Saturday, 27 February 2010

Like London buses

Things have been conspiring to keep me from birding and blogging lately. The big overnight systems implementation at work that everyone's been working towards for the last 6 months happened on Monday in a painful, stuttering way. The new system is in and working (YES), but I didn't leave the office until 4am, and the preparation has eaten up large chunks of my Tower Bridge time. For the last 3 days I've taken some well earned annual leave and spent 2 long days in the field on Wednesday and Thursday. I was going to write them up this afternoon, but I got sent on a wild goose waxwing chase round Romford, which is probably worth a post in itself. So there you are, no drivel for almost a week and suddenly a probable 3 posts at once. Or at least, 3 posts in short succession. It's quarter past 2, I'm not writing them all tonight.

It also means this post will, from hereon, be mercifully short.

Wednesday was designated as 'Patch Day'. Took a walk round Harrow Lodge park which added Song Thrush to the year total, and saw about 20 Pochard on the main lake along with the regular wildfowl. Don't know what's happened to the local Grey Wags. Their usual spot on the river was full of Labrador when I got there on Wednesday so odds of seeing anything were slim, but that's several trips this year and no sign yet.

After Harrow Lodge I crossed over into Dagenham Chase, wandered through Black Poplar wood and took a long walk round the back by Upper Rainham Road. I spent an unhealthy amount of time taking pictures of one of the Black Poplar trees with the long lens because a) I wanted to play with abstract patterns in the bark, b) they are really rather rare trees and Black Poplar wood in Dagenham Chase holds 6 of the 600 females remaining in the UK and c) it was starting to spit with rain and under the trees seemed to be the place to stay. The poplars will probably be the subject of another post at some point because they're an interesting local feature, and other than the ever present Magpies and some common wildfowl on the Slack the Chase was fairly birdless. A cooperative male Kestrel did get me my photo of the day though. What the Chase mainly had was mud, interspersed with great big puddles of water. I had to navigate a whole slew of these to go round the bird sanctuary in the middle on the offchance that the lone Greylag sitting with a Canada flock was something slightly more interesting but when I got close up, a Greylag it remained.

Still, after a couple of claustrophobic weeks, it was very nice to be back out in the open air for a decent length of time. And I got to give the camera an outing while the enthusiasm is still running high as well. Here's a few of the better ones to finish with:

Picture of the day: Not as sharp as the pros, but shot from the hand and the first one of these I've ever tried that's even come close to working. Stunning example of male Kestrelhood as well.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

My first trip to Hanningfield

Despite having been to Abberton Res twice, I've managed to avoid going to Hanningfield. Today I put that right.

Parus and I were very kindly chauffered by his better half, and we set off at a reasonable hour for a Sunday morning hoping to pick up some interesting Grebes and Divers. As ever, what we actually got was cold and wet. Hanningfield was very quiet, with a couple of large flocks of Teal and Wigeon the only real winter-waterfowl action. I did manage to see my first Goldeneye of the year with about 6 of them out there, 3 of the males displaying like mad to the females, and a smart looking male Pintail being followed around by two females (which kept falling through the ice - it made me chuckle). I had the camera with me and got a couple of record shots of both species, but with light levels as low as they were, the iso had to be whacked right up so there's a fair bit of noise.

Suffice to say, it wasn't really suitable recompense for how cold and wet we were getting, so we headed back to Essex and had a pub lunch (which was very pleasant).

Once the hot food had worked its magic we felt up to a quick jaunt to Ingrebourne where the gods of birding, obviously greatly pleased at our persistence, threw the 3 White Fronted Geese and Red Crested Pochard at us practically from the car park and saw to it that our visit was uninterrupted by inclement weather. That's 2 life ticks for me, and it was nice to see that 2 minutes after we got back into the car the sky started chucking hailstones at us. Timed to perfection. No pictures of Ingrebourne from me, but something might turn up over at Parus's blog when he gets his arse in gear.

The photography conditions were far from perfect, but this year I'm determined to get off of Automatic and to properly learn the aperture and shutter control modes, so I made a concerted effort. Actually, I'm quite pleased with the results. The birds are at least identifiable. The Goldeneye picture has been rescued slightly in GIMP as they are distant and it helps. The other two have just been cropped.

Very pleased with those Teal given the light levels. Maybe I've learned something.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Drawing on the right side of the brain

No birds at all over the last couple of days as I've been ill and working from home. Instead, today, a post which is part science and part book review. Completely non-bird related, so if you're here purely for London birds look away now. Otherwise read on, you might find the following interesting...

I'll declare my interest straight out. I studied language and language acquisition as part of my degree, and the separate halves of the brain were always fascinating. When I was looking to get into sketching and painting some of the birds I saw I picked up a book called The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. The concept is inspired: We have 2 halves of the brain and we know them to perform different functions. The left side is (usually) the logical, analytical side which deals with language; the right side has no linguistic capability but deals with more 'intuitive', parallel, spatial processing. We also know from experiment that the left, or linguistic, side tends to dominate, so when we try to draw we tend to use the left side, which is not properly suited to the task. This is why inexperienced drawers will draw a face by making eye shapes, and a nose shape, and generally constructing it from the little kit of shapes in their heads instead of drawing what they're looking at. I can vouch for this - faces drawn by me look much the same as they did when I was 7.

2 other important facts. The right side of your brain controls your left hand and vice versa. Also, in cases of severe epilepsy, a cure used to be severance of the Corpus Cerebellum, the large nerve cluster through which the two halves of the brain communicate. With that severed, the two halves continue to function perfectly normally but in complete isolation. People treated in this way have since been the subject of intense experimentation because, being as scientifically ethical as we are, we're unlikely to get others.

Having set the scene, what I mostly wanted to share was this extract from the book which made me laugh and think at the same time:

A few examples of the specially designed tests devised for use with the split-brain patients might illustrate the separate reality perceived by each hemisphere and the special modes of processing employed. In one test, two different pictures were flashed for an instant on a screen, with a split-brain patient's eyes fixed on a mid-point so that scanning both images was prevented. Each hemisphere, then, received different pictures. A picture of a spoon on the left side of the screen went to the right brain; a picture of a knife on the right side of the screen went to the verbal left brain. When questioned, the patient gave different responses. If asked to name what had been flashed on the screen, the confidently articulate left hemisphere caused the patient to say "knife." Then the patient was asked to reach behind a curtain with his left hand (right hemisphere) and pick out what had been flashed on the screen. The patient then picked out a spoon from a group of objects that included a spoon and a knife. If the experimenter asked the patient to identify what he held in his hand behind the curtain, the patient might look confused for a moment and then say, "A knife." The right hemisphere, knowing that the answer was wrong but not having sufficient words to correct the articulate left hemisphere, continued the dialogue by causing the patient to mutely shake his head. At that, the verbal left hemisphere wondered aloud, "Why am I shaking my head?"

In another test that demonstrated the right brain to be better at spacial problems, a male patient was given several wooden shapes to arrange to match a certain design. His attempts with his right hand (verbal left hemisphere) failed again and again. His left hand kept trying to help. The right hand would knock the left hand away; and finally the man had to sit on his left hand to keep it away from the puzzle. When the scientists finally suggested that he should use both hands, the spatially 'smart' left hand (right hemisphere) had to shove the spatially 'dumb' right hand away to keep it from interfering.

As I said at the start, the concept of the book is inspired; the idea that when drawing we want to reach a state where the usually dominant but spatially inadequate left brain is suppressed and the right brain takes over the processing. It's an almost trance-like state where perception of time disappears, and which most people will have experienced before (I get it when writing HTML/SQL, or driving long distances). I'm still only on the first few chapters and did my first exercises today which look awful, so I'm looking forward to comparing them with the results at the end of the book.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Why I love my patch this year

Had a fairly crap weekend all told, so it wasn't a huge surprise when Tower Bridge produced the goods YET AGAIN. Unfortunately this suggests that the wires are getting crossed between my birdwatching karma and my general life karma. There's a dilemma I could do without.

Anyway, 2 Greenfinches in the newly dubbed 'Passerine Tree' outside the Tower of London, with a couple of nearby Goldfinches for good measure. I had them down as probable juveniles due to the generally dull plumage, and this was reinforced by a glance through the field guides once I got home. There was a lightish patch on the folded wings where the wingbar would normally be on at least one of them, along with some definite streaking on the underside (which was what made me look twice initially, or else it would probably be on the record as 'female sparrow'). Once it'd raised its head there was no mistaking that chunky bill. I watched the first one for a good 10/15 minutes, and as I was about to give up it took a short flight further into the tree and landed with the other. Patch tick, w00t!

No doubt this electrifying news will be outshadowed (what an odd word that is...) by the Dusky Warbler found in Walthamstow on Sunday and confirmed today. Such is life in the dog-eat-dog world of birding.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Not quite a patch tick

Quick one today, no pictures unfortunately.

I took a little detour yesterday. I was wandering round the eastern end of St Katherine Dock and saw a covered walkway heading off into some kind of housing estate, so I decided to do some exploring. Found a nice little green space surrounded by small flats and full of mature trees with nothing in it. I then pressed on and not 50 yards further down the road there were two Jays flitting around in the trees. And a Robin.

So one patch tick and one patch-year tick sitting tantalisingly out of patch-ticking range. I was very good. I didn't wave my arms and run at them, trying to scare them over to the patch. I won't say it didn't cross my mind.

I can either be incredibly pleased to see these birds so close and know that they will potentially end up on the patch, or I can be incredibly frustrated that they're so near and yet so far. I haven't decided which yet. Still, a Jay is a welcome bit of colour in the area - St Katherine's is now firmly back on my regular rounds.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A disappointing Rainham

I'm feeling distincly uninspired after Saturday at Rainham, so this post will be mercifully short.

We were up and out over Wennington before first light in the hope of getting some Owls for our respective lists. What we mostly got was cold and disillusioned. I picked up quite a few for the year list, but with the exception of the Bean geese that still seem to be hanging around, nothing I wouldn't have got on any other visit. And they were found right at the end of the day's birding. Moral of the story: Don't get up early on Saturdays, it is silly and pointless.

I mean, seriously, we scanned tens of thousands of gulls over the course of the day, and not a single white winger. Not even a Med. At least you can't say we didn't put the effort in.

Still, that's what patch birding's all about. I've had some very good luck at Tower Bridge and Harrow Lodge lately, so I was due some bad. I'm just feeling grumpy because it's Monday evening. It doesn't help that the best photos on my camera from the day out were taken by someone else :-P

Anyway, consolations came in the shape of a flyover Buzzard that dipped and turned above us to perfectly display its underwing plumage. I love it when they do that. The Bean Geese, obviously, which were a life tick for me. And lots of Skylarks doing proper full throated singing overhead, that's always worth a listen. And the Bacon Sandwich was good.

And we beat the Welsh, huzzah!

Have some of the aforementioned photos:

Full photo credits go to Parus for both these rather good pictures.

Friday, 5 February 2010


The other day when I happened to look at my fatbirder ranking I found that I'd jumped from lurking somewhere down in the 800s to the heady heights of 399. I mentioned this to Parus a couple of nights ago and he said "Have you checked you stats?". I replied that I hadn't. "Check 'em" he said.

So I've checked them. I had a bit of a "What the f...!?" moment.

Once I'd managed to shift my brain out of "Stunned Herring" gear I clicked across to Recent Came From to see if it held any explanation.

A CLUE! There are about eight pages of this

Well you don't exactly need to be Sherlock Holmes. So naturally, I followed the Came From link.

Obviously a lot of Mint using people have followed this expecting some kind of technical insight and have been mildly disappointed with a birdwatching blog. But it has sent me rocketing up the fatbirder rankings. And it means my Recent Visitor Map has gone completely crazy!

No real point to this post other than to give outlet to my utter confusion. And to prove that stat tracking can be awesome and not sad. Go get Statcounter, you know you want to.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

If this is Karma I'm getting scared

Yet another stonking walk round Tower Bridge, and I must be due some ridiculously bad birding luck. Today can be summed up in one small snatch of video:

That small bird in frame is a Dunnock (PATCH TICK), and those pathetic squeaking noises you can hear are my phone's microphone being rubbish and unable to capture its subsong properly. I heard it before I saw it but didn't recognise the song, so spent 10 minutes hunting the little bugger through the bushes. It was worth it though.

Then as if that wasn't special enough, just listen to the last 3 or 4 seconds of video again. A Wren! On my patch! Or at least close enough for me to hear it, so it counts. I only got a very brief glimpse of Wren last year as it hopped out of a bush outside the Tower and then hopped straight back in, so I was dubious about picking it up again this year. No worries. My passer list is only lacking Robin and Grey Wag before I'm level with last year. I only went to St Katherine's for Tufties.

Add to this the Kestrel I saw a couple of weeks ago perched on a window sill on the West face of the Tower and the Tufties I picked up yesterday and you have:

Year list at the Tower so far: 23 (Total for 2009: 30)
Tower life list: 33

3 All time patch ticks already this year, and I'm still missing a couple of 'easy' year ticks (Canada/Greylag Geese, Mute Swans). It's got to start slowing up soon.