Monday 28 December 2020

2020 - The year in review

What a peculiar year. I've found it hard, harder as it has gone on, and as it draws to a close my feelings are really just ones of relief that it is over tinged with anxiety that 2021 isn't going to be very much different, or at least not initially. I am just happy to have survived it I think. Of course some people have not been so lucky, indeed some - many, far too many - have actually not survived it. Posts like this are usually a celebration of the good things, but 2020 is a year which will principally be remembered for other reasons. Crappy reasons for the most part, and more of them than I can remember for a long while. I doubt many people will ever look back fondly on this year and neither should they, rose-tinting seems inappropriate somehow. I have not lost anyone close but I know people who have, and within the East London birding community there are two terrific guys that I won't be seeing again, Phil Street and Sam Shippey. Such sad news. It is at times like this that you realise how tight knit a group of people birders can be. Although I wasn't close friends with either of them they were both integral to my birding journey in this part of the world. At about the time I really discovered that I liked birding again I used to spend a lot of time at Rainham. Phil was a constant presence there, either on the ramp at the raptor watch point, on the balcony when the wind blew and the visibility dropped, or up on the sea wall. Rain or shine, snow or hail, there he was. During the period that I spent as a heroic stay-at-home domestic goddess and father I saw Phil several times a week as his constant vigil at Rainham with Andy T and others picked up great bird after great bird. Most memorable was the Eider on the river in a blizzard - Andy called me and and I nipped over to find he and Phil camping in the snow on the sea wall, a fire-pit of driftwood roaring, hot tea and food on the go, and a mega-distant mega duck drifting back down towards the QE2 bridge. Foul weather, but Phil was as chirpy as ever. Sam was also a constant fixture, more often on the reserve on the regular guided walks with Howard. I am sure that I went on a few back in the day, but my memories of Sam are really centered around the more social aspects of birding - a trip with him and others to the Scillies, my first visit to the islands in fact. The regular monthly drinks and Christmas parties out in Hornchurch, On the birding front, most memorably the day he found the White-tailed Lapwing on Aveley Pools on one of those aforementioned morning walks. I ended up spending nearly the whole day at Rainham with Sam's unbelievable find, staying as a volunteer until dusk when the last frantic twitcher had arrived in a heap on the boardwalk offering a prayer of thanks. Sam never had a bad word to say about anyone, a true gent from a bygone era and whose like we won't see again. Birding is about more than just birds.

So, onwards. Despite the circumstances there have been some parts of 2020 that are worth remembering.

Best twitch

In 2019 I went on just one twitch so this was an easy one. I've prioritised travel over UK birding for a while now based on my available time, but as we all know 2020 panned out rather differently. I was rebalancing even before the pandemic actually, and my first twitch of the year was for an Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Norfolk in early January as part of a great day of winter birding. A good bird for sure, but not a massively exciting one and also rather a slam dunk. Far more frisson came from the Taiga Flycatcher in South Shields. I doubt I would have driven all that way from London, but I was birding for a few days in Yorkshire based on a good forecast and the journey was a lot shorter. I simply got up a bit earlier and rather than head out to Spurn went the other way. It wasn't a short drive exactly, but neither was it gruelling. I saw the bird quite soon after first light and was back enacting Plan A at Spurn before lunch. I expect this is one of those species we are going to see more and more of as they become more do-able and more people look out for them, but for now at least it is a true monster and Flycatchers are amongst my favourite birds. I was glad I went.

However top billing goes not to this but to the magnificent Pacific Golden Plover on the Northumberland coast in August. This was more diversion than twitch as I was on the way to Scotland with the kids and wanted to break up the journey. We dropped in on the WWBT at Druridge Bay before piling out of the car at Boulmer and walking up the lovely shoreline to a rocky beach to observe this pristine bird en famille. The kids displayed admirable enthusiasm all things considered, and even started arguing about who got the scope to scan some of the other waders. I'd seen PGP before so this was not a UK lifer, but I reckon it was the most enjoyable bit of rarity watching this year.

Best local bird

Despite this slight increase in UK twitching, birding in 2020 has been more or less defined by staying local, and I have spent more time birding a few hundred yards from my front door than I have in years. However most of my birding hasn't even involved going that far. I am of course talking about birding from my garden, or in my case a balcony that overlooks my garden. I've seen (and heard!) some great things this year, things I never expected to see or hear. Common Scoter as they migrated over under cover of darkness in April. Multiple Whimbrel and Common Sandpipers. A Firecrest, a Raven, a Marsh Harrier and perhaps most amazingly of all a Curlew under blue skies. Birds I slept though but that were faithfully recorded by my all-hearing microphone included a Quail and several Oystercatcher. In short the activity over my small suburban garden throughout the year has been a revelation.

However the best local birds from my perspective were the two Common Cranes that flew rapidly over the patch in late September. I recounted that particular tale here, but three months later I am still utterly astonished to see this species on my patch list. As with nearly all the best birds I find here I had no camera with me so you will just have to imagine the moment. And what a moment it was, it will live with me for many years. 

Best bird photo

It has unfortunately been a poor year as far as I am concerned, my equipment has largely sat idle. I may have spent a lot of time looking at birds this year but I have spent little time photographing them. Excuses, excuses. The twin conspirators of lockdown and fear meant I have largely been cooped up at home rather than out and about. Would that I lived far far away from the South of England and did not have contend with the sheer mass of humanity that renders bird photography here mostly unenjoyable. That said there were a few excursions with a camera over the course of the year - a week in Yorkshire allowed me to abuse the shutter a little bit, especially with some friendly Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers, and I spent a few mornings locally with our Stonechats and Little Owls. But the standout moment in this distinctly non-vintage year was in California at La Jolla, which is just north of San Diego. It is a place I had read about over 20 years ago when I first became familiar with the work of Arthur Morris. In all honesty I was a bit overwhelmed, even more so as the great man himself was there - an odd coincidence given he lives in Florida. I didn't stay long, I felt like I was just getting in the way of the established crowd, and in any event I had birding to be getting on with, but the cliffs offered unparalled opportunities to get up close to Brown Pelicans and one of the most stunning Gulls on earth. I am of course talking about Heermann's Gull, and that's the photo I have chosen. Something is clearly happening to me.....

Best trip

Although I have moaned seemingly ad-infinitum about how all my travel plans were laid waste this year, it may surprise some of you to know that 2020 did actually contain a period prior to COVID. So I have travelled abroad this year, albeit right at the very start. In fact it started very well, with the trip to California I just mentioned, and where in addition to seeing some favourite relatives I also managed a whistlestop tour around some of Southern California's best birding habitats. That trip is recounted over the course of a few blog posts that you can find indexed here. I also went to Spain for a long weekend in February that saw me finally catch up with Wallcreeper and a lot more besides. It has just occurred to me that I have yet to write that trip up, something that maybe I will catch up on at some point. I have also completely failed to mention a weekend in New York in March with one of my kids that was absolutely brilliant and even included some birding.

All great, and a reminder of what now seems like a different era, but the best trip was actually in this country. Not as glamourous as New York or California, and no birds as devastatingly epic as
Wallcreeper, but in terms of what I needed at that particular moment it was massively important. The East Riding of Yorkshire. I've failed to write about this too but I may yet catch up - another feature of 2020 has been an absolutely insane amount of work that has snuffed the life from my creativity and killed any desire to spend any more time in front of a computer than I have to. The trip came at a time when I was at a low ebb, when the last of my plans had finally and inevitably collapsed, and I just needed to leave London and go somewhere else. Anywhere. So Bradders, Pete M and I hired a self-catering place at the last minute somewhere near Bridlington and had a week of birding Flamborough and Spurn in wonderful conditions. It was a great tonic, there was even some grown-up conversation from time to time! We had good to excellent fall conditions that provided exciting birding, even if the "big one" never fell during our stay, but we were outside and doing 'normal' in this most abnormal of years. I enjoyed it so much that I extended my time off work by a few days and went back again the following weekend, which is why I was so much closer to South Shields when the "big one" did eventually land.

Flamborough Head

Worst Trip

Japan - cancelled. Argentina (replaced Japan at start of outbreak) - cancelled. Israel - cancelled. Bulgaria - cancelled. Venice - cancelled. Ohio - cancelled. Croatia - cancelled. Finland - cancelled. Colombia - cancelled. Shetland (replaced Colombia) - cancelled. Massachusetts - cancelled. Spain - cancelled. 

If I had to sum up 2020 in a single word it would be "cancelled".

Stupidest Moment

I have been overwhelmingly sensible nearly all year. There has been the odd wobble, but set against nine months of needing to navigate a much changed world I am going to laud my overall consistency here. I counted up and I have left London precisely 15 times since the end of March - Fife twice, Yorkshire twice and Cornwall once on various breaks, a few unavoidable school runs to Norfolk, and then a handful of largely solo birding day trips out to the coast to try and stay sane, and frankly to allow a little bit of enjoyment into my life. I have not been to a pub or a restaurant. I took one flight (late evening Edinburgh to London in mid-summer) and other than that used public transport just once. I can count on one hand the number of shops I've been to - Halford's to buy some oil for the car before our family break in Cornwall, and the Post Office to drop off some parcels a few times. I have been inside an occupied house that is not my own just four times - my parents in Fife twice during the summer, friends for lunch in the summer, and an overnight stay in Essex. Given what a huge change this is from my normal levels of activity I have no idea how I have managed to sustain this for so long, and it is not over yet. But so far I have not caught this bloody thing, nor given it to anyone, and my main risk of the former remains the kids and Mrs L who go to school each day, rather than any cavalier action on my part. I hope I can keep it up - the nightmare scenario is a lockdown that continues into the spring.

And being sensible is not limited to unnecessary trips, tier levels and lockdown. Almost every normal activity I have done this year has been against this single mantra: Stay safe. I mean in theory this should be a normal and unconscious thought process for any sentient being, but you know how real life is. This year it has been highly and weirdly conscious, at the forefront of everything and uppermost in my mind. Gardening, DIY, household chores, even cooking - all of it slow and steady. Avoiding a trip to A&E through some daft misstep has been the name of the game. Shouting at anyone else in the house who even looks like they're about to be stupid. Normal things like kids chasing each other round the house, not wearing shoes or slippers, trying to carry too many glasses to the table in one trip.... You should have seen me supervising the sawing off of the Christmas tree base. People should not have to think like this but there it is, and I have become incredibly boring to the point I loathe myself. Of course it might just be that I'm a middle aged man whose wildest hobby is birdwatching, but - touch wood - it has worked.

Has there been anything good about 2020?

Yes, overwhelmingly yes there has. Time with the family, time together of the sort we have not had for years. Maybe we are an unusual family, but usually we are rushing around all over the place at a hundred miles an hour, all of us living our lives. We do spend time together of course, it is not like we cross like ships in the night, but with five of us here there is always something happening, somebody off doing something. Frequently that is me I suppose, on a trip, out birding. In 2020 there has been nothing happening, or very little, and as a result we have spent more time in each other's company as a complete unit than ever before. Lazy days in the garden. Protracted leisurely lunches, much time around the table. A long list of films watched together. Family walks. Our first UK holiday for years. Our first Christmas at home for years. Each one of us has probably had our moments, but we've done it, we've got through it and we're all still talking. Talking more than ever before actually. The great thing about having older kids is that you can talk, you can discuss a vast range of topics, they're interested in real things (and garbage too) and have proper opinions. And they're funny, inventive, mischievous, sweet, kind and helpful. How they all put up with me I have no idea, but in all honesty this element of 2020 has frequently been a delight.


  1. Happy New Year Jono! Have enjoyed your blog immensely this year. Hope to catch up sometime in 2021, when you're not off to any of your cancelled 2020 destinations around the world