Thursday 31 December 2020

One last hurrah!

It's never over 'til it's over. A couple of days ago Simon discovered a drake Goosander in the Park - a classic cold weather movement. Not that classic however, as I've only ever had three sightings of Goosander over the years. So it was exciting enough to see me stop work and head out on my bike to twitch it quickly. It was still there yesterday morning, but as is the way with these things, not later in the afternoon when I turned up with my camera. It was there when I arrived with my camera this morning, but promptly flew off almost as soon as I arrived. Excellent. Fast forward to a few moments ago and it has returned, but this time with a friend! 

It was only the other day that I was writing about how strange it was that single 'good' birds frequently draw in others - most recently the White-fronted Goose and the Med Gull both found company and now it has happened again with Goosander, two immaculate creamy drakes fishing together on the deep Perch Pond. 

So against all the odds the year ends on rather a high note, and of course the all important year list advances by one to 121, a total that I am very pleased with and was rather unexpected. Even more unexpectedly this is my 150th post of the year, a nice round number that looked equally unattainable 12 months ago. So all that remains is for me to wish all readers a Happy New Year, and fingers crossed that 2021 turns out very differently!

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Top ten not bird images from 2020

It has never been just about birds. Mainly, but not a hundred percent. When I am out and about there are things that catch my eye, scenes, skies, plants and trees, and of course sometimes that is why I am out in the first place. Harder this year to find ten images that I consider to be decent -  I did not travel anywhere near as much, and it is trips away that usually allow creativity to flourish. Confession time - some of them are taken with my phone....

I've always like the letter-box style of photo - achieved simply by trimming off the top and bottom of a regular 3:2 ratio image. This one was taken extremely early in the morning on the Lothian side of the Forth as the kids and I travelled back to London. Driving over the new Queensferry crossing as dawn broke we realised that the light was lovely and quickly diverted off the motorway and wound our way down towards the shore. We were right to have stopped, it was fantastic.

The Lizard, Cornwall. I like the sense of brooding here, the sea somehow looks menacing underneath the darkening clouds. And menacing it certainly was - we spent a long weekend here and the weather blew us off our feet. There were a few moments of brightness, but not many. We hit the end of one storm and the beginning of another, but the wild weather was actually pretty perfect for where we were, snug in the lighthouse looking out as the breakers rolled in, the gusts rattled the windows, and the Chough wheeled overhead.

Nothing remarkable out this, but it is just a place that over the years has become quite special - the East Neuk of Fife. This is the village of St Monan's with Pittenweem in the background, taken on one of my two trips to Fife over the summer. Whenever we go we try and walk a bit of the coastal path. My dad and I dropped the girls off at Elie and then went around to the next village to meet them with the car. 

Something a little different. At some point during the summer I remembered I owned a macro lens. I am not good at this type of photography, it requires skills that I don't really possess. It also sometimes requires tripods, clamps, and lighting and when done properly can be sensational. This on the other hand is simply a handheld shot as I wandered around my parents' garden looking for something to talk a photo of. I tried to apply the same focussed approach as with birds - no distracting background elements.

Much closer to home, this is Wanstead Flats just after sunrise. On the best days this year I sometimes went out to try and photograph Little Owls. That rarely went well, but as a distraction I also had a go at capturing the early morning light. This is right in the middle of Wanstead Flats, and is a WWII barrage balloon hitch - four of them remain as a reminder of those times. I am glad they are still here because there is a certain herald of Spring that like to perch on them....

Possibly the most successful of my early morning photos, again the top and bottom chopped off a regular frame. Great light is spectacular, but fleeting.

Do animals have expressions? Is anthropomorphism bad? Yes and no! This Fox looks wary. It looks sly, like it is planning something devious. In actual fact it is none of these things, it is just eyeing me up, wondering what I am doing at 4am, typically not a time that humans wander round the Flats. It wasn't scared or wary at all, it was just going about its late evening business before retiring to sleep through the daylight hours.

WTC, New York. The new buildings and interior landscapes at the old site of the Twin Towers are remarkable. There is still construction going on, but the area has been poignantly transformed as a living memorial. This is one of the interior spaces, called the Oculus, built to resemble a Dove leaving a child's hand. I think it looks more like a Whale, at least from the inside.

A much wider angle of Wanstead Flats, looking east towards Ilford (the two buildings to the right of the trees). 

A damp afternoon in the Peak District. To the right, up the slope and out of shot, sits a very large and extremely wet Lammergeier. It has its back to the few hardly souls braving the downpour and rarely moves. Much more impressive was this valley below the Pennine Way at Crowden, in a short gap between showers. I later saw the Lammergeier again, also as a diversion from a pre-planned journey, and the views of it were far better. The landscape of flat Lincolnshire fens was distinctly less glorious.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Top ten bird images from 2020

A hard year for me and my camera, and the long list was not much longer than the short list, but here are a handful of birdy images from the 2020 archives. Maybe in 2021 I can finally make progress with that Duck project that I've promised every year for about a decade that I will do! Usually I am very busy and only remember in about March, by which time it is a bit late... Next year I forsee plenty of time close to whom which perhaps could be usefully employed. These are not in any particular order, but I think represent probably the pick of a slender crop. One year I am going to go all out, I am just not sure when. When I retire probably, I can be one of those old togger types that goes everywhere and photographs everything, just need some camo....

This Mistle Thrush was incredibly friendly, completely unconcerned that a large humanoid would lie down on the path next to it and gradually crawl closer and closer. This was also my first outing with the 80D camera body which I am still trying to justify as being good enough for bird photography for a long-time user of a far more intuitive camera. I was happy enough with this result and I just love birds like this one which stay put and don't care.

This Purple Sandpiper made a fine close to my first Yorkshire birding trip of the autumn. Pete and I had been whipped around various headlands by young Bradders for a few days, but as soon as he left these two old guys abandoned birding completely and shuffled down to Bridlington harbour for some quality papping of various waders at point blank range. It made us very happy, and then we went and got a takeaway.

Bit of a birders photo this - no creeping and crawling, and no pixel peeping. I put it in the selection just to show that I am capable of such a feat when the mood takes me. Obviously I would much rather be stroking its rictal bristles with the end of my lens. Taken at Spurn on Beacon Lane.

I had not realised before this year how frequently Sparrowhawk came through my garden. Here a Crow was distinctly unhappy that it had done so. Taken from my balcony.

Our Skylarks are still hanging on. I think my max count this was five. This bird kept returning to the same post near Centre Copse, and I took its photo several times over the course of various visits when my real target was Little Owl....

....talking of which, here it is, possibly from the same morning as the Skylark. I would have like to have made this a project, but I found that another photographer had the same idea and nearly always got up earlier than I did! It being a pandemic (and me being a grumpy old so-and-so) I didn't want to photograph a deux and so only gave it a few tries. Promising though, and I am not ruling it out for next year if we're in lockdown again.

2020 was the best Stonechat year I can ever recall locally. At one point during the autumn there were easily double figures on Wanstead Flats. My photos were only ever opportunistic in nature, but they can be such showy birds sometimes and they have a habit of choosing excellent perches.

This Say's Phoebe at San Jacinto in California also chose a fabulous perch. I took this from the car window. My trip to California was really a birding trip - lots of targets and a frenetic schedule, but there was a bit of time for photography along the way.

The principal place that the camera got some action was at La Jolla, which is just north of San Diego. This has long been known as a hotspot for Brown Pelican photography, but there are tons of other birds around too including vast flocks of Brandt's Cormorants. I only spent a couple of hours here early one morning before hitting the road again, but I would really like to go back one day.

And finally a very recent photo, of Wanstead's first White-fronted Goose of the year. The first morning that the weather was clear I was down at Alexandra Lake in a flash hoping for something almost exactly like this. Monopod, proper camera, no messing about with fiddly viewfinders and oddly placed buttons. I was very pleased it came off.

Monday 28 December 2020

2020 - The year in review

What a peculiar year. I've found it hard, harder as it has gone on, and as it draws to a close my feelings are really just ones of relief that it is over tinged with anxiety that 2021 isn't going to be very much different, or at least not initially. I am just happy to have survived it I think. Of course some people have not been so lucky, indeed some - many, far too many - have actually not survived it. Posts like this are usually a celebration of the good things, but 2020 is a year which will principally be remembered for other reasons. Crappy reasons for the most part, and more of them than I can remember for a long while. I doubt many people will ever look back fondly on this year and neither should they, rose-tinting seems inappropriate somehow. I have not lost anyone close but I know people who have, and within the East London birding community there are two terrific guys that I won't be seeing again, Phil Street and Sam Shippey. Such sad news. It is at times like this that you realise how tight knit a group of people birders can be. Although I wasn't close friends with either of them they were both integral to my birding journey in this part of the world. At about the time I really discovered that I liked birding again I used to spend a lot of time at Rainham. Phil was a constant presence there, either on the ramp at the raptor watch point, on the balcony when the wind blew and the visibility dropped, or up on the sea wall. Rain or shine, snow or hail, there he was. During the period that I spent as a heroic stay-at-home domestic goddess and father I saw Phil several times a week as his constant vigil at Rainham with Andy T and others picked up great bird after great bird. Most memorable was the Eider on the river in a blizzard - Andy called me and and I nipped over to find he and Phil camping in the snow on the sea wall, a fire-pit of driftwood roaring, hot tea and food on the go, and a mega-distant mega duck drifting back down towards the QE2 bridge. Foul weather, but Phil was as chirpy as ever. Sam was also a constant fixture, more often on the reserve on the regular guided walks with Howard. I am sure that I went on a few back in the day, but my memories of Sam are really centered around the more social aspects of birding - a trip with him and others to the Scillies, my first visit to the islands in fact. The regular monthly drinks and Christmas parties out in Hornchurch, On the birding front, most memorably the day he found the White-tailed Lapwing on Aveley Pools on one of those aforementioned morning walks. I ended up spending nearly the whole day at Rainham with Sam's unbelievable find, staying as a volunteer until dusk when the last frantic twitcher had arrived in a heap on the boardwalk offering a prayer of thanks. Sam never had a bad word to say about anyone, a true gent from a bygone era and whose like we won't see again. Birding is about more than just birds.

So, onwards. Despite the circumstances there have been some parts of 2020 that are worth remembering.

Best twitch

In 2019 I went on just one twitch so this was an easy one. I've prioritised travel over UK birding for a while now based on my available time, but as we all know 2020 panned out rather differently. I was rebalancing even before the pandemic actually, and my first twitch of the year was for an Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Norfolk in early January as part of a great day of winter birding. A good bird for sure, but not a massively exciting one and also rather a slam dunk. Far more frisson came from the Taiga Flycatcher in South Shields. I doubt I would have driven all that way from London, but I was birding for a few days in Yorkshire based on a good forecast and the journey was a lot shorter. I simply got up a bit earlier and rather than head out to Spurn went the other way. It wasn't a short drive exactly, but neither was it gruelling. I saw the bird quite soon after first light and was back enacting Plan A at Spurn before lunch. I expect this is one of those species we are going to see more and more of as they become more do-able and more people look out for them, but for now at least it is a true monster and Flycatchers are amongst my favourite birds. I was glad I went.

However top billing goes not to this but to the magnificent Pacific Golden Plover on the Northumberland coast in August. This was more diversion than twitch as I was on the way to Scotland with the kids and wanted to break up the journey. We dropped in on the WWBT at Druridge Bay before piling out of the car at Boulmer and walking up the lovely shoreline to a rocky beach to observe this pristine bird en famille. The kids displayed admirable enthusiasm all things considered, and even started arguing about who got the scope to scan some of the other waders. I'd seen PGP before so this was not a UK lifer, but I reckon it was the most enjoyable bit of rarity watching this year.

Best local bird

Despite this slight increase in UK twitching, birding in 2020 has been more or less defined by staying local, and I have spent more time birding a few hundred yards from my front door than I have in years. However most of my birding hasn't even involved going that far. I am of course talking about birding from my garden, or in my case a balcony that overlooks my garden. I've seen (and heard!) some great things this year, things I never expected to see or hear. Common Scoter as they migrated over under cover of darkness in April. Multiple Whimbrel and Common Sandpipers. A Firecrest, a Raven, a Marsh Harrier and perhaps most amazingly of all a Curlew under blue skies. Birds I slept though but that were faithfully recorded by my all-hearing microphone included a Quail and several Oystercatcher. In short the activity over my small suburban garden throughout the year has been a revelation.

However the best local birds from my perspective were the two Common Cranes that flew rapidly over the patch in late September. I recounted that particular tale here, but three months later I am still utterly astonished to see this species on my patch list. As with nearly all the best birds I find here I had no camera with me so you will just have to imagine the moment. And what a moment it was, it will live with me for many years. 

Best bird photo

It has unfortunately been a poor year as far as I am concerned, my equipment has largely sat idle. I may have spent a lot of time looking at birds this year but I have spent little time photographing them. Excuses, excuses. The twin conspirators of lockdown and fear meant I have largely been cooped up at home rather than out and about. Would that I lived far far away from the South of England and did not have contend with the sheer mass of humanity that renders bird photography here mostly unenjoyable. That said there were a few excursions with a camera over the course of the year - a week in Yorkshire allowed me to abuse the shutter a little bit, especially with some friendly Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, and I spent a few mornings locally with our Stonechats and Little Owls. But the standout moment in this distinctly non-vintage year was in California at La Jolla, which is just north of San Diego. It is a place I had read about over 20 years ago when I first became familiar with the work of Arthur Morris. In all honesty I was a bit overwhelmed, even more so as the great man himself was there - an odd coincidence given he lives in Florida. I didn't stay long, I felt like I was just getting in the way of the established crowd, and in any event I had birding to be getting on with, but the cliffs offered unparalled opportunities to get up close to Brown Pelicans and one of the most stunning Gulls on earth. I am of course talking about Heermann's Gull, and that's the photo I have chosen. Something is clearly happening to me.....

Best trip

Although I have moaned seemingly ad-infinitum about how all my travel plans were laid waste this year, it may surprise some of you to know that 2020 did actually contain a period prior to COVID. So I have travelled abroad this year, albeit right at the very start. In fact it started very well, with the trip to California I just mentioned, and where in addition to seeing some favourite relatives I also managed a whistlestop tour around some of Southern California's best birding habitats. That trip is recounted over the course of a few blog posts that you can find indexed here. I also went to Spain for a long weekend in February that saw me finally catch up with Wallcreeper and a lot more besides. It has just occurred to me that I have yet to write that trip up, something that maybe I will catch up on at some point. I have also completely failed to mention a weekend in New York in March with one of my kids that was absolutely brilliant and even included some birding.

All great, and a reminder of what now seems like a different era, but the best trip was actually in this country. Not as glamourous as New York or California, and no birds as devastatingly epic as
Wallcreeper, but in terms of what I needed at that particular moment it was massively important. The East Riding of Yorkshire. I've failed to write about this too but I may yet catch up - another feature of 2020 has been an absolutely insane amount of work that has snuffed the life from my creativity and killed any desire to spend any more time in front of a computer than I have to. The trip came at a time when I was at a low ebb, when the last of my plans had finally and inevitably collapsed, and I just needed to leave London and go somewhere else. Anywhere. So Bradders, Pete M and I hired a self-catering place at the last minute somewhere near Bridlington and had a week of birding Flamborough and Spurn in wonderful conditions. It was a great tonic, there was even some grown-up conversation from time to time! We had good to excellent fall conditions that provided exciting birding, even if the "big one" never fell during our stay, but we were outside and doing 'normal' in this most abnormal of years. I enjoyed it so much that I extended my time off work by a few days and went back again the following weekend, which is why I was so much closer to South Shields when the "big one" did eventually land.

Flamborough Head

Worst Trip

Japan - cancelled. Argentina (replaced Japan at start of outbreak) - cancelled. Israel - cancelled. Bulgaria - cancelled. Venice - cancelled. Ohio - cancelled. Croatia - cancelled. Finland - cancelled. Colombia - cancelled. Shetland (replaced Colombia) - cancelled. Massachusetts - cancelled. Spain - cancelled. 

If I had to sum up 2020 in a single word it would be "cancelled".

Stupidest Moment

I have been overwhelmingly sensible nearly all year. There has been the odd wobble, but set against nine months of needing to navigate a much changed world I am going to laud my overall consistency here. I counted up and I have left London precisely 15 times since the end of March - Fife twice, Yorkshire twice and Cornwall once on various breaks, a few unavoidable school runs to Norfolk, and then a handful of largely solo birding day trips out to the coast to try and stay sane, and frankly to allow a little bit of enjoyment into my life. I have not been to a pub or a restaurant. I took one flight (late evening Edinburgh to London in mid-summer) and other than that used public transport just once. I can count on one hand the number of shops I've been to - Halford's to buy some oil for the car before our family break in Cornwall, and the Post Office to drop off some parcels a few times. I have been inside an occupied house that is not my own just four times - my parents in Fife twice during the summer, friends for lunch in the summer, and an overnight stay in Essex. Given what a huge change this is from my normal levels of activity I have no idea how I have managed to sustain this for so long, and it is not over yet. But so far I have not caught this bloody thing, nor given it to anyone, and my main risk of the former remains the kids and Mrs L who go to school each day, rather than any cavalier action on my part. I hope I can keep it up - the nightmare scenario is a lockdown that continues into the spring.

And being sensible is not limited to unnecessary trips, tier levels and lockdown. Almost every normal activity I have done this year has been against this single mantra: Stay safe. I mean in theory this should be a normal and unconscious thought process for any sentient being, but you know how real life is. This year it has been highly and weirdly conscious, at the forefront of everything and uppermost in my mind. Gardening, DIY, household chores, even cooking - all of it slow and steady. Avoiding a trip to A&E through some daft misstep has been the name of the game. Shouting at anyone else in the house who even looks like they're about to be stupid. Normal things like kids chasing each other round the house, not wearing shoes or slippers, trying to carry too many glasses to the table in one trip.... You should have seen me supervising the sawing off of the Christmas tree base. People should not have to think like this but there it is, and I have become incredibly boring to the point I loathe myself. Of course it might just be that I'm a middle aged man whose wildest hobby is birdwatching, but - touch wood - it has worked.

Has there been anything good about 2020?

Yes, overwhelmingly yes there has. Time with the family, time together of the sort we have not had for years. Maybe we are an unusual family, but usually we are rushing around all over the place at a hundred miles an hour, all of us living our lives. We do spend time together of course, it is not like we cross like ships in the night, but with five of us here there is always something happening, somebody off doing something. Frequently that is me I suppose, on a trip, out birding. In 2020 there has been nothing happening, or very little, and as a result we have spent more time in each other's company as a complete unit than ever before. Lazy days in the garden. Protracted leisurely lunches, much time around the table. A long list of films watched together. Family walks. Our first UK holiday for years. Our first Christmas at home for years. Each one of us has probably had our moments, but we've done it, we've got through it and we're all still talking. Talking more than ever before actually. The great thing about having older kids is that you can talk, you can discuss a vast range of topics, they're interested in real things (and garbage too) and have proper opinions. And they're funny, inventive, mischievous, sweet, kind and helpful. How they all put up with me I have no idea, but in all honesty this element of 2020 has frequently been a delight.

Friday 25 December 2020

Thursday 24 December 2020

2020 on the patch and in lists

At the end of last year I began an equivalent post bemoaning my feeble efforts on the patch. I was reconciled to it I think, I have no desire to be restricted by that particular variety of nobility. Fast forward twelve months and neither do I now, Wanstead Flats simply does not have anywhere near the breadth of birding that I need or am satisfied with. However for much of this year it has been about all I have been able to do and I am truly thankful that it is as good as it is. There are better places to live for birding but it could be a lot worse. 2020 was the year of the patch or nothing.

And for some parts of the year it really was nothing! But I am a birder, and birders cannot not bird. No matter where they are or what they are doing birders are always tuned in to movement and to sound, to the bushes, the trees and the sky. I channeled this in a big way in 2020, mostly from the bedroom balcony which overlooks our garden and the surrounding neighbourhood. With the additional potency of NocMig my garden list went ballistic. Tawny Owl, Moorhen and Coot were common, but surprisingly there were multiple instances of Oystercatcher and other waders. Soon I was to be found not in bed asleep, but out on my balcony, wrapped up and listening for calls in the dark. With snacks. It surpassed my wildest expectations. I added - 'live' - Common Scoter (along with most of the country it seems!), Whimbrel, Little Owl and Common Sandpiper. The ones that got away whilst I was sleeping included Little Grebe, the aforementioned Oycs, Green Sandpiper, and most amazingly of all, a Quail!

Away from heard-only, long vigils in the early morning, or on conference calls during the day, allowed me to pick up Tree Pipit, Reed Bunting, Crossbill, Siskin, several Short-eared Owls, Raven, Marsh Harrier (thanks Nick!) and astonishingly a Curlew!  My garden list, static for two years, jumped from 82 species to 93. 

The same story played out on the patch. After 16 years of living here adding patch ticks is supposed to be quite hard, but all the additional time in situ unsurprisingly paid dividends - Whimbrel over the vizmig point, Common Cranes from the same spot. My patch list total is now 159 - when I first started birding here and saw what long-standing patch workers at places like Dagenham Chase had racked up I rated my chances of ever attaining those dizzy heights as non existent. Similarly when I first moved here one of my early year lists was about 70. This year I picked up all the usual migrants as well as some of the birds I missed in 2019 like Common Tern and Shelduck, and with the White-fronted Goose at the end of November I broke my long-standing patch year record of 118. The recent Med Gull has put me onto 120.

I also said at the end of last year that I intended to do a lot more birding in the UK and less birding abroad. Little did I know! I posted a graph that showed a slow slide towards nonchalance. But now look!

The trajectory has changed dramatically! OK so this is not exactly a competitive year list total, a mere 229 species, but compared to recent years it is nothing short of remarkable. Largely this is a result of a birding break in Yorkshire and a couple of family trips to Scotland. My birding away from London other than this has been pretty minimal but a few well-timed and well-planned day trips can accomplish quite a bit. Next year I hope to do more of the same if we are allowed out of our houses.

A graph of my world birding would look very different, the exact opposite trend. With planned trips to Israel and Colombia I was going to see loads and loads, possibly more than ever before even though I was not going to be travelling as much. As it was I snuck in just two birding trips away before the shutters came down and I have to go back to 2010 to find a year where I saw less. C'est la vie. 

Costa's Hummingbird, California

For 2021 here are my predictions. I am reconciled to the first quarter of the year being dedicated to local birding as I think we're going to be in lockdown until at least March. You heard it here first. Things will then ease, but other countries will still not be very keen on seeing people from the UK and so travel will continue to be restricted or at the very least, rather complicated. So the first half of the year will be all about birding in the UK. I can cope with that, provided I am allowed to go to the coast. After that I really don't know. It could be that the kind of places I would like to go birding are simply not safe to go to - spare a thought for those parts of the world with no infrastructure. We shall see, but right now the focus is close to home.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Rainham Ravens

The earliest Rainham Marshes list that I can find is from January 13th 2007. From then until the end of 2010 it was where I most often went birding if I wasn't in Wanstead. 2009 and 2010 were the peak years - the financial crisis saw me get laid off and I had a thoroughly wonderful time away from the world of work looking after my kids and birding here there and everywhere - this period is chronicled on this very blog. By the end of 2010 I'd racked up 183 species on the reserve. In 2011 I went back to work and my visits to Rainham declined hugely - if I had time I was either on my home patch or off elsewhere. The list stalled. In 2011 I added just one, the well-twitched Slaty-backed Gull. If I could manage it I visited for rarities, and by the end of 2019 I'd painstakingly crept up to 197 with the addition of Firecrest, a bird that had somehow eluded me over all those years. For those of you who don't know Rainham, although it is a large site only a tiny proportion of it is woodland, so some birds are incredibly scarce - I've only ever seen a handful of Garden Warbler and Spotted Flycatchers there for example, and I'm still missing Bullfinch

As you know, when I get to a number on a list that is close to a round number I start to get a bit excitable. A bit stupid.197 is quite close to a round number.... Earlier this year I took stock of the possible remaining targets. Siskin and Tree Pipit were two easy ones that had somehow gone unrecorded in over a decade of visits. The trouble is that when the Tree Pipits come over I am far more interested in seeing them here in Wanstead, and it is also a time of year when the patch is at its best so I tend not to go anywhere else for fear of missing out. This is the price of keeping lists. Not so with Siskin however, and so when I had finally got this on my lockdown list I made sure to be at Rainham early one weekend morning to get them there too. This was in mid-September when there were Siskin all over the place and I had probably been on the river wall for only about fifteen minutes before the first birds made themselves known as they migrated over. 198.

199 came this morning. Raven. Raven is a good London bird at any site, and a few years ago a pair that bred in the vicinity were regularly seen on the reserve but my visits regularly failed to coincide with theirs! Sightings have declined since then but I noted at the start of December that the birds were being seen again on Wennington Marsh from time to time. Today I thought I would give it a try. I'd probably been on the Serin Mound for no more than 20 minutes, chatting to a birder callled Graham about whether a cow on the marsh was dead or just enjoying a very deep sleep, when a large black bird flew through my bins. I called it straight away, when you see a Raven you have seen a Raven. A second bird wasn't far behind, and one of them then landed on the aforementioned cow, thus answering our question. What bounty! However not far behind it was a farmer in a 4x4, out counting his cows and coming up one short.....the birds backed off and found something less substantial to tuck into. 

They stuck around for the rest of the morning, clearly lots of good eatin' out on the reserve, and I could pick out their enormous black bulk from pretty much anywhere along the river wall. One to go.

NB When I has happily inking them in a few minutes ago they initially came up as species #200, but then I realised that the two White Storks I'd seen from Rainham in March this year were being counted in the total, whereas in all likelihood they were birds from the breeding program at Knepp in Sussex. These days it would seem to be almost impossible to be certain that any White Stork is kosher, so to be on the safe side I'm calling the Ravens 199 and crossing my fingers for a wintering Bullfinch. The next one of those that I hear about in the Cordite I am dropping everything and going straight there. 


Saturday 19 December 2020

Seeing double

Wanstead Birders had their Christmas party this morning. Normally we go to the pub, but 2020 is not normal. Instead six of us met at the Vizmig Point with coffee and mince pies. Some chose to enhance their coffee with a wee nip of brandy, but at 9am I did not feel that I could partake. I drink enough as it is. So it was with a spring in [some of] our steps we relocated to Jubilee to look for rare ducks, and after that to check out the amazing work that Nick and Sean have done at Cat & Dog Pond. Three Pochard were the best of it, but as we were milling around at the edge Richard said something like "isn't this a Med Gull?". And of course it was a Med Gull, a rather beautiful first winter. More than that, it was a full fat tick for Rob, and it was a year tick for quite a few of us, including me, and means that I have reached a somewhat mythical 120 species in a year. 

After a bit more birding I went home for a camera and returned to Jubilee to record this momentous event. As I was photographing the Gull I met Tony again who had also come back for another look. It was quite mobile and following it round the pond we eventually ended up back we had started, but this time it was incredibly close as there was a guy chucking bread. As we papped away at it in the melee Tony noted it had flown, which was odd as I was still photographing it. "No it hasn't", I said, "it's right here, look". You can probably guess where this is going. Yes, somehow there were now two Med Gulls on Jubilee, which a bit of back-of-camera inspection by Tony proved beyond doubt. The new bird, also a first winter, was much cleaner on the head.

How odd. I later discovered that whilst tracking the first bird in flight and momentarily losing it, I had latched onto the second bird not realising that it was different. The weirdness did not stop there though. Yesterday Mary had discovered that our long-staying White-fronted Goose had been joined by a second bird. It wasn't there first thing this morning as I had hoped, just the original bird feeding by itself on the football pitches. I had felt that there would either be two birds or none. But when Tony went back to Alex to fetch his car he had a final check of the lake and was rather surprised to see that now there were two again. 

And so there were. I mean this is a little bit strange isn't it? But then again it is not without precedent either. Once we had a pair of Golden Plover, and the next day when we went to see if they were still there two had become three. And how can I forget the Greenshank last year that doubled almost before my very eyes. Next time I go back they will probably outnumber the Greylag.

The original bird is the one on the right (in all three photographs)

Thursday 17 December 2020

Green and Grey

My garden is a seething mass of bright green and mid grey. Feathers and fur. I expect you can guess why. Earlier this week I cleaned my bird feeders and put them up for the winter. I am out of peanuts, but I have four feeders filled with mixed seed up, and then one with nyger for the Goldfinches and (I hope) Redpolls. Initially nothing happened. Every time I looked out of the windows the feeders were untouched. Yesterday morning all that changed. 

Two of the seed feeders are the ones which are spring loaded and therefore close up when larger birds attempt to feed. So Parakeets, Woodpigeons, Magpies and whatever those grey ones with long furry tail feathers are called - been through the Collin's a couple of times but can't find them. That does not stop them trying of course, and for now at least they are trying relentlessly, which means that the smaller birds that I am trying to help out simply don't get a look in. At any one time there are Parakeets in the branches above, Feral Pigeons desperately clinging on with one gnarled foot whilst trying to hover in a position where they can peck through the distribution port, and Woodpigeons wandering around in small circles below hoping for a windfall. Every now and again a furry lighting bolt launches a futile attempt, catapulting itself onto a flimsy branch and worming its way down before falling off. As far as I can tell not a single small passerine has been able to sneak a single measly seed. Hopefully the novelty will wear off and they can get a chance. 

One of the other seed feeders is surrounded by a wire cage that nothing bigger than a Robin can penetrate. Sat on top of it are two Parakeets. Sat below it is a Woodpigeon. All three of them are scheming. Let them scheme I say, but couldn't they do it somewhere else?

That somewhere else is my sacrificial seed feeder. It has zero protection, no cunning baffles whatsoever. It is hanging at the other end of the garden in my Monkey Puzzle tree - I don't want it to be too easy. The idea is that if there is a food source requiring almost no hard work at all at the far end of my garden then all of the large fat freeloaders will congregate there to gorge themselves stupid, thus leaving the "real" birdfeeders alone and available to be used by the Tits, Finches and other small birds for whom winter feeding really makes a difference. Unfortunately I failed to correctly estimate the sheer numbers of Parakeets. I can barely even make out the feeder at the bottom of the garden at the moment, it is just a seething mass of green, and the seed level can be seen decreasing in real time. Parakeets adorn the surrounding branches like tropical baubles. Fights and disagreements are frequent, and what happens is that the losers and latecomers come and lick their wounds and consider their next moves at the feeders closer to the house. It is incredibly frustrating. In prior years I have given up and simply taken all the feeders down. For now I will persevere but I am already getting quite cross with the whole situation. For any birders living in areas where this green scourge has not yet arrived and who are hoping to one day get Parakeet on their patch list, be careful what you wish for!

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Goose filler

Mrs L has concluded that I spend too much time at my desk and that this isn't good for me, and so now that she and the kids are basically done for the year she has started taking me out for walks. Today she took me over to Alexandra lake and when we got there I was allowed off the lead. Naturally I started joyfully chasing wildfowl.... 

And so it is that I'm pleased to report that Wanstead's White-fronted Goose continues, pootling around with the Greylags still. I think today is day 17 of its stay, so it's over halfway to making it onto my 2021 list. Fingers crossed. It is becoming a bit of a celebrity actually. A friend of mine came round on Monday and also took me out for a walk. He'd heard about the influx on Radio 4, I think Nick Moran from the BTO was doing a piece on NocMig and had managed to slip it in. He was naturally very keen to see what all the fuss was about, and I also showed him Shoveler and Common Gull so I'm pretty sure he came away wowed. In fact he may be turning into a bit of a secret bird watcher as he's also seen the Short-eared Owls at Gunpowder Park whilst out jogging and took enough interest to find out what they were and take a picture on his iPhone. It is never too late to start.

Here are a few photos of it. The light was predictably dire by the time I was able to get out today, a shame as the sky had been a lovely pale blue throughout all my morning meetings. Try as I might I have yet to get it on my garden list. The Greylags do commute back and forth over my house each day and I've managed to photograph them a few times in the morning but never managed to pick it out. Interestingly Nick reckons he's seen it returning with them one evening, but by the time they come over it is too dark for photos and they also take a slightly different line which passes a little way south of me. I'll keep trying! 

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Shrinking, or not?

My world just got a little bit smaller once again. For a while now the COVID statistics on the eastern fringes of London have been on the rise, to the point that they have become much higher than areas that were already in Tier 3. It was inevitable that something was going to change, and from midnight tonight Redbridge and the surrounding boroughs out into Essex enter Tier 3. This spells the end of my regular trips to the bowling alley, and no more restaurant and pubs visits, although I can keep going to the gym....

I am not going to opine on the merits or otherwise of how various activities have been chosen. For our family of five there will be no appreciable difference. We have been doing none of these things and had no plans to. The schools of course remain open, under threat of legal action. I don't see the point other than perhaps for kids who have trouble at home and for whom school is a place of safety. My recollection of the week before the Christmas holidays was that we just watched videos and larked about. Perhaps modern education is different? Apparently mass testing is to occur at all secondary schools in the area but of this we have seen no sign. By the time these mobile testing units arrive they may not find any pupils to test - my kids report class numbers well down already as kids are simply being withdrawn by parents to allow for more isolated time to pass before visiting grandparents. Of course if those grandparents live in an area lower than Tier 3 then this may be a pointless precaution as you cannot (or should not) travel outside of a Tier 3 area if you live inside one. Of course we had no plans to visit our aged relatives anyway, so this is another 'whatever' as far as we are concerned.

Ironically enough my world may have actually got a little larger rather than smaller, after all this is not a lockdown at the moment. The advice not to travel into Tier 3 zones if you lived outside them meant that the whole of Kent was in theory out of bounds for Londoners. However if Tier 3 is now a much larger contiguous area then perhaps my boundaries have increased in some way. Dungeness here I come! This new zone also stretches well into Essex and encompasses some extremely pleasant birding sites that would be excellent for my mental wellbeing. Suffolk and Norfolk are entirely outside sadly, but if Kent is on the menu again I think I can likely cope with that, for a while at least. 

There is no talk of when these new restrictions may be scaled back, no doubt it will be 100% correlated with the Government's desire to get people back on the streets and spending money. Sorry that was a crass typo, what I meant was 100% correlated with a fall in infection rates, hospital admissions and death. 

On a slightly different yet related note it is coming up to the time of year when I might normally start thinking about "The Year in Review" - you know, those lengthy posts where I write about what a fun year I have had, lavishly illustrated with bird photos and so on. They usually sink without trace in late December. Best trip is looking like a hard category this year! I may plough on regardless, this blog functions in part as a diary, and when I look back at the highs and lows it is important to have recorded both. Here's a reminder of a high, an Oriental Magpie Robin taken in Singapore's Botanic Garden in March 2019. I doubt whether my 2020 archives have anything as glorious, but I would still hope to be able to pick out some of the enjoyment that has come my way - this year has been a stretch for sure, but it has not been without its moments.

Friday 11 December 2020

Mild and boring

It's 10 degrees in my greenhouse without any heating. It's 19 degrees indoors with minimal central heating. Nothing is happening, indoors or out. When I go out locally I see the same birds. The Great Crested Grebe that has been sitting on the Shoulder of Mutton Pond in Wanstead Park since early autumn is still sitting on Shoulder of Mutton Pond. Bobbing gently, unconcernedly, perhaps even happily. Birds like mild weather, it is easier to find food, easier to survive. I should not begrudge them it.

Other than the invariably boring birding that results I actually like mild weather better too. I don't get cold feet or hands for instance. More importantly Mrs L does not get cold hands! The pretence of a loving greeting which is actually a cover move for a dastardly attempt to place small ice-blocks next to my warm skin happens less. I also save lots of money on utility bills and my carbon footprint improves by some small amount. Like the birds my plants that by all rights should not be growing here also find it easier to survive, although I have to be a lot more careful judging watering. When it is truly cold I just stop, but temperatures like we have at the moment mean I have to continue yet crucially not overdo it. I have not even lifted my cannas yet, there has been no need. I may just leave them and if a cold snap does threaten simply fleece them up for a few nights. 

Since the nice little Goosey episode last week (the bird is still present as I type) I have no need of the type of cold snap that would precipitate the arrival of Lapwings and so on. I've made it over the line without their suffering and that is good news. It is less good news for interesting birding locally, but there is a lot more happening out on the coast. I really enjoyed my day out in Suffolk last weekend and would be keen for a repeat. There is one problem though. You guessed it - the damn weather. It is looking distinctly wet and at times windy. If there is a combo that I detest birding in it is that one, new coat or no new coat. Let's see what transpires. If I don't get out there is plenty to be getting on with indoors - I have spotted a kitchen cupboard that needs a clear out and the knowledge of the disorder is already bugging me. And there is the small matter of a Christmas Tree. Rather than brave the inevitable crowds for a scraggly stick that makes a massive mess I have instead volunteered one of my rather shapely and beautiful Araucaria pines from New Calendonia for the task. The only trouble is that Mrs icyhands has the deciding vote. Well, the only vote....

Tuesday 8 December 2020

It's good to talk - part 2

It was very gratifying to see how many people related to that post about needing to talk. I never expected that so many people would actually care, but since I wrote it I have had many more phone calls than I would normally get. Whilst a number of friends have called, what is particularly interesting has been the concern that many large organisations have shown, and my phone has been off the hook with BT, Microsoft, Amazon and even HMRC calling me up, sometimes several times a day! Generally their inquiries have tended not to be about my wellbeing as such, but rather a concern that my computer might have a problem or that my email might stop working unless they can somehow prevent it by getting access to it, that kind of thing. But there was one very nice lady who called because she'd heard I'd been in an accident that hadn't been my fault. Bless her! I hadn't of course, but she wouldn't have any of it when I told her I was fine and just continued speaking as if she hadn't heard what I'd said at all!  Quite insistent in fact.

Anyway, I'm totally fine. I had a lovely day out birding in Suffolk on Sunday, the first substantial trip anywhere for weeks and it was glorious. 89 species in a few short hours, including my first Water Pipit for nearly two years. I had thought about going to Cornwall to twitch that Sociable Plover but it was just too far and these days you can't really share a car. A shame, but I've seen some good birds this year and am very satisfied with my lot, so as a far more wholesome experience I headed east to the coast. No camera so no photos, but the weather was sublime and an almost complete lack of other human beings sealed the deal.

On an unrelated matter, if you are with BT and you do happen to get unwanted phone calls you can type 1572 into your phone after you get one and it will allow you to block the number you were just called by. You never know, might be of help to someone. Here, have a Redwing.

Friday 4 December 2020

A magnificent sky

Would that I lived somewhere with a clear horizon, or had more of an ability to get somewhere with a decent view when a glorious sunset seems likely. I expect that there will be some sublime photographs from the river today, but to be able to survey the glow even from the lowly confines of Chateau L was pretty special this evening. 

I was facing inwards as usual, but was alerted to something special by one of the kids. Turning and walking towards the window I could see what my daughter meant. Wow, just wow. I am sure I have done blog posts like this before, blog posts that fall woefully short versus what my eyes can take in. This is another I'm afraid. It's all rather odd, the weather has been cruddy all day - no snow as in some parts of Suffolk and Essex, just a rather bleak grey sky with occasional scudding rain. Miserable enough that I elected not to go out this morning despite my shiny new jacket (I cracked) and instead had another coffee whilst scanning for non-existent Lapwings that hadn't been driven west. At some point during the afternoon there must have been a clearing of sorts, one that entirely passed me by, and so the day ended far more stylishly than it had begun. 

This is as much of the Shard as I can see from Ch. L, had I been at Canary Wharf I'd have done a lot better. I've not been there since March however.