Sunday 27 September 2020

"Marco, I've got the Cranes"

The title of this post is a phrase I never thought I would utter, and even now a few hours later it still seems utterly inconceivable, yet there it is. Roll back to 10am this morning, I was out on Wanstead Flats at the spot we call the VizMig Point. It's nowhere special or particularly remarkable, it is just a spot on the main path that happens to have clear lines of sight in almost every direction. It is fairly central and a place that birders tend to congregate once they have done a round of the patch. A place for a chat, close to Gregg's for a coffee. 

I arrived on the patch just after 7am and headed over to Alex where I bumped into Richard and Bob. A wader-free zone. Nothing doing so and together we wandered back along the Ditch of Despair and soon found ourselves at the VizMig Point where we met Sean, James, Mary and Marco. We were entertained by the aforementioned glut of Stonechat and a couple of Snipe but in reality it was very quiet. It was, we agreed, a day for flyovers. Ferocious weather in the North Sea over the past few days has displaced quite a few seabirds and many of us had visions of lost Skuas and Gannets. I for one was reasonably hopeful of something glorious with white wing flashes. 

By 10am the early promise had fizzled to nothing and Marco and I were the only ones left. It would only take one bird though.... I noted that two Common Crane had been seen flying south from Tyttenhanger at 9.40am and was interested enough to look at the map to remind myself exactly where that was. We quickly dismissed any such fanciful thoughts. It is a long way west and anything flying directly south would go over Richmond Park, nowhere near Wanstead. Just like the Skuas and Gannets being seen on the Thames were not deigning to come anywhere near us either. It was all rather boring and we agreed that we could safely leave as there was nobody was left to grip us off.

We had walked perhaps halfway towards where Marco had left his bike when I stopped to have one of my regular scans of the horizon. This is something I try and do often, it is amazing what a difference panning with binoculars makes, you pick up all sorts of birds that you simply can't see with the naked eye. Scanning NW towards Walthamstow I picked up two very distant large birds flying strongly east. Swans surely, maybe Geese. Squinting a bit I resolved them a little better. Long necks, and an almost equal protrusion at the rear end... two toned couldn't be, could it? But it was.

"Marco, I've got the Cranes."

He couldn't believe it. I didn't blame him as neither could I, but there they were. I guided him in over the top of Long Wood and all of a sudden he was converted. Flabbergasted is perhaps a better description. The next few minutes were all a bit of a blur but Marco stayed on them as I put out the first message. There is currently a bit of an issue on the patch with multiple different modes of communication resulting in needing to do everything in triplicate. In the normal course of things this is more or less OK, but with two monstrous rarities absolutely motoring through it all becomes rather stressful. I chose the one with the most people on it, but equally the one which is less likely to trigger the really keen people to leap up and start urgently scanning the sky. I was typing the next message when James phoned in a state of high panic. Unbeknownst to us he was actually still on the patch to our east and "Where?!!!!!" was understandably the gist of his call. I'm not sure I even had time to tell him to look towards the church before he was on to them. Next message out and I moved to the third. The birds were out of view before I realised I'd forgotten crucial directional information. Gah! I quickly added "flying east" before my phone rang again, this time Hawky over in Ardleigh Green wanting to know what direction...... I killed the call (sorry Paul!) and carried on trying to get news out, this time phoning Rob in Ilford who was perhaps in the zone. No answer! I suspect I barely looked at the birds beyond the initial sighting in my desperation to let people know, and frankly it is an impossible situation with birds on the move. What a palava! James later worked out their speed from St Albans on a direct SE trajectory as about 34mph. At that speed they would have been visible over Wanstead for about two and a half minutes, three max. Unless you were on the patch you didn't stand a chance. Thirteen minutes later they were over Rainham where Shaun picked them up, like me incredulous that he had somehow pulled it off.

I didn't have my camera and thus Wanstead's first ever Cranes have passed unrecorded, at least digitally. James tried, but taking a photo whilst having a nervous breakdown is never straightforward and some exposure issues meant his photos looked like a plastic bag blowing in the breeze! It's fine, I know what we saw and so does he and it was epic. I almost don't believe it happened, but in a way that is the magic of a local patch, especially an urban one like Wanstead. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen and yet it has. That a few of us were miraculously present to witness it makes it even more surreal.

Saturday 26 September 2020

Stonechat set

The number of Stonechats has been building quite quickly on Wanstead Flats. The first returning bird arrived on the 12th September and the following day there may have been two. By September 22nd there were four, and just two days later Nick and I counted nine in a single group in the Brooms, six males and three females. This morning I pushed five west down the Ditch of Despair, and when at the very end they doubled back east. Proceeding to the VizMig point I almost immediately counted a further five birds, so surely different to the other ones. And now, tucked up at home out of the biting wind and editing photos, I am hearing that Nick has finally managed to drag his ass out of bed to count 13. A remarkable total. No doubt they are in transit to better wintering habitat, but we can be hopeful that perhaps one or two will choose to stay - last winter one stuck it out until early March.

Aside from the Stonechat glut it was fairly quiet on the migrant and prospective winterers front. A Reed Bunting looks to be back in and I had the Snipe again over on Fairground Flats, whilst overhead I only recorded three Siskin, a couple of Redpoll and a Grey Wagtail. Four Buzzards were seen, one of which picked up an escort of about 60 Crows for its troubles, and bird of the morning was a Short-eared Owl picked up distantly over the Brickpits which proceeded to give beautiful views to the assembled company on the main path as it flew south directly overhead. I had my camera with me for a change, ready for the storm-blown Arctic Skua that didn't in the event arrive, so here are a few photos.

Thursday 24 September 2020

Shrike interlude

Probably not what you were expecting given the recent Brown Shrike in Norfolk, and the very showy Red-backed Shrikes in East Norfolk, but actually this a Loggerhead Shrike taken in Southern California back when travel was a thing. I have no idea when I might see this species again, but they are pretty common over there when you find yourself in a remote place. As they hunt prey that is mostly on the ground, they tend to like to perch up and survey the surrounding area for movement before swooping down. This fantastic stunted tree was being used by both a Loggerhead Shrike and a Say's Phoebe, the only trouble was that there were about four such perches and the birds liked whichever one was furthest away from me. Understandable really, I get it everywhere I go, but I managed to fire off a couple of shots from the car window in that instant between the car coming to a stop and the bird then flying off to a different perch. I won't claim it is a record shot or anything, but I did wish for a somewhat longer lens, or my 2x converter, but I was travelling light and that is the price I pay. I am finding that I am swinging back towards birding and away from photography, and so recently you will likely not have seen me carrying a camera but instead lugging my scope. What I really enjoy however is the freedom of birding with bins only, and for most of the birding I do the habitat and birds don't actually require anything else.

Monday 21 September 2020

In praise of continual sound recording

Regular readers will know that in addition to being a bit of a nocmig convert I have also started to try and record whilst I am out birding. I want to nail that bird that frustratingly calls only once and not again - last week BirdGuides put out an excellent article written by Ed Stubbs discussing exactly this. Most of my attempts to date have been dismal failures - too much noise from me. I have tried having the mp3 player in my chest pocket. Hopeless. In my trouser pocket. Hopeless. Hanging from my belt. Especially hopeless. Then I tried taking my shotgun mic out with me, poking out of a trouser cargo pocket, but in addition to looking very stupid it too simply recorded my footsteps, my legs, the rustle of my clothing, my breathing.... Hopeless.

Separation appears to be the name of the game. I've seen a couple of set-ups that involve a microphone attached to the rear of a backpack at about head level, and whilst I am sure that is probably pretty good I have an active dislike of bags, particularly backpacks. And of looking like Boba Fett whilst out birding. No, not for me. But I did cave in on a small man bag on a recent trip to Norfolk. The bag was slung across my chest and sat on one side of my waist. I simply stuffed the mp3 recorder complete with a "deadcat" muffle thing into a webbed pocket on the outside and hoped for the best. It did pick up tons of surround sound and all the usual noise I create, but it also did the business with a certain popular far eastern vagrant.... No not the Shrike....

Yellow-browed Warbler! Here I was stood around having a bit of a natter, but the recorder does not miss a trick. This bird was later seen, but about an hour earlier I had stopped in my tracks with an exclamatory "oh, was that...?" and of course that was it. However I noted the time and once home listened to the segment in detail. Bingo! A bird that would have been thrown away due to uncertainly is now nestling cosily in my virtual notebook (eBird).

I've circled the relevant part. It is a bit vague as the bird was a little distant, but right in the middle you can see a deep V, like a long hairpin, down then up. Tsoo-ee-weet! Nailed. Now on both recordings I was standing still, and that would seem to be the key. Not constantly chatting would probably also help but on both occasions the birds only called once, and on both occasions the recorder clearly picked them up. I don't know how to operate playback on the mp3 recorder in the field, but I might learn as if it were a properly rare bird I would probably want to listed to it immediately. Anyway, success! Success that unfortunately involves a bag but success nonetheless. It was a small bag though, just large enough to be able to conveniently hold my sandwich and the prerequisite autumn Double Decker in the other mesh pocket, so I may be able to live with it until I come up with something even better. 

Back to that article. In addition to field recording of the sort I've just described it also talks about stationary recording, for example if you were viz-migging. I don't get much opportunity for that, but on days where I can work with the doors and windows open I am now also recording from the balcony, just as I would overnight. There may not be many of these nice warm days left, but this morning I chalked up another little success when some Redpolls (denomination unknown, see here) flew over. I knew that Redpolls were on their way, indeed I'd had a few on the coast on Saturday, but I most enjoy Redpolls in Wanstead. At about 10am this morning, beavering away on some spreadsheet or other, I heard the familiar chipping from outside. In my excitement I ran out to the balcony thus completely obliterating the recording, but a little later once I had calmed down there was a repeat performance and this time I didn't move a muscle!

I give you... Redpoll. Likely the Redpoll Formerly Known as Lesser, C cabaret, but whatever. It is #82 for my lockdown list which I think is pretty good going, and barring Brambling whose tired wheeze I also hope to hear and record a little later this year, completes what I would call the expected birds for my garden (although Redpoll isn't actually annual). Anything else will be a bonus, but with the aid of sound there may yet be a few surprises in store. And I for one remain quite excited by the prospect.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

2020: 100%

I suppose this is not a huge surprise but the Scottish Government has recently reduced the limit on people from separate households meeting indoors and out from eight people from three households to six people from two households. I had been due to spend a week on Shetland with two birding friends. No longer, so this spells the end of my final holiday plans for 2020, and brings to 100% the percentage of trips I've had to cancel since March. What a year this has been. Or hasn't been. 

I would not say I am the type to suffer from depression (although this is apparently an affliction of men my age) but I have to say I am feeling pretty low after this latest blow. This was literally the last one, the one I was clinging to. Just a week, booked up when it looked likely that everything else would disappear - as indeed proved the case. I have no issue with the decision, I am not going to waste my breath trying to justify why my visit to Shetland would be minimal risk, it is what it is. More pertinent was judging the mood - would Shetland Islanders be pleased to see birders from England right now? Almost certainly not. I know quite a few birders who live up there and relations with them, as well as their relationships with the rest of their communities are way more important than a week of birding. We've penciled in 2021 instead, but I am gutted.

One day, one day...

Somehow I still have to take something like 15 days of holiday between now and the end of the year, including a mandatory 10 day block. Use them or lose them. The prospect of another three weeks sat at home with the only difference being the exact place I sit does not fill me with joy. In fact it fills me with despair. I thrive on a diversity of interests, I always have. Take one away and for a while I won't even notice, but after a time there is an invisible tug, a calling. I've had a lovely spring and summer at home, my relationship with my plants and garden has deepened and broadened, and I've got seriously into patch birding again, particularly from the house, but my sense is that this is on the wane. Don't tell me how I know, I just do, it is an intensely familiar pattern. In the past I would have been able to delay such a drag by engaging in a constant mix of activities, a weekend away here, a day trip there. Possibly this in itself would have led to a partial switch of focus, but without that variety I sense the decline will be far more precipitous. I feel shackled and I need to get away. Shetland was the release valve.

I don't think it is going to be possible. It only takes a cursory look at the FCO website to see that the concept of "travel corridors" is mostly useless. Half the places on the approved list won't accept UK travellers at all. The other half will, but only if they have taken a COVID test prior to arrival, tests that at the moment are barely even available for people who actually need them. So far I found Italy to be about the only place I could travel, but as we know things can change and often at very short notice. America would have to let me in, and despite the tomfoolery over there still has places I am keen to visit, such as Sax-Zim.  But the USA is not on the FCO approved list so once I return I would at present need to self-isolate, a burden which would also be transferred to the family and which would not be fair. Talking about staycations and holidays in England is all very well and good, but it is not what I want to do, not at all. But it may be my only option. 

Friday 11 September 2020

The limits of low carbon birding in the UK

My Twitter timeline has seen a lot more activity under the banner of "low carbon birding" recently. I have debated getting involved, a few tweets here and there but so far nothing substantial. It is very hard to know what to say, what to do. Before I expand please know that I have the utmost respect for all those who are trying their best to spread the message of low carbon birding. The science is undeniable and the message is critical. Forget Brexit, forget COVID, forget the rise of fraudulent right wing sheisters who seem to have taken over the asylum, the state of the planet trumps all of this. This is not a personal attack on any low carbon birders, especially those few who have been courageous enough to stand up to be counted, so please forgive me in advance if it comes across like that. I have tried my best but inevitably it will appear to reflect on them. Neither do I want to be castigated or dismissed as an unbeliever. I have simply been doing a lot of cogitating and feel compelled to point out what I think are a few home truths that I think have not yet seen sufficient light of day and that deserve more consideration when thinking about how to embrace low carbon birding. Largely this is about practicality and a diminished experience. My main point is that for a large majority of the population low carbon birding means expensive, inconvenient and unaffordable birding. It means birding that is incompatible with regular employment and annual leave. Or it means limited birding, never see a wader birding, boring birding. And in some circumstances it has the potential to mean no birding at all.

There is a lot to talk about. Before we even get to the spectre of international birding travel I want to start with the UK. In this country lots of people live in cities. Generally my belief is that for many city dwellers there will be at least some green space within walking distance, and certainly within cycling distance. The quality of that green space will vary wildly, and with it the type and quality of birding that you can legitimately say is on your doorstep. Low carbon birding influencers would do well to remember that. You may get very good at Starlings and Corvids and little else, or you may luck out with habitat that is more interesting and thus get a decent selection of migrants during spring and autumn, but wherever your urban patch sits on the scale of good to bad large elements of the UK birding experience simply don't happen in cities. Spectacles of mass wildfowl and waders, large flocks of things like Linnet and Snow Bunting, or farmland birds like Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer. If you live in London like I do there are two obvious places where you will be able to expand the range of birds and habitats that your regular urban patch does not have - Rainham Marshes RSPB on the east side and the WWT Wetland Centre at Barnes on the west. They're good, a most welcome change if your regular option is a local park where a Wigeon is a rarity. If I want to go to Rainham it's a 27 minute journey by car. If I take public transport it is 1hr 10m which is not too bad, and if I want to risk my life cycling the A13 it will also be 1hr 10m. But as good as these places are in a local context they're not what I would call representative of the finest of UK birding. Don't misunderstand me - birding can be very rewarding close to home, even in cities. Common birds take on new meaning, and if you have the mentality and stamina for it then you may be perfectly content to wander the urban patch for day after day. That feeling of elation when the one and only Kittiwake I've seen where I live flew over was pretty intense. I know this and I enjoy it, I have reached a stage in my birding journey where the local patch is a special place and where I am pretty content. But it is not for everyone and I also know, having sampled it, that I am missing out on a much larger and richer birding experience. Thousands of Kittiwakes. And indeed some proponents of low carbon birding insist that I should miss out. Bad luck, stay local. But if you find the constant reports of fabulous birding from the coast too much to bear and you feel that you want a slice of the action even if briefly, then you are going to need to go to the birds as they are not coming to you. How can you do so whilst still following the ethos of low carbon birding? Here are two examples.


Note that in order for this blog post to be even vaguely readable I have put the supporting information into appendices which need not be read if time is not on your side. So Example 1 matches with Appendix 1 etc. Same with the post I have planned on birding abroad.

Example 1 - London to Norfolk day trip

The north Norfolk coast is not the easiest place to get to, but I think it is a realistic example as many quality birding sites are a bit out of the way. A sample low carbon journey for me to get to and from sites on the north Norfolk coast will take me 11 hours on 4 tubes, 6 trains and 4 buses, cost £69.10 before I have bought a sandwich, and I won't get there until mid morning or arrive home before midnight. I don't find that an attractive proposition, but if it was a choice of that or slogging round my local park seeing nothing again then maybe I would. I can't see that it would ever be much quicker so the inconvenience tag is here to stay, but the cost is bordering on prohibitive and that needs to change. That is the purview of Governments and this blog post is not about that. It is about the here and now of changing how you go birding, and the bottom line is that if I want a classic UK birding day out then there is no getting around it being an expensive slog.

Example 2 - A weekend at Spurn

What about a weekend of rarity hunting? Or pre-emptive twitching if you want to call it that. Where better than Spurn and that amazing section of the Yorkshire coast? I want to experience the potential magic and excitement of a classic fall weekend on the east coast, the weather charts look incredible, why should I be denied and just have to read about it vicariously online? I'll go I think, I deserve it. The low carbon way to get to Spurn using trains and buses costs £162.80 and requires time spent in transit of 29 hours. If time was more important to me than money I could reduce this to about 11 hours at a cost of £272.80. The carbon footprint is the same. Again, should public transport be this expensive? Of course not, but it is. If a city dweller wants a weekend at a brilliant migration hotspot for as little carbon as possible then this is an example of the cost today. It's not one I am prepared to pay so I'll stay home and see nothing on my inland patch again.

My point here is not that cars are cheap and convenient and that trains and buses are expensive and less convenient. Everyone already knows that, even if they don't know the actual numbers. I hardly ever drive anywhere these days, our car sits on the driveway for the vast majority of the time. My point is more that if you don't live somewhere inherently birdy, no matter how much local exploration you undertake and how many wonderful wildlife discoveries you make close to your home, you are going to be missing out on a richness of birding and habitats that will blow your blinkered urban mind. And it seems to me that a lot of the low carbon birding articles I have been reading lately don't focus on that enough. In a sense that is right - don't focus on what you can't have, or at least not without a massive hassle. Focus instead on what you can have, on easy sustainable alternatives. But so many of these pieces are written by people who have for many years experienced the sublime magic of these places, or indeed now live within striking distance of them, that in a way I find it quite selfish to hear that people who may not ever have done so, or whose local birding experience is so vastly different should be told to look elsewhere for their wildlife thrills. An advocacy of self-denial from those who have not in the past denied themselves and more importantly don't need to now. Living in a city and reading a coastal birder extolling the virtues of local birding is a bit of a kick in the teeth. So many people can't ever have that. Empathy in the context of a lecture is not an easy thing to do, and whilst some of what I have read is very balanced and extremely self aware, some of it feels downright hypocritical. I will freely admit I couldn't pull it off. 

There are no easy answers here. I think we all know that if we all continue tearing around the country every weekend to go birding then we are contributing to the decline of the birds we profess to love. Twitching in particular comes in for a lot of stick, with a focus on the pointless nature of competitive listing - unfortunately I think it is so engrained within the UK birding culture (of old) that I don't see it stopping any time soon. So does year-listing which is just a different version of the same thing, with repeated journeys just to see that annual Redstart or Wryneck or whatever. I have in the past done both of course. But what about people for whom there is almost no chance of quality birding where they live, and who enjoy the thrill of rare birds or of migration more generally? Are they to be denied this pleasure? And moreover to be told how awful they are by somebody who lives on the east coast and has a wealth of opportunity five minutes from their doorstep? It could be that I am missing the point. In fact I think I might be. The message is don't try and replicate what has been done in the past, that era is over, what's done is done and PS sorry you missed it. The message is that if you truly love wildlife then you have no choice in the matter, you need to forget about any historic birding life you may or may not have had and instead embrace a new way of birding that does not involve frivolous journeys on carbon intensive modes of transport. And here are some of those alternatives that actually are not that bad after all from a few of us that have tried them. Yes, maybe it is as simple as that.

I have made many changes to my lifestyle that I have already written about, all of them intended to reduce consumption, including the type of birding that I do. None of it was very hard, albeit that 2020 has made at least some of it a lot easier for me than it might otherwise have been. Almost all of my birding is local and on foot, and has been for a while now. But I have a high amount of travel under my belt over the last four years, and I was quite taken with UK listing for about eight years before that. So either I am exactly the right person to advocate change, or I am precisely the wrong person. The reason I am undecided is that the low carbon birding movement has a tendency to rub me up the wrong way and my concern is that despite broadly agreeing with the message no matter how hard I tried I would basically do exactly the same thing. 

Anyway, the above musings largely cover my current feelings on the UK birding low carbon birding debate. It needs to be talked about. It needs to be acted upon. For my own part I am more-or-less able to cope with the limits that a low UK carbon footprint necessarily imposes on me, but the only reasons I can are because my patch just about sustains me in what I need from birding, and also it's not like I have never drunk from the blessed cups of places like the north Norfolk coast and Spurn (and a lot more besides). My gripes are that there are large sections of the UK population who are going to be miles away from even my relatively slim-pickings geographical location or who have never experienced the glory of the birding meccas, or perhaps both, and that their birding well-being and horizons are not being adequately considered. And when this is frequently coupled with a low carbon birding lectern occupied by converts for whom the sacrifice of giving up travelling to see birds does not appear to mean remotely the same thing as it does for many other people, I think that this dilutes and weakens the message that so badly needs to get through. You could just say I'm jealous.

Up next - and I have to say is dependent on the reaction to this post, if I just get a load of 'denier' abuse then forget it - will be my feelings on birding abroad in a low carbon manner, which in many cases and based on some basic research I have done will mean not birding abroad at all, which then takes me right back here.


Appendix 1: London to Norfolk

In a car it will take a couple of hours and the fuel will cost around £30 - pretty cheap, especially if you can find a few like-minded people to share the cost (masks on!), and whilst it is not the most carbon efficient way to get there it is probably not that bad. However it is generally accepted that trains have the lowest carbon emissions of all the traditional forms of public transport, so let's look at that as it is likely perfectly possible albeit will take longer and will probably be more expensive. How much longer and how much more expensive I didn't actually know, so in the spirit of wanting to be factual I have found out. I'll need to leave the house at around 0445, so probably not dissimilar to when I would leave by car. It is the weekend so night tubes are running (or they would be without COVID), and I need to take two to get to the station at a cost of £2.80. Leaving from Kings Cross at 0542 I get to Ely at 0700. I leave Ely at 0707 and arrive at Norwich at 0813. At 0821 I get the train to Sheringham which arrives at 0922, and from there I get the Coasthopper bus which will take me right past Cley arriving at 1004. The total journey time is 4h 23m, so roughly double the car journey. What about cost? Well, an off-peak return is £59.50 (standard tickets are £58.50 each way on the day, although I did find a much cheaper return leg that was only £17), and the Coasthopper costs £2 each way. Assuming I book that off-peak return then the cost of a day on the coast is just under £70. That's over double the cost of driving, even driving by yourself (car ownership costs not withstanding), but it is not as prohibitively expensive as I thought it would be. Equally I struggle to call it cheap, but as a carbon friendly option the premium over and above the cost of driving is not awful. As a special treat and to get in some birding that a city dweller simply can't get locally it might be worth it. You have to accept that you won't be there for first light, but it is still possible to have a day on the coast and fill your boots with waders and so on. 11 hours on public transport and you get back home at 12.30am, but possible. BTW, a young person with a railcard for whom public transport is the only option might find this perfectly OK and for them the cost is 'only' £49.

Appendix 2: London to Spurn

London to Spurn takes about 4 hours in a car. Double the time and nearly double the cost of a trip to Norfolk, at £55. The closest you can get to it by train is Hull, followed by two local buses. Making a weekend of it by train realistically means leaving on Friday night rather than Saturday morning, but for city dweller for whom this is the only option let's assume I'm fine with that - another night in the B&B adds to the cost but what is £30? An anytime return is absurd at £248, but luckily there are cheaper options with single tickets. The cheapest Kings Cross train leaves at 1933 on Friday evening and gets me to Hull at 2213 for £31. There are no buses at this time of day, so I'll have to hole up in Hull for the night and get the first bus the following morning which leaves at 0646, has one change, and gets me to Easington at 0855, a 2hr 8m journey. This costs £19.20 return, and I need to be back on it at 1805 on Sunday to make the train. This is prohibitively expensive at £124, but gets me home on Sunday evening - I leave Hull at 2029, and travel via Goole and Doncaster arriving at Kings Cross at 0014. If that is too expensive there is an option for me to leave on Monday morning at 0530 which arrives back in London at 0830 for £47, plus a second £30 overnight stay. I would have to go straight to work but it is doable. So the cheapest and most low carbon option will have set me back £102.80 plus two nights extra accommodation for £60. This includes the two tube tickets I also need to buy, and the time spent on public transport is about 11 and a half hours, so not actually that dissimilar to the trip to Norfolk. However the actual travel time is more like 29 hours due to the two overnight stays required. Note this is the cost directly associated with travel, the Saturday night stay that either method requires is not included. Fancy it? Didn't think so.

Thursday 10 September 2020

Lockdown advances

I did eventually get my Siskin yesterday, with several calling birds over at various points during the day. They are clearly on the move as I had another three this morning, and they are being reported in ever more frequently and in larger numbers locally. I am glad to have joined the club, it was beginning to bother me. But the best bird of the day came at dusk as the family and I were sitting down for dinner. The main course had been and gone, and we were gluttonously tucking into some cheese when I noticed a small bird fly out from a tree a few doors down and immediately fly back to the same branch. Then it did it again, a lovely curved sally followed by a return to exactly the same twig. Chaource forgotten I leapt up! I had a good idea of what this was going to be and it would be a garden mega - the garden's third ever Spotted Flycatcher.

Picking it up on behaviour alone was if I don't say so myself extremely pleasing, and my nerd factor in my family's eyes has increased to new heights. They all got to see it too as the bird stayed for 20 minutes and we put the scope up, and Tim who lives close by was also able to pick it up from his house for a garden tick. There have only been two previous Chateau L occurrences of Spotted Flycatcher, in September 2018 and then as long ago as 2011. I had forgotten about the 2018 record for some reason, and initially though this was the second one until I checked and so for a while I thought that this might be another de-italicising. Sadly not, but there are now only two birds remaining on my garden list that I have seen only once prior to lockdown - Lesser Whitethroat and Wheatear (!). All the others - Little Egret, Short-eared Owl, Common Tern and Willow Warbler have now had multiple further sightings. 

Also notable is that my lockdown list (since March 23rd) is now at 79. Before lockdown my garden list stood at 83, a figure that had taken 15 years to achieve. In under six months that has now advanced to 92. Nocmig has been a revelation of course, but it is really the hours spent on my balcony staring at the sky, ears straining, that I have enjoyed the most. And I just love that a migrant bird that we see lots of on Wanstead Flats can also get into nearby gardens. It makes me very hopeful that I might get something else tasty in the coming weeks.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Sparrowhawk sequence

 Another day, another early morning Siskinless vigil on the balcony. Three finches came through in the half-light, silently of course, and I thought I had clinched them when I was able to discern wide triangular panels on the tail, only to then remember that Greenfinch exhibits these too. More unknown Finches.... It was not all bad though, my first autumn Meadow Pipits for instance, a lockdown tick in the form of a bright yellow Willow Warbler, and a cracking Sparrowhawk low through the garden. On that occasion I missed it, but a little later it, or another, came through at a much better height and pursued by an unhappy Crow. I had unfortunately left the ISO on 2500 for the dawn, but they still came out OK after a bit of noise reduction and so on (I have found an alternative to MS Paint!). So better than record shots but not as good as I would like. But for what they show of a Sprawk I couldn't be more pleased - look at the length of the tail in the first shot for example, it is almost half the length of the bird! And look at the size difference between it and the Crow - this is not perspective, they were on top of each other.

Sunday 6 September 2020

A few migrants

Yesterday was a good day on the patch. I did not have a chance to write about it as I birded for as long as I could before I had to go out for lunch, and when I got back I was several sheets to the wind and no good for anything. This morning however I am refreshed, enlivened by a few more unidentified Finches, and raring to go. 

Collectively there were 4 Whinchat, 3-4 Redstart, 6 Wheatear, 3 Spotted Flycatchers, lots of Willowchiffs and the continuing Common Sandpiper. I saw most of these, and also scored a heard only Greenshank - more on that a bit later. I've said it before and I'll say it again - we punch above our weight during the migration seasons, especially in autumn. That would be a decent haul on the coast these days, but this is a few thousand square metres in London. And most of the birds were concentrated within about a hundred square metres, the area of brooms and hawthorn immediately to the east of Centre Road. Sometimes the concentration went further still, with many of the birds in the same bush - one small hawthorn might have two Redstart down the bottom, a Wheatear on the top, and some Whitethroats bouncing around the edges. More than once I saw a Whinchat and a Whitethroat share the same delicate stem as they followed each other around. Here are some photos.

My favourite photo of the morning was of one of the Redstarts. I could hear it calling softly from the sunny side of a bush, and so I crept round slowly, managing a few shots before it ducked back inside. I am not sure whether I prefer the full frame version or the tighter crop, so here are both.

The Greenshank very nearly didn't make it. I heard the classic tyew-tyew-tyew call from towards the Park, and of course that was it. No repeat call, and no Greenshank crossing the horizon. Bearing in mind what I wrote about caution earlier this week I had not even put it on my list, but meeting up with Tony a little later on I happened to mention I thought I had heard a Greenshank, but only once and so was binning it. I was fully expecting him to nod in sympathy, but actually what happened is that slightly astonished he too said he had heard a Greenshank, also only once, and hadn't planned on mentioning it as like me he had been going to leave it as just one more bird that got away. As you can imagine that changed things for both of us - independent and unexpected corroboration very strongly suggested we couldn't both have been wrong about what we had heard. We agreed to be less hesitant and bashful about pinging out news to the local group for things like this going forward, as had I not mentioned it in passing this would record would have fallen through the cracks. Sadly I didn't have my mp3 player going as I have yet to work out a way of getting a recording when out and about that isn't 100% peripheral noise, but this would have been an ideal point to have had a recording. Luckily I had another pair of ears instead.

Friday 4 September 2020

Monthly listing

Ebird, magnificent though it is, is also rather dangerous. I discovered recently that it kept monthly totals of my birding exploits, and was amazed to see that for instance I had seen 146 species in August this year. It was apparently the highest number of species I had ever seen in the month of August, no doubt aided by a trip to Scotland and a small amount of indulgent birding down south a little further afield than Wanstead. I forgot to take a screen shot however there was definitely a year where I had seen just 12 species during the month of August which is pretty pathetic even by my standards. Driven by a curious need for things to add up I spent an age uploading historical lists last December and the, err, benefits of this are now becoming clear. This is obviously not something I had ever thought to count, although I understand that some birding Professors are quite keen. did however go so far as to have a look at what I hadn't seen this August before dismissing it as folly of the highest order. Imagine chasing round after stuff just because I hadn't seen it during the month? Imagine when the month ends and the counter is reset to zero - would I really run around the place trying to see the same birds again? No. Listing can be fun but there are limits. Anyway, August is over, the counter has been reset, and now I can see what September looks like. And as you can see I have not exactly rushed out with a mad listing urge.

156 is the total to beat, set nearly nine years ago when I was much more likely to head off twitching things. I can't see it happening, but it is an interesting chart of my various birding ebbs and flows.

Another thing it can do is track how many birds you have seen each month across all years. I have something like 16 years of UK data of varying completeness loaded up so I immediately looked up June, expecting it to be somewhere between 20 and 30. Everyone knows June is the dead month, the month when nothing of birdy note happens. Well I am afraid the stats suggest otherwise. 194. OK, but it is the worst month, isn't it?


November (184) is actually my least bird-filled month, followed by March (189) and only then June (194). Can anything be read into this? Is it that by the time November comes around I am all birded out, the winter stuff is all in and combined with cold weather I just can't be bothered? But what about December (197), surely that should be worse, or is that marginally higher because I frequently visit family in Scotland during that month and need to get out of the house....? Can March be explained by a departure of wintering birds but very few arrivals? Does any of this actually need explaining at all?

Far more interesting is that the peak is now upon us. September (259) is one of the two best months of my birding year. Top spot goes to October (268) but there is not a lot in it. What this tells me is the following.

It is time to go birding. See you out there.

Wednesday 2 September 2020

I don't know

Now more than ever is the time to be circumspect. There are all sorts of interesting birds arriving on our shores, part of a regular migration to wintering grounds or simply blown off course. They are whizzing around the countryside, hiding in bushes and flying over your head. Here is a sad truth: you won't be able to identify them all. You will see a silhouette, a bit of wing, a snatch of tail, or hear a single frustrating call note. And then it will disappear never to be seen again. It is highly frustrating - part of the attraction of birding is to be able to put names to things, to order the natural world around you. But in some cases those fleeting glimpses don't allow you to do that. And that's OK, in fact it is perfectly normal. If on the basis of tiny scraps of incomplete information you could then you would be unusual - with the possible exception of sea-watching gurus who must practice some form of black magic. But for normal people this would be highly unusual, and thus highly suspicious There is always one that gets away. Always. 

Giving everything a name is an easy trap to fall into. You will start with common things like Finches and Pipits. Ooooh, that looked quite chunky! Quite chunky is unfortunately not a solid ID feature, but when combined with a gap on a list and circumstantial information it is surprising how quickly it can firm up. It goes like this: I need Crossbill for my patch list. Crossbills are quite chunky Finches and what just flew over [silently] was a chunky Finch. It is the right time of year and I know that there are Crossbills about as Bill had several yesterday over near the Res. That mental pencilling in of Crossbill is heading towards ink.

Don't do it! It might just be a patch list or even just your garden list, but you are fooling nobody, least of all yourself. And whilst you are busy being delusional your fellow birders are doing some listing of their own. They are adding you to a list of unreliable observers. Of people who are bit stringy.... You don't want to be on that list!

You don't gain acceptance into the great birding circle by being infallibly brilliant. It is perfectly acceptable not to know what something is, indeed you will get far more kudos for admitting your shortcomings rather than trying to cover them up. Not knowing is a critical part of birding and there are birding geniuses out there with gazillions of birding hours under their belts who throw away birds all the time.

Needless to say I am not a birding genius, but I can still practice good discipline. Today three small Finches flew over my head at around 7am whilst I was standing on my balcony. They did not stop and they did not call. Goldfinches almost always call and the current gap on my list is Siskin. I know that Siskin numbers are building but.... unless I get simply fantastic views I am not skilled enough to identify a Siskin in flight without a call, ideally several calls. So my eBird list from this morning has the following entry:

3 finch sp. 

I also had a regular-sized Pipit that I very nearly managed to get a photograph of as it sailed past. Unfortunately I blew it and so that was that, for it was a silent Pipit. At the moment the possible Pipits around here are Meadow Pipit and Tree Pipit. I know this because on Monday I saw them both on Wanstead Flats and they both called. I don't put names to flying Pipits unless they call and so on my eBird list you will also find this:

1 Meadow/Tree Pipit

I am reconciled to not knowing - to never knowing - what this Pipit was. It is obviously not that big a deal as I have both species for the garden anyway and so there was nothing riding on this particular bird, but that won't always be the case. Witness my desperation for my camera when that Curlew flew over at the weekend - I knew that I wouldn't be able to ID that to species unless I had a photo. I had Whimbrel for the garden already but not Curlew - the temptation to call it a Curlew would have been huge, especially as I knew that a number of other London birders had had Curlew flying around recently. And of course the stakes get higher still. I'm staring at the sky in suburban London, not at a dense Pittosporum clump on Scilly or down a Geo on Shetland. Mastering your ignorance is obviously much harder as the birds get rarer, but if you can get into the habit of doing it for the common stuff then you will find it easier to let the potentially rare stuff go as well.

Embrace it. There will always be one that got away. It is a normal part of birding and nobody knows it all. And you know what people think of know-it-alls.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

The power of the pixel

This Sunday morning just gone I did not go out on the patch as I would normally do. I was still a little frazzled from the seawatching at Sheringham and a rather difficult drive home; a slower start was warranted. It was a lovely morning. A bit of a breeze still, the remnants of Saturday's storm, but blue skies and weak sunshine were the order of the day. As I contemplated the whether the previous day had been a waste of time or a fun experience I became aware of a bird a fair way to my right and flying away. A Gull I thought, no wonder it got past me. I squinted at it again and put my bins up. Yep, definitely a Gu.... I ran for the camera which stupidly was still in the far corner of the room. The direct route took me over my discarded nocmig equipment, around a small gaggle of tropical Araucaria plants and some Aloe seeds I have been germinating, how I did not send them flying in all directions I do not know.

Camera in hand I pushed the battery back in and closed the latch (some kind of fault discharges it if left in) as I hopped my way back to the door. Back on the balcony I raised the camera and.... nothing. Camera down, bins up and it is still going, a mere dot. Last chance! Camera back up, I focused on the most distant thing I could find and then manually resolved the dot in the viewfinder and pressed the shutter. Was it enough?

What had caused me to run was what I felt was an usually large block of white on the rear of the bird. White that seemed even at a distance to run in a line up the back of the bird, rather than a rump or tail patch. At this stage it had been flying directly away from me, but surely on that feature alone it had to be a wader - a Whimbrel or a Curlew perhaps? Would my photos of a distant dot show anything? My camera is pretty old these days. It came out in 2012 and things have moved on hugely in the intervening years - they don't even make SLRs with sensors so puny any more. But what pixels there are are good ones, and though it may not be the latest and greatest any longer rarely has it taken a photo I have been more pleased with.

Check this out.

Yes, a true birder's photo. One that requires a red arrow to actually show where the bird is lest viewers confuse it with a piece of fluff or something. But modern cameras are remarkable things. I've measured what area of sensor is covered by feathers and that dot is roughly 54 x 42 pixels - 2,268 in total. That is just 0.013% of my sensor. But those pixels are enough. Look!

By a stroke of good fortune the bird banked to the right just as I took the photos and just before it was lost from view. It is clearly 2000 pixels of Curlew - not sure how many of those are bill but no Whimbrel would have a conk that long.

Curlew is not a patch tick. In 2013 I was lucky enough to have two birds fly over in very misty conditions out on Wanstead Flats whilst in the company of Dan Dan the Wader Man, who had presumably released them shortly beforehand from his magic satchel that over the course of a few years contributed numerous excellent records of waders and ducks to the patch list. But it is a garden tick, and a bloody good one too as waders are just so hard here. We associate them with crappy weather but I was out on my balcony under blue skies which makes this even stranger. That said this is but one London Curlew of several by the sounds of things - the previous day a bird was seen flying over north London, and the following day over a metropolitan Essex patch. And at Rainham yesterday morning I observed three Curlew fly straight up the middle of the Thames, ignoring all offers of RSPB mud and continuing west without stopping. Where did they end up I wonder? 

Anyhow, let's hear it for megapixels.