Sunday, 29 March 2009

It begins - poor phone-camera digiscoping

Set the scope up to watch the Garden today, and got my first ever poor quality phone camera digiscope type picture. My God this could get addictive.

Blackbird on my shed roof

I could actually see its beak moving, which meant I could pick out its song from all the other din. Just awesome. I think this is what they call 'hooked'.

Up and running!

I think that may just be the most pain-free OS install I have ever had the pleasure of carrying out.

Now to play :-)

Open source stuff

Quick post between CD burns - Partly because I recorded a band rehearsal yeserday and need to get it on CD. I'll get onto the other part in a minute.

My previous bit of free software for doing this, Burn4free, has disappeared somehow. Slightly irritating, but I never really got on with the interface and had been thinking of finding another for a while. Spurred into action, I did some googling and came up with CDBurnerXP. So far it's everything I dreamed. Slick interface, nice graphics, and utterly intuitive. I used to use a free version of Nero that came bundled with an old PC for this kind of work, and this beats it hands down. All the ease of use, with none of the instability and attempting to take over every audio-related function on your computer.

In fact I have literally just dropped a .iso file from an open Explorer window into the compilation window on CDBurnerXP, and not only did it not have a problem with me not using its own file navigation function to find the file, it reminded me I was currently set to burn data CDs and 'would I like to burn a .iso format CD instead?' - without which I'd have had yet another small shiny coaster to add to my collection. It's brilliant AND IT'S FREE - go try it.

The techie among you may ask "and why is he burning .iso files?". Short answer - Kubuntu is getting boring and, despite updates, I'm still getting too many crashes from well established programs that I'd quite like to use (particularly WYSIWYG HTML editors). So I'm going back to my first love, to see what the new 2009 release is like. Oh yes, it's PCLinuxOS all the way from now on. Good hardware compatibility and a stable KDE 3.5 desktop - do operating systems get any better?

Friday, 27 March 2009


With the exception of one briefly glimpsed Wren and our intermittent Kestrel, birding at the tower has been disappointing since the gulls departed. Today looked like it was going to be another wash-out until the day was saved by a couple of very bold Graylags actually walking along the paving on the river side of the fence along the river walkway. This is most unusual. They were good for 10 minutes entertainment though as they tried to alternately beg and cajole passing tourists into giving them food.

Perhaps not the wildest of birds, but the best on display today. Going to be a dull month in London I think. The scope hopefully gets its first outing at Rainham this Sunday, so that should be a bit more lively. Unless it rains.

Still, I took it upon myself to go clean out the manky old birdbaths at the end of the garden tonight and fill them with water, as well as hanging out a birdcake in front of the kitchen window. The baths at least are in easy scoping territory from my window, so hopefully we'll start getting a few back down. Will lay into them properly with soap and stuff when it's not cold and half dark out.

Pub tonight I think, to see some live music. I love Friday evenings.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

It is here

The scope was duly collected on Friday, and today the eyepiece turned up while I was at work. Unfortunately it'll probably be Sunday before I get a chance to take it out, but it'll be worth the wait. Rainham here I come.

I spent lunchtime today failing to see a Kestrel, but I did see a female blackbird eating a worm. Despite my hopes that the Tower Kestrel may nest where I'll get to see it this spring, I'd be surprised if it stuck around. What exactly is there to hunt in Central London? The rats are all underground, and while tourists are plentiful they are far too big.

Still, a man can dream.

Monday, 23 March 2009

In which Andrew is the knowlegable one for once

Bering the dutiful son I am, I very generously offered my services as tour guide for mother's day and ended up taking a small family gathering round Rainham Marshes. A strange experience because, for the first time, I was the knowledgeble patch birder showing newbies round his domain. It was quite fun.

The usual wildfowl out on the lakes and visible from the centre - Wigeon, Gadwall and Shelduck, but no sign of Teal. In fact, there was a distinct lack of Teal even from the Ken Barrett hide, where you usually find a few pairs. Saw some Little Grebe and Mallard though, which utterly failed to make up for it. Also netted me a Kestrel on one of the pylons past the woodland path - my one and only raptor of the day.

Only saw 2 lapwing all day, but they were determined to compensate for lack of numbers with sheer noise. Some impressive flying and tumbling from what's usually one of the more 'boring' birds if you're a Rainham regular. Lapwings? interesting? I know, shoot me. There was the obligatory Little Egret standing next to a Grey Heron in one of the rear lakes - always nice to see. A Skylark showed some psychic potential as it piped up while I was explaining to the family that usually there are a few Skylark singing around this area. Didn't show itself, but it must have been close.

Most exciting find of the day (and a year/life tick for me) were two Wheatear hopping round a field full of sheep and picking up stray invertebrates. Exciting times. Smaller birds encountered included a Reed Bunting, a Robin and a Greenfinch among the Goldfinches near the feeders as we were heading back up to the visitor's centre. I also heard a warbler in the reedbeds. My limited experience led me to ID it as a Cetti's, but I really need more practice and wouldn't be confident enough yet to tick it.

Non-bird (and therefore inferior) life consisted of 2 Water Voles and 2 Red Admiral Butterflies.

The drive home saw me catching Parus's Common Crane madness as I thought I saw something bulky and grey with a very long neck standing in a river and visible from the Upper Rainham Road. We were moving too fast and there were too many passing bushes for me to be anything near certain about what I'd seen, and Parus rightly points out that if it was there surely someone would have seen it by now. Still, I'll be making sure I walk past that stretch next weekend - you know, just in case.

It was a fine day for a walk, and the rest of the family seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves, so hopefully they won't be looking at me quite so strangely next time I announce my intention to spend a whole day there pigeon fancying. Maybe they'll also eventually understand that £400 I've just spent on a spotting scope as well, but I won't be holding my breath. Not sure I quite understand it yet myself.

Tower Bridge news was equally good - right place at the right time today as I saw a Wren hop out of a hedgerow next to the main walkway into the tower and then hop back in again. I've long suspected Wrens for that spot, but the view was never clear enough to be more than a flash of brown and a muttered curse at the density of the bushes. Unmistakable little bird, and it takes the site total up to a whopping 26! Titchwell eat your heart out.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

A productive day

Quite apart from the awesomeness of the rugby (mentioned below), today was a rather good day for birding.

I took a wander over to Harrow Lodge park/Dagenham Chase riverside and saw many interesting things.

First off was finch sized thing that flitted out of the tree as I was passing beneath (trying to put the sun behind me for a better view), but as it went I got a definite impression of greenness, and I got a very good earful of its song. Rapid high pitched notes, not a Great Tit - sounds like Greenfinch to me. Nice site tick.

This is the point at which I started to wish I'd bought a camera, because what was supposed to be a quick bird before the rugby started was beginning to get interesting. Yes they were only Coots who happened to be nesting in the weir pool, but they'd managed to incorporate some kind of bright orange sweet wrapping into their nest, and being the kind of birder I am, I desperately wanted to find out what brand of confectionery they had chosen to honour with their approval. Sadly, I was unable to read the label with bins and don't have any pictures to trawl the Internet with in comparison. HOWEVER, they will be there another day.

So I crossed the bridge and decided to bird the far side of the lake, which turned out to be a pretty good choice as it turned up my best ever view of some Little Grebe (which usually disappear with a 'plop' whenever I round the corner), and 2 Great Crested Grebe (the first of the year for me). They were at opposite ends of the lake, so no sign of weed waving as yet, but I got excellent views of both necking small silver fish. Enter lack-of-camera regret no. 2.

Harrow Lodge park was topped off when a SINENSIS CORMORANT of all things arrived on the lake just as I was walking away. Now being a Tower Bridge birder I know a Sinensis Cormorant when I see one, and I was rather shocked to see one in Harrow Lodge park, so that was really the site-tick icing on the cake.

And so I moved onto Dagenham chase. Didn't get much time to do the chase really - it's huge - so I stuck next to the river for the most part. Saw my first butterflies of the year, and spent most of the walk trying to work out how to tell Robin song from Blackbird song as both were prevalent.

Almost walked onto a Mistle Thrush on the way in - it had a very pale brown back, but the chest markings were fairly unmistakable, and the pale ring around the eye was very much present. It started hopping away when I walked in, but once I'd spotted it and settled down it quite happily got on with munching its worm and I got some very nice views :-) Nothing much else on the chase end of the river, so I crossed the road to the riverside walk and, not 10 metres in, saw a large brown thing with blue feathers streak past. "Jay!". Also saw some LBJs - One of which I'm certain was a Wren from its behaviour (skipping between twigs at ground level) and its call, but the others just went towards highlighting my current limitations as a birdwatcher. They are on the record as 'interesting but unidentified' for the moment. Birding wouldn't be fun if it was all easy.

Noticeable by their absence were the many Kingfishers that populate the river, but I'll get the buggers some day, just wait and see...

Odd shaped balls

First of all, apologies in advance for any incoherence in this post. I got to the pub for the England Game and haven't stopped drinking yet.

What an end to the six nations! At the start of the tournament I was all geared up for some traditional British disappointment, but the last couple of weeks have restored my faith.

First up was the England vs Scotland game which, while 'adequate' in rugby terms, was a big sigh of relief for all the England fans expecting yet another collapse of form. Hopefully Johnson has beaten the whole 'losing' thing out of them. I've never been an advocate of 'win at all costs' and I'd much rather see a good performance than a win, whatever the stakes, but we'll need that killing streak if we hope to go up against the Southern nations again. All credit to Scotland - a poor display of refereeing could have swung it either way, but I think injustice was dished out evenly.

Then there was Wales - Ireland. Some background is probably necessary here, for those new to all this Pretty Birdies stuff (and I wish I'd actually sat and thought about a name now that I realise other people are reading the thing):

I went to university in Wales. I really like Wales. But Ireland are overdue a big success and after the last few seasons of frankly awful rugby (very out of character) I did want to see them win the Grand Slam, because they've stuck in there and made it work, and deserve something to cheer about. I suppose that's rugby though - that sense of 'fair play' when all's said and done. You couldn't have written it better, all hinging on that final kick.

The '6 nations withdrawal' will be particularly acute this year.

Friday, 20 March 2009

More Falco action

I'm pleased to report that the Kestrel has returned to its previous perch on the Tower of London. In fact today it was doing quite a bit of wandering over to the back of the bricked up window, where it was barely visible from the Tower path, before reappearing with feet overhanging the edge of the sill. This makes me suspect it may be looking for nesting sites, if it hasn't found one already. Not beyond the realms of belief as I have it on good authority that there used to be a breeding pair there, but it seems a strange location with the front being so exposed. On the other hand:

Kestrels do not construct nests of their own, but lay their eggs either in the old nests of crows, or in cavities in trees, or ledges on cliffs and buildings

If it nests in that window the views will be fantastic.

And as an aside, who needs real owls when you can have pictures like this:

Outside a bookshop in Holborn

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Geese at Tower Bridge

Site tick for the tower today in the shape of 2 Greylag Geese under the cormorant platforms. Not the most exciting perhaps, but a tick is a tick. And a brick is a brick. And if I don't get no ticks, I don't throw no bricks.

It's funnier in the film


And so begins my first Spring as a birdwatcher.

I can tell it's my first spring as a birdwatcher because when awakened by a particularly noisy dawn chorus this morning, rather than getting annoyed, I started trying to identify things.

No Sand Martins or Swallows yet (those 'traditional' signs that Spring has started), but I've just watched a female Blackbird on the shed roof gather up much of the crap and fly off with it. Preumably it's for nesting material.

Ambitions for this spring:

  • See, and correctly ID, a Swallow

  • Try to get over to Harrow Lodge Park at least once a week

  • Try to do a 'Major' birding trip (i.e. most of the day) about once every 2 weeks

  • See some Great Crested Grebes shaking bits of pond weed at eachother

The list may grow a bit by the end.

In other news, I have one of these on order from, and will hopefully be picking up one of these from Tottenham Court Road on Friday. Exciting times.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Black Swan

You can read the meat of the post here, but there was a Black Swan in Harrow Lodge Park this afternoon as I headed over that way with the girlfriend to feed the ducks. Bad photos taken in low light on a phone camera can be found below:

The Black Swan

I've no doubt it's an escape from somewhere, but you don't see them every day.

No birds this weekend (well, apart from aforesaid girlfriend) but England finally won something at Rugby, and in impressive style. All the sweeter that we beat the French too - slow motion shots of Chebal sliding impotently off camera while Armitage belts down the wing were much appreciated by all in the pub.

Just need West Ham to emulate that feat tonight, and it will have been a rather good weekend :-)

Friday, 13 March 2009


Interesting things seem to be cropping up at Rainham at the moment - particularly the Dartford Warbler on the seawall. Might be worth dragging the missus over there this weekend if we get the chance...

As an aside, displaying pigeons are ridiculous creatures. Funny to watch though.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


I remember once writing something along the lines of there being nothing quite like a blog to make your ignorance glaring and public. It is as true today as it ever was.

The ex-Merlin

Much better views today, including the one in that unmistakable top picture. It's a Kestrel. It's still rather cool, but it's a Kestrel.

Glad I didn't post it on birdforum or anything. How embarrasing would that be?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Raptors at last

*does the Merlin dance*


Compacts once again proved what a stunningly clever investment they really were when a small brown thing flew through the air and, with surprising agility, alighted in the recess of a small bricked up window. This was obviously not a pigeon. Far too dark inside to see anything with the naked eye so out came the bins. The bird obviously then decided that, since it had already been clocked, it may as well be nice about it and came and sat right out in the open, on top of the large castle wall overlooking the moat, about 30 yards away. For those in the area, it's the wall opposite the subway leading from Tower Bridge tube station to the tower. I had plenty of time to burn its image into my brain before it flew off again.

Once again I was left bemused by the power of Londonders to walk past cool things without even the slightest expression of interest. I was standing there for a good 5 minutes with bins glued to my eyes, muttering things like 'pale feathers under the eye stripe' and scribbling frantically in a little black book - sufficiently odd I would have thought for at least one person to turn and try to see what I was looking at. It's not like it was hidden away at this point. But not a sausage.

Anyway, the first thing I've done after getting home, aside from confirming my suspicions about its species, is to google for falconry displays at the Tower of London and as far as I can see, there's nothing there. So bollocks to it, I'm having my Merlin. Granted it's not an everyday find, but neither is it far enough out of the ordinary to make me suspicious.

Site tick, year tick, thank you very much :-)

Site list - 24
Year List - 72

Sunday, 8 March 2009


As predicted, no real time to dedicate specifically to birdwatching over the weekend, but I saw enough to know that any Blackbird who has not yet reserved a seat on the riverside walk is probably not going to get in. Birdsong everywhere, Blackbirds all over the floor as well as the trees - All in all, the polar opposite of a half hour in a Holborn Park.

Managed to get there a bit earlier than usual on Friday and it was actually still daytime when I arrived (there was light and everything) which was a novel experience, so I walked the pretty route to the girlfriend's flat. Aside from the aforementioned Blackbirds, there were a number of Great Tits in the trees - I saw three but heard several more - and the usual hordes of Carrion Crow and Wood Pigeon. No Long Tailed Tits visible this time round but, as mentioned, I wasn't really looking. Compacts were fun to use, and I love them more every time I look through them.

Back to normal working routine tomorrow once I've managed to dig my way out of the large pile of email that's probably waiting for me, so it'll be off to Tower Bridge where I can go back to scanning flocks of Black Headed Gulls for white wingtips and wondering if the Grey Wagtail will ever return for a repeat performance. I'm actually looking forward to it.

Friday, 6 March 2009


Off to the girlfriend's this weekend. Don't expect to have much time for birding, and no time for blogging, but I'll be taking the compacts along on the off chance. Worth every penny :-)

But as if I'd leave you unentertained! Here's a video of some cool guitar to make up for it:

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Holborn birding - why you shouldn't

I did a silly thing today and tried to bird in Holborn.

Just don't bother.

I found a quiet little bench in a nice big (for London) area of parkland next to Greys Inn Road and sat there for a good 25 minutes. I was mostly surrounded by hedgerow and bushes, trees all around, and I saw:
  • 1 Robin (I'll hand it to the robin - some lovely close-ups)

  • 2 Magpies

  • 1 Carrion Crow

  • 2 Feral Pigeons (but much healthier than the Tower Bridge residents - these could have passed for Rock Doves in a bad light (and if they weren't living in Central London))

  • 1 Wood Pigeon

I never thought I'd actually feel spoiled by the variety available at the Tower of London. A similar location here in the Romford area would have netted me at least a Blackbird and maybe a Sparrow or two. Maybe even a Wren, there was some very promising scrub next to the bench, and I was sat still and quiet for a fair while.

It's possible I'm being ever so slightly unfair. Being realistic for a moment, I don't know the area particularly well and, while this is the greenest bit I've found within walking distance over the last week or so, that's not to say it's all that's there. If someone wishes to contradict me then please do, I'd be most interested to find a nice little patch for next time, but it's certainly made me appreciate my usual proximity to the river.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Save the Levels!

As an ex-student of a Welsh university who actually quite likes the place and takes every opportunity (when there are no Welshmen present of course) to defend it to his English friends, this makes me sad:

This isn't the area of Wales that I lived in, but having experienced the wonders of the Gower Peninsula I've tried to imagine what my reaction would be if someone said, "What this really needs is a great big motorway". It mostly involves some naughty words and a large stick.

So in the interest of awareness raising, I'm speaking out to all 3 readers of my blog. If you fancy some snooty letter writing, have a look at the below:
After the complete fucking travesty that is the Scottish Government selling out to Trump, I'm loath to see if happen again right on my old doorstep.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Minox BV 8x25 BRW

I may have mentioned in a previous post that I had set my sights on some compact binoculars. Well the last couple of weeks have seen me on training courses, ensconced quite firmly in the centre of Holborn. While Holborn has many good qualities birds are not one of them, so it's a quiet couple of weeks on the weekday birding front. However, among the aforementioned good qualities are a few little optics shops tucked away down side roads, so last week I went exploring and came back with a pair of these for just shy of a hundred pounds. This was not a whim - I've been considering getting some compacts ever since I started Tower Birding and the cost is pretty much exactly the overall cost of taking another driving test, so it's in the book as my treat for passing.

The better half was down over the weekend and wanted to have a look round this Rainham place I keep going on about, so we headed over there using my shiny new driving licence. She hadn't bought any bins of her own, so I gave over the new compacts for their first outing and she seemed most impressed with the reserve, the binoculars and the bacon sandwich. Score one for the compacts.

I was back in the office on Monday and took the chance to give the binoculars a run out myself. First test was a success - even in their case they fitted into my jacket pocket. Just.

The sun was quite regularly diving behind clouds, which made for good light conditions for testing. The image was astoundingly bright given the size of the lenses, remained clear at all times and, being used to heavier stuff myself, was very stable. Tests in my slightly darkened living room at home have showed them to be less effective in low light conditions, but with the best prism in the world you'll struggle in low light with a 25mm objective lens. This is not a showstopping issue. Field of view was sufficient to pick up and track flying gulls even quite close to the near bank, and the focus was smooth and easy to apply. The image is clear right to the edge of the lenses - very important with such a small objective lens. They even have the little screw-tops rather than the fold-back rubber rings, which makes me happy. Despite the lack of weight they feel perfectly solid in the hand, mostly due to the aluminium casing.

For those who are interested, the man in the shop informs me that Minox are an offshoot of Leica. Apparently a couple of their engineers, plus one of their senior managers, were feeling stifled at Leica and broke away to form a company of their own where they could properly innovate. The result is Leica quality lenses and prisms, but at a much reduced price. I can only vouch for their performance, but it has been impressive.

Most importantly, they almost immediately proved their usefulness. Here are my notes, taken while viewing the very first bird I looked at with the binoculars [for reference, the bird was sitting on a security camera above one of the riverbuses, so far enough out that bins were definitely required for a positive ID]:

Tower Bridge 02/03/09 Mon
Gull alone - Yellow legs + bill (small black spot), bill not big. Pale grey back. Common? Black wingtips.

Definitely no red on the bill, and it wasn't big enough to be a Yellow Leg. I'm pretty confident of taking this one as a young Common Gull :-) A site tick on the first outing left me feeling quite justified with my purchase.

I'm stuck in Holborn for the rest of the week, but will be travelling to Liss this weekend (three years with the girlfriend on Friday, w00t! :-)) and the smaller bins should prove ideal for travelling - less space taken up in the bag, and I won't feel such a twat if I sneak the occasional glimpse out of the train window.

While I wouldn't recommend to anyone that they buy a pair of long-term bins without trying them first, I'd definitely throw in a suggestion to anyone looking for some new binoculars that they take a look at some Minox bins and see what they think. I'm very satisfied with mine.