Thursday, 30 April 2009


Kensal Green Cemetery, west London
I have been asked to do a piece on urban wildlife for ITV1's 'Countrywise' which I will be hopefully filming next week at Kensal Green Cemetery - a stone's throw from funky Ladbroke Grove. I suggested this venue, which is less than 2 miles from my house, because it's an area of outstanding beauty. It was originally built in the late 1880's and is the final resting place for several notables with some pretty fine crypts to match.

Tomorrow, I will be meeting with the the director and a camera person for a recce. I will be up there before they arrive to stake out Green and Great Spotted Woodpecker nest holes, as well as locating Great Burnetts and other regionally scarce plants. I'll let you know when it will be aired.

I hope that like my little piece of the country.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Wedding bells

Mr & Mrs Barbato and no, she isn't nude!
I had a gorgeous day near Beccles, Suffolk at my good friend Sacha's wedding. I first met him 21 years ago at Brent Reservoir whilst birding. We became great birding buddies thereafter. Sacha was with me on my first few visits to The Scrubs and was a great person to have birdy chats with especially due to the fact that he lived in London.

When he met Nathalie, his workmate, I knew that they were destined to be together. She is a cool girl with a wanderlust that matched his. When they moved to Norfolk 4 years ago I grieved despite being very very happy for them. I had lost my London birding mate.

I hadn't really, as he is still at the end of a phone line and he still has a very keen interest in the birds that I find at The Scrubs, despite the fact the he is now seeing birds in East Anglia that I can only dream about.

They are a great couple and I wish them heaven. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

I never realised....

....that people actually read this blog!


I often sit here pounding out the words on my Mac thinking 'who the hell reads this stuff?' Well, a few people obviously do, as I have been discovering recently. I'm sure that some of you have had people come up to you asking you about things that you had previously thought no-one knew about. That is until you realised that you had dashed your thoughts onto the stoney rocks of the ether for the world and his mum to potentially read.

Today, I called the marketing/promotions people at the London Wetland Centre to ask if I could film at their site on the behalf of Birdguides. The first lady I spoke with firstly knew who I was and gushed that she read my blog avidly. (If you are reading this now, I hope that I haven't embarrassed you!)

I just hope that my mum hasn't sussed out how to get onto my blog. She has a laptop and is experimenting with the internet but she is definitely in at the shallow end - not like her son who is well and truly deep see trawling on the net! 

It's a lucky thing I haven't been getting into the more sordid details of my life.......yet!

Sunday, 26 April 2009

A sunny day in London

Alas, I have to concede that the pair of Skylark that I so zealously guarded on the grassland at The Scrubs have finally deserted. To be fair, it was wishful thinking to suppose that they would stay and raise a brood, given the level of disturbance - both terrestrial (dogwalkers and humans) and airbourne (low flying model aircraft). I will now have to redirect my energies to make sure that our Meadow Pipits don't go the same way.

As I strolled around my patch early this morning, I realised that I was still pretty knackered after my Polish adventure. There was not much to be seen, but I did see my first Swift in British airspace.

After a brief siesta, I set about the boring minutiae of the paperwork that has been lying on my floor for the past 2 weeks.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Poles apart

This morning was a bit of a cock-up probably due to language misunderstandings. I was meant to meet 'Chem' my guide at 5.30am to check out a cemetery - or so I thought. So I crawled out of bed and slid down to the bustop to catch the 150 at 5.30am only to find that there was no number 150 and it was now 5.35am. Panicking, I jumped into a cab and paid 32 zlotys to get to the meeting place. Of course, when I called Chem, he was on a tram heading to work thinking that I wasn't turning up. Miffed, I spent another 32 zloty to get back to my hotel for some kip.

How much are zlotys worth these days anyway?

To quote the late great Marvin Gaye, I was 'flying high in a friendly sky' by the late afternoon heading to Stanstead. It had been an interesting week. Football tomorrow.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Dipping at the Fish Ponds

Penduline Tit - photo from the Polish Birders Forum.Photographer not known
After 2 minutes sleep for the previous night, I got up at 4.30am and began my perilous journey to the Fish Ponds (40km outside Krakow). Eventually got to the site at 7.30am after a few hiccups. I spent a mega 10 hours birding and walking - and boy am I feeling it now!

The highlights were 5 Bitterns plus 3 booming, a Blue-headed Wagtail that nearly landed on my head and my first Swift of the year. The top prize however, goes to the pair of Penduline Tits that I watched weaving their nest in full view. When I came across them I sat myself on the dirt road and just enjoyed. Whilst watching them, I noticed a large raptor sitting in the same tree - literally feet away from the tits with it's back to the action. It turned its head and suddenly noticed me sitting on the floor, staring at it through my bins. As I realised that it was a female Goshawk, she nearly jumped out of her skin and promptly flew off!

How often do you get to sneak up on a Goshawk?

Unfortunately, I dipped on the Savi's Warbler despite my best efforts. It just would not even give me a hint of it from deep within the sedgebed it was singing from. I've only ever been near a Savi's Warbler once before and that was in 1986 in Norfolk. I never saw that one either!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Heaven in a fish pond

Black-necked Grebes - Dean Eades
I was up again at the crack of dawn and after a lame hotel breakfast I walked through the city heading south to the river. Once at the River Vistula I took a left turn and headed east. The river was fairly concreted at the edges for the first mile or so. When the banks became natural I began to see the birds; another migrant Common Redstart, a female Black Redstart, Wood Warbler, Common Sandpiper, Tree Sparrow, Lesser Whitethroat and Kingfisher were added to the list. It was a bloody long walk and I got back to more or less where I started some 4 hours later.

After having some lunch, I hooked up with Chemink (after walking over 2 miles to get to our meeting point) to head some 40km out of town to visit an area of fish ponds with a name that I won't even bother to try to write down. Essentially, it was an area of around 15 gravel pits, some of which were drained. It was absolutely amazing! Whiskered Terns, around 10 Marsh Harriers, White Stork, Garganey, Great White Egret, Black-necked Grebe, Wood Sandpiper, a booming Bittern were all in evidence. Plus I heard Penduline Tit, Savi's and Great Reed Warblers.

I decided to change my plans for tomorrow and brave a long bus journey to get back to these fish ponds and spend a day tracking down the abundant birdlife. It's not quite Urban Birding, but everybody needs a fix every now and again.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Epic city stroll

Przemyslav - my guide
No sooner had my head hit the pillow the annoying unmusical rattle of the alarm on my Crackberry caused me to rise again, bleary eyed at 5.15am. The light outside was fantastic. Dawn was well and truly on its way. Przemyslav was waiting for me in the hotel lobby. 

Now I've been struggling with the pronunciation of this fella's name for weeks now (he originally contacted me via email a little while ago). But now I know. It's 'Chemink' as in Temminck.

A tract of forest in Krakow
We walked for the next 8 hours through city streets, forests and alongside the River Vistula that cuts through the city. The forest was most interesting for it was here that I discovered a couple of rarities that excited 'Chem'. The first was a male Middle Spotted Woodpecker which was my first ever and the second was a gorgeous male Collared Flycatcher that was calling in a tree over our heads. We also had singing Wood Warbler, tons of Hawfinch and a couple of Black Woodpeckers.

Outside the forest I had my first Redstart of the year; a male that flew across the road and I also found his first Swallow and Common Tern for the year. We walked through a riverside forest in the hope of finding the elusive Grey-headed Woodpecker, but no avail. We heard several (to my ear) Green Woodpeckers and found a couple lizards, grass snake, frogs and flushed 3 Roe Deer.

Chem invited me back to his home to meet the missus and his cute 4 year old, Thomas. We had lunch. The plan then was to go out in the field again, but I chickened out and got a cab back to the hotel for a well deserved siesta.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Krakow tonight

I often wondered about the logic behind passengers cheering and applauding as a plane touches down to land. I could understand it if, God forbid, the craft had engine failure and the pilot had to guide the plane down safely against all adversity. That's fair enough. 

Tonight, I had a fairly routine flight between Stanstead and Krakow. However, when we touched down it seemed as though the plane had just landed on two of its wheels - and not necessarily the same two wheels at any given moment. I found myself clutching my armrest rather too tightly for my liking. As we rocked and jerked down the runway at great speed, the passengers burst into spontaneous applause. Surely the time to applaud is when you are safely tucked up in your Polish bed clutching your teddy as that lovely, warm feeling envelopes you as sleep wafts into your soon to be unconscious mind. Now that's the time to clap!

I'm in Krakow, in the third room that my hotel had to offer. The previous two had no internet access. My final room is a family room that I think overlooks the old town square. I met with my Polish guide, he is a lovely fella. He picked me up from the airport and we went for a drink to plan tomorrow.

The plan by the way is to leave the hotel at 6am to walk around the city and surrounds. He's planning a 20km hike and he's bringing sandwiches for us both!

I'd better go get some beauty sleep!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Krakow tomorrow

I'm now getting slightly desperate in my search for Ring Ouzel and Nightingale at The Scrubs. I've recorded both species on passage every year for the past five. My problem is that historically the ultimate time to locate these species on their brief stopover at my patch is during the week commencing the 20th April. Tomorrow's the 20th and I'm going to Krakow, Poland then for the week. 

I fear that The Scrubs will be barely covered during that period. Anyone out there who could pop around and watch over it for me?

This morning I heard my first Garden Warbler of the season (although there was one reported 2 days ago) and a Skylark, perhaps 2 were seen - but not from the recognised breeding area. I'm really confused. Have they deserted and the bird(s) I see are just lingering? Or are they still breeding but just ranging around?

After seeing Manchester United knocked out of the FA Cup on penalties by Everton at my mate's house, I returned home tail firmly between legs and started packing my bag for my trip to Krakow to experience the wonders of urban birding there. I will be picked up at the airport by my guide, Przyemyslaw (or John as I've dubbed him because I cannot pronounce his name for love nor money!). He will then take me around for the next few days. Should be interesting.

I will hopefully be reporting back from Poland tomorrow night.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

An ignorant twat

Dawn over the Isle of Grain, North Kent
This morning was gorgeous!

I awoke to a phone call from fellow Scrubber Roy at 6.20am informing me that a probable Osprey had just flown over the Scrubs. Of course, Saturday mornings are football mornings for me, so I had to suppress my instinct to jump up and run to The Scrubs. Instead, a short while later, I was sprawling spectacularly in between the goal posts. We won 4-2.

Later this evening I attended a drinks party held by another Scrubber, David Jeffreys, who wanted to celebrate his recent clean bill of health after having gone through minor heart surgery a few months ago. As I walked into his living room a drunken twat piped up and said "He looks like Stevie Wonder! It's Stevie Wonder!" He thought that he was hilarious. My retort was curt. In a load sarcastic voice I replied "That was really funny. That was original. How long did it take you to think that one up?"

Embarrassed, he quickly shut up and barely said a word for the remaining 30 minutes that he stayed at the gathering. After which he left, drunk, to drive home. 

I think that says it it all.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Anybody lose this?

I've been feeling a bit pressurized of late. Much too much to do and all of it needing major amounts of my time. I hate having things hanging over me and although I can deal with deadlines, the worst kind of pressure comes from the things that creep up on you. Before you know it, you find yourself having to produce the goods overnight.

Take my talk last night. I knew about it some 6 months ago. I already had a talk that covered the same subject, so when I looked at it the day before the event I suddenly realised that it was sub-standard and that I had to create a new powerpoint presentation from scratch. Hours later, I produced something that was much more relevant and far more humorous. It included a slide a blow-up doll that I once found in the grassland. I introduced as one of the rarities that I found lurking in the grassland one morning!

I'm going to Krakow, Poland next week for a few days to research my next Birdwatching Magazine article. My lovely agent, Jo, sent me an email offering her linguistic skills (she speaks Polish) on the end of a phoneline, should I need it. It was a lovely gesture.

Thursday, 16 April 2009


I've been under the cosh with the various things that I'm up to.

Tonight, I gave a talk at Camley Street Nature Reserve in London's Kings Cross for the London Natural History Society. My talk was entitled 'A Year In Wormwood Scrubs' and was a look at the birdlife of my patch over the period of a year.

It went well though I was disappointed that the audience wasn't a large one. But the people that did show up were very appreciative.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Hurdles crossed

European Starling - Andy Cook
I hope that those of you who celebrate Easter had a chocolate filled good time!

I spent the last few days writing the articles that I should have written over a week ago. The great thing is that the piece that I wrote for the RSPB on Top Lodge, Fineshade Wood went down very well with the editor. Which reminds me. The latest issue of 'Birds' should be hitting people's doorsteps any day now. If it has hit yours, look out for my piece on Brighton's Starlings. Let me know what you think.

Today I had a good meeting with Alicia my new web designer. So over the next few months you should see a discernible difference with my site - hopefully far sexier and functional.

On the birding front, I had two amazing site ticks for The Scrubs on Monday in the shape of a Kingfisher (miles from the nearest stretch of water) and a Red-legged Partridge that I flushed from Chats Paddock. We have been recording Northern Wheatears on a near daily basis and I had my first Common Whitethroat for the year. Finally, my Skylark seems to be still around, but is given to suddenly taking off and flying miles away.

Tonight, the rain is pelting down outside my window, though they say that tomorrow will be the warmest day yet this year. The rain will stop overnight before the dawn and the morning's meant to be wonderfully sunny. All those factors could result in a fall of migrants.

I will be patrolling first thing.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

I found a White Wagtail today!

The Devonshire sun rose behind a blanket thick cloud that had previously been filled with rain. The morning also found me not searching bushes down at Dawlish Warren but flitting between my bed and my nearby computer. I just couldn't motivate myself enough to settle down and complete my by now overdue RSPB Birds magazine article on my recent visit to Top Lodge in Northants.

After a posh breakfast at the hotel I was staying in, St Olaves Hotel ( in case you want to check it out) I strolled through the streets of Exeter to the local RSPB office. I met up with Tony Whitehead the RSPB Public Affairs Officer and Claire Thomas the tourism officer. We all checked out a nearby Peregrine perched on the cathedral before Tony & I went 'green' and took a train to nearby Topsham to visit Bowling Green Marsh. We picked up an Osprey, Swallows, Sand & House Martins, over 120 Black-tailed Godwits, at least 2 Bar-tailed Godwits, a gorgeous Little Gull and I found a male White Wagtail.

We decided to nip down quaint Topsham's High Street, replete with a retro butchers shop and an ultra-tidy greengrocers, to grab tea and scones. Unbelievably, I bumped into an ex-boss of mine in the street from my magazine publishing days whom I haven't seen for coming on 14 years!

I left Exeter at around 3.30pm. I decided to forgo visiting a nearby site for Cirl Bunting and Woodlark and instead journeyed into neighbouring Somerset to call in on Stephen Moss and his family. Stephen of course, used to be Bill Oddie's producer and apart from knocking out the odd book or three, he produces/directs some of The One Show stuff that I do.

I got home a tired fella at around 9pm

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Clotted cream

The Urban Birder at Dawlish Warren, Devon
It chucked it down with rain last night, so much so that I thought that today - the day I was traveling to Exeter - was going to be a complete washout. As it happened, by around 8.30am it was looking decidedly sunny. So, instead of hitting the motorway to get to Devon in good time, I popped over to The Scrubs in the vain hope of finding a wayward Ring Ouzel.

No such luck, although I did encounter a male Northern Wheatear (the 5th this spring) and most surprisingly, a Weasel that scampered across my path near the embankment into the nearby bramble patch. This is one animal that I certainly do not associate with cities.

I eventually left for Devon at 12.30pm and arrived in the Exeter area at around 4.15pm. I by-passed my hotel and headed directly for Dawlish Warren Nature Reserve, a place that I have always read about but never visited. Situated about 8 miles outside Exeter, I never expected it to be placed on the edge of a caravan park nor near so much habitation. Whilst birding the area I bumped into Kevin Rylands, co-author of The Birds Of Dawlish Warren and keen patchwatcher. He filled me in about this interesting coastal reserve, but check it out at:

Knackered, I drove back to my posh hotel that was sussed out for me by the Tourist Board to rest my weary head. The plan tomorrow is to hook up with the local RSPB man who will guide around the avian delights that Exeter has to offer - hopefully including some lovely Cirl Buntings.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


Today was a fairly good day in The Urban Birder Towers. I had my trips to Budapest and Krakow confirmed. I'm going to spend 4 days in both cities, plus I'm off to Exeter tomorrow for a couple days. Hopefully, come June I should have a nice stockpile of articles for Bird Watching Magazine.

And the day was kicked off by sighting my beloved Skylark in the grassland at The Scrubs.

More days like this please.

Monday, 6 April 2009

A happy ending?

Short-eared Owl - Andy Cook
This morning at 7am I held a vigil at the 'Pipit Heath' area on The Scrubs in the hope that I'd see a Skylark. I had an hour so the clock was ticking. After an initial stillness I began to notice a few Meadow Pipits flying around. At least they were still happy enough. In the sky heading in from the west I noticed a silhouette that I was strangely familiar with. Raising my bins I was suddenly aware that I was watching an owl. A Short-eared Owl. Our sixth record in 17 years. 

I watched it through my scope for a full 5 minutes as it drifted over doing a circuit of the Scrubs and for once, unmolested by crows. By this point I had my back to the grassland. My attention on the owl was broken my the unmistakable call of a Skylark. I swung around to see a calling Skylark fluttering over the grassland fairly near to me before dropping down into the area close to where I thought its nest was. Seeing the lark made me more happy than seeing the owl. 

My theory now is that yesterday's southerly departing lark was the lover of the male of the established pair that was leaving early to get back to her partner! Anyway, my heart was lifted.

I'm planning a trip to Exeter, Devon on Wednesday and Thursday to research an urban birding article for Bird Watching Magazine although I hear that we have some mighty rain heading our way. Funnily enough, I had a email from the editor of the magazine, Sheena Harvey, saying that I'd been invited to Helsinki to explore the birding out in that city. I've had the good fortune to have already birded in the city last August. The best bird was probably the Pied Flycatcher I found in a non-descript park that was close to my hotel, but my overriding memory of the city was the multitudes of Common Gulls and Oystercatchers strolling on every available bit of green.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A heavy heart

I feel very protective towards the Meadow Pipits and the Skylark pair at The Scrubs that are trying to breed - as you know. I have developed such a strong urge to conserve these birds that I would usually think nothing of confronting any dog walker who had the misfortune to have strayed into the grassland.

Today proved to be one battle too many that left me feeling battered and distressed. First there was the guy who showed a blatant disregard for the sign that clearly requested that he stuck to the recognised paths. The fact that we was walking a burly Rottweiler didn't deter me. Although he initially gave me an attitude when I asked him if he could read, he at least said sorry. I also powerlessly watched from a distance, a couple of individuals march directly through the Skylark breeding area. One was a woman with 3 dogs, the other a guy who was clearly short-cutting.

Then the low-flying model aircraft started up, skimming the tops of the grass. Then the thing that I feared the most happened. A Skylark launched itself from the grass in a vertical flight that made me initially think that it was about to burst into song, indeed it did call. But then, after gaining a fair height, it started to head south. I watched it until it was a small dot.

I felt upset, frustrated, angry and extremely defeated all at the same time. I managed to convince myself that I did all that I could and that maybe, just maybe my Skylark might come back.

I'll go in the morning to find out.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Not model behavior

From a footballing point of view, this Saturday was a far better day than the previous four Saturdays because we actually won! In fact, I even scored a goal! It was a penalty that I took. Slotted it into the right hand corner!

After breakfast, I nipped down to the Wormwood Scrubs Fun Day organised for the local populace in order for them to sample the 'natural-ness' of the area through face painting and the usual activities you get at these occasions. I lasted 10 minutes. Thereafter, I sloped off to check on the Skylarks in the grassland. 

I was horrified to see a group of 5 large muscled geezers flying their model aircraft often inches above the grass. A Kestrel made the misfortunate decision to start hovering over the grassland. As soon as the twats saw it they trained their planes onto it, buzzing it as it tried to hunt. Incensed, I turned to talk to them. But when I saw the size of some of the men's muscles I thought better of it and gritted my teeth instead.

I'd like to think that if their planes were buzzing an Eskimo Curlew that I would have intervened.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Invisible Girl

Lancaster Gate skies, west London - Kim Dixon
The last couple of days have been quite interesting and were made doubly nice by the wonderful spring weather.

In a nutshell, I have two possible presenting gigs outside of The One Show coming up very soon for two different shows. I will let you know all about them once I've been given the green light. The latest in my 'Lindo At Large' series has just been posted on the Birdguides' website Also, one of the TV series treatments that I wrote when the devil was a boy has been  taken up by Icon Films in Bristol with a view to being developed if I can attach a couple of A-list celebs to it. So I'm gonna have to seriously stalk and work the Notting Hill set!

Last night I attended Stephen Moss' launch of his book 'The Bumper Book of Nature', outside in the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum. His book is a comprehensive list of suggestions to get kids out exploring the environment. The sentiment is good because so many kids are content to sit indoors in front of a screen playing a computer game. I met Peter Holden of the RSPB there. He is a veteran birder whose still active within the RSPB. He's written tons of books and first came under my radar as the editor of the YOC magazine 'Bird Life' when I was a wee nipper.

This morning I had to forgo checking up on my beloved Skylark to have a posh breakfast at The Dorchester instead (shucks!). I'm the Vice-President of the Association of Celebrity Assistants (long story) and I had organised this event nearly 3 months ago. It was lovely - all very posh but the ladies who run things there were delightful.

Tonight, I had dinner with a mate that I have known for over 10 years. He had managed to hide his 'new girlfriend' away from me for 8 months. Previously, he'd promise me that we'd all hook up and invariably the meeting would be cancelled. I was beginning to think that she was a figment of his imagination - an invisible girl. She was actually a very nice girl, which made me wonder why he hadn't introduced me to her before in the first place. 

To crown it all, not only did I meet her but he also announced that they were getting married! My custard drenched apple and rubbarb crumble duly went down the wrong hole.