Wednesday 24 March 2021

What do birds like to eat?

The birds in Wanstead are so lucky, every day is a fabulous smorgasbord of tasty morsels from which to choose. On Monday morning the spread was particularly diverse. Let me show a sample stretch of pond margin - all of this was probably in area no more than 20m x 20m adjacent to the car park at Alexandra Lake. It is wonderful to be able to connect with nature like this, to be able to drive to the lake and chuck all your food waste out of your car window.

Come on Wanstead residents, sort yourselves out! It is completely disgusting. This is not kindness, it is sloth - it is littering, it is fouling, it is completely unacceptable. The rat population is out of control and the birds are going to get ill. Anyone who does this should get fined.

Lentils. Birds love lentils.

Brown bread. Mmmmmm.

Seed. Better, but still. Oh, and litter.

Chapatis and whole slices of brown bread. Excellent for birds.

More bread....

Rice. Half in the water, half out. Lovely.

Vegetable peelings and rotten bananas. Just the ticket.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Much excitement on Wanstead Flats

Well what a day. Where to start? Seeing as this is a rare post about birds, indeed a post about rare birds, I think a simple list format might work quite well. A short list, but a good one.

1) Wheatear

2) Iceland Gull

Yes you read that right, Iceland Gull. In Wanstead. But let's rewind a little bit to 5.37am. That's when Rob sent his first Whatsapp message to the local group predicting - correctly as it turned out - that today would be the Wheatear arrival day. He duly followed this up by finding one about half an hour later, before I had even got out of bed, thus handing the trophy to Richard who in all likelihood was also still in bed. This prompted me to get up at least, and with some nice low sunlight I headed out with my camera - a rare event these days. Seeing as the Wheatear finding had already been done I walked in the opposite direction to take photos of ducks, something I have been saying I had wanted to do for ages yet never bothered to actually go and do. There I met the 2021 Wheatear Finder in Chief, who initially did not recognise me (grey hat, a rare departure from red) and thought I was just some weirdo with a camera. As opposed to a weirdo with a camera that he knew. I also met Mary - more on her part in this tale later - and after a brief chat got down to photographing some ducks. The lovely light did not last long but I managed a few frames while it held. Despite the presence of a Wheatear it still feels like winter is clinging on, a few Gadwall and Shoveler are still with us.

Next stop the brooms for a date with a small sub-saharan migrant. I connected immediately, but was prevented from getting anywhere near it by a large fence. What a dumb idea that was!! Whether or not this was the same bird that Rob had found earlier is unknown as his had appeared to depart north, but nonetheless there in the middle of our finally fenced off Skylark area was a very smart male Wheatear. Here it is with the finder in the background.

So, a successful morning but this was just the beginning. Mid-morning word got out that Mary had photographed a pure white gull on Alexandra Lake. Yesterday Mary had also found a very strikingly pale Stonechat that at one stage had us all wondering about an eastern bird. Anyhow a photograph was duly circulated and did indeed show a bright white gull. Retina burning bright. So bright in fact that I thought that it could only be a leucistic bird. In other words a bird to ignore. It was Tony who pointed out that it could just be a hugely over-exposed photo (a bit like the breast of the Shoveler above....), that an Iceland Gull had been seen on the river yesterday, and that wouldn't it be a shame if a patch mega was allowed to slip through our fingers..... Wise words. I phoned Nick to make sure he knew, and was slightly relieved to hear that he did know, had checked Alex, and that there was no sign. Phew. A few minutes later it was back to panic stations again though as the bird was back. With Tony's warning in mind I did not hesitate. To my chagrin I drove - I was extremely time limited today. As I commando-rolled out of the car and clapped eyes on the bird my immediate thought was that surely this was an Iceland Gull with lots of biscuity scalloping that had not been visible in the original photo, but Nick and Sean were soon talking me out of it. I put a couple of photos out onto the London group as Gulls are not my strong suit. Neither are Stonechats - yesterday I had done the same thing with Mary's pale bird. Think parades and heavy rain. Anyway this time there was no doubt and and "Mr Gull" himself Rich B responded instantly with a big thumbs up. As he did so the bird got up and flew west, but not before our own Richard - the Golden Chalice holder-elect - had managed to see it. Tim arrived a few minutes later and was not so lucky.

There is a postscript though. Three in fact. Firstly Bob relocated the Iceland Gull on Jubilee a short while later and some more team members were able to get there, including Tim. Secondly I joked that Bob should flush it so I could get it on my house list. Remarkably - apart from the flushing piece - that is exactly what happened. I was preparing lunch downstairs when Bob phoned to say that it had flown west. I stormed upstairs to the turret and was just in time to see it circle high over the Western Flats a few times and then depart our airspace. Iceland Gull on my London garden list! And thirdly I am going to be following Mary around for the rest of the spring.


Monday 22 March 2021


I tried, I really did, but the weather has been unkind to me. I went looking on Sunday as well, and this morning too. Nada. Just the same birds I've been seeing for day after day. The same Shoveler on the same pond, the same pair of Gadwall on the same island, the same Dunnocks singing from the same bushes. There is barely any evidence of migration across the whole of London in fact - a few Sand Martin, a singing Willow Warbler. When things do finally start in earnest it will be a lot of fun. For now dejection, and a fond farewell to the Golden Chalice - this was a Blood Orange Martini.

- 50ml vodka

- 25ml  cointreau or triple sec

- 75ml freshly squeezed blood orange juice (approx 1 orange)

- a splash of grenadine (for colour and sweetness)

- shake all ingredients with ice

- martini glass with a blood orange slice garnish

Two players remain - Richard tomorrow, and then Tony on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. And every single day until one arrives. It's a new rule apparently, fully above board and approved by the committee no less. The Chairman, Mr A Brown, was not able to name any other committee members when asked but I'm sure it is all perfectly legitimate.

Friday 19 March 2021

Big day tomorrow (redux)

As you will likely have surmised from my complete silence, my complete lack of shouting from rooftops, this Tuesday I did not in fact find the year's first local Wheatear. I did go out, and pleasingly I was not alone in my search. For instance as I was heading out I met Bob on his way home. Clearly he had been looking for Wheatears from first light, very decent of him. Later on I met Rob who had carefully scanned a few choice areas with no luck, and then Tim who was diligently checking the new fenced area for Skylarks Wheatears

We all returned empty-handed. Wednesday was one of Tim's days, so I went out to help him look. A lovely north-westerly was blowing :-). Thursday was Bob's first day. By 8am he was looking at Owls in the copses which was a very good sign and I figured my help wasn't necessary. Today was his second day, and to tell the truth I was a little concerned - there had been rain overnight and the sun was out, one of those early short sleeves days. Happily, sorry I mean sadly, by mid morning he was looking at ducks and pulled a lovely wintery Wigeon out of the bag. Another blank day and he will now have to wait until next year for another shot at the title. 

Which brings me to tomorrow. My second day and my last chance to retain the fabulous golden chalice. In truth I am not feeling very positive about it, the weather just feels wrong and the wind does not become favourable until the middle of next week. But some birds just ignore all that, and with every day that passes yet more of them make it to these shores. Could one of them press on against the odds and find itself on Wanstead Flats tomorrow morning? As an incentive we have just installed 249 new Wheatear perches around the rough grassland. And of course tomorrow is Saturday and lots of people will be out looking. All of them will have a single search image in mind.

Sand Martin.

Monday 15 March 2021

Big day tomorrow

Tomorrow is a very important day. It is my first attempt at retaining the Golden Wheatear Chalice. Although other residents of Chateau L would rather the trophy departed these walls, I would very much like it to stay. As with every year the choice of dates is a sweepstake, with names being drawn out of hat. Each person then chooses two dates. This year I came third, so only four of the choicest dates had already been allocated. I went for the 20th, which is a Saturday and which in theory at least should mean more people are out looking, and for the 16th, my winning date last year.

In truth I expect to be completely alone out on Wanstead Flats tomorrow. It is just the way of things - if you really want that trophy you have to put in the work yourself. I have been out of course, including both days at the weekend, but I wasn't really looking, or at least not very hard. I just wanted to have a chat really, see some people who are not my immediate family.

For me last Friday marked a full year of working from home. I last went to my office on 13th March 2020. That's when I last saw any of my colleagues. When it first started I felt I could handle it, that it would be easy. The comfort of home, the ability to potter around, to water plants, to have the windows open and enjoy it. That seems a far cry from the reality of it a year later. There are things I don't miss of course. The Central Line. A shattering commute after a shattering day. The shattering days still happen of course but at least I am already home when they finish. I think the concept of working from home is OK, the work can get done, and whilst it is harder to work collaboratively and we don't experience the same level of innovation and connected thinking that being around each other would promote, the basics are at least covered. The problem is being trapped at home, as for me a year working from home is actually a year stuck at home. I've not been abroad for a year. I've hardly been anywhere other than here, within the four walls of Chateau L. Weekends blend into weekdays, weekdays into weekends. Home life is work life and work life is home life. There is no distinction, no separation, no balance.

Hopefully this will start to change, the signs are there, but I still think there is a long way to go before we can put this behind us and return to any sort of normality. The kids are back at school at least. It is not ideal, and you can only think that the R rate is going to increase again as a result, but they needed to go back to the classroom for their own sanity. And I think that office types like me need that too.

Sunday 14 March 2021

The Green mile

I will freely admit it, I had given up. There was no hope, none. No hope that we would ever get a fence to protect the closest breeding Skylarks to central London. I am not a great campaigner, and I have watched the Skylark numbers gradually dwindle to next to nothing for as long as I have lived here. I have berated dog walkers and been abused by dog walkers. I have I have talked about the birds to people, I have written to the landowner, I have complained, I have blogged. Nothing. But others have more fortitude. Others have succeeded where I could not - mega kudos to Tim and the rest of the WREN Group. And so last week a work party appeared on Wanstead Flats with several hundred wooden posts and a vast reel of latticework fencing.

I had heard that it was happening of course, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality. A green wall of happiness stretching to the far horizon. I exaggerate as usual, but this is a serious bit of fencing and a large amount of the Skylark breeding area has been fully enclosed. The main path remains open, but either side of it in the prime habitat has been fenced off, paths and all. 

As I approached the fabled barrier yesterday I could hear the birds singing. At the fence itself the first bird I laid eyes on was a Skylark, pottering around unconcernedly about six feet away, there is no way I can adequately express my joy. We think there are three singing birds. A far cry from the numbers there once were but they are still here, against all the odds. Whether this number is sufficient to allow a recovery I have no way of knowing, the pessimist in me says not, but there is always hope. Members of the WREN Group are out there every day, voluntarily patrolling the fence, performing outreach with the local community. There are signs, there are leaflets. So far so good.

The barrier is temporary. It will go up each March and be taken down again in August. The posts are permanent.

Most people simply never thought about it and they probably don't think about it now. The new fence is neither here nor there, they just walk where it guides them, nothing has really changed. Some knew of course, said they never saw the signs. Indeed some brazenly said they had seen them and didn't care. Doubtless they don't much like the fence, but equally they cannot ignore it and that is all that matters. Hopefully they will soon forget about it, their dogs will crap alongside it rather then inside it, and the birds will be left in peace.

There is the unpleasant possibly that the more militant amongst them are seriously put out. I would not put it past the sort of people who will smash a local school child's drawing of a skylark to the ground to have a pop at the fence. During my walks around it I have already found two spots in which the guide ropes appear to have been slashed with a sharp implement and no doubt the worst is still to come. Repair parties are standing by with materials. It will be a battle of wills, but the longer the barrier can be fully maintained the better chance the birds will have. 

EDIT - this is now believed to be Rat damage, possibly as a result of our numerous rodent buddies looking for nest-lining material.

Saturday 13 March 2021

Not what I wanted to write about

I had intended to write about Skylarks today. At long last there is temporary fencing up on Wanstead Flats to keep people and dogs out of the breeding area. I have not been outside all week and as I approached it this morning there were Skylarks singing from within it. It cheered me up no end. Skirting around the edge of the new fence I met up with a couple of the local birders, and naturally it was our first topic of conversation. 

But this soon changed, and the Skylarks will need to wait for another day. The headlines at the moment are the kind of headlines nobody wants to see. In London this week a woman was snatched off the street, killed, and her body dumped in a wood in Kent. By a policeman of all people. Sarah Everard was her name. Reading about it yesterday I was shocked to hear that this poor lady was just one of over a hundred killed in the UK this year alone. Not all of last year, this year. A little over two months. I had no idea. Think about that for a moment. Two months. Think also about why none of them made the headlines. I have done no research, frankly I don't want to - it is appalling - but the fact of the matter is that without any fear of being remotely wrong about this almost all of those murders if not every single one will have been committed by a man. 

There has been a lot of response on social media. The one that everyone is talking about, at least in the circles that I inhabit, is from Lucy McRobert, a fellow birder. That's what our conversation turned to on Wanstead Flats this morning. You can read what she wrote here and I strongly suggest that you do, particularly if you are a man. There are a ton of awful real life quotes at the end of the article. Women know all this already, men likely do not. I don't know about you but I know very few female birders, the hobby seems to me to be an almost exclusively male pursuit in this country. So if you take that small subsection and extrapolate across the wider population can you imagine the scale? My own daughters have already been exposed to it from a white van window. One is just 13 years old. It is pervasive. It is dangerous. And sometimes and as we have all just heard about, it ends very badly.

Many will argue that a wolf whistle or an "oi darlin'" is just banter, boys will be boys. But that's a very male view. I suspect few women feel that way about it. Banter, however innocent or cheeky, emboldens. The sad fact of the matter is that from quite a young age women feel instinctively threatened by men. It is ingrained. I have experienced it out birding, likely you have too. You are out and about, likely in a quiet spot as these tend to be birdier than busy thoroughfares, and you cross paths with a woman. Immediately you feel awkward. What do you do? How do you signal that you are not one of those men? I subconsciously look through my bins, trying to clearly demonstrate that I am in this neck of the woods for an entirely innocent purpose, but in truth I don't know whether this is of any comfort at all. What else could I do? What should I do? Smile, wave, try and say hello? That feels creepy. Do nothing? Stand back? Walk the other other way? I am not sure there is anything I can do to provide instant reassurance, my gender is unfortunately immediately threatening and off-putting. That's not my own fault, but it is a cold hard fact, and it stems from years and years of abuse through the generations that means that still, in 2021, women are afraid. Afraid of what type of man I might be.

I have an inkling of what this fear is like. About 12 years ago I was mugged by four guys not far from where I live. A violent assault. The experience affected me greatly. For a while I was on edge whenever I was outside of the house. I avoided certain areas, areas where I felt penned in, and I only went where I had clear sight lines and could see people coming from a long way away. I remember frequently looking over my shoulder when walking in built up areas. When enough time had passed that I had stopped doing that, I remember walking down the pavement on my own street and not hearing a jogger coming up behind me - clearly a kind of Michael Holding. I jumped out of my skin. I was so clearly terrified that the jogger actually stopped and apologised. He didn't have to do that but at the time it was so appreciated. Clearly I have not forgotten about this and I never will, but time has proved to be a great healer and when I go birding I do so now without fear. When you read Lucy's article you realise quite quickly that women are not so lucky. They can never feel completely safe, completely at ease. Because of men. It goes without saying that it shouldn't be like this. And only men can change this. 

There has been a huge outpouring of support for Lucy and others who have spoken up. Pleasingly this has been mostly from men. The fact that me and my mates were talking about it this morning is also a good sign. Support has not been universal however. Enter Ronald. Ronald's response to Lucy's article was distinctly unsupportive. It was boorish and unpleasant. I had not been following the online conversation that had stemmed from the article, but when mention of Ronald appeared my heart sank as I knew exactly which Ronald this would be. And it was. I don't know Ronald, he may not even be real, a construct of a bored person's imagination perhaps, but I've had a run in with 'him' before and he is exactly the type of person you would expect him to be. I feel bad about even giving him airtime. Ronald does not like Europe for instance. He also does not like foreigners. Or immigration. He thinks that there are too many black people on the TV. And if he dislikes multiculturalism he absolutely hates woke lefties, remoaners and snowflakes. And so quelle surprise it also turns out he dislikes women enough to abuse them on social media for penning an uncomfortable truth. Way to go Ron. 

Ronald and his version of masculinity are not a rare phenomenon. He is particularly vile of course, and quite publicly so, but I reckon there are many men with similar views on women. Ronald is a jerk, for many reasons. Don't be like Ronald. And don't accept the Ronalds of this world as harmless idiots. 

Thursday 11 March 2021

A personal Rainham landmark

I started visiting Rainham Marshes regularly in 2007. If I was not wet behind the ears I was almost certainly a little damp. I'd had binoculars for many years, but they had seen little use in the UK as for some reason I believed that birding was something you could only do on holiday. The reasons for this are extremely hazy, possibly they are connected with work and family, or simply age, but for whatever reason something changed and it also so happened that around the same time I caught the listing bug and had started to write things down. I didn't count anything, merely the presence of something was enough to satisfy, and so my first record from Rainham Marshes is a list of 28 species on the 13th January 2007, including such mindbending rarities as Greylag Goose and Mute Swan. I didn't visit again until March but from April onwards my trips there became more regular. Incidentally both of these visits predate my earliest records from Wanstead - although I know for a fact that I had undertaken some preliminary excursions in the Park and on the Flats well before this (we moved here in 2004) I had clearly been insufficiently moved to commit pen to paper.

At around the same time I also discovered the, ahem, joys of twitching, and was beginning to zoom off here there and everywhere. Looking back is rather cringeworthy and not my finest hour - I had two children under the age of four and was soon to add a third. In retrospect perhaps this was a coping mechanism as when the third arrived I probably went birding even more. I feel guilty about this to this day, which is why I have taken on all responsibility for the bins and recycling and always refused to let Mrs L get involved. Errr....

Anyhow, things continued in much the same vein for a further two years, when suddenly but not entirely unexpectedly the global financial crisis came knocking on my door. With a cardboard box. I forget the exact day of the week, but one mid-morning in February I found myself relieved of my building access pass and on the street with a cardboard box under one arm and the world my oyster. Naturally I went birding. 

I didn't immediately visit Rainham - nursery fees were prepaid and so for a short while I went further afield. Real life came back soon enough though, and with the kids at home and a whole host of new responsibilities that I was woefully ill-prepared for I found my horizons drastically reduced. Rainham became a day out. 

The next two years were a delight. I was free of the shackles of work and could devote my time to my family and to my hobbies. Cash was a bit tight, but Mrs L had returned to work full time and we cut back wherever we could. It made little difference to our state of mind so we know we can do it again if we need to. If you are extremely bored you can go and read the archives of this blog - Day Zero is linked to above, but the following two years I think contain the best material I have ever written and likely will ever write. I went to Rainham all the time - planned days out and manic twitches with children and nappies in tow, kept abreast of the latest news by a small band of regulars who had my number on speed dial. The list of good birds is long and distinguished - for anywhere, let alone in the context of London.

By the time I reluctantly returned to work in late 2011 my Rainham list was 184, the final bird being the well-twitched Slaty-backed Gull - amazing to think that a decade has passed without another. My list advanced only slightly faster. In 2012 I added Marsh Warbler and Baillon's Crake, in 2013 Black-necked Grebe, Green-winged Teal and Pec Sand. 2014 and 2015 were blank years, but in 2016 an exhausted Razorbill was found on the pools and Shaun H found a Dusky Warbler at the stone barges.  I followed that up in 2017 with Quail, Black-winged Stilt and Crane, and in 2018 with Marsh Sandpiper and Rough-legged Buzzard. 196 and hard going.

There were some big gaps though, common birds elsewhere but for which Rainham's habitat was not at all conducive. I had to make an effort. I finally connected with a wintering Firecrest in December 2019, and last year I forwent an autumn weekend morning at Wanstead (a risky but ultimately successful strategy) to ensure that I got a Siskin. Another visit in December 2020 added Raven at the umpteenth time of asking for 199. All of which takes me to last Sunday....

At a loose end in lock-down, with a cycle ride to central London the furthest I had travelled for several months, Rich B found a Guillemot on the Thames. He was on the south side at Erith but the bird would almost certainly be visible from the north side. From Rainham. Is Rainham local in these uncertain times? Twenty minutes later as I skipped breezily along the river wall I felt that it probably was, and sure enough under the solid supports of Erith Pier bobbed a smart and rather lost black and white Auk. Hooray. Finally, finally, finally. It has been threatening for a while, and whilst this is of course meaningless in almost every way I cannot help but feel very pleased with myself. 

Monday 1 March 2021

Getting there

Is March officially spring? I think it is. I frequently get confused as my tropical plant hobby suggests to me that November is definitely winter and it is generally in September or October that I lose my nerve and start moving things to the safety of the greenhouses. The birder in me says November is autumn, which also means that this birder is now getting quite excited.

But first a little recap on the hard winter months that have been made so much harder by being stuck in London. The furthest I travelled from home was about 10 miles, a bike ride into the centre of town. I also nipped up to Walthamstow to reacquaint myself with that site but shortly after I did so they banned bird watching. This is patently ridiculous but I'd rather not get into trouble or have arguments. Therefore tropical feeder cams aside my entire birding life has centered around Wanstead and this has been both extremely dull and very pleasing. Extremely dull because I thrive on variety and that has been strikingly absent. Pleasing because against all the odds my pathetic yearlist which is basically 95% the same year on year with only the order varying has, well, seen the order vary. 

85. Yes, 85. Count 'em and weep. That's not only my best ever total by the end of winter, but also one better than my best ever total by the end of March. The magic bird was a Cetti's Warbler in the Old Sewage Works. This is only my fifth ever record here, and it was only as recently as 2016 that the species even appeared on the patch with any regularity. Having bracketed us for years, happily they seem now to have found us, and whilst I would not go as far as to say that they are here to stay the bank of the Roding does seem to be to their liking. I'm quietly hopeful that this is just the beginning. My 85 was of course boosted by the cold snap - Lapwing is not annual and Golden Plover is positively rare, but both fell during the month which also saw Snipe and Woodcock, and memorably my second ever Kittiwake. With the long-staying Med Gull, Goosander and White-fronted Goose all making it into the start of the New Year I think all the patch workers are probably in much the same position as I am in terms of bumper starts.

85 is of course quite meagre in the grand scheme of things. I knew I would not be travelling abroad of course and had instead made some grand plans for winter birding in the UK which I recently [re]discovered could be fantastic. None of these planned excursions happened and if they have not gone already the birds will soon be heading off - they know nothing of lockdown. Incidentally it appears that some birders also know nothing of lockdown. I'm deliberately not participating in online witch hunts, nothing good can come of them, but even without doing so I can't help but hear of people breaking the rules, continuing to bird as and where they like. Given how miserable the last two months have been for so many of us it is maddening but what can you do?

Anyhow on Saturday whilst gleefully getting an earful of Cetti's song I also heard the first Chiffchaff singing. I'd heard hweeting a few days earlier but the warm sunshine had clearly encouraged the bird to go the extra mile. It was a happy reminder that the long winter is behind us, and now - in March - I am most definitely looking forward. And of course what I am most looking forward to, whatever number it may be, is this: