Sunday 24 September 2023

So I went to Wales

The Magnolia Warbler twitch. I think the finder is in this photo, you can probably see the faint glow surrounding him.

Well now. I did threaten it I suppose but I didn't actually think I would. I am a wait on news kind of guy, and with clear skies overnight I was certainly not going to risk that amount of time in the car and go on Friday to be in position. In other words I am a big wuss and hate dipping. So Saturday dawned with me up and out and on the patch happily counting Meadow Pipits. I think I'd got to about 40 when the "Magnolia Warber still present 285 miles away" message came though. Dammit. Of the two available scenarios this was not the one I had been hoping for. But I had said I would go on Friday, and so go I did. 

I find getting in the car hardest part. Once I am actually in it, moving, with a bit of music on and something pleasing at the end of my route I tend to go into mission mode. Ten hours seems like a long time, but it is just a day, and the next morning it will be behind you. Remarkably this is just the second twitch I've been on in 2023, a year which has seen rare birds in numbers that are simply astonishing. For the most part I have simply ignored them and not felt any real angst about having done so. Why yesterday was different I have no idea. I think I just wanted a little bit of autumn action so that it didn't pass me by entirely. And also let's face it, Magnolia Warblers are ace even without this one having the rarity cachet of being the third for the UK.

I think I was somewhere past Reading when the news broke of Canada Warbler at the same place, St Govan's Head in South-west Wales. At first I thought it a reidentification of the Magnolia Warbler, but it soon became clear that this was different. When I stopped for the toilet somewhere near Cardiff I tweaked the Satnav - three minutes longer. Oh go on then, seeing as it's a first for the UK. 

I arrived at just before 1pm and had to fight my way down the lane to the large spacious car park about three minutes from where the bird was. Why was that? Because of all the selfish bastard twitchers for whom being three minutes further away from a tick was simply unacceptable, and so they had simply dumped their cars on the verges, in passing places, in front of gates. I mean I expected nothing less, this is the UK twitching scene, but still. Three minutes. Three. I even got some grief about these cars from passers by as I was walking from the car park to the bird! With bins round my neck I was simply guilty by association. 

Brought to you by the Birding Diversity Council of the UK

The bird seemed to spend most time well back in the darkest bit just above that bloke's ear.

I joined the throng on the edge of the tangle, and by total good fortune happened to pick the left hand side which was where the bird showed briefly about fifteen minutes later. A good start! Somehow I was positioned exactly where a series of gaps aligned to form a clear path to it. Five seconds, no more, as it hopped along a vertical twig in the gloom and then up to the right and lost to view. Despite staying for another two hours I saw it just twice more, and less well each time. It was being seen regularly though, it was just one of those situations where viewing was so restricted that the guy next to me could be seeing it when I could not. As more and more people arrived I decided I'd had enough and headed off to try and get the bird I'd originally got in the car for before I or it ran out of time. All it takes is one Sparrowhawk after all.... 

The Magnolia Warbler twitch had just a handful of people and the bird showed amazingly within about two minutes of my arrival. Talk about good fortune. With the winds seemingly picking up it was sticking to the sheltered side, working quickly and methodically on the edge and fully in view. What a brilliant bird, an absolute belter. Even though I saw decent numbers in Ohio just recently, the setting and the sheer improbability of its occurence here made it very special, and I didn't even have the whole 80's blocker backstory, I've only just found it out. As a few others have pointed out, it is a great shame to think that this bird is essentially doomed, as are all the nearctic vagrants to have made landfall last week. And this is just the tiny fraction that made it across without running out of energy and drowning. It's a sad tale, and we should all recognise it for what it is, but at the same time I don't think this should be touted as a reason not to go see them - it's a miracle of survival. I just wonder where these birds end up? The urge to head south should still be there, that's what they were trying to do when they got picked up and tumbled across the Atlantic in double-quick time. So what next? My assumption is that they carry on, they're in the right hemisphere at least. I actually feel more sad for the confused Eastern birds that, incorrectly-wired, instead of heading south-east take a westerly trajectory. Do they eventually head out in the opposite direction from the American waifs, but with zero chance of survival rather than a tiny sliver of hope?

So that was my day in Wales. Given how little I do this kind of thing I am amazed it paid off, and for it to be a two tick day would be obscene were it not for the fact that some birders had a three tick day as they'd also booked a boat to Ramsey Island for the Bay-breasted Warbler. That is just pure filth! Amazingly I still recognised a few people despite my almost full retirement from the twitching scene, and it was genuinely nice having a bit of a chat with a couple of them. I imagine that most of the birders at St Govan's head probably see each other several times a year, and for many of them it is as much a social event as anything else. Let's face it, none of them probably get many invites to parties! Whereas I get loads and loads, oh yes.

But actually yours truly did have a social event yesterday evening, and so rather than go bash some different bushes in the hope a Dendroica might fall out I got back in the car and drove to Reading to see some friends in their new house. Mrs L and my youngest were already there having arrived in the afternoon, and I was right on time for dinner and then able to drive us all back to London. So - get this - I went on a massive twitch and ended the day with more brownie points than I started with. Now that's what I call a first for the UK!

Saturday 23 September 2023

The state of the stats

Way back when I used to be quite keen on blog stats, it seemed to be important for some reason that I got hits and so on. Maybe my younger self had more of an ego that I do today. Anyhow, these days it is hard to think of something I worry less about and I can safely leave these pages to gather dust for weeks on end. I came back to it few days ago after another longish hiatus and happened to notice the following.

You probably don't notice it, I rarely do, as it is buried quite some way down the page on the right hand side. On a phone you probably don't see it at all. It's a counter of sorts, I've no idea how it works but when I first started this blog I noticed that many bloggers had this same little widget and I wanted it too. All you had to do was register your blog or birding website with FatBirder and then you could happily track your popularity and bask in a warm glow. Or something like that, I don't think I ever made it into the first two pages......

But look at this! #19? This can only mean one thing! I am brilliant, the quality of my writing is nearly unsurpassed, legend is not a frequently used word but.... It is 2023 and everyone has stopped blogging. Nearly everyone that is. Consequently if I deign to write a post once in a while I simply leapfrog hundreds of birding web pages that have not been touched for even longer than mine. Oh dear, what a sorry state of affairs. Indeed if I look down my links to other blogs I used to enjoy (also on the right hand side of the page when viewed on a computer) the vast majority of them are now defunct, with the last update in some cases years ago. Almost all have dropped by the wayside, a real shame when you think how much great content there used to be. There was also a massive amount of drivel of course, badly written and uninteresting. No great loss there, but no doubt it satisfied a need at that particular time and that can be important.

I wouldn't have read those anyway, or not more than once, but there were pages I used to regularly visit and that I still think about from time to time. Thankfully a few bloggers are still gamely plugging away and I greatly enjoyed a couple of posts about seawatching from the south-west approaches that popped up recently. Moths forgotten, the sheer joy of scanning the waves leapt from the screen! And the prize, gosh, I can only imagine! Not in Wanstead that's for sure, although there was a record of Cory's Shearwater over Regent's Park a few years ago so perhaps never say never. Tales like this are why blogging still has a place, you need the space to build up to the big moment, the short formats that are temporarily all the rage could not possibly convey it adequately. Keep the faith people, it may yet come full circle.

Friday 22 September 2023

Being at work is the best

I love autumn days like the last few where I can calmly sit and work and just get on with my job without a worry in the world. Imagine if I kept lists of birds I'd seen and wanted those lists to get bigger and be filled with rare birds that might never turn up again on these shores in my lifetime. Thankfully that's not the case as right now I might be in a right state. As it is the joy of Regulatory Control is keeping me happy and focussed and for that I am truly thankful.


Sweet Jesus, what is going on out there? I've seen a few American passerines in this country over the years of course, but it seems that the entire Sibley field guide has turned up in the last 48 hours. A lot of these birds are rather inaccessible (for me, 100% inaccessible) as they are on remote islands, but no doubt the UK twitching merry-go-round has swung into action and there is a procession of the usual suspects happily tripping from bird to bird, work and family a distant memory. People will be booking charters, working out whether they have enough time to get on for the Bobolink and off again for the Magnolia Warbler, and then how to get to the next one. In a few days it will all be over again, lists will be inked in, the rabid need for more ticks temporarily sated. However it won't be long before they are itching to leave home again for the next one, the highs are always brief and swiftly forgotten as the next prize hoves into view.

Despite the obvious sarcasm in my first paragraph I am actually pretty relaxed. I've seen plenty of Bobolink this year, and roughly this time ten days ago I was watching Magnolia and Bay-breasted Warblers flit though the foliage on the shores of Lake Erie, completely alone but for the birds. Huge crowds or an empty boardwalk? As birding experiences go I know which I prefer, although I'd dearly love to see any of these in the UK as there is an undeniable thrill seeing a genuine rarity. They just need to be a bit closer really. That said it is entirely possible some urge takes over and I just get in the car, so I might see you in Pembrokeshire....

Here is a Chestnut-sided Warbler from many moons ago in NY where it belonged!

Wednesday 20 September 2023


I've been quite a few places this year, some really fun trips. I am very lucky. I used to keep notebooks and write a daily journal whenever I was away, but that has long since dropped by the wayside. A shame, I used to enjoy being able to call on them to see where I went, what I did, what I saw - particularly outside of the birds. Now I find myself struggling. For a while I managed to keep it up, leaving blank sections in the book for a previous jaunt, telling myself I'd fill it in later. Hah! Fat chance, and now I've abandoned it completely. I know that a few people keep notebooks still, in fact I saw one at Rainham just this weekend, but more often that not these are just lists of birds. What about actual writing?

Well, when was the last time you picked up a pen?! Practically my only use of a pen these days is scribbles at work on post-it notes and writing address labels for things that I'm sending. Writing is hard! My kids are all in the exam phase of their lives, writing reams and reams sat at small desks in rows of similarly imprisoned children. Remember that? My wrist aches after a sentence these days, half a page is unthinkable, let alone multiple pages.

My inability to put pen to paper is perhaps one of the reasons I try and record stuff here. It's as much for me as for anyone else, perhaps more. I can still type, and even though I mostly only use two fingers and my thumb on each hand and am some way from what you might call touch typing, I am actually pretty decent at it. In fact I am just testing myself now and am quite surprised at how speedy and accurate I can be without even needing to look at the keyboard. Who knew? A new career perhaps, though does that even exist now, text is just scanned surely? Anyway, my point was that it is annoying that I only just managed to get to Madeira which was in April, and also that what I did write was highly summarised when my memories are so much more detailed. And how long will my memories last?

If it relates to a trip, currently I have no problems going back six months or more with a reasonable degree of accuracy as to where I was and what I was doing. If I need a little help with the order, or individual species, then I have eBird lists and photos from my phone (when was the last time I took a photo of a bird?). It's pretty easy to put together, just a question of finding the time. Should that time materialise (and I am trying really hard!) next on my list is a weekend away in Lisbon in March with my son, which took place before Madeira, so much for chronology. But I can still remember where we stayed, what we did, where we ate and so on, so expect to be bored by that in the near future. As an aside it was very nearly my last trip with my old camera before I decided it was too big and bulky and that that stage of my photographic life was over. My son meanwhile had a miniscule but fully functional Sony mirrorless set-up that I felt would much better address my middle-aged needs and that I was deeply envious of. Fast forward to the present day and I have managed to flog almost all of my non-birding Canon gear (at a healthy loss) and now have virtually the same tiny tiny camera which is a complete joy to carry. More on that later, it's likely to be quite geeky. In the meantime, here is something from Lisbon, an exceedingly steep city, and very beautiful.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Coats and tail

I've not worn a proper coat on the commute for many months, just a jacket (a sports coat don't you know). I like jackets, not just because of their timeless style, but because they have pockets and old people like me need pockets. I can put my keys in one of the inside pockets, my phone in the other, Oyster card and work ID in the breast pocket, and then my glasses in an outside pocket. Or on my forehead as that's a cool look. All very handy, no need for a bag, or to have tons of stuff in my trousers - that way distaster lies. How many trouser pockets did I wreck in my youth? Too many.

Anyway, I've been plenty cosy with just a jacket, on warm days I can wear one without an inner lining, on colder days a nice woolen or tweed one, lovely. But on Monday I didn't feel that even the heaviest one was enough and so today I dug out my wax jacket from its summer slumber. Like an old friend it was as if we had never been parted. This has even more pockets than my various blazers, just wonderful. I can even fit my bins in one, whereas previously I've had to hang them over one shoulder and get on the train with a suspicious bulge underneath my arm....

So wax jacket out and it's officially autumn. A scarf and my Bridge Coat will mean its winter. Of course in the birding sense it has been autumn for quite some time, and whilst it might be the start of the silly season for rarity hunters on far flung archipelagos, in actual fact autumn passage is largely over. The Flycatchers are gone, Wheatears and Whinchats are thin on the ground, Tree Pipits are through and finding Warblers is becoming increasingly difficult. 

Instead we're in a transitional period, and one where surprises can occur. Like Pintails. The last on-the-deck Pintail record in Wanstead was in 1975 - the year I was born. There was a flyover in 2020 but a series of blurred images are not especially wonderful. So imagine people's surprise when one arrived about a week and a half ago. There were some ID shenanigans which prevented both initial news getting out quickly as well as its subsequent pinning down, but I was in America at the time and was thus not especially bothered. In fact had it never been seen again beyond the initial sighting I'd have selfishly taken that as a semi-decent outcome. Eventually however it was pieced together as still being present, albeit on a different pond, and everyone connected. Gah! The pressure was on, but I am nothing if not jammy and it was still present when I landed in Heathrow four days later! I twitched it immediately, Lake Michigan to Heronry. Phew.

In addition to this excitement (my 166th bird in Wanstead) the first autumn Lesser Redpoll chupped over me last week, and this weekend I added an autumn Stonechat. I'd somehow missed both of these over the first winter period and so my year list is now looking pretty acceptable for what has been a less than stellar year. In fact it's slightly above my 15 year average which is pretty unexpected all things considered. Then again it's about the same as I was on in April 2021.....

Sunday 17 September 2023

April on Madeira

At least it is this April, it could be a lot worse. Needless to say I've had this on my to-do list for a while, and whilst there are more interesting things I could write about, readers do need to be informed about Madeira and what a cool place it is. From my persepective it is a botanical garden with a few birds thrown in. I know, what is not to like? I shall be brief, for the sake of, well, brevity.

I've been to Madeira a few times before, mostly solo. The first trip was to scratch the itch of the island's endemics, Firecrest, Trocaz Pigeon and so on. It didn't take me long to catch on that this was a simply stunning place where the gardens and verges were as interesting as the birds. Perhaps more interesting actually, fabulous collections of Cycads, Araucaria growing alongside Agave and Aloe. Heaven on earth in my book. Subsequent trips tended to be about the plants more than the birds, but there was something missing. Mrs L. She has no interest in birding trips, nor particularly in the kinds of plants I like, but over the years something about my enthusiasm for the place must have taken hold and a seed was planted. I knew she would like it, but there was always somewhere else to go, something else to do. This April though and we were finally game on - the Easter holidays, Madeira the perfect destination for an exhausted teacher and her long-suffering husband. Or something like that.

The timing wasn't wonderful, I'd just had Covid again, and was in the middle of a bout of diverticulitis that would eventually see me seek medical advice (spoiler: I survived). I'd booked a particularly lovely hotel, a hotel I had walked past many times on previous trips and wondered what it was like. All I can say is that there are worse places to be ill and it was wonderful. Things being as they were we didn't do a great deal, and so for once a holiday was actually a holiday rather than a manic trip trying to squeeze as much in as possible. An old person's holiday, and I could get quite used to them. Leisurely breakfasts, reading on our own private terrace, a swim in the pool, evening cocktails in the bar and a meal out. Add in a visit to a Madeira winery, an utterly fabulous botanic garden, and Cory's Shearwater nesting in the cliffs below the hotel....well, I personally don't need much more to be happy. Very happy. We didn't even hire a car, so the island beyond Funchal remains for another visit, and as Mrs L is now a convert I don't expect it will be too long before we're back. In fact typing this is making me think of booking it again....

The view was a bit so so, but we got through it

The sensational Monte Palace Gardens

The hotel was a botanical garden in its own right