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.....

Monday 7 June 2021

In Fife

Welcome to June, the month with no birds. In June 2020 I recorded 3 birds. This June however that number is very close to 100 and what is more it includes a patch tick! I've been in Scotland, which helps. It has been half term here, and this was our first opportunity to go up and see my family since August last year. When your parents are in their seventies that feels like a very long time indeed. All is well though, they are still with us, fully vaccinated and Covid-free. I am aware that not everyone has been so fortunate, and am grateful. Other than charging around to see as many birds as possible it was extremely relaxing. Relaxing is of course very boring, so let me tell you about the charging around.

It started well, with a Sedge Warbler in their garden on the first afternoon. It turns out that there are millions of Sedge Warblers in Fife, so even though I'd only seen one from their garden previously I think I may simply not have been paying attention. I also confirmed breeding Tree Sparrow, which makes me smile just thinking about it. Down south you need to make a special effort to see a Tree Sparrow, in Fife you just need to make a coffee and sit down somewhere. 

Fife is a great county for birding, it has nearly everything - wetlands, woodlands, some proper hills, rivers, a fabulous coastline and many migrant hotspots. I don't think my parents knew about this when they moved up there all those years ago, but I am very much appreciating it now. As it gets light so early there was plenty of opportunity to squeeze decent amounts of birding in, and I happily birded my way around the county between around 5 and 9am, dodging the early morning haar where I could. All the usual suspects were rounded up, and I also managed to find a few non-obvious county ticks which here in London are very straightforward but in Fife require a bit of work. Spotted Flycatcher for instance is not a common breeder up there, and neither is Yellow Wagtail, but I managed to catch up with both. Ditto Marsh HarrierTreecreeper and Jay, despite my many visits to Fife I had never seen any of these, but by birding a few likely bits of habitat I was able to eke them all out. I think I increased my Fife list by around ten species, the best of which (by far!) was tragically an Egyptian Goose! In fact this was a new bird for Scotland, serious local rarity value, if rather meh from a Londoner's point of view.

The best birds as far as I was concerned were reeling Grasshopper Warbler, an unexpected find at Cameron Reservoir, and then (and I think I can safely say this as it has now gone) a summer plumaged Red-necked Grebe quite close to where my parents live. I was scanning a shallow pool expecting the next bird to be a sleeping Gadwall and there it was. My initial thought was that it couldn't be, and had me scrambling for the Collins app to make sure I wasn't about to make an almighty cock up, but no, my first instinct had been spot on. I let the county recorder know as I was pretty sure it needed to be kept quiet even though breeding was unlikely, and in that way discovered that it had been present for a day or so and had indeed been kept quiet. Had I not stumbled on it myself I would never have known, so this was very pleasing indeed.

Grey Partridge, Kilminning

I am beginning to get much more familiar with the area, and largely I can thank eBird. Before eBird I would not have been able to tell you what my Fife list is nor what I needed - I just went birding. Nothing wrong with that, indeed many may say that this is the only way to approach it. But what it meant was that I went birding to the same places time and again, for instance the excellent Ruddon's Point and Largo Bay. There was (and still is) a huge area of blank canvas that I had never visited and I have found my most recent visits up there much more satisfying, a voyage of discovery in many ways. And many of the new sites I have been to are much closer than the East Neuk, which means more birding and less driving - getting to Fife Ness is a 90 minute round trip for instance, Out Head is over an hour. My birding has felt more natural, more akin to living in an area rather than just being on holiday. I am already planning my next visit, and I am excited. 

But back to that patch tick. We came back home on Saturday, an exceedingly long and tiring drive, enlivened only by a short detour for a singing Great Reed Warbler in Northumberland. Would that we had travelled back on Sunday so as to have been able to drop in on the Red-necked Stint, but you can't win them all. Saturday afternoon was spent unpacking and getting the garden back in shape, and on Sunday rather than drive back to Northumberland I headed out onto the patch for the first time in over a week. Fortunately I hadn't missed anything whilst I was away, but I had noted that Common Tern had been being seen fishing regularly on Heronry. It was my first port of call, and sure enough within twenty minutes a Tern had arrived, caught a few fish and departed westward, presumably to Walthamstow. This was a patch year tick, #114, but it was to get rather better. A few hours later, just as the Sunday barbeque was winding down, the last glass of rosé poured, Nick found a singing Quail on Wanstead Flats.

Last year, on the 16th May, my nocmig recorder picked up the distinctive whip-whip of a Quail sailing serenely over my house. I woke up the next morning none the wiser and have been gripped off ever since. But now oh Zoom H2n, now who's laughing eh? I trotted off to the Skylark area, as did many of Wanstead's keenest, and although it took some time Quail is now safely inked in, and as I type this the following day it is still there, safely behind a fence in the long grass. I do wonder whether without the fence this could have been possible, but I suppose we will never know. Anyhow, this kosher non-nocmig heard by my own ears Quail is my 162nd bird for Wanstead, and the 115th for the year, which harking back to a few blog posts ago means I have now equalled my previous by-end-of-September record. Who says June is rubbish?