Wednesday 29 June 2022

Finding a new patch

Worry ye not, the title of this post is a little misleading. Deliberately so of course, I like to keep people on their toes... 

I have been in Fife staying with the old people. Mostly I have been working of course; the pandemic has conferred certain benefits to people like me, one of them is that working remotely is now viewed as perfectly normal and as such the only change visible to other people is my Zoom background. What my colleagues can't see of course is the Tree Sparrow on the wire outside my window - I don't get that in Wanstead! And Bullfinches in the hedge. It still blows my mind that these are regular garden birds here. Every trip I find myself marvelling, an involuntary "wow!" escaping my lips. And so with this bounty on my doorstep, where else do I go birding when I come up here?

Fife is a great county for birding, it truly has everything - amazing coastline, hills and forests, reservoirs, pools and rivers. It has scrub and arable land, it has shiny golf courses, dunes and long sandy beaches. It has sea-watching, migration, and the Firth of Forth funnel. There is more than enough here to keep a birder very happy. The only issue really is that it takes an age to get anywhere - the prime spot of Fife Ness is not far away as the crow flies - under 25 miles - but it can take 50 minutes to drive there, and over double that on the bus! Tentsmuir is about the same distance but only 40 minutes, again the train and bus basically doubles it. Much as I like these two places, particularly the former, in reality I visit only sporadically, they are just too far. Time, as much as fuel (and these days therefore, money), is the limiting factor.

And that is the first thing about finding a local patch. It has to be close or you won't bother. I don't understand those who have a regular patch that is a long way from where they live. Fair play if they stick at it I suppose, but I wouldn't be able to sustain it. No, for me it has to be just about on my doorstep. Now where my parents live does not have any special birding spots that I can tumble out of bed onto like Wanstead Flats, but over the last few years I have found myself returning to a handful of spots that are just a short distance away, and as I visit over different seasons I am starting to see patterns, beginning to understand what might be where, and most importantly beginning to expect certain things. One of these sites has become somewhere I always go when I come up here, usually several times. Have I perhaps found what might be considered 'a patch'?

Letham Pools is 8 miles away, and takes about 12 minutes to drive to. It is two shallow pools in the middle of agricultural land with a minor road bisecting it. Once upon a time it was just fields that flooded regularly, but the effort and cost of running pumps became too much and it has simply been left as is. A wire fence still runs through the middle of one side, and pylons through the other, useful perches for Martins and Gulls. It has reeds and muddy fringes, and a spot of high ground is now a small island. Crop fields surround three sides and often contain Geese, and ditches run along one edge that right now are filled with Sedge Warblers. I have no idea if anything that might count as management work occurs, but if it doesn't so much the better as it is marvelous just as it is, and I sincerely hope that the effort of draining it remains a losing battle. 

Although I've been coming up to Fife for many years, I only discovered this location a couple of years ago when I stopped there one day on the way back from somewhere else (a hospital in Dundee as it happens!). But if I look back at my recent visits to Fife, Letham Pools is generally the first place I visit, and on my most recent five day trip I found myself there three times. Once I drove straight there from London, bypassing my parents' house completely; the pull of an Egyptian Goose too strong to ignore.

An average visit to Letham Pools might produce 25-30 species, fewer in winter. That's nowhere near as many as Wanstead where you could reasonably expect 40-50, but it is a much smaller area. Nonetheless my overall list for the site is up to 61, with eight species added on this most recent trip. On my final morning I found a Dunlin and two Ringed Plovers, brought down by rain, and a group of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding on the southern pool. A Water Rail ran across the road right in front of me, one of four that were there. Probably all perfectly normal, but for this Londoner they generated a huge smile. And that is key to a patch - it is firmly one of my happy places, and I think about it when I am not there. Which of course is most of the time, as I live in London. This is also quite annoying, as I receive regular updates of what is there, 450 miles from me, and this spring brought in both Temminck's Stint and Pec Sand, the former of which stayed a long time and was widely appreciated by almost everyone in Fife. I expect that pretty much every single Fife birder will have seen more at Letham Pools than I have, so how can I call it a patch? Well, all I can say is that it isn't just a numbers game - that's clearly part of it, but in essence I think it is rather simple. It is a place that is not too far away that you look forward to visiting.

Like a fool I have completely neglected to take a single photos of Letham Pools with which to illustrate this post. It is literally begging for it and yet I have nothing. I just don't think like a blogger any more. So instead above is a photo of a different patch, my "second" garden. This is literally a patch, an empty plot of land adjacent to the house up here in Fife. It is a wildlife haven - like Letham long may it stay that way. I've seen a Hen Harrier quartering here once, Sedge Warblers and Whitethroat breed, and it is a smorgasbord for the local Blackbirds, House Sparrows and others. Swallows and House Martins swoop above it, Wrens chatter from it, Pheasants roam around it, coughing gently. The garden is set slightly higher, so I have a decent view into it, and many a happy hour has been spent just loitering near the wall, listening and looking. The room in which I work overlooks it, which can provide an interesting distraction, and needless to say I count it as part of the garden up here, for which I also maintain a list. It is slow progress as I only come up half a dozen times a year or so (and during the last few years it has been a lot less than that for obvious reasons) but as with Letham I am beginning to better understand what is where, and to seek it out when I come. Above all it is so different from home, and that is part of the draw.

There are obviously a few other places I visit locally, it is not just Letham and the garden. Levenmouth is another favourite spot that is really close, and the Lomond Hills and Loch Gelly are both within range though I don't visit those every time. I'll cover those next time, I have quite a few trips to Fife planned over the next few months. Maybe I'll even remember to take a photo! 

Friday 3 June 2022

This house has no bunting

After the fabulous fly-by from the Eleanora's Falcon in Kent last weekend, this weekend it was the turn of some different flying beasts - planes! Every since we have lived here our house has been directly under the final approach flight path for Buckingham Palace events, in this case the Platinum Jubilee. And I mean directly underneath! 

I am not exactly a staunch royalist. This house has no bunting and I am not attending our local street party. That said the Queen has done a remarkable job and lived an incredible life. Who would want to do a job like that for their entire lives, and put up with it in the way she has? Imagine having to be polite to people for that long? I find it astonishing, an extraordinary public servant. The rest of her family, well, they can do one frankly, and I couldn't care less what happens next. 

Anyway, here are a few photos of the airborne parade that ended up down The Mall about half a minute later. I missed the helicopters as I had forgotten that this was happening, and was busy listening to a rather enthralling first day of cricket on the radio. So, roughly in flight order.

Lancaster and Spitfire

C130 Hercules

Atlas (top) and C-17 Globemaster below. The bottom one in particular was ridiculously enourmous

So enourmous I didn't need to crop this. I wonder how many G&Ts you can fit in it?

A Rivet Joint. I had never heard of this.

F-35 Lightning. Only £90 million.

I admit I smiled when I saw the formation .15 Eurofighters. Probably now renamed, I would not put it past those in power. 

A perennial favourite....

....The Red Arrows

Thursday 2 June 2022

Madeira - a few photos

Whilst I'm contemplating writing up a series of posts to form a trip report (they are always such a great success!) here are a few photos that I have managed to get round to processing in the odd free gap. In short I did mostly remember how to use a camera, what type of photograph I Iike and how to get it. And now that I am back I am also having to remember how to convert and edit them. It does not get any easier!

It was strange, but in a nice way, just sitting down quietly and waiting for a bird to land where I hoped it would land. When I go out birding these days I no longer take a camera at all, I am back to where I started - bins locally with the addition of a scope if I go further afield. But actually (unless you are supremely lucky) if you are trying to take a vaguely artistic photograph then that requires a slow approach. And that slow approach, as well as the need to be a lot closer than non-photographers realise, results in quite fabulous views of the birds. I still don't understand bird photographers who don't own binoculars, surely they're a key piece of kit to observe what is happening before you start, but there is definitely something to be said for getting tucked up in one spot and merging with the scene. Mick and I managed this several times on our trip, most notably with a group of Canaries returning to the same clump of Agave to feed fledglings. But it also worked with a very friendly Berthelot's Pipit close to Madeira's highest peak, and with some endemic Trocaz Pigeons in a botanic garden. Oh, and with a frog as well.

Wednesday 1 June 2022

Once upon a time I had a blog....

Hello there. Remember me? Once upon a time I used to write a blog. And then, just like that, I didn't. These things happen from time to time, and I learned a while ago not to bother fighting them. You cannot force creativity and as such I have not missed it much if at all. I have been keeping busy of course, just not with anything worth writing about. Did you want to hear that I planted some runner beans last month? I admit I thought about it.... 

What is the change, what has caused me to pick up the metaphorical pen? Not local birding that is for sure! This year has felt a bit like a chore thus far. Spring was some distance from being memorable, and we are now in June and you know what that means. Yes yes, I saw some birds, all the usual suspects, but not with any great enthusiasm really. It felt repetitive and dull. Very dull. 

What has changed is that I have left Wanstead a few times. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is to me, how life-affirming it is. It can be near or far, long or short, it seems not to matter. I went for a nice meal in Marylebone and I went on a city break with Mrs L in Istanbul; both were fantastic. I had a few days birding in northern Spain with a couple of the Wanstead group. I worked a full week in Budapest and I went to Regents Park for an hour to listen to an Iberian Chiffchaff. I had wonderful views of an Eleanora's Falcon in Kent one morning and I took a camera to Madeira for three days. I spent two days wandering around Porto in the sunshine and I went to a wine-tasting evening in Islington. What I did not do was sit in Wanstead doing nothing. Well.... Actually I did a lot of that, in fact mostly that, but by interspersing it with things that were not that I came alive.

Madeira in particular was hugely helpful. It was unplanned, but when Mick said he had a trip planned and was I free.... ? I was free as it happened, and whilst I don't usually up and go just like that, I realised that I really really wanted to go. Mick and I used to travel a fair bit in search of bird photography opportunities but the pandemic put an end to that and I put my camera away. From time to time I had a go, but there was no spark, and it was entirely possible for it to sit in a corner for months gathering dust. Mick went one step further and sold the lot! 

I spent a day gathering everything together, retrieving lenses, charging batteries and that sort of thing.  Luckily I have two of everything so there was a camera and lens for Mick too. All of it was 100% dead, not a single ounce of charge in anything, which tells a story in itself. Bird photography is something you have to do a lot of to get any good at. Would we remember or would we be totally hopeless? The answer was a bit of both. For instance I clipped the wingtips on this one....

Cory's Shearwater, Funchal bay