Tuesday 23 July 2024

Colombia - August 2023 - Day 2 - Bogota to Casanare

I think I met something like another 15 of Albert's extended family members at the restaurant. I had to write notes to try and remember who everybody was. In addition Albert's wife and son, there were his Mum, Dad, Stepmum and youngest step-brother. One of his sisters was also there with all three of her kids. Also there were his wife's parents and her sister, her sister's boyfriend, her Aunt and her Aunt's son (who I had met briefly at the airport), and finally her Grandma. Later I would eagerly ink in the family tree I had been maintaining. I would name them, but this is a public site and I don't know if they would be comfortable with that so it's easier not to. But I do remember all of their names as I spent nearly a week with them, and they were the most delightful and welcoming family - well, two families - that you could ever meet. I should at this point mention that a saintly miracle (Saint A, Albert's wife's mum) had occured the previous day in that my suitcase of dirty washing had been emptied out whilst I had been birding and all my clothes had been washed. I was back in business! 

Despite the late finish we were on the road pretty early the next morning as we had a long drive ahead of us. We didn't leave exactly on time but there were a lot of people to organise and to fit into vehicles. So shortly after dawn a load of us and our luggage piled into Don Gilberto's minivan. The doors didn't all open, and neither did the windows particularly, but despite the decrepitude of the vehicle Gilberto was a particularly cautious driver and ensured continuous divine protection by genuflecting with both hands whenever we came across a roadside shrine to the Virgin. 

The route took us north of where I had been the previous day, north of Bogota and then east along what is called the Transversal del Sisga in the department of Boyaca. A lot of the time you are following the banks of the Embalse de Chivor which has some nice viewpoints. The road then descends from Santa Maria through La Esperaza and crosses the Rio Upia (which eventually joins the Orinoco much further east), at which point you are in the department of Casanare. Sabanalarga, where Albert's mum has a house, was our final destination. This is on the very western edge of the Llanos plain, primarily lowland habitat and a very different climate to Bogota. The latter is at 2,600m, whereas Sabanalarga is under 500m. It would be hot!

Despite the leisurely pace it was hard to bird from Don Gilberto's van but there were quite a few breaks along the way. At the first one, still in the larger Bogota area, we stopped briefly alongside an agricultural area on the banks of the Bogota River. Here I managed to see Bare-faced Ibis, American Kestrel, White-tailed Kite and both Glossy and Black Flowerpiercer. Further along the route as we crossed the Cordillera a late breakfast above the Embalse allowed for a bit longer looking through my bins. Crimson-mantled and Golden-Olive Woodpeckers, Bananaquits, Tropical Parulas, Kingbirds, Plain-crowned Spinetail, Common Tody-Flycatcher, and a Spangled Coquette amongst others. 

We arrived early afternoon after something like a six hour journey. Most of us were booked into the local holiday camp, with a few of the gang staying at the finca. Albert's brother, a local teacher in Sabanalarga, lives next door to his Mum; they bought the land together, and so I was able to ink in some more of my rapidly-expanding family tree, including two of his children. Later on his wife's brother, wife and young daughter also arrived, and my pen had to come out again.

Whilst we all settled in I kept an eBird list going for the afternoon. Largely we all just chilled out at the family house - Albert had organised vast quantities of food and drink to be deliverd regularly in order to sustain 20+ people. The house is on the edge of town, mainly amidst agriculture, but whilst there were views of the river it wasn't possible to get all the way down to it. I contented myself by wandering down the lane and back, but most of the birds were seen in the garden, beer in hand. These included Golden-Olive and Lineated Woodpecker in the trees opposite, a Black-throated Mango nesting on a lamp post, lots of various Doves (Band-tailed Pigeon, Ruddy Ground Dove, Scaled Dove and Eared Dove), Yellow-crowned Parrots and Brown-throated Parakeets, tons of Flycatchers (Cattle Tyrant, Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher and Tropical Kingbird), Blue-grey, Palm and Burnished-buff Tanagers, Violaceous Jay and lots lots more. By the end of the day I'd recorded nearly 40 species without going anywhere and with virtually no effort expended bar a short walk into town for the daily fruit salad ritual, more on which later.

Monday 22 July 2024

Colombia - August 2023 - Day 1 - Cundinamarca

Normally I begin every trip report with a "Logistics and Itinerary" style post, detailing how I got there, where I went, my preparation and things people may find useful. This trip was a little different though as it was not strictly a birding trip at all. Birds did of course feature but this was primarily a people trip. For many many years I have had a Colombian colleague called Albert. I've known him from the day he arrived in this country, and watched in admiration as he has made his way. Whilst I have a professional relationship with him, over time a family friendship has developed as well. I've got to know various members of his family, and he and his mine. Last year he invited me to meet even more of them in Colombia. He was spending some time there on a break from work, introducing his newborn son to his relatives and frankly relaxing after a long stint working for me! A plan was hatched whereby I would squeeze in a few days in Colombia at his Mum's finca in Casanare, to the east of the Andean chain, enjoying a Colombian family get-together and seeing a side of the country that as a birding tourist in 2022 I hadn't. As such there are not really any logistics to talk about. I booked a cheap flight via Madrid like last time and that was about it.

As in 2022 when, concerned for my safety in big bad South America, Albert's dad had met me at El Dorado to hand me over to Alejandro the Mannakin Nature Tours guide, this time Albert and his cousin were at Bogota to meet me off the plane at an ungodly 4am. Along with Alejandro again, now of Tanager Photo Tours! Yes readers, you know me, I had organised a day of birding before the family festivities kicked off. This was the principal reason it was so critical I made my flight, I had really not wanted to miss this one-off day. I gave Albert my suitcase, organised a time to meet him later on, and departed east with Alejandro and his companion. Destination: the western slope of the Cordillera Oriental. The trip the previous year had taken in some of the Central and Western Cordilleras, each with their own birds, and so the thinking was that even though this was pretty close (as the Cotinga flies) to where I'd been birding before it would result in a host of new species. And so it proved.

Our first stop was the Reserva Forestal Carpatos, about two hours drive from the airport towards Guasca. The first half hour or so is through Bogota, and when you reach the eastern suburbs you then begin to climb up and up. Apparently Alejandro cycles this route for fun... As is normal with tropical birding, once you find a good road it is then just a question of stopping the car at promising spots and having a listen. In this way we found Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Speckle-faced Parrot, and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. There were also Scarlet-bellied and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers, a truly magnificent Beryl-spangled Tanager, and a couple of Longuemare's Sunangel, which as you may have guessed with a name like that is a Hummingbird. The full list is linked in the site name above.

The habitat around Carpatos

We carried on up the road known as the Reserva Bioandina entrance track. This was a rural area with fields on the lower slopes and forest on the higher steeper sections, and as we progressed the forested areas became thicker even though we continued birding from the road. One of our stops was at a smallholding that had been set up with feeders as is typical in Colombia, and here I laid to rest my 2022 poor views of Sword-billed Hummingbird, as well as getting great views of Lesser Violetear, Tyrian Metaltail, Blue-throated Starfrontlet, Mountain Velvetbreast and White-bellied Woodstar. Pale-naped Brushfinch were also visiting the feeders here. Would that I had had a proper camera but such is life. At least I was here though, what a disaster that would have been! A highlight along this section of the track was - remarkably I might add - another Antpitta for my collection, Muisca Antpitta. Alejandro heard this calling from deep within cover and managed to momentarily lure it close enough to the edge for me to be able to see it. This is basically another version (of many) of the Rufous Antpitta, which was split into a million different species in about 2020. Think a small orangey blob with almost no tail that likes hiding a lot. The full list of birds seen on this part of the trip is above.

Pale-naped Brushfinch

Lesser Violetear

This area was the furthest east we would go and took up the entire morning, so around lunchtime we were on our way back west to Bogota via some more sites and a picnic. The first of these was the Reserva Natural El Zoque, a montane/semi-paramo habitat which we had driven through earlier in the morning. I think I am right in saying that this is the highest section of the Bogota to Guasca road, and as such had the possibility of some different species. We were challenged by thick cloud (you are at 3,300m here) and sporadic driving rain, but nonetheless managed to see Andean Siskin, Glowing Puffleg, Great Sapphirewing, Bronze-tailed Thornbill, Black-chested Mountain Tanager and Mountain Elaenia

Our final stops were at a lower elevation specifically looking for Bogota Rail. The first of these was just to the west of Guasca, in some pools behind the Hotel Pedro Paramo. This stop added a number of wetland species to the day list, and another new Hummingbird with Green-tailed Trainbearer in the reeds. We were successful with the Rail, with two seen well on the edge. Sadly I deleted a crappy phone video I took as it was taking up too much space and to retain it would have meant yet another monthly subscription to Google for more space. However if you imagine a Water Rail you are basically there. As the name suggests it is endemic to this one tiny area of Colombia and there are not many of them - I was pleased to be able to squeeze it in. Another stop at the Gravilleras de Capilla de Siecha added another three Rails, as well as a Noble Snipe. 

Alejandro and I at the end of the day

Our final stop of the day was along a backroad from Capilla de Siecha to El Salitre. This added some Sparkling Violetear, Silvery-throated Spinetail, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Brown-bellied Swallow and a few more Great Thrush. We had been going for about 12 hours and I was pretty exhausted having come off an overnight flight, but it had been a successful day and we had seen just under 100 species, not bad going at all. Alejandro dropped me at Albert's wife's parents' apartment in eastern Bogota where I enjoyed a deep and restful sleep whereupon I had a quick shower and we all went out for the evening to a rooftop restaurant in central Bogota to celebrate his birthday until the small hours.

Sunday 21 July 2024

Nearly a year since I wrote about a trip

It has been nearly a year since I wrote a single word about travelling anywhere. Trip reports, once a labour of love, seem to have become a thing of the past. They were never especially well-read, but I liked being able to record what I had done, where I had been, and ground them out regardless. Then something changed, not sure what. I still have this vague notion that the death of Photoshop on my main PC is to blame. I refuse to enter into a subscription model, there are enough of those in my life, and so I just accepted that that was that and largely stopped editing my trip photos. And so trip reports stopped. I still get around of course, I just don't bother telling anyone about it. Who wants to hear about other peoples' holidays anyway?


Last night I was plagued by a party and a mosquito. The party, largely outdoor based, was at one of my close neighbours and started around lunchtime. At 2.15am it was still going strong. Mrs L regularly sends me Victor Meldrew memes as I descend into churlishness, a reminder of what I could become, and so I don't suppose I should begrudge anyone a party. I hope they all had a nice time. It sounded like it. The mosquito I have yet to settle the score with, it continues to elude me. All I know is that any appendage that I poked out from under the covers to try and cool down on what was an oppressive night was immediately sucked dry. The bites on my right elbow are particularly impressive, and somewhere in this room a bloated mozzie is struggling to sleep comfortably. I know how it feels. Despite a less than good sleep I found myself awake at 6am. I could have gone birding, but I am still building up to that after a week in Brazil. Nobody should feel sorry for me, but going back to patch birding after spending time in the Tropics is extremely difficult and I'm not ready yet. 

So what to do? Well the last trip I ever wrote about on here was Madrid in August of 2023. I shouldn't even have been in Madrid for any length of time, but in order to ensure that I did not miss a flight to Colombia in the face of a UK air traffic control implosion I made the difficult decision to skip returning to London from Switzerland (where I had been at the time), and instead go straight to Madrid where my flight to Bogota was leaving from. Although this gave me a day in Madrid, it also meant leaving my birding camera behind in London. Ah-hah! No photos to edit! Well, fewer photos to edit - I did have a camera, but it is very small and not conducive to blasting out thousands of images. Maybe this is the ideal place to start? Should I? The post will be read by fewer than 100 people, not a good use of my time - I should go and hunt down that mosquito instead which will be very satifiying although perhaps rather messy...

And so picking up from exactly where I left off....

Thursday 20 June 2024


I can't read and I can't write. That sums up where I'm at. I've not read and finished a book for about three years now, perhaps a little longer. I kind of hate myself for it. Have I become one of these internet halfwits that can only cope with brainless clips of no longer than about 15 seconds? This is what we will all become if we are not careful. This is the age of soundbites, doom-scrolling and fakery. My reaction has been to essentially stop using social media. I still spend too long on my phone (which I also hate myself for) but I no longer really contribute to the absolute ocean of garbage that is out there. And so as well as having offered the world just two tweets in the last two months, one of which contained zero words, I've also not written a word here for over a month. 

Plus ca change. We are in well established territory and I have nothing to say. Well not nothing. I could launch into a diatribe about all that is wrong with the world, about the death of decency on both sides of the Atlantic, about how unbelievably stupid so many people genuinely are, about elections, farce, smiling racists completely comfortable in their own skin, and extraordinary levels of deceit everywhere. But then again why bother? It is so incredibly depressing. You switch on the radio and it's a wall of grift and trash talk, and so you turn it off again. I couldn't even tell you the last time I turned the television on. And then as if you weren't upset enough you hear that people you admire have died, young-ish people with young families, and that's when you know for sure that the downward spiral is out of of control. What have we done to deserve this? What have we not done?

A small ray of light beckons at the start of July of course. Can't wait. The thieves hiding behind a veneer of nice accents and influential networks are going to get swept away, but their legacy will remain for many years, well beyond a single Parliament. Anyone who thinks that come July 5th everything will be OK again needs their head examining. But it might mark the low point, the start of a gradual upwards trajectory. Very gradual, and in fact I'm not even sure its fixable by any politician of any persuasion. It's absolutely right that somebody else gets a chance, but good grief what a pillaged mess they're inheriting. But it's still a positive. My far bigger worry is what is happening in America as that has the possibility of being world-changing. The toxicity is just outrageous, the perfidity breathtaking, and my heart is in my mouth as I watch from afar. 

Well that was nice. You now have an idea of where I'm at. 

Birds? Well, it is June, and you all know what that means. I decamped briefly to another country recently (quelle surprise) and enjoyed it very much. I went to a place that treats its populace largely as three year old infants and curtails many freedoms, but seems to genuinely have the best interests of its citizens at the heart of everything it does. As a result the place functions seamlessly, at least to the outside eye. People are polite, happy, helpful, healthy and prosperous. No doubt there are dark corners but it's hard to compare it to here and not come away thinking how much better it is and what a total mess we're in. Oh, I'm off again, oops. Best stop here. 

See you in July. Maybe.

Wednesday 8 May 2024


 * pops head round door *

Oh, hi. You still here? I've not been around much, one of those phases I'm afraid. We've been here before. They happen, they pass, they come round again. I've got loads to write, tons to say, lots to report. But I can't be bothered. Or at least not right now. The only reason I'm here typing this is because three milestones have recently been passed and I am nothing if not a numbers guy. Let's get right into it.

1) My 2024 World year list recently went through 500 with a Blue-winged Warbler in Arkansas. I know, who goes to Arkansas right? Well I did, and also to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky. An epic southern road trip last month. Will I ever write it up? Probably. This year? Seems unlikely y'all. 

2) I went to Scotland last weekend to stay with my parents. Owing to a communication failure it turns out that they weren't there so instead I just went birding. What a bummer. Mick joined me up there and on Saturday we had a big day - we managed over 100 species, not something I think I've ever done before. It turns out that I know the county well enough in terms of what's where to be pretty proficient at taking someone round. Everything just fell into place, Goldeneye were on two out of the three water bodies I thought they would still be on in early May. Raven were right where I knew they would be, as was Short-eared Owl. Goldcrest was in the exact tree I'd found one in before, and Garden Warbler was found in both spots where I thought there would be potential. That kind of thing. Probably not that impressive if you live there, but I live in London. But even though Saturday was a nice round number that's not the milestone I'm talking about. That milestone is 200 for Fife. I couldn't quite manage it in February, with a Waxwing and Bearded Tit leaving me on 199, but a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher at Kilminning on Friday evening became my 200th bird. Shortly afterwards, and at the same site, Pied Flycatcher became my 201st. I've been knocking on this particular door for some time now and it was great to finally get over the line. 

3) As the points above probably make clear, I've not spent every single waking hour in Wanstead. But such is my dedication, ahem, that this afternoon a Hobby became my 100th bird of 2024 for the local patch. Barring 2021 which will never happen again, this is actually the earliest I've reached this milestone, beating 2020 by a day! 

So a lot of nice round numbers. 500, 200 and 100. I need to have a look around and see if I am close to any others. Anyway, that was it. As you were. Bye now.

The incomparable Ruddon's Point and Largo Bay. Note the discarded camera....

Thursday 11 April 2024

Has it stopped raining yet?

It has been one of the wettest winters I can recall. The local ponds are all full to the brim, wader passage (such that we ever get here) will be virtually non-existent. I'd rather them be full than empty, as that would just be disgusting around here, and as we head into no doubt another record-breaking summer we need every ounce of water we can store as the levels will fall very quickly with the kind of temperatures that are commonplace these days. Ounce? Drop, maybe. Large sections of the patch which are not ponds are close to becoming ponds, or at the very least incredibly waterlogged and boggy. And bird-free of course, even though from a distance it looks really quite attractive. But of course what do I know? I am not a bird, and as Jubilee Pond constantly reminds us what looks completely grim from a human perspective seems to be very attractive to birds. So the reverse is probably true - to me it looks great. To a passing bird, meh.

The deluge is showing signs of easing, finally, and occasionally a funny yellow ball can be seen in the sky. This is very pleasant, and both and my plant-growing environments have begun to feel warm again. Only briefly of course, but I have sown the seeds of what will eventually become my annual bean harvest and now have a nice collection of seedlings that I will soon plant out. Concurrent with this change in the weather we have finally seen a bit of migration, although I missed by far the best day of the year by virtue of being somewhere else that was also very waterlogged. So waterlogged in fact that the streets had all flooded and the residents were having to get about in boats.

Even though I missed the fun at the weekend, the mornings have provided an opportunity to partially catch up. We've had a good passage of Common Redstart (unusual for Spring) including a lingering bird that has started to sing, the first Swallows have been passing over,  the regular Reed Warbler has put in an early appearance on Shoulder of Mutton pond, and in the last couple of days the first Whitethroats have arrived and are tentatively singing whilst getting booted around by Robins. Patch birders are never satisfied of course, and t
houghts are turning to what we might get next, and all local birders worth their salt have a mental list of targets and have fine-tuned their birdy radars for specific species. I am on high alert for Ring Ouzel for example, the 'tsiep' of a Yellow Wagtail, and for that first rattle of a Lesser Whitethroat. Any day now.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Easter weekend

I've spent all weekend on the patch, birded it three days out of four. The result, a stonking bag of spring migrants one Willow Warbler. One. That's it. Barring this one bird, not a single migrant of any note. No Wheatears, no fly-over waders, no hirundines, no nothing. It is hard not to be disappointed over four days. The numbers tell a different story as I ended March way above average on 83, but those are just numbers - all you need to see is one individual of one species and you're done. A more interesting stat is how many passed through. If I purposefully ommit Chiffchaff and Blackcap as they now overwinter in small numbers and are thus seen way before migration has officially started, the only passage migrant to appear so far this year prior to April 1st's Willow Warbler has been Wheatear.  The first of these was on March 16th, the next day it was joined by another, and a little later that week, the 19th, I picked up another male whilst Nick found a female. So what's that? Four birds if you're feeling generous? Since that day there hasn't been a sausage. Yes there was a Partridge, and you could say that a few Red Kite passing over are also migrants, but what I am trying to say in a far too roundabout way is that it has been shit. Four days of complete freedom to bird the patch, no work, no committments, and one single Willow Warbler. Unremittingly shit. Luckily I have other hobbies too, but I won't bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I have put in some serious shifts in the greenhouse and garden with which I am extremely satisfied.

So a weekend of pottering around basically, something I am extremely good at. I did exciting things like sweeping, pruning, and going to the dump. I have been middle-aged since I was about 19 and am now really beginning to hit my stride. As I took a lunch break on one of the days I wondered aloud to Mrs L whether this was what retirement was like. For some reason she put her head in her hands, I am not sure why. It is nice to spend time at home with the family, and I can only assume she is looking forward to it as much as I am.

The weekend also revolved around food. It being the holidays we have a full house here, and with the five of us it made a bit more sense to push the boat out a little. Of course some dishes were sniffed at - chickpea and chicory salad was not met with universal acclaim for some reason although Mrs L and I both liked it a lot. What irritates me is the picking and choosing, or that we will spend hours cooking a substantial meal and only a few hours later they will be swarming in the kitchen again, wolfing down cereal and toast as if they haven't been fed for days. Teenagers eh? Was I like this? The highlight of the weekend was probably our Italian meal, I haven't stopped jabbering about Italy since I returned from Piedmont in early March. I imported a load of goodies including a local pasta called Tajarin which we had as a primi piatti with some of my home-made ragu, and it was every bit as good as the dish I ate in an osteria in Alba. 

In other (now sadly regular) news the fence battles continue unabated. There was some minor respite on Good Friday, and for a moment we thought our anonymous adversary had perhaps gone away for Easter. Unfortunately they had not as we arrived on Saturday to one of the most egregious slashing incidents thus far that required the CoL team to come out and repair it as it was beyond the volunteers. On Sunday and Monday there was virtually no damage at all, but this morning it had been cut again, albeit only a little. Perhaps as we now re-enter the normal working week it will all start up again, my pet theory is that weekdays are more likely than weekends as people are up much earlier in order to walk their dogs before work, and the damage has always occured before we get there in the morning. So, a bum note to end on, but the Skylarks continue to sing - perhaps as many as four birds. Fingers crossed.

Thursday 28 March 2024

Red letter day

Back in 2015 one morning in April became rather a red letter day. Tim had found a Grasshopper Warbler, a patch first, in the Old Sewage Works. I'd dashed over there from where I had been on Wanstead Flats and managed to see and hear it, but literally as we were watching it news came from the Flats of a Red-Legged Partridge running around. Whilst not a patch first it was new for most of us and so I desparately dashed back over there. It wasn't to be and I had had to leave for work. But I decided to walk back across Wanstead Flats after work, and there in glorious low sunshine was a Red-legged Partridge bimbling around the football fields, happy as you like. I could scarcely believe my luck, and even managed to run home and get my camera, returning just in time to take a few photos in the dying rays of light.

It remained the only sighting for ages until Marco found one during the pandemic years, but that eluded everyone but him I think. That changed early yesterday when Tony found another one in the Skylark enclosure. It didn't show quite like the one above, but occasionally popped its head up from the long grass to have a look around. Of course being beyond the rope we couldn't get any closer (where is our knife-wielding friend when you really need him?) but it was excellent to finally get another, and it was a patch tick for at least two people who had missed the last one or not been birding here then. 

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Offensive fence offences

The battle for the fence is in full swing. On the one side, the birdwatchers of Wanstead Flats, the local wildlife group, and the Corporation of London. On the other, a small band of pathetic local vigilantes. Each morning the birders and wildlife volunteers find small sections of the fence cut, and each morning they repair it with spare rope that they carry. The next morning we find that it has been cut again and so we repair it again. This happens literally every day. It is quite tiresome and detracts from birding, but at the same time the damage is repaired very quickly and the integrity of the fence restored. Damaged or undamaged, it is having the desired effect of keep people and dogs out of the main Skylark breeding areas.

The damage is almost always where the footpaths intersect with the fence, a clear message that a person's right of way trumps wildlife. Sometimes a real rage descends, and not only is the rope near the paths cut but also anywhere where there is a sign about Skylarks. Sometimes the signs themselves are hacked to pieces. The mind boggles, really it does. Can you imagine a grown adult becoming so incensed with a sign about protected birds that their reaction is to kick it down and cut it up? I can't. This is the reponse of a truculent child, a spoilt brat. Every evening, or early morning, or possibly in the middle of the night, they sneak out with scissors or a knife and engage in this petty vandalism. No doubt it makes them feel good, important, untouchable and full of anti-woke virtue. They need to have a long hard look at themselves.

Some mornings after this red mist the damage is so severe and the Corporation has to send out a team to repair entire lengths of it. Last week I was first on site and discovered over 60 sections of fence cut through, signs slashed and thrown to the ground. As you might expect CoL are getting a little fed up of it, and rightly so. Lines have been drawn, the Police are involved, and they are out to catch the perpetrators. There is now CCTV, and signs warning of this. One person has already been caught in the act, a dog walker who in the middle of the day and casually as you like approached the fence, cut it, walked through the gap and all the way across the Skylark area before cutting the fence at the other end and walking out. Entirely deliberate, brazen. Happily they've been identified and the various follow ups that you would expect are apparently in hand. On another day a jogger decided to hop over the fence and carry on down the main path; they were apprehended on the spot by the Epping Forest Constables and told in no uncertain terms that they would not be doing that again. Turns out there was a language barrier, but at the same a physical barrier is a physical barrier and you shouldn't need to be able to read a sign to understand that a fence is there for a reason.

But the strong feeling is that the main vigilante, or possible several, are still out there and remain deeply committed to sending their message. So be it. They're outnumbered, out-gunned, and ultimately they are ineffectual - the fence remains, the Skylarks are within it and are singing away. No doubt these people are very pleased with themselves but that will change when they're caught. This isn't a one off, a mistake, oops, mea culpa. Every time the fence is damaged we're photographing it, sending the evidence to the Corporation, and a case is being built. As well as cameras there are now also patrols, official and unofficial, and we're collectively all committed to finding and stopping these people. And when that eventually happens, as surely it must as we've only got to get lucky once, they're not going to be let off with a slap on the wrist. It's gone way beyond that at this point. Watch this space.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Playing catch up

For a variety of the usual reasons I'd not spent any time on the patch for the last few weeks. My mood was buoyed on Friday by my first Chiffchaff of the year as a I took a slightly different route to work, but I felt strongly that Saturday would be the day that I would properly catch up with all that I had been missing. So it proved.

I bounced out of bed at 6.05am, annoyed with myself for oversleeping a bit. My eBird list went live at 6.24am as I stepped out of the front door. Game on. I had a little chat with Eve on Centre Path whilst not seeing very much - still too early for many things, a small flock of lingering Redwing, some excited Woodpeckers. The temperature began to rise just after 7am when Tony found a Yellowhammer - a strange combination of a skulker that could simply vanish, but also a belting bright yellow male that even began to sing from bushes. It was my tenth Yellowhammer on the patch, so a rare bird here, and the timing was pretty spot on. Of those ten records, seven of them have been in March or April. An ice-cool Richard managed to get across in time to tick it, but unfortunately couldn't stick around for the celebratory breakfast.

Of course the real prize this morning was a certain Chat. We were at exactly the half-way point in the annual Wheatear Sweepstake, mid month a prime date, and for Tony whose day it was all to play for. As we contemplated breakfast an odd Duck flew over us towards Jubilee. In almost all cases a Duck across Wanstead Flats is a Mallard, but this was completely wrong. A very small head, and a diminutive bill, pale underneath - alarm bells started to ring. This was surely a female Mandarin wasn't it? We scooted across to Jub where it had appeared to land, discussing the various things we had seen, and concluded it could only have been this. Wood Duck anyone? Frustratingly there was no sign on Jubilee, but I'd searched for Mandarin on here before knowing full well it was there and come away empty handed, so either it only thought about landing and then carried on, or it simply melted into the thick vegetation on the islands.

Breakfast from Greggs was superb and we sent Richard the bill - these are basically the rules for full fat patch tickage. As we strolled back towards VizMig a large Peregrine circled the Skylark enclosure - now enclosed again, although more on that later. Another year tick! Then, just as I was finishing my coffee, a Rook flew over. Not as rare as Yellowhammer, my 20th sighting, but really quite tricky as they are almost always flyovers and who can be bothered to check out each and every Crow as it goes over? The timing is a little early, at least for my records, with 15 out of those 20 in April, but it's a good time for things moving around and indeed Wanstead was not the only London patch to record its first Rook of 2024 yesterday.

Leaning against the fence I picked up my first Buzzard of the year, one of ten that morning once the sun had come out. Perfect, the day was proceeding exactly as planned in many ways, but with some massively unexpected bonuses. Tony and I had joined Sgt. Bob (on patrol) to check out a pale Stonechat when the moment happened. WHEATEAR! A smart male on the fence right next to us! Tony called it first, Louis still forming the letter 'W' as Tony claimed the prize and both trophies, finder and date - a new member of the exclusive 'double' club. My sixth new bird for the year, what a morning this was turning out to be!

I wasn't over yet though. Thanks to a dog walker we were alerted to a Little Owl in Centre Copse, and as the day warmed up and the raptors began to soar I felt certain I'd manage to pick out a Red Kite. This took until about 11.15, some five hours after leaving my house, but a bird flew relatively low over VizMig as I continued my vigil. My laggard performance of 74 on Friday had become 82. I basically skipped home.

The presence of a entirely reasonable sign is just so utterly offensive that it simply has to be kicked down and snapped in half.

So what about that Skylark fence? Well in 2024 it has been decided that whilst there will be a fence again it won't be as intrusive as last year, so rather than the full plastic barrier we just have the rope. It looks a lot better of course, and is far more sustainable, but also far less effective as dogs can just run straight under it. I suppose that the mere presence of a barrier of any kind will stop the majority of people, dog owners or otherwise, from crossing the area, but it feels rather weak.

Of course for some people, or perhaps just one person, even a thin blue rope is an outrage. The culture war is in full swing, and the fence that has now been up for a little over two weeks has been repeatedly vandalised. And I mean repeatedly. Day after day someone has methodically worked their way along whole sections of it cutting it between each post. It is maddening that someone can be so incensed by the thought that wildlife might be more important than they are, but this is where we are in 2024. Bob, Tim and the Corporation have just as methodically repaired each and every section, but it keeps happening and unless we can catch the perpertrator in the act I don't see that this will stop. Lines have been drawn.

You just wonder how petty, small-minded and pathetic someone has to be to come out day after day and defiantly engage in this absurd vandalism, sabotaging a well meaning-effort to safeguard what is now a mere handful of ground-nesting birds. It is just shameful, but as I said, it's a culture war. We know there are a few dog walkers who vehemently disagree with our efforts to protect the Skylarks. It is their right to walk wherever they want to, it's public land, blah blah blah. There is no educating these people because this is not about birds, or Wanstead, or even their dog. That is all a pretext. It's about their diminishing influence in the world and I see it as identical to the themes that handed us Brexit. Poisoned by the media, a certain segment of the population has come to hate liberalism, and ironically also authority. They can't tell me what to do, who do they think they are? This is my country, I can do what I want here, your woke rules don't apply. Great Britain. The fence is just a symbol, one of many things that provokes irrational rage in a particular type of person. Unisex toilets and pronouns, asylum seekers, women in power, pride flags, the mere concept of wellness, our blue fence is just another thing in a long list of things that are wrong with this country. Our scissor-wielding friend is fully on board with hating all of this, and chopping our fence is the one small act of defiance that he, for it almost certainly a he, can carry out. It probably gives him a daily sense of satisfaction that he is fighting back against the system that in his head has marginalised him. That's what this is about, a feeling of declining power and a deep concern that the era when he and people like him ruled the roost is over. Well I have news for this guy. It is over and cutting our fence every day isn't magically going to bring back the 1950s. All that's going to happen is that we're going to repair it, and the cruel system that is responsible for so many imagined woes and slights is going to move forward unabated because the world moves on whether you like it or not. Get with the program. And hope that we don't catch you.

Tuesday 12 March 2024


I had a problem. UK Air traffic control was having a melt-down, and it was not certain if my flight home to London would run. Fine fine, spend another night in France or Switzerland, no? Well yes, that's what a normal person would do but my travel plans are generally more complicated than they need to be. In this case I was due to fly to Bogota from Madrid the following evening, a trip to visit a Colombian friend who was spending some time back home after a long period in London. So I might have been able to get back to Heathrow, but would that have allowed me to catch my afternoon flight to Madrid to connect with the long haul flight? With flights being cancelled in their hundreds and no end to the chaos, would that flight even leave London? I couldn't risk it, I had to be in Madrid, and this was all on separate tickets which meant that if I missed it I was on my own and wouldn't just be put on the next one. Plus I had a day of birding planned as soon as I arrived which I did not want to miss. So in the taxi on the way to Geneva I cancelled the following day's London to Madrid flight and replaced it with one from Geneva to Madrid that was leaving imminently! This was free as it happened, the magic of airmiles and BA and Iberia being in the same alliance - the only bit of marginally good news that evening. Indeed my friends were still in Geneva airport in the small hours long after I'd arrived in Spain.

The big issue of course was that my bag for Colombia was waiting for me in London. In it were were packed lots of clean clothes for the tropics, but also more critically my birding camera and lens. Bugger. Then again I had my binoculars and my passport, all a travelling birder really needs, and I could buy some clothes in Madrid now that I had a full day there rather than a matter of hours. Not ideal, but not a complete show-stopper by any means, and I was glad I had made a snap decision and could now get on with things - it is the uncertainty that drives you mad in these situations. Of course had I planned it better I would have gone direct from Geneva to Madrid in the first place and taken everything I needed with me, but the trips were not planned in this order - Colombia was (by my standards) quite a last minute thing, squeezed between Chamonix on one end and a visit to see my Aunt in America on the other. 

I like Madrid, I come here quite a lot and know my way around quite well now. After dumping my bag at a cheap hotel that was coincidentally close to Colombia Metro I went out for the evening to a tapas place I know and had a fun time watching the city go by. Even on a Monday evening Madrid is buzzing, especially so in August. Whilst eating prawns and having a glass of wine I constructed myself a little itinerary for the following morning to take in some birding, some clothes shopping, and finally getting some US Dollars, which had also been in my bag in London ready to go and which I had forgotten about up until this point. With this plan formed I returned to Colombia and went to bed.

The next morning I was up early(ish) and had a happy three hours walking around Parque Enrique Tierno Galvan in the south of the city, chosen because there were a number of Spanish ticks available. Yes eBird does govern my every waking move, why do you ask? This was really very pleasant, it was a warm morning and whilst I only recorded 30 species five of them were new including Garden Warbler, Western Bonelli's Warbler, and Pied Flycatcher. These latter were everywhere, and I counted at least 28 as I walked a circular route around the Park, quite exceptional numbers. Some were incredibly showy as they fed up, where was my camera? Excellent, missing it already. I hoped this wouldn't also be the case in Colombia, but at least I would get there and that was the most important thing.

I had a relaxed open air lunch at a place near the park popular with office workers. This is one of the reasons (there are many more) why Europe is so much better than the UK. People take lunch seriously. At Canary Wharf it is exceptionally rare that I don't eat my lunch at my desk. In Spain I would leave my desk, roll up my sleeves and put on my hat, and go to a local restaurant for an hour and a half whilst soaking up some sunshine. Which of the two scenarios is better for the soul? Anyway, very pleasant indeed, the Europeans have it all worked out and we could learn a thing or two. After lunch, which included a nice cold beer, I went shopping at Uniqlo which is a cheap source of OK-ish light-weight clothing in my experience. Pants and socks formed the bulk of my purchases but I also picked up a couple of shirts that I could wear until I could do some washing in Bogota. I think I may have changed into one straight away. I replaced my dollars close by and then spent the rest of the afternoon being a tourist and doing things like having an icecream, some more early evening tapas, and another beer. I returned to the hotel quickly to pick up my case and repack, and then went to Barajas where I was able to have a shower and repack yet again. The flight left on time just after midnight and as I settled down in my seat a sense of complete calm and satisfaction came over me. When travelling lots of things inevitably go wrong but they are quite often surmountable with a bit of tweaking provided you don't hang around. In the event I worked out that I would have been able to manage the turnaround in London although it would have been a matter of hours at home rather than a full day, and the flight to Madrid by some miracle did in fact leave as scheduled despite the chaos. It even arrived early! Such is life I suppose, but I have no doubt that my decision was the correct one. In a few hours I would be birding the western slope of the Cordillera oriental in Cundinamarca, that was all that mattered at this juncture.

One of the murals at the Colombia Metro. Very apt indeed.

Thursday 7 March 2024


Back in August of last year I went to Chamonix with some good friends - Charlie, Ben and JT. Andy, the fifth member of the gang wasn't able to make it. We've known each for about a million years, or it seems that way. Since the start of University more or less, which is coming up to a horrendous 30 years ago. Half a lifetime, although I think the actual milestone being celebrated was 25 years since we all graduated. We met up for similar reasons in Zermatt in 2018, I'm not sure why mountains are involved. I think Charlie just likes them! 

We're all arts graduates, none of your STEM nonsense here. All four of us studied French in some way, combining it with other things. For Charlie and I that was Management Studies, and ensured a year away at a French Business School. We chose the South of France, lived together, and had a thoroughly marvellous if rather un-academic year. Ben added classics, and taught in a school in the sud-ouest during the same year, and in fact we met up a few times as Montpellier and Dax are not hugely distant in the grand scheme of things. JT went to Canada I think, he was always ambitious like that. So nearly three decades have passed and we are all still alive and broadly doing OK, let's meet up somewhere and some fun. Mountains anyone? Yes, mountains will do. 

Ben and I arrived first even though we were supposed to arrive last. JT and Charlie's earlier  flight was cancelled, whereas our later flight was not. In the ensuing chaos Charlie ended up on the next flight out the following morning, but somehow JT missed that boat (well, plane) and didn't travel until the following day by which point we were probably over the half-way point! Transport woes did not end there but I can save that for later. 

Ben and I had a riotous journey. Even though we managed to get there on the correct day our flight was really quite delayed which meant we were able to spend a lot more time in the airport lounge than originally planned. Seeing as we had the time we started with a few drinks. After working up an appetite at the bar we then had a very leisurely multi-course dinner and then moved on to after dinner drinks. Lots of after dinner drinks. We continued the after dinner drinks on the plane too and were pretty well oiled by the time we arrived in Geneva where our transfer was waiting. This is a rare event in my life, and pretty rare in Ben's too - we are normally serious people who are not stupid. On this occasion however..... I make make no apologies, we had not seen each other for a long time and despite the sad news that our travelling companions were not with us we had a lot of fun.

The next morning we were quite in need of some cool mountain air for some reason..... Up the cable car to Brévent it is then! What a view! What. A. View. I now remember why we come to the mountains. I am not a skier by the way, I tried it a couple of times in my youth and never really enjoyed it, I just found it boring and painful. Walking in the mountains in the summer however, well that's just an excellent use of time, despite my near certain tendency to be crushed by patellar tendonitis at the drop of a hat. 

Charlie met us halfway up the mountain at some point in the late morning. The band is getting back together. We went on a short walk during which my legs behaved perfectly, or did they crap out? I can't remember. Actually maybe they did let me down? Anyway, we were together again and it was all very pleasant. This is the type of friendship where even if you don't see each other for months or years it is as if time has stood still when you do get back together. I am sure you know what I am talking about. In short it's great. That evening we consumed a hundred-weight of cheese and then attempted to replicate the previous evening's antics in various bars in Chamonix, pretty successfully I might add.

The next day JT arrived reasonably early and we went up the other side of the valley to the Mer de Glace. The others are in much better shape - less Burgundy I expect - and marched up there. I could barely walk so was forced to take the red train a little later after having a nice walk birding around the town on the flat. Chamonix was gearing up for an ultra-marathon, a gruelling course where you run around the Alps day and night. For seriously fit people only, I was content just to watch these perfect humans wander round the town as they got ready.

In common with many other glaciers the Mer de Glace has retreated so far in the face of climate change that it is now a Mer de Pebble where Glace once was, but in any event the weather was pretty filthy, with cloud obscuring most of the view. We all took the train down, and back in the town the weather was nice enough to sit and have lunch outside. With Sparrows. We went for another walk along the river, the boys being kind to my legs. Very bizarre whatever this tendon is, I can walk perfectly happily either uphill or on the flat, but a single step downhill is agony once it has gone. We then repaired to the roof-top hot tub of our hotel and consumed a series of colourful drinks. This is what old guys do apparently, sit around and get pinker and more wrinkly. In the evening we sought out yet more cheese (although I passed and had something else) and then spent the rest of the evening in a very loud bar pretending we were a lot younger than we were. We fooled no-one.

Our final day and my knee still did not allow for strenuous descents so I chilled out whilst the boys climbed Mont Blanc or something. JT had had to leave already but Charlie, Ben and I had a leisurely lunch and then watched some of the superhumans complete the course which happened to finish just outside our hotel. They had been running through the night and to be fair most of them looked like it. Incredible though. Soon it was time to go, our decadent long weekend was over, and so we took a taxi back down to Geneva and had a walk around the lake until our flight home to London left. If it left that is. UK Air traffic control was having some kind of meltdown and we were not sure what was going to happen. More on that later, as it had a significant impact on my next trip and I had a decision to make. Still, a wonderful few days. Already looking forward to 2028.