Monday 30 November 2020

F is for Fulica

As a keen user of eBird I keep on discovering new and exciting things. If you don't use this magnificent and nerd-pleasing piece of citizen science just hit back, this will take you to my last post which was about seeing no birds and will still be more interesting than this one which is about keyboard shortcuts.

F is for Coot. In an ideal world I would just wander around the patch saying the names of birds. Saying "Coot" would add a Coot to my in-progress eBird tally. Saying "2 Coots" would add two and so on. This would also allow me to keep looking at the birds, but as everyone knows we don't live in an ideal world and so unfortunately this is not yet a feature. Hopefully come clever bods are working on it, but for now fingers are required and as the weather gets colder my desire to have them encased in nice warm gloves is increasing. I don't have one of those fancy gloves which allows touchscreen use via some pad embedded in the fingertip, and in any event the phone is locked to my fingerprint (although apparently I can use my face too, lucky Samsung). So I am on the lookout for the most efficient way to input the birds I see so that my glove can go back on as soon as possible. Rather than painstakingly enter C-o-o in order to bring up Coot, I have discovered that the letter F brings it up. It is second on the screen after Feral Pigeon, but that is enough to then add however many Coots it is that I have just counted. And seeing as Coots are one of the only species of birds on the [dead] patch at the moment I find I am needing to count them quite a lot. Yes, the humble letter F is going to be very useful.

This got me thinking to see if there were any other useful time-savers out there for urban UK patch workers. Here's what I have found so far. Note that these may not take you directly to the species, but they will bring that species onto the screen sufficiently high up that scrolling won't be needed. I've not included wildfowl as they are always at the top of the page anyway when the seach bar is empty.

D = Collared Dove, Stock Dove, Great Spotted Woodpecker

E = Egyptian Goose, Moorhen

F= Feral Pigeon, Coot

J = Jay, Jackdaw

K = Kestrel

L = Little Grebe

N = Parakeet

U = Larus sp (invaluable)

W = Woodpigeon, Cormorant

There are infinitely more possibilities for two letters, but here are the ones I have found most useful locally.

CA = Crow, Goldfinch

CC = Chiffchaff, Chaffinch

CH = Greenfinch

ER = Robin

FI = Finch sp, for all vizmiggers with a conscience

GC = Great Crested Grebe

GU = all Gulls

MA = Magpie

ME = Meadow Pipit

RE = Redwing, Goldcrest

SI = Siskin

SK = Skylark

SO = Song Thrush

SP = Sprawk, Sparrow

ST = Starling

TI = all Tits

TU = all Thrushes

WO = Woodpeckers

What about more complex acronyms? Well this is a thing of beauty - I believe any species can be found with a combination of just four letters, ie EUWI = European Wigeon, MUSW = Mute Swan and so on, but whilst these might have entered birding lexicon for birders in the US, they hardly trip off the tongue for us. However there are a few that do work.

BHG = Black-headed Gull

GBB = Great-black Backed Gull

GSWP = Great-spotted Woodpecker

LBB = Lesser Black-backed Gull

LTT = Long-tailed Tit

I think that generally there are quicker ways to get there (as described above), but nonetheless if you know this and are also handy with some of the Latin binomials, you can generally work out what will likely get you to the bird you want quite quickly with just a few letters - I find this far easier than scrolling up and down the entire list. There are some other gems buried in there, perhaps showing eBird's American heritage, for instance BB = Grey Plover, but I expect I have only scratched the surface.

Anyhow, I hope at least one other person found this useful. If you too use eBird and have found some useful shortcuts, do please let us all know.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Still slow

Still pretty slow in Wanstead but locally there are signs of movement. Skuas, Divers, Geese and wild Swans have been on the move around the edges of London, and there have been reports of lots of wildfowl along the coast. Nothing here of course, but it is good to hear of things happening that are not quite in range. It gives you hope. Today for instance I spent an hour out on my balcony when I heard that four Bewick's Swans had flow from north-east from the Wetland Centre in Barnes mid-morning. They never arrived but that direction would have seen them bisect Walthamstow, and who knows, a slight deviation east.... I did wonder if it was a complete waste of time even trying, but then I remembered the Cranes. Miracles can happen, just not every time, and not today. You have to be in it to win it. 

Saturday was very foggy here, and it didn't clear until lunchtime. I've had some good birds in the fog before, birds that would not normally drop in here but that had presumably become disoriented. I gave it a try as there is always a slight possibility of getting something in the dank conditions, but nothing materialised and the ponds of Wanstead Park remained empty. Well. not empty, but containing all the same birds that they did earlier in the week. Literally the same - the same single Greylag on Heronry, the same six Tufted Ducks on Perch, the same Great Crested Grebe on Shoulder of Mutton. And the same Moorhen on the Basin.....

Once upon a time the Basin was the go-to pond in the kind of conditions that might drop something in. Goosanders, Wigeon and so on. I used to check it frequently, usually on the school run. Although I don't have to do that any more I do sometimes pop up there for a look, but I can't remember the last time I found anything on there. It is very nearly devoid of bird life, not sure what has changed. Maybe it simply isn't cold enough at the moment.

Happier times

It is beginning to feel a little colder though. This morning I went for a walk at Fairlop Water, as I had an errand to run nearby. I didn't get too far around the main lake before I felt the need for the gloves that I didn't have. Next week is December I suppose, so it should be feeling a bit more wintery. I don't mind that, in fact I need that as unless we do get a cold snap my chances of any more patch year ticks are nil.32 days to go!


Friday 27 November 2020

Favourite photos

This time last year I had recently returned from a photographic expedition to Florida. If anyone is interested the relevant blog posts/trip report starts here. Likely not, but those were the days. I've been taking solace in reminding myself of some of the great trips I've been on, the wonderful birds I've seen and the fun I had seeing them. Although I'm marooned in Wanstead at the moment looking back at these photographic memories never fails to raise a smile and I am so glad I documented them all. 

There are some photos that I consider a cut above. Photos that I will always remember taking, photos that made me smile at the time, that perhaps even elicited a giggle. I just found one that I think sits very near the top of my list of all-time favourite photos. It's not a Wheatear. It's not any kind of pin sharp bird. It's not a glorious sunset from an epic location. It's not artistic or technically clever in any way. In fact I would go so far as to say that is is plain stupid. It's not even taken with a proper camera, it's simply a snap from my phone. I don't recall ever having posted it, or if I have I can't find it. But even if I did it is one of those photos where the quality easily merits a repeat.

It is Snuffi. Snuffi is a small and partially threadbare Panther. Many of my favourite photos involve Snuffi. He comes with me on every trip, and it is essential that he has his photo taken in front of landmarks and so on, or at least somewhere readily identifiable as being "there". If you have followed this blog for any length of time you will no doubt have seen him pop up before, usually at the very end of trip reports. You have probably been kind enough not to mention it. That a middle-aged man could have such an attachment to a small cuddly toy is best left to professionals, but here is a photo from that trip to Florida. I remember passing the sign and then stopping the car and turning back once my feeble brain had processed the possibility that the nice clear stretch of road afforded. I am very glad that I did as in my book this is one of the all-time greats.

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Slowing down

Birding locally has been slow to say the least. It is a vicious circle - a rare visit to the patch results in a dreary trudge around seeing very little. Unless you are some kind of masochist outings like this reduce the desire to go and do it all over again. The frequency of birding reduces, you see less, which in turn reinforces the view that the patch is rubbish in November and you go out even less..... I chanced upon a comment on one of my patch year list "pages" the other day, written by a visitor to the blog years and years ago. They asked why my year list appeared to stop in November. Unfortunately I didn't notice their question back then but let me address it now. One, the number of new birds to see on the patch naturally dwindles beyond October. And two, well, see above.

My last visit to the patch, possibly only my third this month, was a case in point. The highlight was a Stonechat. Or maybe the back end of a Snipe as it disappeared into the distance. It's a toss-up and I'm not sure even now which of these two birds I was most pleased with. The Snipe as any wader on the patch is semi-unusual, or the Stonechat as I hadn't seen the species for what seemed like ages and it was good to know that they were still there. I still harbour hopes of them overwintering, although with the weather still so mild this is far from certain at this point and a cold snap could easily see them off.

I suppose this is proof if it were needed that I already have half an eye on January. Most birders probably do. The last few weeks of the year tend to be uneventful, a slow slide into dark mornings and the early onset of evening. If like me you have an office job (or in 2020 a dining room table job) this likely means that you don't see much of the daylight hours, logged on in the half light and with several hours still to go after it gets dark. Weekends become increasingly important, but with such slim pickings locally its hard to get excited by this brief change in routine.

Instead I find myself turning to minor acts of home improvement. Nothing major - I really mean that. For example last weekend I tidied up the two cupboards under the stairs which had become a haven for crap we didn't want to see any more. Out of sight out of mind. I found heaps of things related to small children - a foldable Spiderman chair to fit a six year old (my son, 16, was delighted to see it again), a garden play tent with a tunnel, a bucket and spade, half a toddlers croquet set with mallets approximately eight inches long, some old packed lunch bags, half a kite, some sunglasses to fit a four year old, and twenty-thousand bits of crafting stuff. I also found three dead halogen spotlights, two House Martin nest boxes that I'd thought lost and bought replacements for, parts of the terrace barbeque that I hadn't bothered installing in 2005, about 40 of those long-life yet short-lived spiral light bulbs, some still brand new and long since replaced with LEDs, an old electric heater, a wooden squash racket, and some clips for wall-mounting a torch that I bought in about 2010 and that had been hanging on a nail waiting for the right moment. Ah-ha, DIY!! Excitedly I got the drill out. Back in the day I would have simply used a hammer and a nail to create some guide holes for the screws, but seeing as I had just found the drill at the back of the cupboard I decided to go full on. There is something uniquely satisfying about drilling holes in wood and it didn't disappoint. I didn't manage to get them perfectly straight of course, this is me we're talking about, but the clips are forgiving enough that it didn't matter. A triumph! Then I discovered the torch didn't work. Hopefully it is just the batteries, but as I promptly ordered the wrong size I can't yet say...

The cupboards under the stairs are now a structured haven of common sense and order with loads and loads of room for the next decade's worth of rubbish to accumulate in, albeit that I will fly into an immediate rage for at least the next month if any member of the family sullies my fine work by carelessly chucking something in there and then simply closing the door behind them. Unfortunately I had forgotten that all of the local recycling centres are currently closed so the front hall now looks like somebody reversed a battered Transit van into it and fly-tipped the contents. Mrs L looked at it and said I should go out birding more.

Monday 23 November 2020


The sooner this second lockdown period ends the better. I am not a big pub or restaurant goer, I don't go to the gym and I loathe shopping, and so for the most part a national lockdown makes no day to day difference to me. I miss the raves of course, but what I would really like to do is go somewhere different. Anywhere. And that's just not possible right now. 

2020 has not really been the year for foreign travel has it? There were and still are a few destinations that have not had quarantine restrictions at either one of the two ends, but actually I've had no desire to get on any form of public transport and that very definitely includes planes. Plus those quarantine rules can change extremely quickly which worst case could lead to getting stuck somewhere. No thanks, I'll pass. So with that form of escapism off the table I'd instead been getting my 'somewhere different' kicks in the UK, to places I could get to in a car. Mostly this was by myself but on a couple of occasions was with a very limited number of known people who led equally dull and cautious lives. This included some late summer trips to decent birding sites in the South East, and two trips to Yorkshire during the autumn. I hugely enjoyed them all.

On the non-birding front our replacement family holidays this year were largely centered around Scotland - we went twice in the summer to visit family and they were good breaks, and for me also included a bit of good birding. That's no longer allowed - they all live in "Level 3" areas, and travel in or out of those has now been shut down with no end date yet announced. I had a quick peruse of the Scottish Government fine print to see what exceptions there were but we don't appear to qualify for any of them. I did laugh when I saw that the final one on the extensive list of essential travel reasons was prison visits. The irony is not lost on me as a virtual prisoner in my own home....  Perhaps I'll call my parents and suggest that if they want to see their grandchildren then they need to commit a crime just before Christmas.

We're over halfway through the second lockdown as I type this, and I don't think we yet know what kind of follow-on restrictions will be imposed on travel and movement come early December when it is due to end. It is after all a moving picture and the virus does not play by a set of rules. Things might change for the better, but even if they do I remain far from convinced that big Christmas family gatherings are a sensible idea. Kids might get to see their Grandparents for a few days, but in doing might inadvertently be inviting themselves to another family gathering...  30 max if you get my drift. No, I think we might skip Christmas this year for the good of all concerned.

But that does give rise to the question of when we might be able to see our families again. Other than in the summer holidays the five of us in Wanstead have no ability to isolate for long enough to be absolutely certain that we have not brought the virus back from one of three different schools. By the time the 14 days have passed to know we're in the clear it's time to go back. But if it is allowed should we risk it? Without wanting to be too morbid about it nobody's parents are getting any younger, and each holiday that passes without a visit is one we're not going to get back. The counterargument is that we don't want to kill them. With the virus in the community to the extent it currently is the upcoming holiday is a no-brainer, but what about the February half term? Or Easter? What would need to have changed? I just don't have any answers supported by facts. I expect many if not all families who possess any common sense are similarly flummoxed at the moment.

The new vaccines surely hold the key to the locked door, mutations aside. We're all young and a long way down the queue of course, possibly not even in the queue at all. But Grandparents are. Perhaps not very high up it given all the categories that quite rightly need it first, but at some point next year you have to think they will get it. We might be some way behind them or not all all, but presumably only one half of a bubble or a gathering needs to be immune. Fingers crossed all the recent good news on this front is realised.

By the way, many thanks for all the comments on the last post, it was helpful to know that other people took something from it. This post isn't a direct follow-on from that one, but obviously it is partially linked. And obviously much more cheery....

Friday 20 November 2020

It's good to talk

I've been having a little niggle of late and rather than do nothing I attended a work-sponsored "webinar" about it. Good plan it turns out. Specifically I have been experiencing feelings of guilt about feeling sorry for myself in the wonderful year that is 2020. I am not ashamed to say that I am finding this year increasingly hard - I won't go into the various reasons why that is, suffice it to say a combination of factors has thrown me off kilter. However accompanying the nagging feeling of "woe is me" is a parallel thought which suppresses it and which is this: That I should pull myself together and how dare I feel sorry for myself when I am, in reality, in a very privileged position, and think of all the people who are having to get through this year who live alone, who have far less space, who have lost their jobs, or who struggle with basic necessities and a host of other issues all far more serious than my own minor inconveniences. In other words don't be so selfish and boy do you have it good. 

All of the above is true, I am very lucky, but nonetheless the webinar was very helpful and it seems I am far from alone in this very natural of reactions. Here's what one of the specialists said: Guilt is a response to having done something wrong. Experiencing anxiety in any of its myriad forms due to external events that impact you and that you have no control over is not wrong. Not at all. Now I hadn't thought about it like that at all prior to yesterday, instead I have probably been exacerbating my current state of tension by trying to talk myself out it using the "there's always somebody worse off than you" argument on myself. It's apparently a very typical response and also not one that is frequently talked about.

Not talking about it was in fact the starting point and central theme of the whole session. Men don't talk about their problems, their frailties, their worries. That's what women do and in men it's perceived as a sign of weakness (by men). Nothing could be further from the truth and that's a major motivation for writing this post. The vast majority of men instead bottle this stuff up, put on a stiff upper lip and pretend that nothing is wrong. And then they crash out, in some sad cases quite literally. Let me immediately say that I'm a long long way from that type of crash, worry ye not, but equally I know myself quite well and I think I am closer to that end of the scale in November 2020 than I was in November 2019. Not by much perhaps, but perceptibly. Hence why I was man enough to sign up.

Along with CBT and counselling various methods of self-help were discussed. Interestingly one of these was keeping a journal, and though I can't remember exactly what was said I think that one of the presenters also used the word "blog" in the same response. Writing down things that happen to you, especially nice things (go figure), is one of the easiest ways to combat negative thoughts. Blogging is good for you, who knew? Other things mentioned included the importance of natural light (hello vitamin D supplements!), as well as exercise and healthy eating. So too was avoiding the excessive consumption of alcohol. Boooo! 

But the biggest takeaway by far was the simple-yet-not-at-all-easy message to talk about things. Crucially this wasn't restricted to people who had problems reaching out to talk to somebody about them. As important, if not more important, was for people to look out for others who simply can't bring themselves to do that, and that many if not most men fall into that category. And that's why I thought this was worth a blog post. Make that first move, have that tentative chat during a quiet moment, don't wait for things to head south. Be that friend. The worst that can happen is that the person says no and that they're fine. The best that could happen is almost infinite in it's positivity.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Closing in

Unless there is a big change in the weather I think my year lists in Wanstead and nationally are done. 226 for the UK, 118 for the patch. As I mentioned in a recent post 226 is pretty middling - I once managed 313 though that became a little draining - but I'm happy with it. The number in of itself doesn't mean much, but it does signify that I must have been out birding. Had I not it would be much lower, and so it is that that 226 invokes memories of vast flocks of Aythya on Abberton, tons of waders at Boulmer including an incredibly smart PGP, a week in Yorkshire filled with Thrushes and Finches, a Red-flanked Bluetail and a Dusky Warbler in the same hedge in Norfolk, Sea Ducks, Alcids and Skuas in Fife, Chough in Cornwall. All of that was supplemented by a huge amount of birding at home - 2020 really was the year for garden and patch birding. I've stalled on a record-equalling 118 but I've really enjoyed it. Hoping for a cold snap to add a Lapwing or Goosander. Or both.

Like my UK list my blog fell into decline. Once upon a time it was close to a post a day, maintained for an entire year. That same period when I was off twitching with the gang also saw around 200 posts annually. I expect that there was some crowing about all the great birds I saw, but that alone wouldn't have been enough. The truth is that back then I simply found it far easier to write original material. As the years have progressed that's become harder and less enjoyable, and in parallel I've found I've less free time. My frequency of writing declined, and in 2015 I didn't even manage 100 posts, under half of the number of prior years. Since then I've been bumping along at about 130, so about once every three days. That seems a mostly sustainable level although as with all things there are fits and starts. There are weeks at work that are so draining that I simply can't string a sentence together in the evening. Equally there are also intense periods at work where writing about something else afterwards acts as an antidote. I'm in one of those periods right now, long days at the "office" where I never seem able to do everything that I need to do, but where I also seem able to bash out a post each evening. I guess my brain must still be going full tilt when I eventually jack it in for the day. 

Right now I'm closing in on those 130 posts. One more to go in fact, helped by a few recent fillers of which this is definitely one. Part of me wants to exceed it, to get to at least 134 which would be the most since 2013. Petty perhaps, but it's just the mood I'm in at the moment. As if an arbitrary number could act as a marker of change, as a feeling that something has changed for the better, but there it is.

I mentioned Hong Kong the other day as being the trip that in 2014 that kicked off my obsession with travelling. The following year I went again, but this time with the whole family. Five years ago, on the 18th November 2015, I posted this photo. I had no idea who the person is and still don't, just a candid taken on a busy street. All blog posts are enhanced by a photo so I was just searching for something random to accompany today's as I've not taken any recently, and in common with the Mallards from Monday was looking for an 'anniversary' post. This popped up. I still like it, and for added relevance it also has someone wearing a mask. So 2020. The full post is here.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Sad coat update

I have sad news. Sad and rather mortifying news. My much-loved green coat, the same one I proudly blogged about only a month ago, may need to be discarded. It seems my confidence in my repairs was rather misplaced. I wore it in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago and two things happened. One, I got completely soaked through. Two, the zip went again. Trying to climb out of a sodden waxed jacket which has all the flexibility of a rusted suit of armour is no easy task, especially for someone as, erm, lithe as me. I needed external help. It was easy enough to fix the zip again once I was back home, but it has since happened again and I am now getting a bit fed up with it. I could send it off to have a new zip fitted, and I expect the holes could be sewn up and the whole thing rewaxed at the same time, but that would likely cost a fair bit. It does not seem sensible to spend money on a ripped and distinctly leaky coat from the early nineties. In other words maybe it has had its day and it is time for a new coat? Thirty years is a pretty distinguished age for a piece of clothing and perhaps I shouldn't feel so bad about wastage. Money that I might spend on repairs could go towards a new coat - if I could find a new one with the same quality of manufacturing to last another thirty years (is this even possible in 2020?) it might see me out! I could pass it down to the next generation like a nice watch!

On the other hand I could forgo repairs and expense and just persist with it despite the obvious flaws, namely that it won't protect me from wet weather and if its cold I can't do it up without risking getting stuck in it. I suppose if it is dry and mild I could just wear it without the zip, leaving it open or just using the poppers, but there would be plenty of days where that just wouldn't be viable. In other words I'd still be without a functional piece of outerwear that I could turn to no matter the conditions. And that bothers me enough to seriously consider whether now is actually the time to finally throw in the towel and invest in a new wax jacket for the next few decades.

I don't want a new Barbour. Everyone has one of those and from what I've read the new ones simply don't last very long. £250 on a coat that might be in shreds in five years doesn't seem to me to be a great investment. Alternatively I could buy a second hand one for much less, but that risks having the same issues as my current one and might also come with the additional bonus of strong dog aromas. I've found an alternative brand called Belstaff which seems a step up from Barbour but they all look rather military or biker, neither of which is a look I'm that keen on cultivating. Other than these two companies there just doesn't seem to be much else out there in a reasonable price bracket. Maybe I need to start looking in the unreasonable bracket? I've seen a few that look very nice indeed but with prices to make a grown man weep. Then again when you divide by thirty....

Monday 16 November 2020

Ten years ago yesterday

Ten years ago yesterday I took two of my favourite ever photos. I was birding in Epping Forest and came across a pond which had stunning reflections of the autumn leaves. The birds are nothing special, just a pair of Mallard, but both photos pleased me enough to end up on my wall. The weather yesterday was rather different, and whilst Strawberry Hill Pond would have counted as local during this period of lockdown there seemed little point in going over there to see if I could create a similar image a decade apart. Far easier to just relive past glories. I did of course mean to post this yesterday but typically forgot and instead posted the photos from last weekend. Oh well. Ten years and a day still works.

Sunday 15 November 2020

More Canon 80D experiments

Welcome to a boring photography post. If you're not interested in f stops and stuff like that step away now!

The more I use the Canon 80D the more I like it. And also the more I use it the more it irritates me. Not because it is no good, far from it, but simply because I don't find it as natively easy to use as my other camera which is a Canon 1DX. Fundamentally all cameras are simply an interaction between light and a light-sensitive sensor. You control the sensitivity of that sensor to light (ISO), you control how much light hits it (Aperture) and for how long (Shutter speed), and that's it. Three very simple ingredients, and for the most part you actually only use two of them, reducing all photography to the dynamic relationship between shutter speed and aperture. Therefore in theory all cameras are the same, and provided you are able to control just two variables (indeed mostly just one whilst the camera deals with the other) you have all that you need. A good photographer should be able to take a good photo with any camera. Would that it were that simple.

The weather this weekend has mostly been completely miserable and I left the house just once for an uninspiring, damp and camera-less stroll around Wanstead Park and Flats. In contrast last Sunday was rather pleasant so I bolted my new 80D onto my 800mm lens and set forth on a mission to a local pond. I was interested to know if my monopod technique could stand up to such a large increase in focal length (800mm with the 1DX but an astonishing 1280mm with the 80D). Range was one of the primary reasons for investing in the 80D. The other was weight, so in that respect the 800mm lens was rather a poor choice, particularly as I ended up lugging it over three miles across Wanstead Flats.

In short the answer is a resounding "Yes". Yes I can deal with a big increase in effective focal length and maintain an acceptably sharp image - my technique holds up. In fact I do significantly better on the monopod than I do on a tripod (I failed miserably last Saturday for instance), something I've noted before with other camera/lens combinations. It is slightly more nuanced than this though. Flight photography is completely off the table for instance, I can't manage it. I can barely manage it with the 1DX, and this is simply a step too far. Even finding a perched bird in the frame is significantly harder at 1280mm, and in situations with birds moving quickly through a landscape I think I would struggle to the point I would miss opportunities. When you add the various physical niggles I have with the 80D such as the physically smaller viewfinder and the placement of dials and buttons, photography starts to become really quite hard. 

But I did begin to adapt. I found that the new way in which I had to select focus zones and focus points started to feel a little more natural after a time. I also found myself gaining more confidence in the AF system after reviewing images - images I did not think I had nailed were in fact spot on. The relative coverage area of a single focus point on the 80D is significantly larger than on the 1DX, which initially had me concerned with its ability to focus precisely. In practice though provided you are in the right general area, ie somewhere near the eye of the bird for the most part, this worry is unfounded and the focus is pretty spot on. I found that it became easier to flip the camera into portrait mode and get my finger and thumb placement correct. And I also started to get to grips with the change in balance caused by the much lighter camera, and unconsciously started to support the lens differently. In short I am getting there. It still does not feel completely natural like the 1DX does, but I have put so many thousands of frames through 1 series bodies (whose design through various models has remained so consistent) for so many years that this is to be expected.

The reach is as impressive as I had hoped it would be. For large birds like
Gulls and Ducks it was actually too much and I had to back off. As these will be my major targets this winter I don't expect to be using the 800mm very much if at all, it was just overkill. For passerines however, such as the House Sparrows that live at Jubilee Pond, it was just fantastic. It was equally useful with a drake Teal on Alexandra Lake. Teal are very small Ducks that are usually quite wary. This particular one was about as friendly a bird as I've ever seen locally, and the reach of the 80D + 800mm allowed me to stay sufficiently far away to not spook the bird yet still have it large in the frame. The light had deteriorated somewhat by then, but ISO 800 is pretty good and kept me in the game. Even 1600 was decent, although it is telling that of the images I kept about 90% used 800. I wish that Blogger were able to display the real photos rather than compressed low-res versions saved via Google Images. What I post here are 1000 pixels wide, or 850 pixels tall, and frankly rather flabby. The originals are incredibly crisp and are 6000 pixels wide! Anyway, I still have a lot more to do and this is only my third or fourth outing with it, but in summary I am impressed with what it can do albeit not yet fully a convert.

Saturday 14 November 2020

Decline and fall

One of the benefits of liking a list or two is that there is always something to aim at. It is a silly distraction of course but one that I am happy to commit hours to. This year those lists have been concentrated almost solely in the UK, a reengagement of sorts caused by an unwillingness and inabilty to travel abroad.  For many years I didn't really travel much and then in mid 2014 something changed and I visited my sister in Hong Kong. I realised how much more was out there. The next year I started to travel a lot, both in search of birds as well as a more general wanderlust, and as my travel increased so the amount of birding I did in the UK decreased. I would come back from another scintillating bird-filled trip somewhere and mooch around the patch, incomparably bored by my local birds. Bright green, blue and red replaced by hues of dull brown. Familiarity bred contempt. 

I've always been quite good at recording what I see, but prior to adopting eBird I never had any easy way to query my data. Having now entered all my historical day lists from 2007 onwards, all of a sudden the extent of my domestic decline has been made clear to me. I've chased a UK year list only once, in 2009. That was the peak of what I fondly recall as the fun years, probably 2008 to around 2012, when I was pretty into twitching and had found a group of local like-minded people to hook up with. Bradders, Monkey, Shaunboy, Hawky, Crofty and various others. None of us were into the crazy off-island twitching, but places like North Yorkshire or Cornwall were "in range" and so for a period of several years if a rare bird coincided with a weekend off we went. We had a ball. Although twitching conjures up notions of travelling just to see a single bird that is actually quite rare. Throughout that time there was also a lot of incidental birding wherever we found ourselves, and so my year lists remained on the high side - averaging out at 275 for a number of years. Gradually however our collective interest in this form of birding declined, and by 2015 I was pretty much done with it. 2014 was the last year that I saw 200 birds in the UK, and it is no surprise that this also coincides almost exactly with the start of my travelling phase. My average UK list since 2015 has been just 161, and in 2018 I saw just 133 species, 111 of them in Wanstead and the rest at Rainham. I didn't record a single bird outside London that year.

Not quite London

2019 wasn't much better and so this year I resolved that I would do more in the UK whilst scaling back my travel abroad. Little did I know what 2020 would bring of course, but at that stage I still had reasonably big plans, this was a reset rather than a complete halt, and with a birding trip to Colombia and a few other birdy places I was still expecting to see a lot. I got the year off to a good start with my first serious birding in Suffolk and Norfolk for what seemed like ages, and with a trip to California in mid January and an excellent weekend break in Spain in late February my birding year seemed to be progressing very nicely and just as I had intended. And then as we all know too well the world fell apart and gradually all my remaining plans fell by the wayside. It took me a while to get going again, not helped by the first lockdown followed by a slightly irrational fear of other people which took a long time to subside, but when it became clear that my only birding options in 2020 were going to be in the UK I picked up where I had left off in January and started heading further afield than Wanstead Flats. I started visiting some of the places that I remembered from those early years, exploring my UK birding past; Oare Marshes, Rainham, Dungeness and so on. Family holidays abroad were replaced with trips to Fife to see my parents and I made sure to do a lot of birding whilst up there although I never made it to the Highlands. Colombia was replaced with Shetland, which in turn was replaced with Yorkshire, and before I knew it I was really getting into UK birding once again. And surprise surprise, my year list, ably totted up for me by eBird, had once again passed 200. 

I am not going to rue the period from 2015 as "the lost years" or anything like that, I had an amazing time elsewhere and have memories to last a lifetime. My BOU life list didn't advance much but who cares, I have no desire to be a top lister and never have. Neither though am I ready to say that I'm "back" and that from now on this is all I am going to do. But I have been reminded that good birding, whilst not on my doorstep, is not too far away and that I still really enjoy it. My final 2020 stats are going to be at best middling but they don't really matter. I find that lists at their best are a conduit, a spur to getting off my backside and getting out there. If the perceived thrill of a year or county tick sees me out in the fresh air and scanning big flocks of waders on the Essex mudflats, or walking in solitude through Kentish broadleaf woodlands, then that's a good thing and they are serving a purpose. A shame then that we are now in lockdown again. Unfortunately I had no decent reason to be anywhere other than Wanstead this weekend and consequently it has been rather dull, but in my head I am planning and looking forward.

Friday 13 November 2020

Lack of focus

This is just a short post to convey my current irritation at ageing. My new anxiety is that my eyes take a long time to be able to focus in the morning. I've noticed it recently whilst attempting to vizmig first thing in the morning from my balcony - I just cannot resolve birds with the naked eye for really quite a long time after rising, up to half an hour sometimes. Even getting binoculars in focus is becoming quite hard. Why could this be? Well, what I would definitely not advise is any form of self-diagnosis online as half the websites I checked suggested I was going to die. Instead I am pinning my hopes on being the wrong side of 45 and spending too much time looking at computer screens.

This week my eyes have been particularly unresponsive, and I think there is a direct correlation between this and the rather long shifts I've been putting in at work. All that screen time surely has to be detrimental. And of course a good portion of it is now in a darkened room as the days become ever shorter. One thing to try is turning my lights on earlier perhaps - in the office they were simply on all the time, but here at home I have a tendency to forget. They're "smart" lights though, so perhaps I can code them to come on for sunset - something to look at. Or more likely something for a child to look at - most technology in Chateau L is now handled by a younger workforce. We bought a new television last year and I look at it so infrequently I still struggle to get it on the right mode. Back in the day a TV was just a TV. These days it's connected to all manner of other things and getting it to display the one I want is often beyond me.  

I have a horrible feeling though that the thing I actually need to look at is spectacles. About three years ago I got a free eye test through work and toddled down to an opticians/glasses shop in Canary Wharf. They did various tests and determined that one eye was "0" and the other was "0.25". I cannot now recall exactly what this meant, but they then proceeded to try and sell me a £300 pair of glasses which I am pretty sure did next to nothing as there was not really much to do. I politely declined and strode youthfully out of the shop. I am now wondering if I need to slink decrepitly back in as the curve of decline has probably steepened markedly. 

Ah middle age, how I have looked forward to your arrival. I have all sorts of niggles these days. I cannot remember if I shared my intestinal issues here? Perhaps not, probably for the best. Anyway that's a constant background to my life these days, a dull pain in my lower abdomen (all checked out in a variety of unpleasant ways, not fatal, just annoying). As is an increasing ache in my left hip. Back ache, lots of that, no doubt exacerbated by poor posture and crappy desk chair. Then there's the feet issue, any more than seven miles of walking and agony inflicts the top of my feet and ankles. Oh, and the tennis elbow which until last month had gone away but then I tripped over in Cornwall whilst holding my camera and in effort to preserve it threw that out again. I could go on and on. The hard thing to reconcile is that none of this is going away, and indeed that it is all going to get progressively worse as the years tick by. Fortunately I have a great wine cellar, planned to near perfection to coincide with this new period in my life. Yes, that's the answer, wine. I'll go to the opticians later.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Feeding the birds

At this time of year it is always worth a reminder that birds can struggle to find adequate food during the winter. It is harder to forage for natural sustenance during the colder months and supplemental food can make a vital difference. If you can help out please consider doing so. Birds that you think just eat vegetation and invertebrates will in fact happily eat a wide variety of foodstuffs - sliced white bread, pittas, rice and so on, so have a look around your house and see if there is anything that is unfit for human consumption and that you could simply leave by the side of a local pond. As it's in a good cause even putrid garbage can be dumped in good conscience. Here is a typical Wanstead offering that I spotted last weekend at Alexandra Lake. Mmmmm mmmmm, what self-respecting bird wouldn't want a beak full of that eh? And if by any chance the birds should turn their beaks up at such a generous offering, the local Rats are far less picky and this will help them multiply even more rapidly whilst also contributing to water quality. Win win.

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Wednesday 11 November 2020


I would do pretty much anything to avoid looking at Gulls. Sorry Gull lovers. When news of the return of the Snaresbrook Caspian Gull hit my timeline last weekend I immediately took the piss out of people going to see it. Moths to a flame, or words to that effect.... And then, naturally, I toddled straight over there myself. Before breakfast in fact. Gosh it's a smart bird. Assuming that this is the same bird (which given known Gull site fidelity is overwhelmingly likely) this is its fifth winter locally and it is now a spanking adult in every way. I thought it was last year as well but perhaps I was mistaken.

In truth some Gulls are OK. I quite like Laughing Gulls, Med Gulls and Audouin's Gulls for instance, and Heermann's Gull, well now there's a bird for the ages. Many Gulls are of course not OK. Not at all. Particularly ones I can't identify which is of course most of them. Unfortunately there are tons of these everywhere, particularly on Wanstead Flats in the winter where they loaf around daring me to scope them and work out what they are. This is one of the reasons I don't carry a scope locally, it might lead to things....

I do quite like challenging birding though. Digging out a recalcitrant Warbler, scanning through vast flocks of Sea Duck in the hope of pulling out the one that is slightly different, slightly American for instance. Flocks of Gulls should be no different but for some reason - cowardice most likely - I have never really knuckled down and got to grips with them. Which is odd as I found I could very easily pick the Caspo out from all the Black-headed Gulls on Eagle Pond. 

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Leaf blowers

Until November 5th this used to be a path across Wanstead Flats. On either side is an extremely large colony of ivy mining bees. Somebody decided that this would be the perfect spot from which to launch an amateur fireworks display, which appears to have required digging a hole in which to site one of the pathetic things. Naturally they just walked off once they were done leaving said hole and a load of litter behind. In 2020 this is to be expected.

I was wondering the other day if there was anything I hated more than fireworks. For a long time I couldn't think of anything, dogs and irresponsible dog owners maybe, and then a neighbour's gardener started using a leaf blower. Ah yes, there it is. Leaf blowers. Is there a more wasteful or more fruitlessly egregious and irritating device than a leaf blower? I mean fireworks are right up there, but in the pantheon of pointless human invention I believe leaf blowers occupy a higher spot.

It went on for hours, a whining petrol-driven two stroke, a cheap moped on a stick. People who own these things know that much of the population now works from home right? The guy doing the blowing had pro-grade ear defenders, he wasn't bothered. The rest of the street had to suffer all morning as he moved individual leaves from one part of the garden to another. I'm not sure he ever then swept them up so presumably he'll be back next week for another go. 

Yesterday a different neighbour stepped out into his garden purposefully. You guessed it. Cue several hours of revving and sputtering as he too got to work on the leaves on his lawn and flower beds. He has a leaf vacuum so its a slightly different noisy approach, but then yesterday evening there was some heavy rain.... and so when I looked out this morning his garden was once again covered in leaves. These tree things are such a pain in autumn, honestly. I mean what exactly did he think was going to happen? He's out there again as I type...

My garden also suffers from the curse of trees that selfishly drop leaves all over the ground once a year. I've had a cunning plan though. I am going to wait for the trees to finish dropping their leaves, and then I am going to go outside and sort them out in one go. With a rake. While singing at the top of my voice.

Monday 9 November 2020

Back in the jug agane

Here we go again. As of last Thursday all households in England are once again in lockdown. All sorts of things that we might have wanted to do had we been silly enough are now once again forbidden. How many pubs and restaurants did I visit during the summer months - none. I've barely even went to a shop - the post office a few times perhaps, and I had to buy some oil for the car last month so I went to a Halfords. Raves and concerts? Zero. How many trains, buses and planes did I take? One of each since March, and with a great deal of reticence. So in truth a month of lockdown doesn't really mean much change for me versus last week. My universe was already very small - I commute about eight feet a day from my bed to my computer, thus spending an incredibly high percentage of each day in just a single room. Does it get to me? Of course it does.

It is more the thought of lockdown that I find harder to get to grips with, harder to reconcile myself to. Knowing that next weekend I can't simply do whatever I want and that I'm stuck in an urban semi just like the previous five days. Or at least not without asking myself some searching questions, without carrying out a risk assessment of my plans, and without feeling vaguely guilty about definitions of local and essential. Locking down my household is completely pointless anyway - Mrs L is a teacher and so both she and my two daughters mix with hundreds of other people five days a week. Schools are doing their best in the face of zero government help, but with the best will in the world they cannot hope to restrict the spread of COVID. Mrs L's college has over 2000 pupils that travel in from far and wide. The girls' school has something like 1500. All three of them probably cross paths with the virus several times a day, so me staying in my house doesn't really lower my chances of avoiding it very much. The point is that if I get it without realising, at least I won't be out and about spreading it unwittingly, but as I said my current lifestyle almost totally precludes that anyway.

However this weekend my chances of catching it - indeed the whole household's chances - just went up another notch. My son attends a school in Norfolk. He boards there, but last week there was a positive case in one of his classes and on Friday evening he and a number of other kids were deemed to have had several days of "close contact" with the child in question. So on Saturday I had to drive up to Norfolk (via Essex and Suffolk for some zero-risk essential exercise as it happens) and bring him home for a two week period of self quarantine. I know what you're thinking and I am thinking it too. Rather than have him stay in his room at school which would have been perfectly possible, Public Health England instead determined that he had to come home and potentially pass it on to us. Nearly forty other families are in the same boat. And given what I just said about three people in this household going out to schools each day.... yup, you see the issue. Of course we let both schools know, but the official guidance is that we must continue as normal. If we keep the girls home we and they get into trouble, and if Mrs L doesn't go to work she also gets into trouble, and so this morning off they all went. It's lunacy, but state sponsored. I suppose that overall a nation-wide lockdown should have a broad impact, but for any of the eight million households with school-age children, or anyone working in education, it just feels so pointless. Then again the particularly vulnerable age bracket likely don't live with school age children so that at least makes a bit more sense.

Nonetheless the Government's handling of this pandemic has been shambolic. The scenes this summer of people eating out (literally state sponsored), people out drinking and partying, people shopping, people travelling as normal, people on holiday and so on were simply maddening. Who thought that was a good idea? Our family has not been perfect as that would have been almost impossible, but like many we have been so disciplined for so so long. We are nearly eight months in at this point, and it now appears that all of that hard work, all that thinking differently about everything we do, all of that denial and boredom has just been a waste of time. And the tragedy is that you could see it coming a mile off. We'll carry on as best we can of course, and there is no denying that we have it pretty easy compared to many, but that does not mean we are not fed up. Very fed up and the longer it goes on the worse it gets. What's the way out? When can we go back to living our lives as normal, and I don't mean when the politicians say we can as we know that is deeply flawed.

Common Gull

I went out on Wanstead Flats on Sunday afternoon. Admittedly not the best time to be going out, but I have never seen it busier. It wasn't even like this during the first period of lockdown - when you can't go to the pub, the gym, the café or the high street, it seems you go to Wanstead Park or the Flats. I'll try and get out earlier I think. I took a few bird photos at one of the local ponds but was forced to move on -  Londoners seem unable to measure two metres, and rather than get into a fight I just retreated. Give me the Essex coast any day - I think I saw two people at Abberton on Saturday morning. I remember this from the first time, a huge swell in numbers locally that only declined once lockdown ended. It was springtime then, and thus far more irritating as I genuinely wanted to be out looking for migrants. Birding is obviously far less exciting in November, but what has changed is my level of fatigue. It might be a bit dull out there, but at least it is out there and not in here. 

Tufted Duck

Sunday 8 November 2020

Any functioning adult

Usually I try not to talk about politics here, but I'm going to give myself a pass this time. What a week this has been. I take a close interest in America (and this week how could you not?) and the US Presidential election has been the rollercoaster that everyone predicted. Also completely predictable were the hissy fits emanating from White House as the Toddler in Chief took the US Presidency to fresh lows of dignity and decorum. Change is on the way but America is a mess. The next four years are going to be excruciatingly difficult - Trump and his odious family might be on the way out (and may yet need to be dragged out) but the tweets are not going to stop, the divides are not going to magically disappear, and anyone who thinks that all of a sudden Americans are going to start being civil to each other unfortunately has a lot to learn. However the tone is set from the top, and Joe Biden will set that tone where it needs to be. And ultimately the tone is what I think cost Trump a second term. Many people still believe in his policy agenda and in him being the maverick outsider to shake it all up, but not all of them could stomach the daily hatred, denigration and frankly the juvenile garbage being spouted. It has been exhausting. For four years we had a President who delighted in calling people names. Think about that for a moment. The President of the United States calling people losers and making fun of disabilities. It was extraordinary and yet nobody could do anything to stop it. Four long years. In a few years from now we may look back and ask if this really happened. America should be ashamed that it did. I was listening to CNN live when Van Jones (a political commentator and author) choked up - I am sure many of you have seen the clip, and if you have not I encourage you to watch it. I had a lump in my throat.

So America can now attempt to move forward, to reset established norms of decency, to be the land of hope it has always been. We still have to get through the next two months of course, and Trump and his sycophantic tribe could do a huge amount of damage in that time - the Senate still seems largely in his thrall and he still has the numbers. But come January 20th America starts again and so on that day the UK can proudly reclaim the title of most pathetic political leader in a first world democracy. It seems to me that Trump has enabled us to hold our heads higher than we ought to have done - to somehow still pretend that we had some form of moral high ground. Oh well at least we don't have Trump. I've got bad news for you, populism is alive and well here too, and our next opportunity for a reset is a very long way out. The removal of one of these poisonous men is an important start though, it signals positive change and I only hope that it can be sustained despite my fear that it may only be a temporary blip in a long slide towards frankly unthinkable times. Time will tell but on Friday night this household celebrated, and I've been in a cheerful mood all weekend.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Pre-lockdown Rock Pipit

Whilst I was attempting to seawatch at Lizard Point in Cornwall the sun came out for a brief moment. This coincided with a Rock Pipit leaving the cliff and coming up to feed on the edge of the path right next to me. Seawatching was momentarily abandoned as I tried to get a pleasing shot of it before it hopped back over the precipice. It worked out OK in my humble opinion, and according to my meticulous records these are the first Rock Pipit photos I have taken (or at the very least not deleted instantly) since as long ago as 2012. They are also the last bird photos of anything other than Ducks that I am likely to take for a while given the current circumstances, so fillers of this kind will probably dry up.

So with those out of the way I am currently trying to summon the enthusiasm, ahem, to write something about my feelings on lockdown phase two. With Mrs L a teacher and three children in two different schools, lockdown in Chateau L is perhaps less meaningful than last time, certainly for my chances of contracting this horrible virus, but it comes with the same anxieties and numbing fatigue that I am sure most of us remember experiencing, or perhaps really never stopped experiencing. Mental health is not something grown men talk about very much, but I have to say that as the nights draw in and the temperature drops the thought of what is to come is making me think about it quite a bit. This time around there are no migrants to bring joy, no awakening of the garden to warm the soul, and frankly from my perspective not a lot to look forward to. Then of course there is the imminent US Presidential election and its aftermath, which as a citizen of that country and also as a sentient human being and resident of planet Earth worries me a great deal. And adding to the veritable mountain of fun is the looming deadline of the end of the Brexit transition period. So on that cheery note, adieu.

Sunday 1 November 2020

Raging seas

I've just spent a long weekend on holiday in Cornwall. Famille L rented the entire Lizard YHA for three nights - rather cool to have the run of the place ourselves, but the empty rooms were a reminder that it should be full of people. Full of chatter, of banter, of comparing sections of the coastal path, of wet but happy walkers and visitors winding down after enjoying the incredible scenery. It is good that they can at least generate some income during this period via exclusive lets (six people or fewer from one household) but that's not what the YHA is for and it did feel rather odd. 

The YHA is the lower buildings. A dramatic setting!

We chose it for its location rather than its creature comforts, and it did not disappoint. What a view! What did disappoint was the weather, and a great deal of our trip was a write-off - in particular thoughts of birding and landscape photography largely went out of the window. A seemingly never-ending succession of brutal south-westerlies hammered the Lizard day and night. The peak gusts rarely dropped below 40mph, and overnight on Friday and on Saturday morning were up at 60 plus! The Atlantic airstream also delivered copious amounts of rain, much of it horizontal, and a family walk on Friday before it got really bad saw us return to the YHA resembling drowned rats. Luckily we had packed lots of wine, and so whilst the sea raged with huge rollers coming straight in from Biscay and smashing against the Cornish coast, we were able to pull a cork or two and admire it from above whilst being gently nourished by soft tannins. It is fair to say that the seas were epic, a constantly churning rollercoaster of lumpy green ending in a barrage of white foam that frequently dwarfed the enormous coastal rocks of Lizard Point. When not drinking and looking wistfully out of the window, short breaks in the intensity of the weather allowed me to spend some time seawatching from a sheltered spot either right by the hostel or down near the National Trust building. The very end of October is not an especially productive time, but I was pleased with a Sooty Shearwater on Saturday morning to add to the more expected fare. The real draw was the corvid action - it has been many many years since I heard the "chow!" of a Chough, and they and the Ravens and Jackdaws positively reveled in the conditions, performing delightful and outrageous acrobatics above the cliffs in conditions where I could barely stay upright. Choughs in particular are fantastic birds, and I was delighted to be able to run back and coax at least two of the family out to see them wheeling overhead. 

During a brief break in the weather on Saturday afternoon I had a hopeful sniff around the shelter of Church Cove on the east side of the peninsula but the Setophagas were not playing ball. I have a horrible feeling that in the coming days somebody will dig out something utterly mind-blowing from one the Cornish valleys, but that person will not be me as half term is over and I am back in London. And given recent developments, staying in London.

Anyhow, here are a few snatched photos of the sea which ended up being the focal point of our short wind and water-dominated break. We were very glad we were not on it, and instead could just admire its power from the safety (not comfort!) of the land. I could spend hours looking at the sea, and looking ahead I think a later phase of my life may need to be spent close to it. For now though I can just think about it from time to time, and of the birds who live next to it that are utterly unphased by weather that has softies from London scurrying for shelter after only a few minutes.