Friday, 27 February 2009

Eclipse plumage

God bless its electrical soul
The postman's supposed to ring twice, right?

Well, round where I live they don't even bother ringing. It's often a wonder that you get any letters at all. After coming back from an early morning Scrubs visit I waited in like a plum for the postman to deliver my new phone. I was kinda desperate because part of my life had regressed to the pre-seventies. My current phone had quit on me and I needed to make some calls, answer some important football texts and generally feel safe in the knowledge that I had my mobile close at hand.

Not to be. The delivery cut off time of 1pm had been and gone. I checked my letterbox and to my horror there was one of those 'I tried to deliver' notes stuffed through the door. The geezer hadn't even bothered to ring the doorbell. Of course, I was straight onto the Royal Mail customer complaints who added insult to injury by saying that the collection office had just closed for the day!

Then I checked myself. I thought, 'hey, you've got two legs, you're still breathing and you're not in a coma'. That was a great leveller. Plus, it meant that I would have no one bugging me for the duration of me being flightless - yeah, that's it! Being phoneless is like being flightless. I'm currently in eclipse plumage!

I had no alarm this morning (that's how much I rely on my phone!) but incredibly, I woke myself up at 6am and half-an-hour later I was watching hundreds of squawking Rose-ringed Parakeets fly over my head in the pre-dawn light at The Scrubs. I was joined by fellow Scrubber, Roy Nuttall. Together we walked the circuit and managed 4 Stonechat for our trouble.

Needless to say, I also didn't receive the sack load of letters from the kids at the local school, but I did get an email from the organisors of the Birdfair at Rutland, inviting me to give a talk on Urban Birding. So if you're not up to much over the second last weekend of August, come down and check me out.

Now it's time for me to sit back and drift away whilst Herbie Hancock tinkles the ivories on the wonderful jazz funky tune, Chameleon.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The postman better knock

Yesterday's mystery photo raised a lot of comment not only on this blog but also on email and text. As I said earlier, the vast majority of people fancied it as a Chiffchaff, despite the dark face, lack of supercilium and leggy appearance. Such is the excitement of birding.

My crackberry finally collapsed. A month ago I dropped it in a cup of hot chocolate and despite facing a certain death, it came back to life like Lazarus. There was a price to pay though. The Cadbury's hot chocolate had disintergrated the microphone on the phone, so I could only use it with  a headset. That was fine until today. Thankfully, a swift call to T-mobile resulted in a super-duper upgrade being despatched to arrive tomorrow morning. How easy is life sometimes?

I did a talk at a primary school to 60 eight year old kids a couple weeks ago and I received an email from their teacher today saying that they really enjoyed it. In fact, they had written a load of thank you letters and they were being shipped over to my address for the morning.


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Chiffchaff or a first for the Western Palearctic?

Is this a Chiffchaff?

I woke up to another grey day in London.

Before heading out of the door to do a voiceover for Birdguides, I checked my emails and came across one sent by a good birding mate of mine containing the above displayed picture. It was taken by a non-birder on holiday in southern Spain last week. My friend was flummoxed. He was thinking that it was an aberrant female Black Redstart. My first thought was a Blackstart - but they are grey with black tails. Then my imagination started running wild and I was conjuring images of me discovering the Western Palearctic's first Familiar Chat - an African denizen!

Anyway, I circulated the picture to the people who should know better and the vast majority plumped for Chiffchaff.

What do you think?

Well, the voiceover went well. I was laying down the voice for the Birdguides promotional film on how to use their many services. Jeez, those guys are really high tech!

In the afternoon, I had a lengthy meeting with my lovely agent, Jo, at her offices in Shepherds Bush, west London. We have a good plan to put into action and I will let you know how I get on!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Urban birding

A handsome Redwing
A failed internet connection, a late night and downright laziness all contributed to my lack of entries over the past few days. Of course, I had offers from some very kindly folk to use their offices (including my good mate Fiona Barclay - she of Birdguides fame). I decided to suffer and spend the time screaming down the phone at British Telecom instead.

To recap, on Sunday morning I was watching 3 cute little Stonechats, a solitary Redwing and the first returning Linnets at my beloved Wormwood Scrubs. Later that morning, I was in Southwark in south London - Bermondsey to be exact, to lead a walk through the streets for the council. The idea was that I'd take members of the public on a truly urban bird walk. Well that was the plan. In reality only one person turned up thus she had a complete one-on-one. The best bird was a high flying Sparrowhawk being mobbed by Carrion Crows over the drab cityscape that I had found myself in. We ended up back at her house after an hour in the cold, slurping tea with her partner chatting about Carmine Bee-eaters!

Yesterday morning I was Kensington Gardens taking part in a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the demise of the House Sparrow. I was chatting about their general decline across Britain and specifically in Kensington Gardens where in 1975 over 2500 were counted whilst in 2000 there were none. And there's been none since apart from a lone female that showed up for a few hours in 2003.

Later, I was delighted to receive an email from the venerable Hugh Harrop who agreed to me using a couple of his images for a piece on my website. You should check some of his photos out as they are wicked

Tomorrow, I meet with my lovely agent for a spot of plotting and planning.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Final score

6-2 was the final score this morning and I was voted man of the match by a few of my fellow team mates. I was well happy!

The skies were blue (quite a change from the recent gloom) and whilst standing in between the sticks my birding urges twinged when I noticed several parties of Carrion Crows passing overhead. For some reason, I had the spring urge. You know the one. It's when you can't sleep at night, willing the dawn to arrive so that you can experience the first rays of the spring sunshine on your face as you search the bushes in your local patch for the first returning migrants. 

What more motivation do I need to go to The Scrubs more often?

Thursday, 19 February 2009


The view above Croydon
The next city to fall under my urban birding gaze will be............Croydon.

For those not familiar with this major commercial settlement in south London, it is the birthplace of non other than Kate Moss and a few other notable Croydonians - who's names currently escape me. Interestingly, I never knew that Croydon was a settlement in 1086 and was only amalgamated with London as recently as 1965. Ignorantly, I thought that they built Croydon and its high rise cityscape in the 60's. Clearly not.

The great thing about Croydon is that it is much derided by practically everyone outside it's city limits and that is what's great. It's an overlooked jewel (at least I hope). Thinking about it, I saw my first ever Pied-billed Grebe in South Norwood Country Park, Croydon in 1987.

Anyway, aside from dreaming of discovering a major birding oasis on a Croydon street corner, this evening was spent revelling at the brilliance of Paul Scholes' performance in last night's Manchester United game whilst trying to think up ideas for The One Show.

It's a hard life.....

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Days like this

The morning I missed at The Scrubs
A quiet day today. I tried to get up early to hit The Scrubs, but instead I hit the pillow again with a definite thud!

Today was a day of paperwork and emails, but I wont bore you.

In the evening, I attended the Friends of The Scrubs AGM, which was funnily enough in a community hall right by The Scrubs. That's as interesting as it got!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Pussy cats

I had a call from the producer of the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 out of the blue today. He asked if I would like to come into the studio to talk about the effect that domestic cats are having on Britain's wildlife on Jeremy's show.

I agreed to it, but stressed that both the RSPB and the BTO were undecided as to the general effect that cats have had because the research is lacking. Whilst waiting to go on air I got chatting with Jools Holland, who was also in the same room. I told him that I first met him 5 years previously whilst at a party in Mick Hucknall's house - as you do. Now, before you cry 'name dropper!', I must stress that I gatecrashed that party because I was on a mission.

You see, I knew that the late George Best was attending with his wife Alex. My cunning plan was to ask George if he minded signing a photo of himself for my mate. He was only too happy to oblige. Mr Hucknall, however, wasn't best pleased and took great exception to what he wrongly thought as his guests being harassed. He duly asked me to leave. I didn't like his party anyway!

Jeremy Vine was a nice fellow and my time on air was shared with a lady on the phone line who ran a cattery. I explained to listeners that I had nothing against cat owners and that I welcomed some research into their impact on birds.

The cattery woman also claimed that foxes actively attacked cats. I found that hard to believe.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Does whatever a spider can

An early morning trip to The Scrubs resulted in my first Bullfinch record for several months. A fine male flew along the embankment and dipped into Chats Paddock. There used to be two pairs of this scarce finch breeding on my patch, but some careless habitat 'management' during June one year put paid to one of the pairs. So it's always nice when one pops up.

Aside from that, at least three Goldcrests, a couple of flyover Greylags (scarce here) and a solitary Meadow Pipit were the only other birds of note.

Back at The Urban Birder Towers more work was done on the computer and later, I had a meeting with my camera operator. We made plans about shooting more short birding films for broadcast on the Birdguides website and elsewhere. 

After she left, I got engrossed watching Spiderman 3 on Sky.....well we all need a bit of time off now and again!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Crushed by the wheels of industry

Two natural hearts
Whilst most people were busy making plans for their loved ones on this, one of the most commercial money making days of the year, I was toiling in front of my laptop. Don't get me wrong, I do have a heart and I have been known to give ladies bunches of flowers, I feel that love can be expressed all year round and not just on one given day.

At football this morning, it was amusing to watch some of the lads rush of promptly at 11am in order to fulfill promises made about time keeping with their loved ones. Some of the fellas didn't even show up this morning. I had visions of them being shackled to a heavy piece of furniture in order to prevent them from nipping out for a game of footie! The score was 5-5 in the end, by the way.

This afternoon I popped into Soho for some bits and bobs and noticed a Sparrowhawk drifting high overhead.

I wondered how many people in the crowded streets were aware of that magnificent bird?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Meeting my maker

A flower for tomorrow - Ciska Faulkner
Today was a good day.

I journeyed down to Bristol to call upon the Natural History Unit literally to show my face. As I don't live in Bristol (aka The Green Hollywood) I have to make a concerted effort to keep my profile up with the television folk there.

An incredible thing happened today though. Whilst in a meeting with one of the top honchos in the unit, I met my maker - my fairy godmother. Let me explain. Several years ago, this executive was at home with her gran who was suffering with Alzeheimer's. To keep her gran entertained, she noticed  a Readers Digest VHS by the TV about bird watching in Britain. She stuck it in the video and settled back to watch it with her gran.

Shortly, she came across a black guy with blond hair chatting about the virtues of urban birding in Wormwood Scrubs and Brent Reservoir  (a few miles up the road). That guy was me back in 1997. I was working as the Head of Membership at the British Trust for Ornithology at the time and was approached by a production company  to film this segment.

Anyway, the next day my discoverer took the VHS to work to show the Talent people. Eventually, they contacted me in 2006 to appear in Springwatch and the rest is history. To meet the woman who set me on my path was truly an amazing moment.

At lunchtime, I met with editorial team at BBC Wildlife Magazine and we all went off to a nearby cafe for lunch. By the end of lunch I was invited to write for this award winning magazine. It will initially be a couple of pieces this year with the probability of a monthly piece from the January 2010 issue. 

I was delighted. I think that this may be my year. 

Well I hope so.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Radio silence

I must apologise for my lack of communication over the last few days. It was largely due to not having internet access whilst I was being buffeted by the wind and rain in Paris.

I travelled down by Eurostar at the ungodly hour of 5.25am on Monday morning, totally knackered from the night before. I arrived in Paris 3 hours later, traveled via the Metro to meet up with Parisian birder, Maxime Zucca who answered my last minute plea for guidance through the Paris metropolis.

I found this male Blackbird with an incredibly deep yellow-orange bill.

Max certainly knew his stuff and after inviting me into his apartment to meet his girlfriend (who was also a birder) and to feed, water and make plans for me, we hit the streets in search of birds.

I've written a full account of my adventure for a future issue of Bird Watching magazine, but to cut a long story short, despite the lashing wind and rain, I still managed to see Short-toed Treecreepers, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Hawfinch, Yellow-legged Gull and most surprisingly, a Kingfisher flying over the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame.

Max and I
Max and I split in the afternoon for me to scurry off to find a hotel to stay in. I was wet and most worryingly, my rucksack containing my laptop was seriously wet. I found a dump near the centre for 50 Euros that looked bedbug ridden. The guy on the door wrote down the password for the hotel's WiFi on the back of an A4 piece of paper, but in my room I discovered that the net was non-existent. Furthermore, when I turned over the piece of paper that he gave me, I was surprised to see that it was a photocopy of adverts for the local brothels. What kind of hotel was I staying in?

The next day I was out and about on my own and in the wind and rain I managed to see some Tree Sparrows in Bois de Vincennes, Serins in Parc des Beamont and rarest of all, a pair of Marsh Tits in the Pere Lachaise Cimiterie.

In short, Paris is well worth a second look.

Thanks to all my blogging mates that helped me with this trip.

Sunday, 8 February 2009


Rock Pipit - Andy Cook
This morning I lay in bed debating. 

Should I stay or should I go now? 

No, I wasn't in a strange woman's bed - I was weighing up the pros and cons of checking out my local patch. The call of nature won the day and soon I found myself parking outside The Scrubs.

It was a good decision. I quickly had 17 Skylarks in a flooded field with a further 5 elsewhere. That was 22 birds. A club record! The previous maximum count was 9 overhead several years ago. I also had at least 80 Fieldfare (all on the deck) with at least 45 accompanying Redwings. All these species were obviously roving to avoid the harsh weather conditions further north and west. As well as an overflying Jackdaw (scarce here) and a Great Black-back amongst the general gull movement overhead, the prize bird was a Rock Pipit that called as it flew over. It was my first here since the early 90's.

I returned home delighted that I made such an inspired decision. After watching Manchester United beat West Ham on the box, I set about the task of readying myself for my journey to Paris, first thing in the morning. The weather prospects look dreadful. Rain - and loads of it.

I received an email from a Parisian urban birder who had agreed to take me out tomorrow morning around a few sites. The birder that fellow blogger Nathalie put me onto was very helpful but unfortunately couldn't meet up with me. My plan is to board the Eurostar at 5.25am in the morning and start writing the article. I haven't found any accommodation yet so I'll ask around once I'm in Paris. Then at around 5pm I'm meeting with the sales manager at Le Meurice (a really posh hotel in the Dorchester group) for a cup of tea. I met this woman in London at The Dorchester. That is a whole new story that maybe I will tell you about one day.

So I'm going to bed down now, as I have to be up at 3.30am. 

Oh boy!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The sun is coming

The past couple of days have been particularly busy for me and it all started once I had pressed the 'send' button on my section of The London Bird Report. As you could probably tell, it wasn't the most exciting thing that I achieved this week.

I had a lovely email from Audrey Parry, fundraiser at the Conwy RSPB Reserve. They had successfully raised a load of money to help fix up their reserve. She loved the piece that I wrote for them about a walk around Wormwood Scrubs. She was bowled over. That was nice. I also had phone calls from the Polish and Portuguese tourist boards regarding my proposed trips to Krakow and Lisbon respectively. Both trips are for research to write urban birding articles. The Poles are offering me a couple of nights accommodation but I have to fly myself out there. The Portuguese on the other hand are flying me out, offering four nights accommodation and a guided tour of several sites including the ornithologically famous Tagus Estuary as well as the Sado and Castro Verde Estuaries. I'll be heading out to all those places plus Budapest during May and June. 

I also had my trip to Exeter in Devon confirmed for the first weekend in April. I'm hoping to see the Cirl Buntings that reside near Exeter Hospital - if they are still there that is, as the last time I saw them was when I was with the BTO back in '97.

Earlier today, I also had a phone call from the Sunday Express asking if I would be willing to go on record as a The One Show presenter and dish the dirt on the Carol Thatcher 'Gollywog - gate'. I politely replied that I was not there and therefore couldn't comment. Those kind of interviews are potential minefields that possess the strong possibility of blowing up in peoples faces and ruining careers in the process. Of course, if they wanted me to generally talk about racism then that would have been different. But this wasn't really about racism and more about the daughter of Britain's first female prime minster.

This evening, I spent several hours in an editing suite in Brick Lane, deepest East London, cutting together a 3 minute aural piece on a Dawn Chorus walk that I recorded at The Scrubs last May. Hopefully, we will have it finished for future broadcast within the next couple of weeks.

Finally, I played football in the morning. We lost 4-3 against a team who's average age was 20-something compared to our average which was closer to 120! It wasn't as bad as it seemed though because none of the goals were my fault (defensive errors) and we were 4-0 down for most of the game.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Money and Woodcocks

A Mourning Dove - no relevance to anything at all really!
The rain came and washed the snow away today. We returned to the normal grey and dismal hues that you would normally associate with London at this time of year. Any thoughts of hitting The Scrubs this morning was put paid by the drizzle.

Instead, I did some work at home (that dreaded section of the London Bird Report) and then went off to a meeting at The Ecology Centre in picturesque Holland Park to meet with the ecology people from Kensington & Chelsea City Council. We talked about ideas for a project that they were trying to get off the ground that involved getting underprivileged kids involved with birding and nature. They had a fine collection of stuffed birds including a Woodcock that recently breathed its last breath under a tree in the park.

We'll see if they are still interested in working with me once I tell them how much I'm gonna charge for my time!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


I woke up to a nippy morning. The lure of my bed although strong, was broken by the thought of seeing some overflying wild swans or finding a bewildered Jack Snipe in the grassland at The Scrubs. On arrival, I did see a couple of odd geese flying fairly high heading east, but my instinct told me that they were probably Egyptian Geese - especially when I noticed a group of c25 obviously larger Canada Geese flying at rooftop level below them.

The walk around 'my garden' with fellow Scrubber, Roy Nuttall, resulted in a pair of Goldcrests (infrequent here) else!

Oh, whilst I remember I have got to do a few 'shout outs' for a couple of my fellow bloggers. Thank you Nathalie for your helpful tips on locating Parisian birders, the wonderful Wild Freckle for the French lesson and to Clare for getting me into this blogging lark in the first place.

Today was fairly uneventful so I won't even start to bore you with the details. Even more boring was the task that I had to attend to this evening; writing up my section (Penduline Tit to Sparrows) in the 2006 London Bird Report. No room for creative writing here. Oh no, just interpreting figures into ultra dry comments like 'two on July 5th and 6 on Aug 30th'.

How dull!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009


The snow in Croydon today - Kim Dixon
Thankfully, the forecasted snowfall didn't occur last night. What a relief. I'm not mad on snow unless it's proper snow in places where it's supposed to snow like the Alps, the Arctic or on Aviemore.

I did my usual plotting and planning today. You know, replying to emails, chasing money, dreaming.... Did I mention birding? Well there was none of that today, though I did muster a puffed up male Blackbird on a fence today.

Going back to the Bill Oddie Springwatch thing, I've now heard that the mention of Alan Titchmarsh et al is purely paper talk. Thank goodness for that. I hope that they opt for an expert who knows their onions. 

Anyway, that's it for today. Tune in for less tomorrow!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Happy Christmas - again!

The view from my front window
London and the south east received some of the heaviest snowfall since 1991. I remember that occasion very well, as I had to abandon my car on Tottenham Court Road and trudge home to Ladbroke Grove through the Westend underdressed (I had a suit on), trying to stay on my feet whilst avoiding random snowball missiles. I just can't get used to seeing London under snow when in reality, cold winters and all it entails should really be par for the course. Perhaps I've been spoilt by global warming - getting too used to mild winters and thinking that a few puffs of snowdust for around 10 minutes on a winter's day is a veritable blizzard!

This time around I found myself squelching through the largely deserted streets of Soho dressed in full Lapland regalia. Well, walking boots, thermal jacket and Davy Crockett hat. Perhaps I was a tad over dressed. This was especially apparent when I saw the ever present Hare Krishna guys walking down Regents Street en masse in their shawls and trainers (no Jesus boots) uttering their familiar chant, only this time it definitely sounded like 'Hare Krishmas'!

Back at snow bound base I received an email from the editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine inviting me down to Bristol next week to meet with them to discuss the possibility of writing for them in some capacity. I'm really excited because it really is a prestigious magazine and one that I have always wanted to get involved with.

Meanwhile, I will be in Paris next Monday and Tuesday researching for my Bird Watching Magazine article. I still haven't got anywhere to stay, so I will be trawling The Fatbirder website to see if I can track anyone down. 

Tonight, I finally emailed the article that I wrote for the Conwy RSPB reserve on Wormwood Scrubs as I stared forlornly at my to do list. I have to write a section for the 2006 London Bird Report, write the January 2009 Scrubs report, plan my assault on the BBC Bristol Natural History Unit when I'm down there to see BBC Wildlife and start researching for a documentary that I want to write and make about the vultures in India.

Here goes......