Sunday 30 August 2020

Sheringham Seawatch

A north sea northerly with gusts rising to 50mph all Friday night and all of Saturday. Frequent squalls, poor visibility. Seabirds galore, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Similar conditions in September 2009 had enticed/forced 800+ Manx Shearwaters past Sheringham, along with numerous Sooty Shearwater, Sabine's Gull, a Leach's Storm Petrel and tons of Skuas. Time has not dulled that day, and I wanted a repeat. I'm over ten years older though, so a hugely early start was off the cards, and in any event the theory was that the birds wouldn't move overnight and instead enjoy a bumpy sleep somewhere out in the open sea. The following morning they would yawn, stretch their wings and immediately be blown inshore where lots of people would be waiting.

It hadn't work out quite like that. By the time Nick and I arrived at the shelters to meet Bradders people who had been there since dawn were bemoaning the initial three hours. Waste of time, completely useless said one famous birder as he walked away, no doubt imploring us not to bother. Always a risk leaving a seawatch, even a poor one. The collected crowd of perhaps sixty had enjoyed a first hour of decent Skua passage but were now experiencing the mid-morning dry up. They left in their droves, and by 10.30am there was room in the shelter below and we settled in to dry off. A LT Skua was called down the line before I had even sat down, but if we were expecting more we were to be disappointed. But with the weather as it was there was no alternative but to continue the seawatch. 

One word. Slow. Ve-r-r-r-y slow indeed. People out for a walk laughed at us as they passed. Approaching 5pm we said we would leave at 5.15 - a solid but ultimately eight hour long damp squib. At about 5.05pm a rush of Arctic and Great Skuas in all directions threw a spanner in the works. In for a penny in for a pound; we were forced to stay. In those final two hours we probably saw more than in the preceding eight. It raised a poor seawatch into an average one. Not in any way comparable to the magic of 2009, but one that nonetheless has an air of quiet and bloody-minded satisfaction.

The following list does not exactly scream ten hours of hard graft at me, but it was sufficiently different from my normal birding that I'll take it. What would I have done at home other than see the same Whinchats that were here on Friday? I am still scratching my head as to why it simply didn't deliver. I am no seawatching expert, I think I will just have to put it down to experience. No doubt the shelters at Sheringham will be full again today, populated by weathered birders who know that a big blow always produces reorienting birds the following day despite blue skies and miles of visibility. There is always next time.

Friday 28 August 2020

Birder's photo vs Bird photo? A Whinchat provides an example.

There has been a bit of debate recently about the preponderance of super-detailed rictal bristle bird photographs on the internet. It is to be expected, photographic gear gets ever better, with seemingly tiny cameras capable of taking simply wonderful shots. The fancy technology of just two or three years ago is now found in budget cameras and megapixels abound - a starter camera is now around 24mp and some of the amateur bodies are bumping up to 30mp+, approaching 7000 pixels horizontally. That is a lot of pixels, there is almost no excuse not to take outrageously detailed images.

But in the face of this detail that reduces birds to objects of photographic lust rather than as creatures as part of, or moving through a landscape, there is a quiet backlash. The birder's photo. Birders care not for rictal bristles. Rather they want to show the bird as they themselves experienced it. Where was it? What was it doing? Which bush was it in? This has some merit. 

Recently I have been birding Wanstead Flats a great deal. Short targeted visits rather than all day vigils, but often several times a day. Until this morning none of my forays included a camera. But that is OK as phones these days are pretty incredible. Mine is a Samsung and has a 16mp camera in it which I find almost unbelievable as up until two years my DSLR only had 16mp, and even the one I have today is only 18mp. Canon's latest offering, the EOS R5, has a staggering 45mp. It also costs an equally staggering £4200, so I think I'll pass. I'd only break it. Anwyay, it has been very refreshing to be out birding without a camera, particularly one as heavy and unwieldy as mine - a bridge camera it is not. In fact recently I would estimate that nine times out of ten I will just have had my bins. I must be getting old. So, as I say I have been out a lot and there have been birds everywhere. Tasty and inviting birds like Whinchats and Wheatears. Sometimes there have been several of each in the same bush - on Monday a Redstart, three Wheatear and a Whitethroat, or like yesterday, two Wheatear and two Whinchat. I nearly wished I had had my camera with me, but then I realised that actually it was fine as I could instead take a birder's shot with my phone. So here is the bush of dreams from yesterday.

A real sense of place I feel. Evocative, with Centre Road car park in the background and a couple of nice lamp posts. Mmmmmm-mmmmmmm. Yep, that is my kind of photo. It will help me remember the excursion, it will add an extra dimension to my birding in a way that other more vulgar types of photos cannot. To prove this I took my camera out this morning and pointed it at the first Whinchat I saw. Ugh. 

Luckily it is not great as the bird was quite distant and I was in a hurry, and following an unfortunate Windows 10 experience my most sophisticated image-processing software is currently MS Paint. But nonetheless there is still way too much feather detail and the fundamental problem is that you can still tell it is a Whinchat. There are also no cars in the background to provide any sense of scale or of place. And can you see any lamp posts? Exactly. Mind you it is nothing compared to this horror show which I took in Greece a few years ago. Jeeee-sus wept, remind me never go anywhere near Lake Kerkini again. No contest is there? Ebay it is then.

Thursday 27 August 2020


We set off from Fife slightly before sunrise, London bound. As we reached Inverkeithing and the Queensferry crossings the sun was just rising. Even though we had not been on the road for very long it felt like the right thing to stop and make our way down to the shore at Port Edgar. I am glad we did, a lovely quarter of an hour with Sandwich Terns feeding between the bridges, and with renewed energy we continued southbound for our date with the Vulture

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Another SEO

Back in April a memorable balcony watch picked up my second ever garden Short-eared Owl. I was alerted to something going on by Gulls going a bit nuts, and managed to pick it up distantly over Wanstead Flats. I cannot remember if I took a photo or not, and I don't think there was any fanfare on here either. Yesterday it happened again, but this time via a tweet from Rose, a local wildlife enthusiast who spends a lot of time on Wanstead Flats looking at insects and plants. As such the tweet just said "Large Owl", but that was enough to see me jump up from my desk and start scanning. Sure enough, a SEO was earnestly flapping above the brooms, but unconvincingly, as if it wanted to stay. I lost it behind trees and Rose's next message said it had landed again, and as it was early enough that my daily meetings had not yet started I raced downstairs with my camera and headed out into the inclement weather which was getting worse by the minute. 

I was hopeful of photographing a perched owl, but as I approached Long Wood I realised this wasn't going to happen - the Owl was up again, this time with an aggrieved Crow in pursuit. As luck would have it it still appeared to be convinced that Wanstead Flats was the best place for it, and spent a few minutes circling around the area we call the Brick Pits. Standing on the top of the bank there I was able to take a few photos of it in the swirling rain - quite hard work in the strong gusts. The Crow ultimately proved too persistent though, and the Owl gave up and flew off east, or at least I think so, I was trying to tell people where it was and in typing the texts did the classic taking my eyes off it thing. So instead I took and sent this which I think neatly sums up how good autumn birding can be. Interestingly the Owl was still knocking around this morning, the first time I can remember one sticking locally, but an actual meeting meant I didn't see it.

Back home, more than a little damp, I dried off the camera and quickly got to work on the files - unsurprisingly they were pretty crude and required a lot of lightening and sharpening to get something acceptable, but actually the nasty conditions enhanced my enjoyment of seeing the bird and so I'm prepared to accept the compromise. It was my ninth SEO for the patch, and my third for the garden. I am pretty fortunate to live so close - not only can I often get big stuff that other people find from my windows, but as with the Flycatchers on Monday I can be out on the patch incredibly quickly if the need arises. 

Tuesday 25 August 2020

A clean sweep

Yesterday I managed to condense autumn into a single day. Over the course of three brief birding sessions I managed to see all the commoner expected migrants. First up an early morning balcony sky-watch, then a mid-morning whistle-stop tour around the brooms on Wanstead Flats, and finally a mid-afternoon dash to the SSSI - there and back in fifteen minutes. My personal totals are a thing of great beauty, and in years to come looking back on August 24th 2020 will always elicit a smile.

3 Whinchat

3 Wheatear

2 Redstart

1 Pied Flycatcher

1 Spotted Flycatcher

1 Tree Pipit

2 Yellow Wagtail

8 Willow Warbler

1 Lesser Whitethroat

Other birders picked up a few more here and there - another Redstart, another Yellow Wag and two more Whinchat and Spotted Flycatchers, but when I look at my list I am once again reminded what an incomparable spot Wanstead Flats can be on a good day. Prof W, now a foreign correspondent, remarked that he too wished he lived by the coast, and he is not wrong. Remember for a minute that Wanstead Flats is not a remote headland or a shingle spit. Instead it straddles zones 2 & 3 of the London tube network, and it has no right to get so many passerine migrants and yet it does. It provokes feelings of jealousy in other London birders who can only marvel at why this should be. I always offer two alternative explanations.

1) The amazing skill, passion, dedication and diligence of all the local birders, by which I mean me.


2) The fact that from the air at night Wanstead Flats must look like a fabulously inviting dark space in the middle of the blazing sea of light that is east London. If you were a bird looking for a spot to dive into as your night flight comes to end where would you head for? This place literally shines out. Or doesn't, if you see what I mean.

Number two strikes me as altogether more likely, although you cannot rule out the fact that the coverage here is excellent, particularly from certain individuals, by which I definitely don't mean me.

So that was my birding day and I am dead chuffed. The longest session was the early morning one, starting at 5.45am out on the balcony. This delivered the (calling) Pipit and the two Wagtails, all of which I also saw. The Chats were all in the brooms, and the Flycatchers and Warblers were all in the SSSI which saw somewhat of an emergency visit later on when I realised that a full house was on the cards. I didn't have a camera for any of it, no time, and the freedom of birding without being fully laden is something I find myself enjoying more and more. But of course all blog posts are enhanced by a photo, so this is the most recent burnt area two weeks after the fire that I wrote about here, and as you can see it is doing quite nicely - the deluge last week has accelerated the recovery to the extent it looks really quite green already. Lovely stuff. And even more lovely was that it contained two of the three Wheatears.


Monday 24 August 2020

Calling all Wood Sandpipers

Dear Wood Sandpipers,

We have created a small yet fantastic scrape that we feel you will very much enjoy on Fairground Flats. Build it and they will come we were told, so please don't disappoint us. It is just to the west of Centre Road and even from my perspective as a non-wader is looking pretty tasty. Here's a photo, what do you think? Pretty nice eh? Probably loads of invertebrate grub, and as far as I can tell the only thing that has yet attempted to tuck in has been an Egyptian Goose and their beaks are extremely limited for this kind of thing. You will have a ball, guaranteed. I will be there from 5.30am tomorrow but don't mind me, just drop in anyway. But hurry as there is a real risk that it will dry up and we would not want you to miss out. See you soon!

Police Scrape (the initial depression was caused by the Olympic base in 2012)

Best wishes,

A friendly Birder

Sunday 23 August 2020

More incidental twitching

Lovely birding conditions

If I had driven from London to the Peak District to see a sodden Lammergeier perched miserably on a rock face I would have come away distinctly underwhelmed. Seven hours in a car with a break half way during which I would have got absolutely soaked for duff views of an magnificent yet untickable bird.

As it was I got absolutely soaked for duff views of a undoubtedly magnificent yet untickable bird, but actually I came away feeling pretty good about it. Why? Because it wasn't a full-on nerve-wracking race against the clock in the company of a huge crowd of desperate birders. Instead I was simply driving past on my way home from Scotland, it was a short detour, and I watched it half way up a beautiful valley in the company of just one other person - a bloke called Alan. 

Alan had planned ahead and had waterproof clothing. I, er, didn't. But I did have a scope which he did not, and so we were both able to get clinching views of the bird perched on the same cliff on which it had roosted the night before. In that respect the foul weather did me a favour as the overwhelming likelihood was that the bird wouldn't move all day. I was guaranteed to see it, and to see it quickly so that I could continue with the long journey south.

It is a great shame that I didn't get to see it fly, to fully appreciate its size and bulk, but of course had it been that kind of day I may not have seen it all and so on balance I suppose I'll take it. Up until now I have been highly sceptical, but I am now of course 100% supportive of its acceptance on to the British list, and implore the BOURC to do the right thing.... I certainly have far less convincing birds on my list that somehow made the grade, though who knows how. Anyway, whether or not this ends up as tickable it is still pretty amazing to have seen a Lammergeier of any kind in the UK, and it broke up the journey rather nicely just like the PGP on the way up. This kind of low pressure incidental twitching suits my current mood perfectly.

Friday 21 August 2020

Birding in Fife

East Sands, St. Andrews

Possibly the only positive to come out of COVID-19 is that working from home has become completely normal, and companies like mine have invested in the technology that makes this extremely straightforward. This means I can work from almost anywhere that has an internet connection; I am no longer tied to Canary Wharf. So this week I have been working remotely from a small village in Fife and there has been no difference whatsoever - I brought a computer monitor and a keyboard up with me from London and which I intend to leave here, plugged in my laptop and worked with two screens just like I do from home. The only giveaway was a different background to my Zoom calls.

I view Fife almost as a second home county. My parents have lived here for many years, and I end up visiting quite frequently, either solo or with the family. As they get older I naturally find myself coming up more than I used to, to the point where I have what amounts to a second wardrobe up here and, now, the main components of a home office so that if needs be I can just grab my laptop and get up here extremely quickly. I've had to do so in the past, and in all likelihood I will have to do so again, such is the way of things. I will also make sure to grab my binoculars, and as I gravitate back towards pure birding rather than birding photography, my telescope, for the birds up here from the perspective of an impoverished urbanite are simply fabulous.

I have not done a great deal between kids, family and work, but I've managed a few early morning and late evening jaunts to my usual haunts as well as discovering a couple of new places. And thanks to the magic of eBird I have also discovered the joys of county listing. I only started using eBird in earnest last year and I'm gradually discovering all of the functionality that this amazing citizen science undertaking can offer. One of these is the ability for it to collate all your records into useful lists of what you have seen where, and then to match this against the totality of the underlying database to show what other people have seen. So if for example I wanted to compare my Fife list against birds seen in Fife in August this year, or indeed in August over a number of years, that is easily done, and a few seconds later it might spit out that I have not seen a Gadwall in the county which is a reasonably expected bird at this time of year. Personally I don't believe a word of it, but clearly there are some gaps in the many historical records that I painstakingly uploaded last year. The system is only as good as the people that use it, which in Fife is really not very many, and so in my quest for Gadwall (found at the second place I looked....) I also found Shoveler and Water Rail, neither of which I had seen in Fife, and neither of which had apparently been seen by any other Fife eBirders in August either. In some ways it is simpler just to ignore it and go birding with no preconceptions at all, which is largely what I ended up doing.

A short seawatch at Fife Ness one morning added Black Tern and Little Gull, a quick walk around a nearby nature reserve added Redpoll and Siskin, and Out Head at St Andrews had a few Whinchat, all of which I find hard to believe I have never seen in fifteen years of birding here but there you have it. What I found far more plausible is that I had never seen a Little Egret in Fife. Coming from down south where they are abundant it seems strange that this species should be so scarce up here, but I remember being really quite excited to see my first one in Perthshire three years ago. Things are clearly changing though as when I rolled up at the Eden Centre at Guardbridge there were no fewer than ten visible from the small screen that faces down the estuary! Ten! Rarity is a fleeting concept, far better was finding a Spotted Redshank sheltering amongst hundreds of its commoner cousins.

Spotted Redshank - dodgy phone-scoped shot.

And it is the waders and sea birds that I have enjoyed most whilst up here. My parents live fifteen minutes from the coast, and so almost everywhere I have been this week has had a backdrop of Oystercatcher and Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone. And not just a few individuals - hundreds. On my seawatch I gave up trying to count the Comic Terns, Gannets and Kittiwakes, the numbers of waders on the Eden estuary at low tide was incredible, and the Little Gull flock off Kinkell Ness currently measures in the hundreds. I am sure you get used to it but coming from suburbia I find this sensational and can't get enough of it. The weather has been rather so-so for most of our stay, with a fair amount of wind and rain and a haar that lasted for days, but in a way this has added to the birds' place in the landscape. An Oystercatcher against a bright blue sky and a calm sea is always nice, but an Oystercatcher against a leaden sky, calling plaintively with waves crashing behind it is even better.

Monday 17 August 2020

How to not twitch rare birds

I have seen a few birds recently that I did not find. When you travel to see a rare bird you did not find this is called twitching. The use of the word itself comes from the behaviour of otherwise normal people who when having a nice meal with their families and becoming aware of a rare bird start to become nervous and visibly distracted to the point that conversation becomes futile and they start to grimace or twitch. At some point before the end of the meal they jump up scattering cutlery all over the place, grab their optics and anorak and run to the car, and with a screech of tyres and a cloud of smoke disappear into the distance. Work, family and all other responsibilities are cast aside, possibly for several days, until the target bird has either been seen or all possibility of it being seen has passed, at which point they will slink back home, euphoric or manically depressed, and try and resume normal life until the next rare bird turns up.   

I am not a twitcher. Not any more, not really. In the past some shades of the above behaviour may have been observed by loved ones, but largely I have recovered and spend most of my birding life locally. Recent Vultures, rare Terns and mega Shearwaters have all been sniffed at, not for me a wild chase across the country. 

But I did just see this.

What a stunner! An adult summer-plumaged Pacific Golden Plover. This spangly little number has been hanging around on the Northumberland coast for around a week now, and....

...hang on a sec I hear you asking. Northumberland? As in the Northumberland about five hours from London? Yes that one. No, I didn't twitch it. Well, not really. We are worried about the likelihood of a second lockdown later this year, and like the first one that would mean that I would not be able to visit my parents and sister for several months. As such the kids and I are fitting in one more visit to Fife this summer, and there are two ways you can get up here by car - the west coast via Birmingham and Penrith, or the east coast via Newcastle and, er, Boulmer beach.

Northumberland is superb. When you live cheek by jowl in London the sense of space and solitude is palpable. We reached Boulmer (via Druridge Bay CP which is currently hosting a White-winged Black Tern, would have been rude not to...) at about 1pm and walked up the coastal path to Longhoughton Steel. There were birds everywhere - hundreds of European Golden Plover and with them their far rarer cousin. I've only ever seen one, and for the kids it was a lifer which they were obviously delighted with. Remarkably Henry has also seen an American Golden Plover in this country, so for him this completes the set. Obviously as a sixteen year old with an image to preserve he couldn't fully express the emotions he really wanted to, but I could tell he was pleased. I sent the below photo to Mrs L who had remained back in London to guard Chateau L and do some DIY, saying that there was still hope. She said I was kidding myself, but I think they'll remember this particular bird. They keep dredging up surprising nuggets of birdy knowledge that I inserted many years ago when they were more portable and less able to say no; in later life they may yet find a love of birds, and if they do I will be able to proudly present them with some lists I've been quietly keeping...

Thursday 13 August 2020

End of an era

I've been flying on Boeing 747s since the age of about three. Per family photo albums my first trip on one appears to have been in 1978 from London to Los Angeles operated by the now defunct TWA, and my most recent trip on one was as recently as this March. What I didn't know when I took that overnight British Airways flight back from New York was that it would be my last. Every trip I had planned since then has been cancelled, and a couple of weeks ago BA quietly scrapped their remaining 747 fleet. To be fair quite a few of them had already been retired to the desert scrapheaps over the last few years as newer planes arrived, but the almost complete collapse in demand for long haul travel due to COVID-19 brought forward the 2024 staggered end-of-life date, and that, as they say, is that.

No aircraft are clean obviously, but by the standards of 2020 they were a long way from being efficient aircraft and I found I was travelling on them less and less in favour of more modern planes that were easier on the body as well as the planet. But they retained a certain charm, and if I could bag a seat in the small cabin on the upper deck, or dare I say it right in the nose of the aircraft, then it would always be an enjoyable journey. 

They have taken me on some memorable trips over the years, birding and more. To New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Miami and Las Vegas, to Vancouver, Capetown, Dubai and Buenos Aires, and many years ago to Sydney on Qantas. The ones that until recently were plying the skies were rather old and rackety, and quite tired inside as well, but there was something special about flying in a jumbo jet, the queen of the skies. 

I could go on and on as I'm sure you realise, but I won't. Objectively we should all be pleased that they are gone, but that does not mean that nostalgia is not allowed. Even though my travel patterns were changing, to think that I won't ever step inside one again I find rather sad. I was always pleased to be on one, desperately geeky though that is. The end of an era.

A prize if you can name the seat number....

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Like buses

Nocmig continues to astound me. Last night, around midnight, another Common Sandpiper flew over. I was there to hear it, the fourth record over my garden this month. Not content with that, at around 4am another one went over. A week and a half ago my knowledge of how Common Sandpipers arrive on the patch was extremely limited. Now I know that they fly over my garden before landing on the banks of local ponds, because early this morning I flushed one from the side of Heronry. It is tempting to think that it is the same one that flew over earlier, but of course who knows? That is one of the downsides to nocmig - how many are there (for example, how many individual Common Scoter did I record in April?) and what happens to the birds? Do they continue on? Or do they fly around in big circles trying to fool local birders into thinking there are loads of them?

Much like the 2019 Greenshank which lasted a week in the one-bird-signifying italics before before being upgraded on my list, garden Common Sand's italics lasted barely 24 hours.My primary feeling about nocmig at this point is as follows: How did I not know about this for so many years? How can I have confined my birding to daylight when so many amazing things happen at night. 

I have so many questions. Will nocturnal Common Sandpiper in August become an annual event? Will I get Common Scoter next April again? I have no frame of reference. I know that if I go to certain places on Wanstead Flats in early October after the right weather I am in with a good chance of a Ring Ouzel. I know when Spotted Flycatchers and Redstarts are likely around Long Wood. Having seen around 30 Common Sandpipers in Wanstead, mostly in May and August, I suppose I know when they are most likely to be moving and thus when I could be in with a chance overnight, but somehow it still feels mysterious, as if I am on a voyage of discovery. Which I very much am.

Nocmig is not great visually, a few pink squiggles if you're lucky, so here is a blast from the 2017 past. Taken on Alex.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Played for and got

A few days ago I recorded both Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper over the garden. On Sunday night I recorded Whimbrel and Oystercatcher within an hour and a half of each other. It is most definitely wader season, and whilst it is fascinating to get an insight into what goes over, it is also a little bit unfulfilling if I'm asleep when it does. Having lived here for over 15 years without a sniff of Whimbrel, Sunday's record was the fifth of 2020. I don't know about you but that blows my mind. Of the five records just one involved daylight and my eyes, the other four have been nocturnal recordings. Two I was asleep for, but two I was awake for and thus they sit happily on my burgeoning garden list.

Yes, burgeoning. With so many waders going over at the moment I decided to give a 'live' nocmig ago. This still involves the MP3 player, but also involves me staying awake to keep it company. Last night it also involved Bombay Mix and a small glass of fiery liquid, and for good measure I put the moth trap out as well. In for a penny.

To cut to the chase, at around half midnight my finely-tuned ears detected the "swee-swee-swee" of a Common Sandpiper. Attenborough-like I whispered Common Sandpiper into the microphone, noted the time, and continued my vigil. About a minute later I heard it more distantly, but for much longer. Again I whispered my thoughts, already very much looking forward to the morning review which would confirm it beyond doubt. I packed it in around 1am, slightly worried that although those calls were the only thing of note in three hours of listening that I would surely miss something else. Which of course is what happened. Luckily it was just another Common Sandpiper passing over just before 4am, but the recording was much better than the first one so I've posted it below.

It wasn't all about the waders though. I record all sorts of noises in the garden overnight, and having stayed up some of them are now explained. All those vertical lines that seems to be very close to the microphone? Moths thudding into the windows just behind it. The crackling of leaf litter? Well this is a real revelation, we have a HedgehogAn actual live barrel-shaped Hedgehog. I thought Hedgehogs ate worms and beetles, but I also now know - rather guiltily - that they have a taste for moths, particularly nice fat nutritious moths like Jersey Tigers.

nom nom nom

It is impossible to say how many Jersey Tigers fell victim to my voracious Hedgehog last night. At one point I could see about 18 of them on and around the trap, and any of them unfortunate enough to have landed on the grass got gobbled up with satisfying crunching noises. I've never really spend any time watching a Hedgehog before and I have to say that they are surprising nimble on their feet. I watched it eat at least 14, and as far as I know it continued to patrol around the trap long after I went to bed. In some ways it was surprising that there were still around 20 in and around the trap this morning. It is the commonest moth in the garden by far at the moment, as I go around watering my plants hordes of them take flight. Less common going forward perhaps.

I'll save the moths for another day, but the haul was sensational by my normal standards. I even caught a Hornet, a rather lively moment when I turned over that particular egg box but it was somnambulent and very docile.

Common Sandpiper is #90 for my garden, and the eighth of 2020. The last eight garden ticks before this year take me back to 2011, so this is pretty amazing stuff. "Working from home" bagged three of them, but 'live' nocmig is responsible for the other five. And if I didn't need sleep then I could have added four more. I have to say that the thought of maybe inking one those in makes it very tempting to do it all over again this evening. Watch this space.

Monday 10 August 2020

Another fire on Wanstead Flats

A bonus post I'm afraid, two in a day. The reason is that there has been another fire on Wanstead Flats, almost exactly two years after the very large grass fire in 2018. Thankfully this appears to be a lot smaller, but the tale is a familiar one. It was around lunchtime and I was in the garden hanging up the washing when I started to smell smoke. Then the kids playing a few doors down commented that it was getting foggy (bless them), and then as my garden started to fill with smoke it was the mad rush inside to try and close all the door and windows on this 30 degree day.

Tinder dry

I ventured out after work to see the damage for myself. It has been on the cards for a while, just yesterday I was saying to some of the others how dry it was and how we had been lucky to not have any major fires. Well we spoke too soon. The area is at the south of the acid grasslands, near Centre Road car park and south copse. It's big, but not catastrophically so, and as far as I am aware there were no Skylark attempting to breed there. Nonetheless it is another eyesore that will take a while to recover, and perhaps result in more drastic fire-prevention measures such as clearance to make fire breaks

The area impacted today in red, versus the fire in July 2018

There were still four or five appliances on site at around 5.30pm, with crews continuing to damp down parts of it which were still smoking. As I left the house Nick reported a new fire south of the original location, and as I got home I could hear more sirens going off and another large plume of smoke rising. The possibility of this not being an unfortunate disposable BBQ accident remains, a thrill-seeking arsonist playing cat and mouse with the fire brigade perhaps. Let's hope that isn't the case, but regardless, as long as the weather stays like this and as long as people continue to treat our local green spaces like gigantic rubbish dumps this is always a likely outcome. 

I take heart from the fact that last time this happened the regeneration was remarkably rapid all things considered, and in matter of weeks green started to emerge through the brown and black. The final photo is what one of the worst hit areas looks like now, two years on. Had you not known what it was like before, with thick broom four feet tall and loads of heather, you would never have thought that there had been a fire at all. For now though the Crows are picking through it for chargrilled morsels of unlucky invertebrates, and we have another acrid black scar on the patch.

Cat trouble

I love cats about as much as I love dogs. Well, some dogs are OK I suppose, sensibly sized dogs that are intelligent for example. I suppose it is dog owners I really have an issue with, The ones that smash down the Skylark signs, the ones that don't apologize, the ones that swear at me. But what about cat owners? Cat owners are a mystery. Who are they? Where do they live? At least you can't get into a fight with a cat owner as you have no idea who they are.

International Cat Day was this past Saturday. Who knew? For several reasons I do not want to see cats in my garden. Those reasons should be obvious to any birders and gardeners. Largely I have been winning this particular fight, and the local cats tend to give my place a wide berth. This may be to do with the family of foxes that live down the bottom as much as anything I do of course, but I like to think that my mad shouting, lobbing of watering cans and other tactics are bearing fruit. One cat however has yet to get the message.

It is a swaggering tom, a beefy, aggressive prince of the neighbourhood, and it knows it. I've chased it, I've thrown things at it, I've sprayed water at it and I've hissed at it, and it keeps coming back. And what it is more, it sprays in my garden. It is marking its territory! I've even found it in my conservatory. How very dare it frankly. Here it is just outside my house from the other day, when I caught it napping in my front garden.

Just look at it and tell me that isn't the most arrogant cat you have ever seen? This cat does not care one jot. It is not scared of me (or anything I suspect), it is a bruiser and I reckon the local foxes keep their distance as well. I have no idea who it belongs to or where it lives. My neighbours hate it too, as it chases their two cats to the point that they no longer ever come outside or even downstairs. So I suppose it has done some good, but this is a nasty animal make no mistake. 

The trouble with cats is their almost complete independence. You can buy a cat and then completely forget about it. For most hours of the day you will have no idea what it is doing or even where it is. I always thought that dog owners were the most irresponsible people I could think of, but actually it is the legions of anonymous cat purchasers who see their cat once a day when it wants some food and for the other 23 hours and 55 minutes let it run amok in other people's gardens. My garden.

I just object to treading in cat mess in my own garden. I object to cat piss on my plant pots and shrubs. I object to cats stalking birds - anywhere - and I am hugely annoyed that the owner of this particular animal does not give a shit and is probably completely ignorant of my hatred of it. One day I am going to corner this cat somewhere where it cannot escape, at which point I will probably lose an arm or something. But if I can get a few blows in with the watering can or whatever is close at hand it will have been worth it.

Saturday 8 August 2020

A minor photographic interlude

I mentioned this in passing a few weeks ago I think, but I had a few days off up in Scotland visiting relatives and took my camera. My camera subsequently dangled uselessly from my shoulder as I looked through my scope at birds, or when pointed at birds recorded complete garbage despite my best efforts. This is often the case when I suddenly switch from work mode to relaxation mode, I find I can't get into bird photography for several days and all the photos are rubbish. I often wonder if I had the opportunity to use my camera every day for days on end, uninterrupted by gainful employment, whether I would really start getting good. It's a tempting thought, but one that for now at least remains nothing but vague temptation.

On my final day in Fife it began to come good and I began to take some photos that I felt were more reflective of what I had in mind, if not fully there. Too little too late, but that just seems to be the way it is. I had found a spot which was busy with people, but where that activity was positively helpful. One, the birds were accustomed to people, and two, they enjoyed the things that people left behind. A small patch of grass with some picnic benches, patrolled assiduously by a small number of Jackdaws and Rooks who were far more interested in crumbs of sandwich, biscuit and crisp than they were of me. In fact it was hard to even get them to look at me, and eye contact is pretty key. So here are a selection as they waddled and strutted as only corvids can do.  

As an aside, this is my first post using the "new and improved" Blogger interface. It was all fine and dandy until I tried to add photos, which it has it's own ideas on size for, and that do not correspond to mine. In order to correct this I've had to go into the html and fiddle about, and I'm not convinced I am not going to end up with a very long and thin Jackdaw. No doubt there is an easier way, I shall have a tinker but if anyone has already found it please do leave me a hint in the comments.

Friday 7 August 2020

The shadow world

In my wanderings recently I have noticed my shadow. I am not sure if I normally notice my shadow or not, certainly I cannot remember doing so very much in the past, but seeing as it was there and plain to see I've been taking pictures of it. Much better than selfies, far easier to get something acceptable without needing to try and look happy or friendly. Shadows have none of that, they don't ask any of those tough questions. Yes, overall I am much better as an imprint on the ground. My only regret is that in none of these photos was I wearing a hat - a real hat. That would have been cool. 

Filler? I have no idea what you mean.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Mobile recording - a message from the drawing board

A few days ago marked the first outing for my mobile recording set up whilst out and about. It also marked the last, at least in its current form. Hopeless. I had attached it via a special belt buckle that I had lying around, and then used a lanyard as a safety line in case the first connection somehow failed. Here it is in situ.

And here is what it records. 

My leg basically. What you can see here is the graphic representation of "whump whump whump whump" as the recorder gets wacked by my leg and, pointing downwards, also records my footsteps for good measure. So, back to the drawing board.

The first step is going to be to move the device from my leg. It needs to be on a part of me that does not move, or at the very least does not move nearly as much. And I think that it also needs to be pointing upwards, which I probably could have guessed. Saying that it does pick up bird sounds quite well when I am standing still, so it would probably work during vizmig when I am typically immobile, but the scenario where I am on the move and hear that single call is one I want to be in with a chance of winning. 

I think I need to mount it higher up, either on my chest or on my back, perhaps simply a large safety pin on my lapel or on my shoulder, or on my upper arm a bit like where people have their phones whilst out jogging, though no doubt the swish of clothing and so on would be a problem. Maybe the solution is to use my external microphone. I could strap it to the side of my head like an antenna and then walk in small circles around the vizmig post. Yes, that could well be it. Excellent.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

A well timed phone call

On Monday I was in the kitchen when my phone went off. I was expecting it to be my mother but actually it was Nick. This was good news in several senses, and I picked it up straight away.

"I've got a big raptor over one of the towers, might be a Marsh Harrier" (or words to that effect)

I dashed upstairs to the turret where my bins were located and where I would get the best view. Scanning, scanning, and then suddenly there it was. Not a Buzzard! Quick, camera! I dropped the phone and ran for the camera, which is always close at hand luckily. Fired it up and dashed back to the balcony. Gone! Dagnabit!! Oh no, still there, good grief nearly directly overhead. Click, click, click, camera seems a bit unresponsive, shutter sounds very slow, whatever, should be good enough.

Click click click - by now it had cleared the house and was heading east rapidly. I ran through the bedroom to the other side of the house but the bird was already becoming a dot over the Park. Blink and you miss it. So what did I have, what had just flown over? A Harrier most likely but never discount Black Kite I suppose.

Well, I had a series of mostly blurry blobs. The camera had last been used at the weekend, and dangling at my side the aperture had dialled itself up all the way to f22 causing crazily low shutter speeds as the camera tried to compensate. No wonder it had sounded odd! In the heat of the moment I had just dialled in some exposure compensation for the light sky and fired away without even thinking about it. Oops. Still, one or two were salvageable and did indeed show a Marsh Harrier, the most compelling of which is below.

I phoned Nick back with the good news and a grateful promise of beer/wine etc. Ooof! Marsh Harrier on the garden list, and only my second record for Wanstead, the first one being last October when Bob, Tony, James and I all went a bit mad in the brooms early one morning. But I had never imagined I would get it on the garden list - this is now #89, and my seventh new garden bird of 2020. Working from home is excellent!

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Sandpiper Central

Whilst my mobile recording has not yet borne fruit, my nocmig recordings are beginning to do the business. Teething problems behind me, I have recorded two new species for the garden in three days, and that is with the microphone plonked in a bucket. Imagine when I mount it on the roof! The sky is quite literally the limit.

Waders. Specifically, Sandpipers. Two nights ago, perhaps two nights after the party fail, my little box of electronic tricks picked up this.

A Common Sandpiper swee-sweeing its way south. Or west. Actually I don't know, it is not easy to tell where exactly the sounds start and stop. The microphone was angled into the south-west sky, so my best guess it that the bird was travelling roughly north-east to south-west as the recording was quite long which means it stayed close to the "cone" for quite a while and got louder towards the middle. Pure conjecture. 

And then last night it picked up this, a single call, indeed the only call of note in six hours of scrolling through 24 second chunks.

A Green Sandpiper, the clear recording suggests it was perhaps quite close, but perhaps travelling in a different direction? Or it may have called only once and I just got lucky? Who can say. Initially I though it was another Common Sandpiper, but now that I am building a library of sounds I was able to go back and examine my earlier recording which showed that this bird had a lower fequency - whereas the Common Sandpiper topped out at 6.5 kHz or thereabouts, this one barely got above 5 kHz. Frequency seems to vary with distance but both recordings were of roughly the same clarity and volume. And then Hawky told me it was Green Sandpiper which helped enormously....

Needless to say both of these are garden ticks. That is to say the garden has ticked them and I have not. In the case of Green Sandpiper that would be quite a useful year tick, so I am planning to stay up for a few nights and see if I get lucky. Both birds went over at times that were still bordering on reasonable, especially with snacks and dare I say it a mid-week drink - midnight and half midnight respectively. Autumn has started.

Right, I'd better go order some more coffee and Bombay Mix.

Monday 3 August 2020

Rolling back the years in Kent

The first twitch I can ever remember was in August 2007. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was the target, and Oare Marshes in Kent was the location, just south of the Isle of Sheppey. It is a fabulous reserve but one that inexplicably I've only ever visited a handful of times. I went again yesterday for the first time in about eight years. Eight years! I mean I know Wanstead is good, but come on - Oare is not the kind of place that should be neglected for that long, it was simply superb and stuffed full of waders. I rarely see waders, in fact these days I probably hear more waders than I see, so to be presented with a panorama overflowing with them was quite the thing.

I was on a day out. I had thought about staying local and spending another weekend at home doing very little, but then I realised that 2020 could easily pass without me seeing many birds at all which would be rather sad. I needed a change and despite the distance I am glad that I went through with it - these days it takes very little for me to press the "sod it" button. So at 7.45am on Sunday I found myself at Dungeness, which according to my records I had not visited since 2016 (I am aghast but I can well believe it). I was alone. No dog-walkers, no joggers, no sirens, just me and various gravel pits that had been stocked with birds prior to my arrival. I started at the ARC, viewing from a bank that in normal circumstances you are not supposed to stand on, but with the screen and hide being closed the many footprints strongly suggested that this was the most viable alternative. Gosh what a lot of birds there were, and I picked through every one of them. Crossing the road back onto the reserve I wandered towards Hooker's Pit, briefly seeing three birders shock horror, and picking up a few Cattle Egret and Great White Egret, which at Dungeness are as common as muck. Hundreds of hirundines fed overhead, mostly Sand Martins, and the low scrub either side of the path was alive with Warblers. If it sounds as if I had a jaunt in my step, I most certainly did. From the ramp at Hooker's I spat at another Great White Egret, and one of the what I assumed were hawking Common Terns turned out to be a Little Gull, a bird I have not seen for four years this country. 

A quick scan back up the ARC pit from the main road picked up a regular Black-winged Stilt, but I never like birding along there as some cars absolutely cane it down this "final straight" and didn't linger any longer than I had to. Whereas I had barely seen a soul on the RSPB reserve the area around the Obs and new lighthouse was heaving - lots of families enjoying the morning sunshine, and the café was doing a roaring trade. I had a quick look at the sea but there was nothing doing at all, and even the outflow known as "The Patch" had practically nothing on it, so bidding farewell to Dungeness I headed cross-country to Oare. 

What a lovely reserve. Early morning and I can be there in about an hour, and for the life of me I don't know why I don't do it more often. I guess I just don't like driving I had timed my visit for the high tide to ensure maximum waderage and I was not disappointed. Back to school, were all the Dunlins Dunlins? Could I pick out a Curlew Sandpiper, not having seen one for six years..... as it turns out I could which pleased a number of other people who had been trying to do the same thing. Six years!! What the hell have I been doing??? I guess that time just goes rather quickly these days, and by the time a few weekends have gone by and you've said "oh well there's always next year" a few times this is the inevitable result.

A long-staying Bonaparte's Gull was still around although finding it was a nightmare - even though it is distinctly smaller than a Black-headed Gull, when all of them are sat down and asleep this difference is not readily apparent, particularly now that the moult has started. Luckily some of the other birders there picked out a candidate, which when it did finally wake up proved to be spot on.

I tried to look at gulls for as little time as possible obviously. Instead I bathed in waders for over two hours, drank them all in. Avocets, Goldies, Blackwits, Dunlin, two Curlew Sandpipers, Redshank, Common Sandpipers, Turnstone, Lapwing, Snipe..... In fact I was so absorbed I even missed lunch, and got a reminder at about 1pm saying that I had promised to be home by 1pm to cook lunch and why was I still in Kent (the family can track my whereabouts, it is for the best)? Oops. Anyway, lunch became dinner and I had a great day out birding, my first day anywhere in the southeast other than Wanstead since February. I should do it more, not constantly, but perhaps more often than once every few years - it clearly enhanced by enjoyment of birding. I can't not mention the downside which is at the forefront of many a conversation at the moment, which is that I drove about 170 miles when I could have walked around the patch carbon-free. I honestly don't know what to say here. In my defence I've not been to Derbyshire, and I didn't go to Holy Island, Portland or Wexford either. The trouble is when you live in a city you cannot readily replicate this type of birding but ultimately this was a selfish trip. Perhaps I should move to the coast? This whole remote-working thing shows that I don't need to live in London - I've performed my job for nearly six months without going to Canary Wharf even once. I wonder if I could convince the rest of the family?

Imagine living with this on your doorstep?