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! 


  1. A very interesting post with which to end the year. Even though you may think blogging is dead/dying, I hope you don't stop yours. I very much enjoy your trip reports (and other posts, too, of course), and I look forward to reading of your adventures next year. I hope 2024 will be a year of peace and good health for you and your family – and lots of travel and good birds for you.


    1. Let's see how I go. Same to you re peace and health. Neither guaranteed!

  2. OMG, the stats! I only get as far as a notebook and a Numbers spreadsheet! As above - keep on Blogging.....