Sunday, 27 January 2013

January is nearly over and the cold snap certainly is.  I am not really where I would have wanted to be on my quest and this weekend my time would be limited what with a family thing to do Saturday evening.  There are some good birds around but with logistics not on my side, I faffed, finally persuading myself that Rainham would be my best bet.  I've bet worse, but if I'd managed to get my sorry carcass out a bit earlier I could have probably done a bit better. The sun shone, so that's a first in a long time for the reserve, the wind still prevailed blowing this time for a southerly direction, so not too unpleasant.

It all started rather well, a Turnstone (I thought my first for London, though spreadsheets tell another story), roosting in amongst the Redshank and numerous Snipe on the old stone river wall.  A first for Rainham at least and probably the bird Kev Jarvis has been seeing down at the Earith Yacht club all winter.  A good bird for London.  Good numbers of Dunlin were flashing around the Aveley scrape and Snipe everywhere.  May have got the Barn Owl as it peaked out of its box to the north of the woodland. I was having it anyway.  A pair of Stonechats utilising the fence line towards the Ken Barrett, and a Water Rail or two sharming somewhere in the reed bed. I knew my best chances for getting something good lay on the shore line on either side of the river, but with sun low and the tide coming in I wasn't too hopeful.  I wandered around with Rich Cockerill, who I'd met in the centre.  He helpfully suggesting birds that I might not have seen on my list, all of which I had.

We split up at the Sea wall as I was off to Rainham to catch the train via the river path. The tide was now turning so a few Redshank were already on the mud, but very little else.  Down by the container depot a Grey Plover flew in and while I tried to ignore it so it wouldn't fly, flew off again. Round the other side of the dept towards the offshore loading jetty the old sea walls harbour some good bits of mud.  Plenty of gulls, nothing interesting, more Redshank, hundreds of Wigeon and Teal and blimey a Ruff! Score!  A dozen or so Snipe were roosting up on the bank, not one of them had the decency to be anything but a common. The Grey Plover was there too.

As I approached the working tip, I could see it was now ideally placed, and the conditions near enough perfect to scour the gulls. Scour I did, for half an hour, for absolutely no joy, couldn't even pick out a Med.  Absolute bollocks!  What I did notice was the amazing variety of shapes and colouration of the Herring Gull.  Wouldn't at all surprise me if they get split further: I suggest along the lines of ugliness.

Having given up on gulls I wandered round to the western marshes.  The evening looked good for Owls, a far more enjoyable prospect.  But there weren't any.  In fact they've been thin on the ground this side of the silts since the cattle moved in.  Disappointed I walked off to Rainham.  Ooops missed the train.  In the dog house again.

On the new pedestrian bridge I paused and gave myself one more scan.  Finally an owl showed itself hunting way back over the silts. Arse, a Barn Owl!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dining at the Vulture Restaurant

by Tim Harris

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in a covered trench in pitch darkness. Beside me, Neil crouches behind his enormous lens, waiting for the first indications of a new day. The odour of rotting flesh wafts through the screen in front of us, not too bad but enough to remind us that the previous day the carcass of a cow was dumped on the ground a few metres away. Time moves slowly and we’re careful not to make a sound.

6:00 and the whoosh of a very large bird passes directly overhead. I risk parting the reedy screen and notice the sky has lightened by a few degrees. The silhouettes of several vultures loom in the top of a tree and several of these giants are already jostling with each other on the ground, just 30 metres away. I’ve never had a problem watching others eat but this is very special. Yesterday afternoon the vultures had been investigating how best to gain access to the deceased bovine’s best joints. Clearly that is no longer an issue since the animal has been reduced to a pile of bones and offal.

As the sun comes up, the diners’ identities are revealed. Most are Indian White-backed Vultures but there are a handful of Red-headed with their strangely perplexed expressions. The latter seem to spend most of their time standing around, doing very little but they are clearly one step up in the pecking order. Then there are the Slender-bills with their black snakelike necks, perfect for going deep inside any dead animal. It is quickly clear that they get what they want. The others back away when they hiss out a warning. Screams, hisses, the sound of wings flapping ... this is the accompaniment to the end game as bones are stripped of their last morsels of flesh.

Apart from their love of carrion, these vultures are united by one thing: their extreme rarity. The 60-odd birds we are watching represent a significant proportion of the world’s population of each species. All are classified as Critically Endangered, and extinction is now a real threat. It was not always so but vulture populations have crashed catastrophically since the 1990s, down by as much as 99 percent, due to the treatment of cattle with Diclofenac. If populations exist at all, they are now disjointed. 

The drug was never used in Cambodia and only on the northern plains of that country are the vultures holding their own or even increasing in numbers, largely thanks to a series of ‘vulture restaurants’ where geriatric cows are slaughtered on a regular basis to provide a supplementary food source. The Sam Veasna Center (sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society) works with village communities in this part of the country to encourage them to engage with their local wildlife. Visiting birders and photographers pay for the privilege of witnessing sights like these and the cash goes into the hands of the villagers who provide the carrion. To be fed and guided by local villagers, who also maintain the hides is an inspirational experience. Families gain extra income; villages are able to fund water pumps, schools and roads; the community is actively involved in conservation. Everyone benefits. This is a magnificent model for sustainable conservation and ecotourism, one that should be adopted elsewhere. 

For more information on the work of the Sam Veasna Center see   

Sunday, 20 January 2013

McKenzie Park

After a bid of a wade around snowy Wanstead, ensuring that Messrs Lethbridge and Vaughan didn't see any good stuff while I might be away (successfully accomplished), I finally persuaded myself to go west to see the reedlings on show in McKenzie Park.  A change of scene.

It was still snowing when I left the tube, the posh voice in the elevator telling me I was in the right, smart and filthy rich, part of town - ones over this way just intone that you should not piss in the elevator... or might if I ever used them.

Very friendly birds they have down here, always putting their best sides forward for the eager tourists. The beardies were just in front of the Serpentine restaurant, and could have been some good business out of it, if it weren't so damn expensive and birders being what they are. The reed bed (hah!), was the one that had just been put in last time I was here and just goes to show what can be achieved with a bit of environmental planning (City of London take note).  As other reporters have said, the females were ridiculously easy, but with the snow, the wind blowing the reeds, the birds bending the reeds, and my optics steaming up, I had to rattle off a good 400 shots just to get a few half decent ones. It's good when birds show this well as the general public can get in to it as well. But what ridiculously small wings. I mean with wings like that you can't fly that far!

Certainly a time to fill my boots as it were, I don't suppose I'll get better shots.  Never have done before.  All piss poor flight shots and blurs.  My boots well and truly filled (ice and water unfortunately) I sloshed off for my main target.  Treecreeper.  Since its becoming painfully clear that Wanstead is once again creeperless, this is as good a place as any to stick the curve-beaked, big footed freaks on to the London list for the year. Main problem, where to look?  Luckily I came across a party of Long-tailed Tit and followed them on the leeward side of the trees.  Soon caught sight of the little mouse like bird as it wandered up the snow free side of a trunk.

Not so lucky with my other two targets: Red-crested Pochard and Mandarin, but there's always Connaught Water and Rickmansworth for those. I gave up as it got dark and just before frost-bite separated me from my toes.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Bucks, Berks and muddy Stains

Out early doors to find Mr Bradnum parked on my street and we are ready for another adventure.  Jono was missing due to the excuse of wanting to photo some Bearded Tits in Hyde Park and for some extra time in bed. A quick woosh round the M25 in the new brad-mobile and we are parked up in some particularly nice looking countryside in the Chess Valley apparently the new haunt of a Great White Egret.  OK we'll see. A first look down the river and Bradders picks up a hunting Barn Owl, a good omen.

We walked up and down the nice but muddy river bank for about an hour ony seeing Little Egret's, and there were a number of them. Their large relative was not to be seen.  On the verge of giving up we spotted it flying out of a well proportioned garden, we call them parks down here.  It flew towards the car and appeared to land close by. We hadn't realised how close by as we flushed from the bend of the river just by the car.  Luckily it didn't go too far feeding on the meadow between the streams.  My first outside Kent (apparently there could be up to 8  touring the Dungeness gravel pits and with luck a new breeding attempt will be made there this year).

Job done, the pipits had been reported so instead of breakfast we flog it down the road to the QM and to the adjacent Kingsmead Gravel pits were the pair had taken a liking to.  From the gate viewing the puddly field it's not looking good, but as we scan the field a car pulls up to get on to the property.  Nothing ventured and all, Bradders asks permission for a bit of a nosey.  Permission granted, though they will have probably regretted the decision by now, we get on to the field for a thorough look.  Again the best puddles are devoid of life bar a couple of Pied Wags. Not looking good there's only one place left to look on the reservoir side. We can see wagtails, and rounding a patch of weeds I spy two non wagtails in with them. They are our birds. 

Two of them together.  Remarkable.  Unlike on the ressie we couldn't get too close as their flighty companions would probably fly and take them with them.  Job done, well not quite, there are some people waiting at the gate for news.  So Bradders goes to inform them how this will work while I promptly lose the birds while texting.  Oops!

Now I know they went over my head calling a bit mipity and somewhat bunting like, but I didn't see where they went. Luckily after about five minutes I re-found them again nearer the gate.  Now job done.

Next up a Pallas's Warbler down at Moor Green Lakes. This could slightly tricky or it could be a muddy cake walk. Again, nice place, great habbo - probably a bit too much nice habbo when looking for a particularly small warbler.  Ticked off my first LGRE of the year.

The warbler had been showing well and indeed giving some nice photo ops.  Not for us though.  For an hour we trudged up and down the river, listening out for birds, any birds, but more especially Long-tailed Tit and Goldcrest with whom the warbler had been associating.  Got the tits, got the crests, got the hump.

I wandered away from the main crowd to a patch with more evergreens in it that I thought more likely habitat.  After a while Bradders joined me and shortly afterwards the bugger called. Right place, but one that was also particularly hard to see in to. A few lucky new arrivals got to hear it as it squeaked again, and I am pretty sure I had it in my bins several times as it pottered round the tops of the birches and pines, however there was a goldy there too,  but then as the crowd gathered it dropped from the pine and disappeared.

We tried looking further afield to pick it up again, but we soon gave up when Jono arrived with Henry, after ticking Beardies, GWE and Buffs.  We left them to it.  Time a pressing and we were behind schedule.  No shrike time, so off to Stains for a gathering of owls. A brief stop to get Goosander for Mr B's year list aspirations and its back towards London and tickable country for me.

Stains Moor was muddy, but then I've never known it otherwise.  Got a second LGRE of the year, and shortly after a SOE.  Then it dawned on me what was going on.  Bradders wanted to go just a bit further. Psswp psswp.  Water Pipit tick, and just a bit further, yack yack yack - Ring-necked Parakeet tick too.  Really?

Luckily on the way back I got another London tick as a group of birders were on a hunting Barn Owl, which promptly stopped hunting and became a still Barn Owl.

Nice sunset, oh but man was it cold.  Standing around on a sun free river bank had chilled me to my bones. Luckily the new bradder-mobile has a very good heating system.  Worth every penny I'd say.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

100 up for the pointless London year-listing thingy

Oh yes!  Half way and serenely motoring on.  Nothing too exciting.  Tomorrow I join up with Bradders and Jono to re-visit the buffy(ies) and perhaps notch up a few other birdies on the way.  Might even get a non-London tick, or perhaps I should just close my eyes. The most exciting thing about the buffy, great bird(s) that it (they are) is, is I am being driven and don't have to face the frustration of the London Underground and national rail services on a Sunday.  Result.

I was going to the QM today, but as nothing had been heard after my second coffee of the morning, I decided to notch up some Rainham stuff.  The weather looked shit enough to persuade a few morsels up the river.  It did, I was right, but I missed them.

Had to make do with some stalwarts. They all count.  Best bird?  The one that was calling over my head as I traipsed back to Rainham owless and cold.  Haven't a clue what it was, but it sounded interesting.

Can you face another bad Stonechat picture?  I can't so have some other gloomy grey illustrations of why Rainham is top drawer.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Friday Lake on a Wednesday

Aah the benefits of doing a 4 day week!  Today was that day that used to belong to the man, now it's mine.  Now if something can be done about the other 4 days I will be a pig in the proverbial. Did I make the most of it? Did I cocoa!  Did it matter?  Probably not.

First up finding Friday Lake.  I once got lost here on a really gloomy day when I wasn't too familiar with the place, went around the 70 Acre lake about 3 times before I managed to find the right path back to the station. I still don't know what all the lakes are called so I asked the first birder I came across.  He said I was looking at Bowyers. OK, so that's why there were no Smew.  He hadn't seen them on Friday either.  OK!

I did. Two snorting beauties.  A few miles off granted, and doing what most ducks do all day: bugger all.

Next up Bittern.  I never for a minute thought I wouldn't see one, but then I didn't think it would such a piss poor view as it passed through the field of view of my bins never to be seen again in a patch of reed no bigger than we have at the Shoulder of Mutton. 

With Water Rail and Kingfisher also added to the pointless year list, I went looking for Goosander on Holyfield, not that I need them, I just like them. Instead of going straight to the weir hide I made for the Landgridge scrape, which is no more a scrape than the Serpentine now.  Used to be good when they first finished it, with LRP and Wood Sand, now all the islands are overgrown and fit only for ducks.  Did pick up a calling RL Partridge from somewhere in the sailing club,and a Buzzard in a tree.  Ching, ching!

Holyfield was devoid of any Goosander though I did try and ID 2 Shelduck as such (Factor would be proud).  Got a very smart drake flying towards the lake later as I walked back for some more Bittern fun. So as the sun sets slowly in the south-west-ish, I am on the side of 70 Acres hoping the bloody bird will fly around a bit while its still light. Natch it didn't. Plenty of other stuff to pass the time. Sprawk, Kestrel and a male Peregrine, 2 singing Cetti's and some "sharming" rails, while somewhere behind me the trilling of Waxwing presumably going roostward.

Not a bad little day, and the sun shone.  Strange there were no singing Song Thrush, or diving Goldeneye, in fact it's a weird place altogether.  Should be great for birds, but bar the ducks, cormorants, gulls and geese sod all about.