Category Archives: photography

Corbieres garden watch: butterflies

The birds of the Corbieres are a bit different from East London (I don’t often see a Griffon Vulture sail over the house or a Bee-eater perch on a telegraph pole in Leytonstone), but the butterflies are just another world. I don’t especially mean the different species, although there are many different species from those I find in London, but the diversity and the sheer quantity is just a world away.

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There were probably over 100 butterflies In the grassy area within the frame of this shot

We hear increasingly about the decline of butterfly numbers and I have certainly been taken aback by a seeming paucity of butterflies on the wing recently. I can stand in prime  habitat locally and sometimes not see any butterflies at all for a minute or two. In the Corbieres, they are everywhere. Every step I took on the land would send several flapping away to safety. I am not massively used to it because I don’t often visit in June or July and so found it almost breathtaking on this most recent trip.

I have recorded 43 species of butterfly within a short walk of the house and I expect, if I broaden my visits across Spring and Summer dates, I should hit 50 without too much bother; there was certainly a lot of underlap from a trip in August a couple of years ago.

On this trip, some species were everywhere: Meadow Brown (also probably the commonest summer butterfly back in Wanstead), Iberian Marbled White, Southern Gatekeeper, Silver-washed Fritillary, and Grayling were almost ubiquitous.

Iberian Marbled White

Iberian Marbled White (Melanargia lachesis)

Wall brown

Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera)

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Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

Grayling

Grayling (Hipparchia semele)

The area benefits from many of the butterflies you would expect to find in France as well as being in a strange geographical comma that extends a number of Iberian semi-endemics into this sliver of Southern France. The False Ilex Hairstreak is a good example of this.

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False Ilex Hairstreak (Satyrium esculi)

A highlight for me was finally seeing Black-veined White. Their wings look like slices of translucent ivory or mother-of-pearl.

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Black-veined White (Aporia crategi)

The blues gave me some ID challenges, but were fun such as this Escher’s Blue

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Escher’s Blue (Polyommatus escheri)

I have pasted in my full patch list below in case of interest.

Brown Argus
Chalkhill Blue
Provence Chalk-hill Blue
Silver-studded Blue
Amanda’s Blue
Escher’s Blue
Common Blue
Long-tailed Blue
False Ilex
Blue-spot Hairstreak
Green Hairstreak
Spanish Purple Hairstreak
Two-tailed Pasha
Southern White Admiral
Painted Lady
Spotted Fritillary
Silver-washed Fritillary
False Grayling
Small Heath
Striped Grayling
Grayling
Tree Grayling
Great Banded Grayling
Wall Brown
Large Wall Brown
Large Tortoiseshell
Red Admiral
Dusky Heath
Speckled Wood
Meadow Brown
Iberian Marbled White
Spanish Gatekeeper
Southern Gatekeeper
Clouded Yellow
Berger’s Clouded Yellow
Cleopatra
Brimstone
Wood White
Black-veined White
Scarce Swallowtail
Small Skipper
Southern Marbled Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper
Silver-washed Fritillary

Silver-washed Fritillary – upperside

Corbieres Garden Watch: Birds

I normally walk reasonably lengthy distances birding my second patch in the Corbieres region (reminder: think limestone hills and out-crops, medieval villages, scrubby, largely evergreen hillsides, and the beginning ripples of the Pyrenees) in the South of France. On this trip, given the extreme heat (we are a couple of hours drive from the record-breaking areas of 45-46 degree centigrade, but it was still 39 degrees when we arrived in France), and the fact that I now have a small baby, meant that I was a lot less mobile. This, in turn, meant most of my birding was done later in the morning in the shade from the house and sat on the patio looking west down the valley.

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My wife and son and the cypress mentioned in this post

Late June / early July is hardly peak time for passerine song, but three male Nightingale sang for brief periods daily (and nightly) within ear-shot of the house (I counted three more territories elsewhere on the land). Woodlark were not doing the big circling song-flights that I love watching in the Spring, but one or two would occasionally pop up and down for a brief burst and their stubby shapes were regular sights being flushed as we drove to-and-from the house down the 2km track. A new singer for me on the patch was Tawny Pipit; whilst common in the local region, it has eluded me hyper-locally until now.

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Tawny Pipit (Anthus campestris)

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Classic Tawny Pipit territory – where I found it

Our other key songster, Melodious Warbler, was another daily regular, but was only heard in brief snippets of song once or twice. Our two most common warblers, Western Subalpine Warbler and, the year-round-resident, Sardinian Warbler, were both extra noticeable this year, but mostly not in song. Plenty of successful breeding evidence from both was noted, and family groups of Subalpine Warbler occasionally moved up and down the garden cypress tree with the juvenile birds having their catches supplemented. Common Whitethroat, Blackcap and Chiffchaff were much less prevalent but recorded nearby. I got one view, once, of a silent juvenile (or just dull female?) Dartford Warbler.

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Juv Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata)

That garden cypress tree proved a productive focal point for finches. The local Greenfinch and vocal Goldfinch flock used it, as did an occasional Serin. A Linnet flock of six birds preferred the ground in the scrubby meadow behind the house, and Chaffinch song was heard daily, but they seemed less inclined to come close to the house. Cirl Bunting sang a couple of times near the house, and slightly further up the hill I was pleased to connect with Rock Bunting, albeit disproving my own theory that they only showed up during winter months when the mountains were too snowy and ice-covered.

A row of cypress trees a few metres to the left of our big garden tree housed nesting Firecrest. Amongst the other visitors to the tree during the week, a highlight was Crested Tit which watched me from the top of the tree as I took its photo whilst sat in a deckchair (easy birding!).

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Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)

Black Redstart continued to perform as one of the most reliable ‘garden’ birds and a fledgling bird, still with oversize-wide bill, hopped around on our patio as I watched it from the kitchen. There were also a pair of semi-fledged Great Tit still being fed by their parents on the floor, only partially covered by undergrowth, right next to the barn and Blue Tits also seem to have had a successful year.

In the spirit of ‘why go to the birds, when the birds can come to me’, Turtle Dove flew over once, but was heard burbling away somewhere nearby more frequently. Also largely invisible, but regularly audible was Cuckoo. Great Spotted Woodpecker – not a common bird at all in the scrub land – was heard one day from our nearest pines.

Two years ago I photographed a single colony of 33 Bee-eater fly over the house. I certainly didn’t get a repeat of that, but never have I so consistently seen and heard Bee-eaters around the house. Every day I would hear their calls, and eventually I even stopped scanning the hillsides to see them perched up of swooping up and down. As we drove out on a couple of trips, they perched tantalisingly close on telegraph wires, making me curse the fact I didn’t have my camera handy.

Our local breeding Raven were less of a feature of this trip than almost any I had made before, although I occasionally heard their calls distantly and watched a pair on one of the valley stone outcrops one evening. Jays were the only other corvid on the trip garden list.

Raptor watching was patchy at first and then, at times, truly excellent:Watching six Griffon Vulture kettling over the house was a patch-record and a highlight for me.
Short-toed Eagle, as usual for the summer months was the most commonly seen raptor; mostly sailing over silently, but on a rare walk to the top of our local hill (Mont Major at 541m above sea level), a pair made an absolute racket as they flew past together.
Frustratingly, I fluffed the ID of a suspected Booted Eagle which I saw briefly before it disappeared over a hill: shape and brief view of colouration looked good but my impression of size was that it was noticeably bigger than Short-toed Eagle.
A pair of noisy Peregrine appeared briefly (a rare sight over the patch).
I also got one view of a Kestrel flying purposefully past the house carrying prey.
The patch highlight of the trip was undoubtedly good views of a young Montagu’s Harrier our main ruin on the land. I noticed it almost static in the air some distance away, but it then scythed around the curved contours of the hillsides (a first for me here, although I once had a pair a few miles away over a field).

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Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus)

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Underside plumage in transition it seems – reds still visible

On my walk to the top of the hill, I got good views of Crag Martin and Common Swift (I have had Alpine Swift here in the past). Whilst not very exciting for readers, I recorded my first ever House Martin on the French Patch this trip, a small flock passing high over head and hawking with the Swifts. House Martin and Swallows are teeming in the local villages a few miles away, but neither seem to be seen over this wild and remote valley, which is where the wild things are (Crag Martin in this case), so this was a welcome sighting. As with buses, I saw them almost every day after that, so perhaps the local village populations are hunting further afield now.

Whilst not seen from my ‘garden watch’ location, Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge were flushed by the car along the track within the patch boundaries and Hoopoe flew over the car about a mile from our track. The best local (off-patch) sighting of the trip was probably a circling White Stork near the Medieval village of Lagrasse – this is the closest I have seen this species to the Patch and raises the chances that I will hopefully get one one day from the House. Straying from birds, I finally added Hare to my patch mammal list, joining at least two bat species, Stoat, Wild Boar, and Roe Deer (unfortunately I have only experienced Red Deer from the tales of the hunters takings from around (or illegally on) our land).

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Juv European Hare (Lepus europaeus)

Considering I barely left the garden, and we were largely being baked by the sun, this was still some enjoyable birding and this hopefully gives a sense to any readers of what can be found with minimal effort in the Corbieres. The butterflies probably outperformed the birds this trip, but I will save that for a separate trip report.

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The scene of most of my observations

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March 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only made it out on to the patch three times in March, recording 50 species of birds. Five of these species were new for the year, and one was a patch life tick.

Highlights were:

  • The stunning drake Garganey on Jubilee Pond found by Rob S. on 31 March – my first full patch life tick this year.
  • Winning the local Wheatear sweepstake by correctly predicting 17 March as the first arrival. Seeing it perch up nicely after being found by Tony B.
  • Hearing my first Cetti’s Warbler (found by Marco J.) on Wanstead Flats (last bird being on the Roding) also on 17 March.
  • Spring being sealed on 23 March by singing Blackcap and first sighting of Sand Martin.

Lowlights were:

  • Whilst pleased to see some of the early Spring arrivals, I missed a few others that my colleagues picked up, namely a record early House Martin and Swallow.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Adding a new bird to my French Patch list (albeit not the most exciting of additions): Mistle Thrush.
  • Other highlights of a week working my French Patch were: Griffon Vulture, lots of Golden Eagle sightings, courting Ravens, singing Woodlark, Black Redstart, Stonechat closer to the house than I have had before, Crested Tit, singing Cirl Bunting, Rock Bunting, and more Sardinian Warbler than you would know what to do with.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Crested Tit – France

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Black Redstart – France

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Skylark – Wanstead

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Wheatear – Wanstead

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Garganey – Wanstead!

Exploring the land in black and white

I haven’t used black & white photography for quite a while. I tend to find it doesn’t lend itself to landscape photography for me (I’m not exactly Ansell Adams and nor am I generally taking pictures of such dramatic scenes), and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the ‘art’ of record shot wildlife photography that is my speciality ;).

But on my most recent trip to the South of France, I gave it another go. There is always a fine line for relatively unskilled amateur photographers like me between a poor photo masquerading behind pretension, and a photo that authentically works in monochrome. I’ll let you be the judge of which side of that line I am on with these scenes from our home and the surrounding land.

The ruin

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There are actually several ruins on the land, but this old farmhouse is the most substantial. The floor dimensions suggest this would have been a reasonably sizeable dwelling.

Another ruin

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There are currently three homes in the remote complex, but a fourth building is now just a shell and largely used as a sheltered place to hang washing with only this delicate tree, currently in blossom, casting shade over it.

Another shell

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The buildings aren’t the only things that have become retired shells on the land. I have seen photos of this car when it was on its ‘last wheels’ as a functioning vehicle 28 years ago. Now it is largely open to the elements, and being taken over with plants in the same way as the old ruined buildings.

The homes

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Set in recovering, rewilding mediterranean maquis scrub landscape in a valley, the homes are now the terminus for a road (really just a track) that used to pass right through the valley.

The gate and path

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The old road is now just a set of rocky paths, closed off from the homestead by an unintimidating old gate to keep the donkeys and horses away from any garden-grown plants and the track which eventually leads out to traffic and danger.

The other inhabitants

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Currently two horses and two donkeys keep some of the nearest vegetation low, the paths navigable, and parched, damaged soil manured. They are not the only large mammals in the valley…

The misty mountains

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Sometimes the sun scorches the valley, sometimes the wind blows through it like an industrial wind-tunnel, and sometimes mist clings to the hillside like a damp cloak. Sometimes ghost-like baritone bells can be heard invisibly from high-up in the hills as goats pass through. And deep, and normally hidden, in the misty scrub are the wilder inhabitants: wild boar, deer, and, I only recently found out, hare live in these hills.

The old trees

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Much of the vegetation in the valley is relatively young scrubby growth recolonising the former agricultural land. On the top of the hills, much of the plant life is kept very short by the goats, but on the cliff edges, some ancient Holm Oak hold on, too gnarly and big and old to be under threat from goats, and bent sharply and precariously, and overhanging huge drops, from the wind that scours the land.

It is after steep climbs to visit these sentinels of the wild and walking in wind that return journeys are accompanied with a longing for the warmth of the open fire back in the house.

The fire

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I took this photo in the knowledge that the slightly antiquated feel to the image absolutely accurately reflects the history of the fireplace. A place where we dry clothes today, and bath our baby in reach of the warmth from the flames in almost exactly the same way as will have been done for generation after generation in the same spot. The photo was taken with that most modern of devices: an iPhone, but the scene is not staged or fake; the fireplace really is as old as it looks.

 

February 2019: Review

Patch Summary:

I only recorded 56 species of birds in four patch visits during February. Of the 56, three were new for the year for me.

Highlights were:

  • Connecting pretty quickly with the Rook Bob found on Alexandra Pond on 17 Feb. Probably the same individual as last year.
  • Having a nice low fly-past from my first patch Common Buzzard of the year also on 17 Feb.
  • SSSI seeming to be a magnet for good numbers of Reed Bunting, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, and very large numbers of Goldfinch.
  • Finding a new colour-ringed Black-headed Gull on Alex on 18 Feb (Yellow TN9T): first sighting since ringed in Poland in June 2018.
  • A very high count of 44 Mute Swan on Jubilee for the WeBS count on 17 Feb.

Lowlights were:

  • Continued to fail to see Fieldfare (probably missed now until the Autumn) or Water Rail.

Highlights from elsewhere were:

  • Seeing 1W Caspian Gull ‘X530’ at Stonebarges in Rainham (but sadly not finding either of the Glaucous Gull that have been around) on 19 Feb.
  • Seeing and hearing my first ever Penduline Tit. In London as well. with added bonus of several Bearded Tit/Reedling present too. All at Crossness in South London on 22 Feb.
  • Flying out to my French Patch (more to be reported for March) and, on first day out and about on last day (28th) of Feb felt like reconnecting with old friends: Sardinian Warbler rattling from bushes in large numbers, Raven courting, Stonechat posing, and Cirl Bunting singing.

My birding month in five pictures:

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Polish ringed ‘TN9T’ on Alex

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Glossy, wet, Mallard

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German Ringed X530 1W Caspian Gull

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Somewhere in that lot is probably a Glaucous – not that I found it/them

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Record shot of a Bearded Tit at Crossness – sadly wasn’t fast enough to capture the Penduline

That was the year that was: ten birding moments

2018 will forever remain an important year for me. A number of sizeable personal life events occurred; most notably the fact that I have recently become a father.

It was not a massive birding year for me (perhaps due to the reasons above), although I recorded my best patch year total with 110 species and 12 brand new patch birds. There were some notable absences in my patch year list (Garden Warbler probably the most unexpected, and my first year blanking Pied Flycatcher being a disappointment. Missing out on the showy Black-tailed Godwit on Alexandra Lake was also gripping in the extreme). However, the disappointments were undoubtedly outweighed by the  highlights which, as is the want of birding bloggers, I will share here.

Best photo
As I inflict many terrible photos on the readers of this blog, I thought I ought to start with one that is a little better than my average. A bird that I wish I had seen in the UK, but actually saw where it is common; Tokyo, Japan…

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Dusky Thrush (Turdus eunomus)

Top ten birding moments (in chronological order)

1. Goldeneye, Wanstead Park

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Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Not a bird likely to be on many of my patch colleague’s ‘top moments’ lists for more than one reason, including the fact that it was only seen by Nick (the finder) and me. I also have a soft-spot for the River Roding as an under-watched part of the Patch, and seeing this Patch-scarce (8th record and Patch tick for me) was a bright moment during dark February.

2.  Brown-eared Bulbul, Tokyo, Japan

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Brown-eared Bulbul (Hypsipetes amaurotis)

Anyone who has been to Japan will have seen a lot of these birds. Oh boy are they everywhere! But opening the shutters of our bedroom window after our first night in Japan to find this enigmatic bird just a few metres away, surrounded by cherry blossom just seemed to be so quintessentially Japanese that the moment has stayed etched in my mind.

3. Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Hakone, Japan

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Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus kizuki)

Another common bird in Japan, but being totally alone on the fringes of a mountain village in the shadow of Mount Fuji and watching this stunning bird for several minutes feeding on a moss-covered tree was special.

4. Tree Pipit, Wanstead Flats

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Tree Pipit was not one of the 12 new birds for the Patch I saw this year, but the April bird  gave me the best views I have had of this normally fleeting passage migrant; the best views on the Patch… and, actually, probably the best views I have ever had of this bird.

5. Cuckoo, Wanstead Flats

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Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

A bittersweet birding moment in that my joy at watching this bird sail right past me and perch up around 10-15 metres away – a patch tick – was somewhat dampened by the fact that none of my fellow patch workers got to see it. I remember watching a perched cuckoo as a very young child in Northamptonshire having heard its distinctive call. Now, the call is increasingly rare in the UK, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen this bird perch up, so seeing this on the Patch was a bonus.

6. Aquatic Warbler, Biebrza Marshes, Poland

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Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola)

Poland was the only birding-specific overseas trip I undertook in 2018 and I added many ticks to my life-list. Aquatic Warbler was one of the first and most vulnerable of these ‘ticks’. Standing in a sea of reeds and then eventually hearing and seeing one, two, and then three and more of these ‘acros’ climb up a stalk and perform for us was a trip, and year, highlight for me.

7. Three-toed Woodpecker, Bialowieza, Poland

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Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

We connected with seven species of Woodpecker (and it could have easily been ten if we had stayed another day or so) in Poland. The toughest to find, but most rewarding to watch (for me anyway) was the Three-toed Woodpecker, as our group actually helped to locate a nest-hole for our guide, and we spent several minutes watching a female move between the trees around us. A classic life tick.

8. Red-backed Shrike, Wanstead Flats

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Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Had it not been for a certain bunting (see below), RB Shrike would have been the rarest patch bird of the year for me. One of several fantastic finds by Mr N. Croft this year, I was pleased with a brief glimpse on the day it was found, but thrilled the following day when I walked around a bush and froze as it was right in front of me. A bird I also added to my French patch list the year before, even as a juvenile, this bird wins the ‘best-looking bird’ award in this list of ten for me.

9. Rustic Bunting, Wanstead Flats

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Rustic Bunting (Emberiza rustica)

Undoubtedly the rarest bird I have seen in four years of birding my local Patch of Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park. An outstanding find by Nick again. The photo above was taken when there were hundreds of twitchers on our local Patch at the weekend, but my first sighting of the bird had been early one morning in the golden light of autumnal dawn. At first a brief flash of a bunting, and then that moment when ID clicks into place and you know you have connected with a rare bird; what a way to get a full world life tick; right on my doorstep.

10. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wanstead Park

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Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dryobates minor)

The third woodpecker on my list (in fact I added five woodpecker species to my life-list in 2018) but this one; a patch-tick rather than a life tick had to be the most satisfying. A once-resident breeder on the Patch (before my time) that is now only a scarce visitor. Finding this female in the Park was a great moment for me and was filled with the glimmer of hope that this nationally declining bird might come back and breed again locally.

People, places, and things

So, there were some great birds, but it was more than just about the birds. Sometimes I went birding in some rather unglamorous places…

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Beckton Sewage Works

But sometimes also in some beautiful places…

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Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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Hakone, Japan

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Wanstead Flats

Sometimes I had the peace of birding in solitude, but sometimes I had the pleasure of birding in the company of others.

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Biebrza Marshes, Poland

Now I am a father, my birding opportunities in 2019 might not be quite so frequent, but I look forward to clocking up a few new experiences.

 

Birding and a baby

Last Saturday started as so many others for me. My alarm went off in the dark and I slipped out of bed as quietly as possible to head out birding. On this occasion, however, my wife was already awake. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, calmly, “my waters have broken and I am having contractions”. My birding trip was to be postponed it seemed.

My wife and I proceeded to have quite a nice day together. Throughout most of the day the contractions were mild enough to allow an almost normal day to be had. At one point, my overdue wife had enough to do that I actually did nip out birding for about an hour. I realise I may be publicly self-nominating myself for ‘worst husband of the year’ award. It was certainly not something I expected to be doing on the day my wife went into labour, but things had progressed so gently, that I was given a clear green light.

Almost exactly a year-on from seeing it in 3rd winter plumage, the Snaresbrook Caspian Gull has returned now as a 4cy bird.

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Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)

Here was the same bird on the same location, albeit a little colder given the ice, a year ago.

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Same bird as a 3cy bird taken in December 2017

On the way home I stopped off at Leyton Tip as a local birder had tipped (pun intended) me off that it was a good place to see Herring Gull in the nominate ‘argentatus’ subspecies rather than all the pale-mantled ‘argenteus’ birds we are used to in London. The gen was good, although the views were terrible, so I grabbed a record shot and raced home to be with my wife.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argentatus)

That evening we went for a nice walk, the contractions picked up in pace and intensity and, by 05:32 the next morning, my son, Harry, was born at home weighing in at 9lbs. And so life begins and so my life changes, but this is primarily a blog about birding, so…

Today (with my son now a week old), I nipped out again as my wife’s friend came over to help. Another local lake (Connaught Water) and four Goosander were actually a year tick for me, and first for me locally.

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Drake Goosander (Mergus merganser)

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Female Goosander