Friday 30 August 2019

Sneaking a few in

My patch dedication has been less than impressive this year, mirroring my blogging. I may have ‘phased’ in both. As previously mentioned I am not too bothered by this, and sure enough in the last few days something has begun to stir, and what started off as small forays to pick off migrants are turning into longer outings. I think I have timed this perfectly, particularly given all my other interests.

It began a week ago, last Friday, when in danger of missing the largest influx of migrant Tree Pipits any of us can remember for a long time, I snuck out on the patch early one misty morning and was rewarded instantly. There were three birds that day, and I saw either one, two or all of them, it is impossible to say. I also found a Whinchat, another year tick. I wasn’t able to then get out at the weekend, mainly by virtue of being in Belgium, but another quick raid on Bank Holiday Monday netted a Spotted Flycatcher and a Pied Flycatcher in under half an hour, as well as a Garden Warbler.  The following few days were dominated by Canary Wharf, but I managed to get away early on Wednesday and snuck in 5 Whinchat and a Common Redstart before it got dark. This really got the juices flowing and the following morning I walked across Wanstead Flats to Manor Park to catch the train rather than my usual tube from Leytonstone. During this really quite direct walk, which took a little over half an hour, I totted up 5 Whinchat (almost certainly the same birds as the previous evening), 3 Common Redstart, and 8 Northern Wheatear. To say I arrived at Canary Wharf with a spring in my step would be an understatement.

Which brings me to this morning, keener by the day, when I was out at 7am. With more time on my side I was able to linger for longer in the Enclosure. A Garden Warbler, a Reed Warbler, and two Common Redstart, one of which was an absolute belter of a male. Close by 4 Whinchat remained in the brooms, and a Hobby cruised overhead. Tomorrow is the weekend, I am in the country, I am not going to Cornwall/Brittany Booby-twitching, and I cannot wait!  

Bird Days.

A lot of the birds we have all seen this week are the same birds that have decided that Wanstead Flats is so nice that they are going to stay for a few days. This makes determining how many individuals we have seen very hard, so the best thing to do is to use the concept of bird days. We all understand that this multiplies the numbers, but it makes annual comparisons more straightforward. My totals are meagre, but the overall numbers for August are phenomenal.

Wheatear = 24
Whinchat = 55
Pied Flycatcher = 17
Spotted Flycatcher = 29
Common Redstart = 24
Tree Pipit = 39

So we all know that the Whinchat total is significantly boosted by a group of 4 or 5 birds that have hung around for nearly a whole week in a large patch of Willowherb south of Long Wood. Ditto the Common Redstart, the last few days have seen the same birds remaining in exactly the same spots around the patch. What can be quite illuminating however are the maximum counts, they at least prove unequivocally that we are getting some really rather good numbers, as opposed to a single bird hanging around for weeks on end.  So for example on one day, August 24th, there were 6 Pied Flycatcher reported. On the 27th there were 10 Whinchat, and on the 29th 7 Common Redstart and at least 12 Wheatear. Birds obviously move around a patch during the day, and so this can be somewhat subjective, but we do try and take account of specific locations to assess the likelihood of duplication, and we don’t think this exaggerated. For example we would generally not expect birds near Alexandra Lake at the far eastern end of the patch to be the same birds that are recorded in the SSSi at the western end, though we acknowledge that it can happen. Best efforts really.

Still, I don’t know of another urban patch quite like it, and I am very lucky to have it on my doorstep.

Wednesday 14 August 2019


As I mentioned in the last post, for the last ten years I've kept a travel journal. This started off life as a pure birding diary, a day by day blow of birds I'd seen along with meticulous lists. It still is, though its scope has expanded to also include pure travel. Not all travel, that would become a little tedious, so for instance a day trip to a european city is unlikely to feature. However some of my more far-flung trips get a mention, even if their primary goal is not birds or photography, such as Malaysia and Japan with Mrs L, or Utah and Arizona with Henry. Birds always feature however, however minimally - as a birder I can never properly switch off, there is always something that needs recording.

I use something called the Alwych, I think I picked it up from a Mark Cocker book on birding (Tales of a Tribe), and it has proved perfect. It fits nicely in my newfound jacket pockets, and is neatly lined, although I only use these as guides to try and keep vaguely straight. My handwriting is extremely small and I only get around 25 days holiday a year, so I'm actually only on my second one although this is now nearly full. I started it in 2014 and I don't think it will last much into 2020.

I used to be extremely diligent, writing it up every evening after a day's birding, but more recently I have lost my way, and for a whole year I didn't even pick it up. This became a significant niggle, and in May I put it on my to do list. It was a mammoth undertaking. 
Somehow I had to remember all the the trips I had been on since around August 2018, as well as all the birds I had seen. Luckily I had forseen my extreme laziness and had made various lists on scraps of paper which I had carefully retained, but actually placing myself back on my travels was a long and labourious process. Mostly I caught up on flights, airline lounges or hotel rooms - constantly irritated that I wanted to be writing the here and now rather than the past, but not wishing to mess up the chronology. I must never be so slack again. 

Earlier this month I finally finished - the last entry was my trip to Long Island. Since August 2018 I have filled 56 pages. I counted the words on a random page and there were 359, so it has taken me 20,00 words to catch up. No wonder it took a long time! Of course it is a lot slower after the event. I needed to remember what order I went to places, I had to consult maps, old blog posts and lists of flights, I needed to painstakingly transcribe bird lists onto the page and do the odd sketch. This was quite a fun process and a good test of my memory, but sometimes there would be a mental delay and I would find that after I had finished a day off and moved on to the next only then would I remember some funny incident I had witnessed, people I had talked too, other birds I had seen, what I had eaten or in some cases whole passages of the day that with the passing of time I had completely skipped and now there was no room in which to go back. In fact the last year of writings could be described as rather boring in the context of the rest of it. Writing it so far down the line is never going to be as rich as doing it whilst travelling. It felt rather forced, that I had lost the emotions of immediacy, of the present. My family would contend that the whole thing is boring! But this is not supposed to be a classic read, it is supposed to be a memory jogger, a record of the fun I have had. Nobody else really cares and nor should they, despite the length this is not my magnum opus, it is just another way to while away the many spare hours I have and no idea what to do with them.

Monday 12 August 2019

Book Club 2

I tried this out at around this time last year, and seeing as I restarted birding at the weekend yet only saw a Chiffchaff this strikes me as a perfect time at which to have another go. I have been reading a lot recently - I am in the voracious phase and have read most of these in the last six weeks. Clockwise from the top left a visit to a friend provided the first two, a trip to Daunt Books provided the third which in turn recommended the fourth, and Mrs L passed me the fifth and sixth saying I would enjoy them. She was not wrong. Books are one of the great pleasures in life - I read on the tube in the morning and evening, in bed at night, and very frequently on airplanes. I just wish I could develop a habit of sitting down in the daytime at home and reading - I have a lovely armchair with a nice view which would be just perfect for this - but unfortunately I am totally unable to sit still as there are just too many jobs to be done. I have not read as much as I would like this year - a lot of my spare sitting time was spent catching up on my travel journal which I let slip for the best part of a year. That is now finally done and I can turn my attentions towards what others have written which is a lot more interesting. So here are this summer's reads.

Travels with a Tangerine - Tim Mackintosh-Smith
This book explores the remarkable travels of Ibn Battutah, a fourteenth century muslim native of Tangiers who set off on a pilgrimage to Mecca which ended up taking him most of his life and across huge swathes of what was then the known world. Like me he kept a journal, he can be said to be one of the first travel writers. His experiences however were incredibly interesting, and so with "The Travels" in hand the author (fluent in Arabic) sets off to try and trace Ibn Battutah's medieval journeys and to see if he can find what he saw. A lot of this involves religious shrines of one sort or another, but don't let this deter you from what is a cracking read and truly excellent travel writing.

A Little History of the World - E. H. Gombrich
If like me your knowledge of entire eras is a little sketchy then this is an ideal book to try and fill in the gaps. It was written for children, and is brilliantly done, no wonder it is a classic. In a six week period the author somehow covered the entirety of human history from 2500 BC to the end of the First World War. The language is a bit facile in places as you would expect, but if you are in need of a crash course of almost the events that have shaped the world as it was known up until the advent of Facism, this is a book for you.

Sicily through Writers Eyes - Horatio Clare
In a rare outing to London Mrs L dragged me to Daunt Books - a heavenly place. We have a family holiday to Sicily coming up, and so I went off to have a look at the Italian section and pulled out both this and Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell. This book is an exploration of Sicily throughout the ages, from its earliest beginnings to the modern-day Casa Nostra. The islands has been through more hands than almost any other place, and the Sicily of today is therefore a tapestry of Phonecian, Carthagian, Roman, Greek, Norman and Italian to name but a few. Like the book above it is presented chronologically, with the author using the prose of others to navigate through the centuries. In truth I found some of the earlier parts of the book hard work, ancient battles and campaigns chronicled by Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch and Cicero felt like something I had to get through, but the extract from the Travels of Ibn Jubayr (who preceded Ibn Battutah by 140 years) was a particular highlight, as was the chapter taken from Il Gattopardo by Lampedusa. So good in fact that I bought the entire book straight away and absolutely raced through it.

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) - Giuseppe di Lampedusa
What a book. You can never really do wrong reading the classics. It desribes the life of a Sicilian noble, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, and his extended family, set at the time of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy). The Prince forsees that he is the last in his decadent upper class line, and that a new vulgar order will take over and could destroy all traces of the past unless the old order somehow accepts the new. An unenthusiastic and unsuccessful attempt to change the unfaltering path of history then follows. I only wish that I could have read this book in Italian, for what I found hugely enjoyable would probably be doubly so in the original text.

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I don't know how to describe this book. It is both comedy and tragedy, magical farce and bitter historical violence. A hundred years of multiple generations of the Buendia family (almost all called Aureliano - confusion is inevitable, even the family tree at the start barely helps - I am sure this intentional) from the founding of their town of Macondo to it's utter ruin after war, famine and flood, a microcosm of Colombian history and national ethnicity. It inspired Louis de Bernieres' South American trilogy set in the city of Cochedebajo de los Gatos, and I am glad I have finally read "the original", another modern classic. 30 million people were always unlikely to be wrong.

The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert
I am only halfway through this one but it is riveting. There have been five main extinction events, the most recent being that which ushered the Cretaceous period out. Humans are now creating the sixth, condemning many thousands of species to death before we had even worked out a word for "extinction". It is a sobering read, and in the context of the daily news around climate change and people like Trump and Bolsonaro, an important one. In short post-industrial revolution humans are creating an event that is geological and catastrophic in terms of scale, and that will be recorded in the sediment in the same way as the gigantic meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs.


I have lots more to come. As I think I have mentioned I go through intense periods of reading followed by intense periods of doing other things. It was ever thus. So I have an extensive backlog of books that I want to read. They are gifts from others, or indeed gifts from me to me, loans from friends and hand-me-downs from family, and it is quite exciting to think that so much discovery awaits me. Some of them I am in the middle of already, but have put them down to read something else. The scramble for Africa is 680 pages of european incursion and robbery that has set the scene for post-independence dictatorships and civil wars that have lasted longer than the original colony. It is a tough read and there is only so much of it I can take in one sitting, but I am learning a massive amount about a continent that I have barely visited yet know many of the countries, place names and areas through my love of plants. 

There is another book about Sicily, a book that combines birding and travel, a book about espionage, a Jamaican microcosm and a book about the use of Pigeons in WW2. A rich and varied pile, I have no idea which one I should read next! Do let me know if you have any particular suggestions regarding reading order, or indeed your thoughts on any of the ones I have already read.

Wednesday 7 August 2019

What are these funny green things?

I've just found these odd green tubey things on a shelf. Does anyone know what they are and what they're used for? They've got glass at both ends and appear to be some bizarre device for making things appear really small, which seems really rather pointless. I can't remember ever using them and I have no idea where they have come from or how they got into the house. Suggestions gratefully received.

In other news I may start birding again soon.

Monday 5 August 2019

Nickerson Beach and Jamaica Bay NWR - Day 2

I was awoken by rain on the roof of the car, not the best way to start a day of planned photography. It did stop but the light was dire, nonetheless I had a short wander on the beach in search of opportunities. Not much doing, though some [unfortunate] interest in some Common Tern that were being harassed by a red balloon that had drifted into the breeding colony. Even though it was the fault of humans I didn’t feel I should go and deal with it in case I caused even greater anxiety or even worse trod on an egg. In the end they popped it and settled back down, I just hope that nothing eats it.

Finding no photographic scenes of note I changed tack and went birding over the road at the Lido Passive Nature Area. This is not a big area but it had lots of birds – breeding Osprey, both species of Night Heron, plenty of egrets and best of all a Clapper Rail. I followed the path to the end where there was a viewing platform out towards the last few remaining bay houses. Unfortunately it soon became apparent that I was the dish of the day for vast swarms of mosquitos that also inhabited the swampy shoreline, and I was forced to beat a retreat back to the car. The weather had not really improved – grey muggy skies – so it looked like birding was going to be the order of the day rather than photography. I never view this as a problem and I had plenty of ideas of where to go. Fed up with Ticks of the small crawly kind and wanting to be close to the airport for a quick getaway, there was only really ever one plan – Jamaica Bay NWR, that splendid nature reserve with rather unexpected views of the Manhattan skyline. After a truly excellent multi-thousand calorie breakfast at the Crossbay Diner which would ensure I didn’t need to eat again for the rest of the day, I pulled up at the reserve. It is free to enter, and the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy had been repaired since the last time I visited which meant that the entire West Pond is able to be walked. I thought about not taking my camera, but the weather seemed to have improved marginally so once more I hauled it onto my shoulder.

Diamondback Terrapin
Per eBird my ABA targets at Jamaica were a summering Long-tailed Duck and breeding Barn Owl, with an outside possibility of Eider and Black Scoter in the bay. The LT Duck fell quite quickly, floating about incongruously among the Canada Geese and Mallards. An odd way to see one but gratefully notched up. I ended up walking around the West Pond twice there was so much to see. The best area was probably closest to the newly repaired bund – Song Sparrow, Tree SwallowYellow Warbler and Brown Thrasher were numerous and quite obliging, I was pleased I had brought my camera even though it was a fair distance to lug it. Lots of Grackles, Common Yellowthroat, and American Goldfinch. A Barn Owl was present and correct in its box for the second ABA tick of the day, and basically I had an unhurried, Tick-free and extremely pleasant wander. As well as birds the paths held the occasional Diamondback Terrapin in egg-laying mode. An exasperated yet extremely patient volunteer was attempting to pick up these errant reptiles and take them somewhere more suitable for excavating a hole, the beach say, but they were giving her the runaround! I helped her pick one up and put it in a bucket, it was surprisingly heavy.

Brown Thrasher

Song Sparrow
After my second loop I crossed the road and went to Big John’s Pond which held another occupied Barn Owl box and four Black-crowned Night Herons. The much larger East Pond had Wood Duck, Black Duck, and a flock of nine Glossy Ibis, but all were over the far side next to the A-Train tracks. I was surprised to find that it was now mid-afternoon and as I didn’t want to head back out on another foray instead I packed up, got changed and drove the short distance to JFK. This meant quite a lot of time at the airport but I was able to have a shower and then hunker down in the lounge and get on with my birding notebook which I was severely behind on. I caught up on another few days of my Utah trip and then flew home. A far better trip than my last attempt. 

Trip list

Sunday 4 August 2019

Nickerson Beach and Long Island - Day 1

  • Friday night after work to JFK, returning overnight on Sunday and thus straight to work on Monday morning. Slightly brutal, but days off are somewhat at a premium. As usual I burned some airmiles to get a flat bed on the way back - this ensured I survived Monday without falling asleep at my desk.
  • After my absurd AirBnB experience three years ago I decided to camp by the beach. Unfortunately I could not ever get the Nickerson Beach campground website to work so I decided to wing it and sleep in the car.  If I got really tired I could always go to a motel. This worked out fantastically well, and (with apologies to the campground, but you know, fix your website eh?) I was able to park right next to the beach and use the toilet block and showers. It was more of an RV park anyhow, I didn't see a single tent.
  • I hired a car from Avis with a nice big back seat. I can't remember what it was but it fitted me just fine and I slept perfectly well.

Day 0: Friday night after work to JFK and straight to Nickerson and to sleep.
Day 1: Saturday morning on the beach, afternoon birding around Long Island
Day 2: Sunday morning on the beach, all afternoon at Jamaica Bay NWR, and then overnight to London 

Day by day account

Day 0: I got a fortunate upgrade on the plane after displaying gentlemanly conduct and giving up my bulkhead seat to a nursing mother who needed room to spread out, and thus crossed the Atlantic in relative comfort. I probably got to Nickerson at around 11pm local time once I had picked up my car and bought some provisions. The road to the car park was open so that late RV'ers could return to their luxurious buses at any time, and I was able to simply park up where they left their cars and pickups and thus gain some comfort from not being exposed. Mrs L was quite worried I was going to get shot in the wilds, this being the wild west and all, but in fact I was just fine, and went to sleep with the sound of the Tern and Skimmer colony in my ears. Far more dangerous were the Ticks that proliferate across Long Island, but more on that later.

Day 1: I had a surprisingly good sleep and was awoken by cars speeding past to the beach at around 5.30am. The day was dawning and it looked like the light was going to be fantastic. I surmised that the procession of early morning vehicles contained bird photographers and this proved to be spot on. I hurried to join them. Another benefit of a early start was that the car park booths are not manned until much later on in the morning, perhaps 9am, so I avoided some kind of obscene fee ($30 I think). 

The beach was crawling with camotwats taking photos into the rising sun. This is the disadvantage of going to popular places, but the beach is big enough and the colonies large enough that you can generally find your own spot. Far more irritating was the local policeman on a quad bike driving up and down the beach disturbing the feeding American Oystercatchers and their chicks. I suspect he was there to keep on eye on weekend photographers as I have heard that there have been problems with people trying to go inside the ropes, which I suppose shouldn't come as any great surprise. Nobody transgressed at all, so he ended up being the only person causing disturbance which is a bit ridiculous as he had no need to repeatedly drive up and down. No matter. The light was brilliant, and I had with me my skimmer pod and gimbal head and so spent a happy few hours pushing my lens around on the sand trying to get some artistic shots of birds. The colony was very active - no Skimmer or Tern chicks this early in the season, but lots of squabbling in the dunes. The American Oystercatchers had chicks, and I probably spent most time with these as they fed in the surf and then brought back morsels for the youngsters - small crabs for the most part.

On the photography front don't think I did all that well, but I still think I did better than last time so that's something, and of course it beats the heck out of being in Wanstead in June. This is always my trouble on short trips, it takes a while to get used to what I am doing and remember what works and what doesn't, as it has generally been a very long time since I found myself in a similar situation. Or these days, since I picked up my camera at all. Those that are able to take great shots from the very first moment deserve much adulation.

The disadvantage of fantastic golden hour days is that the light becomes harsh quite quickly, and so by 9am it was all over. I returned to the car, swapped my camera for a towel and went and had a shower. Time to go birding! Enter, one of the most fabulous birding resources ever developed. Before I left I had spent a happy few hours on this website exploring all of the what they call "birding hotspots". You can see what people have seen recently, or the totality of what has been seen over the last ten years. Most importantly you can search by species and thus match your wants with what has been seen. It is fabulous, and I am gradually uploading all of my birding lists to it so that other people can benefit from my sightings. 

My first stop was Captree Island, reached along the barrier island of Jones Beach State Park. The target was Saltmarsh Sparrow, a specialist of low-lying coastal sites that somehow I had never encountered in all of my visits. Captree island did not have many options unless you had a boat or a canoe, so I chose the one available road, a nice residential street with big houses with sea views on one side, and saltmarsh on the other. Gold was struck more or less instantaneously when I spotted some small birds flying low across the water and disappearing into the vegetation. Unfortunately they never came close, rather the opposite in fact , as an incoming Great White Egret flushed them much further away. Still, a tick is a tick, and I like ticks. Well, most ticks....

Saltmarsh Sparrow

A nearby Denny's served up a great breakfast, and my next birding stop was Connetquot River State Park Preserve. Ominously the lady at the entrance booth gave me a massive wad of paper warning me of the danger of Ticks - three types, one, the Deer Tick, capable of carrying the dreaded Lyme disease. I was keen to avoid this, so I was clearly going to have to be quite careful. Keeping to paths and avoiding all vegetation, I walked a loop around the lake up to the trout hatchery and back. Photography-wise this was a complete bust, but in the woods I found plenty of Overbirds, Eastern Towhees, Cardinals, and others, whilst an Osprey fished over the water. Despite being extremely careful when I got back to the car I discovered a Lone Star Tick crawling up my leg.... This forced me to basically undress in the car park, but I didn't find any more.

Tick Central

Grasshopper Sparrow

My next stop was a field above Calverton airfield, at an eBird location known as Calverton VOR (CCC). Catchy. I found Grasshopper Sparrows here in some numbers, along with Savannah Sparrow and Prairie Warbler. At an area on the south side of the airfield there were ever more - see map below. At Calverton Ponds Preserve a short distance away I went on another nice walk and picked up yet another Tick - they are crafty little buggers. It was around this point that I decided that I was done with birding near plants and headed back to the beach. 

Back at the beach the wind had really got up, and a stiff breeze was coming off the ocean. For those of you who have not been, Nickerson beach is composed of very fine sand. The strength of the wind whipped this up into a frenzy, and when I made the mistake of trying to lie down and get a low shot of an Oystercatcher I got a mouthful and two earfuls of sand, and realised that photography was over for the day. I had another shower both to get rid of the accumulation of sand as well as to perform a very careful examination of all parts of me for errant insects with dishonorable intentions, and went and had a very large dinner in celebration of a productive day in Island Park.