Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Great Bittern!

Great Bittern (Simon Osbourne)
Imagine the scene: it's a freezing, frosty morning. The sun has just risen and the sky is a beautiful shade of blue. I'm at The Scrubs hoping to discover 4 species of bird that I haven't yet seen this year on my patch. 

It's the 11th hour and I'm getting desperate.

Walking through the grassland I flush 4 Common Snipe. In itself this is a veritable swarm. I normally never see more than 3 together (though we have recorded 4 birds before a couple years ago). I desperately try to string them as Jack Snipes but their calls are all wrong and their bills are too long!

I sit on a bench by Chats Paddock and watch the south western sky in the vain hope of seeing a gaggle of wild geese or a wandering Hen Harrier. Instead, one hour's watching is rewarded by a few Woodpigeons, Black-headed  & Common Gulls and ubiquitous Carrion Crows.

Despondent, I walk west adjacent to the embankment that marks the north western border of the site adding a female Reed Bunting and a pair of Mistle Thrushes to the list. Nice birds but nothing new. As I'm about to leave I look over my shoulder and something catches my eye. Distantly from the south east, I notice a large bird heading south west. In a split second I realise that it's a heron - but something's not quite right about it.

As I train my bins on it I see that despite being large, it 'felt' smaller than a Grey Heron. It had a far smaller, compact neck bulge, long legs sticking out from its rear and seemed dark. I could not truly discern any colour because of the distance and the fact that it was flying past the glare of the rising sun. Crucially its flight pattern was very different to Grey Heron. Instead of languid flaps and glides on bowed wings, this bird flapped continuously, appearing like a huge Short-eared Owl. I watched it as it disappeared into the south west skies.

I instantly new that I was watching a Bittern - but in broad daylight over west London? Had I been in Norfolk I would have called it immediately and thought nothing of it. But it's a different kettle of fish when you see birds out of context.

Anyway, after some deliberation I decided to count it as The Scrubs' first ever Bittern and our 97th species for the year. Yesterday's prayer was answered. What will tomorrow, the last morning of 2008 bring?

Monday, 29 December 2008

I'm running out of days!

My quest continues to achieve the magical 100 species mark. The past couple of mornings I have braved the sub-zero temperatures to wander Wormwood Scrubs like some lost soul. I have seen absolutely nothing of real interest with the regular Stonechats, gulls and a measly 4 Meadow Pipits being the sum total.

But undaunted I shall head of to my patch once again in the morning in the hope of a overflying Glaucous Gull, or party of Brent Goose - jeez, I'd be happy with a Brambling or anything......

Will someone hear my prayers?

Friday, 26 December 2008

A Great Black-back

Great Black-backed Gull at The Scrubs
This morning I managed to see a Great Black-backed Gull languidly flap over The Scrubs. It's a real scarcity here so it was nice to see. Otherwise it was the usual suspects that were to be seen. 

The remainder of Boxing Day was spent variously setting up my mum's broadband and new laptop, eating and watching tat of TV.

I opened a Christmas present and was pleased to discover that someone had bought me a Kodak Z16. To the uninitiated, it's a mobile phone sized video camera. You can upload your clips directly onto youtube. 

How cool is that?

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Happy Christmas - One and All!

Tessa Dunlop and The Urban Birder at BBC Radio London
First thing first. Merry Christmas all. I hope that it was a day of love and peace. A tall order for some I know.

I spent the early hours of the day at The Scrubs with stalwart birder, Roy Nuttall, in the vain hope of discovering something amazing. Aside from nearly 400 Black-headed Gulls there was little else. We met with a non-birder mate of his who quickly produced a little nap sack with a flask of mulled wine and some mince pies. So there we were sitting on a bench watching the world go by tucking into typical Christmas fayre!

Amongst the usual skin care products that I had for Christmas I also received a brilliant gift. An original artwork of a male Ring Ouzel by the bird artist Jan Wilzcur. 

Oh and on the eve before Christmas Eve I was invited down to Radio London to be on Tessa Dunlop's evening talk show. Ostensibly I was booked to chat about urban birds between 11pm til midnight. I ended up being involved in deep conversations with callers on subjects as diverse as religion, homosexuality, race and a Northern Cardinals!

Such is the life of an Urban Birder!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

I'm back on it!

For once I managed to get out of bed and head down to the hallowed turf. There were absolutely no passerines to look at. The bushes and trees were devoid apart from Magpies and Carrion Crows. A few hundred gulls and Starlings were whisping around the football pitches. At least 200 Starlings were mingling amongst a similar number of Black-headed Gulls, c50 Common, c5 Lesser Black-backs and a couple Herring Gulls.

I returned back to the bat cave and plotted and planned for the remainder of the day only breaking to visit my mum in the evening.

The Christmas hibernation continues......

Saturday, 20 December 2008

I must start birding....

I've just realised that I haven't so much as looked at a bird for several days. What kind of urban birder am I?

This morning I played football as usual, but it was a particularly tortuous game. It was a 5-all draw and I managed to pull my back whilst making a spectacular save - well, I thought it was! Oh, I did hear a nearby Pied Wagtail calling during the game.

I going to seriously try to get to The Scrubs in  the morning.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Give me some slack!

Geez, I've been totally slack when it comes to this blogging lark!

I keep missing days and when I do get a chance it's normally last thing at night and I'm knackered!

Last night was The One Show Christmas Party. I wore a 70's afro (it was a semi-fancy dress affair) and was supposedly djing. However, after spinning my first tune (September - Earth Wind and Fire) the second deck collapsed on me, rendering me redundant. Another fella took over and played cd's.

Tonight I was on The One Show singing a Christmas Carol with Mortimer and Reeves and several of the other presenters. It was a laugh.

Let's chat more tomorrow.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008


The Dilge and The Urban Birder

Jumped on a train from Paddington early this morning and arrived at Bristol Temple Meads for the first of the meetings that I had planned. Mike 'The Dilge' Dilger met me from the station when I arrived at 10am and we headed off for breakfast.

We met because we are doing a talk together in late January in Essex to around 800 people on our birding lives. We had a right gossip about the business, The One Show and of course, our planned talk. We put the blueprint into place.

At midday, he dropped me at Tigress Productions where I had a meeting with TV supremo Kath Moore (her name probably means nought to you, but believe me, she's a right mover and shaker!). I was there to tap dance and get her to think of me in 2009 when she considers what talent to push for whatever wildlife TV project that they are working on. Time will tell whether or not I made an impression.

Next, I walked up the road to BBC Bristol and chewed the fat with The One Show commissioner whilst waiting for my cab. Whilst I was with him, I learnt that the film that Birdguides have posted on their webzine presented by me about birding in Kensington Gardens has received rave revues so far. Excellent!

Got my train back to London at 2pm and was back in the Big Smoke by 4pm. Tonight I am of to the London Birders Christmas Drink over at Tower Hill. Don't worry, I won't be getting drunk!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Starling City

A tiny fraction of the Starlings on Brighton Pier

I went on a monumentally traffic-filled, stuttering drive to Brighton on the south coast today as a guest of the RSPB to witness the 50,000 or so Starlings coming into roost on the pier. It was the dullest day ever in terms of light. At 3pm it seemed like the sun was giving up for the day about to go down early. I brought my mother with me to experience her first birding trip. I know. It's totally embarrassing. I've been birding all my life and have never taken my mum out birding.

I think that part of the reason why she has never accompanied me is that she has never shown any inclination previously - and I have asked her before, believe me. I think that she has always just thought 'just let him get on with it.' I also think that she just didn't get it when I was growing up. How could her son, raised in a black/Irish neighbourhood - miles away from the nearest stretch of countryside, be into birds? Don't get me wrong, she totally encouraged me as much as she could. I think that now that I'm getting recognition for my lifelong passion, she taking a closer look. On the way down to Brighton this afternoon, I looked in the rearview mirror and caught her thumbing through the pages of Bird Watching Magazine and actually reading some birding articles (apart from my own piece)!

Anyway, back to those glorious Starlings.

I was on the pier with the RSPB's Kate Whitton and her team meeting the public, chatting to the  volunteers and of course, checking out the masses of Starlings. Being a birder, I was also scrutinizing the gulls that were milling around the pier. I suppose I was hoping for a passing Mediterranean Gull, but I had to make do with Herring and Black-headed's, though I was pretty certain that I had a first winter Common Gull.

It was quite interesting to watch the multitudes of Starlings swirling low over the sea. I tried to upload a picture I took but the upload thingy was taking eons.

Big week next week. I have several big meetings. I will keep you up to date.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Get out!

My chances of getting just 5 more species to hit a 'ton' at The Scrubs are diminishing by the day. I guess it would help if I went to my patch in the mornings!

This morning I spent at home working and tomorrow morning I have a voiceover. Hopefully, Friday will see me stalking the hallowed turf.

Hey ho.....

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Let's make movies!

It's been a hectic few days punctuated by the hours I spent deliberating over my Readers Digest piece and the article on urban birding in Prague that I was crafting for Bird Watching Magazine. Both took a lot longer to complete than what I originally imagined.

Also, I've been doing a lot of plotting and planning for the future when it comes to The Urban Birder brand. 2009 should be an interesting year. I have managed to get myself invited to the Natural History Unit Christmas Party in Bristol next Tuesday night and have also got a meeting with a Bristol based production company, who make exceptional wildlife programmes. The idea is that I will be touting some of the programme ideas that I have had to see what they make of them.

Speaking of production companies, I am forming one myself in the New Year with a camera woman that I have met recently. Every couple of weeks we go out and shoot short birding films, some of which will either appear on my site or utube at some point in the near future.

Sunday morning saw me stalking The Scrubs in search of any birdlife. Well, apart from a lone Great Black-backed Gull, the usual pair of Stonechats, some Fieldfare and a solitary Jackdaw flying over, the place was dead.

Tonight I was at the London Natural History Society's AGM at the Linnean Society's Rooms in Piccadilly. I must say that I had a pleasant surprise. Instead of a stuffy, boring meeting discussing the distribution of paper clips, we were treated to a silent movie with live commentary on the birds of the London area c1959. It was great to see London as it was then; the old Routemaster buses, people feeding the birds in the Royal Parks, images of breeding Red-backed Shrike (long gone now), people's attire at the time and tons of House Sparrows.

It was a lovely little film.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


My late night radio show with Tessa Dunlop went very well. Along with a Texan lady who made diamond jewellery, we chatted about the jewellery heist in Paris, child abduction, voice projection, race and perhaps 30 seconds on birds!

I left there at 1am and drove home to bed only to be up again at 7.30am for football. I'm a goalkeeper. 

After breakfast with the lads, a snooze and watching Manchester United beat Sunderland I settled down to writing my latest Birdwatching article and remixing my Readers Digest piece.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Not so good.....

Not such a great day today.

Went to The Scrubs in the morning and saw zilch. The bushes were empty, not even a Blue Tit. The best bird was a pair of Canada Geese that flew low north towards the Grand Union Canal as I was leaving.

At home things didn't get any better. I called The One Show director that I'm working with on the Waxwing story for a catch up. He broke the news that it had been dropped for fear of no Waxwings being present and that they have had 'too many bird stories' recently.

I was gutted. Very disappointed.

Life goes on. There will be other films that I will make - and I will make them!

Tonight, I head off to Radio London to be on the Tessa Dunlop Friday Night Late Show to review the morning's papers and chat with callers.

Tomorrow is another day.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Trouble at mill

This morning was dismal. Rain, grey and drab. I journeyed to east Acton, west London to meet with Fiona Barclay at the Birdguides offices to do a voiceover. I'm working on an interesting project with them that will be launched in the New Year. I'm very excited about it. On the way back to the car I saw a sorry looking Woodpigeon in the close company of a Pied Wagtail on the pavement. They flew off together. An odd couple.

By the time I got home (a short 20 minute drive) the sun started to poke out again. I confirmed my trip to Brighton (14 December), my place at the Natural History Unit's Christmas Party and made more in-roads on my Scottish trip next week. Best of all, fellow birder blogger Clare Evans talked me through setting up skype on my computer, bringing me firmly into the 21st Century. Thank you Clare.

In the evening I went to the Friends of The Scrubs committee meeting (I'm a committee member) to get bored. Well that's what usually happens. This time I was horrified to learn that my beloved patch could be under threat, yet again.

In a nutshell, the Royal Horse Artillery has used parts of The Scrubs for years to exercise. The rumour is that the Ministry of Defence is going to pull out of The Scrubs in the near future. This may sound like good news, but it's potentially the opposite. If the MOD sell the land to the council (although The Scrubs is common ground it's main purpose was to serve the military) then it potentially leaves the area open to unabated development.

Happy days.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


European Starling John Charman

Another lovely morning, though this time I spent it in bed with my laptop tapping away, missing God knows what at the Scrubs. 

It looks like I'll be heading off to Scotland next Thursday to chase Waxwings. I only hope that there will be sizable flocks to see. I also have to organise my impending trip to Brighton to report for the RSPB on their 'Arnt Birds Brilliant' stand setup outside the Starling roost on Brighton Pier.

It's incredible to think that they were once so common.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Mixed blessings

I finally made it to The Scrubs this morning! I actually woke up on time! Apart from a wintering male Reed Bunting, a Stonechat and 7 overflying Fieldfares there was nothing of note to be seen. Even the numbers of gulls loafing on the football pitches was low with just about 100 Black-headed's, around 10 Common Gulls and no lurking Mediterranean Gull!

Back at home I spent some of the day shouting down the phone at the bane of my existence, Congestion Charging for London. I hate them. They are just a bunch of money grabbers!

The Glasgow Waxwing flock that I'm planning to film for The One Show is disappearing as I write this note. It's down from 350 birds or so to a paltry 30-ish. I need to find a larger flock so we may have to delay filming until we can pin down a suitable flock. I have some guys on the ground up north who are feeding me with the latest flock news.

I also learnt today that I will be off to Budapest early next year to research the urban birding in that city for Bird Watching Magazine. Nice one. I also agreed to spend a day at next year's Lee Valley Spring Wildlife Weekend in May, chatting to visitors, giving a talk or two and checking out the nestbox that I made for the site last year.

Finally, I had a request from a Japanese TV station. They want to interview me about the rise of the Rose-ringed Parakeet for the Japanese market. Although I will do it, I am not the greatest fan of British Rose-rings. 

Anyway, back to the numerous articles that I have write - plus, it's about time I updated my website too!

Monday, 1 December 2008

Planning a Waxwing invasion

I woke up to a gorgeous morning today. I also woke up late. Too late to go to The Scrubs to discover one or more of the five species that I need to hit the magical hundred. I suppose there's always tomorrow.

Today was a good day in The Urban Birder office. BBC's The One Show bought my idea of doing a piece on the Waxwing invasion currently underway in Britain. It looks like I will be heading to Scotland very soon to check out the Waxwings there. Apparently, there has been over 300 in Glasgow city centre. I have to give props to the commissioning editor at The One Show, Doug Carnegie. He's a birder and a great supporter.

Thankfully, I finished my Readers Digest piece. It will be a jovial look at being an urban birder - not to be taken seriously - due to be published next March.

I had an email from a fella today lamenting the loss of Common Nighthawks in New York. I invited him to write an article about them for my site. Meanwhile, I am starting my Bird Watching Magazine article and my November Scrubs report for my site. 

Any ideas for me anyone?