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.