Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Twittering twit

An Hudsonian Whimbrel's nape
I'm getting a bit more used to this Twitter business. I'm sharing some of my innermost trivial thoughts with my mass of 83 followers. I don't even understand what a follower is. Do they get alerted as to when you decide to impart some gem of knowledge? 

What I do know though is that I have some corporate followers; Birdguides, RSPB, London Wetland Centre and the Polish Tourist Board. With the latter, I assumed that I was being kept tabs on by an ex-Polish girlfriend. I quickly realised that it was because I will be heading out to Krakow in May as part of my urban birding series for Bird Watching Magazine.

Speaking of birdwatching, at lunchtime today I nipped over to The Scrubs to check on my potential Skylark family. I spent an hour standing by 'Pipit Heath' (my name for the area designated for the breeding pipits) watching and listening. I had 2 gorgeous male Northern Wheatears on the football pitches behind me, around 12 Meadow Pipits - but no sign of the Skylark, not even a call.

I hope that they are quietly getting on with their domestics.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Northern Wheatear

A male Northern Wheatear at The Scrubs
A trip to The Scrubs this morning resulted in finding one of my most anticipated summer migrants - a gorgeous male Northern Wheatear - which was the first for the year. These birds never fail to excite me and they have been showing up at my patch for as long as I've been pitching up here (the best part of 17 years).

Our Skylark was also still present, now singing a lot from the ground. A classic sign that breeding could be under way. I feel a lot more positive about their chances of successfully breeding because a lot of the dog walkers are keeping their animals under control in the area.

I forgot to mention that on Saturday I received Eric Simm's desk copy of 'Bird's of Town & Suburb' from his daughter. I was totally happy and it will now be a prized possession. 

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Silence of the lamb

The Urban Birder in the country with Larry the lamb
Saturday started with a crushing defeat on the football pitch. We wont talk scores - let's just say that I had to scoop the ball from out of the back of the net rather too many times than I would have liked.

I skipped breakfast with lads (was too depressed anyway) and after a shower, journeyed to Harpenden, Herts to attend and speak at the Herts Bird Club Annual Conference. I was on last and gave a talk ostensibly about urban birding but entitled 'The Day I Fell In Love'. I basically spoke about some of my favourite world 'local' patches The Scrubs, Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles and Cape Clear, Co Cork, Eire. The talk went down well and I finished it by playing my The One Show Manchester Peregrine piece. I received two complimentary emails on my crackberry from attendees before I had even arrived home.

This morning I arose early and drove up to Top Lodge, Fineshade Woods to research for an article in the RSPB Birds magazine. I was well looked after hanging out with some RSPB folk. I attended a walk around the forest with a Forestry Commission Officer and around 30 people, some of whom with small kids. Due to the noise etc dipped on Adder but saw plenty of Red Kite, Buzzard and briefly saw 2 Raven.

After Sunday lunch at a quaint pub in an even quainter village called Duddington, I returned to Top Lodge partake in feeding the lambs on the adjoining farm - an activity normally reserved for the kiddies. I must say that the lambs were CUTE!! They were like little hooved puppies that readily allowed you to pick them up to feed them. I'm so glad that I didn't have lamb for lunch!

After my soft and squidgy moment with the lambs I was taken to the watchpoint hide (that overlooked a clearing and had feeders right outside the windows). Aside from an overflying Buzzard I was lucky enough to glimpse a close up Willow Tit - my first in ages.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Moth Man

Here's one I took earlier - last year to be precise
I forgot to say yesterday that after I traipsed around The Scrubs in the morning to no avail, I came across a moribund fox standing in the middle of the street. I approached it to within 5 feet before it wearily looked up at me and then dragged itself under a car, leaving its tail jutting out on the road itself. It was large, perhaps a dog fox, that must have been hit by a car.

Tonight, I was filmed mothing in Perivale Woods, west London by Birdguides. I had fun checking traps and 'sugaring' trees to attract the little beasties. I got 6 ticks, the names of which have totally escaped me!

Got home at a reasonable time and proceeded to work on my talk on urban birds that I am giving at the Herts Bird Club Annual Conference tomorrow afternoon.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Scream and shout

I'm not an angry person, although like most people I do get my pugnacious moments. But this morning I bore witness to one of the most naked and raw displays of angst and near demonic possession I have ever seen. And it emanated from a nine year old kid.

I had arrived at a primary school for special needs children in Hayes on the very fringes of west London to give a talk, having been invited up by a neighbour who was also the Head Teacher. He warned me that some of the kids were liable to 'kick off' at any point and that I was just to ignore it. Pre-warned, I sat with kids around a table to enjoy tea, toast and conversation with them. They seemed fine, though a couple did look visibly troubled. One kid refused to sit around the table with us, choosing instead to sit in the corner of the room facing the wall.

We cleared the table after, in preparation for my talk in the assembly room. I was helping a kid put the plastic table cloth away in an adjoining storeroom when I noticed that another child had climbed a bookcase by the wall (around six feet up) and was proceeding to climb through a small window. I was surprised, meanwhile the kid I was with doubted if his mate could get through the window with a nonchalance which made me do a double take. Swiftly, two teachers arrived to try and coax the kid down. At this point, the boy literally blew up; he screamed, cried and swore like I've never heard a nine year old swear all the while viciously lashing lashing out with his feet as he held onto an overhead pipe. 

My jaw was hitting the floor at this point. I tried to help but these guys have dealt with  this type of situation many times before. We were all ordered to clear the room whilst one teacher remained with the  deranged boy. He continued to scream and swear like someone was trying to murder him for a full ten minutes until the teacher managed to assuage his ire. Meanwhile, the other kids in the next room behaved like nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

I eventually delivered my slideshow showing the amassed kids common birds that they were likely to see around their school and ended by playing them one of my The One Show pieces. They thoroughly enjoyed it.

I left the school wondering how the teachers were able to deal with that level of abuse and violence and how such a young kid could have so much hatred and bitterness within him. 

What kind of start in life has he had?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A very nice day

I had an amazing email from the late Eric Simm's daughter today. She thanked me for acknowledging her father's work and offered to send me his desk copy of Birds of Town and Suburb. I was totally bowled over! How amazing! I will treasure it for the rest of my life! 

This morning I visited the Berghaus store in Covent Garden, having been invited in via my agent to look at the latest lines. They told me that I can have whatever clothing I wanted, whenever. I'm am such a lucky boy!

On the way back, I momentarily parked on Great Malborough St near Carnaby St and was promptly reversed into by a workman's van causing damage to my driver's side wing.

C'est la vie.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Black Red

A speedy Black Redstart!
I made my near daily pilgrimage to The Scrubs in the bitter northwesterly wind. It was a find sunny morning though, if cold. Soon, myself and fellow Scrubber Roy Nuttall were enjoying a snatch of song from a highly mobile Blackcap and of course, our newly resident Skylark.

I also glimpsed our 4th ever Black Redstart along the embankment. Great stuff!

Monday, 23 March 2009


It was a slightly blustery, grey and generally chilly morning at The Scrubs, throughout my visit. To be frank, I wasn't really in the mood. Despite that, I clocked our first Blackcap - a male gripping to a Blackthorn twig for dear life as the wind whipped up. It burst into a mini song before flitting off. I saw a total of around 4 birds.

The Skylarks were still present and I watched the male as it fluttered up vertically to around 10ft to start singing, only to be chased off by an angry Meadow Pipit. Which reminds me, I must pull my reference books out to check out the Skylark ecology.

I received a lovely email from Eric Simm's son this morning. I was quite honoured to be contacted by a member of his family. In my response email I confessed to stealing his late father's 'Birds of Town & Suburb' from my local library, when I was eight. 

Was I a bad boy?

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Don't mention the football!

I arose at a very early hour and found myself at The Scrubs at 6am in the company of accomplished bird artist, Jan Wilczur. He called me last night to ask if I could escort him around my 'garden' so that he could look at the habitat management with a view to going back to his local patch - Richmond Park in south London - with some ideas for the people who manage his patch. 

Overall, he was impressed with The Scrubs and found himself being pleasantly surprised by the area's beauty and by the uniqueness of our grassland. He gushed about The Scrub's c5 pairs of Meadow Pipit and the general abundance of undergrowth around the site. Unfortunately, the deer in his park put paid to the possibilities of any extensive areas of undergrowth.

Bird-wise, we saw a distant probable Peregrine, around ten Meadow Pipit, our Skylark pair, 3 Chiffchaff, c6 Jackdaw (scarce here), 2 Stock Dove and at least 50 Herring Gulls, most of whom were coasting the thermals overhead.

It was a beautiful, if cold, day today and seeing as it was Mothering Sunday I dropped into my mums bearing flowers and a small present. We chewed the fat for the rest of the afternoon which was only spoilt by the constant background bickering that emanated from the Eastenders episode on the box.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Making hay

Okay, there has been better Skylark pictures taken!
This morning I was driven by an immovable force to rise out of my bed at 5.45am, despite feeling totally knackered, to check on the pair of Skylarks currently residing at The Scrubs. These birds are more special to me than any vagrant (at this point) and even after seeing a pair of Shoveler (the second ever here) did nothing to dampen the excitement my Skylarks are giving me.

I watched the male in full song flight, semi-song flight, pursuing neighbouring Meadow Pipits and even being pursued by a crow (that it thankfully easily out manoeuvred). Meanwhile, I watched the female quietly fly up only to land closeby, no doubt running the rest of the way to it's nest. I'm going to have to dig out the late, great Eric Simms' 'Pipits and Larks' to learn more about their ecology.

Back home, I finally ran out of patience with my web designer. Everytime I issue him with instructions to update my site I always end up having to ring him two or three times after to get him to correct his sloppy work. The latest of which was to upload an upsidedown picture of a Bell Miner. He's gone on holiday for a couple of weeks. On his return I will be waving goodbye to him.

At 6pm I went to The One Show studios ostensibly to try and meet with tonight's guest Ricky Gervais to ask him to get involved with a wildlife TV programme idea that I have had. Despite all odds and my initial nervousness about the whole plan, I managed to chat with him after the show. He was a nice fella. We discussed the Sparrowhawk that he had had in his garden, at which point I pulled out my phone and played him the call. He was most impressed. Anyway, he asked me to sent my idea to his assistant so that he could look over it. 


I must categorically state here that Adrian Chiles is a lovely bloke and Christine Bleakley is as beautiful on the outside as she is on the inside. She is totally down to earth, humble and exactly the same as she was when I first spoke with her, nearly two years ago.

The moral of today's tale: nothing ventured nothing gained (even if what's gained is crap like my Skylark shot!).

Thursday, 19 March 2009


Why do things take so long to materialise? 

Take the above featured giant snail. When I first say this particular creature, it was curled up in a shoe box in someone's house in Norwich on a freezing day during December 2008. It took at least two weeks for it to emerge from its shell - and that was after being coaxed. Imagine how long it would have taken naturally?

I must admit, I'm feeling rather impatient. I had a really successful shoot up in Gateshead, but once I boarded the train back to London I became very frustrated and impatient at the thought that I (nor anybody else for that matter) will not be seeing the finished film until 2010. I'm also frustrated and impatient that I have not got a TV series yet, despite writing six different programme treatments that production companies actually liked.

But hey, I can't complain. I'm in a great position that can only get better. Maybe Mr Snail's got it right, because his whole vibe is: It will all happen in good time.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

I'm tired...

Today's filming went very well. I started the day by meeting the main guy involved in the Red Kite re-introduction in Gateshead. We also visited the Metro shopping centre, hopped on the 'Kite' bus and chatted with a bunch of school kids. It was a great day with some more to come tomorrow.

It was officially announced today that Chris Packham has taken over the hot seat vacated by Bill Oddie. I congratulate Chris. Kate and the team remain though there is talk that there will be other presenters involved.

I hope that I will be in that number.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Eric Simms

I'm am writing this as I sit in a hotel bar - the only place where I can get internet reception and it's because I'm near the bar - and I'm thinking that I should really get to bed as I have to be fit and not tired for tomorrow's shoot. 

The disappointing thing is that the piece will not be aired until January 2010!!!

I arrived in Newcastle at midday and I have basically been on my own until 8.30pm tonight because the crew were coming up from Bristol after their day in the office. I killed time by writing and visiting the Baltic Centre in Gateshead to see Yoko Ono's exhibition. When I got there I was told that Yoko's stint at the gallery had finished last Sunday. The one day I get cultural and I get thwarted.

I decided to wear a pair of black jeans that are to long for me tomorrow. So tonight I will borrow a pair of scissors from reception and will try and hack them shorter.

I heard some sad news tonight. Eric Simms, one of my natural history heroes died a fortnight ago. I remember reading his Birds of Town & Suburb as a teenager and realising that I was indeed an urban birder. He was a major inspiration for me.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The sky's the limit

Today was a gorgeous gorgeous day!

I awoke at 5.30am and got myself down to The Scrubs at 6am to be greeted by around 1,000 Rose-ringed Parakeets that were leaving their roadside roost in flocks of 100 plus birds at a time. It's a wonder that the noise doesn't disturb the locals. Around 10 minutes later fellow Scrubber, Roy Nuttall showed up. We proceeded to walk the realm.

You may remember me getting very excited about a pair of Skylark that were sniffing around the grassland, showing more than just a passing interest in the area. Since then, a couple of observers have reported hearing and seeing the male in song flight - an occurrence that has never been reported here before. Imagine my delight when I heard its trickling, rippling notes at my urban patch. At first it was nowhere to be seen and we suspected that it was singing from the ground. We left the area, returning a while later and this time we located the male fluttering at a great height in the blue sky. What a sight!

I still don't think that they will stay though. There's just too much disturbance. I'll keep you up do date on my Skylark saga.

I'm off to Gateshead, South Shields for the next three days to shoot that The One Show piece I've been going on about for the last million years. Tonight, I've been trying on loads of gear to see what kind of look to achieve.

Any ideas?

Sunday, 15 March 2009


A female Mallard, South Norwood Country Park, south London or is it Croydon?
Over the last couple of days I was gently eased into the world of 'Twitter'. Initially, I was told about it by the woman who guided my birth into the blogging ether, Clare Evans (check her blog, she's one of my followers). After a long gestation period of deliberation I was finally induced by Fiona Barclay at Birdguides - who's quickly becoming my own private IT support.

I'm now a partially fledged Twitterer. To be honest, the jury is still out. I don't really see the point of it at the moment. I mean, do people, strangers at that, really want to know that I've just had sex, been to the loo or in the midst of contemplative navel gazing? I think not!

Needless to say, I shall persevere with it for a little while to see how I feel a little further down the line.

Today, I enjoyed some of the ornithological delights of Croydon in south London (or is it Surrey?) as research for my forthcoming piece in Bird Watching magazine. I loved discovering a drumming and calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in Selsdon Wood, a soaring Peregrine over Riddlesdown and an array of commoner species in South Norwood Country Park including at least 7 nervous Fieldfares. I love Fieldfares. In Spain they call them Royal Thrushes. They should be renamed Royal Thrush - as I feel that there is something definitely regal about them. Well, having said that, they look pretty manky on their breeding grounds and have a crap song!

I best get on with my article - the deadline was last Tuesday!

Friday, 13 March 2009


My first ever The One Show Shoot: Parakeets - Valeria Fabbri-Kennedy
Yesterday, a tripped down to cloudy Bristol in the west country to have a few meetings at the BBC Natural History Unit along with my lovely agent Jo. The idea was to raise my work potential at The One Show and Springwatch. I will let you know what the eventual outcomes are when I know them.

Today was a day of paperwork, but I did nip down to see the illustrious Fiona Barclay at Birdguides in order for her to launch me into the world of twitter. After 8 hours I had 40 followers. Not bad eh?

I still find it weird writing a blog. Not so much the fact that I am spilling part of my heart out into the ether for all to examine (or at least for those bothered enough to read them) but because there has been several occasions when sleep has claimed me before I had even finished writing.

My problem is that I leave it until last thing at night whilst sitting in my bed. I'm winding down from an invariably heavy day, it's a late hour and my eyes are beginingg todcm xz.lkl[,s p;z zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz............................

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Thetford visit

Graham Appleton with The Urban Birder at the BTO HQ in Thetford

After being picked up at East Acton Station by the ever lovely Fiona from Birdguides, we drove to The British Trust for Ornithology's HQ in Thetford, Norfolk in order for me to award the talented Dean Eades with the Birdguides 2008 Photograph of the Year Award.

Dean is a really lovely, down to earth bloke and his girlfriend was lovely too. We spent time wandering around the Trust's offices filming the occasion.

The Urban Birder outside my old office

Shooting at The Nunnery Lakes

Monday, 9 March 2009

Larks ascending....

I discovered 3 Skylarks in the pipit breeding area on The Scrubs last Friday. In itself it was nothing too unusual, especially given that a lot of things are on the move at the moment. What struck me though was the fact that 2 of the birds were showing definite 'prospecting' behaviour. They were actively flying up around 3 feet above the grassland, fluttering as if they were surveying the terrain.

Normally, we only get to see Skylarks at The Scrubs if we flush them out of the grass or if they fly over, so seeing these birds made my heart flutter somewhat. Yesterday morning, whilst I was leading a walk in Southwark, my fellow Scrubbers noted that a Skylark was singing over the grassland. I was very excited, as this was the first time ever that its streaming song had filled the air at The Scrubs. 

My heart sank when realism kicked in. There is little chance that they would settle down because being an urban site that is traversed by almost every dog alive in the area, they would be too disturbed. I hope that I am wrong.

My Southwark walk was with a group of teenagers involved with the Bankside Urban Forest Project. Together with their group leader, Ruby, we walked the Southwark streets from the Tate Modern to end up in a tiny cemetery. It was here that they came to grips with their first singing Great Tit and Goldfinch.

It was wonderful to see that the birds that us birders barely look at were the complete object of fascination to these kids who previously thought that London's avifauna consisted of pigeons and some more pigeons.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Plans and stuff

Black-legged Kittiwake - Dawn Balmer
With my brush with the law out of the way, life returned to its normal law abiding way. 

Yesterday afternoon, I motored leisurely over to the Birdguides offices in Acton, west London to meet with Fiona Barclay and Max Whitby. We were convening to discuss a schedule for some films that I want to shoot this year. My plans included a trip to the Orkneys in late July to ring seabirds with the BTO and a return journey to Paris to cover the emerging birding scene. 

Fiona very kindly downloaded their 'iDentify' cd containing the calls of over 500 European species onto my new Crackberry. Not that I'm into product placements but you guys should try it, the calls sound great through the phone - especially the displaying Great Bustard!

Football this morning was successful. We won 8-3.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Police and Thieves

Think of ducks....
Last night I visited an good friend of mine who lives in a council estate around the corner from me. It was her 65th birthday and my best friend and I paid her a visit laden with some cakes and presents. We left her place at 9.30pm and as we headed down the stairs to the car we walked past some dodgy looking characters milling around on the stairwell. The estate is renown for its edginess.

As we drove out of the estate to head to a cashpoint a few streets away, I noticed that we were being tailed by a police car. I thought it odd because I was observing the speed limits and driving properly. Anyway, as I turned into a side street and alongside the cash machine the police pulled up behind and a female and two male cops jumped out. They proceeded to accuse us of being drug dealers- in fact one of them said that I had been driving like a drug dealer. What does a drug dealer drive like?

After being body searched in the street and the car checked over they realised that this was not going to be a Miami Vice moment for them, so after doing their paperwork they left us in peace. 

I have not been stopped by the law for years. One of the last times was in the 80's when I was peering through some iron railings looking for Ring Ouzel in an allotment near Brent Reservoir, north London. All of a sudden a police car screeched to a halt by me and an unpleasant officer barked at me demanding to know what I was doing. When I told him that I was birding he made me name the types of bird that I was looking for. He and his mate began to glaze over when I started reeling of Aquatic Warbler, Brunnich's Guillemot and Stone Curlew. They abruptly sped off.

The moral of the story? 

If you are ever stopped by the police and accused of drug dealing, think of farmyard ducks. That way, you will never loose your cool and become agitated like a true drug dealer.

Well, it worked for me!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


Black-headed Gull
My alarm went off at 5.50am this morning. I peered through the blinds to be greeted by a dark and grimy looking day. Despite all my hopeful thinking last night you know, about finding a totally unusual Larid pacing around the football pitches at The Scrubs, I thought 'what the hell' and jumped back into bed. 'I'll find that weird gull tomorrow' I thought as I closed my eyes whilst snuggling up in my lovely warm bed.

Literally ten minutes later my little electric heater that I have had to employ recently to fend off the nippy evenings, suddenly switched itself on. I woke up with a start. You see, last night I switched the thing off but left it plugged in. So how did it turn itself on again? It was a spooky moment, but I saw it as a sign that I needed to get dressed, don my bins and head down to the patch. And so I did.

Unfortunately, I didn't find a Siberian Thrush (although one did show up at in Norfolk today). No, instead I had to make do with 4 Greylags flying over (rare here), 3 Stonechats, 350 Carrion Crows, c400 Black-headed Gulls and at least 57 Redwings. 

So much for the sign!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

A date with the rain

Tonight, I'm sitting on my bed listening to the Rolling Stones as the rain, teaming from the heavens, lashes on my bedroom window. It's been raining all night, seemingly a natural continuation of today's dismally grey and depressing day.

I spent some of my day compiling and writing the February London UK Bird report for Bird Watching magazine. It involved trawling through the London records and picking out the most interesting sightings. This is easy enough, until you take into consideration that you have only 200 words to play with and you can only say 'London Wetland Centre' so many times. It is a challenge!

Tomorrow, if the rains cease, I'm going to head off to The Scrubs with the sole aim of finding and identifying an interesting gull species. I'm hoping for Yellow-legged. Yes, I'm setting my sights low as I probably have more chance of meeting the Pope on The Scrubs than I have of seeing a wayward Ivory Gull.

But stranger things have happened.......

Sunday, 1 March 2009


A Peregrine at the Tate Modern
At last I'm getting into some semblance of a routine. I'm retraining my body to get up in the morning and go birding. I really have to force myself during the winter months because The Scrubs often has little to show for itself during the cold dark months of winter. Of course, things do show up but because the area has no standing water, I can't even entertain the idea of finding a weird duck.

By training myself now, I will be totally ready for spring; eyes and ear peeled and my mind filled with wishful thinking. This morning I recorded the first Chiffchaff of the spring as it called plaintively from the wood in the north east corner. It felt almost spring-like this morning so the Chiffy wasn't a major surprise. Two pairs of Great Spotted Woodpeckers gleefully chased each other around as fellow Scrubbers, Roy Nuttall, Kim Dixon and I set about deciphering the many gulls that were congregating on the football pitches. Nothing unusual was to be seen, though c600 Black-headed Gulls and around 50 Common Gulls was exceptional. The bird of the moment was a overflying, calling male Reed Bunting that dropped into the grassland from the south.

Later this afternoon I visited my mother who lives in Wembley (north west London) before heading off to Wembley Stadium with my best mate to watch Manchester United play Tottenham Hotspur in the Carling Cup Final. We had seats right in the rafters, right at the back behind the goal. 

It was 0 - 0, 80 minutes had gone and we were at our wits end. Were United ever going to score? Whilst staring up into the heavens in despair, I briefly glimpsed a raptor soaring and circling in the bit of sky viewable through the stadium roof. In true urban birder style, I ignored the game (it was only a cup final!) grabbed my binoculars and started staring at what was now apparent as a falcon. It wheeled back into view and was joined by a second, slightly bigger bird. They were both Peregrines!

We eventually won on penalties and I saw a unexpected great bird. Result!