Wednesday 28 October 2020

Passing me by

Earlier this year, in late March, I was on my way home from the patch when a Great White Egret flew past me at about roof height heading east. I estimate it passed within about 100m of my house, which had I been in it.... 

About two weeks ago I was out birding on the patch and had headed away from the usual gaggle at the VizMig point. Having a poke around Alexandra Lake I got the message from the gang that two Great White Egrets were heading west in a line which would take them over my house. James, who was at home and lives almost directly west of me, was able to look out of his window for a nice garden tick. Had I been at home....

Yesterday a Great White Egret flew west from Alex in a line that would take it over my house. Tim and Bob, who live quite near me, looked up and were able to add Great White Egret to their garden lists. James, who as we have just found out lives west of me, also looked out of the window and greedily added his third garden Great White Egret. And where was I? 

Can you guess where I am going with this? Well, you are wrong!

At home!!

And my garden list? OK maybe you weren't wrong. Great White Egretless. Yes I missed it again. Unfortunately, and despite the heads up from Nick and all the other subsequent whooping for joy messages, I was stuck on a work meeting that had run over by a few minutes. I did not check why my phone had beeped, and of course by the time I did the bird was out of sight and well on its way to Walthamstow. Oh what might have been...

So a sorry tale, and yet one that holds promise. Great White Egret is in the ascendency, there are now birds all over the place, and in a local context the last few sightings show that the NW-SE route from the Thames to the Lea Valley is one that is well-used. I am hopeful - indeed I would go so far as to say I am confident - that having now missed four in a matter of months that I will get one over my house soon enough. And when that day comes there will be a gleeful blog post to accompany it. And if I am quick enough it may contain something like this.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Eastern visitor, record equalled, pixel peeping

It has been a mixed weekend but on the whole a positive one. The big news is that Rob discovered a Blythi-type Lesser Whitethroat in the brooms this morning. It was initially rather a skulker, but once it had stopped raining it showed rather better, staying faithful to just a small area all day allowing most patch-workers to connect. It's a bird a number of us are familiar with having seen them on Shetland and elsewhere, and several weeks later than our latest ever Lesser Whitethroat was always likely to be an eastern bird. The colouration, the way the nape merges with the head, lack of distinct mask and above all clean white outer tail feathers all point to Blythi, and even better we have managed to collect some poo which is currently (and to Mrs L's disurst) sitting in my fridge awaiting shipping to Aberdeen.

Also late was a Wheatear on Saturday, our latest ever by over a week, and whilst we were all expecting it to be a Greenland type actually it seemed bog standard. The two other pieces of news from Saturday were firstly the happy discovery of a Jack Snipe on Angel, which takes me to 118 for the year and as mentioned previously equals my best ever patch year. Can I get one more? Or more ideally two more for a nice round 120? There are still two months to go so it is all to play for. Secondly, and for me less happily, the first Corn Bunting for about 2000 years briefly graced the patch on the same morning, but was somewhat inattentively dismissed by all who saw it and the news of a potentially interesting bird did not really make it out. Decent photos later surfaced from a non-birder, which whilst initially confusing (to me and several others) did eventually land on juvvy Corn Bunting as the only possibility. I was on the spot and no doubt briefly saw the bird in question flick across the path (indeed I saw the photos being taken yet did not bother to look!), but I rather suspect I'll be waiting quite a long time - read forever - to get it back. C'est la vie, from time to time this is just what happens in birding. I've missed patch birds before and no doubt will miss them again, but to be in the thick of the action and yet be oblivious to it is a new one for me I confess. Oops!

In more positive news I took the new camera body out for a play both today and yesterday. In summary the image quality seems very good indeed, but in actual use I find it fiddly and far less intuitive than my older body. In particular precise focusing seems harder to achieve, especially in low light, and its larger focus points snap in much more slowly. It is also far less clear when I am locked on, and the viewfinder is pretty pokey as well making it even harder. The buffer seems to fill up very quickly meaning the camera stops working right when I want it to be going and going, and the lack of vertical grip makes portrait images cumbersome to say the least. I realise this is a bit of a whinge about what is in reality a great bit of kit, and indeed in many situations it is great. Something big, close and unobstructed for instance - just put it on all 45 focus points and fire away, the results will be pretty impressive. But for a messy situation like the Lesser Whitethoat I wished for the pro body more than once and wondered what I was doing without it. I will persevere though. I am enjoying the substantial weight saving especially when combined with the lightweight 400mm f5.6 lens, and it seems that if I try hard I can get a decent shot with that combo however I am already getting frustrated that it is not the equal of the 1DX in so many ways. Then again neither should it be when you think about it, and basically I am a fool for thinking I might be able to get away with it 100% of the time. 

The Mistle Thrush above was taken with the 400mm, and the reason it is so sharp is because the bird was one of those unflushable types. I had noticed a lady jog right past it without it batting an eyelid, so I figured I was probably 'in' and so it proved to be. Everything else below I took with the 500mm, some of it with the 1.4x converter attached. The 1DX is a full frame camera whereas the 80D has a 1.6x magnification factor - this is a night and day difference and birds are comparatively huge in the frame! That level of magnification also means it is a lot harder to get a sharp photo, and I am already thinking that the monopod will be needed during the winter months which of course completely eliminates all weight savings..... I know, moan moan moan. Of course the single biggest advantage this new body has is that I am carrying and using a camera rather than leaving it at home. Once again I'm enjoying the unique challenges of bird photography locally whereas only a short time ago I was basically finished with it. Look, I even took a photo of a Gull!

Thursday 22 October 2020

Nearly there and a new toy

Nick was kind enough to text me about a Wigeon in the Park today after my abortive early morning sortie on the Flats produced no new birds. With my annual record within touching distance I've been trying quite hard, getting up every day for first light for a stomp around some boggy bits of the patch in a so far fruitless search for Jack Snipe. I confess it is becoming a little wearing. Wigeon is perhaps the last truly expected bird for the year and takes me to 117. One more to equal my record, two more to beat it, three to get to the nice round number of 120. Five to beat Nick, currently on 121....

In other news I have bought a new toy, a second hand Canon EOS 80D. This is very much a consumer camera but it is significantly lighter than my normal camera. 730g vs 1551g to be precise, and that is a meaningful difference for an old guy like me. It also has the benefit of being five years more technologically advanced than my now venerable 1DX and has a lot more pixels. Pixels are not everything of course, and for many years it appeared that my much older cameras could produce images that far exceeded the quality of in theory more modern cameras but let's see. It has been ages since have used anything other than a 1 series, mainly as I tend to treat gear really really badly, frequently falling over on it and so on, and anything less robust would simply fall to bits, but of late I have been finding I look at my lump and decide I would prefer to go birding without it. And the worst quality camera you can have is that one that is at home when that magic bird pops up in front of you.

I'm pairing it with a 400m f5.6 lens - beloved of bird photographers of old before the introduction of the 100-400 zooms - which gives me the same range, roughly, as with the 500mm + 1.4x, and with the higher pixel count in theory I have more "reach". It feels so light as to be almost unbelievable, but on my first trip I found it almost impossible to use! I couldn't hold it steady! It must be conditioning; I am expecting to be managing close to 5kg but this is under 2kg and as a result it mucks up my balance -  or that's my theory anyway. When I moved from a normal lens to the 500mm I also started taking worse photos instantly, so this could be the reverse. The viewfinder is also tiny tiny and the shutter sounds so very imprecise and, frankly, rubbish. But in all other respects it is really fancy with all mod cons. A rotating touch screen, wi-fi to view images on my phone instantly and all sorts of other things I'll probably never use. For now though it appears I have a big learning curve to climb just to use the most basic functions needed to take a photo.

Here's the Wigeon. Hard work, and the photo is in no way sharp as I was shaking like a leaf! But it works at least, and if it means I have something to record what I see then I would rather that than nothing at all. I'm not giving up proper photography. When I go off on a specific mission I'll be taking the older stuff that I know works how I want it to, but this could easily become the backup body in place of the now ancient 1D Mark IV.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Yearlisting in Wanstead

It has been a while since I wrote about the patch, mainly because for most of October I seem not to have been on the patch (two breaks in Yorkshire which rescued my autumn, more on that later), but actually it has been going really rather well locally this year. No doubt this is because that for all the months of the year bar October I have been more or less confined to Wanstead, and as we all know and when you spend a lot of time in a place you cannot fail to see a lot of birds. 

Not everyone is into lists of birds, but I am, and particularly so when they relate to the local patch or specific parts of it like my garden. Here is the 2020 list so far. 116 species. In Yorkshire terms it's pitiful of course, I saw something like 130 species at Flamborough and Spurn in a matter of days, but for here - suburban London - it is decent, and at the moment represents my second highest total in all the time I have lived here. Only in 2013 have I ever surpassed this number, and the total for that year, 118, is only now two birds away.

Lockdown and the cancellation of all my travel plans have been the difference. I've actually been here. Unwilling (and at points unable) to leave the house other than for short periods of time meant I stared at the sky from my balcony and windows for hours. As a result my garden list has gone crazy with ten new species in a single year - the same as in the previous nine years put together. After lockdown ended Wanstead Flats ironically became less busy and I started venturing out again - a lot! I've missed a few things along the way, but not many, and as a result my yearlist record is firmly in my sights.

Any two of Wigeon, Lapwing and Jack Snipe will draw me level, and all three will do it. And all three have been seen on the patch this month, I just haven't been here very much. But those trips are behind me now and I am raring to go. And of course there could also be a few surprises - an errant Duck or Grebe, another Wader, dare I say it even a rare Bunting...

There are about 70 days to go and I'm planning to be here for almost all of them, be that on my balcony or out on the patch. Wish me luck!

Monday 19 October 2020

Waste not, want not

In about 1990 or 1991 my Mum bought me a winter coat - a waxed jacket. I still have it today. It was made by a now defunct firm called Joviel. All I can find out about them was that they were based in Cannock, Staffordshire, and that they went bust at some point after 2007. Presumably because their coats were so well made that they never wore out and so people only ever bought one. I wore it constantly through my teens and into my early twenties, through A Levels and University. Much of the wax has worn off, and so for a long while in the 2010s it didn't see as much use as I instead favoured more technical and more waterproof fabrics that worked better for birding. But as I age I find I am less interested in all-singing all-dancing innovations and prefer a more classical style. A fuddy duddy old man style... I think I have touched on this before in relation to shoes that I kept for twenty years, and this is basically more in the same vein. I apologise now, feel free to click away....

However at the beginning of this year disaster struck - the zip became misaligned by one notch, and no matter how hard I yanked it simply wouldn't budge. I had to crawl in and out of it, and so ruefully I put it to one side and started wearing my much lighter rain jacket with another layer underneath. But I didn't throw it away! About a fortnight ago as the weather started to get colder I had another go at sorting it out and failed again. This morning I looked at it one last time, concluded that it was dead, and started to look for a new one online.

£239!!!! Gah!

I went straight down to the cupboard and pulled it out again. Not for me this consumption society and throwing things away! Surely something could be done? Putting aside brute force what about the next level of remediation, some kind of semi-sophisticated bodging? Enter YouTube. I searched for "fix misaligned coat zipper" and within ten minutes it was all sorted. The internet is truly a thing of wonder - I don't know what kind of person feels compelled to make a video detailing how to fix a coat zip, but I salute them and all their kind. All I needed was a screwdriver, a pen knife and a pair of pliers. The secret is the zipper stopper. I've never really looked into the components of a zip before but you see the little brass-coloured bit above the zip teeth in the next photo? There is one on each side and they stop the zip pull from coming off the top of the zip when you do it up. All I needed to do was lever those two clips off using the screwdriver and the knife to bend them a bit, and then pull the two zip pulls off the top. This then freed both halves of the teeth allowing me to realign them, at which point I could feed the two zip pulls back on to close it all up again. All that then remained was to reposition the two clips above the teeth and clamp them back on really securely using the pliers to undo the widening that the levering off had caused. Da-dah! One perfectly serviceable coat.

OK so it is a little tired, a few rips here and there and it isn't as waterproof as it once was, but I am generally a fair-weather birder anyway and it will do just fine. I have saved myself a large amount of money, there has been zero wastage and a new coat has not needed to be manufactured. And in any event this is a coat with character, a coat that has been lived in. And approaching 30 years old I would be confident in saying that few other coats have as much history. I used to use the poachers pocket on the inside to carry A4 folders to and from school on my bike, and if you look closely at the first photo you can see that in common with most clothes worn to school this has a name label sewn into it! I was probably wearing it when I met Mrs L at university in 1994. I wore this on walks with my Grandma in Sussex - she died in 2000. I wore it when my kids were little, the eldest is nearly 17. There are almost no points of my teenage and adult life in which this coat has not featured in some way, and next time I am up at my parents I am going to pull out some of their old photo albums to see if I can narrow down precisely when I got it and how old it is. I think it was a Christmas present so my best guess at this point is December 1990. The good news is that now I've managed to fix it it is about to be a part of my life again as I bird Wanstead Flats this winter. Possibly not for a further 30 years, but one day at a time.

I am sorry this post has been so dull but I am truly delighted.

Monday 12 October 2020

Close encounters of the bird kind

Whilst in Yorkshire I I took short break from birding and reverted to photographer mode. For most of the week I had lugged my camera around in all conditions and only very occasionally had cause to use it. So when a really good opportunity came along I had almost forgotten how much fun it can be, and for an hour or so as the tide came in at Bridlington I made merry with a handful of Purple Sandpipers, Turnstone and a single Knot. The birds were quite fearless which is exactly how I like them. The light was quite nice and the incoming water pushed the small flock extremely close in - at some points I needed to back off. I expect this kind of behaviour from Turnstones - these are after all waders whose favourite foodstuff is chips, but I wasn't hopeful that the four Purple Sandpipers would also strut their stuff in the same way. Perhaps the Turnstones gave them some confidence? Or perhaps they had it already, and I am just not familiar with Purple Sandpiper behaviour. It has been over five years since I have set eyes on one after all so this is entirely plausible. Here are a handful of images from the session - my shutter took a real beating, over a thousand frames of which most were identical. Digital photography does not encourage circumspection. But it does mean you can just go and go, which is exactly what I did. 

Saturday 10 October 2020

Field Lammergeier

The wandering Lammergeier spent yesterday in Lincolnshire. I started the morning in Yorkshire and ended the day in London.  All sensible routes from Yorkshire to London pass through Lincolnshire....

Well what can I say? OK so I'd seen the bird in the Peak District in August, but that was
a damp squib really. Yesterday was an altogether different experience, albeit rather incongruous to see the bird in a muddy field munching on a dead rabbit. Then again I would not call Derbyshire peak Lammergeier habitat either, but given the views I got I am prepared to accept the Lincolnshire fens as an acceptable location. What was a damp blob on a hillside was transformed into a beast of staggering proportions - dwarfing the corvids hoping for scraps. Magpies appeared as mere Blue Tits, Rooks as Robins Even the Buzzards came across as utterly puny. It flew, it glided, it flapped, it walked, it ripped up tenderised rabbit, did a crap, rolled its eyes and a whole lot more besides. In short it did everything it didn't do last time and gave the assembled line of twitchers a display none of us will forget in a while.

The only unglossy element was the pathetic parking employed by almost everyone there, turning a busy road into a one way street. What is wrong with parking somewhere safe and then walking, like Pete and I did? I do not believe in internet naming and shaming, but extra marks to the guy in the white Hyundai for whom the far side of the road was insufficient and who then moved to the near side directly opposite the bird and starting papping away, thus creating a chicane for the articulated lorries to deal with along with the single file problem. Idiotic. 

Sunday 4 October 2020

Flamborough Head

I'm not in Wanstead. This is a miracle. It nearly did not happen, two last minute spanners threatened to confine me to home but fortunately neither doomsday scenario came to pass and I am actually on holiday. It was supposed to be Shetland of course, but we could not in all good conscience travel there. Instead Bradders, Pete and I are in East Yorkshire trying our luck at Flamborough Head and nearby sites. We arrived on Friday afternoon and saw very little. On Saturday we saw even less, albeit that it was quite exciting to be watching Thrushes and Robins falling out of the sky. Perhaps not exciting enough for the soakings we got, but we felt we were only ever a single Robin away from the big one. When you raise your bins and see eight Robins emerge from Old Fall hedge and start to feed frantically on the path in front of you that ninth bird really gets the pulse racing until you realise that it is another Robin, and unfortunately that was the story of the day. I have never seen so many Robins looking so mega.

One of hundreds

Sunday dawned clear however and the hedges around Flamborough Head were alive. We were five minutes from the New Fall Plantation when the Red-flanked Bluetail was found. Would that we had ignored the Barred Warbler next to the Lighthouse but nevermind, this is the way it goes. Any Bluetail is a good Bluetail. Somehow I have now seen seven and I'd like to see another seven. And the way the weather is going there could be more on the cards.

The entire weekend has been extremely birdy. We are on double figures of Yellow-browed Warbler and Redstart, there has been a Ring Ouzel, a Firecrest, a Great Grey Shrike, a Red-breasted Flycatcher and monstrous numbers of commoner migrants. There has not been the dream quality of Masked Shrike or Siberian Thrush, but it is not for lack of effort, and any weekend with a Bluetail is a mighty fine weekend indeed. I have walked miles and miles which is extremely good for me (despite the high level of junk food consumed) and I am feeling pretty good about the rawness and integrity of the birding. 

From Russia with Love

The last few years I have become fixated on world birding. In doing so I have had a brilliant time and seen some superb birds in superb places. But in the context of 2020 these past two days have been their equal in my eyes - I have learned that if I am motivated and up for it I can bird anywhere and have a great time. There might not be deserts, mountains and volcanos, but this part of Yorkshire is pretty special.