother carting massive cameras around the place. Soon I will be too old to carry an enormous camera anyway....

Boston's historic north end early in the morning - I couldn't sleep and got up before the city awoke to a lovely morning. I only had a day, but I ran around like a mad thing and had a thoroughly wonderful time.  On a more serious note, this trip was an absurd indulence and I in all good conscience I should not have gone on it. Fun as it was, it is not on the menu for 2020.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Top ten bird images from 2019

I didn't take as many photos this year as previous years, it appears that I am swinging back to being a birder. That said I have never been just a bird photographer, or at least that is not how I see myself. I am birder who takes photos, and I am equally happy doing that as I am just birding. Sometimes I concentrate on taking pictures, and sometimes I concentrate on seeing how many birds I can see. This year I have simply done more of the latter on my trips away, and less of the former. This makes it a lot easier to filter my output down to just ten, and in fact when I first started typing this post I worried that I might not get there at all!

Oriental Magpie-Robin from the Singapore Botanic Gardens in March. I did not take many good photos in Singapore, it was simply too hot and I was knackered. I fell back to yet another of my hobbies, and instead spent the weekend with my head buried in tropical plants, marveling at the extraordinary verdancy of the island. Of the decent photos I did take, I really like this pose. I was on a raised walkway above a pond, and this bird was with its mate seemingly investigating nesting holes in some dead stumps. I predicted it would land on the top of one of these which it almost immediately did. 

This Olive-backed Sunbird was also in the Singapore Botanic Garden early one morning. I spent over an hour amongst these plantings as a small number of birds came and went, and even though they are lightning fast I managed to get a few shots, of which this is the most pleasing for being, at least in my mind, quite artistic because I've stayed back to try and get the whole flower in the frame.

This Cyprus Wheatear was taken on one of several productive early morning birding sessions on Cyprus over Easter. I was on a family holiday but snuck out every morning for a couple of hours as the sun rose before returning for breakfast and a day of sloth. Of course this wasn't a birding holiday at all, but ironically enough it was by far the most productive for bird photography of the whole year. I suppose this is because I was returning to a location that I have been to several times before and knew exactly what I wanted.

Spectacled Warbler. This is another image from Cyprus taken on Cape Greco in the lovely light about one hour after dawn. The cape was about ten minutes from our hotel and I visited nearly every morning. Spectacled Warblers are extremely common, and whilst normally quite skulky I found a bird that had claimed a bush with a perfect singing perch.

Ruppell's Warbler. Yet another from Cape Greco, and a bird I was seriously pleased to find. It was the only one I saw on the trip, mid-April is quite late for them. It was feeding in a series of low bushes, and would spend a nano-second perched on top of each before diving into it. I missed the bird each and every time on the first few bushes so raced ahead a few bushes and crossed my fingers that the same thing would happen again. It did!

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Texas. Pure luck this one, the bird was perched on a wire fence and I happened to press the shutter at the precise moment that it flew up. Lucky me. It's not the greatest photo ever, almost every element of it could be better, but it's a bit different and if you squint it looks ok. And look, it's a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, so pretty much any photo of it would be a thing of beauty.

Bulgaria is carpeted in Black-headed Buntings, singing from what seems like every bush. I took very few decent photos in Bulgaria this year, the trip in 2018 was a lot better.  It was longer, and the weather was better, and I was just more in tune. Sometime it is like that, and I fail to click. Other times it seems to go well almost from the outset. I've said it before and no doubt I'll say it again, but there seems to be correlation between how much bird photography do and how well it goes. And also whether I improve or not. Right now I am on a plateau and beginning to slip backwards. At least I recognise that though! I do already have a trip booked to Bulgaria for 2020, so let's see how that goes.

Red-backed Shrike, Bulgaria. One of the most common and easily seen birds in the country thanks to a thriving insect population. I remembered them as being easier to take photos of that they in fact are, and opportunities were quite limited. Because I couldn't get especially close I aimed to get a whole plant in, a bit like the Sunbird from Singapore. This is a tactic I should try and employ more. It doesn't have the wow factor of every last feather detail, but it actually takes a bit more thought to achieve.

This is the only photo in this year's selection that was taken in a hide. I don't like hides! However it did provide excellent opportunities to photography song birds at very short range. On the morning I was there Tree Sparrows were amongst the very few species that came into feed and bathe, and I like this over the shoulder pose along with the nice perch, even though it just screams "hide".  

I am still going through the many wader photos that I took in Florida in November of this year. So far I like this one, a Piping Plover, at exactly eye level which meant that I got very muddy and also hurt my neck trying to peer through the view-finder at such a low angle. I like to think it was worth it, and at some point in the next few weeks I hope to go through all the photos I took and put together a few galleries.

Friday 27 December 2019

2019 - The year in review

Well here we are again, another year gone. I swear they go quicker every time. Next year is 2020 which is a rather scary thought - where on earth has the last decade gone? I have a 16 year old son - when I started this blog he was six.... I've had another fun year in very much the same vein as previous ones, that is to say I've almost totally ignored birding in the UK and spent a lot of time pursuing other hobbies instead. Nonetheless it has not been a total write-off...

Best twitch
I went on precisely one UK twitch in 2019, and for a very dull bird indeed, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. However as this is the only time I engaged twitch mode there is nothing else to pick. Seems a little lame really, which it was. Luckily my twitchy instincts are not restricted to the UK, oh no. I also twitch birds abroad. Only as part of already scheduled trips you understand, I don't jet off to see the latest Western Palearctic wonder or anything like that. But if I've got a few days in America I will have a little peek at what is around to see whether I might bump up my puny ABA list by a couple of goodies here are there. So it was that early one Saturday morning in mid November I found myself standing by a golf course mid-way down the Florida Keys, having been shackled at my desk in London the prior day. This was rather a last minute decision. Although the bird, an Antillean Palm Swift, had been hanging around Sombrero Key for a few weeks, when I got on the plane there had been no reports of it for 24 hours. Happily upon landing there was fresh news, and so in the darkness of the Florida evening I pointed my car south. The weather early morning was rather trying, and a small group of dippers from far and wide - as is often the case with ABA rarities - mooched around the eighth tee for a while. I had travelled the furthest, but not by much! Missouri, Connecticut and Michigan were all represented such was the rarity of this species. One of these birders had an ABA list of over 800, but then again this diminutive Swift was only the second for the USA, the first having been in 1972 when this man was just starting his twitching career. Happily when the sun came out late morning so did the bird and it was magnificent. I could scarcely believe that Canary Wharf on Friday afternoon could morph so easily and successfully into the Florida Keys on Saturday morning, but such is modern life I suppose.

Antillean Palm Swift, Marathon, Florida

Best local bird
AS I outlined in the previous post there have not been many local birds to choose from. It would be tempting to simply go with the Greenshank, it was a lovely bird in a nice location and waders in Wanstead are extremely hard to come by. However at the annual Christmas local get together at the Holly Tree pub, we agreed that the spring adult male Garganey had been the best bird of the year (being a tick for almost everyone) and who am I to argue? The location was less lovely - Jubilee Pond - which attracts birds far and wide and yet to human visitors looks like (and is generally treated as...) a toilet. Rob found it early one morning and I rushed out to have a look. The light was a little suspect but later on I returned with a large camera... It was only my second sighting on the patch, the first from years ago of a pair on Heronry which I can barely remember now, and I think you will agree that it was rather a looker.

Best bird photo
I've actually done more birding than bird photography this year in a bit of a reversal. Two trips that were supposed to be photography heavy reverted back to birding trips when Mick had to pull out, and the one trip that we did manage together was made rather difficult by the weather. I did manage some photos in Florida in November once I had got all of the twitching out of my system, but even though this was over a month ago I still have not managed to look through them all. There may be some absolute gems to be discovered! However I remain very pleased with this Olive-backed Sunbird which I took in the Singapore Botanic Gardens in March. Normally I try and get a close in as I can, but for this one I backed off as I wanted the whole flower in the image.

Best trip
As a birding destination Taiwan is fantastic. I went by myself after Mick unfortunately had to drop out and it turned into a four day dawn to dusk search for the endemics. As it happened the photography was really hard work but the birding was amazing, and frequently in stunning scenery. I drove a loop of the northern half of the island, spending most of my time in the central mountains. I missed very little all told, whereas most birding trips to the island need close to two weeks to guarantee all the endemics. In case you missed it, the blog write -up starts here. There is also a full version on Cloudbirders. Very little can touch Taiwan as an exotic yet safe birding destination that is easily done without a guide. Great people, great food, awesome scenery and tons of brilliant birds that are found nowhere else.

Taiwan Scimitar Babbler

Worst trip
Last year I cancelled Iceland as I was busy at work, so that was easy. No such unfortunate happenings this year, although I probably worked harder than ever. Look, does there even have to be one? I've done a nice mix this year. Family holidays in Europe, a few weekend city breaks, a great trip to the landscapes of the American south-west with my son, and then a few long haul birding trips - I've enjoyed every single one of them. The trip to Bulgaria perhaps wasn't as successful as it might have been, but it was still a great weekend. I think I'll just reiterate that in 2020 I plan to go on fewer trips and instead do some more birding in the UK.

Stupidest moment
I spent a whole morning searching for Morrison's Fulvetta in Taiwan without finding one. I did however keep seeing a small flycatcher with an eye-ring that I'd seen on almost all previous days and managed to get a few photos of it. As I was writing up my notes on the plane home I searched the field guide for a match and was staggered to discover that I'd spent several days consistently mis-identifying the Fulvetta and had wasted a morning birding the mountains of Wulai when I could have nipped back down to the coast and seen a whole host of new birds. I guess you can't be good at birding all the time and looking back it is pretty funny. On the plus side I did not hurt myself in 2019, did not break any cameras, and did not sink a car into deep mud or sand. Long may that continue....

Thursday 26 December 2019

2019 on the patch and in lists

Average. Distinctly average. This describes both my effort and the birds! Remarkably I got two new patch ticks, Greenshank and Marsh Harrier. New birds here get harder every year of course, and I actually thought that I wouldn't get any at all after a bumper year in 2018, so a pleasant surprise. The Greenshank was found by Nick when I was at work. This made for a nervous few hours during which I very nearly cracked and rushed back home, but on that particular day my absence would have been noted and I there was nothing I could do. I managed to rush to the park in the dying light of the day, and of course it was still there. In fact it subsequently stayed for something like ten days, and towards the end of its stay was briefly joined by a second which was just absurd.

The Marsh Harrier was a flyover on the Flats in October, a huge grip back from years ago when I simply couldn't get on another flyover. I knew it would fall eventually but it took seven years. I spied it through a gap in the brooms as I walking alongside Long Wood with a couple of the guys, and basically started yelling. The views were less than stellar, but when we started adding it all up we all arrived at Marsh Harrier. Some crappy record shots later confirmed it once the colours and tones had been dialled right up.

Away from these new birds I had three "seconds" - a Garganey on the Jubilee Pond, a rather too friendly Mandarin on Alex, and a flyover Osprey exactly a week before the Marsh Harrier, but the rest of the year has been slim pickings and my list is one of my lowest ever. The misses probably stand out more than the hits. No Common Sandpiper, no Common Tern. No Shelduck! The latter usually always fly over the patch in early spring, but you have to be on the spot and I simply didn't put the effort in this year.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the patch, but unless I commit to it 100% the misses are going to be the story going forward. And I think we all know by now that I won't. It's a great place to have on my doorstep, but the world of birds is far larger and there is a lot of interest further away, although not that far. I had a great walk around Rainham a couple of weeks ago to remind me what UK birding was like away from Wanstead, and all my eBirding of late has reminded me about many of the fantastic sites in East Anglia. Why shackle myself to a single place where I can only see so much? There is some nobility about it of course, the humble patch-or-die worker elevated to sainthood status, but it would drive me mad in the end. No, I am happy with how I go about it. 

I am less happy about how little UK birding I've done this year. I once saw 300 species two years running. That was nearly ten years ago and I don't want to do that again, but when my UK year list is only 140 species with only 34 outside Wanstead, and just 23 outside of London... well that's not very balanced. I've taken the liberty of describing what has been happening in a simple graph.

It looks like there was a slight reversal of the trend in 2016, but otherwise it has been a steady slide. And one that I don't think will be hard to reverse. In an interesting parallel I once saw 140 in a single day in Suffolk and Norfolk! But of course something will need to give, time is ever limited and if anything becoming scarcer. That something is likely my non-UK birding ambitions. Perhaps this is not a bad thing. 

This year I saw just over 500 birds worldwide, of which 213 were in America. Four brief trips stateside netted far more species than a whole year in Wanstead. Who would have thought it? It was fabulous actually, but if I'm to see more in the UK then that probably means I have to see less in the US and elsewhere. Birding new places sustains me like almost no other pursuit, so I won't, can't, give it up. There are already plans afoot, some just around the corner in fact. But I have done so little birding in the UK for the last five years that my hope is that it will feel new and exciting, and I am prepared to give it a go. 

Perhaps even as early as New Year's Day.

Sunday 22 December 2019

Tantalisingly close

I was wondering earlier today whether I had waffled sufficiently about eBird recently. I decided that I had, but unfortunately this isn't going to stop me. The functionality is quite amazing, and if you are a bird nerd, simply wonderful. Allegedly. For instance a couple of days ago I had just completed a bit of a garden bird watch, and realised in doing so that the five Bullfinch in my parent's garden were my 498th species for 2019. I am sure that all fellow bird nerds will realise that to finish a year on 498 species is simply unacceptable.

I had a quick look at what I'd seen, what I hadn't seen, and what was likely to be seen around Fife. Plenty as it happened. I persuaded my Mum to drive me to Leven to see if there were any Goldeneye - there were. It was like being 16 again. So, 499. 

499 is of course even more unacceptable than 498, however fear not, for family gatherings in late December are bracing pre-lunch walk territory, and I could likely swing this to my advantage. Our family is extremely democratic, so my father immediately vetoed a trip to Loch Leven. He wanted to go the beach he said, so naturally we all fell in line as he had the car keys. In my mid forties I am still not responsible enough to be insured to drive his car.

So off to Largo Bay we went. In truth I was not disappointed, it is one of my favourite places to go birding anywhere, species count be damned. Half the family, me included, were dropped off at Shell Bay. The others returned to Lower Largo where we would meet them in a couple of hours.

South-east to Ruddon's Point

Our route took us out to Ruddon's Point, across the Cocklemill Burn, and then along the wide sweep of Largo Bay to the village of Lower Largo. The weather was kind, the light fantastic, and I enjoyed the kind of birding that mostly I only dream of. Flocks of sea duck on a mirror-like surface, clockwork Sanderlings running up and down the beach accompanied by Bar-tailed Godwit and Grey Plover, Rock Pipits and Turnstone in the tidal wrack. Knot, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover and Dunlin scavenging along the rockier shoreline. Armed only with bins, the identification of many of the birds in the bay was beyond me, but two Slavonian Grebe were clear cut, as were a pair of Guillemot, several Red-breasted Merganser, and a handful of Long-tailed Duck. All Scoters I assigned to Common, I could detect no white, but the Eiders were easy enough, far bulkier. In short it was fabulous, and I was surprised to discover when I arrived at the village that my year list stood at 504. Mission accomplished, and with proper birding rather than any kind of targeted tick and run.

Looking west towards Lower Largo and Methil
I recorded 47 species during what was a very pleasant walk indeed. I was in the moment, it was almost valedictory. No bird escaped - the single call of a Reed Bunting, the chattering of a Wren, the clicking of Stonechats. I love birding, it does not matter where I am, there are always birds.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Glorious Godwits

Recently in Florida I was lucky enough to get some really close views of Marbled Godwits. Until a couple of years ago I had inexplicably never seen this species. I think I rectified that on a beach in California, but only briefly as I recall there was a lady with a is not just in Wanstead.

I lay down on my stomach to get these, and got extremely wet, muddy and sandy in the process. I think it was worth it and I hope you do too, although in the interests of full transparency I am only posting these to a) ensure I get to 100 blog posts in 2019 and b) don't get there by ranting about the General Election.

Friday 20 December 2019

Neon Moon

My latest addiction is a version of "Neon Moon" by Brooks and Dunn. This was one of the earliest hits for the incredibly successful duo of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. When I say successful I mean ridiculously so. They won the CMA vocal due award in every year from 1992 to 2006 bar one, and churned out number one after number one. Not here of course, nobody has ever heard of them, but luckily I am here to put that right. As part of my love affair with Americana I got into Brooks and Dunn a while ago, albeit not as long ago as the early 90s which is when this song dates from. 

It is a great great song. However I did not become totally transfixed until I heard Kacey Musgraves perform a live version of it in London at C2C a few years ago. Unfortunately I was not there that year and only heard it on the radio, and sadly the "play again" of that broadcast disappeared after a while leaving only some crappy phone-recorded versions from live concerts on You Tube. I sustained myself on these for a few years until Brooks and Dunn released a new album of their older work featuring other artists - Reboot. Incredibly Neon Moon featuring good ol' KM was on it, and my family have been suffering ever since. I would not want others to miss out on their experience, so here are both the original and rebooted versions for your delectation. 

You're welcome.

Thursday 19 December 2019

Working Birding

I am in bonny Scotland for a couple of days, a flying visit pre-Christmas to see my parents in Fife. Unfortunately this is not a holiday, I ran out of those some time ago. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology though I can essentially perform my role from anywhere, and if it is just for a few days I'd wager quite a few people may not even notice my seat in Canary Wharf is empty as I continue to be on conference calls and am still firing out emails at a furious rate.

So today, which just ended from a work perspective, rather than gazing out at a sea of sterile concrete and glass as I would normally, instead I had a nice view of a hedge, two recently filled peanut feeders, a strip of grass and then a large hill and a portion of sky. As a result rather than seeing a Pigeon (if I'm lucky!) I saw an almost constant stream of garden birds. And not just your regulars like Blue Tits and Robins. The feeders here have Bullfinches and Tree Sparrows! In fact the Tree Sparrows outnumber almost everything else, and given how scarce they are where I come from this really is a special treat. Today I logged around 20 species, including a small skein of Pink-footed Geese which were a 'garden' tick. 

It is the differences I find interesting. Not that my parents see any distinction between a House Sparrow or a Tree Sparrow of course, so telling them how cool this is falls somewhat on deaf ears, but when my Mum was down in London recently she couldn't wait to tell me about all the "Parrots" she had seen on my feeders while I was out at work. Which naturally fell on completely deaf ears....

Illustrative....the views here are not quite like this.

Monday 16 December 2019

Missing You

I've been gradually littering my Twitter feed with pictures of lovely birds on sandy beaches. This blog got a little bit of the same treatment the other day, with a post dedicated to more photos of Plovers than there were words on the page. As we drift towards the Christmas break this may end up being regular padding. I am basically exhausted, drained. Work, polictics, a cold that will just not go away, so I hope you will forgive a few pictures that shout 'warmth' here and there. Florida was brilliant, the perfect mixture of proper birding and serious photography, and all under sunny skies. I suggested to Mrs L that we might move there - lovely birds, tropical plants in profusion, great weather. She said no. Something about Americans. Given recent events I think a bit of navel-gazing might be in order. Anyway here is a Tricoloured Heron. Spelled properly. I am missing it, but at least it is not missing U.

Sunday 15 December 2019


It has been a long time coming, but I have finally seen a Firecrest at Rainham Marshes. My first recorded visit to Rainham was in 2007, and in that time I have seen 196 species. Whilst most of my birding there took place when I was employed as a Domestic Godess in 2009 and 2010, I still go over there from time to time but it is fair to say that my list has essentially stalled. Here is the progress since becoming a paid employee once again.

184  Slaty-backed Gull 2011
185  Marsh Warbler 2012
186  Baillon's Crake
187  Black-necked Grebe 2013
188  Green-winged Teal
189  Pectoral Sandpiper  
190  Razorbill 2016
191  Dusky Warbler
192  Quail 2017
193  Black-winged Stilt
194  Crane
195  Marsh Sandpiper 2018
196  Rough-legged Buzzard
197  Firecrest 2019

Slow going, but having a salary has also proved useful. There is some proper quality in there though, especially in a London context. Firecrest was in many ways a startling omission. Not that there is much suitable habitat over there, but they are regular enough. What is irregular is me and my visits. If I have the time or the inclination to go birding at the weekend, Wanstead is almost always my first choice. I need to work on being in two places at the same time, it would help tremendously. 

I had a leisurely start and did not manage to get over there until about 10.30, and then did a small circuit. The Firecrest has been there for a few weeks - earlier in the autumn there may have been several but I never managed to get over. It was in the Woodland as you would expect, but I had to do a couple of circuits before I bumped into it. I was in full birding mode today with a scope instead of a camera so you will have to excuse the dodgy photo. It was a somewhat hopeful point my phone at a bush and see what happened experiment. I reckon it can be reliably identified as a Firecrest though.

I walked a whole circuit, eBirding away on my mobile which was quite slow going. I was trying to count wildfowl as it is a WEBS weekend, and Rainham is absolutely stuffed full of Geese and Ducks at the moment. 500+ Wigeon, 300+ Greylag, 200+ Canada, 200+ Teal, and decent numbers of almost everything else - 12 species in all. Good birding, and made a nice change from seeing very little in Wanstead. 

Saturday 14 December 2019

The unexpected duet

I listen to a lot of music, there is frequently something on in the background. Either a perennial favourite or something new. All very middle of the road of course, I am nothing if not boring. This frequently annoys the family, as I move from room to room leaving behind me something I have put on. I will be going back I say, and then after a while I don't and so put something one wherever it is that I am now. This is the joy of voice-activated smart home gubbins. If I had to stop and put a CD on I wouldn't. But I can simply say "Alexa, play some boring middle of the road music that the whole family will detest" and on it comes.

As long-time readers may know, I have a soft spot for country music. One of the things about the country music scene, perhaps more than any other, is the frequency of collaboration. Nashville-based musicians are constantly hopping into each other's studios, always popping up on each other's albums. You never quite know what you are going to get, and so when am playing a new album from someone I like there are frequently some wonderful surprises. Some of course work better than others, and a few of these really do something for me, almost in a tingling kind of way - you feel the hairs on the back your neck stand up. As an example try listening to "The Heart Won't Lie" by Reba McEntire and tell me that when Vince Gill comes in that you don't feel something.

OK, so probably it is just me, but - and this is not a word of a lie - it does it each and every time, just like the first time I heard it. I have no idea why that should be, it just happens. I have loads more examples - when Ruth Moody comes in on Mark Knopfler's "Wherever I go" on the album Tracker. Joni Mitchell's improvised backing vocals when Neil Young sings "Helpless" on The Band's Last Waltz. Alan Jackson on Zac Brown's "As She's Walking Away".  Embarrassingly, when Taylor Swift appears on Tim McGraw's "Highway Don't Care".....

Because I mostly listen to streamed music these days rather than having a CD in my hands, these duets almost always crop up unexpectedly the first time. You're humming along, getting along with whatever it is, and then out of the blue a new voice appears. If you can place that voice, as I often I can due to the aforementioned studio-hopping, then this is often for the trigger for something special. I'm genuinely surprised, "Oh, this is so-and-so isn't it?", and I listen that little bit more closely, become more absorbed, and the song becomes more memorable. Over time this must reinforce itself, especially the amount I replay music.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Plover Lover

Word light, photo heavy. Still struggling with eBird, although some instances of vindication are occuring. Regardless, this post is one hundred percent filler. I was recently in Florida getting very muddy on a tidal beach and it was fantastic. Despite the many many birds feeding I am not convinced on the water quality as my latest set of Fire Ant bites have become infected and are still oozing nearly three weeks later. I thought salt water generally cured all ills. I'll spare you the foot photos, but you do have to suffer some Plovers.


Monday 2 December 2019

eBird hero to zero

There is a new eBird hero on the block. Me. And I deserve some serious kudos, for I've just uploaded some 2500 UK checklists. For those not familiar with the concept, a checklist is a defined list of birds seen in a certain location on a certain date - either actual counts or an indication that a species was present but without a count. The theory is that other users also enter their lists, and thus you have a gigantic database that grows exponentially and in time becomes an incredible scientific resource. I had a lot of lists going back years, all stored in a huge Excel spreadsheet. Thousands of lists with every bird I've seen. Counts too in some cases, not simply that I'd seen a species, but that I'd counted twenty three of them. Not many birders will have that kind of electronic record. Faced with that many lists in a series of notebooks for example, how many birders would attempt to digitize them? Some of the earliest lists date from 2003, and there is a glut from 2009-2011 when I found myself gleefully unemployed and able to go birding the length and breadth of the land. UK birding has of course rather tailed off now that I don't twitch, but I still dutifully record each and every outing on the patch when I get home. I submitted 997 lists from Wanstead alone.

EBird has the facility for bulk uploads, so I painstakingly created a template that would allow me to transfer my Excel records in large batches. At this point I'd like to apologise to all the volunteer bird list checkers out there, graciously giving their time to try and keep eBird free from nonsensical data. It's not that my lists are complete garbage, but there has been a teensy weensy problem with dates. My spreadsheet is a thing of beauty, but I will be the first to admit that spreadsheet design is not my forte. It appears that about fifteen years ago i made the momentous decision to combine the location and the date in one cell. Apparently I also decided that consistency was something that needn't concern me too much. Anyway, many years later I have an exceptional record of sightings which are almost impossible to extract a date for, despite the fact that it is there in black and white.

"Wanstead Flats, Sep 2nd", with the year recorded in a separate cell.

Looks simple, but it isn't. 

What about "Wanstead Flats. London, 2nd Sept"? 

You get the idea. How do I get from myriad versions of this to a simple US date format of mm/dd/yyyy? It was very nearly beyond me. Numerous eBird volunteers may suggest that it was definitely beyond me. Eventually I worked out a formula that converted vast majority of the dates correctly, removing commas, splitting the location, days and months, and then concatenating them back up. It was so nearly perfect....ahem.

Many of the dates are correct. Many however seem completely random, and where these concern rarities, as many do, this is confounding the volunteers. Some are close, for instance I was only ten days out on the Portland Brunnich's Guillemot, my translation formula having produced 12/19/2012 rather than 12/29/2012. But when the bird was not found until the 26th..... Others are just rubbish, with no element of the day, month or year bearing any resemblance to when I actually saw a bird. Puffins on the Isle of May in December, Pink-footed Geese in high summer, that kind of thing. When you order my lists by date this results in my being in Scotland, on Scilly and at home in Wanstead more or less simultaneously, or at the very least hints at some rather crazy driving.

Correcting these foul ups is taking some time, and in many cases the vols are get to them first. I think they have some sort of auto exception flagging, but nonetheless it must be rather irritating, especially when these records are from 2008 and so on. Mostly they are being very helpful, suggesting what the actual dates was based on weekends etc, or telling me the period during which the bird was present. Others are more curt, just saying my list is wrong and to please check it. Fair enough really, and so that is what I am doing, helped by the original spreadsheet, this blog, and also good old fashioned notebooks - essential for working out which list is which where it involves a pace I've visited many times. Norfolk seems particularly screwed up, along with Scottish records excluding Shetland. I'll get there, but so much for the efficiency of the batch upload. Then again without it I likely would not have bothered.

Hassle aside it is a great trip down memory lane. I didn't half get about in those days. Every weekend there is something. A juicy mega, a long sea watch, a day of migrant quality on the Norfolk coast and, in between, hundreds of patch visits. I birded a huge amount. It makes me want to do so again.

Monday 25 November 2019


There are certain advantages to the onset of cold weather. Whisky is one of them. Whereas Gin and Tonic dominates in summer, as winter begins to take over from autumn Whisky starts to feature a lot more. This evening marks the first of this period, and I have chosen something from Orkney in honour of the Steller's Eider that I would really like to see but probably won't. I have never been to Highland Park actually, it would be a good double. Never say never, but unlikely.

Like all good whisky drinkers I have a special glass I am drinking it from, and I am afraid I am also wearing slippers. I could be 80 but I'm not. I definitely feel old though. Recently in Scotland I really felt the cold, especially in my hands, and a I enjoy a solid eight hours of sleep every night. Oh, except when I have to get up half way through, you know.... Well, some of you will know. Younger readers perhaps not. You will though, you will....

The dram is going down a treat, Highland Park always does. It is neither too bland nor too peaty, neither too smooth nor too fiery. Perfection . I had forgotten how much I enjoy Whisky, in moderation of course. Everything in moderation nowadays. Especially birding....

Saturday 23 November 2019

Taiwan - Trip List

Trip List

Bold = widely recognised endemic
Bold Italics = treated as endemic by some authorities
Asterisk = subspecies unique to Taiwan