Saturday 29 January 2022

Achievements in the Covid Era

When people say that during the pandemic they learned a new language, took up Tai Chi, renovated a small house in the country and so on I tend to be quite skeptical. Did anyone really do that kind of thing? Not in this house, I could barely pick up a book. But not being able to go anywhere did cause many people to reevaluate life a bit, and the narrowing of horizons has in some respects caused a widening of perspective and a newfound appreciation for the basics.

If we were not travelling, not going anywhere, not having our senses piqued by external forces then we were damned sure we were going to raise the enjoyment bar at home. In Chateau L we started with our stomachs. The quality of food round here has gone up significantly, and along with it, wine. The cellar has taken a real beating but so far has sustained us admirably. There is definitely element of "screw it, why the hell not", and then a lovely cork is pulled. Yesterday over dinner - Salmon and leek gratin, with Meursault - we went through all the new veggie recipes we had tried over the last few years and pulled out four of the best ones for this coming week, we're having duck for the fifth night as we're not wholly vegetarian and eat meat or fish once or twice a week still. We score all vegetarian dishes out of five, each diner having a vote, and then round to the nearest integer. There have been some unanimous fives, like cherry tomato and four-cheese tart, or mange tout and pistachio trofie. However as well as reminiscing about the glorious successes we were also reminded of the absolute stinkers. The children tend to pull no punches, zero is far from unknown from these judges, and although the lentil ragu was about nine months ago they apparently still carry the scars. I thought it was quite nice actually, perhaps not one I'd like to have too frequently, but the children have made it very clear that it is not to be cooked again until they have all left home. Obviously it didn't make the cut for next week, but no matter. I am very much looking forward to what did.

Is comfort eating an achievement? Maybe not. I actually think that just getting through this shit show with your sanity vaguely intact is a pretty monumental achievement in itself, but we have really raised the bar when it comes to baking bread (see what I did there?). We have a bread maker still, but it sits idle and unloved on the counter. Now we bake sourdough with a passion, a middle-class pastime if ever there was one, perfect for Wanstead. We have settled into a routine, and without wishing to brag Team L is getting better and better at it. We started tentatively in November, and the results whilst good were not wholly consistent. But now, behold!

Mrs L starts the process off in the morning before she goes to work - mixing flour and water, and preparing the starter. At around lunchtime I come downstairs and engage in some heavy duty mixing, especially when me make a double recipe for the weekend. Throughout the afternoon if I can engineer a break between hour-long conference calls I nip downstairs and knead the mixture for a few minutes. The first couple of times it is very wet and sticky, but by about the third go it is far more like dough. Mrs L does the final stretch when she gets home, and then the now dough is set aside for the following morning. Mrs L rises earlier than the rest of us and her first daily task is to bake the loaf. It takes an hour, by which time the rest of us are stirring, egged on by the smell of fresh bread. Boy oh boy. I cannot begin to tell you what a start to the morning this is. It provides breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and will generally last to the next morning so we don't need to do it every day. Our lives are transformed I tell you, transformed. You just want to get up in the morning and eat bread and drink coffee. With an espresso at my side and a slice in hand, slathered in butter and apricot jam, I look outside at the gathering light and realise despite all the angst that life is a joy, and that we can get through this. All you need is bread.

Monday 24 January 2022

Here's what you could have won

Bird information is beginning to annoy me. I am assaulted on all sides and I am coming to the conclusion that this is not good for me. A big part of the problem is the explosion of social media. First of all there is Twitter. Because I like birds (amongst other things of course) a lot of my timeline is very birdy in nature. I don't follow many out and out twitchers, but I do follow people who do. I don't know how the algorithms that sit behind it work, but I frequently see tweets from other peoples' timelines because people I do follow have 'liked' something, or retweeted it, or maybe something else entirely? Maybe two or three contacts have to scroll past it and then I get it? Anyway cue 2000 blurry photos I did not want to see and did not ask to see of a Belted Kingfisher 235 miles away. And then of course there are people who live in nice places, nicer than here at any rate, and who get to see good birds on a daily basis. Should I just dump them on the basis of unwanted bird envy? Or more accurately, life envy.

Then there is WhatsApp, a really good source of local bird news. I am a member of three groups composed of local birders. One for Wanstead, one for London more generally but with an emphasis on the east of the city, and then another for Fife as part of my Fife Bird Club membership. All of them besiege me with information on an hourly basis. The Fife one does not annoy me, it is what it is and I don't live there, so unless I am actually visiting I usually mute it. What the eyes don't see etc. The one in Wanstead is not so active, or at least not at the moment. There are a few people out and about each day, but there is naff all going on and in one walk around the patch this weekend James saw what everybody else had seen in the space of three weeks. It is the same as every other grey January has ever been, and with few exceptions the same birds are in the same places that they always are. I can cope with that, and after the excesses of last year I am in no mood for twitching patch scarcities anyway. If something truly amazing for the patch turns up the likelihood is I can nip out for it, so I'll keep an eye on this one. 

It is the London bird group that I find the most irritating. Unlike Fife it is "in range", and unlike Wanstead there is quite a lot happening. It also has more than its fair share of people for whom graft and toil in the service of an employer is but a distant memory, and for whom birding every daylight hour is now the priority - there is no delicate way to put it, but I guess they have less time left. No doubt (well, there is always some doubt!) they did their fair share back in the day, but back in the day the grapevine wasn't anywhere like as in your face as it is today. You had to seek news out whereas today it is just omnipresent. So there is a constant stream of winter delights tracking across my screen from people who have plenty of time on their hands, and after the kind of weeks I have had lately it is becoming irksome. By the time the weekend comes around I have lost the will to live, and all I really want to do is nothing.

And then to cap it all, then there is Birdguides, which I choose to pay for. It isn't very much, 15p a day, and when I got it was because I decided that I wanted to know what was happening, what was turning up, rather than in any expectation that I would actually go and see it myself. I was dead right, I have barely used it for twitching purposes, but even the pure informational part of it is now beginning to grate. Which is odd, if as I was not going to go anyway why I am now irritated that I cannot go? 

The overriding feeling I have is one of missing out. Here's what you could have won Jonathan, but unfortunately you are instead going home with nothing. Better luck next time! Of course I have not actually left home, a big part of the problem, but you know what I mean. So the question is whether I would be happier simply not knowing? I could mute all the WhatsApp groups, unfollow everyone on Twitter, and unsubscribe from Birdguides. It would save a bit of cash and a lot of angst, but where would it leave me? Is being annoyed about birds that I can't see better than worrying about not knowing what birds might be missing even if I can't see 99% of them? Questions, questions....

Sunday 23 January 2022

Las Vegas - Trip List

Here is the list of species I saw during the very short trip - 71 species, including two lifers (Pinyon Jay and Sagebrush Sparrow). If I were doing it as a real birding trip I would obviously go for longer, although perhaps not that much longer. Once again I've used the relatively new eBird Trip List functionality, and you can use the link to browse species, see locations, maps, dates, counts and so on.

Las Vegas - December 2021 - Day 2

I was flying back out in the evening, and the hour I had wasted taking tests, scanning codes and filling in forms resulted in being able to check in online and get a boarding pass now I was within 24 hours. Hurrah! I had another breakfast at Denny's and then attended the mythical appointment that I thought would never happen - the mountain of paperwork I had with me wasn't in the event asked for and whilst it wasn't exactly in and out, it was done. A three month nail-biting saga over - celebrations would take place later, for now birding for as long as possible prior to returning to London was the order of the day.

I could have gone back west to try for some more ABA ticks, but that had been rather gruelling and I was in the mood for some relaxed birding. Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, to the east of the city, seemed to offer a wealth of species to bump up my all-important Nevada list. It was wonderful, a series of medium to large lagoons absolutely teeming with bird life. I racked up nearly 50 species over the course of a couple of hours. Ducks galore - Wood Duck, Cinnamon Teal, hundreds of Shoveler and Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Pintail, and single figures of Bufflehead, Ring-necked-Duck, Redhead and Green-winged Teal.

American Avocet

I couldn't begin to count the American Coot there were so many, odd that I could only find three American Moorhens in the whole complex. Pied-billed Grebe were numerous, and one of the lagoons had a single flock of eight Black-necked Grebes. A pair of Northern Harriers were hunting low over one of the furthest lagoons, and a flooded muddy field outside the boundary fence had a number of Killdeer. The rarest birds were probably an unseasonal pair of American Avocets. Meanwhile small numbers of Rough-winged and Barn Swallow flew over the water, and Vermillion Flycatchers, Say's and Black Phoebe were common, but outnumbered hugely by Yellow-rumped Warblers that were simply everywhere.

female Vermillion Flycatcher


It was just really good birding, if rather like shooting fish in a barrel. Birds everywhere. At the front gate they had a number of feeders set up, and sitting on a bench here and waiting afforded good views of Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, Abert's Towhee, and a small groups of Mourning Dove and Gambell's Quail skittered around. I wish I had had all my camera stuff, as it was I had brought just a small lens and ended up not really using it very much as I was just in birding mode.

Mourning Dove

I finished the day just up the road at the Clark County Wetlands Park. I am not sure if I ever found the right area as water here was quite hard to find and the bird count was very low, at least compared to Henderson. Best of the bunch were more hunting Northern Harriers, a Cooper's Hawk and a bird I had really hoped to see - Greater Roadrunner!

Meep meep!

With the light gone I went on a small shopping spree for jeans and so on at one of the massive outlet malls near the airport, packed up, gave the car back, and went into the  terminal as I could not think of anything else to do - the bright lights of The Strip hold no attraction for me whatsoever. Sadly the lounge was closed so I could not shelter from the masses with a gin and tonic and instead had to endure the terminal. Call me a snob but the kind of people who come to Las Vegas for fun are not my kind of people. Finally they called the flight, which was when I discovered that my online boarding card which had got me as far as the gate was no good, and that somebody wanted to see a paper one which I did not have. In order to get one I had to find and show all the documents I had used to get the online one. I mean what is the point, just what is the bloody point? Travelling at the moment is just no fun at all. Anyway, I got on and arrived safely in London the next morning, and my day 2 PCR test was negative, so I also avoided the Omicron wave that was picking up in the US. Looking back I can still scarcely believe it. What had seemed impossible had been achieved, in almost record time and against a backdrop of significantly increased logistical difficulties. 

I saw 71 species, not loads, but also not too bad given the circumstances. With a few more days and some planning, I think a winter trip to Nevada could be really good, much like Arizona. I would have to do some research to see if there are birds in Nevada that are not available further south - possibly there are not, but it could also be combined with a visit to some of the National Parks in Utah and Arizona, as well as the Grand Canyon and Death Valley. America is vast and magnificent. Sitting here now I am imagining what I could do with infinite free time, where I could go, what I could see. I reckon I could make a road trip last months and not get bored. One day perhaps, one day.

Saturday 22 January 2022

Las Vegas - December 2021 - Day 1

I woke up and did a COVID test. People reading this in several years time may wonder what on earth I am on about, but in late 2021 you could not do anything or go anywhere without paying for the privilege of poking a cotton bud up down your throat and up your nose and then taking a pregnancy test. I was not pregnant luckily, and so a short while later I got sent a QR code to prove this, which I then used to populate a mandatory government web-form along with some details about my vaccination status, what plane I was getting on, where I lived, what I was planning to do for the next ten days and various other details. All this took about an hour of prime birding time, but I was finally ready.

A quick look at Lake Las Vegas, right next to the hotel, did not produce much - a handful of Great-tailed Grackles and a few Collared Doves. I did not linger, I was hungry. Enter Denny's, America's diner. Franchises are found across the land, and all serve monumental breakfasts. I find most American fast food grim beyond description, but for Denny's hash browns I will make an exception. Wonderful. I had the All-American Slam - a huge heap of hashbrowns, 2 strips of bacon, two sausages, three poached eggs, toast and coffee. 490 calories minimum, I would not need to eat again until the spring. 

Wild Burro

Sated, I staggered back out to the car and continued west to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park - target Pinyon Jay, a bird I had missed due to roadworks in Colorado. Little did I know at the time that within a fortnight I would have another chance. At this site there are both Woodhouse's Scrub Jay and Pinyon Jay, and it took a few minutes to overcome my initial excitement at having scored so quickly to realise this and start to look and listen more critically. After stalking several birds I managed to find what I was looking for - a generally greyer bird with less contrast on the breast and bluer on the face. A pair of Golden Eagles soared about the crags, Anna's Hummingbirds flitted around, and the scrub was alive with Verdins, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. In my shirt sleeves, under a blue sky and with little now standing between me and the all important appointment, life felt pretty good.

Say's Phoebe

I spent all morning and a little of the afternoon at Spring Mountain trying without success for Juniper Titmouse and Red-naped Sapsucker, but eventually called it quits and moved on to Floyd Lamb Park in north Las Vegas for some different birding - some arid parkland centered on a handful of small lakes. Of note here were marauding flocks of American Coot numbering several hundred and frankly rather terrifying, several Say's Phoebe and a Black Phoebe, as well as Bewick's Wren, Mockingbirds, Cedar Waxwings and three Phainopeplas

The sun sets early in late December and so my final stop of the day, just a short way further north, was at Corn Creek Desert NW. Here a walk around the actual preserve just before sunset added Western Bluebird to the list, but I couldn't find my number one American bogey bird - Sagebrush Sparrow. I cannot count the number of hours I have spent fruitlessly trudging around sagebrush deserts looking for this species. The species keeps low, more often running between bushes than flying. Another hour burned. One day, one day. 

As I left the site I decided to stop in a layby and admire the sunset.....what an inspired decision!

Sagebrush Sparrow!

Friday 21 January 2022

Las Vegas - December 2021 - Logistics and Itinerary

Las Vegas, 19th-20th December 2021

This trip, a family matter, had been in the back of my mind for a number of months but we had all dismissed it as definitely not happening and made alternate plans. All that changed a couple of days before I was due to fly back to the UK from my Midwest trip - it was on, but it had to happen immediately and could not be deferred. One shot, a drop-everything emergency situation. I considered staying in America and getting myself from Illinois to Nevada - the least risky option given the possibility of lockdowns and closed borders, but after a few sleepless nights decided to come back to the UK and work it all out from home. And I had to go to work....

Once back I applied myself to getting through an immense and complicated logistics exercise, the to-do list from hell, not least finding a suitable ticket to the USA (and back again!) at such short notice. I think deep down I like a thorny travel problem but so much was out of my control. However with an eventual window of just four days remarkably everything worked out, and all the various things that could have gone wrong, any single one of which could have prevented the trip, one by one came good. This carried on to the very last minute - sitting on the aircraft at Heathrow a luggage delay took two hours, and just as we were finally ready and about to push back a fuel leak was discovered and everyone had to get off. I had a day in reserve for this kind of eventuality, but still, why now, why on this particular trip?! Thankfully another plane was found and we managed to actually leave on the same day, not a given by any means as the crew were very close to timing out. On the way to that aircraft the terminal transit broke down and I had to race through the foot tunnels to make it. I am not a religious person but I may have offered a silent prayer as we took off. 

I thought about simply skipping this from my list of trip reports, but what birding there was was actually really good, and in normal times this could be a good winter break in the same way that Arizona is for example.

  • As mentioned this was not a birding trip, I had an unmissable appointment on Monday morning, and any free time outside of that was a bonus. I had built in Sunday as a reserve travel day (very nearly needed!) and was able to spend this birding, as well as the rest of Monday after the meeting.
  • Flights: Direct from Heathrow to Las Vegas on a British Airways airmiles ticket (fortunately I have a lot to burn)
  • Covid logistics were a "Proof of Covid recovery" NHS QR code combined with a letter from a recognised health provider confirming I could not reliably take tests and was fit to fly. Otherwise a negative lateral flow would have been sufficient. I brought a pre-departure test from the UK with me in order to be able to fly home, and as the return was within 48 hours took it as soon as I arrived in Las Vegas, my thinking being that even if I had contracted it on the way over it would not yet show up.
  • Car Hire: I hired a VW Taureg from Budget using airmiles as last minute pricing was ridiculous, but this was a not a road-trip and I just needed something to get around. 
  • Accommodation: I stayed as far away from the famous Las Vegas Strip as I  could, at the Las Vegas Lake Westin. First of all gambling and bright lights are really not my thing, but weighing more on my mind was the Covid situation. Omicron had arrived in the US about two weeks earlier and was spreading rapidly.
  • Food: I ate a huge breakfast at Denny's each morning and did not then need to eat for the reat of the day.
  • Literature: eBird, eBird and eBird. There was no time for any planning for this trip, I just went.


Day 0: Landed at 11pm (a mere 5 hours late!) and drove straight to my hotel about 40 minutes east of the airport.
Day 1: After a hearty breakfast crossed the city and birded the hills to the west during the morning and early afternoon, finishing the day in the desert to the north.
Day 2: Morning appointment, afternoon birding along the watershed to the east of the city, evening departure.

Monday 17 January 2022

Winter birding in Fife

I've just been in Scotland for a week - visiting family as I had not managed to get up over Christmas due to an emergency trip away. Mainly I just worked - my chosen career is relentless, particularly so just after the end of a calendar year. But at the weekend I managed to go on a birding tour of Fife which was simply brilliant. Sadly there are almost no photos, the type of birding up there requires a scope which meant that the camera got left behind.

I started at around 9am at Tentsmuir, which is the top eastern corner, so above St Andrews between the Eden and the Tay. My main target were a small group of Snow Buntings that had been on Kinshaldy beach for the past week or so. Kinshaldy beach is very hard to access at the moment - heavy rain has created a long series of lagoons in the dunes that are more or less impassable for a stretch of about a mile, without wellies I had to walk quite a way north to find a point to cross. This may be working to the advantage of the Buntings with fewer people on the beach. That said the the beach is huge, and even with lots of people there would still be plenty of quiet spots in which to remain undisturbed. Maybe as a result it took me ages and ages, five miles of walking in fact, in order to find 15 out of the reported 25+ birds, and the views were frustratingly brief as they flew over my head back in the direction I had just come from. Still, a county tick is a county tick. A Peregrine flew over early doors.

There are some more permanent lagoons at the northern end, not far beyond the current crossing point, and these held two Mergansers, two Long-tailed Ducks, a Greenshank and a Little Egret (still reasonably scarce in Fife). Offshore there were plenty of Common Scoter, single Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver, and a good number of Grey Plover on the surf line. It had been a good morning of birding but I needed to move on as I would lose the light early.

I skipped the Eden Estuary - a shame as I always enjoy it, but I had managed a short visit during the week where I had finally found Brent Goose as well as a big flock of Scaup in the outer estuary - nearly three figures. I've been birding in Fife for years, my parents moved up from England in about 2005, but my prior list-keeping has been somewhat slack. Brent Goose is scarce in Fife but there is often a small wintering flock on the Eden. I vaguely remember seeing them some years ago but I could find no record of having done so in my spreadsheet, and as my historical eBird records were nearly exclusively generated from this it was missing there too. 

My next stop was instead Cameron Reservoir, where the male Smew was easily picked out about half way down - another new county (well, Kingdom) bird. Loads of ducks today, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Teal and Tufted Duck, with ten Whooper Swans in the field next to the entrance track and a further two out on the water. I had no time to walk around the edge, and the views are mostly not very good until you reach the far end so this felt a little bit like tick and run.


From here it is a short run to the coast - via flocks of Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer - and I emerged near Largo and soon found myself at the entrance to Shell Bay. This has been for years one of my favourite spots to go birding in Fife - Ruddon's Point on a good day can be peerless. I hurried past a huge swirling flock of Linnet up on Kincraig Hill (rumoured to also contain Brambling and Twite) and made my way to Largo Bay. The water was like glass, absolutely brilliant for birding, and I had magnificent views of the Eider flock, of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. On the Cocklemill Burn I put up a small flock of Twite with some Reed Buntings, always good to see. I have clear memories of regularly seeing Twite in good numbers on the Fife coastal path, but once again I have no written records. That wrong is now righted. As I made my way back two Ravens cronked overhead and a Mistle Thrush whirred. I nearly trudged up the hill to get a view of the finch flock but decided instead to spend the last hour of the day at Leven where a Black-necked Grebe had been reported earlier - with the water so calm it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I parked in my usual spot near the crappy snack van and scoped the water. There were Long-tailed Duck really close in, what a shame I had no camera, and really good views of Velvet Scoter. The Grebe was a little more distant but I'll take it - the scarcest of all the Grebes in Fife and one I'd never seen up here. Slavs are positively common in comparison. A Black-throated Diver with a couple of Red-throats completed a very successful day.

The birding up in Fife is wonderful, a huge contrast to my local patch in Wanstead at this time of year. Almost everything I saw would be a wonderful bird in London, and I am very pleased that I have the opportunity to visit not just as a one off but on a regular basis. My Fife list is not too far away from 200 these days. Obviously I can't chase rarities as I don't live there, but there are still quite a few common birds I've never seen, or at least not ever noted down. I am suspicious about Crossbill for example, but would be more confident that I've never seen a Barn Owl or a Cuckoo. I've also never spent an autumn in Fife, so I've never seen any of the more regular scarce migrants like RosefinchBarred Warbler or Red-backed Shrike. Maybe that could be a plan for this year?

Of course most of my birding last week was incidental - the odd moment snatched between meetings, gazing out of the window whilst on a conference call. My parents have Bullfinch and Tree Sparrow in their garden. I am sure I have mentioned this before but as a Londoner this is nothing short of sensational. The best bird of the week however was a Jay, a new garden tick for Fife, and only the second or third I've seen in the area. For whatever reason they are far scarcer than they are down here, or at least so it seems, and I only saw my first last year and had to search quite extensively for it. I was just scanning up the hill for Partridges and so on and it flew right across and into the woods towards Star. #53 for my second garden - a long way to go!

Monday 10 January 2022

The Patch

Low-carbon local birding is clearly a growing theme in 2022, and like many others I'll be doing a local patch list this year. This is not as novel for me as it is for some, something like my 15th in succession - all on foot with the odd emergency twitch by bike. From memory the Black-necked Grebe, Iceland Gull, Mandarin Duck and Red-crested Pochard were all arrived at very rapidly on two wheels; the journey back often a bit slower, my fitness is appalling. Look however at this trim young man who last year cycled 3500 miles. That's roughly London to New York. Pete has several years on me, and I...well, I have several kilograms on him. Well done Pete, absolutely amazing. If like me any of you are in need of inspiration please go and read about his adventures.

To my chagrin my 10km never really took off last year, and it is not like I did much else. Partly I suppose this is because I was so intensely wedded to Wanstead, but it was also because I am very lazy. This laziness is only really present prior to any given activity, once I actually start everything is fine, most enjoyable actually, but I find that initial hump so hard. Consequently it is easier to wander across the adjacent and familiar. This apathy hump does not just apply to things that require physical exertion, it's many things, almost everything in fact. Reading a book, mowing the lawn, unstacking the dishwasher, twitching.... yes, even twitching. I 'need' both the Pacific Diver and the Belted Kingfisher that so many people have been to see. I would dearly love to add them both to my UK list, yet I cannot get over that initial hump, which in this case is getting into the front seat of the car and turning it on. The thrill of either of these birds would be amazing, I know I would love it. If there was a way to get there instantly, without a nine hour round trip, I would have gone immediately. As it is I reckon I'm going to miss them. I couldn't drum up the enthusiasm to go see a confiding Little Bunting in Bexley. Hell, I couldn't even be bothered to go to Walthamstow for the Dusky Warbler, a bike ride of perhaps 40 minutes. That's where I'm currently at.

But I have managed a few little excursions in Wanstead, which whilst very same old same old I find does fit with my current life goals. I had a good mooch around Bush Wood which I already recounted, and then one day last week before work, perhaps the only day when it hasn't been constantly raining, I overcame the "oh it's a bit cold" type of crap and got out into the Park just before dawn. It was excellent, nicely cold with half the water bodies almost totally frozen and birds nicely concentrated in open patches and easy to count. Of note was a Water Rail skittling back into the reeds at Shoulder of Mutton as I came around the corner, and then down by the Ornamental Waters a flock of about 40 Siskin came across from one of the islands and landed in a large tree at the bottom of the Glade. As they flew off again they were joined by another 30 that I had not noticed in an adjacent tree, an impressively noisy swirling cloud. 

My fledgling 2022 effort now stands at 54. I know for a fact that there is a Pochard at Jubilee, and the possibility of Linnet there too, but there's that hump again.... I was about ready yesterday and then it rained all day. Again. There is plenty of time ahead of course, but what should be spurring me on is the arrival of the Golden Mallard in the post on Friday. This fine porcelain gem is the major prize in the annual (and original) patch list challenge that I have been participating in for several years now. So not only was 2021 record-breaking in Wanstead, it also gained me custody of the coveted Mallard for the next year with a score of 116.27%. The rules are that the average of your prior three years of patch lists is your new baseline of 100%, thus a good year puts you at a distinct disadvantage for the following the year, and to a lesser extent the next two years as well. As such it is rare that the Golden Mallard spends longer than a year with any one of us. Its last journey to Wanstead was in 2016, and given the number of birds I need to see to even get to 100% this year let alone retain it, it is certain to migrate to pastures new in 2023. For now though it has pride of place on a small table upstairs where it reminds me that I should get out more.

Sunday 9 January 2022

The Midwest - Trip List

Here is the list of species I saw during the trip, partially prepared using the new eBird Trip List functionality which is pretty snazzy. If you click on the link above it will take you right there, and you can browse each species, see locations, maps, dates, counts and so on (though I believe the Owls are suppressed) . It looks like this, a really cool feature.

I saw a total of 120 species, with the bulk of these in Colorado where the weather was warmer. As I moved north the diversity really thinned out. I only spent a few hours in Wyoming which explains why that is so small, and I drove through Nebraska in the dark! I had a day each in South Dakota and North Dakota, with more time in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Here is the list broken out by State. I had in my mind a total of 100 species due to the paucity of birds in northern latitudes, I had not reckoned on the diversity present in Colorado. I saw almost everything I had targeted, the two rare Woodpeckers and the other two Rosy-finches will have to wait for another time. I am thinking that a few days in the Rockies as winter recedes in April could be the answer, but I need to research that - America is big place and there are still many States I have not visited.

Saturday 8 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 12 - Illinois: Montrose Point and home

Chicago Skyline

I stayed the night on the shore of the lake up near Waukegan so I could be near Illinois Beach Nature Preserve. I did a little birding first thing around Zion, and also a few of the North Dunes trails but it was bleak, pretty birdless, and I wasn't really feeling the love for it and decided to head south to Montrose Point, per eBird at least the most birdy (or birded) place in Chicago. This was an area I had earmarked as being good during my research, so I had a reasonably decent idea of how it was laid out.

Would that that it has been as good as I had hoped it was as the reality that morning was rather different. Perhaps I was just tired after such a long trip, ready to go home. It has been said by those reading these trip reports that my 'holidays' don't seem very relaxing, and it is true that I push myself quite hard. Is catching up with me? Whatever it is my species list at Montrose point topped out at just 14 during a four mile walk! The birdiest area was the preserve right on the point, a nice area of scrub and trees - full of House Sparrows, Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees. A Lesser Scaup and a few Goldeneye were in the inner harbour, but overall it just wasn't very birdy. The prior few days had seen upwards of 40 American Robins feeding on fruit trees near the bait shop; today there were just two. Perhaps the weather had caused either a temporary increase in species outrunning bad conditions and they had now all returned to wherever they had come from. 

Northen Cardinal

American Herring Gull

Ring-billed Gull

I packed up at Lincoln Park, the big switch from birding mode to travel mode, always one of my least favourite jobs. I performed a thorough search of my enormous car and laid everything out in the boot, and then gradually broke it all down into my two bags. I use an old Thinktank Airport International bag for my birding gear - this is a roller bag that fits with cabin baggage rules and is just brilliant. For birding trips like this I get rid of all the internal dividers to leave myself with one big space. The camera and lens goes down one side, my tripod (a heavy duty Gitzo travel version) down the other, and my scope somehow fits in between in one particular orientation. This leaves a few gaps that can be used for teleconverters, the tripod ball head, camera strap and various other bits that get wrapped in my gloves and my red hat and stuffed in. I then fill the gaps with underwear and socks which is always appreciated by the TSA. I have no idea how much the whole thing weighs, but as it looks normal-sized I never have a problem, and it's not like I fly on budget draconian carriers is it? My other bag is a small Thinktank shoulder bag. This takes birding literature, binoculars, travel paperwork (mountains of it these days), my wash stuff, my headphones and Snuffi. I also tend to get out of birding gear and into travel clothes at this point. I've no idea if this is frowned upon by Chicago city ordinances, but it was very cold and I was very quick! 

At O'Hare the Avis people commented on how filthy the car was, I blamed Minnesota, and that was that. Naturally I had to unpack my entire bag of optics to get through security and repeat the Lincoln Park process at the other side, but I was soon on my way - JFK first and then London, all my paperwork - QR codes, certificates and test results accepted without question. At some point between these airports my other suitcase with my wellies and clothes in it disappeared, but I was reunited with it in Wanstead a few days later; not that you get to choose but this is actually very convenient and made my tube journey home much easier.

So there we go, my first really big adventure since the pandemic began, it had been brilliant, uplifting, and on a personal level very important.

Friday 7 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 11 - Wisconsin to Illinois

An annoying morning beckoned - the new need to get a negative Covid test before being allowed to board the plane home, something had hadn't been a requirement when I left. I did not fancy a $125 test at O'Hare, nor leaving it until the last minute, so resolved to try and find one locally. CVS and Walgreen both do free tests, at least for Americans, so I had booked one of those for mid-morning a couple days before which meant I needed to stay local to Racine and Kenosha for a bit. 

I started off with a bit of sea-watching (well, lake-watching) from Winthrop Harbour which is right on the State line. I had avoided the worst of the storm by coming this far south, but it was still very windy and light snow was falling, so I sheltered with some local birders behind the yacht club. This was a mild day as far as they were concerned, but the weather elsewhere had been anything but. The same weather pattern whose cold side I had taken flight from had brought some very destructive tornados to Kentucky and other States on its southern edge, with in one case almost a whole town flattened - the news channels had blanket coverage and it looked awful. Some broadcasters were musing that climate change might be making these events more severe...

A flight of Scaup went south and a number of Red-throated Divers were just outside the breakwater, whilst in the inner harbour a Ring-necked Duck accompanied various Mergansers and Buffleheads. The passage Scoters I was hoping did not materialise, but by this stage of the trip, and with my plans ripped up, my quest for new ABA birds was basically over and I was more concentrating on my overall trip list. 

I didn't take any photos on Day 11, so here is Wood Duck from Fort Collins CO that I have been holding back.

I had a PCR test done at CVS, but was then told that it was unlikely I would get a result before I flew. Excellent. The next two hours were spent driving around Kenosha trying to find a rapid test. I visited one hospital who sent me to another hospital, who contrary to what the first hospital (same healthcare chain) has said did not offer tests, and eventually ended up at a portacabin in dingy carpark near Target. There a dude gave me test kit which I performed in my car and gave back to him. It would be about an hour he said, and sure enough when I was birding some lakes in northern Illinois later on I got the all important email confirming I was clear and could fly. The whole process had eaten up three hours of prime birding time, so in that sense a better option would have been to suck it up and fork out at the airport, but I just massively object to all these private companies preying on travellers and out of principle preferred to waste my time. I was already paying some Tory crony £60 for a Day 2 PCR test when I got home, paying another bunch of pirates even more for a simple lateral flow test wasn't happening.

I managed to get to Waukegan beach by 12.30pm. Unfortunately the vagrant Elaenia that I had half-pencilled in had departed ahead of the weather (or been killed by it), but I had a good time on the beach looking at more distantly passing wildfowl, and while I was there a total of 169 Sandhill Cranes came in off and headed inland in four flocks. 

Druce Lake had three species of Swan - 19 Trumpeter, and singles of Mute and Bewick's. This latter was actually a new American bird and one that I thought I had missed at this stage, so a final hurrah. Lots of ducks here too, and more generally on all the lakes in this largely suburban area, and all new for my fledgling Illinois list that eBird so helpfully maintained for me. However with most of the morning dedicated to admin I ran out of light quite quickly - birding is over at 3.30pm in mid December. Final day tomorrow - my flight was at 3.50pm which allowed the whole morning birding

Thursday 6 January 2022

Streets ahead

I've just done my annual New Year turnover. So I have closed down the lists from the prior year, tidied up various blogs, created new pages for 2022, started new tabs on spreadsheets, all that fun stuff. It is a lot easier than it was now that I use eBird for the listing component rather than a massively unwieldy excel spreadsheet, but there was still a lot to do. One of the final things was to enter in the final number on the following graph, which shows all my patch year lists as they progress month by month. I've published this before at various points, but here it is completed. As you can see 2021 was streets ahead of any other year at almost all points, Only in January was I slightly behind, but from then on I maintained a steady gap which never really narrowed. In second place is 2020, the first year of lockdown, which I never thought I would come close to again, and in third place the ancient history which is 2013. 

Right now my January 2022 effort is right at the bottom of the left hand side, barely peeking above the X axis at this point. I'll add it soon, but at this stage I expect that I will end up charting a distinctly middling line that wends it way through the middle of the pack. Let's hope so anyway.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 10 - Wisconsin - Buena Vista Grasslands to Lake Michigan

I didn't strictly need to go to the chicken place whose name I could never remember as I'd seen Greater Prairie Chicken in the Pierre Grasslands in South Dakota. But with my final days somewhat in disarray I decided to go anyway - the spot is called the Buena Vista Prairie Chicken Meadow. It was a convenient place to stop for the night, being about three and a half hours from Minneapolis and then two hours to the shore of Lake Michigan. I could bird the area first thing in the morning, and then race ahead of the arriving storm to the lake. Now Friday morning, this was due to arrive in the area in a few hours time, and would extend in a huge arc from Duluth in the north to Green Bay in the south, and perhaps lower.

Trumpeter Swan

Greater Prairie Chicken

By 8am I was driving around the grasslands, having jammed a pair of Trumpeter Swans en route. It did not take me long to find some Prairie Chickens - 23 birds in a series of tall trees. As with Sax Zim in Minnesota and Kelly's Slough in North Dakota the area was very large, but that also meant I could bird from the comfort of the car with the scope set up on the passenger seat. Other birds here included Bald Eagles, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a nice flock of American Tree Sparrows.

Good birding, and my Wisconsin list was growing all the time, but I noted the wind beginning to get up and a drop in temperature, the first signs of the incoming weather, and decided to made tracks. It was about a two hour drive and I made the lake shore at a place called Manitowoc by 11am and started off by birding the slough there. The first flakes began to fall, but really it was the wind that started to make life difficult. My first Lesser Scaup of the trip and a variety of other ducks were present along with ubiquitous Canada Geese. Birding around the impoundment near the harbour added my first Great Black-backed Gull, a Long-tailed Duck, Goosanders, Mergansers and Goldeneye, and yet another Snowy Owl way out on the breakwater near the small lighthouse. It was really cold with ice on the ground. Slightly further south, on Lake Michigan itself, a stop on the beach netted an adult Glaucous Gull bobbing on the water amongst 200 or so Herring Gulls. With the weather properly closing in I continued south to Port Washington where the harbour yielded another Long-tailed Duck and several Bufflehead, but now it was intensely windy with flurries of snow, and the forecast had changed to include Milwaukee in the zone - a city I was still north of. I continued south, attempting a stop at North Point, but it was unbirdable as well as really dark - much earlier than usual. I booked a hotel in Racine and headed straight there to sit it out, find somewhere to get a Covid test, and watch the weather channel. It rained heavily from about when I arrived and continued all night, and rather than about heavy snow in Minnesota the news was instead all about Tornados in Kentucky - the warm side of the front.

Tuesday 4 January 2022

The Midwest - Day 9 - Duluth, Superior and Minneapolis-St Paul

So, a change of plan. Run away from a winter storm, get south of the front in case of severe disruption, and make the best of the birding wherever I end up. I had a day and a half to get potentially as far as Chicago, nobody yet knew quite how large this storm was going to be, nor the exact track, but the predictions last night had been that Minneapolis would be right in the middle on Friday afternoon. Guess where my hotel was booked for on Friday night?

Evening Grosbeak

I started off at Sax Zim again, at Mary Lou's feeders which were the closest side of the bog to where I had been staying in Grand Rapids. Early morning these were really busy, with loads of Evening Grosbeaks visiting. Wonderful birds, improbably colourful against the monochromatic scenery, almost unreal. Across the bog I drove a few roads in a further abortive attempt at Ruffed Grouse, but I had long way to go and unfortunately I had to move. Next stop Duluth!

I drove out to Park Point (at the northern end of which had been my accommodation for this evening, now cancelled) and did a bit of birding. A few ducks, a few Redpoll, and a few Bald Eagles out on the ice of the inner channel. And a white blob which turned out to be a Snowy Owl, so I did get one in Minnesota after all! 

The obvious bridge over into Wisconsin was closed so I had to take the next one over. Good thing I did, as I noted that it was called the Richard Bong bridge, which reminded me that my research before leaving had noted three Snowy Owls at the nearby Richard I Bong Memorial Airport. Somehow this had not translated onto my plan nor onto my map as a visible pin, but a name like that sticks in the memory. I found where it was and went straight there, a fortunate turn of events as right by the sports facilities was a Snowy Owl sitting on a chain link fence. A Northern Shrike was in close attendance. Superb! 

I could only find one bird, I suppose it is possible that the bird I'd seen on the ice earlier on was another of the original three, but suffice it to say the morning was going rather well. Didn't take long for it to go downhill mind you. At my next stop about ten minutes away towards the Wisconsin side of the big sand bar, a battered saloon pulled up next to me and a scruffy guy pulling on a cigarette wound his window down. "You police?" with a kind of knowing smirk suggesting he'd made up his mind already. "Er no, I'm bird watching" I offered, wiggling my binoculars at him. "What were you doing with the big camera at the airport?" I sensed a conspiracy theorist.... "Taking a photo of an Owl, did you see it?". This went on for some time, as if photographing an Owl had never happened in Wisconsin before, but eventually he seemed to decide that I wasn't a Federal Agent after all. "Just checking" he said  "Just making sure". Just making sure? What if I had said I was with the Feds? Probably a good thing I hadn't decided to piss around, you know, asked him what he thought about vaccinations, if he liked Kamala Harris, that sort of thing. That said the Chevy could have absolutely crushed his wreck of a car. Then again he probably had a gun. I got the hell of there and went to Wisconsin Point. He didn't follow, probably went home to put out a warning on me on Facebook. There are some strange people out there, and in America you ideally need to steer clear of certain types.

Does this look the interior of a police car to you?

Wisconsin Point was excellent. As I drove out to the end there were Bald Eagles everywhere. In the line of trees that circle the landward side of Allouez Bay I counted 123 bird, mostly adults. Also my first Mourning Doves of the trip, and lots of gulls although not the white-wingers I had been secretly hoping for. The prior week there had been both Iceland and Glaucous here, but today I could only find Herring and Ring-billed.

By now it was early afternoon and I wanted to make St Paul before dusk, 150 miles away. The long-running radio variety show 'A Prairie Home Companion' had broadcast from the Fitzgerald Theatre on Exchange Street for over 30 years, and visiting was a kind of pilgrimage for me. The show itself is perhaps an acquired taste, very Midwest but the liberal side. I first heard short segments of it on Radio 4 many years ago, essentially 'The News from Lake Wobegon" monologue, and from there graduated to listening to a whole two hour show on American Public Radio. It is a mixture of music, poetry and comedy theatre, but not cutting edge acerbic comedy - rather gentle old man comedy, with a subtle homely humour that I find incredibly appealing, about people, food, religion and the weather, all centred on Minnesota and far more enjoyable than in-your-face satire or people trying to be on-point funny. There are one-off sketches as well as oft-repeated situational sketches, made-up sponsors, guest musicians as well as a stellar in-house band, radio actors and a sound-effects guy, and I suppose that gradually it just seems to grow on you. You begin to feel as if you have been to Lake Wobegon, as if you know its Scandinavian-descended inhabitants - Clarence Bunsen, Darlene at the Chatterbox Café, Pastor Inquvist (now Pastor Liz), the Krebsbachs, Daryl Tollerud, Norwegian bachelor farmers, the Sons of Knute and many many more. For years and years it was wildly popular all over the US, and the show would tour annually around the country.  APHC was a weekly show, it moved with the seasons and they are all online, so I am still listening to them today, and still giggling away. It sustains me and I inflict it on my wife and children as often as I can, and even though the American side of my family hail from California and Utah, personally I feel Minnesotan. Oh Yah. All I can suggest is you try a few episodes for yourself, but don't quit too soon. 

I had planned to stay right next to the Fitzgerald, but figured I could at least see it before heading east and away from the storm. I arrived just before dusk. It was all closed up of course, but I was just pleased to be there. Oh Yah. 
I drove the final 200 miles in the dark, through Eau Claire to the small town of Wisconsin Rapids. I was 320 miles and two days further forward on than I had planned to be, and had decided to visit "Chicken Place" after all.