Sunday, 19 December 2010

Local patch vs. garden

Today, for the first time in what feels like months, I left the house and wandered round for a few hours with the sole purpose of seeing what birds I could spot. It was fun and cold. But mainly fun. Anyway, with the boiler currently out of action the house isn't much better.

However, before I even set foot out the front door I had two overdue garden ticks and one mega. A flock of a dozen or so Goldfinches paid a visit to the trees over the back, and a Green Woodpecker flew past over the roofs of the houses behind mine.

Then, tick of ticks, a long billed wadery type was flushed by my dad wandering out into the garden. It whirred away with a zig-zag flight path, but since I was watching through a window I couldn't hear if it was calling or not. Obviously my first reaction was to text "FUCKING WOODCOCK" to Parus because that's what you get in your garden when it snows, right? But on reflection I'm starting to doubt that ID. Zig zag flight? OK, that's a possible, but my general impression was of whiteness underneath and brown on top, and it did seem smaller than I'd expect of Woodcock. I'm wondering whether it wasn't a Snipe. Either way it's a garden mega, and it was definitely gaining height as it passed over the pond (ornamental Koi, inherited with the house, useless as habitat so I won't even suggest that as an enabler for Snipe) so presumably it started on the deck. I don't currently have a garden list so it's not crucial, but this will be on my mind for weeks...

All that excitement set me up well for a walk round the patch, so it was a disappointing first couple of hours. Harrow Lodge Park is a dog-walker haven, and usually the only bit worth spending 5 minutes on is the main lake just in case any interesting wildfowl had arrived. They hadn't. But I do like Pochards, so it's never time wasted.

There were scattered Redwings all over Dagenham Chase, and I cleaned up on the winter Turdus by nailing a Fieldfare. Overall though, the Chase was empty of anything your average jaded patch-watcher would consider 'of interest'. That is until I reached the Slack. This is the bit of swampy grassland dedicated to birds, and to be honest I don't know why it's always the last stop on my circuit. Probably because if I did it first I'd just turn around and go home again. As always, the best bits were found round this area. I shall recite them in reverse order of excitement:
  • I saw some Lapwings. If you spend any kind of time at Rainham Marshes Lapwings are common and boring.
  • I had the pleasant experience of standing under a bush while a Long-tailed Tit flock passed through.
  • I saw an actual definite Snipe, in flight and on the ground. Incidentally it was at about this time that I started having serious doubts about my garden wader.
  • And last and most exciting of all, I self-found my first Firecrest. It's only the second I've seen, so this was very special. Naturally it was too fidgety and buried too deep in a bush for any attempt at a photo.
The utter lack of central heating at home diminished the pleasure of the walk somewhat as drying off wasn't particularly quick or pleasant, but at least the kettle still works. So currently I'm sitting at my desk wearing 3 layers of jumpers, drinking posh Mandarin Orchid tea and listening to the Star Wars soundtrack (Episode IV: 'A New Hope', I may have to switch it off before the cheesy medal ceremony bit). Mr Lethbridge reliably informs us all that it's going to get down to -8 tonight. Oh good.

Lapwings being boring and monotonous

The Slack, the birdiest bit of Dagenham Chase

A sign doing superfluous

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Sunday, 14 November 2010

I aitn't dead

Just restin'. Pinin' for the Fjords as it were.

The camera has been going out with me, but I've been taking boring pictures of buildings and things. Bird watching service will resume when I get my weekends back.

In the meantime, people who just want some pretty pictures can find them by either following this link, or by clicking the shiny new widget on the right hand side of this page.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Debut at Minsmere

Two and a half weeks ago I went to Minsmere for the first time. I would like to start by saying that Minsmere is an amazing reserve - it has a bit of everything. We started the day shortly after first light surrounded by Bearded Tits. They were everywhere, and quite happily sitting out in the open showing off. Another bird removed from my BVD list.

Seriously, how often does this happen?

To be honest, I could have driven home straight after that and the day would have been a win, but a bit of Seawatching produced a large flock of Common Scoter, and a lone bird flying heavily which Parus is now convinced was the wandering King Eider. It might have been as well, serves us right for not researching better.

Ring Ouzel hunting didn't go so well, and a continental Blackbird fresh out of Scandanavia has the crowds on edge for a good 20 minutes as it refused to provide conclusive views. Eventually, we were inevitably disappointed.

Lifer for the day appeared in the shape of a Hen Harrier, and a big flock of almost-lifers gave me a moment's excitement before I was informed that in Suffolk they're untickable. Drat. Pictures below:

Stopped off at Abberton on the way back, which was covered with small brown wadey things. Picked up a large flock of very obvious Spotted Redshanks, was pointed at a Pectoral Sandpiper and a few Curlew Sands and saw my first Spoonbill of the year very distantly in a brief and uncharacteristic pause between sleeping and more sleeping.

On an unrelated note, we have had patchlist++ with a very bold Chaffinch hopping about under people's feet and ignoring the pigeons round Tower Bridge. This brings me up to a whopping 33 for the year. That's four up on last year already (I've had to remove 'Stock Dove' from last year's list because, let's face it, it was a feral pigeon), and I've got the rest of the winter to find an interesting gull among the hordes. Looks like the patch target will be going up again for next year.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Ingrebourne and the start of winter

I'll skip the usual 'my blog hasn't been updated for 3 weeks because of...' rigmarole. You don't care. You want to know what I've seen, not why I've failed to see it.

Had a wander round Ingrebourne this afternoon in the sporadic Essex sunshine. Took the camera, but mostly photographed clouds. Plenty of signs of viz mig and impending winter among the birds. Had several groups of Martins fattening themselves up for the long trip home, a flock of about 40 Goldfinches flying bush to bush, and about 30 Teal in eclipse on the lake. Learned a new flight call when a Skylark passed overhead (and I picked up the skylark on flight style, which makes me happy). Also got a nice close view of a male Great Spot, who sat happily in his tree while I got unbelievably close below him.

Apart from the usual Carrion Crows, the bird I saw most of today was Jays, all seemingly flying back and forth between the same 2 locations over and over again, and in one of the better views I got one of them very clearly had a large nut in its bill. Storing up food. It's really not far off now.

Most exciting bird today was a lone Snipe, which I called on flight pattern (basically crazy and all over the place) before it turned to give a decent profile view. It's difficult to get visible and definite signs that your birding is improving, and picking up birds on flight style is something I was never particularly good at so it's quite morale boosting to be doing it reliably at last.

Also, if anyone knows their Fungi, I could use a hand with this one.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Butser Hill

Last weekend I went out with the girlfriend and walked up one of the highest points in Hampshire. It is called Butser Hill, and to be honest it really wasn't all that difficult a climb. Bear in mind this is coming from an Essex boy - Speed Bumps get contour lines round these parts.

Still, it means I could lug camera and tripod up there which was a bit of a luxury. Target bird was Buzzard, and while we saw one from a distance cruising round the summit on the thermals, by the time we reached the top it had scarpered.

Not to be put off, we laid out our picnic stuff and were rewarded with a Kestrel hovering and hunting all round us for a good half an hour. Is wasn't a very good Kestrel, given that we saw it go down at least seven or eight times and come back up empty handed, but its loss was my gain. Nothing is quite as addictive as a hovering Kestrel when you've got a DSLR on burst mode. Great views of a criminally underrated bird. I do wish the buzzard had stuck about for a photo though.

View of the A3 from the top of Buster

Apologies for the appalling amount of noise/compression artifacts on the pictures by the way. They're not like that on my hard drive - must be something Blogger's done during the upload.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Mothy goodness - ID help requested

This was posing nicely on girlfriend's parents conservatory, and I haven't been able to find it in my moth book. The closest I can come up with is a very very faded, and possibly dead, Copper Underwing. As far as scale goes, it was big - about an inch and a half to two inches. That should help.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

How to dip properly

  1. Learn, while inescapably at work, that there is a British scarcity at your local RSPB reserve.
  2. Learn via text message upon arriving home that it is still there.
  3. Pack all gear in the car, including camera as the bird is showing well and very close in places.
  4. Drive the 5 minutes to a fellow birder's house to pick him up.
  5. Get told the bird has been chased off by a Peregrine.
  6. Drive the 5 minutes home.
  7. Sit back in my still-warm armchair.
Much higher quality dipping, I think you'll agree, than wasting all that time driving to the reserve, sifting through a few thousand gulls for an hour hoping to see the bird and driving all the way back again.

I have reached new heights of birding efficiency.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

How do you get good views at Rainham? Leave the camera at home

Now, I'm enough of a scientist to acknowledge that there is more than one variable at work here. I'll also have to grudgingly admit that it's far more likely that losing the distraction of the camera makes me look at things in more detail, rather than the birds seeing that I'm carrying a camera and hiding. But it doesn't mean I have to like it. It was too wet for expensive camera equipment anyway, so nothing lost overall.

Anyway, my first birding trip in WEEKS was damp but successful. I got to play expert and scope up a Greater Spotted Woodpecker for a woman and her teenage son while wandering round the woodland, and I got to see another Great Spot on the feeders down there which is always a bit special.

The Averly Pools were very productive today, with a decent selection of waders and a goodly number of ducks. I saw a couple of Sandpipers chasing eachother round, and while I really wanted them to be Wood Sandpipers I'm fairly confident they were actually Commons. The clincher for me was the clear cut border between the breast and the white underside, and the white gap just in front of the wing. I did see a slightly larger Sandpiper that wasn't bothering with all the bobbing up and down which I have down as my first self-found Green, so I'm pleased with that.

Other waders scattered about included Ringed Plovers, Lapwings, a couple of Ruff and a couple of Redshank (which, embarrasingly, I didn't recognise. I need to get my wader eye back in). Some nice men also put me onto a Garganey (either female or male eclipse), which I'd never have picked out on my own. Think that may be a life tick as well.

Wandered round to the new hide, which was christened with a Marsh Harrier over Wennington Marsh. Fantastic view as it flew back and forth round the Barn Owl nest box, and I like the higher vantage point that the hide offers. It'll make a nice stopping place on that side of the reserve come winter as well, for wussing out when it gets too cold.

Only other things of note were the unusually large numbers of a) Little Egrets and b) Small Brown Warblers flitting off the boardwalk and into the reeds just a little bit faster than the eye could follow. There was word of a slightly large unidentified warbler being seen somewhere on the reserve this morning - as far as I'm concerned today that was all of them.

Oh, and I finally ticked Mr Lethbridge over a bacon sandwich and cup of tea in the cafe, who was just dragging one of his children off to watch the river in the rain. The child seemed worryingly happy with this state of affiars. I see he is brainwashing them well. And no, he didn't mention his toe once.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Not as irrelevant as it could possibly be

Well it does mention Ravens. It is also awesome*.

For the next week or two my free time will mostly be spend attending, driving to or returning from weddings. Barring buzzards over the car and the odd roadkill pheasant this video is likely to be the closest I get to an actual bird. Please don't spoil it for me.

* I am a self confessed folkie and have no shame whatsoever.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Was feeling a bit restless this evening, so I gave the long-neglected Harrow Lodge Park/Dagenham Chase patch a bit of a bashing. The most interesting birds out there today were a Song Thrush in the park collecting worms, and perhaps a Kestrel flying away from me over the Chase. Couldn't take 2 steps without tripping over a rabbit though, must have been a good summer for them.

Some nice clouds as the sun went down as well. Not bad for a phone camera.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Where have all the good gulls gone?

Last week Tower Bridge was collecting black headed gulls after their spring hiatus, and by Friday we must have been up to 40 or so. Today, it was empty again. Very disappointing. I had a wander up and down the walkway but apart from some juv large gulls, 4 Coots and a Cormorant the river was empty. A text from Parus warning me that 3 Meds had been seen heading up-river from Crossness didn't lighten the depression, because today they would have been very easy to spot. Presumably they're all partying out down in East India dock somewhere. Gits.

So other than that, I'd just like to confirm that I am still alive and checking the patch, it's just that time of year. Also, I haven't seen any good moths since that Mullein Wave ages ago (June).

You never know, at some point I may even stick up a couple of photos from Norfolk. Depends how I manage tonight with my other nerdy obsessive hobby.

[fst0pped is Away: Installing Linux]

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Filthy Twitchering (or Andrew's First Mega)

I skived off left work early today to go to Rainham work from home for the afternoon, as I had to filthily twitch my first ever British Mega have a band rehearsal this evening, and it's hard to find time to eat if I get back from work at the normal time.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it

Me? I didn't take this howdareyousuggestsuchathing

Now I genuinely am working from home, so I'll leave you to it.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Norfolk June 2010: Pre-trip report post

I've just got back from a 5 day trip to the North Norfolk coast, so this is just a kind of pre-post warning that there will be photos appearing once I've processed them. There are approximately a million, some of them without any birds in at all, so it's going to take a while. Managed to year tick the 3 expected Terns (though the guy running the boat trip got me overly excited straight out of the dock by calling a Common as an Arctic), and life ticked a Tawny Owl from Titchwell car park. I also think I may have nailed the difference between Sedge and Reed calls, though I thought that last year as well and turned out to be wrong. Anyway, more of this later. Much unpacking to do in the meantime.

On the plus side, as I set off from the girlfriend's today I glimpsed a Crow mobbing a Buzzard from the car. A year ago I wouldn't have seen that, and if I did I wouldn't have known what a Buzzard looked like without detailed inspection. This makes me happy.

Monday, 14 June 2010

They're back! And they're breeding...

Today I saw one of these:

Which made me slightly suspicious, since usually when they're feeding they perch on top of the wall, or on one of the drainpipes.

Also, it is sitting in the window next to the one in which I saw Kestrel chicks last year. I haven't been checking this window. I've been checking last year's window. It seems I have missed a trick. Because today, when I saw the Kestrel sitting in this spot, I made a point of having a good old peer into the back and what did I find?

Bit embarrassing to have missed them - I mean they're not exactly inconspicuous - but DAWWWWWWWWWTHEY'RESOCUUUUTE. 2 years running. Great breeding record for the site.

Monday, 7 June 2010

On following my own advice, for once

I wasn't going to mention it, because of that whole 'relevance' thing that I know we all care so much about, but I've started playing with Shuttercal, a photo-a-day style site; the idea being that taking one half decent photo a day will force encourage me to be on the lookout for good subjects and will generally help make my brain more naturally disposed to seeing these things.

The other thing it does is give me a reason to carry a half decent camera into work with me, and then take it out as I wander round my little corner of London during my lunch hour. Today, it paid off. Not only did the Grey Heron return for a second helping, the Kestrel made a brief cameo appearance for the first time in a couple of months. It's too late now to hope it'll stay and lay eggs again, but it's nice to know it hasn't forgotten me. So for your delectation, two minor Tower Bridge scarcities, courtesy of Mr Kodak. Mr Pentax will have to wait his turn.

In conclusion: I am learning from my mistakes and, following yesterday's lesson, I am carrying a camera with me whenever I go anywhere remotely interesting from now on. Mostly. Probably.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

More LBJs than I can shake a camera at

Went for a bacon sandwich birdwatching walk round Rainham this afternoon; just round to the Marshland centre and back, since I had the woman over for a trip into London last night and she'd only bought sandals. I have never seen so many Reed Warblers in my life. They were everywhere. Obliging, easy to see, sitting on the same tall exposed perches for 15-20 seconds at a time and generally being perfect for photography. Which was a real bugger, because I'd decided against taking the nice camera since we were only going for a quick walk. Instead, I had the trusty old Kodak Easyshare - fine for record shots, wasted on today's opportunities. With the Pentax, these would have been pin sharp. Gutted:

Still, saw lots, heard even more, and got a nice view of a Sedge for the first time this year (only heard them up to now) which just reminded me how distinctive that Supercilium is. Also had much cuteness in the form of a fluffy little Blue Tit chick, a small group of Cygnets being shepherded by mum, my first Rainham Water Vole of the year and a Little Grebe sitting on a nest. A couple of Redshanks from the Marshland Hide were probably the most interesting things out there birdwise, but they can't compete with fluff.

Speaking of cuteness, arn't baby Coots really ugly?

I'd love to have stayed longer, but it was getting late and the sound of thunder was definitely getting closer as we headed back to the centre. Also, one of the cows was giving me evils and I got slightly scared. Moral of the story: Always take the best camera you can carry, the walk is never 'too short to be worth it'. And yes, I've learned this lesson before, and yes I'm sure I'll do it all again.

'arf moi land you

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Oh look, a bandwagon!

It's that time of year folks. Found this little fellow on the bathroom door this morning, and blocked the landing for 5 minutes while I tried to get a decent shot. I attempted a couple from the hand, but the size of the moth + the low light forced me to resort to tripod. My family looked a bit confused; as, I suppose, they should.

I reckon it's a Mullein Wave, Scopula marginepunctata, which is apparently "Locally abundant in urban parts of the London area". Like here.

I'm not quite at the buying a moth trap and getting up at 5 in the morning stage yet, but don't be surprised to find Lepidoptera making a few more guest appearances before the slow season is out.

In bird news, I've had young brown Starlings all over the garden this morning, along with some young looking House Sparrows. This makes me happy.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Just Walking in the Rain

So Lakenheath on Saturday. Despite the atrocious weather, I managed to add 3 life ticks and a fair few year ticks.

Started with a Stone Curlew at the super secret site not far from Lakenheath. It was much stripier in real life than I had been led to expect from bird books, but very cool. Got a decent scope view before the landowner arrived. Discretion being the better part of valour, we scarpered before he could get out of his car and chase us off the public highway on which we'd stopped.

The rain started properly while we were waling round Lakenheath, and the one bit of shelter was being patrolled by a Hornet so we didn't spend too long there. No flycatchers unfortunately, but we got plenty of Beardies and a very good view of a Great Spot Woodpecker. We braved the rain to head up to the top end of the reserve, and suddenly everything kicked off. The Crane, which had been popping its head up occasionally and taunting the walking party who'd travelled to see it, took off and flew 300 yards right across the front of the watchpoint about 2 minutes after we set up there. Then a Grasshopper Warbler started reeling in the scrub, but there was no time to go look for it because suddenly there was a Bittern in the air. It boomed in flight, and then there were 2 Bitterns. And then 3. By the end of it we had 5 Bitterns in flying about in the same scope view. And 2 Marsh Harriers. It was 5 minutes of tick frenzy.

So Lakenheath delivers again, despite the rain and consequent lack of Butterflies. I don't think I've ever spent a bad day there. So I'll leave you with a picture of 4 Bitterns in the same frame, because that's not something you see every day.

My camera was tucked up safely because of the rain, so by the time I'd got over the shock of seeing all those Bitterns they were too far away for decent photos. This was taken as 4 of them came back towards the watchpoint. It's still pretty damn special.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Non-patch tickery

Very quick, becuase I've imbibed more alcohol that is strictly necessary for a Sunday evening. It's been an odd one.

In birding terms though, I've garnered a life tick! Picked up a Lesser Whitethroat over Ingrebourne Valley. Differentiated on sight due to dark leg colour. I don't run Ingrebourne as a patch but I think next year I might, I certainly get over there more than I do the Chase...

Other interesting stuff involves Damselflies, but I need sleep more than photos right now, so no doubt they'll appear in a couple of days.

As for the non-birdy stuff that made the weekend weird, read about it at Parus's blog, it's been a surreal weekend.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Patchy goodness

What a day! A Patch Tick at Tower Bridge and a Year Tick at local non-patch Ingrebourne Valley.

First up, and most importantly, a Lunchtime walk round Tower Bridge gave me a Grey Heron in the St. Katherine Docks. Generally Grey Heron is probably to be expected, and I did fully expect to have one fly over at some point if I watched long enough, but this fellow was just standing on some orange ballast about 8 feet from the people walking past. In my experience Herons tend to get flighty if they so much as sniff a person within a hundred yards. This one was close enough that I could get something on my phone camera that actually resembled the bird! Look!

As Mr Lethbridge has repeatedly observed, patch ticks are the best ticks. This made my day.

Which is why a trip to Ingrebourne this evening with the inimitable Parus was going to need to be something pretty special to top it. And it produced. The plan was to go for Grasshopper Warblers, but the thing about plans over the Ingrebourne - the important thing about plans over the Ingrebourne - is that when Parus and I make them they never work. This is why when we left at 5 in the morning to see Barn Owls waaaaaay back before I even had a blog we got soaking wet and headed home Owlless. It probably also explains why on today's trip we didn't hear a peep of Grasshopper Warbler, but I added both Cuckoo and Barn Owl to my year list.

Gropper remains a life-tick-in-waiting, but any day where you see a Barn Owl is a good day.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Tower Sparrows

Apologies to those followers of my Twitter feed who have already had the news, but this is exciting. For the first time this year, I finally caught sight of a FEMALE House Sparrow on the Tower Bridge patch. This was shortly followed by two separate Male House Sparrows independently picking up lumps of foodstuffs in their bills and flying high up the gatehouse wall with them before disappearing round the far side.

I've been holding my breath for the last few weeks waiting for something like this, and it hasn't disappointed. Evidence of breeding Sparrows in Central London is not to be sniffed at, and as I understand it Tower Bridge is a bit unusual in having such a (relatively) large Spring population. I am rather pleased.

Of course every silver lining has a cloud. No sign of 'my' Tower Kestrel this year, and this is leaving it a bit late even for Kestrels. I think perhaps I'll just have to accept they're not coming back to the same nesting site this time round. Hope they're doing well wherever they've ended up.

Other sightings today - a few very smart looking adult Herring Gulls, a Blue/Great Tit (too far and fast to be sure which) and a solitary Coot, along with the usual Lessers and Starlings. There might have been more, but I really did spend an inordinate amount of time watching those Sparrows. Still grinning :-)

Saturday, 15 May 2010

At last

First bird ever to grace the Window Feeder this morning, and fortunately I was there to see it. I take back every bad word I have ever uttered about Starlings.

Fortunately for you lucky readers I also had time to very slowly reach for my phone, activate the camera, switch the camera off by mistake, reactivate the camera, forget where the video setting was, find the video setting, realise the camera was already set to video after all, depress the shutter release and just capture the bird's arse as it promptly turned around flew off.

Hopefully this means the floodgates are now open and my window will be filled with Siskins, Bullfinches, Marsh Tits and other such dross. Or a Sparrow. A Sparrow would be nice. Anyway, enough prevarication. Video!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

One more for the Tower

Yes I crossed the river and bagged that lovely singing Reed Warbler next to City Hall, despite interference from a woman chasing it up and down the hedge and a dogwalker with his dog off the lead. I even saw it distantly a few times, though not well enough to see any salient features. Not to worry, I got a very good earful of song and am confident about the ID. That's 32 for the Tower Bridge patch this year, and the first bird I've had to go sarf' of the the river for. Exciting.

Also saw the first Black Headed gull on patch since they all went coastwards. It was clearly young with brownish wing feathers and a terminal tail band, but didn't look like one of this year's hatchlings. Hopefully it won't be long before they're all back and I can get back to some proper patch birdwatching i.e. Med sifting.

Still loads of singing House Sparrows about, but strangely still no females on patch. I see dozens round Hornchurch way. Distinctly odd.

Monday, 3 May 2010

In which Rainham lives up to its name

I think April has struck a month or so late.

Being British, I'll open this post with some talk about the weather. It's been random. I was sitting at the computer at about 10 this morning watching the sun outside and thinking 'I quite fancy doing Ingrebourne valley and trying to step on some Woodcocks'. Within 5 minutes the whole sky was clouded over, the wind was gusting at gale force speeds and there were hailstones bouncing off the window. 10 minutes later we were back to blue skies and sunshine again. Crazy.

So I compromised on Rainham. It has birds, it has tea (and bacon sandwiches), and it has some hides to scuttle into. I actually managed to get right round without being rained on thanks to watching the rainclouds and timing my dashes between shelters.

It also had Swifts. Lots of Swifts. I know it's a bad idea, but I couldn't resist a few attempts at Swift photography. And you know what? They really didn't turn out too badly.

This is as good as Swift photography gets ladies and gentlemen.

There was a supporting cast of Hirundines. While the wind and rain was battering everything the Swallows and Martins were almost stationary trying to fly into it, so I got some of the best views I've yet had of these birds in flight. I'm sure I caught a glipse of a white arse or two, but mostly the Martin population at Rainham seems to consist of Sand Martins. The Cordite store had a singing Blackcap which, unusually, put in an appearance and, joy of joys, was joined by a female! I've never seen a female Blackcap before, so that was a half-tick of sorts, and it sat still long enough for some decent scoping. Chiffchaffs were loud, and there were a couple of Cetti's tucked away somewhere just off the boardwalk near the cordite.

There were usual wildfowl on the lakes (Mallards, Coots, Gadwall, Shelduck etc.) and a couple of displaying Lapwing over the main pools. Mostly my time on the northern boardwalk was spent trying to ID small brown shapes flitting over the path from one reedbed to another. I know I saw a couple of Whitethroats, and I suspect I was listening to a lot of Reed Warblers though I'm buggered if I can hear a difference between them and Sedges. Needs practice. Good day out on the reserve though, and I really needed the walk after a very inactive weekend.

I finished up with a 10 minute riverwatch on the seawall and picked up a Whimbrel flying over the river and onto the reserve. No photos of this one because the clouds were looming, and the camera was safely tucked away. So have a Bee.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Rain rain go away

Plans for an exciting bank holiday weekend's birding on a coastline somewhere have been scuppered somewhat by the rain. I'm still considering spending an afternoon tucked up in Rainham visitor's centre drinking tea and watching the river, but seeing as that will involve getting showered and dressed it won't be happening very soon.

Good news is I just had my first garden Swift (and inciedntally, my first Swift of the year) :-) It was flying over low while insect catching, and was generally awesome. I might just sit here and stare out of the window all day.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Why running and birding cannot be combined

I, like many of you I suspect, made a New Year's resolution to be a bit more healthy, which I duly kept for all of 2 weeks. Lately I have been having a relapse and have tried to get out and run wheeze heavily a couple of times a week.

Weeknights this is fine. I head over to Hylands park which is a big open space with a big 0.4 mile loop of tarmac and virtually no birds of note. I can stumble round the loop with impunity.

Today, perhaps inspired by the marathon, I thought I'd try something a bit more scenic and do a REALLY LONG circuit through Harrow Lodge park, round some bits of Dagenham Chase and then back through the park again. The trouble is, Dagenham Chase has lots of birds, and I am incapable of just running past a bush if there's an interesting song coming from it. As a result I did a lot more walking than planned. Still, it was 6 miles or so under the belt and the distance covered is more important than the speed.

Birds added to the year list included Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and House Martin. Had what I THINK was a Reed Warbler. It was the other side of a thick bush, so I couldn't see a thing. My warbler ear, not strong to start with, has atophied over the winter so I stand no chance of splitting it from Sedge on song alone.

Aside from the ticks, I heard more Chiffchaffs over Harrow Lodge park than I could shake a heavy stick at and had a Carrion Crow confuse me greatly by flying past with something large and orange in its bill. This made it look like either a Chough or the worlds most monstrous Blackbird. Neither of those two is very likely round these parts, but I had to hunt it down just to make sure. A Crow it remained. I also scared up a Green Woodpecker every hundred paces round Eastbrookend Country park. Some of the best views I've ever had of them though - will have to take the camera over there and try for flight shots.

So some good, if unintentional, birding and a warm fuzzy feeling inside from exercising which will surely resolve into agonising cramps by tomorrow morning as I drag myself into work. Good stuff.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Target broken. New target needed

It's been looming for a while now, but a lone Robin today put me at 31 for the year at Tower Bridge, grinding into the dust of insignificance the paltry end-of-year total of 30 from 2009. And I haven't even seen Mute Swan/Canada Goose yet. The only birds I saw last year that I'm not confident of picking up this year are Yellow-Legged Gull and Stock Dove.

Yellow Legged Gull I got a photo of and then ID'd once back at home with my field guides. I mainly called it as Yellow Legged because I was brand new to the hobby and wasn't aware of how difficult they actually were. Turned out I was lucky on that one, and the photo has stood up to Birdforuming.

As to Stock Dove, I'm fairly sure with hindsight that through ignorance and inexperience that was actually a Feral Pigeon with bluer than normal undersides to its primaries.

And we don't mention the Bankside Peregrine, reluctantly removed from the list for the final count-up. That really would be cheating.

So from here on it's all unexplored territory. Sadly, this is very exciting stuff.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Sheer bloody altruism

Not that I want to make it even harder to win (and not that I'll be reaching the knockout stages anyway) but I was made aware of something today through the marvellous medium of Twitter about which I feel compelled to spread the word.

That thing is the International Garden Photographer Competition run by Kew gardens. I know that, like me, there are some great photographers owners of overly expensive cameras who read this blog who tend to hang around in places where there are flowers and might be interested in producing some plant porn for the nice botonists at Kew to get excited by. I'm almost certainly going to have a go, because it would be beyond cool to come in the final 100 and you never know until you try and it will help justify in my brain the silly money I paid for my DSLR if I try to win some cash with it.

So being the philanthropist I am, I have put the news out. Consider this fair notice. The competition runs until November, so plenty of time.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Exciting is a relative term

Hung around the 'Blackcap Bush' (as it shall henceforth be known) for about 15 minutes today but no joy. Not even a Blackbird. Can't say I was expecting migrant warblers to throw themselves out in front of me, but a Wren might have been nice. Anyway, it wasn't to be.

HOWEVER, excitement also takes other forms. I saw a female Mallard with 5 ducklings trailing after her in St. Katherine Docks, and you need a heart of stone to watch ducklings without at least thinking 'Awwwwwww'. I may have vocalised it a bit. And as I was doing that, I heard some Dunnock song. Last time I heard Dunnock song on patch I didn't know what it was, and had to hunt the bird through half a dozen bushes to get an IDable view. This time not only could I identify it on call, I went to look for it and it was sitting out in the open on a tree about 3 feet away. I had to work hard for that patch tick last time, the little sods have stopped trying now. Ah well.

The best bit of my day though was walking back past the Tower of London and finding a flock of just over a dozen House Sparrows doing the equivalent of drinking, fighting and being generally rowdy round the bushes by the main entrance. It's a long time since I had that many on patch. Strangely they all seemed to be male. I'm pathetically hopeful that this might mean that the bushes are full of nesting females who arn't showing themselves, but we'll see about that over the next week or two. It's unlikely.

You would have had a Dunnock but it flew away with unbelievable prescience just as my finger hovered over the capture button, so instead, here's a Navy Cadets tallship that was moored up outside the dock. I like tallships.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Relevance ++

There is new linkage on the nav bar to the right. I have started a Tumblr to try and take away some of the more extreme irrelevance from this ostensibly birdwatching blog.

You do not have to read it. That is, in fact, the beauty of it.
"Too irrelevant for Pretty Birdies. Too long for Twitter."

Must admit, if I'd found Tumblr before Blogger I might well have done the whole thing on there. Once you get your head round it, it's much quicker to get things online.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Mystery Warbler - Tower Bridge patch

If you don't want to read pointless ramblings and just want to help me identify a bird, please skip straight to the video at the bottom thank you so very much. Otherwise, read on.

I started my patch-watch round Tower Bridge today with 5 House Sparrows on the lawn next to the drawbridge. This delighted me, and would have kept me cheerful for the rest of the day.

However, better things were in store.

I was heading back to the office and about to pass under the subway that leads to Tower Hill tube station when I registered some birdsong from the big bush to the left that my conscious had been passing off as 'probably a Goldfinch or something'. It's an odd feeling that 'registering', I'm sure you've all had it - a bit like your hindbrain is prodding you in an irritating way and going 'no, listen, listen to me, you're not listening, listen...' It was quite right though, this was interesting song! Warbler song!

I've only done one spring as a birdwatcher so far. While my birdsong ID is generally moving forward, severe lack of exposure means I'm still poor at the various warblers. That's why I initially wondered if this was last year's Sedge come back. Then I actually listened to some Sedge song on my phone. No. Just No.

A bit of playing round with the warblers on my playlist and some guidance via text message from a more experienced birder narrowed it down to a possible 2 species for me. I was 75% Garden Warbler and 24% Whitethroat (the remaining 1% was taken up by self doubt insisting I'd just found a Goldfinch in an unusual place). The bird then proceeded to confuse the issue by making the briefest of brief darting flights from one bit of impenetrable bush to another and flying through shadows in such a way that it looked like it might be greyish with a black cap on its head, or might just have caught the light in a funny way. The little bastard was proving to be tricky. I'd ruled out Blackcap as the tone didn't seem right, not 'flutey' and Blackbirdy enough, but given my abject lack of experience, the song is similar enough that I was prepared to be wrong.

Fortunately I have a super whizzy touch screen phone (which, incidentally, is not made by a company with a stupid fruit-based name) and managed to get a half decent recording.

And so to the point. Opinions welcomed and encouraged. This is school time for Andrew.

Edit at 23:54: Having had 4 or 5 replies spread between londonbirders, twitter and youtube all agreeing 'Blackcap', it goes in the book as Blackcap. Excellent patch bird. Good stuff.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Kew Gardens and Rock and Roll

Spent a(n extra) long weekend with the girlfriend over easter, half at hers half at mine. This meant we got out to Waggoners Wells in Hampshire on Friday afternoon and I got superb views of 2 Nuthatch which were duly added to the year list. Those tricky devils had a go at confusing me by skittering up tree trunks instead of legging it down them headfirst, but it wasn't enough. When will birds sort it out and learn to act according to their identifying jizz? I could have called them as Treecreepers and then where would we be!? One year tick less that's where.

Yesterday afternoon I was acting as Tour Guide in London, so we toddled over to Kew Gardens which the missus has always wanted to have a look round. I am honestly trying to learn a bit about trees and wildflowers as part of becoming a more rounded naturalist rather than a bird identification machine, but the sheer number of greenish things just made my brain melt and I ended up year-ticking some (admittedly rather green) Ring Necked Parakeets instead.

We finished up by heading across London to Shepherds Bush to twitch endemic Scottish bird Amy Macdonald. As you'd expect, she was very confiding with a stunning singing voice. Awesome gig by one of my favourite currently-touring artists. She is cute and talented and successful and, irritatingly, still much younger than me.

Actually the Empire itself is a great little venue, and if you fancy getting there early and proleing it up you can stand right up close to the stage with no trouble at all. Back there next month to see Metric (don't judge me) and there's plenty of other good stuff that I'm extremely tempted by. We complain occasionally, but I do love having London on the doorstep.

Go watch her, she is amazing

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Dungeness (or Why Getting Up At 05:30 On A Sunday Morning Is Sometimes Justified)

I was talked into getting up at stupid o' clock and driving the hour and a half to Dungeness on Sunday by the usual suspect, which I'm quite grateful for. Sunday at Dunge was FUN.

It's been a few weeks since I was able to get out and birdwatch properly what with the terrible weather, a hectic weekend of choral activity and a general unwillingness to get out of bed extra-early to make time, so the year list hasn't really been progressing and the blog has oft wondered way off topic. Sunday has been a pleasant shot in the arm and has got me all enthused about birds in faraway places again. Guided by the excellent Howard, we spent the best part of the day moving about between the carpark by the lighthouse, the ARC pits and the RSPB reserve itself. Each one held at least one life tick. I love trips like that.

So, keeping it short and to the point, the year list has flown from 70ish up to a whopping 107 in the course of one trip to the coast. Picked up my first migrants of the year with a singing Chiffchaff, Swallows, singing Sedge Warbler in the ARC carpark and 3 Wheatear by the lighthouse.

Best of all were a whole 6 life ticks, only one of which was a bit dodgy. Usually when I see a bird for the first time I get pathetic skulky views so it was a refreshing change to have these lifers throwing themselves in front of me. In reverse order of awesomeness:
  • Caspian Gull (yes they're not common but, even having seen one, I still don't really believe they exist)
  • Slavonian Grebe (3 of those)
  • Tree Sparrow (cute and fluffy, and only this far down because of the quality of the other birds on offer)
  • 2 Black Redstart (one female perched in full view on a dog kennel, the other a beautifully marked male but slightly less confiding)
  • 1 Firecrest (amazing, so much greener than I expected)
  • 3 Penduline Tits (just. wow.)
I could go on and on, but just giving out a list of the 57 odd bird species I saw would be dull and pointless. Dungeness was brilliant, the birds were brilliant, and I'll be making the effort to get back there.

The rest of the story will be told as a kind of photo montage.

Caspian apparently. I have a Caspian blind-spot.

Breakfast. Most welcome after an early start and a longish drive. I give it 7/10.

Dipped the Rainham Slav a couple of times, and then it turned up dead, so I was glad to get this one.

You experienced naturalists out there may have noticed that this one isn't a bird. It is, however, still a life tick.
Again, I've dipped these at Rainham more times than I can remember. Don't be fooled by the photo, the views were excellent.

And finally, a new addition to the 'Evil Passer' series of photos. This was one mean looking Bunting.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Slowly slowly catchy er... wagtail

Yes, this week I have added 2 birds to the Tower Bridge year list, and one of those was the always worthy Grey Wagtail. It was one of those 'played-for-and-got' type finds which are always so satisfying. I saw the huge amounts of exposed foreshore and thought 'Right, I'm having you'.

It took a bit of exploring down to the small park area East of the Bridge, somewhere I never usually go, but it's where large amounts of foreshore sits relatively undisturbed by tourists and I just had a feeling I'd see them there. Score. It's taken a few months but I'm now on 29 species for the year on this site - for the purposes of comparison I ended last year on 30 and kept 30 as this year's target. I think that may need to be revised upward.

In absence of a real Wagtail picture, here is an artists impression of the event:

I did feel a bit bad when a guy turned up 3 seconds after I'd scared them off by showing my face over the railing and stood in exactly the same spot, staring hard at the wall where, until 3 seconds earlier, the Wagtails had been sitting. I didn't have the heart to ask him what he was looking for, but I know I'm far from the only patch watcher in this area and I was well outside my usual boundaries.

Still, there's not much I won't do for a patch tick on this site. He'll get over it.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

My non-local patch in pictures

My girlfriend of 4 years lives about 2 hours drive from me, in a little flat in a little village in Hampshire. While there are many disadvantages to this arrangement, one of the big advantages is the Liss Riverside Railway Walk. I may have mentioned it before. For those new to this humble blog, it is a walk along the riverside which used to be an old military railway and is now a nature reserve. It is a very nice forested area with old railway paraphernalia strewn liberally around the main path. Now this isn't really very local to me at all, but I still end up visiting it much more often than the park just over the road. On Monday I worked from the girlfriend's flat, and spent my lunchtime wandering round the reserve with the Wide Angle lens on. Here is a short patch tour.

The first thing to note is that, while you will of course see birds, what you'll mainly do is HEAR birds. Hence these photographs will feature no birds at all. If I'd had the telephoto on me you'd probably have got a Robin, but it was wide angle all the way. I picked up Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Robins, Wrens, Blackbirds and Wood Pigeons on Monday, and if I knew my birdsong a bit better I've no doubt there would have been Coal Tits and similar. This forest is full to the brim with small birds flitting about in treetops.

The other nice thing about this walk is that there is a small footpath that runs fromt he girlfriend's flat all the way to the train station, so when the weather is reasonable you can avoid roads all the way into town. On the way there's a big field where the Swallows and Martins like to hawk in summer, and generally butterflies everywhere a bit later in the year. The path itself is well designed and maintained, and takes you past a conifer plantation which looked very festive in the snow. I particularly like the tunnel effect on the below stretch.

For those that are into their vegetation there are lots of green flowery things, however I don't know what any of them are called so I'm going to put up a picture of some Holly.

I don't currently keep a list for this site, as the visits tend to be fairly sporadic. The walk is extremely pleasant though, and if you like steam railways (which my girlfriend does), full of interesting bits of railway history dotted about. I'll leave you with some of those to finish off. If you're ever in Liss and fancy flexing your birdsong muscles, give it a go.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

My week wot I just had

Here is a photo montage of my mostly non-birdy week. It will give some of the many reasons why I have been crap and seen no birds.

Dead rat in a drum cupboard at the rehearsal studio.

Stupid American school band scaring away all my passer.

They were just giving these away. Loads of them. Free. Unbelievable. I've been 'tender' most of today...

The closest I'll ever get to one of these at Tower Bridge.

Choir concerts all weekend - I'll be either stuck in rehearsals or driving between here and the Woman's so nothing of note will happen there. 2 more weeks of likely birdlessness to go. Ah well.

Right, off to the pub to play some music.