Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Sound recording saves the day

Early one morning about a week or so ago a Plover flew over Alexandra Lake heading east. It did not call, I did not manage to take a photograph, and against the light all I could get was a silhouette. I can only hope it wasn't the Dotterel that appeared later that morning a bit further down the Thames estuary. The balance of probability of course, or Occam's razor as it is otherwise known, is that it was a Golden Plover, even though strange things happen during the autumn. In the event it went down as nothing at all, and it still irritates me even a week later. Any wader here is a rare event, to miss even a Golden Plover is highly annoying.

This morning the same thing nearly happened, except this time we were saved by technology. I had been hanging around at the Vizmig point for nearly two hours and had seen and heard very little. Par for the course. I decided to walk further down the main path to see a Whinchat so that my day list would have at least something half-decent on it. I couldn't find it. Also par for the course. Meandering back up towards where Bob and David were standing, I heard and then saw a distant Plover species flying west over Esso Copse. "Plover!" I shouted, and started running to get a closer view - it was a Golden-sized Plover and that was my first thought, but equally it could have been a Grey Plover and that would be mega around here. The bird continued to fly west, calling all the while, but the less drawn-out calls of these birds can be remarkably similar and I simply don't hear enough of them to instantly and confidently ID them. The guys heard my shout, heard the bird, and started looking upwards, but finding just one bird in large blank sky is not the easiest, and dare I say that Bob and David have more than a few years between them now and that perhaps their best days of visual acuity lie behind them? One day it will happen to me I am sure, and bright young things will do their best to get me onto birds that I simply cannot see.

By now the bird was gone. I tried to get news out in case it could be seen by some of the guys who live just off patch, but to no avail. We turned to discussing what we had just seen/heard. Playing Plover calls was no help at all, in fact it probably hindered our thought process as we found Grey Plover calls that were really quite different from the longer disyllabic Grey Plover calls that you most often hear at the coast. I didn't even have a camera this morning so that wasn't an option. But throughout all this sitting quietly on the top of the VizMig post was Bob's MP3 recorder. Bob's fully-charged, switched-on, free-space-on-the-card and running MP3 recorder! (as if there could be any other type!) And that saved the day, as once he got home it produced this.

I tried valiantly to turn it into a Grey Plover of course, I am getting quite excitable as I near the patch year-list record, but a period of reflection on Xeno-Canto and consulting other people kept me on the straight and narrow. A European Golden Plover - I've circled the calls. In the longer recording you can hear me bellow "Plover!" a couple of time, and Bob, much nearer to the microphone, shout "Yes!". Without Bob's recording I would probably still be trying to string it into something even better. Sorry, I mean I would have regretfully thrown it away like the clear-eyed birder I am, just like I did with the last one. How I wish Bob and his MP3 player had been there ten days ago when a Corn mystery Bunting flew over and called five times.

I am becoming more and more convinced that along with cameras and photographs, MP3 recorders and sound files are an essential part of bird identification. Ironically I have both, yet inexplicably dislike walking about with them, seemingly more so with each passing week. They are generally to found gathering dust near the front door which is very stupid of me. I need to get my act together and start to treat these miraculous items with the same reverence as my binoculars. I did explore wandering around with a microphone running, but a few experimental outings saw me quickly frustrated with the constant sound of my rustling clothing and booming footsteps. But if you're simply standing around sky-watching, putting it on a post is a brilliant idea. As is taking out a camera if you happen to own several.....

Tuesday, 21 September 2021


It occurred to me the other day that barring a single two hour visit to Rainham at the very end of August I had not left Wanstead since I arrived back from Scotland a month ago. I have been so fixated on the patch that I have had no desire to go anywhere else. I've also been so exhausted by a succession of tough weeks at work that come Saturday morning the very last thing I want to do is get up early and go anywhere. But the weekend just past I realised I had been seeing the same birds for nearly three weeks and it was time to do something different.

Enter Suffolk. Or rather, I entered Suffolk. I got up at the usual time I would normally wake up to go out on the patch, had a quick check of Alex to confirm that there were no waders present again (which just like every other morning there were not) and then drove to Colchester. There I met Bradders, and ditching one car we joined forces and drove to the coast at Thorpeness. There I saw a Gannet, several in fact, which was very pleasing as per some shoddy records I once kept I have allegedly never seen a Gannet in Suffolk before. A couple of Arctic Skua also flew past, not a bird I see many of at all, and whilst this was not a classic sea-watch it did allow me to eat the largest pain au chocolat I think I have ever seen whilst contemplating the day ahead.

That day mainly involved lots of waders at Hazlewood Marshes, an ideally-timed visit on the rising tide, which also included a flock of 33 Spoonbill and the best views of Osprey I have ever had anywhere other than Florida. The day also involved a fair amount of piddling about in short sleeves at a number of other sites around Snape and Aldeburgh, seeing nothing particularly outlandish but enjoying just being out and about somewhere different. Of note was the complete lack of any other people (other than Bradders but what can you do?) which is generally quite high on my list of wants from a day of birding. 

At some point during the day the ever-present target of 100 species was discussed. We were surprisingly close having not really even thought about it, as always seems to be the case. I think we may have been in the mid-eighties when it first occurred to us, and after that we started looking that little bit more keenly. It then became rather hard work of course, but we persevered and gradually got into the nineties. 

The lure of the what would be my first Lesser Yellowlegs since 2014 took us away from the coast and to a site near Ipswich, and there we also found LRP and a rogue Mandarin Duck. Mid nineties now, but I had the advantage of that early morning visit to the peerless Alexandra Lake on Wanstead Flats, where I'd clocked Pochard, Tufted Duck and of course our long-staying Black-necked Grebe so I think I needed two more at that point. 

Enter Abberton. This has happened before and will no doubt happen again. If I am out that way it is a banker for quite a few species that a visit to the Suffolk coast are harder to procure - Great White Egret most obviously. There were 23 in the roost when I arrived, quite remarkable when you think about it. Better that this though was a Pectoral Sandpiper in Wigborough Bay - a species I have not seen since 2013. My lack of focus on UK twitching, instead concentrating on patch and foreign birding over the last few years, has meant that I've simply not seen 'padders' like this and Lesserlegs for ages and ages. The last species I saw before heading home was Great Crested Grebe, which to be fair I do see a lot of in London, and that took me to 101, which in my book that it is very good day. Better than any absolute number however was the variety. As I mentioned at the top of this post I have seen very little of any habitat apart from Wanstead Flats for days and days, and I needed a change. I needed water, mud, reeds, sand, vistas and sky. I didn't need football pitches, brooms and inconsequential ponds which never have anything on them.

Happily I saw lots of the former and little of the latter, and that was exactly what I wanted. And equally as importantly I didn't miss anything back home on any of those ponds! Can you imagine? The one day that I leave the patch due to apathy and boredom is the day that something great decides to arrive on our three square metres of mud! Thankfully that didn't happen, and the next day I was back on the patch seeing nothing again. But that was yesterday and today was a different story. But that is also a story for a separate post!

Have a good evening!

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Effort vs Reward

I am a fair weather birder for the most part. A big soft oh it looks nasty out I'll stay at home birder. Trudging around the patch getting soaked through is generally not for me. But when it rains overnight during one of the prime months of the year even my vigourous dislike of getting wet can get put to one side.

Waders. Oh yes. Surely overnight rain would have downed something lovely on the shore Alexandra Lake. I donned my waterproof jacket, pulled on my wellies and set out just after 6am in a light drizzle. Halfway there Simon messaged to say that Alex was a wader-free zone. Curses! Had I received this news a quarter of an hour previously, perhaps with just one welly on, there was a good chance I would have taken it off again and retreated to the kitchen. However I was now out and perhaps there might be a flyover, a good reason to stick it out. My spirits and sense of expectation were soon buoyed by news of a significant movement of Terns up the Thames. Sandwich Terns were going west (ie towards Wanstead, ish) in flocks of up to 20. Common Terns were in flocks of 100. With visibility poor and more rain on the way I felt that there was at least a possibility that some of these birds could get confused and head overland.

I headed to the well-known vizmig spot to keep watch. I was all alone, the usual joggers and dog-walkers had very sensibly decided to postpone. What wusses. The rain started to fall harder and it became quite difficulty to see anything at all, but on the river the Terns kept coming. Gradually my bins filled up with water. So too did my pockets which I had forgotten to zip up. More Terns came up the river. Meanwhile the number of Terns passing over Wanstead remained steady at precisely zero-per-hour. I later learned that they were all just hanging around a bit further up the Thames and showing no inclination at all to go anywhere or do anything. Quite sensible in the conditions really. 

I gave up after two hours and came home to dry off and get ready for work. I poured out my pockets into two satisfying puddles on the tiled floor, and then hung my jacket up to dry where it created a third and much larger puddle. I was soaked through. Nothing ventured nothing gained I suppose, but I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't disappointed. A special effort and for diddly squat. However there is one, err, positive to take from the morning that I would like to share with you. A selfie.

This blog and indeed my entire social media presence sees very few selfies. It's not that I have a face for radio per se, it's just that I don't like narcissism or self-aggrandisation and selfies seem mainly to be all about that. Some people seemingly cannot write anything at all without first plastering a photograph of themselves online - the telling of a successful twitch for example starts off not with a picture of the bird but with a picture of the grinning or pouting self. This is not my style, it's as close to a cardinal rule as exists here, and so in over ten years of this blog I would doubt very much if there have even been ten photos of me. I can't be bothered to check, and neither I suspect will anyone else so I reckon I am on safe ground. But today I wanted to show the rest of the local birders how much fun I was having out on Wanstead Flats without them, and thus succumbed to the temptation... 


Monday, 13 September 2021

Slogging and flogging

There has been a lot of local birding since I last visited this page with words in mind. This is the time of year when Wanstead Flats is at its best. Numerical rewards have been minimal, with a Marsh Harrier courtesy of Nick the sole addition to my year list. Instead there have been spiritual rewards.

I suppose I have been out every third morning on average. A typical route would be from my house out onto the Flats close towards Esso Copse. From there I would skirt the edge of the enclosure and emerge onto the edge of the largest section of football pitches and make a bee line for Alexandra Lake and the possibility of early morning waders. As I say, the rewards have mostly been spiritual. A sense of ease and familiarity with my surroundings as I walk towards the small sandy rises in the distance, the day breaking to the east accompanied perhaps by the shrill tswee-eep of a Yellow Wagtail passing overhead. Usually I am alone, London has not yet fully awoken. When I reach Alex I head for the south-east corner - this is where all the waders hang out, or would hang out. There is a kind of beach, a fragment of muddy shoreline. Almost every wader I have ever seen here has been along this edge - Dunlin, Wood Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit the best of them. This season I've seen just a single Common Sandpiper there, but I am still trying despite the diabolical success rate. It only takes one bird for the enthusiasm to return to stratospheric levels.

I'll usually spend a few minutes scanning the edges - waders can be remarkably small. Recently I've been doing a full circuit of the pond just in case a bird is hiding around the other side. The chance is vanishingly small but it only takes a few minutes, and who knows a rare duck might be around that hidden corner. Back in what we call the pub scrub I'll wander a few paths but at this time of day it is often very quiet here and I don't linger. I want to be back at the VizMig point with its clear and uninterrupted views of the sky, and with the hawthorn pockets and southern edge of Long Wood an easy scan away. Mostly I'm scanning the sky, listening intently for a giveaway call. Last weekend I heard what I very strongly suspect was a Corn Bunting overhead - it called five times as it headed east but remained unseen. I have little experience of the species, but I immediately sought out Buntings to play a few flight calls to myself. Yellowhammer wasn't quite right but Corn Bunting was seemingly perfect. Unfortunately with no recording and no photos I am loathe to do much with it - a rare patch species like this (a tick in fact) requires a higher degree of proof - my peers and I are a pretty unforgiving bunch! A shame to let it go, and there is a persistent and nagging feeling of being convinced I am right. But I'll get over it.

But it is events like this, and the infinitesimally small chance of adding to my local wader tally that keep me coming out, and that tether me to the patch. This weekend I could have driven to East Yorkshire and seen an incredible list of rarities. One of them, Green Warbler, would have been a UK tick and a world lifer. I kind of regret not going - it would now be in the past, the long drive a fading memory, and I could look back at a cracking weekend of twitchery and tons of birds. I would have seen the Albatross again! But I didn't. This wasn't a carbon decision, I just couldn't face it and photos of the twitch on Friday didn't help. Instead a couple of trundles around the patch were sufficient to satisfy my birding desires which when you think about it is good news. And anyway, in a few weeks time I'll be on Shetland, and that is the kind of birding I really enjoy - in a way all the peering at bushes on Wanstead Flats recently has been to whet the appetite for this upcoming trip, to get me in the mood. It's important to be in the right frame of mind for a week of westerlies.....

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Uncharted Waters

I have never had a year like this one on the patch. I thought last year was the year that would trump all others, that would stand the test of time - my highest ever total and so many good birds seen. But as the pandemic has continued I have continued to find comfort in the green space right on my doorstep. For a fair part of the year it has not been either allowed or sensible to go anywhere else, and because I have spent so much time here again I've also seen a lot of birds here again. A correlation that I simply could not have guessed......

I wrote some posts earlier this year about being several months ahead of where I might normally expect to be at a given point in time. I thought that all that would happen would be that the line would level out and trend to more or less the same place I end up every year. Not this time, I am currently in uncharted waters. 

I came home from Scotland on 116, already my third highest annual patch total courtesy of many birds that are not by any means annual. Only the collective spirit from local birders ensures everyone sees everything, and I have really benefited this year with loads of great birds - Kittiwake, Osprey, BN Grebe, Iceland Gull, Nightingale, Quail - it is a strong list from anywhere in the country let alone TfL Zone 3, but there was no way I could predict quite how well the last fortnight has gone. Within a couple of hours of getting home I had added Tree Pipit and Cuckoo, which at the time felt ridiculously jammy but I've since seen the Cuckoo several more times and added quite a few more Pipits. Under a week later Rob found a Garganey on Alex, the fourth patch record, and the next day Nick got me on a flyover Raven, only the second or third we have ever had. A couple of days after that I jammed a Great White Egret flying over during a ten minute visit to Alexandra Lake on the way somewhere else, and when I got back I got in on some Pied Flycatcher action thanks to James, and have now seen half a dozen. The Egret equalled last year's record total, the Flycatcher surpassed it.

Roll forward to this weekend. Yesterday I was seeking out migrants on the Flats and came across a Wryneck, remarkably my fifth on the patch but the first one I've ever found, and then today whilst poking around Long Wood some Curlew flew over. This was a moment that urban patch workers live for and that happens only about every two years. One bird gave a short but instantly recognisable call, and upon turning round I had the quite unbelievable sight of six birds flying low towards me. I'd just separated from a gaggle of Wryneck twitchers and so desperately tried to shout, type a WhatsApp message and take photographs all at the same time, with predictable results. As it turned out they had all heard and seen the birds too, and no doubt the visiting birders were a little perplexed as why all thoughts of Wryneck had been abandoned by the locals who were now excitedly gathered around camera screens and reliving the moment. This is only the third time I've seen Curlew on the patch in over fifteen years of living here - properly mega, and a flock of six is quite simply sensational.


All this means that since the 21st August I've added eight birds to what I thought was an already pretty decent haul, and there are still nearly four months to go. The patch record is apparently Nick's 127, and now on 124 I am mildly hopeful of overhauling it. We shall see. Stacked against me are a trip to Shetland during prime time, and the ever-looming prospect of a more permanent return to Canary Wharf. But not apathy, not this time. I love this place.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Well that was some month - August 2021

And so another month passes without any foreign travel. Checking back at my notes the last time I travelled abroad was March 2020 which seems an inordinately long time ago. This is a first world problem but I miss it terribly - for me at least it severely limits the scope and diversity of my birding and life more generally. When it might return is anyone's guess, not soon would be mine. On the plus side by cutting out flying almost entirely (I've done two domestic sectors to visit my parents in Scotland in the last 18 months) I've drastically lowered my carbon footprint. Better than that though I have rediscovered UK birding which had tended to take a bit of backseat these past years. August 2021 is a case in point, and what's more I'd classify it as almost entirely local birding, or local-ish at any rate. I have not been chasing rarities, hooning up and down the country, Cornwall one day, Merseyside the next. In fact I've not been on a single big twitch at all which I think makes seeing 150 birds in August even more special - there is not a rarity amongst them.

This takes me to eBird, which is how I know I've seen 150 birds in the UK this August. Before eBird I would not have been able to monitor a stat like this. I kept a UK year list and an annual patch list and that was more or less my limit. Now though I can keep as many lists as I want, or rather I can look up just about anything and it will tell me the answer. So it was that I was able to discover that my highest UK month list was 175 in May 2009 when I was momentarily enthused by year listing. I don't plan on doing that again, but I was intrigued to see I'd seen 150+ birds in a month only seven other times since then. Not everyone will agree, and perhaps those who see themselves as more noble and pure birders than I will at this point decry the so-called numbers game. However for me numbers and lists are an integral part of birding. Yes I like the birds, why else would I still be birding after all these years, but part of what makes me get up and go are the lists. Inconsequential lists of numbers play an essential part in getting me out of the house and onto Wanstead Flats or to Rainham Marshes or wherever - they always have and probably always will. And in August 2021 I also spent some time in Fife and the same was true there.

My parents live in Fife. They have not always done so, but for all the time that I would consider myself as having been a birder that's where they have lived. I keep a garden list for their house, a patch list for their village, and in the same way as I keep a London list I also keep a Fife list. For obvious reasons, namely that I am only there for a few days a year, none of these lists are very large. One consequence of the ongoing pandemic and the demise of foreign holidays, as well as its effect on the now eye-watering cost of UK holidays, is that I am spending a lot more time there. It's a lovely part of Scotland and terrific for birding. Most habitats are represented, but for me as a repressed urbanite it is the sea and the miles of coastline that sing their siren song. And as my parents will testify after my recent visit, you cannot hold me back!

Tentsmuir Sands

We all went up in mid-August for a break from London. This is not the ideal time to be birding in Fife it has to be said, but it was good enough for this habitat-starved birder. The sea-watching season is just beginning, there is a bit of passerine migration, and the wader passage is in full swing. I had a brilliant time. The intention was to stay quite close to my parents' village, in birding speak within what you would call a 10MR ( a ten mile radius), but it did not pan out exactly like that for various reasons. For instance I did some Vizmig at North Queensferry, and a seawatching session at Fife Ness, and there were various family excursions over the week to the East Neuk, St Andrews and Tentsmuir, as well a day where we went even further to the Angus Highlands. In fact having looked up my mileage over the week I'm actually a bit disappointed, I drove far more than I had thought. Seawatching at Fife Ness for example is a 50 mile round trip, so perhaps my definition of local should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, almost all my birding was within Fife so it all felt pretty local.  I just need my parents to move to Crail, but then Loch Gelly and Letham Pools would be miles away.


Highlights included finding a Garganey at some local gravel pits - both a Fife and Scotland tick, and picking up some new waders, Ruff and Green Sandpiper. A good sea-watch (pro sea-watchers would call it a terrible sea-watch!) produced a handful of Manx Shearwaters, a single Sooty Shearwater (also a Fife tick), several Arctic and Great Skuas and a good number of Little Gulls. Vizmigging on the apex of North Queensferry was a real eye-opener - more Tree Pipits than I have seen on Wanstead Flats in ten years flew south over the bridges in the space of two hours, and this was a pretty low passage. Interestingly this phenomenon is relatively newly discovered - a birder who moved up to Fife from down south and did not want to schlep all the way across to the East Neul and Fife Ness all the time went searching for good birding locations close to home. He - Graham - discovered that actually North Queensferry was a gem of a site - not only is autumn passage augmented by the funnel effect a la Falsterbo or Gibraltar, but the Forth itself acts as funnel, and seabirds and waders coming up it end up at the crossings and have a decision to make. Do they turn around and head back out, or do they gain height and power across to the west coast? While I was there several Bonxies did exactly that, and the day after a Long-tailed Skua was seen. I saw well over 100 species in the county over the week of which seven were new, a pretty good ratio I thought. The one disappointment was that despite trying very hard I was not able to find a Roseate Tern at any of my regular spots even though there were good numbers being seen, and since arriving back in London Fife Ness has had both Great Shearwater and Fea's Petrel!

Ferry Hill looking east, North Queensferry

I left Wanstead mid-month with 50 species. I returned a week later with 136 - unlike last year we didn't twitch anything on the way home even though the Elegant Tern was crying out for a detour (nasty weather on the west coast). However down in London it was holding off, and within an hour of arriving home I was back on my spiritual home of Wanstead Flats and in the hunt for local year ticks. I found a Tree Pipit almost immediately, followed by jamming the long-staying juvenile Cuckoo. I should mention at this point that having spent pretty much the whole year at home my patch list has been going rather well, but that singular exhilaration is best saved for an entirely separate post as the jam has not been confined to Cuckoos.

Over the next few days I made it a priority to seek out new August birds in Wanstead before work, and carried on my person was a little yellow post-it note with a list of targets that I gradually crossed out over various early morning patch visits. And so by the time the long weekend arrived I was within spitting distance not only of my best August ever (146 in 2020) but also that magical round 150. It was possible locally but could not be done in Wanstead alone - I had to make a trip to Rainham which in theory would have got me over the line in one go but the morning I chose was hard work and I could only add three rather than the required six. Wanstead added two more later that weekend, and rather than wait until the last minute to go and find Tawny Owl in Bush Wood I popped up to Epping Forest for an all-important Mandarin Duck. Good thing I did as I had heard Tawny at the start of the month during a middle-of-the-night comfort break.

Team members walking the Ditch of Despair for no reward

I have never before really thought of August as a really good birding month. Sure there is the sea-watching season, and autumn passage is starting, but in my head I always think of May , September and October as the prime months. Actually though there is a lot of good birding to be had, often quite close to home. I've enjoyed the challenges I've set myself, highly individual and tailored though they are. I won't do this every month of course, it could become boring and procession-like. But they ensured I went out birding when otherwise I might have simply stagnated in the same room I spend nearly all my waking hours in, on for that reason I'm quietly satisfied with my birdy endeavours. I still wish I lived on the coast of course, but when I am in Fife I can pretend I do.

Friday, 27 August 2021

Is this still here?

Blogging urges have been pretty thin on the ground as you can tell. I nearly put pen to paper, or rather fingers to keyboard, a few days ago and then thought why not wait just a few more days and make it a full month. Good to have a break actually, readers of blogs should not underestimate the needless pressure that writers of blogs seem to put themselves under. It was nice to ignore this for a while.

So, what occureth? In truth not a great deal. We are still in 2021 and normal service has not been resumed. I suppose for some people the pandemic and its effect on their lives is not particularly noticeable. For others everything has changed. I sit somewhere in the middle I think. Some elements of my life have changed beyond recognition whilst others have been brought into much sharper relief. Against that is a steady backdrop of good old-fashioned normal - the  seasons in the garden and the greenhouse, the local patch, the family. A lot of what we all need lies very close to home, and that's how to get through it. I could spend time decrying my loss of diversity of experience, but it's better to focus on the positive change.

A few weeks ago I went to the office for the first time in many many months. Well over a year in fact. I left a little later than normal to avoid peak commuter time but on reflection that probably doesn't happen any more. Mask wearing on the tube was at best sporadic, we are either a nation of fools or of arrogant pricks, perhaps both, but I was able to sit some distance from the next passenger and felt fairly comfortable. My desk was exactly as I had left it, as was my filing cabinet. To be clear this is not a good thing - the 15 month old cereal had not aged well and the chili sauce had turned brown. But I was pleased to discover some shoes I had not seen since March 2020, and my office chair is so so nice compared to the one I have at home. In truth it was not the full going back to work experience; occupancy remains extremely low and there was none of the buzz associated with several hundred people. Meeting rooms were empty, corridors stretched into the distance, the coffee points were largely silent. But I did get to see a few colleagues, real 3D people who I used to see daily, and we chatted about our common experiences of the peculiar world in which we now live. Nobody we knew had had it easy, and for many it has been extremely hard. 

Canary Wharf seemed unchanged, surprisingly busy given the paucity of people on my floor, and this put an unexpected spring in my step. I bought a coffee and almost didn't care about the crazy price. I went and had lunch - wow, an £8 sandwich - I had forgotten about those! It is hard to pin down my exact feelings - spending most weeks in Canary Wharf for over two decades has made it easy to loathe. I think I can best describe it as feeling like a grownup again. Of having choices, of being more in control of what I was doing. I am under no illusions of course, life as we knew it remains a distant proposition. If all that changes between now and 2023 is that I have to go back to the daily commute then on balance that will be a further deterioration, but at that moment it felt good. Better than good actually, it was fantastic.

I can't exactly say this was a pleasure, but in a very British way it wasn't too bad

It goes without saying that work continues to suck up far more time than ideally I would like; I am very tired and a long way from retirement. Luckily there has also been a fair amount of birding of the sort that helps to keep me sane. Well, sane-ish. Mostly this has been in Wanstead, where my year list continues to go really rather well - now 120, my second best ever, and with three months to go. This really deserves a post of its own if I can bring myself to write it. I also managed a break in Fife, the COVID era holiday destination of choice, and got stuck into local birding there as well, which as far as I am concerned feels like foreign birding, or at the very least a close substitute. Hugely enjoyable, including wonderful viz-mig and exciting sea-watching. And all of it recorded in eBird, which gives rise to yet more potential blogging as I feel I want to extol its virtues and potential pitfalls yet again. I also feel I need to say something extremely derogatory about snails and slugs. And about dogs. I won't say the wordy juices are yet flowing freely, but there is definitely something afoot.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Creaks and groans

Something I knew would eventually happen just did. I have finally bought a garden kneeling pad. I am 46 years old. 

I associate garden kneeling pads very strongly with my Grandparents in Sussex. Old people in other words. They had an enormous garden in the South Downs, or so it seemed to me then, and endless flower beds that needing weeding. There were two sheds, both immaculate in and out - as an aside the smell of those sheds will live with me forever - and hanging on one of the walls were some old canvas covered pads, along with proper old wooden trugs, cracked gloves and all sorts of tools. I still use some of those tools today. As a child I could never understand why grown ups needed soft pads to weed a flowerbed, I just crawled in or squatted. Time is the ultimate teacher though, and at the weekend before the storm hit I had been using the doormat to kneel on whilst clearing the area around the cucumbers. As the first few spots hit, I stood up to an audible creaking sound, and let out an involuntary groan of the sort that frequently passes my lips these days. Getting out of bed, putting my socks on, picking things up off the floor; all these things tend to nowadays elicit a small groan, sometimes a loud one!

But what really made me throw in the towel when I stood up was that the knees on my pride-and-joy middle-aged pale yellow trousers were soaked through. And as doormats are dirty I didn't just have two wet smudges, I had two wet muddy smudges. Gah! That afternoon I went online to find a mat just like my grandparents had had. I could picture it, but did not know what they were called as they had not been a part of my life for nearly 40 years.

 "Alexa, what do old people use to help do the weeding? 


Anyway, I got there in the end and on Monday morning this arrived. It is extremely plump and comfortable, and, so far, waterproof. I have not yet found the setting that suppresses the user's groans, but then again it was only £13. Perhaps more expensive models exist which have this functionality? And ideally also hydraulics. No doubt I will need something like that in time.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Some momentary and conflicting excitement

All things considered it was a very interesting weekend, certainly rather better than the last few where I have moped at home or worked. Saturday saw an unnecessarily early start for a quick dash up to Norfolk for the Western Sandpiper, and frankly the amazing spectacle of Snettisham RSPB over a high tide which was perfectly timed. Bradders and I met near Barton Mills and dumped one of the cars before continuing up, arriving at around 6am. The star attraction was on view quite quickly but was hard to stay on as it was rather distant and extremely active. The best views ended up being from about half nine onwards and once the water had gone down significantly, and when despite the miles and miles of available mud it decided to feed with Dunlin right on the edge in front of the assembled crowd. Despite how close it was I did not get a photo of it but I did enjoy exceptionally good views. It would always seem to aim for a morsel that was ever so slightly out of reach, which as a dumpy and quite long-legged bird meant it appeared to pitch forward every time as if it had tripped up before recovering and continuing. I last saw one of these nearly ten years ago, also in Norfolk, so this wasn't a new bird or any kind of tick, but it felt like it given the passage of time and was extremely smart in summer plumage.

Although seeing the target bird so well was superb, you cannot go to Snettisham at this time of year and come away un-wowed. The thousands upon thousands of Knot and Dunlin that moved as one between the shore and the mud were a sight to behold, even more so when a flock came off the lagoons and buzzed over the path and out to the Wash. It is a life-affirming experience that everyone should be made to do at least once. Quite extraordinary. Bonuses included an adult Spoonbill and more Little Terns than I have seen for a good while, including a few juveniles. Good also to catch up with a few faces I've not seen for a while having only twitched very sporadically over the last few years. Clearly there is a big scene that I am no longer part of, a group of people who see each other all over the place.

It seemed only natural to drive around the Wash to Frampton RSPB given the abundance of more waders there, including of course the glowing Pacific Golden Plover. I wonder if this is the same individual that I stopped to see in Northumberland on the way up to Fife last year? Frampton is a very fine reserve, seemingly superbly managed, so the supporting cash was truly excellent with Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Little Stint amongst over 20 species of wader. This latter bird was an adult and showed amazingly, easily the best views of the species I have ever had. My rubbish phonescoping attempts don't do it any justice at all but all blog posts are improved by photographs, no matter how naff, so here it is.

A lovely gingery adult Little Stint

Tempting as it was to bird for the rest of the day I had things to do back home so my pressing need to see a Great Tit in Lincolnshire had to go unfulfilled. One day....

On Sunday the heavens opened. I had planned to spend the day gardening, harvesting my first tomatoes, weeding the vegetable beds lest the cucumbers get overwhelmed, and planting up some pots of succulents. As it happened I only got a part of that list done before we had an hour and a half of the most torrential rain I can remember for a very long time. Our street largely disappeared underwater other than the very top of the camber. The water flowed over the curbs and also submerged the pavements, lapping up to the start of my front path. Thankfully this was the highest it got. 

This looked much more impressive as a photo with houses in the background and submerged pavements, but I don't want to post photos showing exactly where I live. Had I stepped off the curb I would have been shin-deep, and I live in a completely flat area.

It was a similar story in the back garden - we have a slight dip in the middle of the grass and this quickly filled up until the central portion looked a bit like Frampton but with fewer waders. The grass will be fine though and it truth it needed the water. What didn't need the moisture was the inside of the house. The volume of rain was such that it somehow managed to find a way through the back door, and for a while we had a stream of water flowing down the inside of the door and pooling quite extensively on the floor. Four or five leaks developed in the ceiling at the same time - not quite the end of days but clearly we are not as waterproof as we had hoped. There was nothing we could do to stop any of it, and so for a while it was mops, cloths and buckets, plus strategically placed watering cans.

Locally it was much worse. Various nearby underpasses flooded, normal roads became unpassable, and some cars were abandoned to the surge. I later learned that we had 45.9mm of rain in about an hour and a half. It doesn't sound much does it, but if that water has nowhere to go... I spent a lot of the evening reading about local experiences and have nothing but sympathy for those who didn't manage to get away with it as we had done, people whose cellars and ground floors are flooded, people with sewage in their front hall. I have no idea how much longer or harder it would have had to rain here before we would have had a genuine problem at Chateau L, but it felt closer than on any previous occasion even despite only being the third wettest 24 hour period recorded by a local meteorologist.

I had not planned to write about this weekend at all. Who wants to know about a few birds I saw and a bit of rain? But there is such an obvious dichotomy between the two days of this weekend, alternatively known as a correlation, that I felt compelled to start typing. On Saturday I had a thoroughly marvellous time gallivanting around East Anglia by car. On Sunday I was defending my house against water and flooding. Well now. I am not suggesting that my 250 mostly shared miles were directly responsible for the rain the next day, but in the last two weeks London has made the news twice (albeit barely) for severe flooding, and the scenes from Germany and China were on another level entirely. Few places are immune, climate change is not a phenomenon confined to the third world any longer, and it seems that not a week goes by without there being some kind of natural disaster where the root cause, ultimately, is human activity. However infinitesimally small, I'm afraid that on Saturday I contributed. On the other hand I had a great time birding two fantastic reserves, and after three weeks of having gone nowhere and done nothing I genuinely needed to leave London. Places like Snettisham are good for the soul. So are Albatrosses. I am hugely conflicted and I don't know what to do.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

The rut of the routine

My life continues to be unimaginably dull. Work, sleep, work, sleep. There is some eating and some drinking, and I continue to raise the excitement bar by taking out the recycling once a week and things like that, but really I am in a kind of Sisyphean nightmare where each week is basically identical and then I just start again. I used to survive this by going away frequently. By always having something on the near term horizon that I could aim at I found that I could get through the relentless weekdays without cracking up; these days it is hard to see the next chink of light.

Living on Plague Island doesn't help. I am double jabbed and I can prove it, but going abroad remains a complete minefield (not that double jabbed means I am invincible, far from it - there are worrying signs that more and more people who have been vaccinated are continuing to catch it - but it does seem to be the way we are headed). I investigated going to Iceland, at the time on the green list, and concluded that it was an exercise in folly. Far too many things to go wrong, most of which would be very complicated and extremely expensive. 

I don't disagree with it, but the need to have a test before returning home seems to completely destroy weekend forays. Longer trips would seem to work, but the possibility of a green country becoming amber at any moment and trapping you there, or at the very least ensuring you have to pay for a vastly inflated short-notice return flight is very off-putting. And of course more and more countries are becoming reluctant to let the stupid inhabitants of this country visit them. I don't blame them one little bit, I would put the UK on every red list there is. Actually given the scenes in central London and Wembley a couple of weeks ago I think I'd ban us even if there wasn't a pandemic.

So Plague Island it is then. I've done domestic breaks before and they have been refreshingly pleasant - there are many lovely places on these islands. Excellent, sounds like a plan. Ah. Have you tried booking a holiday cottage in this country recently? What a joke. Obviously I understand the economics of supply and demand, but the situation is completely ludicrous. I had a brief look on a few popular websites this morning for a week away in late August. Not seriously of course, just for research purposes; I knew what the answer would be. One website returned zero results. Nothing at all for our family of five. Another offered me a semi-detached house in Seasalter, Kent, for £2500. Another offered a week in a bungalow in Monmouth for £3052. I think it had a pond. So actually we are just going to visit family in Fife again, it's by the coast, it's very pretty in a non-London way, and frankly it is something different. As ever movements and timings for a large family are not straightforward, and so last week I booked a domestic flight for Mrs L in order to get her back from Edinburgh a little early for work. This morning it got cancelled. That is just what trying to organise anything at the moment ends up being like.

Some people, lots probably, are no doubt better organised than I am. They did book early or at vast expense, accepting of the risk that their plans could dissolve into an expensive non-event. Some will have been lucky and made it to wherever they had planned to go. And who knows, they may even get back again! Others will be quietly raging that with their break nearly in sight, fate conspired to bring it all crashing down. Or perhaps they had made it there only to have come racing back before a newly announced quarantine deadline? Maybe I am too cautious - I am a seasoned traveller but I am unwilling to adapt to the level of uncertainty that now exists.

My point being that the merest attempt to try and change your routine, to do something different, to get out of your personalised rut, becomes an exercise in frustration to the point where it is far easier to throw in the towel, head back to your favourite boulder and get pushing. Which is basically where I am at, sitting in Wanstead with little enthusiasm for much of anything. I need a project, a fresh approach, something different to get excited about. I just don't know what!

Monday, 12 July 2021

A minor upgrade

As I think I have already mentioned Mary is our new superstar bird finder. Her list of finds is already quite long, very distinguished, and getting better all the time. Today she found an Oystercatcher circling around Alex, site of most of her best birds. Oystercatcher is somewhat of a patch mega by virtue of it being and exceedingly hard and very frustrating bird to catch up with - as far as I am aware this is the first one that anyone has ever clapped eyes on - all other records are heard only but most people haven't even had that pleasure. I have two heard-only records - one nearly a decade ago on a very foggy  November morning on Wanstead Flats when a bird took off from the grass somewhere ahead of me and kleeped its way further into the murk, and another early morning in October 2013 that for the life of me I couldn't pick up. I also have three separate noc-mig records from last year all of which I was asleep for. 

This morning was therefore a pretty unusual event. I had just finished one Zoom meeting and had started another. Multi-tasking as ever I had quickly thrown open the velux windows and was scanning towards the Flats as the meeting got going. People started talking, and at the exact moment my phone rang and for some unknown reason I picked it up. Silly me. It was a crank call about a bank account I don't have, and I forgot to mute my Zoom call whilst answering it so my colleagues got to hear what I thought about it. Very professional. I apologised and muted my microphone. As I did so I realised I was hearing an Oystercatcher calling. Gah!!

Completely flustered by too many things going on I was completely unable to get on it despite it calling probably half a dozen times. My best guess at that point was that it was headed north west over the Park but I just couldn't pick it. I heard later from Mary that it had departed west from Alex at around that time, so perhaps it passed to the south of me when I was scanning east. Deeply frustrating. Nonetheless it is an upgrade to my existing Oystercatcher records from the house, as this time I was awake which means I can count it. Indeed none of my nocmig records are on my garden list as I don't count the ones that the recorder picks up without my knowledge. So a garden tick, albeit one lacking a little in lustre, but who is arguing when it is #98? It is also a patch year tick and means I move on to 116, a total which I have only ever previously reached in September. I quickly let the local Whatsapp group know about the calls - so four concurrent tasks, I had no idea my brain could even do this - and then got on with the meeting which was well underway by this point.

Other than a brief trip to Rainham followed by a short stop at Wanstead Flats about ten days ago I have been pretty slack - no birding at all anywhere. I did contemplate the Elegant Tern in North Wales but concluded I would loathe all that time in the car and that despite the rarity value it did not have the same appeal as the Black-browed Albatross. It occurs to me that if I use the "but will it be as good as the BBA?" argument on myself each time I will probably never go birding again, so I need to snap out of it at some point and just get out there. Mary's Oystercatcher proves that the dead season is over, wader passage is underway, and that now is the time to start putting some hours in!

Different day, different bird, but one of these just flew over my airspace!

Friday, 2 July 2021

There is something I just have to do

There is something I just have to do and have been waiting a very long time to try

These are the words I typed to my boss and my colleagues at 9.30pm on Tuesday evening. Shortly after that I worked out who could cover the meetings I was supposed to be in on Wednesday, sent some more apologies, set my out of office message up and drove to East Yorkshire.

The day had been one of torture. Late on Monday night I had been lying in bed when the news broke of the returning Black-browed Albatross in the Gannetry at Bempton Cliffs. Full of wine and with a full schedule the following day, I sighed at yet another missed opportunity for this dream bird. For as long as I have been a birder I have wanted to see an Albatross. I have never seen one on a seawatch, I have never been ideally positioned when news on one heading down the coast has come out, the Hermaness bird was before my time and the previous Bempton appearances just didn't work. It seemed that this would be one more to simply chalk up and move on. It was still there on the cliff face in the morning, and so my Twitter feed and Birdguides subscription fed me the agonising news of joy and personal triumph all day long. But it returned to the cliff in the early evening....  hmmmm.

Could I? I had a tentative conversation with my boss. No not Mrs L, my boss at work! I mentioned the considerable amount of uncertainty - never great in my line of work, you are either there or you are not, and if you are not generally that requires a fair amount of advance notice. Happily she gave the green light and then I was able to have the hard conversation. Mrs L said I was an idiot, and I explained that seeing an Albatross would make me a very happy idiot. Barring one momentarily distressing update about the bird flying off and out of view, pleasingly soon rectified by an "on the cliff again" message, the evening proceeded exactly as I had hoped and with the bird still in situ at 9pm I decided it was certain to still be sat there on Wednesday morning. Game on. I committed with work and started to gather all the things I would need by the front door. 

I have not done an overnight drive for many years. Fuelled by coffee, the BBC World Service and premature thoughts of a nailed on dream bird it was surprisingly uneventful, and I arrived at the car park at about half two. I was not alone. The car park was a hive of activity, and with more people arriving all the time any thought of a short nap went out the window. At half three the sky started to lighten, and as I could see people heading out to the cliff I felt compelled to join them - the thought of the dim shape of the Albatross in my scope in the half light meant I could not contain myself. Nailed on....

Probably 80+ people at 3.30am

I was not prepared for the scale of the task. I think I had just assumed I would bowl up and somebody would give directions and that would be that. As it happened few if any people present first thing knew where exactly it had been seen the previous evening, and the cliffs are absolutely enormous. And on top of this the weather was filthy with sheets of driving northerly rain - I was soon shivering uncontrollably. Dawn came and went and the swelling crowd began to lose heart. Fewer and fewer people were actively looking and some people started to leave, convinced that the bird had departed in the night. By now we knew exactly where on the cliff it had spent the night, or at least the early part of the night, but now there was no sign. Had it perhaps snuck out to sea unseen when the first people had been scanning other parts of the colony? Conversation changed to how foolish we all were to have thought that this bird was a dead cert. 

By 7am I was done in. I'd taken a day off work, I'd driven through the night, I was tired, cold and miserable with a big dip under my belt. This is why I don't twitch I rued, what an idiot. Never count your Albatrosses.... 

At 7.15 someone called it flying out of Thornwick Bay. I saw it momentarily and lost it immediately - for a gigantic bird it was very hard to stay on at range and in the drizzle, and particularly when it flew against the cliffs. There were some keen eyes present though, and gradually the desperate shouts of "where?!" subsided and those key observers were allowed to keep calling it. Well done Mr Andrews and another person I didn't know who repeatedly picked it up and gave running commentary. 

The next two hours were a blur. I stopped shivering, I stopped feeling tired, and I certainly stopped feeling miserable! At several points the bird flew at eye level along the cliff at point blank range. This was one of the best birds I have ever seen anywhere, and I can honestly say that being on Bempton Cliff on Wednesday morning rises to close to the top of my best birding experiences ever despite the mass of humanity. This bird was pure unadulterated joy. Its flight was effortless, I don't think I ever saw if flap once aloft. When it came towards us it moved astonishingly rapidly, testament to the mastery afforded by those incredible wings. Think where it hatched, where it has travelled, what it has seen. Like many, going to the southern oceans is on my bucket list but who knows if I will ever manage it. The way things are going you wouldn't bet on it ever happening, but I have now seen an Albatross first hand, seen one wheel, skim, fly and soar. My photos are utter garbage and do you know what? I don't care a jot. No photo can in anyway sum up the feelings I felt or invoke the magnitude of the occasion, although some of the "habitat" shots are pretty compelling. What a bird! Simply magnificent. I think I said quite recently that I find it hard to summon up the enthusiasm for twitching, but for a bird like this I can make an exception. It gets a bad rap these days, and probably rightly so for the most part. but this is something I had to do and I don't regret it for one minute I'm afraid. It was amazing. Is that bad?

I spent the rest of the day on cloud nine. I managed a short nap on the side of a reservoir whilst waiting for a pair of Caspian Terns to turn up, but remarkably I never felt shatteringly tired, and there were no dicey driving moments at all. I felt so goo that I continued birding until about 11pm, with the evening spent on the Washes with multiple Barn Owl, Marsh Harrier and Hobby, displaying Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit, and various calling Crakes. I felt like birding the Fens all night, but with Thursday definitely a working day I had to leave. I didn't arrive home until after after midnight, 40 hours on the go, but I felt like I could have driven to Cornwall and back again. A monumental day, they don't come around often but I'll remember this for a very long time indeed.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

The joy of planning

I have no idea if I have ever written about wine on this blog before. Perhaps not actually. I've been known to tweet a photo of a bottle from time to time so that the internet knows I'm living my best life, ditto the odd fruity concoction, but for the most part I think my love of drinking wine largely passes by unremarked. 

Lockdown - especially the winter one - proved to be hard work. There were many things I wanted to do, many things I ought to have done. Most of these remain in the starting blocks For reasons I still don't understand I have been unable to pick up a book and read it from cover to cover for instance. It was not for want to trying and I probably had about eight false starts, the furthest I got on any of them was about page 400 of A Suitable Boy and with another 600 to go I found I could not sustain it. A shame, as it was the ideal opportunity. Ditto drawing, I got as far as ordering some paper and then found I did not have the motivation and have yet to pick up a pencil or even think about doing so. Organising my cellar on the other hand...

Maybe because it involved a spreadsheet? Spreadsheets rule my waking hours. You would think that as I spend all day working with spreadsheets that once tools down it would be the last thing on my mind. You would be wrong, and unfortunately so would I. I think it is about bringing order to chaos, shining a light on a big mess and finding a way to catalogue it and make sense of it. I just love it. Way back in about 2008 I completed a similar stock take and felt very pleased with myself. For a while everything was well laid out, easy to work with. I had a plan and I stuck to it.

Gradually chaos returned. I've still been drinking wine, and buying more to replace it, but it all became slightly haphazard. In retrospect I drank a lot far too early. I bought too much of one thing and not enough of another. I found I had gaps, big gaping holes where wine should have been but was not. In Chateau L wine is almost always secondary to food, that is to say that we work out what we are having for dinner and then hunt around for the perfect wine to accompany it. You cannot simply pick up any old bottle and think it will work, I mean it would be fine, these are micro problems of the first order, but I am very picky in this regard. No, there needs to be thoughtful consideration, and with consideration comes anticipation. 

The trouble with decent wine is that there needs to be forward planning, sometimes many many years of it. A moment of inattention and down the line you will have a gap at some point. That may be three years away, or it may be twenty years away. I appear to have had many moments of inattention. Some are understandable - I went through a somewhat fallow period as far as employment was concerned and buying wine was swiftly deprioritised. Unfortunately that happened to coincide with two fantastic and long-lived vintages, 2009 and 2010, and so ten years later when these started to hit their stride I realised I didn't have any. No problem, I'll just buy some. Ah, the whole world already did that and the prices now are not ones I can easily cope with. And no, I am not nipping down to Tesco to pick up a box of eurozone wine lake, I would rather be teetotal. The same problem exists in 2015 and 2016, I was focused on travelling and forgot to top up. That's not an issue right now, but I can see that gap on several horizons already. And the one you thing you can't plan for is how your tastes and diet may change. In my twenties I just wanted to eat steak and drink long-lived red wine, and that is what I planned for. But now red meats have taken a back seat, and those big bold bottles that pair brilliantly with lamb and so on have little use in vegetarian and Mediterranean cooking. These days I am for the most part after a much lighter duo.

Lockdown this winter proved the perfect time in which to sort all of this out, to take stock of exactly where I stood, and age 46, to work the plan for the second half so to speak. Wines which only peak in 2050 for instance come with a certain amount of risk. Equally, for how much longer I am going to be able to splash out? That too would seem to be finite, so perhaps while the sun is still shining it makes sense to take action. That planning, this delicate balancing act, has consumed lots of my time this year and slowly things are beginning to take shape. The ideal blueprint has been drawn up, the obvious gaps in it have been partially filled, sometimes at over the odds, and where for various reasons there was a glut there has been a rebalancing, which happily has also involved drinking some of it. I still have too much red wine but I can worry about much of that later - indeed it may even turn out to be a decent investment even though that was not the intent.

Most importantly however there is now an immense spreadsheet, ably backed up by a nifty online tool called CellarTracker (the eBird equivalent for wine). I am back to being fully up to date, knowing what is stored where, when it will be at its best and for how long. It is mapped out by appellation, by vintage, and by all sorts of other geeky measures of the sort that would only appeal to a boring wine buff. I know how much storage space I have at home, and how that can be optimally balanced so as to decrease the frequency of food-pairing despair, and when reserves stocks should be transferred to maintain that balance. And so last week I had the pleasure of pressing a few buttons on a website, without any new expense at all a few days later a van arrived with a couple of boxes. By this point you are probably desperately hoping I don't go into what exactly was in those boxes lest further paragraphs ensue. You're right, I shouldn't and I won't. Suffice to say that they contained the joy of planning.

Friday, 25 June 2021


When a Roller was found in Suffolk on Wednesday morning I very nearly dropped everything and just went. I didn't of course, I have a job, responsibilities, and, on that particular day, a wedding anniversary.  Rollers are amazing, divorces less so, and so even once the working day was finished I resisted the urge to head up there. I had the imaginary conversation with myself of course, how it was only an hour away, how I would be back before the special dinner we had planned, how.... Futile, and I knew it! I'd seen one Roller before, a hazy turquoise blob eight years ago. This seemed to be showing spectacularly, and I got to enjoy many many Roller photographs from seemingly every birder in Britain. Oh well.

But it was still there yesterday! Work took rather longer to peter out than I had hoped, but I managed to get away by 7pm and was watching this European gem about an hour later. Insanely good scope views, and at one stage it was perched on wires directly in front of where I was stood. What a brilliant bird, and as it was day two of its stay things were rather more calm and measured than they had been the previous evening.

As I was thinking about heading home it occurred to me that the Prof lived nearby, and now that visiting people is allowed and I am so ancient as to have had both jabs, that's what I did. Earlier this year, or last year, I forget, I just had to wave from the street at the Prof and Mrs Prof in their window. Yesterday I got to go in and drink coffee with them. Wow, 3D human company! When the evening was suitably advanced the Prof took me off to a local Nightjar site, a species I have not seen in the UK for nearly seven years. As it turned I still have not seen a Nightjar since 2014, but in between the ludicrously loud barks of Muntjac Deer we did hear two or three birds churring and gurking.

I got back to London gone midnight. Given I am normally tucked up in bed by 9pm if not earlier this was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as the day before the summer solstice one of our roller blinds (see what I did there?) gave up the ghost and the bedroom is now flooded with light from about 4am onwards. An emergency gaffer tape fix lasted all of two days and although I tried to roll over (ooof!) and go back to sleep I could not and am completely shattered. This will pass, but the memories will remain. A great evening.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

New horizons

I've been to London. Twice. Yes, I know I live in London, but I don't go to London so to speak. I stay here in Wanstead or I bugger off in the opposite direction to London. Seems silly really, a lot of people would give their eye teeth to visit London right now, I am able to swan around it at will yet barely ever do.

My first trip was less glamourous than that second. I went to Stratford Westfield to get my second COVID vaccination. Usually I avoid shopping centres like the plague, so a small irony that I was visiting one in order to avoid a plague. This was originally scheduled for early July but in an effort to try and dodge the worst of what is looking increasingly like a new wave, all second doses for old people like me have been brought in from 12 to eight weeks. Last Monday I cancelled my July appointment, slightly nervous that I might only get offered slots in August, but I need not have worried and I was able to book it up for 48 hours later. That was Wednesday, so I pedalled off mid morning and got it done. It was an impressive set up and I am massively grateful to the veritable army of volunteers that made it operate like clockwork. I think I interacted with something like nine or ten people. One at the head of the main queue, one at the head of the secondary "Clinic A" queue. Somebody welcomed me at the door and directed me to another person who took my temperature remotely and directed me to a colleague who stopped me briefly before pointing me to an empty chair which had just been disinfected by yet another person. Sitting down, a new man came and asked me questions about my reactions to the first vaccine and gave me little slip of paper indicating I was OK. I was then called by a friendly lady medic who took me to a booth, relieved me of my slip of paper and vaccination card, asked me to confirm my date of birth, and bade me sit down next to another medic. This lady started drawing the dose into a syringe, which was then checked by an ubermedic who had just popped in and asked me if I had a problem with needles. Naturally I said I hated them, but I also promised not to faint and fall over in the corner. A tiny prick later and it was done, the first medic gave me my freshly completed vaccination card, and off I went, passing one more person who was assessing recently jabbed people for signs of looking unwell and sitting them down. I suppose I must have looked pretty chipper as I was waved through into the sunlit uplands and was free to continue my day. A spot of shopping perhaps? It was remarkably busy, I think I was just amazed to see so many people in one place. Most of my forays have been deliberately to people-free zones, but oddly I found myself pleased to see all these perfect strangers.

My second trip was far more fun. Mrs L and went off for a dose of culture, ha ha.
As you like it at the Globe on the south bank. Again, many people, but everyone looked happy. Selfie takers outside St Pauls, gaggles of tourists on the wobbly bridge, drinkers on the riverside, and of course the audience themselves. The Globeis an open-air venue, but even so capacity had been reduced by about two thirds and so nobody was sat next to anyone else and we all had to keep masks on. The lover scenes, including the triple marriage at the end, were touchingly touch free, amusingly so in fact, it is a comedy after all. Once again I found myself marveling at how many phrases in common usage today actually originate from the pen of one man writing four hundred years ago. Forever and a day, laid on with a trowel.... We grow up knowing these phrases, using them frequently even, but I bet that almost all of us have no idea where they originate and that we are quoting Shakespeare in our daily lives. With a few exceptions I am pretty much a culture free zone, so it was good to try and absorb a little bit for a change. But most of all I enjoyed being in London, "mixing" with fellow citizens, eating my dinner on the banks of the Thames looking at the city. Afterwards, as we waltzed around the behemoth of St Paul's, I commented to Mrs L that London was actually pretty cool. And it is. 

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

In defiance of June

Looking through my birding records for the month of June does not typically take very long. 

2020: 3 species

2019: 3 species

2018: 2 species

2017: 13 species

2016: 1 species

2015: 1 species

I clearly pulled out all the stops in 2017 with a quite remarkable 13 species, but normally it appears that I just stop birding. I am not sure what happens, it is not as if I suddenly become a keen lepidopterist like many birders, but one thing is for certain: dusty bins. If my last post is any guide I suspect that I swap them for my trowel and hoe and get busy in the garden, and I reckon many birders do the same. Talk to many birders and they will all say the same thing. June is rubbish. Everything has finished travelling north, none of it has yet come back. Nothing is singing particularly overtly, everything is hiding in thick vegetation. Local patch lists, and UK year lists if you are in to that, are stagnant. Nothing to see here. Wader passage starts in mid to late July, see you then. 

June 2021 is different. Before you ask, no I have not driven from London to Somerset to Northumberland to Devon then back to Northumberland and over to Scilly. At that point your hobby is driving, and in any event I have a job and can't dredge up the big twitch zeal very frequently these days anyway. Yes I saw the Mockingbird once I was able to travel, and had a great day out in Devon whilst I was at it, but that scratched that itch for a while and the various goodies on offer over the last couple of weeks have done nothing at all to raise my blood pressure. I have been more than happy with a more relaxed style of birding, simply wandering around with no great expectation of seeing anything spectacular (correct assumption as it happens) but enjoying being outdoors.

I birded Fife quite hard at the start of the month, several hours on most days, so I saw quite a lot that week that I would not normally see. I also took a day off as there was a family outing planned in the Highlands to meet up with my sister and her family. Mrs L and I went overnight the evening before, ie sans enfants, and in addition to a cheeky walk at the Pass of Killiecrankie on the way up which turned up Wood Warbler and Dipper, we spent a morning around Aviemore before a beach afternoon at Loch Morlich. We saw a ton of lovely birds, Slavonian Grebe, Red Grouse, Crested Tit, Pied Flycatcher and so on, but drew a blank on Caper and a few of the other residents. We enjoyed this very naughty bird cleverly defeating a squirrel feeder.

Guilty as charged m'lud

The drive down south missed the Red-necked Stint by a day unfortunately. I could have driven back up on the Sunday, and I would have got it as well, but frankly I'd rather have chewed my own arm off after the eight hour drive on Saturday. I had a couple of mooches around the patch which, Quail aside, has been as dead as the proverbial, but even Wanstead in early summer cannot dampen my current enthusiasm for birds, and so I've found myself doing a spot of birding further afield - Kent, East Sussex, Suffolk and Essex.

Now before you all accuse me of year listing, I'm not. Proper year listing would have meant getting in the car and driving to Northumberland and all those other far-flung places. No thanks. I've been there and done that, about a decade ago. It was great fun at the start, but ultimately exhausting and by about October, perhaps earlier, I'd had enough. But there has been an element of listing, and actually I think this is good thing. Much like cricket stats - the highest second innings fourth wicket partnership at Lords vs New Zealand on a Monday in July when both batsmen's surnames start with the letter C -  birding has an almost inexhaustible supply of lists and sub-lists, and I have been using these to get me out and about when I might otherwise sit on my backside and do nothing. 

So I have now seen a Spotted Flycatcher in Suffolk for example, and Blackcap was a tick in Perthshire, just five miles from my parents' house in west Fife. On one level this is extremely tragic, but I prefer to view it in a more positive light. I can use silly things like this to keep myself motivated, as a way to channel my energy and ensure that I stay connected with birding and don't lose the love for it, rather than get on that regular rollercoaster. The result is that I have seen 138 species this month, rather than almost nothing like I usually do, and I am keener than ever to somehow find a Sparrowhawk locally which simply acts as a convenient excuse to get up and go birding again.

June isn't dull.

Thursday, 10 June 2021


Do you remember that I once dug a big hole in the garden? It nearly killed me, and without assistance from my son I would likely have just lain down in it and requested that someone fill it in. Two years later that pain is forgotten, and my bamboo bed is exploding into life. Here it is September 2019.

The black-stemmed bamboo on the right, Phyllostachys nigra, has done very well since I planted it, probably tripling in size in 2020. But the Phyllostachys vivax next to it has been very stubborn, pushing up just one new and quite feeble culm last year, as if to say "yeah thanks, but could you not have dug a bigger hole?" Fast forward a year, and it is threatening to take over the world - the new culms are unbelievably fat - at least double the diameter of the existing ones, and they are growing at a stellar rate, a noticeable day on day change when I check it every morning. But I may have a problem. In a pot the canes were 'limited' to about eight feet tall, which at the time I thought was quite impressive. However given how fast these new ones are heading skywards I am actually quite worried that I could be looking at rather taller than that that. In these situations Wikipedia is your friend. Or was my friend... Here is what it says:

It is a tall, robust plant growing quickly to 26ft or more, with strong green canes to 12 cm in diameter and topped by drooping leaves. Sources vary as to the maximum size, with one source quoting 69 ft.

Excellent, excellent. 69ft. Double the height of my house. I cannot think what this is going to do for matrimonial harmony, let alone neighbourhood relations. Too late now. Anyway, here is the same bed as of about ten minutes ago. Note that the developing culms are probably bigger now.... As far as I can tell the vivax is pushing seven canes to complement the present nine, and the nigra a massive 19 to add to the 24 it already has. Chris Witty is coming round later to estimate an R number. On the plus side the bamboos show no sign of escaping from their root barrier prison. So far.....