Friday 28 July 2023

A ton of maps

The other day I finally got Treecreeper for the year. My first for two years I think, I happened to be passing through Bush Wood when I encountered Jim peering up into the trees. Without bins the best I could do was listen to it, but the following morning I managed to see it in exactly the same place with a substantial mixed flock of Tits. Yay, 99 for year, I added it to eBird. Except eBird thought it was 100. Huh? 

And of course eBird was right. I extracted the data and ran a comparison. Sure enough, on May 4th eBird had a Reed Warbler, whereas my fallible spreadsheet and this erstwhile blog did not. I get to 100 by July in roughly half of all years, and there is nothing really left until Spotted Flycatchers arrive in late August so I am lucky to have made it. 

Birding news is thin on the ground here but there is at least a sniff of excitement. We carefully watch other local - better - sites, for news of migrants, and it seems that there are waders on all sides of us. All you really need is a bit of good fortune, being in the right place at the right time. I seem to be quite good at that, at least locally. Maybe you make your own luck? I'll be out hoping for a dollop on Saturday. Unless it's raining. Or maybe even if it is raining. 

In other news I've finally had my Burgundy maps framed. You may perhaps recall that I went to this area of France in late 2021 (detailed here and here if you fancy another read) in one my first trips since the pandemic restrictions eased. Whist there I bought a some maps of the two principal areas. I'd seen these in various cellars and other wine-related places and thought that they were simply wonderful. They detail each vineyard across the whole of the Cote d'Or and should really be classified as works of art. They came rolled up in a tube and I planned to have them framed as soon as I got back. 

The Cote de Beaune

Clearly that didn't happen quite as immediately as I had planned given we are now 20 months on. For a start when I got back I discovered that my local framer had closed down during Covid, a fate suffered by countless small businesses that relied on local footfall. Such a shame, I had been going to her shop for years and years, and then all of a sudden it was gone. I could find no local alternatives that I trusted, only chains of shops that had fixed ratios and cheap materials. I dithered, and for over a year did nothing, the tube languishing in the corner of the room. Earlier this year my Mum came to visit and I had an idea. She still has a local framer, and having taken up painting in retirement gets a lot of stuff done. Scotland is a long way to go for a pick-up, but nonetheless perhaps she could organise for these amazing maps to be framed properly and in a way that would really make them pop? In short, she absolutely could and they have been done so so well - I am so glad that I didn't take any shortcuts with them, and neither did the framer. They are huge and required all sorts of special care - 170cm x 70cm each - that is not your average frame with a couple of clips on each side and a bit of cardboard inside. They are an engineering masterpiece with support struts, top quality heavy-duty materials, and needing two hooks to hang. It has been a long journey, and the final step, the drive up to Fife to collect them, took about eight hours each way although this wasn't the only purpose of my visit obviously. But they are now up and they look magnificent on the wall. I have even provided a magnifiying glass for visitors with less keen eyesight to be able hone in on the appellation that particularly interests them. For my part I have already spent a considerable amount of time stood in front of each of thee, mentally walking between the vines, retracing my steps and planning new ones. This is what counts for excitement round here. I've also opened the odd bottle of wine, thrilled that I can see exactly which plot it came from. Not that I'll ever be able to afford a case of Echezeaux but in short, life is still good.

The red circle is where I bought this map!

Friday 21 July 2023

Black-winged Kite!

I'm in Scotland for a few days, working remotely. It means I have my laptop which still has an ancient and working copy of Photoshop on it, and so I have been having a bit of fun processing some photos from a recent trip to South Africa. Just like the random Parakeet the other day, a propos of nothing at all, ahem, are a couple of a Black-winged Kite I took out of the car window in Kruger National Park last Monday. I cannot imagine what made me look at these particular RAW files first, no idea at all, but I posted one on Twitter where it proved insanely popular and seemed to do much better than the Parakeet.

Anyhow it appears a lot of people mistakenly think I'm in Norfolk or Suffolk having put two and two together and come up with four when the answer is actually a naughty three. Did I say it was the East Anglia bird? Nope. I hinted that it might not be, and even sandwiched it between an Elephant and a Sunbird, but that hasn't stopped the masses and it is spreading far and wide. Oh dear. Hopefully a load of people have nicked it for their scrapbooks or social media, a reminder of that time when it posed beautifully right in front of them in a dead Acacia at Horsey. 

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Yellow Parakeet

A propos of nothing at all, here is a yellow Parakeet that graced my garden at the start of the month. As you perhaps know we are plagued by Ring-necked Parakeets in London. Once a phenomenon in the south-west of the city, these communal roosts of thousands of birds have spread hugely in the last decade. I still vividly remember doing a double-take in Wanstead Park in about 2008 when walking alongside Heronry - I had overtaken the bird by some 50 yards by the time my brain kicked in and I realised that I had just seen a new bird for the patch. It took another year to get one for the garden, a real fist-pump moment. How foolish. Fast-forward a few years and my high count is 1,427, recorded in just over an hour early on morning from my balcony in the autumn of 2020. Earlier this year I saw one in Fife, again a moment of sheer disbelief, my brain refusing to accept this record, perhaps still with a London filter in place. I have seen little hard data about the damage or detriment they cause to native species, but on any given day here in my little corner of London if you were to invest any time in counting bird numbers this bright green pestilence would top your list almost every time. This is the first yellow one I've seen though, so momentarily exciting. The fact it has taken me nearly three weeks to even mention it tells you all you need to know. I wonder what caused it, perhaps some kind of nutrional deficiency? Excuse the obvious ghosting on the image, I grabbed the first camera I could find and it was set to HDR mode having previously been used on a tripod for some landscape shots. This meant that when I pressed the shutter it took three shots in rapid succession each at a slight different setting and combined them - on a firm tripod this can really make an image pop. In the hands of a desperate man intent on recording a wonder of avian morphology, less so.

Also a propos of nothing at all I envisage a little spare time coming up where I hope to make some inroads into some more trips I've been on, including a short visit to Lisbon which was wonderful, and other holiday in Madeira in April. No, still no waders of note - some Common Sandpipers but nothing better than that. Adios.

Thursday 6 July 2023

No Waders means beans

So there have been no waders, or at least not here. Rainham is now getting a few, as is Fife, but Wanstead remains as frustratingly Wader-free as it generally is. Wanstead is not bean-free though.... Sorry, I did threaten this. Well, technically I suppose it is bean-free, as none of my bean plants yet have beans on them, in the same way that none of Wanstead's ponds have  any waders on them. The difference is that I am definitely going to get beans, whereas Jubilee and Alex likely won't. Or not many at any rate, whereas I will be drowing in beans.

Or that is my hope. Last year was mega on the bean front, towards the end of the summer we had more beans than we knew what to do with. In truth we became a little bean jaded. But in the middle of winter, thinking of that first fresh bean... well I just rushed out and planted them as soon as I could. In fact I had to dig them up again after just a few days as I had been over-eager and a passing frost threatened to destroy all my carefully nurtured seedlings. They didn't seem to mind much, and I replanted them a week later in the same trench I had taken them out of.

I had initially grown them in the greenhouse using dried beans saved from last year, a mixture of runners and french. A good soaking doubled their size, and they all germinated more or less immediately. That is where visible progress stopped though, and as soon as I planted them out they stalled. For ages and ages, and I suffered from considerable bean angst. Mrs L said I was ridiculous. After a thoroughly miserable spring things finally got going, and they grew more in a matter of days than they had done in weeks. Now of course they are all over the canes and heading off in as many directions as they can find. We may be overrun. There was a blackfly problem in early June but I solved that with washing up liquid - no insecticides here, I just made up a soapy solution and sprayed constantly for about three days and that cleared them and their Ant overlords out. No negotiations. So far they have not returned and consequently I have had a good flowering. A second batch of beans, sowed at the height of my anxiety, are not now going to be needed, which is lucky as most of them shrivelled and died during the very hot weather anyway.

It remains to be seen whether second generation beans are as reliable as the first lot from a proper packet. Personally I see no reason why they would not be. My local bean counsellor and armchair expert has confidently stated that they might be "a bit funny", whatever that means. She has no idea what she is talking about. A bean is a bean is a bean. I am inspecting them daily for those first tiny little green threads, and you will be guaranteed to read about it here unless there is some kind of massive flood that turns Wanstead Flats into a huge scrape.

Wednesday 5 July 2023

More conifer labour

A Monkey Puzzle is a conifer right? Just a rather ancient and peculiar one. I've blogged about this before I am sure, but at the bottom of my garden there is a Monkey Puzzle tree, and is the main reason I live in this house. Really. Look, here, I'll save you the trouble. That post is well over ten years old, and I've lived here for nearly 20, but the tree is still alive and well. Well, it's alive and mostly well. I am afraid that the increasingly dry and warm climate is doing my Araucaria no favours at all, and the lower branches are dying at an alarming rate. Weeks of no rain and temperatures approaching and in some cases exceeding 30 degrees are not what it likes. All Monkey Puzzles, no matter where they grow, will eventually shed their lower branches and become rather mushroom-like, but this is expected on larger trees whereas mine is a mere pup. There is a tree close to my parents that is larger than mine and yet has retained its beautiful candelabra shape to this day. I look wistfully at it every time I drive past and harbour unbecoming feelings of jealously as my tree was once like this. No longer though, and I should probably get ready for the day when it looks a proper mess. The climate in Scotland remains benign for these trees. London, not so much.

However the next generation, indeed many generations, are mostly alive and well. I have lost count of the number of trees that I have grown, seeds that I have sent people. Despite the fact there are no male trees nearby to contribute pollen, each year a few grains somehow arrive and produce a handful of viable seeds. Every year I gather these up and plant them in pots with just the tops sticking out. One year a Squirrel ate the whole lot in one sitting, so I now put mesh over them or put them in the greenhouse. The first year I put them in the greenhouse a family of Wood Mice continued where the Squirrel had left off. I was enraged and set traps - I think I got the whole family and have felt guilty ever since, and so now I put fine mesh over the greenhouse ones too so that I don't have to kill anything. Barring those two years I have saplings going back to probably the year after we moved in, except for 2021, where about 80% of crop has died two years later. I either underwatered or overwatered, I am not sure, and I am also a little confused as as far as I am aware I have treated these no differently to any other crop.

The sad tale of 2021

For those that have survived some are now enormous. Seedlings that I planted in the ground in Scotland some years ago are now far taller than I am, and each year I dutifully plant more. From time to time I sell a few as once larger they are worth a fair amount of cash. Mostly I give them away though, my hope being that these magnificent plants can spread far and wide. There are a large group that are probably about 8 years old that I keep up in Fife and that are literally bursting out of their pots. One of my jobs this summer is to go up and repot them into larger pots that will last for a few more years. The bulk are in London though, and so each year I have to assess whether to move them up a size or not. I guess I won't have much to do for the 2021 vintage...

I had two black pots like this, and then a mcuh larger rectangular tray. 

In 2022 I had a bumper crop, more seeds than I've ever had before. Most years I get around 40-50 (which as a percentage of the total cones is miniscule), but for whatever reason in 2022 I harvested over 200 and was forced to plant the seeds at a high density. Some were in the greenhouse over winter, others outside, but it seemed to make little difference, and earlier this year I was pleased to see the first green shoots start to emerge. Time to pot them up! Or some of them at least as I have now run out of soil and pots. A number of them, upwards of 100 I estimate, remain bunched up in their communal pots. I did what I could though and have managed to sort out about 60 which are now in tall seedling pots. I'll do the rest later, they can happily continue for another year in these communal pots though some will inevitably get squeezed out. 


You can just see the seedlings above in a in a big tray under the Leylandii in the photo accompanying the last post I wrote. I suppose that if grass simply won't grow there I could just cover the whole of the brown circle in Monkey Puzzle trees. That would be cool. Or I would think it was cool at any rate, I expect Mrs L would be unimpressed.  Anyway, that's the story of a different type of conifer labour. I don't think I'll be able to manage the hatrick. Might have to move onto beans.....Alternatively some Waders could arrive on the patch and then birding would be exciting again. Cross your fingers.

Monday 3 July 2023

Catching up

The hidden power of a to-do list is an amazing thing. For months I have avoided writing up my Mexico notes. Months. I could have made the time, but no. And no real desire to. Then a few weeks ago I took the plunge and wrote "Mexico" on my to-do list. There it sat, nagging me, making me feel bad. Irritating the hell out of me. This is ridiculous. I know for a fact that the appeal of  "I went here and saw this" posts is on the low end of an already declining medium, especially those that involve foreign travel. Too bad, it was on the list and so I had to do it. And so do I did, blitzed it in fact, seven posts in ten days. For context that was about the same number of posts I wrote in April and May. Lists seem to hold an uncanny sway over me. With the exception of the trip list page it didn't take too long either. With eBird open on one screen and a map window and a photo application on the other it was pretty easy to get through, and what's more going back over it was very enjoyable. A well-planned and well-executed trip - I am sure I have mentioned before that the planning of a trip is one of the best bits. 

Anyway, the posts are doing about as well as posts of this kind ever do, but no matter, they are there now and I can cross it off. This was in late February/early March and so represents a bit of a catch but. But it is not as if I have been sitting at home doing nothing. Not really my style, and this means there are a number of other things on my list......Do you want to hear about my romantic trip to Madeira in April with Mrs L that I mostly ruined by having intestinal issues? Of course you do! Not yet though, I'm still building up to it. 

June is over. In common with most Junes mostly the month did not involve birds. A trip to the Suffolk coast, a few local forays, most amazingly of all a full fat Wanstead tick, but no foreign travel at all. As happens every summer when the birding tails off I've been having fun in the garden. When I say fun what I actually mean is back-breaking industry. I have not once just sat in my garden, content in my labour, and chilled out. The one time I did I immediately had to jump up, chilled beverage unsipped, and run to Wanstead Flats to tick Corn Bunting (see above).  Then, I had been thinning an unruly tree that was casting undue shade on my greenhouse. This involved climing said tree with one of those extending loppers that also has a saw on one end, and gradually taking off various branches before shredding them. I did not injure myself in any way and was about to properly bask in my success before I made the mistake of looking at my phone.

You can see more results of hard labour than just the tree in this photo.

The same story panned out this weekend, Another tree that is just too big, a conifer that keeps on growing in all directions, and that I have buried my head in the sand on. I've called a tree surgeon out several times to look at it, and each time I do the quote gets bigger and less affordable. As a result I've never had it done, and so I put dealing with it on my to-do list.......[suspenseful music plays]. And so this weekend I did. It's too high to take the whole thing down, well beyond my capabilities, and in any event it has Woodpigeons in and they have babies. This is a Leylandii, and the growth habit is all the way to the ground. I figured I could gain the garden space I wanted simply by trimming the horizontal branches to a height of about six or seven feet. It took ages. Ages to cut all the branches off, and then forever to shred the whole lot and dispose of it (made harder as my neighbours stole all my green waste bags a few weeks ago and the new ones I bought are a lot smaller). I had to take a break on Saturday afternoon as I had nowhere else to put it, but on Sunday morning I went to the tip nice and early and could finish the job. In addition to all the branches, there was a huge mound of conifer leaf-litter mulch that became visible once the trunk was exposed, and so I've had to shovel up most of that as well. I doubt that much will be able to grow under it, but perhaps the grass will come back slightly, and we can put a bench or something under it. The garden feels much larger, the Woodpigeons are undisturbed, and I can sit back and consider a job well done. Oh, wait.....

Sunday 2 July 2023

Yucatan - Trip List

Here is a day by day trip list from the Yucatan Peninsulaa. Generally we only birded one major site on any given day, for instance the Camino Vigia Chico was on Day 1, however we also got down to Chetamul, so there are a couple of coastal birds on that day that look a little out of place. Calakmul, on Day 2, was truly just Calakmul, albeit that the entrance track is 60km long. Hormiguero and Kohulich, on Day 3, also includes the main east-west road that crosses the peninsula - we made many small and productive stops. On Day 4 it should be obvious which birds were at Bacalar and which from the Camino Vigia Chico, and on Day 5 with the exception of a few waders everything was at Muyil, both within the ruins but also in the village on the other side of the road. 

Yucatan, February 26th - March 2nd 2023

Yucutan - Day 5 - Muyil and the coast


Our final day. Mick and I were again up fairly early as we needed to get down to Muyil which we had overshot the previous evening in returning to Tulum (where hotels are plentiful). It was only a 20 minute drive and we arrived at around 7.30am. As the ruins did not open for another half an hour we birded the village on the other side of the road, which was absolutely fantastic for some reason. When I say village it is not really much, a few lots carved into the jungle which meant we could bird the fringes. This paid dividends immediately with Rufous-browed PeppershrikeTawny-crowned Greenlet and Altamira Oriole in a large tree, along with two Squirrel Cuckoo and three Green Jay. A Purple Martin cruised overhead, and the village seemed to be full of Melodious Blackbird, Yucatan Jay and Groove-billed Ani. A weedy area around the side of some houses had feeding Blue Buntings. It was one of the best place we had birded on the trip so far, a really good start to the day. If you find yourself there, make sure you do both sides.

Ruddy Ground Dove

Melodious Blackbird

Tropical Mockingbird

Groove-billed Ani

Yucatan Jay

Crossing the road we paid the small entrance fee and started to explore the ruins. The best area is a fenced nature preserve on the east side, which has a boardwalk that leads through to the water on the other side. I think we ended up paying another small fee to access this but I am glad we did as it was teeming. American Warblers were particularly plentiful, with multiple Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird and Common Yellowthroat. The best bird here, and probably our last roll of the dice for it, was Yucatan Vireo, an endemic that we had so-far missed. Quite high up we were not able to keep on it for long, but I did manage a photograph to clinch the ID. We also had good view of Ivory-billed Woodcreeper here.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper

Yucatan Vireo

We continued along this boardwalk for some time, the number of birds made progress very slow! Wood Thrush, Green-backed Sparrow, a Summer Tanager and lots of Red-throated Ant-Tanager. We didn't climb the observation tower as it looked a bit lethal. Back in the ruins we added Palm Warbler and Indigo Bunting feeding in the short grass. The full list is here, probably our best single location away from Calakmul.

We grabbed some lunch from a stall directly opposite the ruins - I had some chicken. Whatever you do, don't eat from here. Maybe I was unluckly, but as soon as I got home I had the most terrible food poisoning for a week or so which was the precursor to a frankly shitty spring with one thing after another. I mean it may not have been this exact stall, it could even have come from the airport or the plane, but whatever it was weakened me sufficiently that my intenstines were in poor shape for about two months, and somewhere along the way I managed to catch COVID again as well. By the time May came around I was convinced I was dying and went to see a specialist who convinced me I was not, but in a very invasive way. Do many trip reports contain colonoscopys? Probably not.

Back on the road again we headed north for Cancun, hoping to bird along the coast. Fat chance, there are almost no places which are not private, gated, fenced off. One place you can get to the sea is teh Akumal Trail, at a place called Playa Free Tortugas. You can park near the blocks of flats and walk between them to a rocky peninsula. This had Grey and Wilson's Plover, a Whimbrel, a small group of Least Sandpiper as well as Laughing Gull, Brown Pelican and Frigatebirds.

Least Sandpiper

We continued to Cancun to try a spot just to the east of the airport that had seemed promising from eBird, Punta Nizuc. We must have hit it at a bad time as it was distinctly unpromising, with a load of
Frigatebirds and a single Anhinga for our troubles. With the traffic extremely busy we called it a day, filled up with fuel, and fought our way to Cancun airport. In five days had seen 167 species, of which 30 were lifers and a fair few of those Yucatan endemics. I cannot recommend it highly enough, but this is on the understanding that although you might start in Cancun you really have to get some distance away from it before things get good.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Yucatan - Day 4 - back to Tulum - Bacalar and the Camino Vigia Chico again

We birded on foot from the hotel at Buenavista before breakfast. We were right on the edge of town, heading out along a track leading to a handful of waterside plots and new developments. No doubt in a few years this will just be a slew of boutique hotels, but for now it was a decent place to go birding. Lesson's Motmot was a decent start in the half light, and we followed this up with a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and two Black-headed Trogon. A large group of Plain Chachalaca were extremely noisy as they moved through the canopy, and we saw a flock of six Yucatan Jay. A Long-billed Gnatwren that was extremely responsive to pishing was rather a surprise here, and when we pushed through a vacant lot to get to the shore we found Mangrove Swallow and Ringed Kingfisher. After breakfast, as we drove out of the town a Squirrel Cuckoo flew over the car, our first of the trip.


Plans today were fairly flexible, we just needed to be in Tulum by the evening. As such we spent a bit of time around the lagoon at Bacalar. There were no boats going out, but from the public pier and the ecoparque we scanned out and picked up Royal Tern, and on the island, hundreds of Wood Stork. There were probably other Herons there too, but without a scope it was impossible. A Snail Kite hunted along the shore and there were two Lesser Scaup bobbing about right next to us.

Royal Tern

Lesser Scaup

Mangrove Swallow

Heading north we explored some inland water bodies, but these were pretty rubbish in the middle of the day, a few hirundines and Cormorants, but a nice Couch's Kingbird. At 2pm we arrived once again at the start of the Camino Vigia Chico in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. A suboptimal time of day you would think, but actually it was pretty good, and we found quite a few new birds as we drove and walked along. New for the trip were White-bellied Emerald, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Summer Tanager and Spot-breasted Wren. Mick finally got onto Green-backed Sparrow, a bird I'd seen briefly at Calakmul.

White-bellied Emerald

By the early evening we were at the Playa Mirador in Tulum for sunset, accomanied by loads of feeding Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, some White Ibis and our first Laughing Gulls. The hotel, slightly out of town, and booked as it did food meaning we would not have to go into town, in fact did not offer food, so had to get back in the car and drive to what had probably been our favourite place of the trip again, a roadside taco place just to the north of town. The trip list was now over 150, which I felt was about to be expected.