Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Big Birding Year: Part XXII (a dip and a scrub)

Wormwood Scrubs in West London is famous for its prison. It has housed everyone from Britain’s “most dangerous” prisoner, Charles Bronson, to the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. The prison is named after the scrubland that neighbours it: Scrubs The prison can be seen in the satellite photograph below at point ‘A’ at the bottom of the image: SCRUBS map Point ‘B’ on the map shows the wooded area that covers much of the perimeter walkway around the Scrubs: woodland I walked through the woods largely undisturbed and occasionally wondering if there was any wild fauna aside from the odd Speckled Wood butterfly…

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)

Quiet woodland will often come alive when a large mixed flock of Tits moves in to the area where you are standing. In particular, Long-tailed Tits can suddenly make the woodland come to life , albeit only temporarily…

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Whilst the high pitched chirping and chattering of tits alerts you to their presence, other birds require spotting first, such as this woodpecker:

(Dendrocopos major)

Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)

But the most interesting part of Wormwood Scrubs are the scrubs themselves, to the west of the mown playing fields and marked by a point ‘C’ in the map above. Pedestrian traffic is limited here to protect the large number of breeding Meadow Pipit – which meant I only got some distant shots of a pair in flight as they flew up out of the long grass. In fact no other ‘Mipits’ (as they are labelled by birders) breed closer to central London than these.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis)

All great, but unfortunately, this visit was one of a small minority where I did not add any new species to my UK year list – a ‘dip’ as it has become known in birding and twitching circles.

A Big Birding Year: Part XXI (zoom and zoom again)

In my last post, I had a little whinge about how difficult it is to photograph birds unless you have huge lenses worth many £thousands.

Well, the whinge continues. Generally bird photography falls into two categories:

Aesthetic – where one is searching for the perfect image. Light, composition, sharpness are all super important. You generally need reasonable equipment and to be close to your subject, or professional standard kit and be up to medium distance from your subject. This often means that the best photos are often of relatively common and reasonably tame birds

Record – essentially just a step up from putting a tick in a box or writing the name of a bird in a notepad. The photo shows that you saw ‘x’ bird at ‘y’ location on ‘z’ date. If you are human as well and not an ornithological wizard, photos can be handy to verify a sighting or even identify a bird in the comfort of your own home hours or days later.

Unlike ‘Aesthetic’, ‘Record’ photos are generally squirrelled away in some hidden folder on your hard-drive and rarely will anyone else have the misfortune of squinting at the fuzzy and blurry dot which you have labelled as a bird. Unless, that is, the amateur photographer in question has decided to share his records/list of every bird through the year. Hence anyone who has read more than one or two blog posts this year by iago80 cannot help but have noticed the propensity to post some absolute bilge (case in point below).

I want to give a sense to you (excuse my patronisingly didactic tone, but I am assuming not all readers are birders or photographers) of what taking a photo of a bird in the wild is often like when out in the field. The photo below is the view West from Peacock Tower, the impressive three storey hide at the LWC. It’s a nice view over the main lake and grazing marsh. The inset photograph is taken from the same place but at maximum zoom with my 300mm lens. You may just about be able to make out a tiny splodge, through the wire fence in the middle of the image, that could be a bird if you really put your mind to it.

LWC Main Lake

Now let’s take that zoomed in image and look a little closer at it (below). This time the inset image is a heavily cropped section of the main image. Now that splodge is a bit bigger and you may even say with confidence that it is a bird. But could you identify what species it is? Well, neither could I. Even through my binoculars it was tricky. But luckily, there was a chap on hand with a powerful spotting scope. I had a quick look and could then see that the splodge was in fact a Wheatear…

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Although you can’t see in the sorry excuse for a photograph, the Wheatear is actually a beautiful bird. They spend the summer generally breeding in grassy hilly parts of the country. As the breeding density map below shows – from the excellent Bird Atlas from the BTO (You would not even be able to guess at the scale of millions of hours of volunteer work it would have taken to compile that book) – Wheatears are generally not found in London.

Bird Atlas

However, when the birds’ internal alarm-clock/calendar goes off they fly South and often take a few re-fuelling stops. We are lucky that the LWC appears to have been chosen on this occasion as one such stop and us Londoners get to see a bird that normally only the Scots, Welsh, northerners, and Cornish get to enjoy.

By the way, that Wheatear, was the 94th species of bird I have photographed this year. About ten minutes later, I got my 95th (as you can see, I won’t be framing this photo above my mantelpiece either, although this time you can actually tell what the bird is):

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

That dinky little fellow (barely bigger than a Starling) was scuttling about on his own making nearby Coots look enormous.

And just to show you how my photos improve (although only marginally as even this photo is a little too noisy and blurry for my liking) when I get slightly closer to my subjects, here is a posing Heron:

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

A Big Birding Year: Part XX (Room 101)

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” – O’Brien, 1984, George Orwell

I thought I would dedicate my 101st blog post as iago80 to ‘Room 101’. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my, and 25 million other people’s, favourite book. However, instead of really staying true to the 20th century classic novel, I am actually following the model of the 1990’s British television programme, ‘Room 101’, where celebrities would attempt to persuade the host to put their pet hates in 101.

Birding is probably my favourite hobby, and it gives me enormous pleasure, but there are many things about it that drive me up the wall. For the sake of brevity and not whinging too much, I shall suggest the two things which part of me would like to send to Room 101 about birding, but should actually have rejected as they are crucial to the challenge and success of the pastime…

Room 101 for birding

1.People: Having slight misanthropic tendencies or a general need to be away from people for periods of time, you would think that birding would be the ideal hobby for me. In actual fact, to be a good birder, and certainly to be a good twitcher (I’ll explain the difference another time if you don’t already know), you need to rely on other people to work as a community to show each other where interesting birds are lurking. I often and reluctantly sidle up to a group of birders with their scopes trained on some distant patch of water, reed-bed, or bush and hate myself for asking the cliched, “seen anything interesting?”, “anything about?”, or “what have you got?”

2. Birds are always so far away and so frightened of everything! We do our best to make them come near us by: hiding inside funny wooden shelters; wearing camouflaged clothing; attempting to make them think we are one of them by mimicking their voices (the beautifully named, pishing), and using special eye contraptions such as binoculars or spotting scopes. However, to take a photograph of a bird, even with a zoom lens, you need it to be surprisingly and awkwardly close. Unless, that is, you spend half of the Greek deficit on a huge and heavy super-lens.

In this series of blog posts, I have been counting how many species of UK wild birds I could photograph in a year. This has meant I have had to post a lot of rubbish… distant fuzzy blobs that I tell everyone is a rare bird. And so it was with my 93rd species of the year:

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra)

This Whinchat was photographed at the Waterworks nature reserve in East London. As its name suggests this small reserve is a former water treatment plant and you can clearly see the different treatment pools from space despite nature reclaiming it (with a bit of help from man) – the red ‘W’ shows where I saw the Whinchat:

Thanks to Google Maps

Thanks to Google Maps

Numbers of Whinchat breeding in the UK have sadly and inexplicably halved in less than 15 years. Furthermore, they do not breed in London or much of the South East so this individual was almost certainly a passage migrant, stopping off at this tiny patch of London greenery before continuing its journey to Sub-Saharan Africa where it will spend the Winter.