Monthly Archives: October 2016

On birding and blogging

This is a response to this, this and this. If my post is to make any real sense, it might be sensible to click the links and read them first. Off you pop!

The author of those blog posts, The Wanstead Birder (who occasionally goes by the name of Jonathan or Jono), is a fellow birder on my local patch. He can actually say ‘his’ patch with some authority as he was highly responsible for re-energising and organising the birding activity on the Wanstead  Flats and Park. He is also one of my favourite bloggers and takes an okay photo too.

So, you can imagine I was somewhat alarmed when I read that Jono might be throwing in the towel on the whole blogging malarkey. I even pleaded with him (on a well known 140-character-limit social media site that rhymes with ‘titter’) to think of his fans and keep on putting fingers-to-keyboard.

As you will have read, Jono gives a number of reasons why he feels that blogging may be a dying medium and why he may quit. I can personally relate to several of them; most notably that I find it very difficult to find the time to blog.

But, I wanted to approach the issue from a slightly different angle, and set out why I think blogging and birding go hand-in-hand so well and, at the risk of being grandiloquent or hyperbolic, I think are actually an important combination.

A tribe called ‘birder’

Jono also recently lent me an excellent book…

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Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker describes what makes a ‘birder’ and why we do what we do through a number of anecdotes and stories. Amongst the stories, he relates the role of the trusty notepad to a birder. Going out of fashion now in this digital age, the notepad used to be an essential item of kit for a birder, second only to binoculars: listing what you have seen and, in the days before common ownership of super-zoom lens cameras, noting down observations to be able to accurately record the sighting.

Now, spreadsheets hold the lists and twitter can be updated with what you see real-time. For more detailed observations, as well as capturing the experience in full (everything from the scenery, weather, the trials involved, and the emotion), blogs serve a wonderful purpose. Birding is about more than lists of birds, and a blog fills the space of those truly detailed notebooks and diaries with the added benefit of being able to be read widely by others as well.

A skill I have always been highly envious of is the ability to draw. I adore the sight of a notebook with detailed sketches of birds, or even just bits of birds adorned with pencilled notes about the relative length of primaries or the particular shape/size/colour of a supercilium. This is just not something I could do; my sketches would be so comically imprecise and childish to render them useless. Occasionally some of my record shot photographs are not much better (exhibit ‘a’ below taken today as an example), but photos do fill a gap and, I think bring a blog post alive.

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This work of art is titled: ‘You wouldn’t catch Jono posting a pic like this’, or ‘Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)’, or ‘my 99th patch bird for the year, and patch tick’

Now imagine you can combine good photography, some semblance of wit in your storytelling, having enough variety of activity to record (maybe patch birding supplemented by plenty of interesting trips further afield, or even abroad), throw in some maps, some lists, some trivia or history, some personalities (etc etc) and you have a blog that works. It captures and records memories as well as any notebook, it allows others to share in the adventure and sometimes compare similar (or even the same) experiences – as with our recent find of a Yellow-browed Warbler told on three separate blogs here, here, and here. So, if you can imagine all of those elements done well, then you may well be imagining Jono’s blog. Which is why I was concerned that he may be stopping, and why I hope he will reconsider.

Every birder has a different journey to make: are we twitchers, or diligent patch birders, or photographers, or conservationists, educationalists, ornithologists, ringers (hopefully not stringers), call recordists, travellers, artists, or do we just like a nice walk involving watching a few birds along the way? I am not at all sure yet what my journey will look like, what combination of this wonderful hobby I intend to make my own, but I am certainly enjoying the process of finding out. I share my attempts, my triumphs, my failures, my experiences, and my musings on this blog. This is the closest thing in my life to a form of creative expression.

And that is an important point that I know Jono has acknowledged: we write primarily for ourselves. This is my notebook. If others read and get any form of pleasure or utility from what I have written, then I see that as a bonus. At its best, as with our patch multi-author blog wansteadbirding, it can be a genuinely useful resource. Today Nick and I saw a Swallow fly over. I was immediately able to check when the latest sightings of swallows were seen over the past few years on the patch by bringing up his blog on my phone. We are all aware how the internet has been the greatest enterprise in mass information sharing ever attempted in history: blogs play a small, specialist, and personal part in that enterprise.

Just why?

Wildlife blogs are the medium through which the wild and the digital come together; a gateway to share and preserve what one has experienced outdoors.

Wanstead Flats and Park is our patch. It pales next to the parts of the world or even spots in the UK that are truly renowned for wildlife. It will not be the subject of a programme like ‘Springwatch’, or an Attenborough documentary, it will not have a dedicated periodical or newspaper column written about it, but it is recorded through the efforts of few people through some blogs that anyone can read. It is a green space in inner London that faces threats and challenges, but holds on to being one of the best birding sites in one of the best cities in the world. If it wasn’t for the encyclopaedic listing of life recorded on the patch found here, or the conservation efforts of a local group captured here, or the progress of the local birders found here, as well as the occasional offerings from the weekend contributors like Jono, Tony, and – if you will excuse my immodesty – me,… then, this place would not be known or understood anywhere near as well. Through social media, websites, and blogs we can let the world (or as much as might want to look) know what is happening and we can be, perhaps, better armed when threats to this habitat or others occur.

I am well aware that I didn’t answer Jono’s essay question, and I am also well aware of the many factors which make it difficult to keep a blog going. But I also worry that, at the moment, without the regularity of reporting through a blog (its great benefit, or curse, over a simple website), then places like Wanstead Flats could be far more easily forgotten or ignored. Maybe one day, some new medium, making an online blog seem as quaint as a paper notebook, will render sites like this one irrelevant, but until that day comes, I hope people like Jono (who really show people like me how it should be done) keep taking some time to tell the world what they are seeing and experiencing.

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Patch perfect

I went out onto the patch this morning with one intention: finding a Yellow-browed Warbler. It has been a bit of bogey bird for me: every year there are many, many that visit the UK, but I never seem to be in the right place at the right time, and when I have been, I have still missed them.

And so I worked hard to get one. I carefully looked, but even more carefully listened as I walked first through Bush Wood and then around the SSSI. Bush Wood seemed full of Goldcrest calls, but there was little else there.

It seemed a little odd to be trying so hard to find a bird that has never been found on the patch, with the exception of a single call once heard. I thought of all the hours Nick puts into the patch and he has not seen one here. But then I thought about the number the guys from the patch were seeing up in Shetland, the fact that more do seem to be coming each year, and the fact that one had been heard nearby in Snaresbrook the other day as well as one or two others on key London sites. So I persevered.

I remained almost totally focused on my goal until I was distracted by a bird high up in Motorcycle Wood. I couldn’t see any colouration at first, but the shape and size pointed singularly at Ring Ouzel. Patch year tick! It then started chacking loudly to put its ID beyond doubt. When it flew down into the birches, it revealed its stunning crescent and was followed by another one – a pair (and later we would see a total of three together and another possible in the Copse to the East of Alexandra lake – the most I have seen anywhere!)

I followed the Ouzels for a bit and walked out of the trees to try and get a better view from the South of Motorcycle Wood. It was here that I heard that wonderful, unmistakeable high-pitched reverse wolf whistle. Yellow-browed Warbler. I could not believe it. In fact, at first, I literally did not believe it. The call was repeated over and over again, but I couldn’t see a thing. I decided it must be another birder playing a tape on the other side of the trees.

Then, a strange succession of things happened in a very short space of time: I wanted to walk around and check for another birder; I wanted to stay and find the bird; I wanted to believe my ears and tweet it out to alert the world to my triumphant find – first conclusive YBW on the patch ever and I was the finder. So, I looked at my phone and saw a missed call from Jono. As the thought flashed through my mind that he must be the culprit playing the recording, the calls got closer and louder. I looked up and saw a small Phyllosc warbler moving through the birches. I then saw Jono come around the corner asking me if I was playing tape; I was very pleased to be able to say ‘no’. Yellow-browed Warbler finally ticked off: a new life bird for me (very pleased to have got over that embarrassing hurdle), my 106th bird on the patch, and 97th for the year on the patch.

Jono and I continued to hear the calls – sometimes incessantly for a minute or two, but didn’t get any good views. Not for ID, but for the love of birds I wanted to see what I had only seen on paper and pixels: that super citrus supercilium and those wonderful wing-bars on that great green plumage.

We were soon joined by Tony, then Richard, and then Simon. At first the bird was silent. Never before have I so wanted others to experience a bird I have already heard and seen. It is difficult to explain, but the desire to share that wonderful experience (and maybe a slight sense of wanting to ensure everyone believed what I knew to be true) was very strong. We did that thing that birders and horror film victims always do: split up to have a better chance of finding the bird. I stayed put whilst the others walked off. Soon after, the calls started again like a tiny avian car alarm: I looked over at Tony and Richard who were still just about visible but they had obviously not heard anything so I ran over, gesticulated and cupped my hand to my ear whilst pointing at the tree from where the call came. Jogging down, we were all soon sharing the same experience.

Whilst in the middle of this happy mayhem, I noticed a Skylark calling from the Police Scrape, and then we saw a skein of geese circling . I was some way from the others and simply noticed that the geese were calling very strangely. I had no idea what they were, I just knew they weren’t Canada or Greylag. Luckily I didn’t have long to wait as the guys behind me started shouting. I stared hard through my bins and made out the barring that conclusively confirmed what I had heard Tony say: White-fronted Goose. 15 of them, and the third sighting in a decade on the patch if the records are correct. This, at the same time as the first Yellow-browed Warbler was calling!  I was giggling like a tipsy teenager.

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Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)

When we eventually all saw the YBW briefly on a branch, it was pure birding magic. It is not an ostentatious bird, but at that time it truly felt that I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

But it was only hours later, when I was back on the patch, that I managed to get a photo or two of this amazing bird.

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Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus)

So the day is ending with me having found (or joint found), heard, seen, and photographed a life first, got anther patch life tick and got a year tick – finishing the day on 98 birds for the year (tantalisingly close to my century target and equalling my score last year). But so much more important than a tick is the fact that I got to experience this patch birding magic with others – birding can be an amazing experience alone in the wild, but I increasingly learn how much better it can be when with others.

When Jono and I finally got photos of the bird this afternoon, we were with his daughters. How many 9 and 11 year olds have seen a Yellow-browed Warbler in inner London? My guess is very few indeed. And that highlights how truly special today has been.

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Whether a wind-blown vagrant or, as science increasingly seems to believe, a pioneering radical avoiding the normal migration routes (like the small percentage of bees programmed not to follow the hive when there is bountiful nectar found to ensure new pastures are also sought out), I shall never forget this bird or this wild experience just a few minutes walk from my terraced London house. Wanstead Flats is a genuinely incredible place.