Thursday 30 April 2020

The last Skylarks

As long as I have lived here there have been Skylarks on Wanstead Flats. My records go back to 2007, and I have regular counts in double figures all the way through to 2012. In the summer of 2010 I recorded 20 birds on two different days. In 2011 and 2012 the highest was 15, but in 2014 it was only nine. In 2018 it was seven, and in 2019 it was five. So far in 2020 the highest number I have recorded is three. Admittedly I am not venturing out onto Wanstead Flats anywhere near as much, but I think you get the picture*. The numbers are only moving in one direction. Down. And soon, regrettably, there will be none left at all and that will be that.

For that we have only ourselves to blame. By ourselves I mean people. Specifically too many people, and selfish people at that. People walking their dogs off the lead right through the nesting area. People throwing balls for their pets into the nesting area. People having barbeques or lighting fires that destroy nesting and feeding areas. People who view the signs warning of ground-nesting birds as an affront to their personal liberty and who pull them down. People not doing enough, indeed doing laughably little over years and years, to protect the nesting area. 

To my knowledge there has not been a single fine or even warning issued to anybody for any of the above. The birds are hanging on, just, but the numbers are critically low and at this point I don't see a way back and if I am honest given the almost complete lack of any meaningful action the writing was probably on the wall years ago. So soon there won't be any nesting Skylarks. None. The selfish minority will have won. We can take the signs down and move on, much poorer.

And what is so frustrating is that it would be so easy to keep them. All it would take is for a small area area to be left alone for a few months each year. Signs don't work, yet that is all that has ever been done. Fence it off. Erect a temporary fence, ugly as it would be, from April to September and that would be that. But as far as I can tell the Corporation of London are as keen to see the back of the birds as the bird-hating dog walkers are. That is the only thing than can explain their inaction and apathy. When there are no more birds then there is no more problem. No more whinging from people like me, no more confrontations between birders and aggressive dog-walkers, no need to replace the signs or indeed do anything, and one less obstacle to making money from Wanstead Flats by hiring it out for events like music festivals. Peace and harmony will reign once more. Just without that wonderful trill.

A backwards glance. Goodbye.

* Others report four singing males this year.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Southern California - Day 1

Day 1

I was delayed inbound from San Francisco, losing two hours of birding immediately, and on short trips like this they all count. Keen to actually see something I started around Marina del Rey and the Ballona Wetlands which are both just a short distance from LAX. Here I found the usual array of waterfowl, including Ruddy Duck, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, and Green-winged Teal. An Osprey perched on a pole, American White Pelicans chilled on one of the islands and White-throated Swifts glided overhead – a far cry from the chill of London I had left behind not that long before.  My real target was Cassin’s Kingbird which was easily found around the edges, as well as Wrentit which were similarly straightforward if a lot harder to actually see. Also seen here were several Anna’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe and a few Yellow-rumped Warbler. Ebird Checklist.

A couple of minutes down the road I stopped in at Del Rey Lagoon Park to add to the rapidly growing trip list. Good numbers of American Wigeon, Ring-billed Gull, Heermann’s Gull and Western Gull, although the lagoon itself is rather unprepossessing – more like a large muddy puddle when I was there. Leaving the car here I walked north to the pedestrian bridge over the creek. Hundred’s of Brandt’s Cormorant were on the breakwaters, with Surf Scoter and Bufflehead in the channel, although I couldn’t find the Black Scoter that had been reported.

By now it was already 2pm and with sunset at 5pm it was clear I wouldn’t manage to visit all my planned destinations. I took the hard decision to scratch most of them off and headed to what I felt would be the best one per eBird lists – Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve south down the coast past Huntingdon. This proved to be a good call – tons of birds. The main target here was a vagrant Mountain Plover, a bird I’d failed to find in Arizona on a previous trip. Whilst I would have preferred to find a large group on a turf field somewhere out near the Salton Sea, the promise of a regular bird just off a public path no more than two minutes from the car park was too good to pass up. Eagerly I trotted over the short boardwalk to look in the favoured area, a fenced off nesting area for Terns. Of course it was nowhere to be seen….

I felt it would probably come back before the day was out, so carried on birding around the huge lagoon. What a fantastic reserve, there are too many birds to list, and in an hour and a half I recorded 60 species. Highlights on the water included hundreds of Brent Geese, numerous Surf Scoter, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, two species of Diver, Slavonian and Black-necked Grebes. The margins held many waders – American Avocet, Grey Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dowitchers, Willet, Marbled Godwit and many others. Back at the nesting area were several Killdeer, White-crowned and Savannah Sparrow, California Gnatcatcher, and finally the Mountain Plover teleported in. One minute I was looking at a handful of Killdeer, the next they were joined by the Plover. A plain bird, but unmistakeable. And in the nick of time as well, as the sun was setting over the sea and the moon, huge and orange, was rising over the bluff to the west. . Ebird Checklist

So a short day but ultimately a successful one. Very tired, I completed the drive to San Diego and crashed in a hotel near Sea World.

Monday 27 April 2020

Southern California January 2020 - Logistics and Itinerary

Southern California, 10th-12th January 2020

I didn't think I'd every post another of these, but here we are, Covid-19 has had all manner of strange effects. This may also be my only birding trip of 2020 so probably best to make the most of it. Anyway, what started out as a vague plan to visit Joshua Tree National Park for some winter R&R instead turned into a frenetic two and a half days of all out birding around San Diego and the Salton Sea. Using eBird I worked out a good mixture of sites that I could visit whilst driving a large loop from Los Angeles down the coast to San Diego and then back via the inland route, maximising species diversity and offering the possibility of quite a number of both new ABA and world birds. It was a great success, although as ever an extra day would have been handy. This is of course always the case but I would never change this. Before lockdown I was forever short on time and my specialty had become short intense trips - I really enjoy the challenge that they bring. I never did see the Joshua Trees…


  • Two and a half days of mid January birding in Southern California, mainly around San Diego and the Salton Sea.
  • Getting there: Whilst there are direct flights to San Diego from London, there are more flights and cheaper options to Los Angeles, and enough birding sites between the two cities to easily break up the two hour drive. I actually came via San Francisco as I wanted to visit some family I have there, and so arrived in Los Angeles at around lunchtime on a Friday afternoon. I used a combination of British Airways and American Airlines.
  • Car Hire: I hired a Ford Escape SUV from Avis for three days which cost about £200. This is a little on the expensive side but I enjoy having a large car in the US and it meant I could have my tripod permanently extended along the length of the vehicle.
  • Driving: Other than horrendous traffic all over LA, as easy as it gets. The downside of flying to and from LA is that you could find yourself in a superjam with a flight to catch. There are some decent birding sites very close to the airport, so my recommendation would be to leave earlier than you need to and spend any spare time you have at Ballona Freshwater Marsh, Marina del Rey or Dockweiler State Beach.
  • Accommodation: I booked my first night in San Diego so as to be close to La Jolla for Saturday morning. There are many options due to the presence of Sea World and other attractions. As I was a little unsure of my timings I did not organise the second night in advance - I ended up staying in a motel in El Centro, an unremarkable town south of the Salton Sea close to the Mexican border.
  • Literature: I used the Audubon App and researched all my targets using eBird which really comes into its own in America.


Day 1: Around LAX I birded briefly at Ballona and Marina del Rey, before driving south to Bolsa Chica and onwards to San Diego where I spent the night.
Day 2: Early morning photographing Brown Pelicans at La Jolla, and then up until midday birding a variety of sites either on the coast of close to the Mexican border. In the afternoon I headed inland to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park via Lindo Lake. Evening drive east to El Centro.

Day 3: Morning visiting the main sites around the Salton Sea, starting the southern part of Sonny Bono NWR and then making my way up the east side. Early afternoon at Palm Desert and a quick stop at Mystic Lake before heading back to the airport at Los Angeles for a 7pm flight.

Friday 24 April 2020

Romeo, O Romeo!

More from my balcony...

Thursday 23 April 2020

Nogmic nights

My initial enthusiasm is beginning to wane, there has been barely a bird to analyse over the last few days. Meanwhile fellow nocmiggers are recording Water Rail, Stone Curlew, Oystercatcher, Spotted Crake.....

Here is a summary from Wanstead from the last few nights. I have not even bothered to load these up as sound files they are so boring. Can you imagine scrolling through 21 hours of this in 24 second chunks? That's over 3000 screens, over 3000 clicks. On the plus side I have not bothered staying awake any of these nights so in that sense I have got away lightly. They are, in order - a nearby emergency services vehicle siren, a local amorous fox, and the police helicopter.


I suppose I have not done badly with the Whimbrels etc, but three nights of London background rumble punctuated by the kind of garbage shown above is getting rather tiresome. I think I'll go back to staring at the sky. At least that is a nice soothing blue.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

The great patch birding nocmig debate continues

Back to the nocmig debate I'm afraid. Pandora's box for the individual lister perhaps, but for a collective of local patch-workers the can of worms is far more accurate. One night last week I heard and recorded Whimbrel flying over. Amazing! However celebrations at the time were rather put on hold as I grappled with the whole nocmig argument.

We have a local birding WhatsApp group to share news and sightings (and now audio files....), there are perhaps ten of us on it. It has been busier than normal what with lockdown; even the most banal of birds now get shared. Then I set up my bucket and in short order have recorded a series of what are basically patch megas. The WhatsApp group has gone into overdrive - we just don't get sea ducks and waders here. The former - Common Scoter - were recorded twice last century, the most recent nearly 60 years ago, and under what circumstances we will probably never know. All we know is that there was a bird on the Basin for a day way back when. Waders, with a few exceptions like Snipe and Common Sandpiper, are basically all flyovers. Nasty weather - rain or fog - seems to aid our chances, but essentially they're as rare as rocking horse you know what.

Nocmig is making them less rare and that's the crux of the current debate. With my slightly gleeful morning reports of x y z recorded "rarities", even if heard "live", there was a suggestion that nocmigging could cause a devaluation in status of rare birds on the patch, especially for those that live a little further away and can't partake in nocturnal recording/listening. If this trend continues and noc-migging remains a thing even post lockdown, will birds that for most patch-workers were a once in a decade sighting be reduced to merely expected annual nocturnal migrants that nobody actually sees?

We're divided I'm afraid. I think we're all agreed that vision is the superior and ranking sense for people [most people - what if one of us were blind?], and that we therefore all find visual records of birds and photographs of birds more satisfying than aural records and mp3 files. We also all seem to agree that a recording of a bird reviewed after the event is just not as kosher as a heard at the time bird, and as such whereas that bird cannot be denied an entry onto the patch list for we all agree that it was indeed present, it can't be said to have actually been heard by the individual who turned on the recorder and thus can't go their personal list. Fine.

But that is where it ends. Personally I was extremely excited as I heard the Scoter and now this Whimbrel go over. Probably less excited than had I found either of them on the deck, or flying past in the daytime*, but more excited than if somebody else had found one on the deck and I'd then twitched them. I am finding that there is definitely a big element of "self found" associated with nocmig.

I was actually indoors at the start of both events, listening on headphones connected to the microphone on the balcony. Lying in bed actually! Is this allowed? To deflect the most obvious objections I took them off, opened the door and also managed to hear a call 'naturally', but I didn't bother for the Moorhen and that's now on my garden list too. It strikes me writing this that if there are issues with the use of a microphone and headphones then we may also have problems with binoculars and telescopes, both of which also augment human sensory capabilities. We have yet not had the 'webcam' debate, whereby an internet connection replaces a short cable, and hopefully we don't need to, but camera traps did get a mention.

As I have added more decent nocmig records the debate has naturally intensified. So does this argument of devaluation hold any water? To my mind not really, but I am new to all this as many of us are, and the reason I am penning this is to see if any readers would like to offer an opposing opinion, or to give their thought on nocmig and patch birding if they have already been through this stage. If anything I think it makes our collective local list more complete. We may have thought Common Scoter was mega but we were ill informed, simply not aware that each year an annual overland migration takes place. That wonderfully quick-to-market graphical representation of the Scoter migration had a lot of people similarly enlightened I expect. We also thought that poor weather saw the best chance of waders on our patch, and it probably still does, but perhaps their spring movements commonly take them over urban areas like ours in fine weather? My nocmig sessions along with everyones else's help to understand that. To ignore these records or give them any less merit than the diurnal migrants that we hear (a high percentage Yellow Wagtails go unseen for example) strikes me as counter-intuitive. The opposing argument to this is that for the sake therefore of scientific exactitude, why not set up camera traps and microphones everywhere and ensure that nothing, bar nothing, gets through unrecorded?

Where we are really getting hung up is how we list these birds. A separate nocmig list? That's one option I suppose, but only a single list can describe the totality of what birds use or fly over a patch. If we were to have a separate list for nocturnal migrants should we also have a list for diurnal migrants? A separate list for birds that we heard but didn't see? I think that as long as we clearly state what type of record each is then we're fine. Where this falls down a little is that year on year patch lists, or current and historical lists, are not easily compared in the post nocmig era. The view here is that we should mention in the annual report that a new survey method has begun to be employed, albeit in a limited way, and that this has contributed to a change in how some birds have been recorded. It will work the other way too as with significantly less coverage by local birders, passerine spring migrant records are likely going to fall. Were it not for lockdown this wouldn't be happening of course, and frankly the only way I can manage nocmig is because of lockdown. I don't have to go to the office so nobody can see the huge bags under my eyes caused by lack of sleep - these nocmig records have not come for free, especially with the "at the time" stipulation we have decided on.

If the worry here is individual lists, i.e. the competitive part of local birding - and let's face it, many of these birds are certainly becoming a lot less rare on my list. I can of course see why my new records may ruffle some feathers. I sympathise, not everyone is able to nocmig from the patch, in fact most people who keep a Wanstead list cannot do so without serious effort (Nick has been talking about it!). In that respect I and a couple of others have a clear advantage, albeit not one we have up until now ever used. Fifteen years I could have been doing this! Location is just one aspect, time is the other. There is a huge amount of disparity in the time each of us are able to devote to birding the patch, in any manner. Some of us have partners and kids, some of us don't. Some of us travel frequently for extended periods of work, others not at all. At best, I could at certain times of year do an hour or so each weekday morning, and then all weekend every weekend if I sacrificed everything else I enjoy doing. Others struggle to do more than a couple of hours every Saturday morning. At the other end of the spectrum at least one local birder spends ten hours a day on the patch during the prime months and could do more if he wanted. It all comes down to personal circumstances, there just isn't a way to level a playing field this diverse. I don't think anybody is suggesting that we introduce birding caps, and I am not going to deny the geography of Chateau L - if it's not giving the game away too much I can be on Wanstead Flats in under thirty seconds. Indeed I think last week's Whimbrel were over Wanstead Flats when I first head them. I would have no problem keeping a separate list for nocmig (in fact I do in a way, via eBird nocturnal sightings). However when it came to describing my total patch list I'd simply add them together, i.e 158 of which one is nocmig. Clearly specifying nocmig records on a combined list achieves exactly the same thing. I also feel I've made more effort for these recent records than many daytime rare birds where I've just got lucky with a flyover, a case of being in the right place at the right time.....**

But there is no denying that nocmig, a new concept for all of us here, has started out as a bit tricky in terms of reaching a concensus, and it feels like we're still feeling our way a little bit. As such, and to check that we're not an outlier in how we might deal with this, I'd like to find out how other local patches deal with these types of nocturnal records.


Nick managed to get the crucial photo that I could not!

Three days after I made my nocmig recording of Whimbrel, two flew over me on Wanstead Flats early in the morning. This is patently absurd given all of the above, but there you have it. Patch birding - sometimes you cannot make it up! Did I feel any less elated having ticked the species a few days earlier? Not in the slightest! Did it feel like a full fat patch tick? Well, not quite, although I confess I did feel slightly and strangely vindicated. There were also a few others around who I was able to get on the birds which for me made it far more satisfactory - there is joy in shared sightings. I then also recorded another bird a day afterwards, so that's three definite flyovers in five days. Whether this is simply a 2020 phenomenon or part of a regular Spring movement remains to be seen.

Monday 20 April 2020

Wanstead Bird Reports

Every year we release a patch bird report, and the most recent one - 2018 - is now out. You can click on the image below to access it and I would encourage you to do so. In fact please do so - the effort that has gone into this, and all the others, which can be found here merit their wider circulation. It works well on a standard widescreen monitor.

I am not sure how many local patches do this but it's a nice way to round up the year and they're fun documents to go back and read during the quiet times. In recent years Nick has been putting them together, how he finds the time I have no idea. Oh, wait, yes I do! Nonetheless, it is a mammoth effort that takes him days and days, and they deserve to be seen by more people. As this year is the tenth one, a few of the local patchworkers have contributed to a "Top ten moments of the last ten years", and reading those gives a real sense of the type of birding we get here - it is not all about rarities! That said, this was the Rustic Bunting year, a real mega anywhere, and so that features on more than a few of the top tens.

This was the year of the "Beast from the East" and so in this report there is a small feature on Lapwings. I remember that period well and on one of the days I worked from home. Between bouts of work I picked up 275 Lapwing heading west over my garden and away from the brutal weather. Given I can go for a full year and see none, it was a quite incredible spectacle. There is also a short piece on Gull ringing recoveries - Tony is a big ring afficionado and makes a big effort to record and track down all that he sees. Jubilee Pond is probably the best place to read rings - you are close to the birds and they perch on the low wooden fences on the islands allowing for good visibility.

The bulk of the report is the day by day sightings - these are basically pulled from the ELBF feed that Howard V painstaking compiles, and then combined with a short and often light-hearted summary that describes the month as a whole. It is liberally illustrated by all of us, and I think this is what makes it such a fun read - you can scroll down and relive the year day by day! If this view is not your kind of thing, then there is also the annual systematic list, and this is where the real detail lies. It is put together to sit alongside the historical records page on the Wanstead Birding Blog. This for me is where the real interest lies - we have status, records by month and year, tables, firsts and last dates for common migrants, and all set against photos taken by local birders. As it is a local patch report put together by local birders, as opposed to something more formal and official describing a much larger area, certain what some may call 'liberties' have been taken that some people may not agree with, mainly the inclusion of non-accepted rarities. Rarities in any context are always thorny issues, and indeed even locally we don't necessarily all agree with the approach, but this is where we currently are and I would urge readers not to get all het up about it and just to read the report as an insight into local birding on one of London's best patches. You cannot fail to get a feel for where we all spend a vast amount of time, and if it encourages more people to get out and enjoy local birding then so much the better. I've certainly noticed more and more people out with binoculars in recent years - a far cry from when I was just wandering around on my own!

Anyway, enjoy, and if you have any comments then please do let us have them via the usual means.

Saturday 18 April 2020


I have realised that my local Wren will sing on the top of my conifer every day. His favourite tree is not in my garden, but once - perhaps twice - each morning he does like to mix it up a bit and come over to my garden. So over the Easter weekend I set up my longest lens and, for good measure, stuck a converter on it. 1140mm of optical wonder, although the slightest of movement or heat in the air destroys the image. Occasionally one 'sticks', so to speak. Eventually he came over, and what a little cracker he is.

Friday 17 April 2020

The Moon

I took advantage of cloudless and less polluted skies a week or so ago to photograph the moon from one of the many turrets here at Chateau L. I gradually increased the magnification seeing if the quality would hold up, and was amazed that my 800mm lens with a 2x converter was able to remain on the whole pretty sharp. A few wobbles, and at that size in the viewfinder I actually needed to track the moon - I could actually see it moving from left to right, drifting out of view! Pretty pleasing really, except for an enquiry the following morning from Mrs L about some unknown and highly annoying overnight noise. Obviously I had no idea.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Another wader falls to nocmig

Last night I added Whimbrel to my patch list. I stayed awake for the third night on the trot, and this time was rewarded with more than a Mallard. I started at 10pm or thereabouts, but soon fell asleep - I was in bed by the way, with headphones. Don't get me started - in any event I plan to cover this and other nocmig-related things in a more detailed post. The microphone is outdoors, I am indoors. I am 45, anything else just isn't possible. However at 1am something woke me up, probably that bloody police helicopter again or one of the recently emboldened boy-racers, and from then until about half three I was all ears. At about 1.40am a series of calls I did not know but that screamed "wader" had me on my feet and at the balcony door. It was a long sequence and I caught the end of it. I prayed that the recorder was on and went back to my nice warm bed.

It was, and so in the morning I found this. So did Bob, who has an even longer sequence.

Here it is on the laser display board, and for listeners at home....

Whimbrel was actually my second choice, I am rather new to nocturnal flight calls. Have you heard Little Grebe at night? I had not, but as we have lots of Little Grebe here, there was more than a passing resemblance to their trill, and I had read that they were common on nocturnal recordings, I tried that. It wasn't quite right, and I found myself back at Whimbrel. Once again the internet and local birders were found to contain wisdom.

Ooof. A much-wanted local bird. Usually the conditions that drop them in are the sort that send me scurrying for home, and there are just two local records in recent years, albeit one was a flock of 33. This nocmigging thing is tremendously exciting, had it not been the middle of the night with a sleeping wife a few feet away my post-numenid celebrations would have been enormous. It is also unsustainable - I cannot function on less than eight hours sleep, and even less so when that sleep is broken. 

Lockdown has changed how I'm birding. I'm not out of the patch in the mornings at the moment, or indeed much at all, so I am missing out on the passerine migrants. Instead I'm listening at night and watching from the house. This is new and exciting, and when the replacements for Ring Ouzels, Wheatears and Whitethroats are sea ducks and waders in all honesty I am finding it difficult to be disappointed. I'd love to see the regulars of course, but I've found all of them before and the self-found element of noc-migging is quite compelling. Watch this space. Right, I'm off for a nap.

Wednesday 15 April 2020


I see Sparrowhark every day, I would say that there are at least two pairs very local to me. Almost every sighting is of a bird over woods, so some distance away, and at the moment there is a lot of displaying, sometimes involving both birds. One day I had three together. Sometimes they come over the garden, high up, circling, but only very rarely do they come through the garden. On Sunday morning a cacophony of alarm calls alerted me to a hunt in progress. Sure enough a small brown bird zoomed almost at ground height between my house and my neighbours and down my garden, scattering birds as it progressed across the fencelines. An explosion of Woodpigeons from a tree a few doors down signalled where the bird had stopped, and I soon picked it up perched behind branches.  I went to get my camera, the tree in question is not so far away, and there was a chance that I might manage a photo as it departed again. I readied myself, finger on the trigger....

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Pandora's Bucket

After I wrote that post the other day about finding both Moorhen and Oystercatcher on an overnight recording, I reviewed the final file from that session. This is the one that normally runs from about 4am to 6am when I get up and stop the machine, and as it is usually the dawn chorus I don't go through it - there is simply too much to pick out and listen to, and in any event I can hear all those birds with my own ears during my early morning visible migration session. However as April 12th had been so good, I decided to nonetheless run through it in the spirit of discovery - I have a lot to learn and it is interesting to see the sonogram shapes of common songbirds. At around 5am I came across the clear calls of a Little Owl below the tinkling of a Robin.


So the series of recordings I made that night contain not two but three full-fat garden ticks. There was also a Tawny Owl for the lockdown list, but whatever. Three garden ticks in an evening! I could weep, this nocmig thing is a real pain in the ass. I wonder how many newly minted noc-miggers are right now wishing that they had never started down this infernal path? I mean on the one hand it is amazing, but on the other..... What have I let myself in for?

Smarting from the "what might have been" and the solitary Mallard in two hours the following evening, I stayed up last night until 1am listening. Hoping. Not a sausage. Literally nothing at all. Shattered, I left the machine to it and collapsed into bed. This is the point where you would expect that I tell you about the amazing wader passage at 2am, but gratifyingly there was nothing at all until the local Robin started up in the morning. Clearly I have a lot to learn about what constitutes good conditions for nocturnal migration. This thing is frustrating as hell.

The soundstage

Ready for some Greek mythology? Pandora's Box. A jar from the gods thought to contain bountiful gifts, but in reality containing all manner of evil things. For Pandora curiosity unfortunately wins the day, and all these things are released into the world before the jar can be closed again. In modern times the closest equivalent expression is to "open a can of worms", but in 2020 it would be better translated as "to buy a portable sound recorder". I quite like the description in Wikipedia - a present which seems valuable but which is in reality a curse.

Here's the issue. I now know that all manner of hitherto unexpected birds fly around my house whilst I am inside sleeping. I know this because I have an indefatigable box of electronic tricks sat in a bucket on my balcony taking comprehensive notes. My very own Pandora's Box in my very own Pandora's Bucket. This is fascinating and very exciting, but listening to them after the fact on my computer is somehow deeply unsatisfying. The only way to achieve complete satisfaction is to join the bucket on the balcony and hear these birds for myself, but this comes at an almost unbearable cost of complete exhaustion, not to mention absurd frustration. An exchange rate of five hours of sleep to one Mallard is pretty unfavourable. A week in and I would almost prefer not to know. What you don't know can't hurt you right? I've missed years and years of flyovers (although Schrodinger has some thoughts here, as does his one true heir Prof W) and it hasn't bothered me a bit. Leave the machine indoors, go to sleep, worry ye not.

But what if I miss something? Would I rather not know? Of course I would! This is a whole new facet of birding to explore, I could heroically increase the Wanstead Patch list! But If I'm asleep then I......Oh my God, what have I opened up??!! Gah!!

By the way, do you know what was left in Pandora's box once everything else had escaped? 


Monday 13 April 2020

Nocmig: to count or not to count

The night before last I put the recorder out on the balcony and went to bed. I enjoyed a refreshing nine hour sleep reminiscent of my teenage years, and feeling refreshed stepped out onto the balcony for a spot of early morning birding. A solid 31 species were recorded before breakfast, proving once again that all garden totals from 2006 to 2019 were half-hearted at best. Then I sat down to go through the overnight recording.

About an hour in a Moorhen called directly overhead. None of this straining to disentangle obviously distant sounds - it sounded like it was perched on the chimney before being surprised by a bat and bursting into an explosive escape. Moorhen would be a garden tick, and it is now the second time in a week that I have picked in up on an overnight recording. Worse was to come however. At around midnight a wader appeared on the recording. A distant call shaped like a hairpin on the spectrogram. "Kleep!Fifteen seconds later it appeared again, much bolder and much louder. ......."KLEEP!!" I suspect I don't need to tell you what it was.

Well now. Oystercatcher is patch gold. It knocks Moorhen into a cocked hat. It knocks most patch birds into a series of cocked hats. It is the milliner of local birds. I can stay up listening any night I choose and score a Moorhen* whereas there have been precisely two previous records of Oystercatcher, both heard-only flyovers. And now we have a third and it was over my garden. 

Our local 'rules', mutually agreed by all those who take an interest in these things, define the boundaries of the patch, and also offer some standard advice on escapes, Cat E etc. Local patch listers have to see birds on or from the patch, and we also at some point declared that heard only birds could be added to the overall patch list, but in order to grace an individual's list had to be heard 'live', i.e. heard by that person at the time and not solely by a tape recording reviewed after the event. Thus I have added Oystercatcher to the 2020 consolidated patch list, but there is a large Oystercatcher-shaped hole in my own 2020 list. This hole is large, and deeply black...

I am taking part in two lockdown listing competitions, one local and one national. The local one is fairly unscientific, centred largely around East London and consolidated by Howard V using our long-standing WhatsApp group. It is simply the highest total that wins, so that's Fraser S who lives on the Thames. For this one nocmig records don't count, as I found out when I first recorded Common Scoter. The more geographically diverse competition coordinated by Steve G in Surrey pits your pre-lockdown all-time garden list against your lockdown garden list as a percentage, a bit like the Golden Mallard challenge. However for this one nocmig records are perfectly fine, indeed you would be foolish if you are nocmigging to ignore them, although that does of course disadvantage any birders not listening out at night. Oh my mistake, there aren't any.

So to count or not to count? If I wanted to be thorough, there is no doubt that a Moorhen and an Oystercatcher have passed over or very close to my garden. Using the usual on or from listing criteria, they would be very firmly on the list. Had I been stood in my red bucket I would without a doubt have heard them both. So the fact it is added to the overall patch list (I live in the middle of the patch, which is not entirely surprising as I drew up the map....) creates a bit of a dilemma, we now have an orphan record. 

"Oh you have Oystercatcher on the patch list, wow, whereabouts was it?!"
"Over Jono's garden actually."
"Amazing, what a fantastic garden tick!"
"It's not on his list"

It really messes with my sense of order. Spreadsheets and databases deal with this kind of thing very badly. I added the records to eBird as this is useful scientific data, but this now creates a discrepancy between the list I know and the list that is recorded. Put simply, it does not add up, and for the good of my inner calm things need to add up. Irritating, and could so easily be reconciled with a slight relaxation of some unwritten rules....

But we must stand firm. Think where it could end. Yes, I am thinking Terminator. The rise of the machines. The patch list could end up being dominated by heard-only recordings that nobody has ever seen, and the annual top listing spots could be taken over by the "Zoom H2n" and "Tascam DR-05". Nick could be relegated off the podium! No, that would not do at all. This needs to remain a human activity to have any relevance.

With that in mind I spent two hours on the balcony last night until just after midnight. The result? One solitary distant Mallard. I retired to bed and left it to the machine.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Garden punctuation

How can I sum up the last few days? I know, dull. Yes, quite dull. Many many hours looking at a largely empty sky. Such is the reality of lockdown listing I suppose, especially in an urban setting. No sea, no river, just rooftops and sky. It's a bit like a quiet sea watch now that I think about it. Hours and hours of nothing, but always a chance. They do say never to leave a good seawatch, but equally it is often clear when you are on a hiding to nothing. Those are the days when by 8am you know the game is up, and start wondering what other birdy activity might be in the offing.

Under lockdown however..... So, blank days punctuated by brief highlights. One highlight has been Rook. Under normal circumstances Rook is a hard bird to get in Wanstead - a more rural species. It probably goes down as annual, but I certainly don't get one every year. Up until last week my count in Wanstead, ever, was six birds in sixteen years. Six, including one over the garden way back in 2009. Locked down, eyes to the sky, I've seen seven in the last seven days. Seven!! 

I have this thing that I do on my bird lists. If I have only ever seen one of something I put it in italics. Until recently Rook was in italics. So was Little Egret and so was Short-eared OwlI've been doing the early shift from the balcony, usually from around half six to about half eight when I have to get ready for work. It has been extremely productive - in the last couple of weeks I've seen two more Little Egret and another SEO. If I am cooped up here for much longer soon there won't be anything left in italics at all.

As if this were not enough though, I really upped my game last week with my first ever Raven. The number of sightings in London has been increasing, but it wasn't really on my radar as a patch tick. I say patch, what I really mean is somewhere over near Stratford, but "on or from" has always been the name of the game, and being in lockdown means that 'from' becomes a lot more likely. I was wandering around the loft room, or the Obs as it is now known, when through binoculars I saw two distant specks. A large bird being mobbed by a smaller one. A Buzzard being hassled by a Crow probably, but in these times you check everything. Through the scope they were both corvids....errr.  A Jackdaw after a Crow, or.....oh good grief look at that tail on the bigger one. A whacking great diamond - and the other bird was definitely a Crow. I watched the spectacle for a short while to be sure, but before I could get a gripping photo the birds descended below my horizon. Incredible, although it does unfortunately go down in italics....

A propos of nothing at all, here is a Collared Dove

Wednesday 8 April 2020

Lockdown photography

I'm missing bird photography. I don't usually do much in the UK, and especially not locally - there is very little point. Instead I tend to get my fix on trips away, but as all of those have been cancelled I have found myself rather at a loss during lockdown. I've been following the guidelines on leaving the house quite strictly. A couple of walks, a tiny amount of early morning birding, no piss-taking. That has also meant that my camera continues to lie idle - I don't want to get called out toting a large lens around Wanstead Flats; I'm pretty sure that bird photography wouldn't be deemed as essential.

Instead I've had my camera close at hand for lockdown listing, trying to get shots of every species I've seen. Largely this has been completely unsatisfactory - crappy record shots of distant Red Kites and Buzzards and so on, or of garden birds obscured by foliage. In other words the kind of photos I loathe. Opportunities for anything better have been few and far between, but there have been a few occasions where a hint of what I am after has managed to creep in. There are only two natural perches within range that [just about] meet my requirements for a clean background, and only one of them is close enough for a small bird to be worth bothering with - but because it is quite close to a large human standing on a balcony, birds seem to visit it very infrequently. And then there is a chimney pot....

Here are three that I took this morning from my balcony. The local Wren, one of our many Ring-necked Parakeets, and finally an amorous Woodpigeon.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

A new garden record

My all time garden day record was until recently 30 species. I realise that garden day listing could be considered a pretty niche concept, but birders are a nerdy lot and this kind of thing is to be expected. I set it back in 2010 when I was not working and had oodles of time on my hands. It was in August so I expect that I just left the children to run wild in the garden and forage for food while I concentrated on the sky. Since then I have never really come close, a couple of days in the high twenties but that's it. Did I even attempt it again? I'm not sure. I may not have done, let's face it I would rather be out birding somewhere. So what more of an excuse do I need that this current enforced period at home? Will there ever be a better time than lockdown? This Saturday just gone I decided to find out. 

In short it was a walk in the park. Well, you know what I mean. Within an hour and a bit the record was gone. I've subsequently tried it on two other mornings and found it similarly easy to get to 30 in the same timeframe. I suspect that I've always been on an actual walk in the park and only started in the garden later when things have stopped singing, or completed their morning commute.

On the morning in question I was on the balcony at 6.30am. The gardens around here are mature and so this is a reliable spot for all the regulars. There are singing Blackbirds, Blue Tits, Dunnocks and Wrens, and at the moment there is an audible Chiffchaff somewhere to my west. I can also hear Song Thrush early in the morning, and of course Woodpigeons, Collared Doves, Parakeets and so on are all over the place. Early morning also seems good for some of the larger birds, and I was able to add Canada Goose, Egyptian Goose, Grey Heron and both Woodpeckers flying over.

Blackcap was in the gardens to the front, as well as the regular Coal Tit and House Sparrows, and Jackdaws breed in the chimneys, so it was not a great surprise to surpass my prior total before breakfast. Great Tit proved surprisingly hard, as did Chaffinch. Like all good days there were some birds I don't regularly get - two Rook west were only my third garden record. I also managed to scope Stock Dove in the local wood - they hardly ever visit my garden.

By mid morning I was on 38, with the first Sparrowhawk and Buzzard of the day, and then a pair of Mute Swan on the stroke of 11. This is when it starts getting a lot harder, the targets dry up and of course the middle of the day just isn't as good anyway. 

Linnet was added after lunch for 39, a single bird west, and I finally found a hovering Kestrel distantly over Wanstead Flats a short while later for 40. There then followed an immense period of seeing nothing new at all - lots of Buzzard activity and Sparrowhawks all over the place, but the hoped-for Red Kite never put in an appearance (although on Monday when I was working and not birding two brief glances out of one of the skylights added four of the cheeky so-and-sos, including three together!) The only further diurnal addition was a Peregrine towards or over the Olympic Park for number 41 - I needed a scope for this. 42 is a number that I would more easily be able to remember, so I partook in some late evening nocmigging and scored Coot. It also scored Moorhen after I had gone to sleep, which would have been a garden first had I been awake. I'm not too worried, we have months of this to look forward to.

Saturday 4 April 2020

Feeding time at the zoo

Has anyone else noticed that meal times seem to have taken on a new importance during lockdown? Back when life was normal meals were somewhat peripheral, something that you found time for but were not that important, or at least not on weekdays. We made more of an effort at the weekend, but during the week meals were almost an irritation.

All that has changed, or at least it has in Chateau L. I suspect the gradual dwindling of anything interesting to eat last weekend has rather concentrated minds, and when lunch on Monday was plain rice and grated carrot we very nearly snapped. Another "meal" was a choice between either tuna or marmite sandwiches, both of which were refused by the children who instead made crisp sandwiches. No butter, that had run out.

Happily our delayed online shopping order finally arrived on Tuesday and we have food again. Praise be. But we are under no illusions that we will reach the same point again as it currently remains impossible to get another order booked in, and we are practising the kind of robust social distancing that definitely does not involve supermarkets. For now though meals are good again, and there is a convivial and light-hearted atmosphere around the family table. There is no shortage of wine thankfully, indeed it is flowing as it has never flowed before. Our pre-lockdown regime of alcohol-free weekdays has been quietly put to one side. Life is less straightforward than it used to be, and quite boring to boot, why deny ourselves something that so vastly improves the situation?

With so little to do I suppose you become more focused on the mundane and the routine, and what is more routine than lunch or dinner? We find ourselves milling around downstairs late morning, hanging around the kitchen early evening. The most apt comparison is probably prison. And perhaps for the first time we're not having seconds. For instance we would normally scoff a whole tray of lasagna, but this week we looked at what was left and realised that if saved until the following day then that was a tuna sandwich we didn't have to eat. Do that a just a couple of times and you have increased the days needed before you need to go shopping by one in the event that online deliveries continue to be unreliable. Do it a few more times and it will really make a difference, probably to our waistlines as well if we weren't drinking so much wine. However if this is the worst of it, we'll cope. I'm under no illusions here, we're just experiencing what plenty of households experience outside virus pandemics except with a well-stocked cellar to see us through. 

Plenty of people I've talked to have noticed the same thing, a renewed focus on the basics of food and shelter. A colleague I talked to said he can't stop visiting the fridge during the day. I'm not sure if he meant to constantly eat some tidbit from it, or to look wistfully at its bare white shelves whilst recalling the good times. I could understand either way, this is what we are reduced to. 

Anyhow, the happier news is that our last delivery contained some "Waitrose Essential" blood oranges. We have been saving these for a warm day like today, so in a moment I am going to go and make some Blood Orange Martinis - a recent discovery. Mrs L and I plan to consume in the sunshine and pretend that none of this is really happening. It's important to stay positive.

Friday 3 April 2020

Lady Duck is on my side

After the crushing disappointment of being allowed to put Common Scoter on the overall patch list but not on my own patch list, I knew I had to try again. Happily lightning did in this instance strike twice and there was another movement of birds overnight - Twitter went into overdrive with birders all over the country adding the hashtag #nocmig to their messages. The movement was earlier this time, but I was primed and ready. My bucket was out.

At 2306 this happened. 

(again, volume UP!)

I could scarcely believe it! More birds than my previous record, although I don't suppose I will ever be able to tell how many. But just one is enough in this game! There was a further and less distinct set of calls about 15 minutes later, but this is the better recording. I have got out my metaphorical notebook and my special indelible pen, and INKED IT IN!

I stayed up listening for a while, but got too cold and tired, thus missing the Coot that had a bit of a fly around at 2am. I have a cunning plan though, which I tested briefly yesterday. The little sound recorder I have appropriated from Mrs L has a headphone socket. My bluetooth headphones also have a 3.5mm jack for when the battery runs out, or if I want to plug them into a airplane. This means that the recorder (which does not feel the cold like I do) can sit outside whilst I remain warm inside. I tried this with the very short cable supplied and can confirm it works perfectly, albeit that it was slightly drafty lying on the floor next to the balcony doors and I couldn't move without pulling the cable out. However the five metre cable which arrives tomorrow will comfortably reach all the way to the bed.....

Is that cheating? I don't think so. Think of it as the audio version of using a scope. Or as wearing a duvet and a door rather than a hat and a coat. Or dressing gown.