Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Romance isn't dead at Alexandra lake

As I approached Wanstead's Alexandra pond on my first patch outing of the year I saw three figures standing opposite a clump of leafless willows growing out of the island in the centre of the lake.  It was here that a Yellow-Browed Warbler had been sighted.  Two of the watchers stood silently next to one another, I didn't recognise either.  The third stood a good ten meters to their left, buried in gore tex and so well hidden that I couldn't work out if I knew them or not.  I decided to stand next to the two and make my perfunctory greetings, to which one replied with a grunt and the other made some comment about his toes.  We stood in silence for half an hour before another birdwatcher joined us, another one I didn't recognise.  He too decided to stand with the three of us and the solitary one remained, un-moving, staring at the bushes.  After an hour we were joined by Bob, a face I recognised, and we stared some more, in our little group of five, at the empty willows, Bob and I tried not to talk too much and ruin the atmosphere.  The silent figure, possibly a mannequin, gazed on.  

After more silence, and more staring, one of the original two, the one who had mentioned his toes when I arrived, spoke again.  "Well, I better be getting back to the missus!"  With that he turned around and walked a few steps to stand, in silence, next to the solitary character to our left.

Bob and I then went to look at some other birds and eat bacon.        

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Danube . prt 1

I must sincerely apologize for not posting anything for the last six months (or, more to the point, for not birding much at all in that time).  I have been busy growing a beard.

To make up for it I hope to treat you to a couple of posts in the very near future about my recent Danube adventure through central Europe, following the world's most international river from source to sea through 10 different countries.  As amazing as this should be ornithologically speaking (the river, after all, runs through the Back Forest, Kopaki Rit park, the Iron Gates national park and numerous other varying landscapes) the first two weeks of the trip were spent with A NON BIRDWATCHER* (!!!) meaning no three hour diversions into bushes to find out what 'that interesting sub song was'.  Instead we looked at things like buildings, culture and that.  We were also doing the river by public transport.  In Germany and Austria this meant precision trains and regular, reliable buses. By the time you reach Romania and Moldova it can be hit and miss whether you end up in even the same country as you intended, let alone the city and location timetabled.  This meant getting to the good birding sights, often far off and inaccessible (which is why I guess they're so good), was reserved for those travelers with cars, not the ones crammed into a capacity minibus for seven hours between a drunk octogenarian thrusting sticky jars of pickled I-don't-know-what into my lap and a flatulent, overweight cigarette smuggler who smelt like he was smuggling his entire stash of cheap Moldovan fags on his breath (he was caught at the border, adding another hour to the journey).  All together, out of three weeks travelling, I had two days of quality ornithology, the reports of which will soon follow (by 'soon' I mean within six months, hopefully).  This post is about the birds I glimpsed during the twenty other days looking at the houses of dead kings, historical churches and other non-birds.

The journey started in Furtwangen, in the Black Forest, Germany, with an eight kilometer walk up a hill in the pouring rain to reach the river's source.  Aside from a Buzzard sheltering from the downpour and a bunch of wooden sparrows carved into a fence there wasn't a huge amount of avian activity.  There were, however, a few Giant Earth Worms, endemic to the Black Forest, drawn out by the deluge.  It wasn't until collapsing into a chair in a local inn upon reaching the spring that I looked out of the window to spot what looked like a Dipper outside - at that very moment the waitress arrived with sausage and sauerkraut (what else?) and by the time I had given her a polite smile and a 'danke' the bird had gone.  At that point in time German cuisine (any cuisine for that matter) was higher on my list of priorities than a new bird on the Life List, so I refrained from running back out into the rain to look for it (not that my legs were in any state for running anyway after an uphill hike with three weeks' worth of luggage on my back).  The rest of Germany (Donaueschingen, Regensburg, Ulm, Passau and Ingolstadt) offered up lots of fieldfare in summer plumage (new sight to me) and cuckoos, even in city centres.  Regensburg also had a Goosander mucking about near the Old Stone Bridge, and over the Danube, at almost every point I looked at it, swarmed numerous swallows and House Martins throughout all 2,860 km of it.  

Black Forest

Danube Spring

The Breg, which becomes the Danube


Dead Birds of the Danube 1:  The Great Tit of Passau
It was in Austria (Vienna) that I nabbed my first 'life tick' of the trip: Hooded Crows.  In much the same way that hooded humans are more thuggish and brutish than regular ones, so it is with crows also.  The ones in Vienna were pleasant enough, but as we sat eating breakfast at a cafe in Kalemegdan (Belgrade, Serbia) we watched a couple of the things attacking dogs and dogwalkers in the park opposite.  I wonder how easy it would be to procure a few for Wanstead?
Thug life

Dead Birds of the Danube 2:  Three dead chicks, Vienna

Dead Birds of the Danube 2:  Dead chick in blossom

Dead Birds of the Danube 2:  Alien

Another stop in Austria was at the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial where the birdsong, the sunshine and the Danube continued unaware of the brutalities that took place there.  I wondered if any of the prisoners comforted themselves through the months and years of internment by recording the birds they could see from the grey hillside?

The rest of Austria (Linz and Hainburg) and Slovakia (Bratislava) were uneventful bird-wise.  Budapest (Hungary) offered a few stone birds, but nothing much feathered.

A bird on a bird

Some sort of stone Corvid on St. Matthias, Budapest


It was at the tail end of Hungary, Mohacs, that I spotted my first Stork flying over the Danube (Click here to hear what that sounds like), as well as a colony of House Martins.  Osijek, Croatia, followed with more storks, Kestrels nesting in the town centre church and a Barn Owl flying overhead above one of the main roads.  Kopaki Rit nature reserve was nearby, but too much of a pain to get to.  The coach journey from Osijek to Novi Sad, Serbia, saw numerous harriers gliding about in local fields, but from the distance and without Binoculars I couldn't tell whether Montagues or Hen harriers and thus another life-tick eluded me!


House Martins

House Martins & a house

House Martin

Cheeky Peek

Dead Birds of the Danube 3: House Martin hanging in view of her children

Stork in front of St Peter and St. Paul cathedral, Osijek, also home to a family of Kestrel

Stork crosses the Danube, Mohacs, Hungary

Redstart feeding chick, Osijek, Croatia
   Following Belgrade we headed along the stunning Iron Gates to Kladovo where we hitchhiked to Drobeta Turnu-Severin in Romania.  Along the riverside was a wealth of birds, lizards and butterflies for my companion to scare off before I got the chance to ID.  Bucharest, Transylvania, Ruse, Chisinau, Tiraspol and Galati followed on with very little birdlife to talk of.  Before heading off to the Drobogea/ Danube delta region, where the real birdwatching began, I took a stroll across the border to Reni, Ukraine.  As I stood at the border, bag being searched by Ukrainian soldiers, Bee Eaters were lining up on a nearby tree branch in perfect light.  However, the huge sign saying 'no photos at border control' put me off what would have been an amazing shot (no matter how nice the shot is, when a guy carrying an automatic rifle tells you not to take photos, you don't take photos).  It also begged the question, as this was no man's land between two sovereign states, would the Bee-eaters go on the Moldova list or the Ukraine list?  A flock of Glossy Ibis fly over head, Turtle doves purr along the telegraph poles, Lesser Grey Shrikes line the fences, Rollers bob over the fields and a Golden Oriole zooms past - three life ticks in one relatively short walk from the border to the small fishing town of Reni.  Hoopoes hoopoed from the tops of the humble little shacks and a Syrian Woodpecker (life tick) drummed his little heart out on a telegraph pole. Much of the same accompanied my walk back to Galati, Romania (via Guiguilesti, Moldova) and then a ferry and taxi journey on to Tulcea, and the start of my exploration of the Delta.  More on that next time....

Collared Dove

Balkan Lizard, Galati

Bird on Jesus' head, Belgrade

Dead Birds of the Danube 4: Half eaten chick, Chisinau

Green Woodpecker pecking about, Chisinau, Moldova

Dead Birds of the Danube 5:  Pancake bird

Something like a bird

Plastic Peacock, Bucharest

Plastic Peacock in white, Bucharest

Crested Lark, Somewhere between Moldova and Ukraine 

Glossy Ibis, Guirguilesti, Moldova

Hoopoe, Reni, Ukraine

Syrian Wood Pecker, Reni, Ukraine

The aft end of a Lesser Grey Shrike, Reni

Lesser Grey Shrike
The Blue Danube

*NON BIRDWATCHER: Someone who doesn't look at birds a lot.  They usually do other things instead like the footballs, snorkeling or Britain's Got Talent             

Monday, 5 January 2015


A few birding reflections from 2014...

Best Bird

Masked Shrike.  Now the rarest bird on my life-list.  I went all the way up to Spurn with Jafar and Patsy on my first ever proper twitch to get this one, eight hours in a car for 15 minutes looking at a bird.  Perhaps the more desperate side of birding.  Was a smart bird though.  

Best birding trip

Toss-up between Tagus estuary in the spring and North Norfolk in autumn.  Although, ultimately, Portugal was better in every possible way, it was in Portugal.  So I'm going to go with Norfolk, simply because it reminded me that you don't have to go to another country to experience incredible birding.  The trip added another three species of Shrike to my list, also Long Eared Owl, Red-Flanked Bluetail, Pallas' Warbler and Yellow Browed Warbler as well as seeing beautiful sights, such as Owls flying in over the sea, hundreds of Goldcrests in one stretch of brush and the tamest Redstart ever.  

Total number of birds seen in 2014

178 species all together (pretty pitiful, but having a job was a major hindrance this year).  London birthed 94 of those and the Wanstead Patch saw 89.  I have carefully thought through my strategy for this year to try and up the numbers: go birding more often.

New birds:

The following birds flew their way on to my life-list this year...

1. Woodcock
2. Goosander
3. Med Gull
4. Iceland Gull
5. Tree Sparrow
6. Black Throated Diver
7. Little Gull
8. Hume's Leaf Warbler
9. Glaucus Gull
10. Quale
11. Night Heron
12. Short-toed Eagle
13. Curlew Sandpiper
14. Little Stint
15. Hoopoe
16. Short-toed Lark
17. Serin
18. Corn Bunting
19. Sardinian Warbler
20. Stone Curlew
21. Crane
22. Blythe's Reed Warbler
23. Masked Shrike
24. Brambling
25. Yellow-Browed Warbler
26. Long-Eared Owl
27. Redflanked Bluetail
28. Steppe-Grey Shrike
29. Great Grey Shrike
30. Pallas' Warbler
31. Red-Backed Shrike
32. Lapland Bunting
33. Jacksnipe


My first hope for 2015 is that I can get out more!  Watching other people seeing good birds on twitter just isn't as fun.  Especially with regards to my patch-work, I definitely need to see more of Wanstead Flats.  In connection with that, I need to be writing the blog more often.  I have trips to central-eastern Europe along the Danube river, Portugal, France and Scotland lined up for this year - so I'm confident they will bring good birds with them!  Ultimately it's got to be a better year than 2014!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Lapping it up

Following a few amazing days birding up in Norfolk and Suffolk, my local patch put on its best lingerie, did its hair all nice and slapped on the make-up to insure I remained faithful and didn't go running off with other counties.  It did this in the form of this Lapland Bunting...

Great bird... great patch.


Following my Shriketastic day in North Norfolk on Tuesday I decided to head down to Minsmere the next day.  There had been a Little Crake seen over the past few weeks, and whilst it would have been nice to see, I was mostly there to see Minsmere itself and not any one bird in particular.  It's just as well that I had adopted this enlightened point of view early in the day because this was my view for most of the morning...

No chance of seeing the Little Crake here

... I'm sure endless mist is better than birds anyway.  Eventually the mist lifted enough that I could see up to a whole meter in front of me!!!  By this point I had already walked around the whole reserve looking at mist from different hides.  As I was approaching the visitor centre, and, by extension, the car home, I was beset upon by 'pings' from the mist on either side of the path.  Before I knew it I was in the middle of a flock of Bearded Tits.  However, despite their being barely a meter away from me at times, I could still barely see them because of the smegging fog!

I decided to stop for a cup of tea and cake before going home and it was the quality of the bread pudding that convinced me to give the reserve one more go.  I popped along to the Island Mere hide where it was still foggy, but not as bad as earlier.  The Great White Egret was in attendance at one end of the lake and more Bearded Tits flitted around in the reeds below.  Marsh Harriers flew about harrying marshes and Water Rails called from their hiding places.  The highlight was the hunting Otter panicking the lake's Coots and Cormorants.  There are fewer things in this world funnier than a panicking Coot.

On the walk back to the car Treecreepers, Marsh and Coal Tits and Muntjac deer kept me entertained enough.  Before heading home I stopped off at the heaths to watch the rutting red deer.  Being the end of the season there weren't many around, and being misty those that were around I could barely see, but what I did actually see and hear was a majestic sight indeed.

The following day I popped back down to Suffolk to look at the Red-Backed Shrike, in order to bring some balance to my Lifelist, which had too many rare shrikes and none of the most common variety!
He was behind the Birdseye factory at Ness Point in Lowestoft and was very obliging indeed!  On the way out I found a nice little burger van with a friendly girl working there who was very good at faking interest in her customers.  I told her I was there on birding business to which she replied "oh wow, that's interesting.  Yeah, we get a lot of extinct birds around here and people come from miles around to see them".  After twitching a dodo and an archaopteryx I headed back to Great Yarmouth.  My brother's house is a three minute walk from Yarmouth Cemetery, so I took Joplin (dog) for a walk to go and look at a Yellow-Browed Warbler, and thus concluded my days of birding in Norfolk and Suffolk.