Sunday 31 December 2023

The year in numbers

At the start of this year I wondered if I would be able to see 1000 species by the end of it. A 'Big Year' of sorts, but with my own little target, nothing like these frankly bonkers global missions where somehow one person sees 7000+ species in a single year. It has taken me a lifetime to see somewhere around 2500, I just don't get it. As per usual I had a lot of travel planned but no, 1000 would suit me fine. Previously my best annual effort was 781, achieved last year and in no small measure due to having spent a week on a guided birding trip in Colombia.

To cut a long story short I didn't make it, and even with a month left to go I knew I wouldn't. But I did come pretty close - 960 at the time of writing, completely obliterating my previous total but nonetheless falling short of that nice round number I had hoped for. Oh well, it is only a number. I half thought about doing another trip just to get over the threshold but dismissed it as silly and frivoulous, a rare instance of self control. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to travel as I do, and it's very self-indulgent. Then again it's one of the principal reasons why I work where I work. But you knew that, I covered it a few weeks ago. Anyway, I didn't quite manage it but I will simply try again next year, something to aim at and as you would expect I already have a few things lined up. 

With apologies to those who hate flying, frequent flyers, airplanes and any other mode of transport apart from a bicycle, above is a map with a breakdown of where I went in 2023. I didn't mention this in the post I referenced above as that wasn't the thrust, but a few years ago I had a long think about how much I fly. This was during COVID when I wasn't going anywhere and was rather depressed about it. When the world re-opened would I resume, or would I be so used to seeing nothing and going nowhere that I could just give it up? Over the course of a few weeks I wrote a mammoth blog post as I agonised about my personal contribution to global warming called "The Elephant in the Room". This contained all of the good things that I did for the planet, all of which were then rendered completely redundant by taking just a single flight anywhere. It was full of arguments, counter-arguments, contradictions and despair, and when it came to it publishing it I instead just deleted it in a strop. With myself, and with mankind's seeming inability to see beyond one week in the future. Bottom line it is a lot of travel for an individual when compared against the average. I don't know how these things are calculated but if a person takes just one flight it likely uses up their entire annual 'carbon budget' or close to it. Then again I'm told that even driving a modest car around the UK a fair bit has the ability to do that. Of course I take many more flights than just one a year but after beating myself up for a couple of months I concluded two things. 1) That the only way to actually stop contributing to global emmisions is to essentially stop doing almost everything. 2) Even if I and my entire family immediately went and lived off-grid in a cave it wouldn't change the outcome in any way. We're pissing in the wind, fiddling in the margins. The world is going to continue to heat up with or without me, the planes - more and more of them - are going to fly regardless of whether I am on them or not, and frankly we are all screwed and nothing is going to stop that and certainly not the actions of an individual or even a family. It comes down to this - I enjoy travel above pretty much everything else. I could stop but then I'd be miserable, and I see no point in being pointlessly miserable. Moral superiority perhaps, but at what cost? That's where I'm at. One day, when I have the time, I am going to do some very long voyages by train and by car. I've been reading about long-distance train trips across continents and they sound incredible. Right now I don't have the time, so I fly places. 

I've read the counter-arguments to my stance and I agree with a lot of them. Call me irrational and selfish (or less charitable things) but they don't change my view on individual flying, or indeed the wider picture as it's not just aviation that is the problem regardless of what some would have you think. The complexity of what we face and the morass of inter-related themes is mind-boggling, but flying, which is measurable and where individuals can exercise a choice, is a soft and understandably popular target. Actually more carbon emissions come from commercial shipping, much of it to support all the crap we don't need but buy anyway. And as for coal-fired power plants across the globe, well we might as well all give up. My own "What the hell is the point?" moment came from one particular visit to America a few years back. I had just arrived and it was dark. I was headed away from the city along a six or seven lane highway (each direction) that was bumper to bumper with cars, many of them gigantic SUVs. Alongside both sides of the highway were a sea of illuminated signs for an almost infinite number of fast food joints, car and truck dealerships, fuel, shops and megastores, personal injury lawyers, you name it it was on a sign, just extraordinary levels of consumption and consumerism. Planes were coming into land overhead one a minute and I had this realisation that this was the current day incarnation of Bladerunner. Was I in LA? I can't remember, but the scene surrounding me felt semi-dystopian and it went on for miles and miles. And I knew that not only was it like this night and day, but that it was like this in every major city across the country. I just saw this same road stretching across the States and felt insignificant and helpless in the face of it. Fair enough on that particular evening I might have been a part of it, but for the vast majority the time I wouldn't be here. But the traffic still would be, the fast food places, the gas stations, the strip malls, the fumes, the noise and the excess, it would run continuously. Deep down I knew that nothing could change America or anywhere else quickly enough to make a difference. Some people might witness this and return home to become a hermit. I took a different path, not one of denial exactly but one of resignation. Critics can say that I gave up because the alternative was too hard, that I took the easy and selfish route, buried my head in the sand. Fine, I did and I have. I can't justify it, who can? Feel free to flay me in the comments because I dare to acknowledge it.

So yes I continue to travel by air, and despite all the above I find it incredibly liberating. As I have mentioned before I plan each of these trips meticulously, I get almost as much enjoyment from the planning as I do from the executing of the plan. Travel is also not always straightforward, but I get a perverse kick from being able to navigate through non-straightforward situations and still make it work. One day it will no doubt all do wrong but that day has yet to come, and 2023 was actually a pretty easy year. Here it is in bird count form.

USA - 258. I went to America three times this year. An expedition to Hawaii in April which also included a morning in California. Five days in New England in May was all about birding, and I then had five days in Ohio visiting family in September. It's my biggest ever year list for the States and I saw 31 new ABA species.

Colombia - 184. I went again, but to visit friends and experience some real Colombia, chilling out with a large extended family. I did have a day being guided near Bogota at the very start, but this was mostly a non-birding trip if such a thing exists in my lexicon. Most of the time was spent in the lowlands towards the start of the Llanos, hot and humid, and teeming with birds. Many were just seen from a garden or a pool, beer in hand....

Mexico - 167. Mick and I went on a fun trip early on in the year to Cancun and explored the jungles towards Belize and Guatemala using the Mayan ruins as entry points into pristine forest. It was hot and difficult but extremely rewarding - Ocellated Turkey anyone?

Argentina - 150. Another non-birding trip, ahem....A week with Mrs L in Buenos Aires in October somehow netted an amazing number of birds. What can I say? Well, for starters Costanera Sur, an urban reserve within the city, is simply fabulous and is responsible for most of them, but we also went south of the city for a day out. This is as yet not written up, I ran out of steam after.....

South Africa - 146. I took two of the kids on safari in July. Although the primary focus was mammals, there are also a ton of birds in the Kruger and the trip report probably contained as much on them as it did Lions etc. A fabulous country, utterly beautiful.

Greece - 89. I spent a weekend around the Gulf of Corinth in January exploring ancient sites and birding some coastal marshes.

Iceland - 66. Another long weekend on the west coast. Dreadful weather probably didn't limit the total - there just aren't many birds in Iceland.

Canada - 53. This was the same trip as New England, I just started and finished in Montreal instead of, say, Boston, because flight timings worked a little bit better and I fancied spending a bit of time in Canada.

Croatia - 51. A weekend in the spring, a country tick and I saw a few birds at the same time as exploring Zagreb on foot.

Portugal - 41. My son and I spent a weekend in Lisbon, and then Mrs L and I went to Madeira. The low species count is evidence that I don't just go birding everywhere.

France - 34. A walking holiday in the Alps over the August Bank Holiday weekend with my friends from university. We were in Chamonix but started in Geneva, so the Switzerland count is from the same trip.

Spain - 30. I flew to Colombia from Madrid. Air Traffic Control meltdowns meant I had a day in Madrid rather than an hour, so I decided I would go birding, you know, just to do something a bit different...

Switzerland - 16. As above.

Hungary - 11. Birds seen from Budapest airport as part of the Hawaii trip. As I think I've explained before for some crazy reason it is significantly cheaper to depart from various European cities than London, so that's what I do. Airlines (or Governments) need to sort their shit out and disincentivise this, rather than positively incentivise it.

UK - 201 I spent most of November and December inching towards 200 and just cleared the hurdle in Fife with a Black Redstart. Many people see this number by the end of April, indeed when I spent more time away from the local patch there were years when I did too. This year most of my UK birding was local, and so 113 of the 201 were here in Wanstead. This is very slightly over the average, my eighth highest total out of the 15 years I've been keeping score.

Wanstead through the Ages

Nationally, I went on just five twitches in 2023, two more than in 2022. One of these was a dip in Kent where I sat in a hide listening to inane conversation for five hours. Fun times. The others were successful though and I added five new birds. In May the Grey-headed Lapwing in Northumberland en route to the Stejneger's Scoter in Fife, which in turn was en route to my parents who live there. I then surprised myself by going to Wales in September for the Magnolia/Canada duo, and finally in November I went to Essex and Norfolk on successive weekends for the Canvasback and Pallid Swift respectively. I enjoyed all these days out considerably but I still reckon my twitching days are more or less over. You have no idea how difficult I find it to motivate myself to get in the car.

Globally I added 233 new species to my life list. The Nearctic dominates heavily, as it always seems to in my case - I nearly always head west rather than east for some reason, probably my heritage. I need to try and change that but I have to say I am becoming heavily addicted to South American birding, a dangerous thing.  It is just so ridiculously good. What is interesting about the above (to me at any rate) is that of all of those days away just two days were spent with professional bird guides, and between them they didn't even contribute 80 species that I didn't see elsewhere by myself. I reckon that's pretty good going and something I want to try and continue to do. Roll on 2024.

In terms of checklists and my contribution to citizen science through eBird I've had my second-most productive year, with 632 checklists submitted. I'd do it anyway of course, even without the research aspect of it, but equally it does make it feel less pointless. A lot of people scoff at lists, say they're pathetic, silly, but each singing Song Thrush I dutifully record ends up being part of a wider effort and contributes to our understanding of what is happening to our wildlife. 228 are from the UK, of which 129 are from London, all but 7 from Wanstead. This pales in comparison to the 'lockdown' year, 2021, when I submitted over 300 checklists from my local area. In total I've submitted over 1600 lists within a mile of my house, and next year could see me submit my 1000th checklist for Wanstead Flats alone - that is true dedication.

Elsewhere I submitted 54 lists for Fife, and then a further 45 from other parts of the country, mostly East Anglia from a few day trips out to Essex and Suffolk. Further afield I submitted 144 lists in the USA, 48 in Mexico, and 46 in Colombia. Birding abroad is rather different, and the same amount of time birding will generally contribute far more lists than in the UK as I move between sites, often submitting over 10 lists in a day. Back home it will likely be just one, probably before work, and even on a weekend it will mostly just be a single visit to Wanstead Flats. I really go for it when I'm away, and it is no exaggeration to say that eBird has transformed how I bird. Where I need to do better is with media - adding photographs and sound recordings to the lists. That requires a lot more time as it generally can't be done on the fly. And it's also true that my photography has waned this year, again this is likely due to eBird emphasising recording of species as numbers rather than as media, but it can of course be both with a little extra effort. Let's see. I am starting off 2024 with what I hope will be a photography intensive trip away, with any luck it will rekindle a spark that I have been missing. I thought about doing a "best photos of 2023" post but realised I would struggle to even get to ten. How things change! What I probably could manage is my top ten bottles of wine, but although that would fulfil the brief of a year in numbers, it might be a little over the top even for this blog.

And what of this blog then? When I was trying in vain to find the post about climate change I discovered a draft post signalling the end of this blog, a big goodbye of sorts, penned a few months into 2020 and coinciding with the start of the dark days of COVID. I never published it for some reason, perhaps the simple act of typing it got me over whatever it was, and somehow that year I managed to eke out around 100 posts. This year it finishes with this one, the 103rd. Remarkable that I had the stamina, it came in a rush at the very end. As I write this this in late December 2023 there have been 2.42 million clicks (since 2009). Not quite the latest Taylor Swift video, but for a boring middle-aged man with comensurately boring hobbies..... Of these 220,000 came in the last 12 months, slightly under 10% of the total, but under 5% of the content. Should I read anything into that? Maybe, maybe not - I still think that blogging is dead/dying.

Per the stats the most read post this year was about Hummingbirds in St Lucia, which I wrote over ten years ago. There is nothing quite like being relevant I suppose. That's an anomaly though as after that they're all from this year, with - gratifyingly on one level - an innocuous post from the patch about seeing a Sedge Warbler in the same bush as a Garden Warbler. In third place was a post about new birders on the patch and how  to deal with an understandable tendency for over-excitement and related over-reporting. Wren! So two out of three about the patch is reasonably telling, shame it is so dull most of the time. Seeing as we are here, number four was about the aforementioned Stejneger's and White-winged Scoter double, and the fifth was that one also referenced above where I railed against being told to shut up. If I ever seem to be in danger of quitting, just make me angry.

So those are a few of the numbers from 2023 - birds, countries, lists, trips, posts and patch.  

Happy New Year! 

Friday 29 December 2023

Notable deaths in 2023

Bob the Turaco 2008-2023

I didn't actually know it had been named Bob, but this popular Wanstead bird passed away this year in a local Old Turacos home. I'm not sure of the full story but apparently he was found unwell in a garden, easily scooped up, and transported to a vetinary hospital. Old age or illness had taken its toll, and he died on December 3rd. Bob, a White-cheeed Turaco, was first seen in Wanstead around 2008, the earliest photo of him I can find is from February 2010. A local legend frankly, amazing that a bird from Ethiopia could survive here all these years - including some really cold spells. Local residents used to leave out chopped fruit, and he quite liked hanging out with Chickens. I attracted him into our garden from time to time by whooping and clucking which generally worked a treat. His red wings were nothing short of spectacular when he flew, and of all the birds that live here this was the one that non-birders most often mentioned to me. RIP Bob.

World's Stupidest Black-necked Grebe, 2021-2023

In early May 2021 a Black-necked Grebe took up residence on Alexandra Lake, a pond so unsuitable for it that you had to question whether it was firing on all cylinders. It stayed for something like six months and became a bit of a looker over the summer. The following year, in April, it returned - clearly this was a very dim bird indeed.  The next year, 2023, it returned in March, and this time brought a mate. I mean really, what an idiot. Mrs Grebe hung around for a few days, dismissed it for the dump it was, and left. What followed was tragic and ultimately very sad. The Grebe called for days, a plaintive "why hast thou forsaken me" moan, but to no avail. A few weeks later it was found on the side of the pond in bad shape. It was collected, taken to Grebe hospital, and died overnight. Of a broken heart we suspect. RIP.

It even looks a few slices short of a loaf in this photo

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Nacreous Clouds in Fife

I was in Fife for Christmas with the family. Birding opportunities were thin on the ground and the festive season seemed to coincide with a real drought in birds. I neatly missed the Waxwing incursion, missed the sea-watching season, replete with big Shears and Brown Booby, missed the Snow Goose and the Shore Lark. This is the trouble with trying to keep a list in a county that I don't live in, all the good stuff happens when I'm not there which is of course most of the time. I had a couple of sea watches off Fife Ness, picking the exact two days when Little Auk wasn't seen.... The sole crumb of consolation was a long-staying female Black Redstart on the beach at Crail which showed very nicely and was my 197th bird for Fife. Five trips this year, about 17 days, added seven birds which is not a great return. I was working for many of them, but still. 200 remains annoyingly distant and elusive but surely 2024 will be the year?

Clouds on the other hand are much easier to see than birds, and I was pleased to be able to get in on the Nacreous action during my visit. I thought I might have missed these too, as most reports had been just before I arrived, but luckily on Christmas Eve just before dusk I nipped outside to have a look at the sky and found one from the terrace. Looking the other way there were at least three of four more. I put the message out on a Fife WhatsApp group which may have prompted a few more people to nip out as soon there were reports from Crail, Newburgh, Anstruther and Ladybank. Clouds being big things we were probably all looking at the same ones. Still, it was nice not to dip and whilst my photos don't remotely do the scene any justice I very much enjoyed this natural phenomenon which somehow I have not seen in the close to 50 years I have been rotating around the sun. 

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Wanstead: Bird of the Year 2023

Some of the local birders had a small gathering at the pub before Christmas to talk about how rubbish 2023 had been and how 2024 was going to be so much better we were going to do something totally different next year. It has been a poor year for sure, with many migrant numbers well down and most people's annual tallies suffering for the same reason. There is a school of thought that says that the physical boundaries of a patch end up becoming a mental barrier for enjoyment, and I can definitely see how that could be the case. For instance I am stressing about the now high likelihood that I won't see a Wigeon on the patch this year, which for me would be the first blank year for that species since 2009. I am having similar Snipe anxieties, a blank here would be the first ever. This is despite the fact I have seen lots of both of these this year elsewhere, often extremely well.

Birding a patch is an exercise in futility and stupidity, and as a number of us remarked that Saturday evening, it is the hope that kills you. With the year nearly up I have submitted 118 eBird lists from the patch. 118 trudges around the local area, almost all of which have been incredibly dull from an avian perspective. Clearly you can't see good birds on every visit, but the times that you do are incredibly few and far between. But when you do, oh boy.....

This year there have been no stand-out birdy events. There has not been a cold snap that has delivered hundreds of Lapwings. There has not been one of those mass hirundine events that has you gasping in wonder. There have been no noteworthy migrant falls of any kind. I think we had a couple of days where we had 10+ Wheatear but something that will long in the memory? Nope. Our usual stalwarts like Redstarts and Flycatchers were well down, a small concentration towards the end of August that was over nearly as soon as it started, so nothing really on that front either. There was a big movement of Redwing one morning, and some large Woodpigeon migration, but those actually happens with some regularity and so cannot really qualify. That only really leaves new birds, the event that all patch birders live for. Patch ticks. 

I had three in 2023, an unexpected improvement on the last two years, especially as it gets progressively harder to add anything the more you have seen. 

Corn Bunting - June

I had been engaged in some high stakes gardening, trimming a tree down to allow more sunshine to penetrate my greenhouse. After a full day of death-defying clambering with no health and safety considerations whatsoever I had finally finished and was just sitting down with a cool drink when I noticed I had missed a number of WhatsAspp and text messages during the previous 40 minutes. I got to Wanstead Flats with about two minutes to spare before the bird flew off never to be seen again. Phew. So a very brief encounter but nonetheless a major improvement on the sorry tale of October 2020 when I was standing at one end of Centre Path seeing people looking at a Hawthorn and taking photos down the other. Not a word was spoken at the time but later that evening, or maybe even the following day, photos emerged of a juvenile Corn Bunting. Those who didn't see it were distinctly unamused!

Pintail - September

Another bird that nearly escaped, this patch mega was photographed early one morning but as the species was unknown to the observer, not circulated until early afternoon asking something along the lines of "What's this funny Duck?". By that time the bird was no longer present on the pond it had started on, so a search of local water bodies was undertaken, with negative results. Much later that evening a photo from this search emerged clearly showing.....a Pintail. Cue a third search for the bird and this time news went out straight away and everyone saw it. Now I was in America at the time and so was just watching this whole debacle unfold on WhatsApp whilst consuming a large box of popcorn, but it was still present the next day. And the one after that. Now the nerves began to kick in! I arrived back from the US and managed to make time that same afternoon to go and look for it. Thankfully it was still present, but it was a very rapid tick and run and by the time I had any meaningful amount of time on my hands it had gone. The only previous sighting of Pintail since 1975 had been in 2020 when a bird was seen so appallingly that the first time it flew over it went down in someone's notebook as a Godwit, so this species definitely has form with bamboozling local observers. Like the Corn Bunting my main feelings were of relief rather than delight.

Whooper Swan - November

I've only just recounted this one as it was last month, but in a nutshell there had been strong northerly winds the day before and the following morning a couple of central London patches managed to record an initially nine-strong flock of displaced Whoopers. By the time they flew over Wanstead they were down to five, and our views in the field were not especially conclusive even though we had been alerted that they could be coming our way by other observers on the river. Photographs, even at distance, saved the day, and remarkably this was actually a first for Wanstead. 

Photo by Tony Brown

Whooper Swan is my bird of 2023 without a doubt. Despite the fact we knew they were on their way it was not a given they would be visible, and so for me this was easily the most satisfying of the three patch ticks as despite the distance and the brevity as I was actually involved in the find rather than playing catch-up. It was vaguely reminiscent of the Cranes that flew over in September 2020, the sheer unlikelihood of the trajectory and that anyone would be present in the right spot at the right time to intersect elevating the sighting.

So was it worthwhile? Are these golden, sometimes incredibly brief moments worth the 115 other visits where you nearly died of boredom? We might grumble about how poor it has been, but we all live for these moments. As such do we all feel trapped by the patch? The trouble is that the margins are so fine that it would have been incredibly easy to have missed all three, and that's where the problem lies. I still remember the story of a well-known and very dedicated Beddington birder missing a mega on his patch and putting his binoculars down there and then. Possibly throwing them down. That same evening he deleted his blog and resigned from the local records committee. Maybe it had been a long time coming, but for him it was the final straw. He never visited again.

I'd like to think that birding in Wanstead would never affect me in this way. If that were going to happen then there have been more than a few birds over the years that could have been a trigger, but I just plough on. If I miss something I miss something, I am away sufficiently often that I am actually amazed I don't miss more. Imagine being too scared to leave the patch? No, not me. It's just one place I go birding. A lot for sure, but the world is a bigger place.

Thursday 21 December 2023

A waning

Earlier this year I wondered if I stood a chance at getting to 100 posts. This was in August, it felt as if the year was already drawing to a close, and with just 40 posts at that point I could easily have come under the low count of last year. This bugs me. I hate it when I can't write but I know from experience that there is nothing I can do about it and so I dont fight it. I continued to dribble out the odd post until about October, which ended somewhere in the 50s. Then along came November, and with it a renewed enthusiasm for creativity. Creativity born out of procrastination it has to be said, with none of my trips from May onwards written up. Fully aware that they fall on largely deaf ears I got cracking, I am nothing if not stubborn. I've now finished up until the end of August and still have a couple to go from September and October. Will I see it through?

Well unfortunately I sense a waning. Can I really be bothered? On one of them I wasn't able to take my camera, so what should be a richly-illustrated few days has almost nothing. This was due to an air traffic control meltdown; I decided to play it safe and rather than return from Switzerland to London and risk getting stuck there, I changed my plans and went straight to Madrid. My pre-packed camera bag that I hadn't wanted in the Alps thus remained in London which was a real shame. The other major trip was not really a birding trip, but there are lots of photos of other things and may merit one of those single but image-heavy posts that I do from time to time.

The other thing holding me back, or starting to at least, is that this is my 99th post of 2023 and the 100th is already written. That nagging feeling of output inadequacy is ebbing away, and with it the feeling I should really get my arse in gear. I did that in November in December, that was the heavy lift, and now I am subconsciously gearing up for a rest.....

Monday 18 December 2023

Christmas comes early

Back in October or November when I was frantically running up and down the garden in my [delayed] annual plant reshuffle I noticed that my Strelitzia reginae was growing something that did not look a leaf. I was in a big hurry so scooped it up with everything else that needed to come in and shoved it in the conservatory. Sure enough it was a flower stem, at this stage just a thin vertical spike. For those of that don't know your latin plant names the common name is Bird of Paradise. It's possible that even this means nothing to you, but when you see the photos you'll go "Ah, so that's what that is!".

I left it as close to the window as possible as South Africa is a high luminosity environment but nothing happened. Or if it did it was imperceptible. Gradually the conservatory got cooler and cooler, and whilst the spike had definitely increased in height I felt sure that it would never develop fully. After a series of failed negotiations about taking it up to the much warmer bedroom I took it up to the much warmer bedroom. 

Bingo! Heat was the missing piece and once provided growth restarted in a visible manner. I even had to water it. Since then it has been a race against time, specifically a race against December 25th. I wish I had taken a time lapse but what happened is that the top of the spike started to swell, becoming a bit wider than the thin stalk, and then last week that swelling started to lean to the left, or in my case south-west, as I assume it must be related to the light in some way. By Friday it was at around 45 degrees, and just this Saturday I remarked to Mrs L that I could see a faint line of orange on the top. On Sunday I even posted this crappy photo to Twitter, just because.

This morning I woke up as usual and started to potter around the bedroom. Gah!! At some point in the night this had happened. I've got an advent calendar but this is just so much better. I keep looking at it and smiling ear to ear. I've had these flower before, in fact my Strelitzia juncea (a rare thin-leaved variant of the same plant that I grew from seed) has even flowered before now, but somehow this one is more perfect. Perhaps it is the time of year, a splash of colour in a dreary season, perhaps it is a function of ageing, who can say? But it has made me very happy.

My early morning surprise

I remember exactly where and when I got this plant. It was in January 2018 on Madeira, a weekend escape for some much-needed warmth and specifically to seek out plants. I bought it as a tiny plug plant, only a few inches tall, from a stall at the Mercado dos Lavradores in central Funchal, near to where the cable car goes from. Along with various other goodies it came back to London with me and has been nurtured ever since. Perhaps nutured is too strong a word, it has been in a corner of the greenhouse year round, left to its own devices. It gets baked in the summer and I water it, and frozen in the winter when I ignore it. This year is the first time it has been in, it will go soft! Anyway, it has taken nearly six years, but it has delivered and just in time for Christmas.

I get the feeling that the flower stem is highly etiolated due to low light, but it is all about the bit on top!

Next year I'll repot it, they have huge roots and if I do not it will simply crack the pot which would be a big waste. I may yet have to break it to get it out but let's see. Anyway, the timing is very apt - I am full on South Africa at the moment having just written up the trip from July. It is a shame that my various Aloes chose to flower during our summer, as to have this plant set in amongst the Fan Aloes and have them all flower simultaneously would be sensational. 

Sunday 17 December 2023

Where has the water gone?

Another dismal Saturday morning attempting to see birds in Wanstead, probably made even worse by my marathon blogging of South Africa, full of incredible memories of colourful birds.  The Flats were dreadful, the Park a little better. I don't often go to the Park, but there was a decent range of Ducks on Heronry. Well below peak numbers in years gone by, but 12 Pochard were a big number these days. Going back a few years I have a high count of 60 in 2012, and plenty of counts in the 30's and 40's before that. Something must have happened around that time as after 2012 the highest counts are of 20 in January 2013 and 15 in September 2014. January 2015 then has a record of 12 birds, but that is the last double-figure count since yesterday. That is what I call a decline.

Gadwall exhibit a similar decline locally. Ten years ago I could regularly count 70, 80, 100+ birds in the Park. Yesterday there were 25. Part of the reason for the decline in Ducks might be a decline in water. The following photos show the current state of the Canal on the Ornamental Waters. It might need renaming....

The 'Canal'

The OW has (had...) two arms that stretch north and south from the the central feature, the rectangular Canal. Just to the south is the Grotto. Broadly the arms follow the course of the Roding, which was diverted a long time ago onto its current course. The northern part began to lose water, dry out and increase in vegetation some time ago, but the Canal and the southern section were still OK until relatively recently. Back in 2015 there were 34 Wigeon on the Canal, a local record number. I had actually thought that this was more recently than eight years ago, so maybe the deterioration has in fact been slower, but nonetheless look at it today. Wigeon? Hah! 

The whole of the Ornamental Water now looks like this, overgrown, and with a few residual pools here and there. Talk about being left to rot by the land owner. Not saying that this is an easy job, but still, year after year of doing nothing (the pump at the northern end has been out of service for what, five years, a decade?) and this is the result. It's likely to be an expensive fix, but perhaps more expensive now rather than if it had been dealt with it when it started becoming a problem. We've all been there I suppose. I just checked the latest accounts of the Corporation of London - it seems expenditure outstrips cash income, but nonetheless this is not an organisation that in seems in any great financial peril - balance sheet assets are £1.3bn, and they increased by 10% in the 2021-22 tax year. The Director of Open Spaces earns £116k year. I reckon whoever that is should come and have a look at it!

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Trip List - Animals

My primary focus might have been birds, but the main draw of the Kruger is the abundance of animals. We were not disappointed, it was incredible, and the views were mostly breathtaking. It was ridiculous how quickly we went from being blown away with an Elephant to essentially ignoring them. Lions and Leopards are top billing, and I thought we would see lots of the former and, if we were lucky, one of the latter. In the event we saw six Leopard and 11 Lion, really not the numbers of either that I had been expecting. We did not see a single hunt take place, nor did we see a single fresh carcass - all that must happen all of the time, but you would need to be lucky to see it.

Hyenas were seen quite frequently, including on at least one of the night drives. These boosted our mammal lists considerably, and were responsible for both Jackals, all the Civets and Genets, a White-tailed Mongoose, most of the Steenbok and our sole Reedbuck.

Bushbuck were present in small numbers inside all the Camps as far as I can recollect, and Vervet Monkeys were mostly seen at the picnic sites for obvious reasons. 

The bigger mammals were basically everywhere. Impala were the most numerous animal on every single day, generally sticking to srubby and well-vegetated areas, as did Kudu and our single Nyala on the final day. Buffalo ran them close on one occasion, with a very large herd south of Lower Sabie. They, along with Zebra and Wildebeest were almost always in more open areas, and Giraffe stuck to the scrub. Hippo were seen every day, always in water with the exception of one seen on a night drive - it was remarkably quick and nimble on land, running as if on tip-toes. Almost every river and water body had Crocodiles, some of them absolutely gigantic. We saw White Rhinoceros just once, in the dusk as we approached Berg-en-Dal from Malelane, a trio of animals. Honey Badger was seen just once as it ran across the road in front of us, somewhere between Malelane and Crocodile Bridge on the S25. You just have to get lucky.

Where we were unlucky was with Wild Dog and Cheetah. We missed the former at Tshokwane, and we heard from some fellow night drive participants that they had also been seen on a morning walk from Lower Sabie. Cheetah we barely heard anyone even mention. Next time! Anyway, here is the animal list as best as I can remember it - we unfortunately didn't think to keep day lists, but I've pieced this together from photographs and distinct memories. I still think I am missing a couple of Lion from somewhere, and will update this if I can work it out.

Saturday 16 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Trip List - Birds

We saw 146 species in six days, albeit that a full day was taken up driving to and from the park. It was a lot harder than I had imagined as we were mostly confined to the car and you couldn't follow up on any sightings. The best birding was in the Rest Camps at the start of each day. This obviously means that you can't get out into the Park when the camp gates open, which is the best time to be driving around as animals are still active, particularly predators. It depends what your priorities are. We did pretty well on both fronts, but looking back now I think I should have done more early morning birding. The kids probably would have thanked me for it too!

The full day by day list is below. This will give readers a view of what is common and what isn't so common. Although as mentioned most of our time was spent in the car where birding is restricted, I did of course stop very frequently, which often resulted in traffic backing up behind us assuming that we were enjoying killer views of a concealed predator. I ended up buying an "I'm a Birder" bumper sticker! The eBird trip report can be found here, and you can drill into each checklist and see numbers and so on. Of the 146 species seen, 95 were lifers, which is not entirely surprising given I had never been to that part of the continent before. There is surprisingly little overlap with the Western Cape, of the birds seen only about 40 are on that trip list, and about 10 of those are in any event global species you can see almost anywhere in either hemisphere like Grey Heron! In summary even when you're actually looking for animals you end up seeing quite a lot of birds. When you make a sustained effort you can see a lot of birds, especially within the Rest Camps.

Friday 15 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Day 6 - The Crocodile River and home

The trip was going well, with something like 127 bird species and approaching 30 mammals. The big 'misses' up to this point were Cheetah and Wild Dog, though we had seen four individual Leopards, double figures of Lion, Rhinos, lots of Hyenas and all sorts of grazers. We needed to leave the Park by 1pm to ensure that the drive back to Johannesburg was accomplished in daylight, even though the flight itself was not until 9pm. This unfortunately meant less time in the Park than theoretically would have been possible, but I just didn't want to take any chances at all.

Laughing Dove

We still had a bit of time though, and rather than head out as soon as the gates opened I went birding in the camp - despite being on safari, you simply cannot stop teenagers from sleeping, so I just left them there. One day they will realise how dumb they were but I didn't mind. Birding had been very hard from the car, and it had only really twigged for me that it was the camps that had the biggest eBird lists. And for good reason. I spent two hours walking around Berg-en-Dal from around 6.30am and recorded 42 species, by far the largest count of birds at any point on the trip, and ten new trip ticks. Would that I had adopted this strategy earlier! 

Starting at the dam I found Little Grebe. This had no doubt been there on our first stay at the camp and a Black Stork flew over while I was watching it which was rather a bonus. Also present were Kittlitz's Plover, Hamerkop, Little Egret, three Striated Heron, three Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, two Pied Kingfisher and a Malachite Kingfisher. An African Black-headed Oriole was showing nicely on the Aloe here and singing from time to time. I then birded to the north of the gate along the footpath that does a loop around the camp, finding a flock of Speckled Mousebird, a Purple-Crested Turaco, and some stunning Scarlet-chested Sunbirds. Also Cape Crombec, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Retz's Helmetshrike, Sombre Greenbul, and a Red-backed Scrub Robin. There were basically birds everywhere and unlike being in the car I could actually take my time, wait or follow, and had a much better success rate of actually identifying them. 

Crested Barbet

Kurrichane Thrush

White-breasted Sunbird

Cape Crombec

Amethyst Sunbird

Red-backed Scrub Robin

Tawny-flanked Prinia

I went back to wake the kids up to find that not only were they now awake but that they had had breakfast and were thinking about packing! Hurrah! Full packing for the journey home then ensued, and like a fool I decided I would just pack the camera up to because I didn't want to flash it around as I was leaving the camp. This backfired almost instantly as we encounted our showiest Leopard yet as we approached Malelane. Henry, whose camera is supremely portable did rather well here. It was casually walking through the bush about 10m from the car, right out in the open, amazing.

The plan for the morning was to try and find Cheetah along the S25, which broadly runs east-west alongside the Crocodile River between Malelane and Crocodile Bridge. To cut a long story short we did not succeed and so Cheetah remains a big gap on our SA mammals list. They apparently need a large territory in which to hunt, which naturally spreads them out and diminishes your chances of finding one. Oh well. It was a nice drive though, adding some Green Woodhoopoe right next to the car, lots of birds of prey, an immense and very ugly Marabou Stork, and a Groundscraper Thrush. There were lots of Impala along here so I can see why it is good for Cheetah. Also great views of Warthog and Zebra, and we found yet another Leopard asleep in a tree.

Marabou Stork

Green Woodhoopoe

Our time was up and a long drive beckoned. We exited the Kruger at Crocodile Bridge and picked up Route 4 westbound. Two final new birds were seen as we drove along - a couple of Red-winged Starling on the fringes of the Park at about the level of Kambaku, and as we got closer to Johannesburg Grey-hooded Gulls began to appear overhead. The drive was incident-free, although we did end up doing the final half hour more or less in the dark having started from quite a long way further east. It had been a superb trip, one that the kids had declared to have been the best holiday ever - a shame that Mrs L and my middle daughter had not been there but there will be other opportunities. And now that we have returned unscathed maybe we can talk about booking it up.

Berg-en-Dal to Crocodile Bridge is about 2.5 hours along the S25

Thursday 14 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Day 5 - Letaba back to Berg-en-Dal

I woke up early and left the kids sleeping for a bit whilst I explored the camp close to our hut. A 20 minute stroll produced a couple of Red-capped Robin-Chat and a a Kurrichane Thrush, which had been high on my list of Letaba targets. Unfortunately as it was still not fully light all my photos were terrible and I had to bin them. Today was a big day, we had to get all the way down to Berg-en-Dal before the camp gates closed, a journey of around five hours without stopping. We would be spending the whole day in the car. That said, we had over ten hours to drive those five hours, and there would be plenty of time to watch animals and look for birds.

Southern Red-billed Hornbill

We packed up and left the camp, and given all the time we had headed in the opposite direction, crossing the Letaba River and driving east towards Mozambique. We stopped on the bridge, the first time we had seen it in daylight, and were amazed by the numbers of birds. Well, I was amazed, the kids by this time were sick of birds. 200+ Little Swift, 20+ Grey-rumped Swallow and Plain Martin, a Saddle-billed Stork, Kittlitz's Plover and a lot more besides. There were also good numbers of Waterbuck.

At the Matambeni hide on the north bank of the river a stiff breeze made viewing difficult. In addition to a lot of Hippo and more Waterbuck we saw Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, 4 African Openbill, a Goliath Heron and lots of Lapwing. I masochistically counted the Egyptian Geese - 60. Not quite Wanstead standards but getting there.

By now 9am, we had to get going as the equation had now changed - eight hours to travel five and a half hours.... The next leg we basically did in one go, two hours back down to Satara. We did stop from time to time, including Red-faced Mousebird, another Kori Bustard and 3 more Southern Ground-Hornbill - what comically brilliant birds these are. This section was also good for raptors this morning, with 7 Bataleur, Tawny Eagle and Martial Eagle


Tawny Eagle

Martial Eagle

We stopped for fuel and snacks at Satara camp. Whilst the kids went to the loo I had a quick ten minutes around the car park. This was brilliant! Both Hornbills, Black-collared, Crested and Pied Barbets, a Cardinal Woodpecker, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Hoopoe, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Spectacled Weaver and Common Bulbul amongst other things - five new trip birds in as many minutes.

Common Bulbul

White-breasted Sunbird

Provisions sorted we carried on, taking the S100 east - this had good reviews as an excellent game drive and so it proved to be, with numerous Giraffe, WildebeestElephant, ZebraImpala, Kudu and a trio of Lions resting in some long grass but also causing another traffic jam. Towards the end of our return back to Satara a Little Sparrowhawk flew over the car.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker

It was now 1pm and we still had a long way to go. The first leg down to Tshokwane took about an hour, and we stopped at the picnic site there for a late lunch. Another Saddle-billed Stork was in the river here, along with Striated Heron and Black Crake, and at some point on the journey we had come across our first Brown Snake-Eagle, Hooded Vulture, and Red-crested Bustard.

Hooded Vulture

Red-crested Bustard

Black-winged Kite

The final leg down to Berg-en-Dal took around 4 hours, the quickest we could have made it in would have been about 3 hours. The speed limits in Kruger are low by design, there are plenty of hazards and also you see more if you drive slowly. We saw plenty of game on this drive, in fact I would go so far as to say that there is rarely any period where you don't see animals. Impala are the most frequently encountered, and when you find them you usually find loads, but Elephants are common. Zebra and Buffalo are also common, and so are Giraffe really. By this stage there were not many of the 'big' animals that we had not seen, and we were soon to reduce that tally by one. As we approached Berg-en-Dal with about ten minutes to go before the gates closed we were amazed to find three White Rhino just off the road. Wow! Certainly this sector of the Park was rumoured to be the best place for this species, but we had been convinced that we were going to miss them as not only had we not seen any but we hadn't really met anyone else who had. We took a few photos in the gathering gloom and made the camp with a few minutes to spare. One last brai? Oh go on then.