Saturday, 17 September 2011

The better part of valour

This morning, I made a super-sophisticated phone-scoping adaptor out of super-secret parts and materials.

So this afternoon I took it out for some scientific trials.

Control photo. Phone camera unenhanced at normal zoom.

DSLR with lens at maximum 300mm

Phone taken using super-sophisticated phone scoping attachment device.

Basically, I have managed to convert my phone into an 8mp camera with 38x magnification. There's more depth of field in a puddle and the lens quality is on a par with a stretched piece of clingfilm, but for distant record shots this is going to be hard to beat.

The log book said someone had seen a Common Redstart over by the target numbers so I headed clockwise and stopped by the Marshland Discovery hide for a bit, where I took lots of bad shots of a Little Grebe with my new toy. I also got some video which I'll post when I can be bothered to wait half an hour for it to upload, but the Samsung does HD video so I'm hoping it might come out quite well.

Came out of the hide and looked up to see this:

It was looking worryingly like it was getting closer, so I beat a hasty retreat to the visitors' centre, got myself a cup of tea and waited to see if we were going to get wet. Five minutes later, the view from the window was a bit like this:

Hung around for a while watching the river with tea in hand, but nothing interesting turned up. I say that - no interesting birds turned up. These were quite interesting:

It's probably a good thing I don't live on the river, much as I'd love to. I like boats, I know what my nerdy tendencies are like and it wouldn't be too difficult to turn into a ship-spotter. Well, look who I'm blogging to, I don't exactly need to justify myself on that score. But I like to keep up some pretence of coolness, if only to myself.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Two Tree Island

In the last week I've had two separate people tell me that they're going on photography trips over this weekend, one to Oxford and one, a little more exotic, to Florence. When I found that the rugby was over on Saturday (if you watched the game you'll know that it couldn't be over quick enough) and that I hadn't actually planned anything else for my day, I took inspiration from these tales of adventure, packed up the camera and, being an Essex boy, headed over to Two Tree Island. And the best thing about Two Tree Island it that as well as looking like this:

And having lots of these to take pictures of:

You also get a few of these to watch:

For those who don't know, Two Tree at low tide is a wader magnet. Waders are one of the many weak areas among my bird identification skills, so the Collins and the scope made the trip as well. I'm heading up to Norfolk for a long weekend in a few weeks time and I need to get in practice.

I didn't make it as far as the hide before the promise of rain turned me back, but there was a flock of about a hundred Oystercatcher feeding on the mudflats with half a dozen each of Redshank and Blackwits and a single Curlew mooching about.

Mystery bird of the day was very Grey and very Plover-shaped, but with a strong patch of golden colour on the lower part of the breast. The Collins didn't help much here as there's no indication that Golden Plovers turn Grey in winter, though I know for a fact that they do - it's just a question of how grey. The thing was planted firmly on the deck, so no flight views to clinch it. I do however have a bad phonescoped picture. The gold doesn't really show up - it's difficult to pick it out from the compression artefacts - but see what you can make of it:

I'm calling it as Golden, but feel free to argue - I'd quite like to be wrong on this one.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

With actual birds in. Well, one bird.

I'm off work for a few days, so I made constructive use of the time today to continue to work on my active and healthy lifestyle.

Birdwise all was fairly quiet. There was lots out there I'm sure, but it was all hiding in the long grass. I got very lucky and chanced on half a dozen or so Snipe that decided to break cover for the couple of seconds my scope was on their particular patch of reeds, but on the bird front really the reserve was very quiet. A solitary Black Tailed Godwit was conspicuous by its presence.

Wader passage.

Everything else.

Today was all about two things for me. First of all, my first chance at a phone scope with my shiny new Galaxy S II. Depressingly, this is actually far better than the attempt with my DSLR, even when mounted on a tripod using liveview to focus:

The best bit though was spending 10 minutes standing still while the bushes rustled and being rewarded with this:

Go on, ask what the difference between a Weasel and a Stoat is. Dare you.

There were a couple of Weasels showing their faces in the same spot today - the bridge between the forested area and the Ken Barret hide - and I'd encourage anyone to stop for 5 minutes and see if they come out to play. Fantastic stuff.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

On the banality of Birdforum and the ticking of Twitchers

One of the very few advantages of not having any time for serious birding is that misidentified megas suddenly become much less important. I wouldn't have got there anyway, and having misidentified plenty in my time I find it difficult to get excited.

Birdforum apparently doesn't have that problem.

I think if I was talking to someone new who was thinking of getting into the hobby, I would have to advise them to avoid the place, because it's far more likely to drive them away than fuel their interest. My experience has been that the blogging community is, as a rule, a much friendlier place to start out. Which is a shame, because a good community forum would be invaluable to the hobby. Maybe with some kind of rule banning all traces of ego.


Anyway, while I haven't been having huge amounts of success on the bird front lately, I did manage to tick Tom Mckinney near Spitalfield Market in his altar-ego as a Guitarist and musician (the two are not necessarily always the same thing).

You will also note that in the background there is a goat on a box. This is not relevant.

Since I have no recent pictures of birds, have some Electric Counterpoint instead. Special thanks should also go to Steve Reich for writing it, and foul language to Gibson for making the SG very nice but far too expensive.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Why video done badly is better than still photos done badly

Lately I have been taking videos of birds on my phone. They don't work so well, but nevertheless I've been persisting. Photos taken on phone cameras are utterly useless for most bird photography, the world being very big and birds being very small and inclined to remain very far away, but the video mode allows an attempt at capturing sound and, equally importantly for Id purposes, jizz. When you're birding in Central London distance becomes less of an issue as, like the people, the birds have had to learn to accept a bit less personal space and in most cases are quite bold. Same applies when you're trying to hold the phone still over the eyepiece of a spotting scope in strong winds on a seawall; distance is reduced, clarity is the real problem. Video reduces the dependence on a sharp image. As promised a week or two ago, here's a video taken from the same session as that still of the all white gull:

Just as washed out and just as useless as a piece of art, but it's much easier to make the call that this is probably just a normal Black Headed Gull having seen it standing there being unexciting and not very different structurally.

Again with the below, the video itself is rubbish. The bird is a blurry brown splodge at the bottom of the screen, and you only know it's there because it hops up and down a couple of times in a way that leaves don't tend to, but listen to that alarm call and look at the way it flits about like a mad thing. You know it's a Wren:

Incidentally, and to prevent flaming in the comments, it was alarm calling at a cat sleeping on the pavement long before I got there, and the tree overhangs the path so nothing in its right mind nests there.

And occasionally, just occasionally, the video comes out looking quite respectable. In a still on this camera the Egyptian Goslings below would be just so many distant unexceptional balls of grainy blur, but throw in moving pictures and some essence of the fluffy balls of cuteness that they actually were is retained. Besides of which, seeing Egyptian Geese on the Thames is quite fun, not something I do every day and worthy of record.

So grainy, blurry, poorly-recorded videos of the world, I salute you! You are another useful tool in a birder's armoury.

And of course when you get bored of birds, you can use it to record awesome covers of popular songs in your local pub.

No this isn't my band. I only wish we'd come up with this arrangement first.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Be careful what you wish of the birding gods

A salutary lesson for us all will follow.

A couple of free hours became a quick trip to Rainham Marshes to see what the wind had turned up. THE PLAN was a walk round the reserve to the Target Pools to look for gulls and waders, and then to dive out of the reserve at the sea wall gate to look for gulls and waders from the river path. And this is largely what happened.

The first thing to distract from THE PLAN was a presence of a new hide within spitting distance of the Visitor's centre. While it's very pretty I don't see that it adds anything you can't already get more effetively by looking out out of the visitor centre window. Still, when winter comes it'll be an excellent place from which to see endless hordes of Wigeon, and that's a reasonable end in itself.

For now, the air was full of Swifts and Martins and nothing else was visible.

A reasonable summation of the view from the new hide. Note the clear blue and cloudless sky, it will become relevant.

After this I did make it most of the way round to the Target Pools with very little distraction only to find that they were not, in fact, Target Pools. They were Target Dry-muds-covered-in-Cows. Disappointing, and entirely gull/wader-free. I took 15 minutes to sit in the newish Butts hide and look out in the opposite direction, but other than the omnipresent Swifts and Sand Martins there was very little to do except brush up on female Gadwall vs. juv Gadwall ID features and marvel at a single Lapwing staring into space.

MISTAKE: Thinking "Well that was a disappointment, where's all the water gone? This place is a bit rubbish without water."

A hundred yards short of the sea-wall exit the birding gods in their Wisdom declared "So the jumped up little tit wants water does he? We'll give him water." Out of nowhere came the most intense two minutes of rain I've seen in months, sweeping across the reserve from the direction of the river. I could have sworn that in places it was actually hail. This left me with a decision - Back to the Butts hide, onward to the Marshland Discovery hide, or take my chances by leaving the reserve - trapping myself outside on the sea-wall - and looking for a handy tree. I went for the tree.

"And lo I was repentant, seeing the error of my ways, and the birding gods are kind and forgiving gods and did stop the rain 10 seconds later, and did give their unworthy subject a Whitethroat as a sign of their forgiveness."
Gospel of a repentant birder Ch12:v86

Being soaked already (and having fortified myself before the circuit with a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich anyway) I stopped caring about rainclouds after that and did some gull sifting from the river walk. Lots of Black Headed gulls, and one Black Headed sized pure white gull, which was sitting with the BH flock, and which I'm fairly confident was just a leucistic Black Headed although it had me going for a good couple of minutes. The wind made phonescoping near-impossible, but I had a go at a video. I'll put that up in a separate post once I've edited it down to something approaching identifiable. In the meantime, here's a highly informative photo:

It's the one in the middle.

Monday, 16 May 2011

I am a Dorset convert - Day 2, Friday 13th May

Friday was a good day. It involved cameras, Lepidoptera and Puffins.

We took a long walk along Nine Barrow Down to Corfe Castle, encountering many interesting and varied butterfly species, along with a very showy Stonechat (is there any other kind) and some fairly certain Raven silhouettes.

Day flying moth - Cinnabar.

Not sure what moth species this is yet, but it's out for question. I reckon some kind of Heath. Answers in the comments if you've got them please.

Adonis Blue - National scarcity, but locally abundant. This is a female.

My first ever Green Hairstreak! One of the few shots that didn't over-expose and wash out the colours.

Looked like a Raven. Sounded like a Raven. Probably was a Raven.


Just when you thought photo opportunities didn't get any better, a Skylark took pity on my attempts at getting it in flight and landed on a bush on the downs. This is really quite unusual, and definitely warrants a blurry photo of its own.

Naturally, folllowing the 4 mile walk we rehydrated with a pint and refuelled with pub grub. If you go to the Greyhound Inn in Corfe be sure they get your order right, because of the 4 people in our group 3 were served the wrong main. On the plus side, the Jackdaws were entertaining, and we had an awesome Blackbird picking around the leftovers of the other diners.

Theeze are not the fudz u r looking for. Leeve them for uz.

Haz nom?

After heading back to Swanage via some non-bird related steam train adventures, Friday evening was boat trip evening, and yet another life tick. It was the very last bird we found, but eventually we bagged ourselves a Puffin.

While Day 3 was fun, not much bird-related was captured on film, though we did spend a fair few hours chasing a Wheatear around Portland Bill (which turned out to be about 4 Wheatears) but that was it for birds.

Bascally, what I've taken out of this weekend is that it's really worth doing a few trips out to see something different. I've been a jaded inland birder for most of this year, and seawatching has been a bit like balm. If I can fit it in maybe Dungeness is on the cards in the next few weeks.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

I am a Dorset convert - Day 1, Thursday 12th May

Well where do I start?

As you may have read elsewhere, I've just spent 4ish days over in Dorset with P4rus and our respective wimminz. If I tell you those 4 days resulted in 5 gigs of photos, you will probably get scared. Don't worry, I have already deleted half of them. I will break the trip into a post for each day, because otherwise it will get ridiculous.

The weekend started on Wednesday evening at the Shepherds Bush Empire watching amazing folk music courtesy of Spiers and Boden + guests. This is not bird related, but is awesome and worth plugging.

Thursday morning/early afternoon was the long drive down to Swanage, and the first thing we did was take a quick walk along the coast at Durlston. First thing to note is that Swanage is GREEN, STUNNING and FULL OF LARGE HILLS.

This simple hour spent walking along some cliffs allowed me to fill some very embarrassing seabird related holes in my life-list.

Guillemots and Razorbill doing 'obviously different'.

Shag in flight. Think I may have misidentified one of these as a Cormorant once, but it's nice to be 100% and able to tick it at last.

It also gave the chance to take grainy pictures of other awesome cliff-dwelling birds:

What is is that makes Fulmars so much better than Gulls? It's a mystery. Awesome though.

In Essex the Peregrine's default state of being is apparently either 'Lazy' or 'Stuffed', so it was great to see one actually get off its feathery arse and fly around a bit. Now, having said that, here's a picture of that bird sitting on its arse.

After getting food we headed out for an evening jaunt around the heathland to see hear some Nightjars, which was fun, if less productive than hoped. Got another life tick though as the rear end of a Dartford Warbler disappeared into a Gorse bush. This is the standard view of Dartford Warbler and entirely tickable. Some speculate that they do not in fact have faces, and that those featured in bird guides are mere extrapolations based on experience and guesswork. I can't prove them wrong.

As always, once we'd given up and started driving back the bird of the evening appeared in the headlights and sat still for just long enough for a few attempts at extreme low-light photography. First Whinchat I've seen this year too.

Your choice of horribly underexposed or horribly overexposed and blurry. Never let it be said that this blog doesn't cater to all tastes.

The next day consisted of about half a million identical macro shots of butterflies. Most of this evening has been spent winnowing them to one or two shots per butterfly. All that and more to look forward to in day 2.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

I aten't dead - part deux + new work patch

Did I mention that blogging might be a bit sporadic over the next few months? Probably not. The reasons are threefold:
  • I am getting married in September. Organising this sucks up hours that would have been used for both blogging and birding.
  • I have started a new job, where I have to work a bit harder than I did at the old one and the patch isn't as productive (though it has thrown up a surprise or two).
  • I am trying to fit in some NEW and HEALTHY activities that burn a few more calories than your average after-work birdwatching walk. Birdwatching is difficult when you're running round the streets with earphones plugged in and trying not to die. It also makes photography tricky.
But I think we're overdue a quick tour of the new work patch.

I'm just in front of Old Spitalfield Market, and amazingly I have quite a few trees and bushes sitting right outside the back of my building. for the first few weeks I even had a window seat which gave some fantastic views of a couple of Blue Tits gathering food from under the leaves (must be nesting somewhere nearby). Nothing that's really big enough for drop-in warblers, but regular Wood Pigeons and Blackbirds and the odd vagrant tit turns up.

The view to the North.

And the view to the South. Yay you can see the giant phallus.

Pretty flowers.

The real treat was discovered during a fire alarm in the second week. My gather point when we evacuate is here:

Which, when it's not full of evacuees, looks like this:

Warning: Photo may have been offensively oversaturated to emphasise the sheer amount of green.

Look at it! Trees, loads of bushes, benches for sitting on while you enjoy the trees and bushes, amazing. I'd added Wren to the patch list without even trying within about 10 seconds of turning up. If I was a Blackcap flying over Liverpool Street I'd be thinking "WTF? That looks awesome!" and making a beeline for it.

Anyway, I've got some high hopes for this patch during spring time if I manage to get out and watch it for a decent amount of time. If we get a decent fall in London, I'm in with a fighting chance.

These things scare me slightly though.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Spring weather, no birds.

Yesterday was too nice a day to spend the whole of it indoors, so I wandered over to Rainham for some spring migrant goodness. Fat chance. Lots of gulls (LOTS of gulls), lots of common British birds (nice views of a Dunnock in the Cordite store) and absolutely no Wheatears, Sand Martins or Little Ringed Plovers.

However, while traversing the Northern Boardwalk I laid eyes on my first ever Water Rail. It's on the life list because I've heard them before and they're pretty unmistakable, but yesterday I caught a glimpse of a brownish streaked back attached to a bright red bill climbing under a big pile of reeds. Tried to follow it, but no further showings. Still, w00t.

The birds were outclassed yesterday by the sheer pleasantness of the walk. How long has it been since it was warm enough to go for a stroll in thin sleeves on a Saturday and not worry about rain cutting short your exercise? Rainham was looking particularly stunning in the sun. And I got a tea and a sausage sandwich. Win.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Can you tell what it is yet?

Just a quick one, because it's too nice a day to waste indoors, but my first ever tablet arrived in the post this morning and I had to have a quick play. First ever attempt at a sketch (taken from the picture on the calender in front of me):

That was fun. You'll probably be seeing a lot more of this...